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.

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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?

Can’t Celebrate Easter Without a Carrying a Cross: Remembering Mary Magdalene Feightner

Mary-Feightner-1492072139Here in the mournful darkness of this Saturday vigil, still in the shadows of Good Friday, we gather together with bated breath.

For Easter is coming! New life is being born! Resurrection morning is dawning! Something wonderful has been lost, but something magnificent is being gained.

However, I believe it is very important for us to realize on this Holy Saturday, that before we can experience new life, before we can celebrate resurrection, before we can sing alleluias, someone needed to pick up and carry a cross.

And the sad thing is that very few of Jesus’ disciples understand this. They don’t understand it today, and they didn’t understand it 2000 years ago.

Although Jesus continually taught that to gain life, we must be willing to lose our lives, that Easter would not happen without some self-denial, resurrection would not come without some self-expenditure, new life would not be born without some sacrifice, and the light of Sunday morning cannot dawn without the darkness of Good Friday, when the time came for the disciples to follow Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross, most all of them very selfishly fled to save their lives. One would even betray Jesus. Another would deny that he even knew Jesus. Nearly all would desert him. In spite of Jesus’ continual call to pick up a cross and follow him, most of the disciples turned their backs on him in his darkest hours.

However, there were a few disciples who got it. There were a few who were willing to carry a cross, to live and to love selflessly and sacrificially. There were a few who faithfully followed Jesus all the way to Golgotha.

Although the intrinsic sexism of this world’s history has caused the majority of people to overlook these faithful disciples, all four gospel writers did not.

In Luke 8 we read these words: Afterward [Jesus] journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women…Mary, called Magdalene… Joanna…Susanna, and many others…”

And on Good Friday, when none of the male disciples could be found, in Mark 15 we read: “There were also some women looking on…among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, Joses, and Salome.

In Matthew 27 we read: Gathered at the foot of the cross: “among them was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

In John 19:25 we read where all the male disciples fled, “But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

The problem with Christianity today is that there are too few Mary Magdalenes in the church who understand that authentic faith, true discipleship, involves a cross. There are too many Christians in our world who believe they can have Easter Sunday without Good Friday, who believe they can experience new life without death to self, who believe they can sing alleluias without sacrifice.

What this world needs, what this community needs, what the church needs more than anything are more disciples like Mary Magdalene and Mary Magdalene Feightner.

Like the Mary Magalene before her, Mary Magdalene Feightner understood that when Jesus called people to be his disciples, Jesus was always quite clear that there would be a cross involved, a cross that they would voluntarily need to pick up and carry.

I will never forget the last time I spoke with Mary. It was here, in this place, just this past Sunday. After the service was over and the congregation was dismissed, I was finishing a conversation with some people down front here who were asking about joining our church. I looked up and saw Mary walking down this aisle. I met her right here to greet her. I said, “It is so great to see you Mary.” And it was so good to see her. For each time I saw her she was always beautiful, stunning really, dressed to the nines, and always wearing a tremendous, welcoming smile.

Mary responded not in a manner people usually respond to such a greeting with “It is good to see you too!“ but rather “How is it going with that Air Force Class Central Christian Church adopted?”

I said, “It is going great! We had a good time trap shooting with them!”

And instead of replying, “Great, glad to hear it!” not allowing me to rest on any laurels, she replied: “Well, what’s the next event you have planned for them?”

Like Mary Magdalene, Mary Magdalene Feightner understood that to find true life is to lose one’s life, to truly live to truly deny one’s self, to always put the needs of others ahead of one’s own needs, to love and to welcome and to accept as Christ loves, welcomes and accepts.

It is no secret that Mary made it her mission for nearly the last thirty years of her life to give all that she had to welcome Air Force pilots and their families into our community.

It was obvious that Mary learned from her own personal experience, as she compassionately and empathetically understood from how difficult life could be for enlisted service men and women having to move and make a new home in a new community every few years. She knew the hardship on families: the time the kids get settled in school, make new friends, it’s time to move and start all over.

