Homily for the Memorial Service of Priscilla Dewey Houghton at Christ Church, Corning, New York || July 21, 2012 || 2 Corinthians 4:16 -5:9; John 14: 1-6 ||
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says to his friends when his death is imminent, “…I go to prepare a place for you…and I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.”
Those of us who were privileged to have known Priscilla know that those are words she believed to the very core of her being. We know that even when her “outer nature was wasting away” (as St. Paul says) her “inner nature was being renewed day by day” by her faith in God’s promises. And we certainly know that Priscilla never lost heart. She never lost her confidence– her absolute conviction—that she was going to a place of eternal glory beyond all measure. She didn’t know what that place, or mode of existence might look like—but Priscilla was okay with that. She loved the poetry, the beauty, and the mystery of it all. To borrow another phrase from St. Paul, Priscilla was a pro at looking “not at what can be seen, but at what can not be seen.” In you and me, in every child she met, in organizations and institutions, and in her faith– Priscilla saw what so many of us fail to see: the beauty, the potential, the hope, the possibilities for new life!
You know, there are a lot of people out there who give Christians a bad name. We all know the type. They’re the noisy ones who stand in judgment of the world with their outrageous claims on of having a monopoly on truth. Because of them, far too many of us who also consider ourselves Christian are either afraid to publicly admit it, or spend an inordinate amount of time defending and apologizing for it.
But Priscilla—God bless her—was a woman who gave Christians and Christianity a good name! One person at a time, simply by being Priscilla, she did more to restore the tarnished image of our faith on an individual level than any noisy ‘truth teller’ or advertising campaign could ever do. Because Priscilla touched lives, one at a time, and those lives touched other lives, which then touched still other lives. She taught us how to live, healed us where we hurt, and transformed our lives with her love. And her model, her inspiration, the leader she would follow anywhere, was Jesus Christ.
Priscilla was a Christian in the best sense of the word, and if you knew her, you couldn’t help but make the connection between the amazing woman she was, and the fact that she was a follower of Jesus. Not that she ever proselytized—because she had far too much respect for all of the spiritual traditions of the world to ever dream of doing that—but you just knew that everything you loved or admired or stood in awe of about Priscilla was directly attributable to her faith—from the way she so lovingly made everyone she met feel like the most valuable person in all of God’s creation, to the way she faced the end of her earthly life with such remarkable grace, and peace, and the sure and certain hope that it was as much a new beginning as an ending.
You know, a few hours before Priscilla’s body died, at least a dozen of us—mostly family members—gathered around her bed to pray and to speak what was on our hearts. Her grandson, Zach—who just sang for us a few minutes ago—spoke directly to Priscilla, naming for her all of the good qualities she had always embodied for him, and that she had passed on to her children and grandchildren.
Now, I don’t remember Zach’s exact words, but I do remember getting goose bumps. Because Zach had unwittingly named what folks in my line of work call the fruits of the spirit—those virtues identified by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians that are the mark of a truly faithful Christian: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Most of us do well if we can embody one or two of these virtues. Yet every single one of them was given life and expression in the tiny woman with the enormous heart we knew as Priscilla: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Throw in extraordinary doses of intelligence, humor and creativity, and you’ve got Priscilla!
Which leads me to what, for me, were by far the most remarkable things about her—and the most inspiring: Her extraordinary humility and the very real, very profound gratitude she had for just about everything imaginable because of that humility. Or maybe it was the other way around—maybe Priscilla was exceptionally humble because she was so profoundly grateful. But I was always awed by the way Priscilla saw everything and everyone as sheer gift, by her humble gratitude for all of life, and by her love for the Divine Giver!
Humility and gratitude—to me, these are the true marks of a person of authentic faith, the marks of a person who in the old biblical language we would have called a “righteous” person—a person who sought to live their life in right relationship with God, with others, and with God’s creation.
Priscilla was just such a righteous woman. She was a righteous woman, and she was a Christian woman. And she was the kind of Christian our world desperately needs more of. May she live on in each of us, even as she lives on in the glory of new life in Christ. Amen.