Judy is a long time friend. A long time friend. I knew her in seminary. We’ve worked in the same churches, either as staff members or just plain members. We were colleagues in ministry at the unique graduate center for educational ministry known as the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. Even when I moved from Richmond to head north, we kept in touch through email and phone calls. Whenever our journeys take us back to Virginia, Joan and I make it a point to visit Judy.

Dear friend. Gentle soul. Deep spirit. The most loving pastor who never had a parish church. So modest. So caring. As well as understanding. And so careful about confidences and privacy, way before the world caught on about keeping personal information personal.  Those are the things I admire about her, and why I treasure her as a shepherd along my life path.

Judy has a favorite word that exemplifies her modesty and gentleness. The word is “little.” As in, “Jeffrey, I just wanted to make this little call to say…” or, “I thought I’d drop a little card in the mail…” or, “I’m just going to make a little visit…”  I find that endearing in a big way. For someone with such profound gifts for ministry, she possesses a sincere modesty, and I suspect she will be more than a little embarrassed that I am writing all this about her.

Just for the heck of it, I did a web search for her name. I was surprised at how many Judy Sutherlands there are. But there is only one who:

  • overcame a disabling injury to lead the Christian Education program of two (at least)  large churches, direct the Continuing Education Center at PSCE, and serve as a consultant and curriculum writer for our denomination. I remember her forthrightness about her physical limitations. She would sometimes announce to a class that she might have to lie down on the floor for a few minutes, “but you go right ahead with the class.”
  • provided mid-marriage counseling for Joan and me. It’s not that we were having trouble. We were just facing the happiness of our 25th wedding anniversary and asked Judy to preside at the renewal of our vows. She agreed, but said she wanted to meet with us to talk with us about where we were in our life together. We shared our story, and then she suggested that we find three brand new, untried things that we had never done before as a married couple.  So that it wasn’t just our vows that were renewed. We decided we’d go to a college football game, a ballet, and then move to Vermont. Two out of three. There’s still the ballet…
  • experienced a shared rain storm while a hundred or so miles apart! My son and I had been hiking some Virginia miles on the Appalachian Trail, and a thunderstorm forced us to hunker down on a mountaintop. I was scared silly as lightning flashed around us while we huddled helplessly under a stand of trees. Did I mention a mountaintop? Lightning? And prayer. A short time later I produced a “Celebration Rock” radio show [www.celebrationrock.wordpress.com] that celebrated the gift of rain and the power of the storm. Judy, as she did often, heard that program and realized that the storm had moved east to Richmond and she watched that very rain from her window, making a spiritual connection with all the gifts that rain brings. Like a reminder of baptism’s washing, renewing, and saving grace.
  • has a devout and grace-filled prayer life, one that touches (I believe/trust/know)  the very heart of God. Like the song says, Judy promises: I’ll say a little prayer for you. One can only assume that God listens as well as Judy does. (I hope all three of us are smiling at that!)

I could go on, of course. [Just look at some of the previous entries!] But I want to keep this short. I so value Judy’s friendship that I almost feel that I’ve violated it by writing about it. Yet, my purpose in this Lenten discipline of writing is to celebrate those who have helped shape my life, my faith, and my ministry. Judy has been my peer, more my colleague, even more a mentor,but mostly a very good and trusted friend. For a very long time.