This is why Mary made Vance Air Force Base her base. They were here pilots, her families. She didn’t invite businesses or organizations or churches like ours to adopt these pilots or to do anything that she was not willing to do herself.

And she never did it for the recognition, for any reward, and certainly not to have the foyer of the auditorium named in her honor—the foyer, the first place pilots enter when they come to Vance, and the last place they leave after they earn their wings.

The night of the naming ceremony, her sons Ray and Mark will never forget having to tell Mary that they were going to the base, because Governor Mary Fallin was speaking, just so their mother would get dressed up and go.

Although Mary earned much recognition, Mary Magdalene Feightner did not volunteer her time for any award, any accolade, I believe she did it because she understood to find one’s life, one must first lose one’s life, as her work for the base was purely selfless, always tireless, and truly sacrificial.

It has been said by many who are associated with Vance: “Mary didn’t know she was 81 years old.” Because even during the most fragile part of her life, she selflessly gave all that she had. For example: staying out on the 103-degree tarmac for the Thunderbirds last summer until she passed out, sacrificing her personal well-being.

This was just Mary. No matter what Mary did, she gave her all and always put others first, whether as a banker in a man’s world working her way up from a teller to a loan officer to a Vice President, as a substitute teacher in the Enid public school system, as a Grace-Care Volunteer helping the elderly with basic needs, as the Secretary-Treasurer of the Northwest Oklahoma Banker Association, as a successful fund-raiser for the YMCA, the American Cancer Society, the March of Dimes, the United Way, or as Secret Shopper for Subway and Pizza Hut.

She did it because as a genuine disciple of Jesus, when it came to loving others, she didn’t mind that a cross might be involved. For Mary, people were worth the sacrifice. Thus, you could often find Mary in Enid wherever you find people. Whether she was picking up side gigs peddling Straight Talk phones at Wal-Mart or Kobalt tools at Lowes, she just wanted to where the people were, because she genuinely loved people!

She loved others, perhaps especially the Vance Air Force family with the same love that she had for her own family. By a living example she taught her sons a staunch work ethic, the importance of networking and social skills, and yet how to be a good listener. But, perhaps most importantly, she taught them how to accept, welcome, and love people.

Mark’s wife Diane will always cherish the way she used to welcome her and Mark into her home while they were in college. She said no matter what time of night it was when they arrived, she could always count on Mary being there to greet them at the front door.

Ray’s wife Kim and Diane testify, although somewhat reluctantly, of Mary’s unwavering devotion to her family, as according to Mary, Ray and Mark simply can do no wrong.

And each of her grandkids, Zachary and Kylie, Mason, Morgan and Madison can attest, at Gurnie’s house there were never any rules. Three scoops of ice cream? Who says you can’t have four?

I think it is interesting that Mary Magdalene is remembered and mentioned by name by the gospel writers more than any other apostle. And perhaps more than any other Partner in the Sky in Enid, Mary Magdalene Feightner will perhaps be most remembered by our community.

However, her great legacy is not why we are gathered here this afternoon in a Christian church. And her many contributions to this community is not why it is so appropriate that we have gathered here on this Holy Saturday, between the darkness of Good Friday and the light of Easter Sunday.

For tomorrow morning, Christians all over the world will gather and read or hear the following scriptures.

Some will hear the words Mark 15:47: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where Jesus was laid.”

Matthew 28:1 reads: “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.”

Mark 16:1 reads: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.”

John 20:1 reads: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.”

Out of all of Jesus’ disciples it was Mary Magdalene who not only sacrificially followed Jesus all the way to the foot cross, but she followed him all the way to the grave.

I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Mary Magdalene Feightner was here in this place to worship Jesus last Sunday morning. I don’t believe it was happenstance that she walked down this aisle on her last Sunday on earth, with her mind and heart not on herself, but on others. Like the Mary Magdalene before her, Mary Magdalene Feightner followed Jesus to the very end.

