Summary: FBC Gaithersburg: funeral for Julia McNeely Vance, centenarian, physician, daughter of Irish Baptists. Text and poem requested by family. Julia's commitments, nurtured early, brought her into an unusual life. Not delivered by me because of illness.
That classically Irish face looks out at me from the printed page, and I wonder what it must have been like for Julia McNeely, born a century ago, to have grown up and to have followed her calling. On one side were all the customs and expectations of her day and time … that women would live out their lives as wives and mothers, profession enough for anyone, they said in those days. Or that if they did choose a profession, it would be something thought to be feminine, like teaching. The customs of the day would have told young Julia to be satisfied with her station in life, and some might even have told her that a quiet, unassuming family life was the will of God. That’s one side of the equation.
But Julia was able to listen to more than mere custom. She saw another road to travel. Something stirred in her young soul and led her to know that she would and could succeed in medicine, a profession not closed to women but where relatively few then ventured. When I read the list of the schools she attended, I see the resume of a woman of substance and of courage, a woman who would not confine herself to the easy path: Friends Select School of Philadelphia; Barnard College; New York University Medical School. She chose quality and, no doubt, strong challenge, over the easy path. And she succeeded in providing medical services for many years for the children of the East Orange school system in New Jersey. A road not often taken by women of her era, but one that she traveled with joy and with pride.
With pride, did I say? Yes, but with another element as well. Pride, though not the sort of pride that, as the proverb says, comes before a fall. Pride in her achievements, pride in her family, pride in her commitments, but not a ruinous pride. She walked in humility as well. She knew what it was to be self-effacing, settled, as we say sometimes today, “comfortable in her own skin”, finding it unnecessary to be boastful or to trumpet her accomplishments. During my visits with her when I served this church as interim pastor, I found someone who was quiet, confident, settled, and hopeful. Julia wasted no time in worrying about whether I knew her life story, nor did she attempt to inflate her resume with self-serving incidents. Truth to tell, most of what I know about her I learned from her daughter, and what she told me herself was told with a self-deprecating humor that is rare indeed. Julia knew herself, she knew her own story, and she had few if any regrets about the path she had taken.
If we ask where such a rare combination comes from – the combination of a person who knows her competencies and yet feels no need to impress others with them – we need look no further than Julia’s spiritual heritage. The child of a Baptist parsonage, at her parents’ feet she learned great truths that shape and direct young lives. She learned what it is to be spiritually centered and focused, and, no doubt, what it means to serve others without reservation. Surely in such a setting she discovered that there is more joy in serving others’ needs, by far, than there is in self-indulgence. I am confident that as she heard her father’s sermons and as she shared in the life of that Baptist congregation in Newark, she imbibed values that would contradict this world’s measures of success, but that would make a lasting imprint on Julia, on her family, and on her patients.
For the ancient prophet Micah had spoken with vital clarify hundreds of years before. Micah had looked at the religiosity of his day, at the values of his culture, and had dismissed them all. Micah gave us as succinct a statement of God’s expectations as it is possible to find anywhere:
“He has told you … what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Brothers and sisters, this is the road that Julia trod, and it is one that all too few of us take. This is the path that Julia walked, confident in her achievements and yet focused on serving the least of us, the children, and it is a path that has never been popular, nor has it ever rewarded those who follow it with vast material reward. To do justice … advocating for the rights of women; to love kindness … serving school children; and most of all, to walk humbly with our God. To know the love of God that surpasses knowledge. To rest confident under the wings of the Almighty. To wait, to wonder, and to walk in the paths He has laid out, needing no other assurance than to know that where He has gone, she too would go, to a place prepared for her.