Home by Another Way: Remembering Harold Stewart

harold stewart pic
July 17, 1946 – January 1, 2019

As evidenced by the attendance here this morning, the shocking news of Harold’s passing has been devastating to many.

We did receive some comforting words. Harold did not suffer. There was no prolonged illness, no pain, no struggle. Harold was given the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with loved ones here in Fort Smith and then in Nebraska. Harold was happy. He was full and content.

But then we received a dreadful word, a word that was difficult for us to hear, that that his wife Audrey, whom we all know he adored, had to drive home from Nebraska all by herself as Harold’s body was sent home by another way.

“Home by another way.” Those are the exact words Matthew uses in yesterday’s gospel lesson to describe the journey of the Wise Men after they worshiped Jesus, laying down their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Having been warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, we are told that they went “home by another way.”

“Going home” is of course how we like to talk about death. We find great comfort in the old hymn:

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

“Home” is being with God. It is a place of perpetual belonging, acceptance, comfort and love. It is a place of eternal rest and peace.

In his book of Revelation, John described it this way:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

See, the home of God is among mortals.

God will dwell with them;

they will be God’s peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away (Revelation 21).

So, in a way, going home is the goal of every believer. And as Christians, we believe that how we get there, how we go home, matters.

Do we go home following the instructions of King Herod? Do we go home by collaborating with the empire? Or do we go home by another way?

Do we go home following the way of greed and power, the way of self-centeredness and fear, the way of deceit and cowardice, the way of exclusion and isolation? Or do we go home by another way?

I believe the most comforting word, the most hopeful word for us this morning was what we first thought was a most dreadful word: “Harold went home by another way.”

As Christians, we believe Jesus showed us the way, the truth and the life, the very narrow, yet broad and expansive way home.

Matthew writes:

One day Jesus was teaching a large crowd of people. While he was still speaking, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone said to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’

But Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mothers and my brothers!’ (Matthew 12:46-50).

In other words Jesus said, “here is my home, here is my family.”

I believe this story reveals that Jesus had a much broader, more expansive definition of home and family than we often do.

This, of course is why Gentile Wise Ones from the East were guided by that star to worship the Jewish Christ child: The people of God, the family of God, extends beyond Israel, and includes all people.

And so it was with Harold.

If I said to you, “Harold sure did love cooking for his family.” Your first response would probably be: “Which family are you talking about?”

Are you talking about the Stewart family? Or are you talking about his family at the Elks Lodge? Perhaps you are you talking about his family at First Christian Church?

Someone told me that he left Mike and Jane one of his famous pizzas in the fridge before he and Audrey left for Nebraska. That was so Harold. As his mother Roberta Ray used to always say: “It is very difficult to get Harold out of the kitchen!”

Harold also loved to make his pizza monthly for his Elks lodge family. And each time Harold invited me to the lodge and introduced me to other lodge members, it was obvious to me that he was introducing me to his home away from home. During the fish fry, he introduced me to his son Mike and daughter-in-law Jane, but he also introduced me to countless sisters and brothers. Chris Perry has written that Harold’s example and leadership is the reason they like to say that the “Elks Loge 341 is the friendliest little Elks Lodge in America.” That is because they are truly a family.

And of course this church was the beneficiary of having a brother named Harold in our family. Our brother Harold spoiled us with that infamous pizza recipe, the juiciest hamburgers you have ever tasted, unbelievable pulled-pork barbeque, and most recently, a Christmas dinner that featured a prime rib that Steve Riggs described best as “crazy good.”

What if I said to you that “Harold loved being there for his family?”

Well, are you talking about his sons Brian and Mike? Are you talking about one of his six grandchildren or his great-grandson?

Are you talking about his family at Fort Smith Restaurant Supply? Are you talking about the names of the people with whom he worked that he would text to his pastor requesting prayer for them when they were sick, experienced a loss or had a need?

Or are you talking about a child he mentored for the last three years at Howard Elementary School? Are you talking about the 12-year-old boy he visited once a week, oftentimes bringing him lunch, building his self-esteem, encouraging him in his studies and teaching him the importance of values that he may not learn in the classroom, like looking someone in the eyes while giving them a firm handshake?

Or are you talking about one of the children at the church who he made an effort to greet every Sunday morning before reaching in his pocket and giving them a piece of candy.

Yes, the good news is that Harold certainly went home by another way.

Speaking of going home by another way, it is no secret that Harold could literally build a home. His sons describe him as the best teacher they ever had. They even built an entire house together on Ten Killer Lake. Harold taught them how to do everything, from carpentry, duct work, heat and air, plumbing to laying tile and flooring. They said Harold knew how to crack a whip in such away that you never even knew there was a whip.

Harold could fix anything. His son Brian recalls that anytime he or Mike ever had a problem with their house, whether it be carpentry, plumbing, heating or air, all they had to do was call Dad. They said: “And it seemed like it was before we get the phone hung up the doorbell would ring and there would be Dad, standing there wearing a tool-belt around his waist and light on his head.”

With Harold, anytime something would break, his family said they never called a professional. They called Harold. Just like we did here at the church. Just like I am sure they did at the Elks Lodge.

Yes, more than anyone we know, Harold went home by another way.

Yesterday, someone asked Audrey: “How in the world did you drive home all by yourself?” She replied: “I had a good teacher.”

We all know how he absolutely adored and cherished his wife of 38 years, Audrey, but the love he expressed to Audrey always seemed to have an even higher purpose. For me it was like he was modeling for others what love looks like, what being a true gentleman looks like, what being an authentic disciple of Christ looks like.

As I watched him each Sunday morning, walking into the church building holding Audrey’s hand, opening the car door for her after church—it was as if he loved her as an example to the world how we ought to love one another.

Perhaps that is exactly what Harold was doing. Harold was not only a mentor to a young man at the Howard Elementary. He was trying to teach us all how to be wise men and wise women and go home by another way.

He was teaching us how share the inclusive, expansive love of God with all people; how to see and treat all people as children of God, as sisters and brothers; how to leave this world a better place than we found it.

Yes, as his sons have said, Harold was one of the best teachers we have ever had, for he taught us all how to be wise men and wise women by avoiding the way of King Herod that so many seem to be taking these days, and instead, choose another way:

the way of chivalry over the way of indecency,

the way of love over the way of indifference,

the way of compassion over the way of apathy,

the way of sacrifice over the way of self-centeredness,

the way of inclusion over the way of fear,

and the way of calmness and peace over the way of stress and worry.

And when we choose to go home by this way, not only will we change the world and leave this world a better place than we found it, we can rest assured that like Harold, we will see that the home of God is among mortals. With Harold, we will dwell with God and be God’s peoples. God God’s self will be with us.

To wipe every tear from our eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

There is a great old hymn with beautiful words that describes what Harold experienced the first day of this new year.

Just think of what it must be like to step on shore and finding it heaven,

Of taking hold of a hand and finding it God’s hand.

Of breathing a new air and finding it celestial air,

Of feeling invigorated and finding it immortality

Of passing from storm and tempest into an unbroken calm,

Of looking up and finding it home.

