by Michael UseyMarch 20, 2022
This week my grief at Betty’s death brought to mind Paul’s words in 2 Cor 4.15-18, verses I memorized as a young man:
Everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
Here is St. Paul, writing to his friends in Corinth, asking them not to lose heart when it seems like all of life is swirling the bowl–precisely because God in Christ is busy renewing and transforming us in ways that we cannot precisely understand. God was causing them to evolve, to grow and change, despite whatever might be happening to their body.
I have a friend who is an Episcopal priest in San Diego. At every baptism, confirmation, and reception, the parish gives the person baptized, confirmed or received a Prayer Book. He typically inscribes it with the words of Irenaeus, a 2nd century church father: “The glory of God is the human fully alive.” Gloria Dei est vivens homo! St. Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons in what is now France in the last quarter of the 2nd century. This quote is an excerpt from his monumental work written about 185 CE, Against Heresies. It’s a wonderful and curious phrase (and much ink has been spilled arguing over the exact correct translation): God’s glory is a fully alive human. What could that possibly mean? And what a curious phrase to consider about someone who is currently not alive.
What does it mean to you to be fully alive? What does that suggest in your imagination? I believe that St. Paul and Irenaeus do not have self- improvement in mind.This is not their agenda, and it is not ours either. Rather, they have self-sacrifice in mind. Jesus’ brand of good news is bad news to anyone who wants an easy life. The life Jesus lives—caring for others—is out of step. Who wants to live with a constant tension between what we think of as happiness and what we think of as hard? It is hard to follow Christ when the world is filled with hurting people. It is hard to follow Christ with compassion for those whose opinions we find bankrupt when they feel the same way about our opinions. It is hard to follow Christ when everything in our culture pushes us to avoid what is hard.
What God finds truly glorious is not some idea of perfection that eschews the limitations of the flesh or denies mortality. What God finds glorious, even luminous, are human beings like you and like me living fully into our humanity. As Betty Ruffin did.
Many of you know her origin story. Her parents, Rosalie and Ernest Andrews, married in 1923, and moved from Virginia and Tennessee to San Mateo, California, where Betty was born in 1934. Her dad worked for DuPont, and she remembered her father proudly telling her he sold the paint for the Golden Gate bridge, a gorgeous orange to welcome all to San Francisco. She grew up with picnics at the beach on the Pacific ocean and summer vacations at Yosemite, with a rented cabin inside the park. She recalled seeing bears, going on hikes, exploring her bed in the cabin, and learning to swim in a chilly lake.
The neighborhood children her age were all boys, which she played and competed with. When they all decided to climb a pile of rocks, (which she was told not to climb), she made sure she climbed higher than the boys–and broke her arm coming down. She did not get much sympathy, she said.
Her favorite part of every day was the arrival of her family’s Japanese gardener. He taught her many things: how to play badminton and croquet, and how to garden, and make it grow. His children often came with him, and Betty was close with her Japanese friends. And she remembered the sad day the gardener and his family came no more. Many years later she learned to her horror that they were sent to an internment camp.
Her dad was promoted, and they moved to Westport, Connecticut. Half a block from the yacht basin and three blocks from the beach. She spent her tweens fishing, biking, clamming, playing tennis, and rowing. She caught eels that she proudly gave to her mom. Her winters were spent sledding, skating, and skiing, with bonfires and hot chocolate. When she talked about her early growing up years, it was always about being outside and delighting in physical activity.
Eventually her family moved to Roanoke, where she again did all the outdoor things, and there graduated high school, attending Mary Washington and UNC before graduating in 57 from Salem College in Economics and Sociology. She married in 55 and had two amazing sons, Tommy and Mark. The list of her volunteer and community activities since then fill pages and pages; Grace has highlighted just a few of those.
Like most congregations, our church hosts a number of outside groups, and it was through one of those that Betty came to us. I know she is connected to many Greensboro churches in intimate ways; she was a free-range Christian in many ways. But my first deep interaction with her was probably 10 years ago listening to the Dead together. She told me the story of her son Tommy, but she was lamenting that she found it hard to access their music easily. This was before she met her true love, Alexa from Amazon. I bought both her and myself a Best of the Grateful Dead, which I listened to repeatedly while I got reacquainted with their magnificent music. Then one day I made an appointment with her, and she and I listened and chatted while Jerry sang about driving that train and truckin’ like the Doodah Man. It was a surreal moment, but holy. From then on we were friends.