Because tomorrow Christians all over the world will read and hear those wonderful words that we are all anticipating on this Holy Saturday. From Mark 16:9 we read: “Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene…”

We are gathered here in this place, appropriately on this Saturday between Good Friday and Easter to celebrate someone who, because of her faithful discipleship, because she voluntarily carried a cross, because she sacrificed and poured herself out to this community, because she selflessly followed her Lord all the way to the end, Mary Magdalene Feightner has now experienced the good news of Easter in a way that we can only imagine.

And this Easter, out of all the disciples that have gathered here this day, “He, the risen Lord and Savior of the world, first appeared to Mary Magdalene Feightner.”

In John 20:18 with we these most hopeful words: Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

Yes, she most certainly has. Thanks be to God.

A Living Prayer of Thanksgiving: Remembering Margaret Lambke

Margaret Lambke

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.”

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 the simple prayer, “thank you,” indicates that one understands that all of life is a wonderful, free gift of God’s amazing grace.

I have said before that I believe there 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 “good” people. They act as if they have somehow earned their life, done something to deserve their life. They walk around with this air that the world owes them something. And they grow bitter and even hostile if life doesn’t go their way. After all, they deserve better.

And because they feel as if they have earned it, their lives are usually self-absorbed. Selfishly, they do only what they want to do, even if that means doing nothing at all.

Then there are those like Margaret Lambke 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 who we generally call “good” people.

Filled with gratitude and joy, they live their lives abundantly, enthusiastically, lovingly. Every moment—whether that moment may seem extraordinary or ordinary, miraculous or mundane—every moment, because it is gift, because it is grace, is relished, appreciated and even celebrated.

It is not hard to understand how people like Margaret make the best parents. Margaret absolutely cherished being a mother, and later a grandmother, and great grandmother.

Debbie and Conie, this is because, for your mother, you two, and later your families, all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, were gifts of God’s amazing grace, all unearned, undeserved. And she got it.

This is why she remembered, looked forward to, and loved to celebrate every birthday, every anniversary or every life event in your families.

I loved that you will always remember her many voicemails. I think you told me that you could receive over a dozen from her in one day.

“Hi Hon, it’s me, I don’t need anything. Just calling to check on you.”

I believe Margaret called you and left those voicemails as a way of saying: “Thank you.” Thank you for being you. Thank you for being my family. And she called each time her heart was suddenly filled, overflowing with gratitude for you. This is why she called twelve or sixteen times a day!

I believe this immense gratitude which flooded her soul was the exuberant energy behind everything that she did.

There’s no telling how many times she heard someone say to her: “Mar Mar, please sit down. Mar Mar, please rest a while.”

But like the energizer batteries a little pink bunny, the gratitude that overflowed inside of her compelled her to keep going and going and going.

Gratitude is what propelled her to immediately step up and raise her hand whenever anyone asked for a volunteer. Gratitude is how she managed a gift store, helped Jim with bookkeeping in his pharmacy, served as president of PEO, volunteered with mobile meals, played some tenacious tennis, planted and maintained beautiful gardens, made homemade candies and baked her famous Mar Mar bread. Gratitude is what compelled her, no matter how busy she was at the store or with her volunteer work, to always be there for her family. Gratitude propelled her to get in her car and drive to Colorado when she learned Debbie was a little homesick to to drive to the school to give a ride to Conie and the rest of the cheerleaders if they needed one. And gratitude was the reason that no matter how busy she was, she was always a leading candidate for “Mom of the Year.”

Everything she did, every project she undertook, every holiday decoration she created, every Easter egg hunt she hosted, every extra goodie or appetizer she prepared, every Sunday school class she taught, every breath she took, was a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the gift of her life.

“Mar Mar, please sit down!” she would often hear. But the immense gratitude she possessed for Jim and Debbie and Conie, her friends and family, drove her to keep at it, keep working, keep volunteering, keep cooking, keep decorating, keep loving, and keep praying with all that she had that simple but beautiful prayer: “Thank you.”