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A Glimpse of Heaven: Remembering Janice Rickman

Janice Rickmans Tie Dye Moment
May 24, 1946 – Dec. 8, 2018

One of my favorite authors and preachers, Frederick Buechner, has wondered what Heaven is like. With me, he believes we can get a foretaste of heaven right here on earth.  Buechner writes: “To speak of ‘heavenly’ music or a ‘heavenly’ day isn’t always to gush but sometimes to catch a glimpse of something.”

Upon experiencing something that is soooo good, perhaps we have all said, “Ahhhh! This is heaven!”  A bite of chocolate cake. A warm cookie with cold milk.  A lover’s touch.  A faithful friend.  A child’s hug.  A walk on a beach or in the snow. Resting one’s head on your mother’s shoulders. Undeserved forgiveness.  Unconditional love.  Unwavering devotion. Unexplained strength.

I heard a another preacher describe it this way: Heaven is sort of like this perfect room on the second floor of the house. It is a room upstairs where we are not yet permitted to enter from our position in a room here on the first floor.

However, there is this small, tiny hole in the ceiling of our room. And if we position ourselves just so under that hole.  At just the right angle.  At just the right moment.  If the light is just so. The shadows fade and we can see a little of that room. We can catch a glimpse of Heaven.

Greta will tell you that one thing that she will never forget is her mother recalling the moments after Greta was born, and specifically that moment Janice held her for the first time. As soon as the doctor handed Greta to her, as she held Greta in her arms, pressed her lips to kiss Greta’s forehead, and said Greta was “as warm as toast.”

Greta, you will always remember that, because your mother was describing a moment for her that was nothing less than heavenly. As she held you in her arms, as she loved you as she loved Bradley and Sarah, with a love that was out of this world, that hole in the ceiling got a lot larger for your mother. The light got just right, the shadows faded and heaven came down.

The Bible paints many portraits of the widening of this hole in the ceiling.

The prophet Isaiah prays for such widening:

Shower, O heavens, from above,

and let the skies rain down righteousness;

let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,

and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;

I the Lord have created it. (Isa 45).

Ezekiel writes about the glimpses of heaven he experienced:

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1).

Malachi talks about opening a window to heaven,

…see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing (Malachi 3).

John talks about opening a door to heaven:

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this’ (Revelation 4).

And then we have those beautiful recollections of Jesus’ baptism as the Gospel Writers describe the heavens opening up. Mark literally says the heavens were “ripped apart” as the Spirit of God descended like a dove.

Greta and Sarah, I do not believe either one of you will ever forget the many ways that your mother helped to open up the heavens for you, to make that tiny hole in the ceiling a little wider, to move you to just the right position, to be in just the right light, at just the right angle, for the many times she caused heaven to only open but to actually come down so close to earth that you could feel it, hear it, smell it, and touch it.

When we study the Bible, from the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, through the occupation of Israel by Babylon, to the oppression of Christians by the Roman Empire—from the tribulations of Job, the persecution of Daniel, through the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, to the trials and hardships of the Apostles Paul and John, the one theme that is constant is the divine strength, the holy resoluteness, the sacred presence of God in difficult times.

Greta and Sarah, you and Bradley, all of her grandchildren have witnessed this miraculous strength in ways that you are still trying to, but may never comprehend. Whatever storm came her way, divorce, death and disease, her love for you never failed, in fact, it never even wavered. Her love for you was indeed out of this world. No matter her circumstance she was always there with you, never away from you, always for you, never against you.

She possessed this supernatural strength, this holy fire, this divine determination to always be there to give any of you what you needed. Janice became a single-parent when Bradley was 11, Sarah was 9 and Greta was 2, and although she experienced the grief and sorrow of divorce, she never let you kids see it. She remained dedicated to her job as a legal Clerk and later with ABF to make sure that your needs were always met. If she ever went into her room, closed the door and cried, you never knew it. Her love was selfless. Her love was sacrificial. It was self-expending. It was heavenly. And there is no wonder that you look back on your childhood today, at her love and care and strength, and ponder, “How in the world did she do that?” In her strength, you were catching a glimpse of heaven.

During this Advent season, we celebrate another moment when the heavens were opened, when a choir of angels filled the skies to announce the birth of a baby.

John describes the announcement this way,

See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are (1 John 3:1).

Through the gift of a baby born in Bethlehem, we are all born into the family of God. Through this baby named Jesus, we have been made family.

For 20 years, Janice worked as a legal clerk here in Fort Smith. When she left that position to work for ABF, she grieved. Why? Because her co-workers there in the legal office had become family to her. The same thing happened while she was at ABF.

Janice was not a member of the church or the denomination with which I serve as pastor. She was a proud member of the Church of Christ.

When she first moved to Methodist Village, one of her big concerns was that they were going to make her a Methodist. To illustrate this, the first weekend she moved into Methodist Village this past April, they had a tornado warning. The protocol for a tornado warning is to place identification tags on a lanyard around the necks of all the residents. When they placed a name tag around Janice’s neck, she wasn’t so much concerned about the possible tornadoes as she was about her name being printed under the word “Methodist.” She took one look at her badge and said, “I knew it. They have made me Methodist!”

So when I would visit her at Methodist Village and others would ask her if I was her pastor, she would immediately respond: “Oh no. He is my daughter’s pastor.”

This makes it all the more special some of the last words she spoke to me. She looked up at me said, “I love you.” Janice loved me, not as her pastor, but as family.

With those three simple words, “I love you”, she moved me. She moved to just the right spot, to that spot where the light was just right, to that spot where the shadows faded, and just for a moment, I could see through that hole in the ceiling, and I caught a glimpse of heaven.

This is the power of love. Love has the power to make strangers family. Although we have different faiths and different beliefs, love has the power to unite us all as sisters and brothers.  And when we love one another like family, when we treat one another as sisters and brothers, the heavens are ripped apart!

Since I have been a pastor here in Fort Smith, I have been impressed with the quality of care and love I have witnessed through the good people who work and serve at Methodist Village. They truly love and care for the residents as family. So each time I go out there, every time I visit, I catch a glimpse of heaven.

As I’ve mentioned, when Janice first became a resident of Methodist Village, it took her a little while to accept it. At first, it was a strange place, a place where she did not belong. After all, as she would tell me, there were “old people” living there. She assumed that her stay there would only be temporary. She would get a little rehab and then go home.

So, who could blame her for not immediately embracing nursing home residency and all of the activities and programs they offered. When she first arrived, if you wanted to visit Janice, you knew that you could always find Janice in her room. She wouldn’t be in dining hall with the other residents tossing a bean bag or playing bingo.

One day, when Sarah came to visit, like always she went straight to her room, but Janice was not there. She walked down to the nurses’ station where they would sometimes seat her, but Janice was not there. She searched the entire facility until she finally asked someone for assistance.

They said, “Well, today is Tie Dye Day! Perhaps she is with the other residents making a Tie Dye!”

Sarah immediately responded, “Oh, I don’t think so.” But they went down to the dining room anyway where everyone was tie dyeing, and there she was.

