The Face of Tragedy is Smiling
August 14th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
Two weeks ago today, Steve Montgomery died.
I cried when I heard the news. His injuries from a tragic biking accident were just too great to overcome.
Steve was the much beloved retired senior pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church. He was officially the Reverend Dr. Stephen R. Montgomery, but more than that to me and countless others, he was Steve.
While thousands considered him a friend, it never felt like thousands when you visited with him, it was just you and Steve. He listened to you, you the homeless, you the wealthy, you the mover and shaker and you the one being moved and shaken.
His eyes, complete with the twinkle, met yours. They never left yours during the conversation, they never scanned the busy room for more important targets, they never failed to see something in you that made you special.
If you read what my colleagues David Waters and Geoff Calkins have written about Steve, you know how special that could make you feel.
So, after I cried, I smiled.
Any memory of Steve and his smile, any memory of any experience with Steve, can produce a smile even in the midst of tears, even in the midst of life’s challenges and losses. He caused us to question our behaviors and beliefs, to address our failures, to act rather than watch, and he did all of that without confrontation and condemnation; he did it with love.
“May God bless you with a restless discomfort
about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.”
At Idlewild, before confirmation occurs the confirmands must appear before the Session, the lay leadership of the church. The Rev. Anne H.K. Apple, Acting Head of Staff at the church, told me about 15-year-old twins, Lauren and Andrew Hobson, who appeared before the Session recently.
She said their message was that Steve Montgomery, the man who baptized them, had led them by example. “He was always there,” Andrew said. “He was always greeting everyone at the door, always welcoming everyone.”
The twins made a prayer flag with an image of Steve in the center that Lauren drew, and messages from Steve surrounding the image:
“God is good all the time. All the time God is good.”
“Pray daily and leave the rest to God.”
“Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly.”
“All are welcome here.”
You’ve been 15. You may have raised one or two. They’re pretty hard to impress.
“May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression,
and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for
justice, freedom, and peace among all people.”
When Steve took over at Idlewild 20 years ago, he embraced and expanded a program called More Than A Meal, not only feeding the homeless, but inviting them into the church for dinner, for company, for grace shared at table.
He inspired another church down the street – mine – Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, to do the same in 2001. To actually bring those most in need within our walls, to serve them and be served by so doing, to share with them and to grow by so doing.
Today and in partnership with other churches, More Than A Meal still happens every Thursday at Idlewild and every Sunday at Grace-St. Luke’s.
And Steve will remain in every bite, every smile around every table.
“May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer
from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.”
When Anne walked into the Idlewild offices the Monday after Steve died, she was greeted by a staff member with her arms raised high, “because that’s what Steve often did, often involving a little Steve dance.”
She paused and added, “That’s what we should all do ... a little Steve dance.”
“May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that
you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able,
with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.”
The Sunday after Steve died, the Rev. Ollie Rencher, Rector of Grace-St. Luke’s, included A Four-Fold Blessing in the service leaflet written by a Benedictine nun, Sister Ruth Marlene Fox, in 1985. All four parts are quoted in this column.
I don’t know if Sister Ruth knew Steve, or if Ollie was thinking of Steve, but Steve is in all four parts of that blessing. In every word.
Smile. We’ve all been blessed by the presence of Steve Montgomery in our midst.
And, hopefully, enough foolishness will ensue.
I’m a Memphian, and Steve Montgomery was my friend.
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