A wife and mother of two teenagers, recently ordained in the Episcopal Church, receives the worst kind of bad news: she has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The Rev. Jennifer Durant tells her own story in Sparrow: A Journey of Grace and Miracles While Battling ALS (Morehouse, 2016), a book published just a year after her death. It was her hope that telling this story would build on the increasing public recognition of ALS developed by the Ice Bucket Challenge, and she pushed through to finish the book using assistive devices.
Called as an Associate Rector, she shared her diagnosis with her new colleague, David M. Stoddart, the Rector of Church of the Saviour in Charlottesville, Virginia. When she offered to resign, he recommended keeping her condition quiet as long as possible, so the congregation could learn to love her. She writes:
He assured me my gifts — my God-given, Christ-blessed gifts — had not changed. That is a message for every person who feels they are less than whole. God sees us as whole and perfect. Our Got talents are not lost simply because our muscles don’t work like everyone else’s, or because we are bling. Or deaf. Or old. Or weak or broken. (p. 31)
Durant goes on to share the painful truth of her loss of ability and her faith that God was with her all along the way. She owns that the loss of her capacity to function as a mother and a wife hurt deeply. She names the things she will miss and the parenting role she has surrendered to her husband, Matt. She compares her children to baby sparrows, raised “in a nest of God’s love.”
And so my sparrow-darlings, though I can no longer speak, I can pray. (p. 85)
Readers may well weep at this point, as this reviewer did.
As a pastor, I am delighted to read a book in which the church does not fail a person who is suffering through challenges. Church of the Saviour made numerous accommodations for Durant, including buying a lighter-weight paten to use at the Eucharist, carpooling while Durant rode shotgun, and literally feeding her at church potlucks when she could no longer manage utensils herself. When a church member expressed concern that her deteriorating condition might upset the children, Father David supported her continuing presence. Parishioners read her sermons aloud. At the end of the book, Durant includes her final sermon, delivered ten days before her death.
It’s worth noting that Durant writes strictly from her own context, including the use of fairly traditional descriptions of men and women and their family roles.
Sparrow is a brave, honest book. Durant writes in simple terms about her faith and her life experiences. This is a book accessible to all readers. It could serve as an encouragement to those suffering terminal illness and as a helpful guide to their family, friends and caregivers. The book contains a Bible Study guide with readings to accompany each of the short chapters and could be used readily by a group.
I received a free copy of Sparrow from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
Martha Spong is the Executive Director of RevGalBlogPals and a United Church of Christ pastor; she lives in South Central Pennsylvania (US) and blogs at marthaspong.com. She is the editor of There’s a Woman in the Pulpit (SkyLight Paths, 2015).
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