She was sitting there wearing this tie dye wrap, or scarf, or hat that she had made on her head. And she was holding this clapper in one hand, this hand that made a clapping noise when you moved it back and forth.

She looked up at Sarah. And waving the clapper in one hand and holding up a peace sign with the other, giggled and said, “I am having a tie-dye moment! And I am ready to party.”

Sarah responded the way that most of us respond these days when we catch a glimpse of something like this, something beautiful, something fun, something that warms our heart and makes us smile, something that is soooo good that we can only describe it as heavenly.  She pulled out her phone and took a picture and sent it to Greta.

And the good news is that this picture of Janice having a tie-dye moment, is a picture of Janice today. Through the tiny hole in the ceiling, we can see her today, sitting in the banquet hall of heaven, surrounded by family including her son Bradley, enveloped by eternal love, encircled by amazing grace, giggling, clapping, partying.

And because of that, we who grieve today know we are going to be ok. Greta and Sarah are going to be fine. Her grandchildren are going to be fine. Not only because your mother and grandmother has given you some of her strength and love (after all, you said you only needed a piece of it to be ok), but because you will be able to always see her, she will always be with you, each time something moves you to just the right spot, at just the right angle, when the light is just right, and the shadows fade, and this warmth comes over you, as warm as toast.

 

Remembering Naomi Hatley: Things Are Not What They Appear to Be

Naomi Pic
Naomi Hatley
April 17, 1924 – November 16, 2018

Esther 9:20-23

John 16:20-24

The late Reverend Warren Carr, a friend of mine and mentor, once said that a person’s eulogy in a Christian memorial service should be limited to those aspects of a person’s life that proclaimed the gospel, proclaimed the message Jesus proclaimed.

The good news is that we have much to say about Naomi today for she proclaimed the message of Jesus in ways that Rob and I never could.

When many think about proclaiming Jesus, they might first think about preachers. However, as those words attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words,” teach us, you don’t have to be preachy to preach.

Naomi was anything but preachy. Her faith was quietly practiced but deeply felt. Always self-effacing, she never imposed her faith on others.

However, her faithfulness was clearly evident to all. Many witnessed her faith through her active participation with this church as she led worship by singing in the choir and playing bells with the Primetime Ringers. She was an active member of the Christian Women’s Fellowship and possessed the heart of a servant, always enjoying potluck dinners and other fellowship occasions. When she could no longer drive to church, she had the church van pick her up at Butterfield Place so she could be here to faithfully worship and serve with her family of faith.

However, this was certainly not the only way that Naomi proclaimed the gospel.

It could be said that Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to teach us that things are not always as they appear to be. Sometimes reality is the exact reversal of actual appearances.

For example, Jesus said that those who appear to be last are actually first. And those who seem to be first are actually last.

In his first sermon, he said that it is not the rich who are blessed, it is the poor. It is the not the strong who inherit the earth, it is the meek. The Apostle Paul said it is not the wise who shame the foolish, but it is the foolish who shame the wise. It is the weak who shame the strong.

The gospel continually teaches us that things are not what they appear to be.

Of course, Naomi, first taught us this reality with her name.

It is not Nayomey or Nyomi.

It is Nayoma.

No matter how it is spelled, or what you’ve heard, or what you’ve read, no matter what you’ve seen or think you see and hear right now, things are not what they appear to be.

Naomi taught us this gospel truth in many other ways. Perhaps the the ways we will most remember, and for which we are most grateful, are the ways Naomi taught us, in the words of Ralph Sockman, that “nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as real strength.”

If you thought Naomi was gentle and quiet, then you probably never watched a Dallas Cowboy or Arkansas Razorback football game with her.

If you thought Naomi was a non-athletic spectator, someone who sat serenely on the sidelines of life, you probably never saw her slalom waterski, which she did until the age of 69 when she fell and cracked three ribs.

If you thought Naomi was this prim and proper Southern Belle, you probably never saw her play in the waves of the ocean. You never heard her laugh like a child as the waves would crash over her head knocking her off her feet.

If you thought Naomi only enjoyed soft church music, the chimes of handbells, the harmonious sound of a choir, a piano and organ reverently praising God, then you’ve probably never been to an Eric Clapton concert with her.

If you thought her husband of 66 years Pete, with his large, confident personality was the rock of the family. Then you probably didn’t know Naomi as well as her children knew her, as one with an iron backbone in a fluffy coating.

If you thought Naomi might be a pushover, a softy, a patsy you were probably not raised by her and as one of her children never did anything or said anything that would make her chase you with a fly swatter.

And you probably did not do or say anything that caused any harm to any of her children, because you would have quickly discovered that, like a mama bear robbed of her cubs, you simply do not want to mess with Naomi.

Naomi was soft as a pillow, but she was hard as a rock.

Naomi was tenderly ladylike, but she was a tough old broad.

Naomi was humble and unassuming but the sound of her laughter, the melody of her heart, and loud reverberations of her spirt can still be heard today.

Like the good news of the gospel, things are not always what they appear to be.

Of course Jesus taught us this reality to lead and to guide us down a certain path, on a specific journey, on a particular and peculiar way:

A way where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty;

A way where those who mourn are comforted and the meek inherit the earth;

A way where those who are hungry and thirsty for justice are satisfied;

A way where those who show mercy because they know they need it for themselves receive mercy;

A way that those who may not be pure, undefiled and unbroken on the outside will see God.

It is a particular and peculiar way where peacemakers are called children of God, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and outcasts are included.

It is way that always graciously extends hospitality, always asking if you need anything to eat, something to drink, a time to rest.

Her children tell me that had to stop visiting their mother when it was mealtime at the nursing home. Because she would always try to share her food with them. No matter her circumstance, the needs of others came before her own. Whenever it appeared that you were the one being hospitable to her, being a blessing to her, she was actually being a blessing to you.

This is a way that sets a high bar in a culture that seems to have no bars, that offers a righteous morality in a culture influenced by a distorted morality, that teaches ethics rooted in a selfless, self-expending, self-effacing love for this world and every human being in a culture with ethics rooted in greed and self-interest.

Jesus also taught us that this particular, peculiar counter-cultural way is the way to life everlasting. To save ourselves, we must lose ourselves. To truly and fully live we must die. And all who embrace this way, live this way, though they are dead, live.

The good news is as Jesus and Naomi taught us, things today are not what they appear to be.

Four years ago, when Naomi broke her hip, and then suffered a stroke during surgery becoming wheel-chair bound and unable to communicate clearly, it appeared that her life was over. She had no reason to live, no reason to smile, and certainly no reason to play the piano.

However, this tender soul made even more tender by the difficulties of life was a tough old broad, under the fluffy and frail coating, an iron backbone was as strong as ever. Thus, Naomi continued to play that piano. She continued to live her life and she continued to be grateful and always found a reason to smile.

No, nothing in this world is what it appears to be. Nothing this hour is what it appears to be.

Naomi appears to spell her name Naomi yet it is Naomi.

Naomi appears to be buried in the National Cemetery, yet her music is still filling this sanctuary.

