Eulogy for Mary Jo Flory-Steury
Mary Jo was – in the best possible way – a badass. There are probably a few of you here who don’t particularly care for that word, but then, there are probably a few of you here who didn’t particularly care for some of the decisions Mary Jo made, or some of the things Mary Jo did. But I bet you loved her – her smile, her joy, the way she shone with the delight that can only come from a life lived in the light of walking with Christ – nonetheless. That is the best possible way to be a badass, I think: to remain faithful to God’s calling and to love God’s people, to do both of these impossible things at once.
Mary Jo’s call was to serve Christ’s church, and especially those beloved people called to serve as leaders in the church. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the Church is not exactly a pleasant place to be called as a leader these days. Dissension, strife, ugliness and argument often permeate the conversations of our institutions and structures. God’s people are not doing so great at loving one another. Mary Jo knew this – knew it perhaps better than any of us, as she worked day in and day out not just with congregations or districts in conflict and in need of guidance, but also in the chaos of a denominational structure enduring massive cultural and institutional change.
And yet, she persevered. She knew who she was, and she knew what God had called her to do. She served through times of trouble and rancor with a steadfastness of purpose, a lightness of being, and an attitude of care and concern for the people as well as the systems. Part of that was, certainly, the way Mary Jo was made – her background, her personality, her formation. But I’m convinced that the lion’s share of it was her groundedness in a life lived as a Child of God, walking in the presence of the Holy Spirit, following in faithful discipleship toward Jesus Christ.
One of Mary Jo’s favorite scripture passages is the passage we just heard from the book of Isaiah – about exactly this kind of grounded identity and trust:
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Mary Jo lived this way. She knew who she was, and whose. She heard God’s call, and followed it. She was not afraid. And that kind of life lived in Christ is what inspired and enabled her to encourage so many of us to listen for and live into our own callings. She didn’t do this forcefully or didactically. She didn’t push or demand. She did it by being who she was, sure of her identity as a child of God and determined to follow her call as a servant of Christ.
Mary Jo was my boss and my mentor (in both official and unofficial capacities) for more than a dozen years. I learned so much from her: how to be a pastor; how to lead a meeting; how to hold my own as a woman in a room full of men; how to move a discussion toward productive discernment; how to cultivate joy; how to make work more worshipful; how to disagree with grace; how to love the church; how to value people over process, even while keeping the stubborn gears of institutional systems slowly turning.
Mostly, though, what I learned from Mary Jo was the fierce skill of discernment: how to listen for God’s voice in the midst of the rising clamor of dissent and disagreement, how to attend to the Holy Spirit’s movement in our life together, how to tune my ears to the particular timbre of Jesus’ ever-present call.
A constant theme in our conversations was the interminable nature of discernment: Mary Jo would share a new question or decision or fork in the road that she was praying about, often coupled with her awe and delight at the ways God was moving.
This was encouraging to me: God is always moving! Even this wise mentor of mine is still engaged in wrestling discernment with her call! And this was also incredibly frustrating to me: God is ALWAYS moving? Even this wise mentor of mine is STILL engaged in wrestling discernment with her call? I want things to be decided once and for all, to have discernment exist as a thing of the past, something God and I did and then moved on. But Mary Jo’s witness was that life with Christ is an unending adventure – and she loved it. So, I’m struck that just a few verses beyond what we just heard from Isaiah 43, we are reminded of this reality:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
God is always doing a new thing. Resurrection is always springing forth. Ways are appearing in the wilderness, rivers in the desert. And the wisdom I have learned from Mary Jo is this: we get to join in, for all the joy and pain, for all the grief and delight.
Do not fear. I have called you by name, and you are mine. A new thing springs forth – can you see it? Mary Jo knew who she was, knew to whom she belonged, knew what she’d been called to. She was constantly on the lookout for God’s newness, scouting out paths in the wilderness for herself and for all those she was called to love and to serve. She lived a life of joy and adventure in Christ, and she was not afraid.
And that is badass, y’all.