Thank you to everyone who reached out to Christine and myself with kindness upon the death of Christine’s mother, Helen Stahl, who died on Thursday, September 2, 2021. We appreciated the cards and gifts of baked goods as well as the opportunity for us to be with family for the week following Helen’s death. One of my professional boundaries is that I don’t officiate at funerals for close family members. I minister to people all the time and sometimes I need to be ministered to. Helen’s death, viewing, and funeral was an opportunity for that to happen. I was grateful; however, that I was asked to make a tribute to Helen at the funeral service. Here is what I said.
I want to take a moment before I start to be clear about my purpose here. As a pastor—I talk publicly a lot about religion and spirituality—but that’s not what I will be doing here. In other words—don’t be waiting for me to put that piece into place. Pastor Squire will handle those areas. First—because he has known the Stahl family longer than I have. Second—because Helen respected him as a religious leader and valued his spiritual guidance. Instead—my purpose here is to share memories of Helen so that we can be where we need to be on this grief journey.
The memory I will start with is one that made a big impression on me. Although—I’m never sure I shared that. (I may also be off on some of the details—but they won’t take me away from the main point.)
Jen [Christine’s sister, who is ten years younger] had a friend who was coming over—a meal was involved—and Jen’s friend couldn’t have gluten—so no wheat flour. I believe Helen had the meal figured out. Many main courses can be prepared without flour—but dessert was a challenge. Actually—the whole experience was a challenge.
This was in the early or mid 90s. The internet was still limited to colleges and universities. (And Helen didn’t become a tech user until she discovered she could see photos of the grandkids instantly.) Gluten free products were not widely available in grocery stores like they are now. Lowell [Helen’s husband of fifty-four years] was still working. Helen didn’t drive. So—you can guess what Helen did to rise to this challenge. Helen walked to the bus stop—took the bus to Barnes and Noble—bought a bunch of gluten free cookbooks—carried those home on the bus—walked home—and started baking.
You also know Helen didn’t bring any shabby-looking desserts to the table. Flourless baking was new to her—so my guess is that experimenting went on in the kitchen and some less-than-perfect attempts became Helen’s tea-time snacks—and Helen loved her teatime—which was for her a retreat in the middle of a busy day. But—when all was said and done—Jen’s friend ended up with a flourless chocolate cake for dessert at 440 [the street address of Christine’s childhood home] and the rest of the cake to take home.
That—my friends is all impressive on its own. What is more impressive is that—at least according to the story as it came to me—this friend of Jen’s had never had chocolate cake before. Can you imagine life without chocolate cake? It is life-changing if you think about it. Now—because of Helen’s kindness—one less person was going to have to do live without chocolate cake. Talk about making the world a better—and tastier—place. (And—while I know I promised I wouldn’t talk about spirituality—let’s just say that Helen’s baking was heavenly.)
Making the world a better place was what Helen was all about. Helen did that for people she loved and knew well. (I can say with certainty that everyone in this room was the recipient of Helen’s loving generosity.) Helen did that for people she knew only slightly. Helen did that for people she didn’t know at all. I have been at 440 when the mail arrived—the number of charities she and Lowell gave to was astounding. And—every year the church put out their list of supplies for Vacation Bible School or the NYPD auxiliary’s school kits—Helen had bags ready for Lowell to deliver.
I could go on. I won’t for two reasons. First—we all have our personal examples of Helen’s loving generosity. Second—we would be here till next Thursday. So—let’s do something different. Let’s talk about what we can all learn from Helen beyond her generosity.
A problem with generous people is that they often neglect themselves. But—as the saying goes—Helen knew that “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Helen would also let others make the world a better place for her. It is well-documented that acting lovingly toward others begins with believing you yourself are worthy of love. Sadly—some of us never learn that. Helen not only learned it—but she learned it early and kept reinforcing it.
For example—Helen loved to tell the story of how kindly Lowell treated her on their first trip to the movies—which wasn’t really a date—but an abortive church youth group field trip. Lowell was willing to give small acts of kindness—but those mattered even more because Helen was able to receive them from someone she didn’t know very well by the way—and I have a funny story about that.
Not long ago—I would say less than two years ago—Helen had been going through old photos and found a print of the Confirmation class at Saint Matthew’s that included both Lowell and Helen—all looking very serious as Confirmation students did in those days. Helen had printed the names of the confirmands on the back of the photo. What is funny is that she wrote Lowell’s name as “Noel Stahl.” (They obviously hadn’t started dating yet!)
Life is not only about the stories we tell. Life is about the stories we live. Thank you to Helen for sharing her life with so many of us—for giving us stories to tell—and for being willing to receive our loving gratitude in a world that is a better place because Helen was in it—and the baked goods were only the beginning. Somewhere—while we gather here—Jesus is up in heaven enjoying a piece of chocolate cake and saying that famous line—“My diet starts tomorrow.”
Live as children of light.
Pastor Scott Paradise