Naomi appears to be gone from our presence, yet her gifts live on through her children and grandchildren.

Naomi appears to be dead and no longer in our presence, yet those of us with faith know that she is alive and is in the presence of the Lord.

It appears to be a cold, dark, rainy day, but somehow, some miraculous way, the sun is shining.

When some learned of her passing, they may have thought about how losing someone during a holiday week makes it all the more heartbreaking. Families are supposed to be gathering together this week to celebrate life and to give thanks for the blessings of life. They are not supposed to be gathering for a memorial service.

But the good news is, things are not what they appear to be.

In the wonderful little book of Esther, we are told about the Persian Empire’s plot to destroy the Jewish people. Under Queen Esther’s leadership, the Persians are defeated and Israel was saved. Mordecai, who had adopted Esther, and raised her as if she was his own blood, decreed that the days had been transformed “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness…”

There is no doubt in my mind that on this day after Thanksgiving with Advent and Christmas approaching this family is going to be alright. Pray for them, but don’t despair for them. Console them, but don’t pity them. For if Naomi taught them anything, it is that these days are not as they appear. What is going on right now, today, this very hour, is not what it may appear.

Sorrow has been transformed into gladness. Pain has been turned into joy. A day of mourning has been transformed into a holiday, and everyday are becoming holy days. And because we believe what Naomi proclaimed with her life, this week of Thanksgiving will always be for her family days of feasting, gladness and celebration. Thanks be to God.

The Power to Heal the World – Remembering Dr. Trevor Soter John Hodge, MD

trevor-hodge-fort-smith-ar-obituary

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On behalf of the family of Dr. Trevor Hodge, I want to thank all of you for being here this morning.

Of course, I want to thank you for the way your presence here gives comfort to his family; but more than that, I want to thank you for the way I believe your presence here gives hope for the entire world!

For you have come here this morning to celebrate and to remember a life that was dedicated to loving and healing this world.

Every Sunday, our church gathers around this table to celebrate and remember the life of another who was also dedicated to loving and healing this world. We share bread. We drink from a cup, and we listen to his words: “Do this in remembrance of me.” If you want to celebrate my life, says Jesus, if you want to remember my life, then do this. Live on earth as I lived. Love the world as I loved. Welcome, accept, forgive, embrace, touch, and heal. Do this.

It is my hope that all who are here to remember and celebrate Trevor’s life understand that best way to do that, is to do it, to live and love as he lived and loved.

Because, my friends, that is what I believe our broken world needs now more than anything else. And I believe the love that Dr. Hodge shared with his patients, the love that this father shared with his children, his family, his wife, his community, has the power to heal this world.

On Valentine’s Day six years ago, Rev. Don Hubbard, a member of this church and former chaplain at Sparks Hospital, had the honor of officiating the marriage ceremony that celebrated and affirmed the love that Trevor and Penny shared with one another.

It was just a few weeks into their marriage when Trevor was diagnosed with cancer. Penny has said that “cancer was their marriage.” Thus, there are probably some, some who do not know any better, who would say: “What a tragic and heartbreaking marriage.” However, what they failed to factor in, and Penny will testify to this, is the power of love.

The diagnosis was grim. Of all people, Dr. Hodge knew it. Understandably, his first thoughts were to concede to the inevitability of it.

However, the love that Penny and Trevor had, that was affirmed weeks earlier during their wedding, does not concede.

For they affirmed the love that the Apostle Paul wrote about in the scripture that Rev. Hubbard read at their wedding from 1 Corinthians 13.

“If I speak in the tongues of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

In a dark world, where even religious voices can be among the most hate-filled voices, by loving others the way Trevor Hodge loved others, we have the blessed opportunity to be a shining beacon of love that has the power to change the world.

The Apostle continues…

Love is patient.  

Love is in it for the long-haul. It never quits. It doesn’t give up, give in or give out. Love is unrelenting, dedicated, and determined. Even when it would take Dr. Hodge two and a half hours to get dressed, and that’s with Penny’s help; even when he could no longer walk, it was a persistent, persevering, and patient love that got him to his office.

Love is kind.

Rev. Hubbard says that anytime he ever conversed with Dr. Hodge, whether it was about the chaplaincy and pastoral care, which Dr. Hodge believed wholeheartedly in, his grandfather, philosophy, fishing, fishing lures, literature, religion or politics, he noticed that Dr. Hodge always wore this half-smile on his face that exuded kindness, a kindness that it soothes all pain and heals all wounds. It shelters and protects.

Thus, it shouldn’t surprise us when we discovered that Trevor kept most of his pain private. He never wanted to bring pain to another, especially the ones he loved.

Love is not envious or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude.

Thirteenth century German theologian and philosopher Meister Eckhart is often credited with the following quote: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ that will be enough.”

I believe it is enough, because I believe that this simple prayer indicates that one understands that all of life is a free gift of God’s amazing grace.

I believe there are basically two types of people in this world: People who get the concept of grace and people who don’t get it. People who fail to see the grace of it all are usually not what we call “nice” people. They are boastful and rude. They act as if they have somehow earned their life, done something to deserve it. They walk around with this air that the world owes them something. In their arrogance, they become hostile if life does not go their way. After all, they deserve better.

Then there are those like Trevor Hodge who get it, who truly understand the sheer grace of it all. They understand that all of life is gift. It is unearned and undeserved. It is mysteriously and utterly precious. And these are the ones we generally call “nice” people or “gracious people.”

Love doesn’t insist on its own way.

It is flexible, pliable, and sensitive. It cares for others more than self. It is never “me first.” It is always willing to change courses, take another path, choose another way to love and help others.

One day, walking in Queens, New York when he was young, Trevor’s life changed forever. A student of drama and English literature, medical school was nowhere in Trevor’s future. As he was walking along, he heard this terrible commotion behind him. When he turned around, he saw a man, the victim of a horrific stabbing, lying on the ground, bleeding to death. Trevor said he had never felt more helpless in his life. In that moment, he promised God and himself that he would never be helpless in a situation like that again. He soon enrolled in medical school and never looked back. Even near the end of his life, Trevor’s concern was always for others, his patients, his family and his community.

Love is not irritable or resentful.

It isn’t touchy or cold. It isn’t easily offended, indignant or bitter. It is good-humored, warm and hospitable. It never complains.

And if anyone had any reason to complain it was Trevor. To work as hard as he worked, to care for others as much as he cared for others, without the opportunity to enjoy a well-earned retirement, would make even the sweetest personality bitter. The truth is: a diagnosis like Trevor’s changes most people for the worse.

But not Trevor. Trevor remained grateful for the gift of every day, no matter how difficult that day was. That half-smile he wore as he visited with you never diminished.

Trevor loved to tease and had a great sense of humor. Dr. Auturo Meade, a doctor here from Mexico, remembers Trevor incessantly bragging on his children. “He was so proud of his kids,” Dr. Meade says. “But he was especially proud when his daughter made a movie for one of her classes, a Mexican film that featured Mexican bandits. He was always coming up to me telling me I needed to see this film she made about some bandits from Mexico.”

Love does not keep account of mistakes.

