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01 February 2012

"A Treasure in Earthen Vessels": In Memoriam Henny Baden (February 1, 1927 - January 29, 2012)


It started when God said, "Light up the darkness!" and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

For most people today personal identity and fulfillment depend upon being well-known not unknown, visible and not invisible, acknowledged rather than ignored, important instead of insignificant, and in demand rather than out of commission.  We all have some sense that those who make the most noise in this world often have nothing to say, yet society makes us look up when the noisy ones talk and talk and talk about ... nothing.

Most of us live hidden and unheralded lives, lives that are unknown and invisible, largely ignored and by many considered insignificant. Newspapers and television are not following most of us, and the papparazzi are not following us wherever we go. Does that mean our lives are meaningless? Not so.  The text from 2 Corinthians goes on:

7 If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That's to prevent anyone from confusing God's incomparable power with us. 8 As it is, there's not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we're not much to look at. We've been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we're not demoralized; we're not sure what to do, 9 but we know that God knows what to do; we've been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn't left our side; we've been thrown down, but we haven't broken. 10 What they did to Jesus, they do to us-- trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us-- he lives! 11 Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus 'sake, which makes Jesus' life all the more evident in us. 12 While we're going through the worst, you're getting in on the best!

There are those quiet individuals who live and work powerful and meaningful lives without being seen or known, because their ego doesn't require the glamor and endless publicity so prized in this street theater they call "the world". People like my friend Henny Baden, a long-time member of Zion St. Mark's German Church downtown, who went home to real life -- Life -- this past Sunday.

Henny was born as the oldest daughter of a farmer in Selsingen near Bremervörde in Germany. She often talked of her strict father who would send the children out to weed among the beds of carrots and lettuce and potatoes and strawberries and beans and cabbage and Lord knows what else, even as their friends laughed at them and asked them to defy their father and come play instead.

When the family decided to send 25 year old Henny to New York, she knew nothing but hard work. After a year and a half in her uncle's deli out in Massepequa Park on Long Island, she had learned enough English to go to work for "rich people on Park Avenue".

For over fourty years Henny ran their households, fed them, kept them clean and watched after their children. When she was told to buy groceries, she was often told to get only enough for the family, so she would prepare food for them but go hungry herself. Yet throughout her almost eighty-five years in deep obscurity (she would have been 85 on February 1), Henny developed a spiritual life that was rich and powerful. 

When I saw Henny for the last time at "Brandywine Senior Living at The Savoy" in Little Neck, her face lit up as soon as I spoke in our Muttersprache (mother's tongue), and at once it was as though the whole room was lit up by her presence. "Die haben mich hier eingesperrt," she said with a conspiratorial smile: "They locked me up in here".

Henny was physically "locked up" to make sure she wouldn't walk out on one of those days when she was confused and wanted to walk back into her apartment on the Upper East Side Yet even though she was physically constrained by both her deteriorating health and the nursing home's need to make sure she wouldn't walk out on them, spiritually she was freer than most people ever hope to be.

Henny's life shone without needing glamour. Henny spoke with great clarity without ever needing a microphone. Henny was full of wisdom without ever having to use big fancy words. Henny didn't need to give gifts; she was the gift. None of Henny's years were lost to God. He sees and knows; He loves and cares.  She knew that, and she would often say, "Ich brauch' nicht viel" -- "I don't need much".

Many folks on the nursing home staff thought of her as "content" and "sweet", but that was just the outside of it.  Her contentment was deep and real. Sometimes I asked what she had for dinner, and she'd say with a mock smile, "Probably chicken" -- only to change the subject to ask about people at Zion St. Mark's or to ask for prayer. Henny was a wise woman; when it came to distinguishing the important stuff from the rest, she was literally someone "in the know". She could look at you and know you, just like that. 

Speaking with Henny was like opening a little window into the real world, the wide world of God.  "Surrounded and battered by troubles", she was not demoralized; no matter what came, she knew that God hadn't "left our side"; she had fallen many times, but she was never broken. "Our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful" -- that was our Henny.

As we say goodbye from Henny, for now, we may know that none of our years are lost to God, whether or not we feel like those "unadorned clay pots" of which St. Paul writes. God does not ask us to lament or transcend our invisibility to the world. However hidden and obscure our lives might feel, either literally or figuratively, whether voluntary or involuntary, in that very hiddenness, God is redemptively present.

God, you call us into being in this world, and then, when our time has come, you call us home. We come before you and pray for our sister Henny and all of us:  Show us your mercy in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Moved by grief and gratefulness, we know that Henny lived with and trusted your promise of eternal life. We thank you as we trace your blessings throughout her life.  We thank you for the love and friendship she gave away so freely, and for the patience and grace that were all her own.  We bring to you those things that burdened her, and those that burden us, and ask that you may unite us with her in the gift of your redemption. Grant us the comfort and certainty to know that love is stronger than death, forever and ever. Amen.

 2 Corinthians 4: 6-11 (Message Translation)


  1. Can't wait to read the rest. Henny would just shrug it off :)

  2. Dear Fritz, I have just read your beautiful tribute to Henny. I met her at the church the first time I was there, in 1977. She was an inspiration to me, the way she was to you. Thank you for visiting her and being her friend in Christ. In christlicher Verbundenheit, Clint

    1. Thanks, Clint. As you might have seen, this post has been the frontrunner among all my posts. That post, as of today, has been accessed by my readers 1840 times!