For Betty Meyer
January 15, 1919 to August 31, 2012
United Parish of Auburndale, MA
September 7, 2012
By Doug Robinson-Johnson, Pastor
I am aware that Betty Meyer’s roots are in Oklahoma, but I’d like to share a Kansas story with you. What’s the difference between Kansas and Oklahoma anyway? This is the story of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her companions have gathered in the great hall before the Great and Powerful Oz, cowering before the resounding voice and the bright, hot flames. Oz spooks the tiny dog Toto who leaps from Dorothy’s arms. Eventually Toto scampers over to a partitioned area in the corner of the great hall, grips the edge of a curtain in his teeth and yanks the partition back revealing an average man with an average voice pulling levers to control the flames.
The family of every Pastor includes a dog Toto. This was true for the family of Gene Meyer, pastor of this very church from 1956 to 1972. Most people in the congregation hear the thundering voice from the pulpit and feel the heat of fiery rhetoric and crackling candles, but the family of a pastor sees behind the curtain. They see the microphone and the levers. The dog Toto reveals truth to the pastor’s family that may not be as accessible to everyone else. This is literally and figuratively true.
Gene and Betty’s children Kirk and Eric know what is behind this curtain hanging here in the United Parish chancel. They know about the fun little room at the top of it. They know how to get to the bell tower. They know the best hiding places! I was the child of a church secretary and I have to say that whenever our youth group played hide-n-seek or sardines, I dominated the game! We literally know what is behind the curtains. But this is figuratively true as well—we grow up knowing the truth about people and things in the church. We learn that people are not always as they seem publicly. We learn mundane stories behind sacred objects: That fancy chair was placed there by Aunt Ida and expects it to remain through all seasons. That cross was given by Uncle Ed and must be cleaned a certain way with a certain polish by a certain guy at a certain time.
In this way, Toto can become a kind of curse of pastor’s families because they “demythologize” things the way theologian Rudolf Bultmann, a preacher’s kid, demythologized the Gospels. He removed the magic and mystery from the story—the thundering voice and frightening flame! So this can also happen to people like Kirk and Eric and to Betty; they can lose the magic and mystery. But Betty was able to do something extraordinary because of the truth Toto showed her through all of those years of theological study (she met Gene while they attended Chicago Theological Seminary together) and church leadership. She was able to move beyond the parochial sacred objects of the local church and into the glowing, changing world of Art and Architecture and Interfaith Dialogue!
Betty once wrote about a time when she had dinner with the great educator and author Joseph Campbell over a glass of wine in a Manhattan club. Betty wrote:
He sought not the promise of any given myth or the claims of any inherited god but the living source of all myths.
Betty’s life was a search for the living source of myths. The Living Source. She was not a conventional “preacher’s wife” nor, I dare say, a conventional Christian! In my first meeting at home with Betty I was prepared for one whom, I was told, relished robust theological inquiry and discussion. When after brief superficialities—they were always brief with Betty—Betty mentioned the words “God” and “Heaven” in passing, I asked her what she believed about God and heaven. She paused to look out the window and then turned to me and warmly replied, “I’m not sure it matters what I believe about God and heaven.” I had no response. I could feel Toto tugging at the corner of my curtain, tearing away a façade of pastoral care which I’d brought with me. From that moment on we were simply two pilgrims on a journey.
I always wondered what it must have been like to sit at the foot of a great theologian like Paul Tillich as Betty did, learning of his dissatisfaction with popular notions of God, the god of theism, some “other being” out there somewhere. For Tillich, God is Being—the very Ground of all Being. Betty knew this limitless, unfathomable God. And now I know what it is like to sit at the foot of a great theologian like Paul Tillich.
I chose for our sacred text today the familiar lesson from Ecclesiastes because when I was in Betty’s presence, I felt I was in the presence of the wise and playful author of Ecclesiastes who strips away the pretentious curtain. “Eat, drink and be merry… who knows what becomes of us after that? Thoroughly enjoy friendship and work.” Does this not sound like advice from Betty? Oh, I might have chosen equally familiar scripture from John’s Gospel where Jesus says “In my father’s house there are many rooms and I go to prepare a place for you.” We could have suited Betty’s architectural aesthetic nicely by designing such a house in heaven for her. But this would not reflect Betty’s actual theology–her understanding of God and heaven. No, it seemed better for me to close with the words of a fellow Okie and artist Woody Guthrie who wrote:
Love is the only god that I’ll ever believe in. The books of the holy bible never say but one time just exactly what god is, and in those three words it pours out a hundred million college educations and says, “God is love.”
When I looked into the eyes and beautiful face of Betty Meyer, I saw God. I saw love.
Perhaps it is even better to close with the words of a young poet Sidney Keyes which Betty valued enough to include in her history of The Society for Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture:
We do not know the end
We cannot tell
That valley’s shape,
Not whether the white fire
Will blind us instantly
Only we go
We go forward together, leaving
Except a worn-out way of loving.
Today I celebrate Betty’s worn-out way of loving and a life well-lived.