It doesn’t keep score of the sins of others. It doesn’t “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” It never thinks: “I am better than he” or “I am more holy than she.” It never judges, condemns, or discriminates.

People like Trevor who truly understand the grace of it all, that life itself is gift, are the first to extend grace to others.

Love is truthful.

It isn’t perfect, but it’s honest. It’s real. It’s authentic. And it’s all the more forgiving, all the more gracious, because of that.

More than one person has told me that they did not know of a pretentious bone in Trevor’s body. Unlike some with the intellect and talent of Dr. Hodge, he never made anyone feel that they were less human than he. John Mundy, a respiratory therapist said: “Whenever I saw him at the hospital, he would always talk to me as if I was his equal. He was always easy to relate to, and he never met a stranger.” I believe that his humanity enabled him to do something that is lacking in our country today—to truly empathize with others.

Love bears all things.

It is courageous and generous. It is self-expending and sacrificial. It bends over backwards. It is always willing to go out of its way, take an extra step, even walk an extra mile.

In a fight like the one Trevor had with cancer, many would have thrown in the towel years ago. But Trevor had brave, self-denying love in his corner, which helped him, in the words of the Apostle Paul, to fight a good fight. When we have love in our corner, there is no mountain we can’t climb.

Love believes all things.

It always looks for the good, for the very best in the other or the situation, even if that best is sometimes buried deeply or covered completely. It is positive and encouraging.

Although he was sick, every day was a gift. Although he was weak, every moment was grace. In the end, Trevor did not have the life that he expected, but he was very grateful for the life that he had. Perhaps that is why Trevor always told us he was ok, because to Trevor, he was always ok. No matter the situation, he was always blessed.

Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, and no fading of its hope.

Love can outlast anything. It can not be silenced. It can never be defeated. Love always wins. It still stands when all else has fallen.

Love reveals how powerless an enemy as formidable as cancer truly is. Just when we are tempted to believe that there is nothing that cancer cannot destroy, we meet a man like Dr. Trevor Hodge, and we learn with the anonymous author of the following words that there are many things that cancer cannot do.

Cancer cannot cripple love.

It cannot shatter hope.

It cannot corrode faith.

It cannot eat away peace.

It cannot destroy confidence.

It cannot kill friendship.

It cannot shut out memories.

It cannot silence courage.

It cannot invade the soul.

It cannot reduce eternal life.

It cannot quench the Spirit.

It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.

And the good news is that there is nothing that love cannot do. Love can change everything.

Love can transform sorrow into joy, despair into hope and death into life.

Love—unconditional, unreserved, unrelenting love—can transform six, tragic, heart-breaking years of marriage with cancer into six amazing, heart-fulfilling years of marital bliss.

Love can transform a funeral service into a service of celebration

Love can heal a broken world.

Love can bring down walls and break chains.

Love can cause hate, violence, racism and all kinds of bigotry to pass away and all of creation to be born again.

So, thank you for being here today. Because of the life of Dr. Trevor Hodge, because of what we are going to do in this world to remember and celebrate his life, there is hope for us all.

No Regrets: Remembering Charles Young

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Life. Those of us who are truly grateful for it, those of us who understand the sheer grace of it, grasp the gift of it, appreciate the miracle of it, hope to get the most out of it as we possibly can. Whether we live 90 years or 83 years, we want to squeeze as much joy out of this world as long as we are in this world.

Charles and Wanda Young were those kind of people.

Charles faithfully served this country in the US Army during World War II. When the war was over, he continued serving in Germany, helping persons get their lives back on track, helping others squeeze as much joy as they could out of it, despite having their lives displaced by war or having their lives interrupted as a prisoner of war.

When he returned home, he continued serving others as a member of the First Christian Church of Fort Smith and as a member of the Belle Pointe Lodge of Freemasons in Fort Smith. He loved working to raise funds for Shriners Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, serving as the Shrine Circus chairman. He also served children and youth here in Fort Smith, helping them to enjoy life through play and completion, as he coached and supported the Fort Smith Boys Club.

Charles also enjoyed playing himself. He loved hunting, fishing, skeet and trap shooting. He and his wife of 63 years, Wanda, were both Arkansas State Trap Shooting Champions for a number of years. The both of them also enjoyed playing golf.

These opportunities to enjoy life were afforded to him by his work ethic, starting many businesses throughout his career, retiring as president and owner of R.A. Young and Son Construction Equipment Company.

Now, on the surface, all of this sounds like a full and fulfilled life; all of this sounds as if Charles truly did squeeze all of the joy out of life that he could, especially as we consider how he also did all that he could to give others a chance to enjoy life. 

However, as I have heard many preachers say, when people reach the end of their lives, when they look back to make an assessment, look back to make a list of their regrets in life, there are several regrets that are never mentioned.

For example, at the end of life, no one ever says: “I regret that I did not spend more hours in the office  away from home.”

No one ever says: “I regret that I did not spend more time away from my family trapshooting, fishing, hunting or playing golf.”

And as proud as people usually are of their military service, preachers never hear people say: “I regret that I did not spend more years overseas away from my friends and family.”

No, the regret that most preachers hear is:

“I regret that I did not spend more time with my family.”

“If I had to do it all over again, I would have paid more attention to my children.”

“I wished I would have shared more of my life with my kids.”

“I regret that I did not teach my children more of the values that were instilled in me by my parents.”

“I wished I would have spent more time with my wife, especially when she became ill.”

This is why I believe the greatest line in Charles’ obituary, which is full of his attainments, pursuits and successes is this one:

“His family always came first in his life.”

Greater than his military achievements that we honor today in this National Cemetery, greater than his business accomplishments, perhaps even greater than his charitable generosity, was his devotion to his family. First and foremost in his life, and in the life of Wanda, whose obituary reads much like her husband’s as she had her own list of accolades, was family.

Their daughter Linda shared the following words with me:

We are grateful that both Mom and Dad shared their zest for life with us. They were both people with many varied talents and interests. Growing up with Mom and Dad was always an exciting adventure. We were constantly involved in interesting activities such as golf, skeet and trap shooting, and trail riding on motorcycles in the beautiful Ozark mountains, hunting, fishing, calf roping, heading and heeling.

A love for education, of reading and art was also important in our lives. Learning about new things, learning to do new things, accomplishing and mastering new activities was a constant in our lives. Life’s lessons were embedded in all the activities. Dad spent his life teaching us about the cornerstones of life that would guide us as adults.

These always involved pursuing excellence and competitions. Dad taught us that practice makes perfect. That meant lots and lots of practice at whatever we were learning.

They took us with them everywhere, and they involved us in everything.  Dad was the one who set the pace and it was rigorous.

Mom was always a good sport and jumped right in to join in the fun and learn right along with the kids! She ended up being an expert at whatever the activity. As the only girl, I am grateful that my mom set an example for me – ‘girls can do it all!’ With the right attitude and determination [I learned to always] go after your dreams!

