Better to light one candle, than to curse the darkness.
Reverend Elizabeth Heller
by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892)
Outbound, your bark awaits you. Were I one
Whose prayer availeth much, my wish should be
Your favoring trad-wind and consenting sea.
By sail or steed was never love outrun,
And, here or there, love follows her in whom
All graces and sweet charities unite,
he old Greek beauty set in holier light;
And her for whom New England’s byways bloom,
Who walks among us welcome as the Spring,
Calling up blossoms where her light feet stray.
God keep you both, make beautiful your way,
Comfort, console, and bless; and safely bring,
Ere yet I make upon a vaster sea
The unreturning voyage, my friends to me.
When I originally scheduled this post, my friend Liz Heller was still patiently waiting for death to take her on the unreturning journey. But I edited the original, as blessed comfort finally arrived and Liz, cradled in her faith, surrounded by love of family and friends, passed in the early evening of July 27, 2019.
My friendship with Liz goes back to 1979, when my Mother and I worked for three summers at a Presbyterian Church Camp called Clearwater Forest. Those were special summers, brilliant in my memory. Liz would attend several weeks each summer, once during creative arts week and generally with a youth group or weekend programming as well. She and my Mother became good friends and that friendship spilled over to me.
When it came time to get married there was no hesitation on where that service would be or who would perform the ceremony; Liz Heller at Westminster Church in Minneapolis in their chapel. My wife and I attended several marriage counseling sessions with Liz, despite having lived together for almost 8 years, and Liz sense of humor and wisdom left a lasting impression. Our friendship would re-engage 20 years later when my Mother returned to Minneapolis for the final four years of her life and she and I and Liz, along with several other friends, would sit together each week at Westminster. The best part of the service being the lively conversation following, catching up and asking each other questions.
Liz lit a lot of candles in and for people over the years. She certainly lit one in me as I began my journey into poetry. I can remember reciting Oh Darkest Night the week I wrote it and after that she would ask me, “have you written anything this week?” and if the answer was yes, ask me to read it to her. Liz often gave me feedback on my writing, sharing the connections my poetry created in her mind. She shared deep and illuminating insights that challenged me to go back and edit drafts, her nudging my writing in thoughtful ways.
My Mother and I were helping Liz transition from her long time condo near Westminster church in Minneapolis to an assisted living facility the day before my Mother died. Our role in the process relatively small, packing and shipping boxes, sorting through files under Liz watchful gaze and helping get things to their new rightful home. I went to visit Liz days after my Mother died and we shared tears, memories and our grief.
Although Liz could no longer attend worship services on a regular basis the past 3 years, I kept in touch by going to visit. I would bring coffee and poetry. I always brought two or three poems by other authors and one or two of my own. We would read them and talk about them and usually it would spark a memory and it would launch Liz into a wonderful story from her amazing life. I remember when I read a Maya Angelou poem once and Liz told me the story of when she met Maya, for a Westminster Town Hall Forum, and Liz had brought her calla lilies from her garden and the two of them had the most wonderful conversation.
Liz is one of four people I gave a copy of a very rough draft of my first chap book and as further revisions evolved over the past 3 years, I always would share the most recent version. I have in the past three weeks, added the final two poems to the chap book, both based on experiences with Liz in her final spring. I know never to say that something is final with my writing, because I am endlessly revising, but two weeks ago when I visited Liz, and she was asleep and unresponsive, I read her the entire Canticle from start to finish and it felt complete, it felt like it says what I want it to say. Liz’s passing may crystallize in my mind that this project is finally finished and its time to stop writing and time to figure out what I might do with it.
Liz’s sharp mind, strong faith, curiosity and gentle humor were present right up to the end, though her body had long since failed her, confined to a wheel chair and reliant on others, her twinkle in her eye never dimmed, nor her vital gratitude. Liz has been my primary spiritual leader for a long time, an inspiration on how to live a good life and a generous friend. Fortunately, her friendship has expanded my circle so that her flame burns brightly in others, a light that will continue to shine in the darkness.
Thank you Liz for a sharing a life well lived. Thank you for being my friend, critic, mentor and fellow story teller. I will keep your memory alive, your memory a blessing in my life. I will miss you.
Praise for Faith
by William Cowper (1731 – 1800)
Of all the gifts Thine hand bestows,
Thou Giver of all good!
Not heaven itself a richer knows
Than my Redeemer’s blood.
Faith too, the blood-receiving grace,
From the same hand we gain;
Else, sweetly as it suits our case,
That gift had been in vain.
Till Thou Thy teaching power apply,
Our hearts refuse to see,
And weak, as a distemper’d eye,
Shut out the view of Thee.
Blind to the merits of Thy Son,
What misery we endure!
Yet fly that Hand from which alone
We could expect a cure.
We praise Thee, and would praise Thee more,
To Thee our all we owe:
The precious Saviour, and the power
That makes Him precious too.