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May 14, 2023

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto

PROVERBS 31:10-31

What a Scripture lesson for Mother’s Day! What a woman—a Superwoman! Do you know any Superwomen? Can you name a Superwoman in the Bible? The Scripture lesson begins with a cynical statement, “A good woman is hard to find.” How about today? Can you find a good woman, a Superwoman? Well, our church is filled with good women. Our church is filled with superwomen. Name one. A Superwoman gives  all of us, including men, attributes to emulate, characteristics to challenge us, incentive to go and do likewise.

Every church I’ve served has been filled with superwomen. I recall Martha who was totally deaf yet she never missed a Sunday regardless of rain, hail, snow, blizzards. In Minnesota we did not cancel Sunday services just because of a minor inconvenience!  I asked her once by sitting face to face so she could read my lips, “Why do you come to worship when you can’t hear a word.” She replied, “I just want everyone to know whose side I’m on!”

Let me tell you about Helen, a woman with a keen sense of mission, a call to do children's ministry. Helen joined Merced Church while I was pastor. She taught Sunday School and directed a children's choir, while accompanying the choir on the piano. You might be thinking: what's so special about Helen? Helen was totally blind and suffered a severe hearing loss. Helen had been a schoolteacher. When she began losing her sight, she studied Braille and obtained a guide dog named Foxie. And, I repeat, Helen taught Sunday School. The Sunday School Superintendent read the lesson to Helen and she would memorize it.

She directed the children's choir. She played the piano for the choir and for her Sunday School class with Foxie at her side. She learned new songs by listening to them on her tape recorder, and then playing them by ear on the piano. When the children sang in the worship service, a sighted person led the children to the chancel steps while Helen made her way to the piano, following Foxie who knew where Helen wanted to go. Helen sat at the piano, and struck various keys until she found the correct key of the song. The children waited politely, started singing at the proper time, and gave a rousing, loud song of praise to the Lord. They were taught to sing loudly so that Helen could hear them! After I retired, we visited one Sunday and heard 40 children sing with hardly a dry eye in the congregation. Helen recognized voices and when she heard mine, she hollered, "Give me a hug, pastor."

She began both Sunday School and the Tuesday afternoon children's choir practice by calling the roll. She called out names from memory, and learned by their response where each child was sitting. The sighted person who helped her in Sunday School was a male college professor. One Sunday during Sunday School, she stopped whatever she was doing and asked, "Where is William?" Max, the sighted college professor hadn't even missed William, but Helen knew he was not where he was supposed to be. Max found William hiding behind the piano! Helen may be blind, but she had eyes in the back of her head.

Helen walked about six blocks to the church. One day Foxie was attacked by another dog. Both Helen and Foxie were frightened. Our senior high youth group swung into action. They wrote letters to the Chief of Police and the newspaper, requesting that the leash laws be enforced. 

One Sunday afternoon, the youth gathered in Helen's house, and then walked her back to the church, praying all along the way that the route would be safe for Foxie and Helen. When they arrived at the church for the youth meeting, Helen stayed and spontaneously gave a moving, inspiring testimony to the power of prayer.

One day Helen and Foxie got on the train by themselves, rode to Oakland, took a bus over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco where a friend met them. They had lunch. Helen said her husband thinks she is crazy, but he learned years ago not to try to hold her back!

I blessed Foxie during a worship service, and when Foxie became sick, we prayed for her; but the time came for her to be "put down." The guide dog workers came from Santa Rosa and took Foxie back with them. I asked Helen if she would like me to be with her. Three of us gathered in Helen's kitchen at the time Foxie was "put down" in Santa Rosa. We prayed and talked about Foxie.

For the first and only time, I conducted a memorial service for a dog! And, the service was held in the sanctuary! Foxie was Helen's guide dog for 7 1/2 years. Helen and Foxie gave demonstrations in classrooms, nursing homes, civic groups, etc. Helen kept track of the attendance. Foxie touched the lives of 11,843 people.

We held the memorial service on Tuesday afternoon during the children’s program so the children could be there. Many adults also came. We celebrated Foxie's life and gave thanks to God for her. It was a beautiful and moving service. Helen requested that the organist play Bach on the organ. She accommodated with Bach's majestic Toccata and Fugue in D minor. 

The children sang "Father Abraham" which was Foxie's favorite song. When the children sang it in the classroom, Foxie would stand by the piano and keep time! 

How the children loved Foxie! Many of them shared in the service how Foxie was their best friend, how they liked to be licked by Foxie, how she wagged her tail. 

It was a service of farewell and celebration. The children learned that death is part of life, and life goes on. 

Helen invited and introduced five families in Merced who were puppy raisers. We enjoyed seeing five puppies in the chancel, most of whom became guide dogs.  

Helen returned to the guide dog school in Santa Rosa for a three-week training and came back with a new Golden Retriever guide dog. 

I also tell you about Foxie this morning because Foxie is an example for all of us. Foxie shared the same orientation, the same goals with Helen; yet, Foxie had a mind of her own. She was not a robot. In a new neighborhood, Foxie loved to investigate the new smells, and Helen would have to remind her of their mission. Foxie is an example of kinship, bonding and ties, a tender heart and humility where she put Helen's welfare above her own needs and wants. Even when Foxie was sick, and we learned it was cancer, she did her best. Helen felt badly about making Foxie work, but the doctor told her that Foxie would work and do her best until she dropped. Foxie was a Superdog!

Helen loved to bake. She baked delicious cookies and often walked over to the church with them to share during our morning coffee break. She told me she often burned herself, and at least once a day, broke down and cried. But, she didn't let her frustration stop her. She stopped going to the support group for the visually impaired because she got tired of hearing the others complain, gripe and feel sorry for themselves.

I tell you about Helen because Helen had a choice, as you have a choice. She could have chosen to feel sorry for herself, roll herself up into the fetal position, whine and shrivel up to die. Instead, she chose to answer God's call to ministry with children. How she loved children! They knew she loved them, and they loved her. She became a Superwoman with a mission, undeterred.

Whenever you are tempted to feel sorry for yourself and wonder, "Why me?”, whenever you have the audacity to think you don't have a call, or there's nothing for you to do, remember Helen. Helen used what gifts God gave her. Helen refused to accept defeat. Helen was resilient, resourceful, and faithful. Helen was a Superwoman.

The Scripture lesson read, “A good woman…is worth far more than diamonds…Her children respect and bless her; her husband joins in with words of praise. ‘Many women have done wonderful things, but you’ve outclassed them all!”

 May you be a superwoman or a superman!

© 2023 Douglas I. Norris