We are grateful that Dad took time to be our mentor and a great role model.  We are grateful that dad spent lots of time with us teaching life’s lessons along the way.  My brother, Jim, reminded me that Dad had themes he worked on with us; he taught us to persevere – he taught us the meaning of integrity – honesty – and persistence – and to never judge the other man.

He taught us generosity for those less fortunate in life.

We are grateful that our mom was always home for us and that we were her sole focus in life besides our dad.  She shared her artistic talents with all of us. We all spent hours with Mom doing art projects, painting, ceramics, and other arts and craft activities. She always took us along when she volunteered at the Girl’s Club as an art teacher.

She was a perfect match for Dad in spirit and in energy. They shared 60 years together. When my mom became ill with Alzheimer’s, Dad took care of her at home. For six years, he devoted his life to caring for her and giving her the most quality of life possible as the terrible disease progressed.  Even when it was very, very hard he stepped up and worked harder at caring for her.

We are grateful that he showed us what true love and commitment is really about.

Life. Those of us who are truly grateful for it, those of us who understand the sheer grace of it, grasp the gift of it, appreciate the miracle of it, hope to get the most out of life as we possibly can. Whether we live 90 years or 83 years, we want to squeeze as much joy out this world as long as we are in this world.

Many people try to do that. However, I believe very few people can actually do it without regrets.

The good news is, according to what I have learned about Charles and Wanda through their children, I believe they may have done it: leave this life with no regrets.

And it is because of this good news, and because of their faithfulness to their God, to their church, to their communities, to this country, but especially to one another and their children, we, who are left behind to continue our lives, we also do not have any regrets this day. For we know that as they were faithful with the lives they were given by the miracle of creation, God has now been faithful to them by the power of the resurrection.

We come to this place with grateful hearts. Thanking God for eternal life in heaven, but also for eternity here on earth, as the Spirit of Charles and Wanda are still very much alive through their children and grandchildren.

Therefore, the final words from the Apostle Paul are most appropriate to conclude this eulogy, marking the end of lives well-lived.

2 Timothy 6

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Timothy 6:6-8).

 

Obituary

Charles Holt Young, 90, of Hot Springs passed away Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. He was born in Greenwood on Nov. 10, 1926, to Horace William and Lucille (Scales) Young. Mr. Young graduated from Kemper Military Academy in 1944 and went on to attend Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. He was a World War II veteran serving in the 3rd Army, First Calvary Division. Following the war, he remained in Nuremberg, Germany, as part of the Army of Occupation assigned to oversee reintegration of displaced persons and prisoners of war.

Mr. Young was a Mason and a member of the Belle Point Lodge in Fort Smith. He served as the Shrine Circus Chairman raising substantial funds in support of the Shriners Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. As a longtime volunteer and board member of the Fort Smith Boys Club, he enjoyed coaching and supporting the baseball program.

His interests included golf, reading, hunting, fishing, skeet and trap shooting, performance breeding of Angus cattle and thoroughbred horse racing. A keen competitor, he held state, regional and national trap and skeet shooting titles. He was the Arkansas State Trap Shooting Champion for a number of years and inducted into the Arkansas Trapshooting Hall of Fame in 1973. A successful businessman, Mr. Young started numerous businesses throughout his career. Prior to retirement, he was president and owner of R.A. Young and Son Construction Equipment Co.

His family always came first in his life. Loving survivors include his daughter, Linda Young of Little Rock; two sons, Charles William Young and wife Ranie of Dallas and James Franklin Young and wife Mary Ellen of Chicago; grandchildren, Charles and Patrick Murray, Dr. Virginia Young and husband Brad Geswein, Clayton and Madeline Young. He was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years, Wanda Louise Young; and his two sisters, Nancy Young and Billye Smreker.

A kind and generous man, Mr. Young will be greatly missed by all who knew him. Arrangements by Little Rock Funeral Home and Edwards Funeral Home in Fort Smith.

In lieu of flowers, please consider donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, www.michaeljfox.org.

Eternal Educator: Remembering Kaye Birkhead

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It is with gratitude and honor that I stand before you today to share a word of hope and good news for all of us who loved Kaye Birkhead.

For how wonderful is it to be able to speak words marking the end of one’s life that are evidence that one truly fulfilled their human vocation, their very purpose for which they created.

In the first story of creation, we read about this purpose. It is the purpose of every human being. It’s the first commandment of God to humankind:

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28)

And how do we do that? How do we become the people God has created us to be?

It is in the second creation story, that we read where God places the human in the garden, because to fulfill our purpose, we humans have to eat.

We are all going to have an opportunity to do this essential, primal thing together in just a few minutes, as we are all invited to gather in Disciples Hall, or what might be called, our church’s garden, to share a simple meal of Pintos and Cornbread, one of Kaye’s favorite dishes that her grandmother used to serve.

A side note here. I have sometimes been criticized for the funerals that I preach for making the person being remembered out to be a saint. Well, let me go ahead and state right here that Kaye was not perfect. Nope, as good as we think she was, she was a human being. For when Kaye’s mother would serve a meal that Kaye didn’t like when she was a little girl, I am told that Kaye would get under the table and cry until one of her uncles would go over to her grandmother’s house and come back with a bowl of beans and some left-over biscuits from breakfast.

Her grandmother’s food would comfort Kaye. It would dry her tears, and feed her heart.

Perhaps that is why Kaye loved coordinating countless meals, making certain everything was prepared just right, to comfort grieving families after the funeral or memorial services. Maybe she wanted to do what she could do to dry their tears and feed their hearts.

Back to the creation story:

Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human should be alone (Gen 2:18)

The very first thing that God said was not good in the creation was loneliness, so God created a partner for the human which made him exclaim: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” “At last, someone who gets me, understands me, and loves me.

To fulfill our purpose as human beings, the story of creation is explicit: we need one another. We need to understand the sanctity and the holiness and the grace that is in all human relationships.

It was very difficult visiting Kaye during these last couple of weeks of her life in palliative care, but what made it a little easier was knowing that Kaye was never alone. Kaye spent her last days on earth as she did all of her days, surrounded by her family and her friends, those with whom she shared a sacred relationship, those who got her, understood her, loved her, those who could relate to her so genuinely they affectionately called her “Muffin.” I never saw her in the hospital when Bruce, Todd, Zena, grandchildren, or others were not there with her. There is no doubt thate love that you share as a family is from God and of God.

Right before God creates a companion for the human, something else happens in this creation story that we can sometimes miss.

So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the human to see what the human would call them; and whatever the human called each living creature, that was its name. The human gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field (Gen 2:19-20).

After eating, the very first thing the human did in order fulfill their purpose on the earth was to name the mystery and majesty of God’s creation. To be the person God was calling them to be, the first thing the human needed to do was to name God’s world.

Do you know what we call that?  In a recent sermon, I heard the Rev. Charles Johnson from Texas say, “We call that ‘education.’”[i]

The naming of God’s world, naming its beauty and its mystery, naming its diversity and its majesty: this is education.

In order to fulfill the first commandment of God to humankind, in order to be fruitful and replenish the earth, before we can be the person God has created us to be, we first need education. We need to name the creation.

