Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Remembering Dr Hazel Roper

Burying the saints is part of ministry.  I have long become accustomed, though not numbed from the familiarity of being part of a funeral service where a beloved congregant, family member or friend has died and the people of God gathered for the holy task of burying a beloved one.  Presiding or officiating as a pastor at funerals is particularly difficult when you have to manage your own grief in the midst of this sacred yet fraught moment.  I find such work keeps us connected to our core beliefs, as clergy are tasked with leading people to remember that we are dust at best and this life and its pain and success is fleeting.

On Monday, a difficult yet joyous day happened at the Calvary Baptist Church of Lowell, MA.  A sanctuary full of mourners gathered together to say farewell to a beloved family member, friend, colleague, mentor and veritable legend.  The Rev. Dr. Hazel Roper lived out her ministry in local church pulpits, around the table with churches all around upstate New York and advocating for clergy and churches in the sometimes difficult discussions about clergy compensation, clergy pensions and everything else that most of us struggle to speak about, let alone discuss frankly about "money and church" matters.

Hazel Roper excelled in pastoral ministry, whether in local church or denominational work.  I count myself as one of the many pastors who benefited from her keen insight, firm resolve and wise ways.  She assisted a congregation I served with understanding the complexities of clergy pay and pension, something that when I myself retire in the 2040s will be most thankful got started years ago with her skillful advising.  She kept in touch after I moved into the Regional ministry work with upstate New York churches myself, working with a number of congregations in pastor searches and other needs where Hazel's interactions years ago created moments of clarity during conflict and challenge.  Indeed, as I told her once, I could work with healthier churches in the present day thanks in part to the helpful and insightful work she did with pastors and congregations.  Indeed, I have heard it said in recent days that Hazel is considered the reason some churches remain in better shape all these years later, thanks to her careful work in the 1990s and early 2000's. 

As I passed word to colleagues about Hazel's unexpected passing, I kept hearing stories of mentoring conversations.  A number of clergywomen serving today give thanks to Hazel as a mentor, an inspiration and an exemplar of a determined Baptist woman called to serve God and the Church through ordained ministry.  A pastor at the funeral gave a brief testimony, simply saying Hazel was her example and a "she-ro" of the faith.

When the family offered their memories, it was noted that Hazel was a long-time member of the Lowell church, going back to her childhood.  When she retired decades later from ministry, she served again as a lay leader, providing her talents as the church moderator.  When the Calvary church burned when Hazel was nine, she offered the pastor her piggy bank's contents to help rebuild the church.  Fittingly, memorial gifts in her memory are suggested for the present day church's roof repair fund! 

As I listened to the many words of testimony given by family and friends, congregants and colleagues, I noticed the two stained glass panels flanking either side of the altar area.  To the left, the traditional image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, benevolently tended the sheepfold.  On the right, the image was of Jesus kneeling in prayer with his gaze heavenward, most likely in that moment alone in the time just before his betrayal and death.   While such images are overly familiar subject matter for stained glass, the two images paired well with the liturgy and testimony unfolding in the altar area.

As we journey through the Lenten season, I ponder mortality and what it means to live a life of significance.  Hazel left a legacy that is like faith itself, a matter of things seen and unseen. As the call went forth that day earlier this week, we have the challenge to raise up more Hazels to serve Christ and God's people.  Her legacy is already enriching the lives of people who attend churches who are healthier for her ministry work years ago.  Her legacy lives on in the women and men she encouraged to stick out ministry's most difficult moments or when vocations seemed too distant to be "ours" to accept and undertake.

When somebody asked how the funeral went, I said, "It was the best type: you laughed, you cried, you listened to the Good Word and good words and then you went downstairs for a great big meal."  How else should a Baptist be remembered than a rousing time to sing, to give thanks to God and to be nourished by the memories and table fellowship afterwards?

Thanks be to God!

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Dr Hazel Roper's obituary appears via:   http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/lowellsun/obituary.aspx?n=hazel-a-roper&pid=184705560&fhid=2434

A retrospective on the occasion of her 50th year of ordained ministry appeared in 2014:  http://www.lowellsun.com/lifestyles/ci_26183585/living-history

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