We had many of the same interactions that many here shared with her. She called me on several occasions to stop by and talk about a book she was reading, usually one of the ones we were reading together as a church, or that our Women of Valor book club was reading. On those occasions she had specific questions she wanted to discuss, which always showed her keen mind and perspicacious insight. She could get to the heart of the matter quickly.
She sat in the back of the chapel in our early service called Tessera, in a portable sling chair that she brought to help her back. Betty called me at least one a month to strategize about what more we could do for key ministries in Greensboro, like Faith Action (which she especially loved) and Delancey Street movers. She called me over to her condo more than once to sit out in her mini-backyard and drink in her fantastic flowers. She has dropped enough sweets at our office to induce our entire congregation into a sugar coma. I didn’t even know that she had met my newest ministerial colleague Elizabeth, and I found out Betty has been dropping off cookies and brownies for Elizabeth’s kids every week for months! Classic Betty: stealth goodness. (Of course there is the issue that someone was bogarting the brownies without me knowing.) And checks too; her generosity really knew few bounds. From her my family enjoyed airline miles, dinners at PrintWorks, and tickets to concerts. During Covid we shared a meal outside at our church’s pergola –talking of which, the woman ate the blandest diet imaginable: chicken, rice, green beans, due to some severe food allergies. I began to suspect that she was a senior bodybuilder. Betty did suffer greatly from severe allergies, which she took pains to remediate. And of course she was a secret desserter–she loved sweets, and tried to hide them from herself. Ann remembers her showing up for Zumba at church as recently as two years ago. She decided it was a bit much for her, but she gave it a try in her 80s, which says so much of who she was: a human fully alive.
One of my favorite stories about her I confess that I don’t know all the particulars. As she was walking in Irving Park, she saw a beautiful young couple sitting on a park bench. “You two are so beautiful. May I take your picture? I’ll be glad to send it to you,” she said. They consented, and she did, and they started chatting. She did send the picture of this A&T basketball player and his girlfriend, and then wrote the president of A&T, the athletic director, and the men’s basketball coach to tell them how lucky they were to have such a polite, personable, and respectful young man on the team. Soon thereafter, she showed up before a game with three dozen brownies for the whole team and they have been friends ever since.
Wayne Jones, the chair of our deacons, said, “It didn’t take me long to figure out the process. Betty would call with a question regarding an issue or event she needed help or advice on. Whether it was a new portable heater or setting up a new TV, or helping one of her volunteer service groups move something, the ultimate payment for services rendered was the same. Betty would say: “Well if I can’t pay you, I happen to have this chocolate chess pie I just made and want you to take it please.” It was always sweet when Betty called.
Betty Ruffin was a good neighbor to all she met. She had a nose for community outreach that needed the urgent attention of College Park. Margaret Bell, the former chair of our missions team, said, “Betty was an invaluable resource to me. She sent copies of newspaper articles and emails about issues and groups she thought we needed to know about and made suggestions about where we could plug in. From restocking a diaper pantry at Faith Action to advocating for city and county investment in housing services, Betty amplified voices that needed to be heard. Thanks to Betty, our missions team volunteers weekly to sort and stock pantry and diaper donations at Faith Action. Just this last year, 15 Faith Action families were included in our Angel Tree program of giving. We will host an ID drive for Faith Action this summer.”
Two years ago, Betty learned in one of her neighborhood walks that Higher Ground, a non-profit organization that provides support for people living with AIDS, needed lunch provided once a month for 25 people. She conned, uh … convinced College Park to time food preparation with our monthly food service for Greensboro Urban Ministry and extended our reach to this group. Plus she recruited Jerry Elkins to re-landscape the entire front yard there. We would have missed that opportunity for service if not for Betty Ruffin.
I think Jesus is a huge fan of people like Betty, a human fully alive. We each can find our own way, as she did. We can be creative in finding ways to bless others, improve their hurting stressful lives, in big ways and small, which is exactly what she did continually. I don’t have answers to the terrible and serious problems facing us now, but I do agree with Paul that our inner nature is being renewed day by day, and with Irenaeus, that God’s glory is someone fully alive, living for and giving to others.
Betty did not have an easy life. The universe gave her some terrible roads to walk. But she resolutely chose to be positive and focused on others; she chose to bless and not curse, no matter what challenges came her way. She understood what C. S. Lewis’ wrote in his sermon entitled “The Weight of Glory.”
It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit. … Next to [communion] itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
This is exactly what Betty knew, lived out, gloried in, and modeled for all of us. She showed up. The glory of God is the human being fully alive, like our dear Betty Ruffin.