Valuing every child and every child’s passion, and believing that every child, not just those who can afford it, has a God-given, inalienable right fulfill their purpose, to live out the full potential of who God created them to be, Kaye began a career in public education in 1957, a career she would love until her retirement in 2000.

But because Kaye truly yearned for all children to fulfill their God-given purpose, no matter their circumstance in life, she came right out of retirement to work for the Fort Smith Adult Education Center. She loved this work.

I believe Kaye appreciated the words of our second President John Adams who said in 1785: “Let there be not one square mile in this land without a school in it.” With our forbearers, Kaye believed in equitable public education for all, and all means all. And that this was the way to build a great nation.

And I believe Kaye would want her new pastor to emphasize today that equal access to quality public education is not only one of the highest ideals of our country, it is the high, God-ordained, holy work, spelled out on the first pages of our Bible—Learning, studying, discovering, and naming the creation, is the first thing human beings were called to do.

But God’s creation is so wonderfully diverse, so mysteriously majestic, sometimes naming it with mere words simply will not do.

To name the mystery of this miracle we call life, sometimes we need to appeal to the arts. I believe this is why art, sewing, cooking, floristry, the theater, dramatic and musical expressions of life, were so important in Kaye’s life and will always be important in the life of her family.

Likewise, the gospel of Christ, the good news of God’s love and grace, is so extravagantly expansive, so radically revolutionary, naming it with mere words simply will not do.

This is why I believe Kaye will always be known in this city, as not only an educator, but also as a selfless servant. Kaye served her community through public education, her church, her PEO, the Fort Smith Little Theater, teaching through her service the good news of the Christ who came as a sacrificial servant for all.

I believe Kaye’s servitude indicates that the greatest thing that this educator ever learned in life was knowing who she was in the creation. For this, I believe, is the greatest education any of us can receive: Knowing who we are before God in God’s world.

This sacred, intimate and personal knowledge that God’s love enveloped her, God’s grace covered her, God’s presence surrounded her, is the only way I can explain Kaye’s miraculous disposition during these last difficult days. Kaye knew that the one who had always been so gracious to her in life was not going to let her down in death. As a parent herself, she knew that her heavenly parent was going to take care of her the same way she took care of her children, and so many of God’s children.

Therefore, in her final days, there was really nothing final about them. Kaye was miraculously more whole, more alive, more aware, and more hopeful, than the healthiest person any of us know. Even when she no longer possessed the strength to open her eyes, she still mustered the strength to smile and sometimes laugh, for as Kaye always taught us, “laughing makes everything better.”

I marveled how she continued to stay so engaged with the world, so interested in what was going on around her, always asking questions, asking me how I was doing and how things at the church were going. It amazed me how she continued to watch Jeopardy every weekday afternoon.

Maybe it was because Kaye wanted to keep learning. Even at the end of her life, she wanted to keep growing, keep discovering, keep expanding her mind, keep naming God’s beautiful world. Because she believed that God through life itself, always had something to teach her.

The problem with many people we know is that they have life all figured out. They have all of the answers. There is no room for growth and change. Their minds are made up and closed. There is no mystery. And when we think about it, these are the people we usually don’t like being around. They are nothing like Kaye.

Kaye taught us to never stop learning, to never close our minds. As long as we are awake in this world, we should never cease listening to what God has to teach us.

And the good news for all of us who loved Kaye Birkhead is that by the power of the resurrection, God is still using Kaye to teach us. From eternity, this great educator will instruct us for the rest of our lives to keep learning, to keep our minds and our hearts wide-open, to keep growing, to keep discovering, to keep changing.

Continue to learn to know who we are in God’s creation before our Creator. Learn to know how loved we are. Touch, taste and inhale the grace that is in it all. And then, learn to know how we are uniquely called to share this love and grace with others.

Therefore, perhaps the best way you can remember Kaye, thank God for Kaye, celebrate Kaye, is to read a book, visit the library, take a class, go to a play, attend a musical, stop and absorb the beauty of a flower, hold a baby, cook a meal for a loved one, love, laugh, share.

Soak in as much of life as you can. Never stop naming God’s creation. Continue to allow God to teach you how much God loves us—how deeply, how graciously, how eternally.

And then, with the knowledge of God’s expansive and everlasting love, reach out and read to a child. Tutor a student. Get your business to offer an internship. Ask your church to adopt a school. Pray for a teacher. Join a PTA. Donate school supplies. Fill a backpack.

And I believe that Kaye would always want us to remember that this is not only what she would want from us, but according to the first two stories of our Bible, this is what our Creator wants from all of us if we are to be the people God has created us to be.

___________________________

[i] Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, the keynote speech at the first Pastors for Oklahoma Kids meeting, January 24, 2017, First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

 


 

Kaye BirkheadIn Memory of Saundra Kaye Birkhead

January 3, 1939 – October 11, 2017

Obituary

Saundra “Kaye” Birkhead passed into the age of the eternal on October 11, 2017. She was born to Oza Butler Albert and Jack Albert on January 3, 1939 in White County, Arkansas. She and her brother, Jack Albert, grew up a part of a robust extended farming and mercantile family of which she was very proud. She earned a degree from then Arkansas State Teachers College, now UCA, and began teaching on an emergency teaching license in 1957. She married Bruce Birkhead in 1962 and together they raised two children, Zena Marshall and Todd Birkhead, in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Kaye was a charter member of the Carnall Elementary School teaching staff and after a brief time away from education, taught at Orr Elementary School until her retirement in 2000. Rather than “retire” however she went to work for the Fort Smith Adult Education Center where she became the Chief GED Examiner. She was dedicated to each of her many students through the years and instilled in them, and her own children and grandchildren, a love for learning. In addition to her teaching career, she volunteered at the Fort Smith Little Theater for many years and helped many directors costume shows including “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and the “Sanders Family” shows.

She is preceded in death by her mother and father; and son, Brett; her dear friend and sister-in-law, Barbara Arndt. She is survived by Bruce; her brother, Jack and his wife, Diane Albert; son, Todd and wife April Birkhead; daughter, Zena and husband Dan Marshall; her grandchildren, Katy and Grace Featherston, Claire Birkhead, Alex and Mitt Marshall and their families, Eleanor and Larry Underwood, Richard Arndt, nieces, nephews, and her cousins, along with many friends at First Christian Church (DOC) and PEO, Chapter AD, Fort Smith Adult Education Center, and The Fort Smith Little Theater.

Graveside services will be held at Mt. Salem Cemetery in Logan County at 11 a.m. on Saturday, October 14, 2017 under the direction of Edwards Funeral Home.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at 5 p.m. at First Christian Church (DOC), 3501 Rogers Avenue in Fort Smith.

Memorial contributions can be made for books for children who attend the Fort Smith Adult Education Childcare Center or First Christian Church, Fort Smith.

Hilda Duke: What She Taught Me About God

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I preached the following sermon entitled “Coincidence or Providence” on March 25, 2007 for the First Baptist Church of Farmville, NC. Hilda Duke, who passed away yesterday, was the inspiration for this sermon. I will always love her immensely. 