I am certain this is why it has been so especially painful to watch Margaret these last few years since she suffered a broken hip and the subsequent unsuccessful surgeries. To witness this one who never missed a beat, never slowed down, and never sat down, has been very difficult, to say the least.

And now to think that this one who was so full of life, abundant, exuberant, tenacious, is no longer living with us, well, it can be almost too much to bare.

Conie and Debbie told me that one of their mother’s favorite scriptures was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

It is easy for me to understand why this passage of scripture was special to Margaret. For there is such amazing grace revealed in these beautiful words.

God gave, God gave. Do you hear it? Do you hear the gift? Do you hear the grace? God gave God’s only son, why? For the world earned this gift? For the world deserved this gift? No, for God so loved the world!

So that everyone who believes in this gift, believes in this grace, so that everyone who truly gets it, so that everyone who truly understands that if the only prayer that you every pray in your lifetime is “Thank you” that is enough, so that everyone whose entire life is a prayer of gratitude, they will never perish but have eternal life.

Eternal life. Life without ceasing. Life forever. For people who fail to get it, who fail to appreciate the gift of temporal life on this earth, this is not good news. However, for people like Margaret, for people who truly get it and appreciate it and celebrate it, that life itself is grace, for people who have lived life fully and abundantly and tenaciously and enthusiastically, then this is the best news of all!

And I believe this good news can bring much comfort and peace to those of us who are grieving today.

But I also believe that Margaret taught us that we can find even some more comfort this day.

For you see, Margaret herself was a gift. Margaret was grace. This world didn’t earn her, nor deserve her. We didn’t earn or deserve 8 minutes or 8 days or 8 years, and we got 88 years. Jim you got all but 20 of those years. 68 years of marriage. That is grace.

Knowing Margaret, I believe she is eternally grateful for that. And I believe she has taught us to be eternally grateful to that.

Garth Brooks sings a song entitled “The Dance.” One line of the song goes: “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to miss the dance.” Our grief today only means that we have received and lost something wonderful. The only way to never grieve is to have never received or appreciated that gift. But as Margaret taught us with her life, to never appreciate it, to never get it, is to never truly live. As the song goes, the only way to miss the pain of loss is to miss the whole dance of life.

So Jim, Conie and Debbie, as I told you last week, every time you remember your mother and shed a tear, be grateful for those tears. Because those tears only mean that you have been graced by God. Those tears only mean, that you like your wife and your mother, also get it.

And because you get that you have been graced by God with the gift of Margaret, because we all get it, may we live out our remaining days on this earth as Margaret lived all of her days, by being a living prayer of thanksgiving.

A Nurse’s Prayer: Remembering Marianna Powell

Marianna Powell

I’m certain that many people have contacted the Powell family since Sunday to let them know that they were in their prayers.

Prayer: it is a wonderful gift of God’s grace. To know that others, some from great distances, from all over the country, are speaking to God on our behalf, asking God to bring us healing and comfort, can bring us a peace that is truly beyond our understanding.

For the good news is that we believe that God not only hears our prayers, listens to our prayers, but we believe God does all that God can do, gives all that God can give, to always answer our prayers.

This is why I loved Kerry’s response when I asked him and his brother Randy: “What was the most important thing that your mother taught you?”

Without hesitation, he said, “She taught us how to pray.”

Immediately, Randy nodded in affirmation.

I said, “What do you mean?”

“Oh. she would work and work with us to help us remember the and recite the words of the Lord’s Prayer,” he said. “Prayer was important to her. She believed in prayer. Before meals, before bed, she taught us to always pray.”

We talked a little more about prayer, but it wasn’t long, nor hard to understand, how prayer was the perfect segue to begin talking about her life, especially how she loved her vocation as a registered nurse.

As Randy and his wife Kandi, and Kerry and his wife Maria, who is also a nurse, talked about how important nursing was to Marianna, I began thinking about my grandmother who, like Marianna, was also born on April 19, but one year later in 1927; and, like Marianna, was also a registered nurse.

