The Common Good
May-June 1999

Grace that Transforms

by Nicholas Piediscalzi | May-June 1999

Through death, learning about love.

Elizabeth Davis Hinshaw, a widow with two children, and Browne Barr, a widower with two children, were married in the summer of 1957. Two people from very different cultures and theological traditions made a covenant to be faithful to each other and began the painful and joyful task of becoming one in flesh and spirit.

After a move to Berkeley, California, when Barr received a call to become minister of First Congregational Church (and later dean of San Francisco Theological Seminary), the couple moved to their retirement home in the Napa Valley, where they expected to remodel their home, become active in an intergenerational community, and sail leisurely on a freighter ship to Asia.

Their plans were brought to naught a few months into retirement when Hinshaw was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and given two years to live. To the challenge of adjusting to retired life was added the burden of finding meaning and purpose in Elizabeth’s imminent death. Through their becoming more honest with and open to each other, with the support of their community, and by the grace of God, Hinshaw and Barr were granted six years to transform "a beleaguered marriage rocked by illness and conflict and disappointment" into a deeply mature relationship with a beauty and a "special glory all its own." Never Too Late to be Loved is Barr’s compelling story of their final pain- and joy-filled years together and his meditation on the theological meaning of their experiences for themselves and their supportive community.

Paul Tillich wrote in The Shaking of the Foundations that "the real theologian is [the one] who has the strength to perceive and to confess his weakness, and who, therefore, has the strength to become as weak to the weak, so that his is the victory." Barr, an eminent pastoral theologian, lives up to this description. He presents an edifying story of his strengths and his weaknesses, his trials and tribulations, his successes and failures as a husband, father, friend, minister, professor, dean, and threatened human being. Rather than hide behind the prestige of his impressive professional titles and achievements, Barr reveals his frail humanity in both its misery and grandeur.

HE ALSO PRESENTS an honest portrayal of Elizabeth and her strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their marriage. He speaks openly of their insecurities, their angers and resentments, their hiding behind masks, and the difficulty they experience in admitting to each other that they need help and accepting assistance from the other. As in most relationships, the admission of vulnerability and the request for help represent a loss of control and domination.

As Hinshaw and Barr worked through these things, they experienced a new form of love and of God’s presence. They learned, in the words of Tillich, that God’s redeeming love does not come in a spiritual, disembodied form but through the broken body of Christ. The suffering and broken savior reveals that God’s redeeming and resurrecting love is present in our broken and fragmented lives, and even in our deaths.

Barr’s theological meditations are a celebration of justification by faith through grace. Even though he found it difficult to trust God’s saving love, at the moment of Elizabeth’s death God’s love grasped him and provided transforming experiences of justification and resurrection. Thus the origin of the book’s title: It never is too late to experience and to be transformed by God’s forgiving love, especially when we present our vulnerability to God in the midst of deep pain, sorrow, and loss.

This is an important book for several reasons. First, in the tradition of Augustine’s Confessions, Barr gives inspiring testimony to the presence and power of God’s love in our rebellious, unfaithful, and broken lives. Second, Barr does not begin with theological doctrines but with life experiences that serve as the animators and elucidators of doctrines. Third, the book addresses every stage in life’s way.

Finally, this is a book written by a master of artistic description and metaphor. It reads like a novel and is hard to put down. All these positive qualities make Never Too Late an inspiring story to read alone and an excellent text for young adult, adult, and senior study or discussion groups.

—Nicholas Piediscalzi

NICHOLAS PIEDISCALZI is professor emeritus in the Department of Religion at Wright State University and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Never Too Late to be Loved: How One Couple Under Stress Discovered Intimacy and Joy. Browne Barr. White Mane Publishing Company, 1996.

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