Yet if you asked anyone at First Baptist Church of Chandler when I was a child who the most imposing figure in our faith community was, they would have undoubtedly said Senator Yarborough's older sister, Nell Yarborough Mallett. Born in 1896, Mrs. Mallet was 76 years old when I entered the world. She died in 2001 at the age of 105.
I can remember from a very young age the imposing presence that frail little lady had when she entered the church sanctuary. Not a bit over five foot two with platinum hair and the granny glasses that pointed out to the sides, complete with polyester dress suit, pearls and high heels, when Sunday School was over and it was time for morning worship Mrs. Mallett would inch her way to her seat, tiny step by tiny step. Most of the admiration our congregation had for her bordered on reverence. It was rumored that she had never missed a Sunday in church, and this was a big deal to those of us in the evangelical world.
We also feared her, for she knew her Bible and was sure to scold us with it if we got out of line. When I was a teenager and got my ear pierced (you know, because I was extremely cool) there were only two people whose possible reaction worried me. Number two was my dad, the first-- Mrs. Mallett.
Sometime during the mid-90's, when I was in college, they placed Mrs. Mallett in a nursing home. I visited her randomly over the years, until around '99 when my grandmother was placed in the same place, at which point I would see Mrs. Mallett on my monthly visits.
I would usually find her in the cafeteria, sitting by herself in her wheelchair and praying. During every visit she would tell the same story I had heard her tell for over ten years, about how she remembers my dad coaching me up and down the aisles of the church when I had just learned to walk. She would always say how proud he was of me and how everyone in the church just thought it was the greatest thing. Her voice had become strained. Staccato, but tender beyond measure.
She told stories of how she and her husband would read the bible together every night and would ask me if I knew what her favorite Bible verse was? I did, because she'd told me since I was a kid, but when I told her I knew she would say "How can you know? I haven't even told you yet!" So I learned to say "What is it, Mrs. Mallett?"
Trust in the Lord with all Thine heart; and lean not unto Thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths.
She would then lead me in a short devotional thought about how I should trust in God and not in my own understanding. After that she'd grab my hand and pull me close to her and pray for me. Her prayers were normally for strenght to follow God and for me to find a Christian girl to settle down with and to serve the Lord until the day we are called home.
Much of who I am spiritually is a direct result of Mrs. Mallett. Now, don't get me wrong, it isn't all good stuff. When I walk into the sanctuary and see someone about to sit in "my seat" I start to feel a little judgemental. When a visitor came and didn't know to stay out of her seat, Mrs. Mallett had a grimace on her face aimed directly at the newcomers throughout the entire service. In fact, many of church people developed a protocol when this would happen: Before Mrs. Mallett could see the indiscretion, we would introduce ourselves to the visitors and ask them if they would like to sit with us. It was quite smooth.
Mrs. Mallett loved her church, even if she was a bit too possessive of it. She wanted it run her way. And her church loved her. We generally learned to look past her quirks judgemental eyes and respect her for the years she had spent in her pew, praying for us all.
In fleeing from the strict requirements and judgmentalism that characterizes much of evangelical life, many in my generation (including myself) have sought to create Christian communities free from fear, opting instead to explore the great depths of our faith from a safe place, (all the while acknowledging that ours is not a "safe" faith.) We don't have Mrs. Malletts around to tell us not to drink, smoke, or receive tattoos and piercings. (In fact, in some instances we are looked down upon if we choose NOT to do any of those things.) And this liberating atmosphere we seek to embody, I believe, is a wonderful thing.
Yet one thing we have lost is the great compass of history. Oh, I believe we have the long view of history down pretty well, more so even than the "older" congregations. But just as the older congregations miss out by not reading and embracing the great works Augustine and Aquinas, so do we miss out by not having a Mrs. Mallett in our midst. I think she could teach us a thing our two about this thing we call "community." She would call it "church," and that term would be just fine for her. She would also be praying for us, and I experience shame when I think of the infrequency with which I pray for my church.
Wow, this has been long. I was really going to just write a little thing on a little old lady. Well, I guess I'll end with a verse, rendered from The Message:
Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don't try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God's voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he's the one who will keep you on track.