I will never forget my Nana talking about how she enjoyed nursing. She would often speak of what she believed to be “the healing power of personal touch,” the importance of “up close and personal” contact with patients.

And whenever I was sick or not feeling well, I always felt better when Mama would have Nana come over to check on me. I always felt better when Nana would come close to me, gently place the back of her hand on my forehead to check for a fever, placing her hands around my cheeks and neck to check for swelling.

Yes, as I said, there are many people praying for the Powell family today, some from great distances. They have sent cards, made phone calls, or reached out electronically with emails or social media, all pledging the Powell family their sincere prayers. Prayer is a wonderful gift of God’s grace. The Powell family appreciates prayer. Marianna taught them to believe in prayer.

But, then there are others (and I am speaking of you) who have gathered here in this place this morning. I am speaking of your who, as they they say, have put some feet on your prayers. You have come to be close this family in their grief. You have come to lay your hands on them, to touch them with an empathetic handshake or a loving embrace.

And they will forever be grateful for your presence here today. They will be grateful that you are not only here and near to them on this day, but grateful for the way that you will always remind them of their mother, grandmother and sister, for the way that you will always remind them of this this one with the heart of a nurse who loved them and loved others and prayed for so many, not from a distance, but up close and very personally.

I shared with the family the story of one of my first visits with Marianna. She was in the dining hall of the nursing home eating dinner. I pulled up a chair and sat beside her. At first, perhaps due to the strokes that she had suffered, she seemed to be a little distant, aloof.  I was on her left, unsure that she recognized my presence. She was sitting up, but slumping a little bit to the right, away from me.

However, when I leaned over and touched her arm, telling her that I was her pastor from Central Christian Church, she immediately turned to make eye contact with me and smiled. And I will never forget what happened next.

With strength that I did not know she possessed, she sat up and started leaning her head towards me.

The caregiver who was feeding her said: “She wants to kiss you!”

Surprised, but pleasantly so, I leaned in, turned my cheek towards her as she gave me what has to be one of the sweetest kisses I have ever received!

She loved her church and this one who represented her church so much, she prayed for her church in such a way that she could not remain distant, aloof. With the heart of a nurse still beating inside of her, she wanted to demonstrate her love, up close and personally. With every bit of strength that she could muster, with all that she had, a pure and powerful love compelled her to sit up and lean forward, until she could come close enough to me to offer me a prayer through her touch, through a beautiful kiss on the cheek.

Marianna taught her children how to pray with words. But, perhaps, more importantly, she also taught them how to pray with her life, with all that she had.

I believe the Apostle Paul aptly describes Marianna’s life when he wrote that we should “pray without ceasing.” That is, we should live a life of prayer. We should live our lives as if we are always with the Holy One.

It was this prayerful life that Randy and Kerry said taught them the Christian values of love, kindness and respect. However, they were both quick to point out: “Now we are not saying that we have always conveyed to others these values or lived out these values like our mother! We are just saying that because of our mother, and because of what she taught us with her life, we have at least been blessed with the wonderful opportunity live those values.”

We then talked about her love for God’s entire creation, especially for her beloved horses. They will never forget the time they took her to say goodbye to one of her horses. As you can imagine, Marianna did not say not say goodbye with a simple wave through the car window. She got as close as she could possibly get to her horse, so the horse could feel her touch and know her love.

This is why I thought it was rather interesting that one of the memories that Randy and Kerry said they will always cherish was their mother reading them the Christmas story from Luke’s gospel every Christmas. They then talked about how important it was to them to sit at their mother’s bedside this past Christmas and read it to her:

         In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  (Luke 2:8-14)

I find this interesting because the story of Christmas is essentially a story of a God who loved this world so much that God could not remain distant, aloof. God did not merely say to the heavenly host: “Let us pray for the creation. Let us pray for humanity.”

And of course, that in itself would have been enough. Because we believe in prayer. Marianna taught us to believe in prayer.

The writer to the Hebrews assures us that

[Christ] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” The writer is saying that Jesus lives to make intercession for us. In other words, Jesus lives today to pray for us (Hebrews 7:25).