Isaiah 43:16-21

On Sunday morning, February 5, 2006, Hilda Duke left the worship service looking like she’d seen a ghost.  I asked, “What’s wrong, Hilda?”  She said, “You won’t believe it.  But today is the day my husband, Wilton, passed away eight years ago.  And every hymn that was sung this morning in worship was sung at his funeral service.”

Wilton died the year before I came to Farmville.  I had no idea when Wilton died, and I certainly did not know what was sung, if anything at his funeral.  “What a wonderful coincidence!” I thought to myself.

One morning a couple of weeks ago I was in the office here at church helping Patty with the bulletin.  After spending about a half hour with her, I went into my office to study for a little while.  About half way through my studying, Peggy Whitfield entered my mind.  I knew she was probably at the place that she had been for days—in the nursing home with her brother who was slowly passing away.

As much as I tried to continue studying, I just could not get Peggy off my mind.  Peggy, one of our most gifted deacons is so good at visiting patients and family members in the hospitals and nursing homes, and now here she was at the bedside of her dying brother.  I kept thinking about her and could no longer concentrate on my studies, so I got up and told Patty that I was going to drive out to the nursing home for a little while.

As soon as I walked into the room, I hugged Peggy who was sitting at a table near the door, and before I could speak to anyone else, Peggy’s niece who was at Jimmy’s bedside said, “Peggy, you might want to come over here.  His breathing has changed.”

I walked to the foot of the bed with Peggy and saw that Jimmy was taking his final breaths.

“Would you like me to say a prayer?”  I asked.

“Yes, please,” several responded.

I prayed briefly, asking God to be with and take care of Jimmy in death as God had been with and taken care of him in life.  When I said, “Amen,” Jimmy took his last breath.

And I thought to myself, “what a wonderful coincidence!”

Before I left the nursing home, Peggy hugged me goodbye and said, “Your timing could not have been more perfect.  The Lord certainly does work in mysterious ways.”

I drove back to the church thinking about what just happened.  I drove up Main Street, thinking and pondering, wrestling and doubting.

Was it just a mere coincidence that Peggy came to my mind while I was studying, or was it something else?  Should I say that “Peggy came to my mind” or would it be more accurate to say that “Peggy was brought to my mind?”

A mere coincidence?  Did her name just rise up, haphazardly and randomly, from the recesses of my conscience during that moment in my office?  Or was it brought to my consciousness from outside of my consciousness?

A year ago, was it just by mere happenstance that I selected the hymns from Wilton’s funeral service on the eighth anniversary of his passing?  Did those titles just come to me, randomly, accidently?

Or were they brought to me?

The dictionary defines “coincidence” as “an accidental sequence of events that appear to have a causal relationship.”  This is how, of course, the main way the modern world has taught us to think of our lives—as a random, pointless, series of accidents.

Therefore, any thought that may happen to come into my mind as I am sitting in my office is always exclusively coincidental, accidental, and random, never intentional, designed, purposeful, and gifted.  It was just happenstance that I showed up in the nursing home when I did.  I was not compelled to go or propelled to go by anything external.

In freshman biology class, this was taught to us as teleological fallacy.  The Greek word for “end,” or “purpose,” is telos.  Science does not engage in speculation about purposes and ends, only means.  And the means are always accidental.  The world in which we live is random, coincidental.

The professor tried to trick us on the exam.  Trick question: “Why did the giraffe develop a long neck?” And the professor probably expected that we dummies would answer something like, “The giraffe developed a long neck in order to reach the leaves in the top of the trees for food.

No, we had listened in class, studied our notes and read our textbook, so we answered, “The giraffe developed a long neck, not because of any plan or purpose, certainly not because of any plan or purpose, certainly not because of any divinely inspired program, but rather the end of a series of mutations, random changes that proved beneficial.”

Science has been very successful in carrying this sort of thinking a long and doing a lot of good with it. But right now, at this stage in human history, I’m wondering if a good deal of reality has been lost in this sort of thinking. I believe we would do well to listen again to these wonderful words from Isaiah.  “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”

Israel is in Babylonian exile, trapped, far from home, forlorn and without hope, except that God promises to make a new thing for them.  Here are words addressed to people who have no way out if there is not a God who not only care but also acts.  Their hope, our hope in life, in death, in life beyond death, is that our God lives and acts, creates and intervenes, intrudes and moves among us. Our hope is that our God speaks to our consciousness from without, puts thoughts into our minds, leads us and directs us in right paths for his name sake.

But this is not how we have been trained by the modern world.  We’ve been conditioned to admit that any strange, external sort of word is mere coincidence, a kind of random, accidental, meaningless glitch of the brain that means very little.

But what if it means everything?  What if these so called coincidental thoughts are some of the best thinking that we do?  What if all of these weird coincidences we experience in life are as close to reality, as close to what is really real in this world, as we human beings can get?

I believe we’ve got to break ourselves of the habit of dealing with things that happen to us, or visions that come our way, or words that come to our mind, by dismissing it as mere coincidence.  For those who are convinced that the Word has been made flesh, and the Son of God has intruded into the world, that God is always working in this world, creating and re-creating and resurrecting and transforming, there is nothing in this world that can be labeled “mere.”

For people with faith in the risen Christ, a miracle, the supernatural, is not something that momentarily intrudes among us into an otherwise natural world, but rather for us, it is all miracle and it all comes from the creative hand of God.  We look at trees blooming everywhere on this first weekend of spring in a completely different way.  It’s all supernatural.  It’s all extraordinary.

We pay attention to conversations, we listen to the reading of an ancient text, and we listen to the singing of the hymn, with the assumption that it is all potentially revelation, all the footsteps and handiwork of an intrusive God.

As Frederick Buechner says, “in the last analysis of all, all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.”

Our grandmother in the faith, Sarah, was one day straightening up her tent in the desert when these three people, complete strangers, show up.  Sarah extends hospitality to the strangers, welcomes them, and prepares a meal for them.

And after the satisfying meal, one of the strangers peaks and blesses Sarah and her husband Abraham, tells Sarah that she is going to have a baby that will be the beginning of a great people, a great family, Israel, a family that will bless all of the world’s families.  Suddenly, the text moves from describing these people as mere visitors, to describing them as the “Lord.”

In fact, later, early Christian preachers through these three strangers as embodying God—the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  When Paul later referred to this incident, he said that, “Some have entertained angels unaware.”

Now I know that, to the world, this is making a huge deal out of a meal for three ordinary visitors.  A simple meal, even eating with people that we don’t know, is a merely ordinary experience.

But having been encountered by the Christ, having experienced a God who is not distant and disinterested, we do not live in the ordinary and we don’t deal with people, with one another, with the world, as merely anything.  For us, with eyes of faith, it is never merely coincidental, accidental or happenstance.  It’s revelation.  It’s extraordinary.  It is a gift of God who does not leave us alone, who loves us enough to seek and to find and to reveal.

Our God keeps promising us, “Behold, I’m doing a new thing!” Can you see it?

Peggy Whitfield was absolutely right.  Our Lord works in mysterious ways.  And our Lord is here right now and he’s working all around us.

Can you see it?