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans writes:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that the very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

If we ever worry that no one is praying for us, the Apostle Paul says that we can stop worrying. If no one earth is praying for us, Jesus certainly is. Jesus is our High Priest. He is our intercessor. He is our advocate. Christ lives today to pray for us. Even when we don’t know how to pray for others or for ourselves, even when we cannot find the words to pray, Paul says that the Spirit of God intercedes for us with “sighs too deep for words.”

Yes, if all God did for us was pray for us, even from a distance, that would be enough.

However, the love of God, the love of God that was revealed to us through Marianna Powell, and through Christ Jesus himself, is so great, so pure, and so powerful, that there was no way in heaven that God could remain distant, aloof.

God’s love for us compelled God to summon all the strength God could muster, to summon all that God had to give. Love compelled God to sit up in the heavens, and lean towards the earth, until God could come close enough to us to offer us a prayer through the “up close and personal” touch of the Divine, through a baby—Christ the Good Lord, the Good Shepherd, the Good Teacher, the Good Nurse—lying in a manger.

This is how we who are grieving today can truly be filled with a peace beyond understanding. People are not only praying for us from a distance. People are indeed here, in this room, with us. And God is not praying for us from some aloof heavenly place. God is indeed Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”

God is here with us as God is with Marianna, loving her, touching her, embracing her, now and forevermore.

I want to close my remarks thanking God for Marianna’s love for us and for the special way that she revealed God’s love for us with these beautiful words by Allison Chambers Coxsey, entitled: A Nurse’s Prayer.

Give me strength and wisdom,

When others need my touch;

A soothing word to speak to them,

Their hearts yearn for so much.

Give me joy and laughter,

To lift a weary soul;

Pour in me compassion,

To make the broken whole.

Give me gentle, healing hands,

For those left in my care;

A blessing to those who need me,

This is a Nurse’s prayer.

Don’t Mess with Barbara: Remembering Barbara Newton

barbara-newton
Visiting with Barbara one week before her funeral service.

Eulogy delivered for Barbara J Newton Friday, December 16, 2016

The first chapter of our Bible teaches us that in the beginning “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

Canadian Theology professor Douglas John Hall wrote that the “image of God” is not necessarily something we human beings have or possess, but more of something that we are created and called to do and to be. Imago Dei is not a noun. Imago Dei is a verb.

During our relatively short time on this earth, we are called to do what we can where we can to image God, to reflect God, to mirror God. That’s why we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

And perhaps this is part of the reason that as a pastor and a preacher I have come to the conclusion that the only aspects of a person’s life that should be included in a person’s eulogy are those aspects of a person’s life that mirrors who or God is and how our God acts in the world.

Because of this, and unfortunately, because of the way some people live their lives on this earth, sometimes writing words of eulogy can be one of the most difficult tasks of a minister.

However, I have discovered that for most mothers, especially mothers like Barbara Newton, writing a Christian eulogy comes fairly easy.

For throughout the scriptures, God is oftentimes described as a mother.

In Deuteronomy 32:18 we read:

  You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God is portrayed as the mother of Israel. It is God who gave birth to the nation and loves Israel as a mother loves her child.

In the New Testament, it is obvious that Jesus understands this maternal love as he uses birth imagery to explain the gift of salvation, the gift of new life, abundant and eternal. Jesus told Nicodemus that if he wanted to truly experience life, he must be born anew, born from above.

And throughout the Church, baptismal waters have always been symbolic of the waters of the birthing process. The God that is portrayed throughout scripture is continually in labor. Always creating, recreating, working all things together for the good. Always giving life, abundant and eternal.

Fig, Kelly, and Chad, there is no doubt that part of the reason Barbara was such a wonderful human being was the way Barbara uniquely mirrored the motherly love of our heavenly parent. Her love was divine.

Now, I know what some of her immediate family are thinking: “Preacher, I don’t know about that. Mama loved us, but sometimes mama perhaps loved us to a fault.”

“Mama loved us so much, that if we were ever wronged or hurt by another, Mama was not the type to just let that go. The perfect title of her Eulogy might be: ‘Don’t…Mess with Barbara.’

So preacher, I am not so sure that I would describe her love as ‘divine love.’”

However, this is precisely how the holy scriptures describe it.

The prophets Hosea and Isaiah proclaimed a God, when it came to loving God’s children, you better not…mess with.

Hosea 13:8 reads:

I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs…  

In other words, thus saith the Lord, if anyone harms my children, if anything is done that causes pain and heartache to the ones that I love the most, you better believe that I am not letting that go!”

Isaiah 42:14 reads:

For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.

Sound like anyone you know? And here is the good news for all of us who are grieving today.

Today, we are hurting. Today we are in pain. For death has wronged us. Barbara was too young and too good to suffer as I have seen her suffer since I have been her pastor.

And the good news is that our maternal God loves us so that God is not going let that go.

One day, Jesus and his followers encounter a funeral procession while traveling through the town of Nain.

He watches as a casket and a grieving family go by.

But because Jesus is God incarnate, the very image of our God, because Jesus loves with a divine, motherly love, Jesus can’t let it go.

The scriptures tell us that when he encounters this scene, he was moved with compassion. More specifically, he was moved very deeply.  The Greek word used here is a visceral verb. It means that Jesus was moved from deep within his inner bowels. Jesus has a visceral, gut wrenching reaction to that funeral procession. Jesus had this reaction, because Jesus loved. Some would say that he “loved to a fault.”

And Jesus’ deep compassion was for something more than the deceased. Jesus’ compassion was also for the living. Jesus recognized the tragedy of death.  Jesus recognized the pain and heart ache that this death had caused. Jesus recognized that it was not the will of God for any of God’s children to suffer like this. And because of his great love, Jesus is not going to let it go.

With great love and compassion, Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the casket and speaks to the one within it, “I say to you, get up!”  And then, listen to these wonderful words, “When the dead arose, Jesus ‘gave him back to his family.’” Isn’t that beautiful?  This young one’s life was restored, but so were the lives of the family.

Thus, Jesus demonstrates what our God is all about. God is and has always been about life. God is and has always been about bringing life, new life, abundant life, eternal life to God’s people.  In fact, giving life is the first, most important work that God does. For in the beginning, in the Genesis chapter one, we read that God breathed life into humanity.

Therefore, we have the certain hope that when Barbara breathed her last breath on this earth, God did not that go, but was there to breathe new, eternal life into her. And it is this hope that should also breathe new life and breathe peace into the lives of those of us who are grieving this day.

And we can rest assured that the divine motherly love of our God is not going to let our pain go today.

In Isaiah 66:12-13 we read:

For thus says the Lord; I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, an dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

The Psalmist declares:

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

And in Luke chapter 13, we read these beautiful words of Jesus:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem…  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…!

In Revelation 21 we read:

See, the home of God is among mortals, He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he 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.

Paul Smith, a pastor from Kansas City says, that here in the last book of the Bible, in John’s picture of eternal life, “We see God’s maternal presence doing something that almost every society understands as a mother’s delight.”  Someone once told me that there is nothing in the world that can wipe away tears better than a mother’s blouse, when she holds you tightly in her arms.

What a wonderful and hopeful joy to know that Barbara breathed her last breath on this earth…only to breathe her next breath in the arms of God, wiping away any tears that she may have shed. And God is also here to hold us, wiping away our tears.

God is not going to just let our tears go!

This is the hope for all of us who grieve this day. We look forward to the day when we, like Barbara, will be held in God’s arms, but until that day comes, we can find comfort in God’s church that has been commissioned with the mission of sharing the motherly love of God with all people. The good news is that God has graced each of us with friends and family, who like Barbara emulate our motherly God to care for us, especially when we are hurting.

And God, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is also here. God’s not letting our pain go. God is right here to wipe away every tear from our eyes. Until death is no more. Until mourning, crying and pain are no more.