Two Funerals, a Cold Rain and the Great Ledger

I cranked the thermostat up a notch. It was not freezing, the temperature was in the lower 40’s, but after several days of persistent rain, an unwelcome guest, the dampness, was starting to creep in. Our 1890 house has many charms, but energy efficiency is not one of them.

Mimsy and I set out for our final stroll of the night. Neither of us pleased to be out in the weather, but it had to be done. We walked down the sidewalk as the cars traveling up and down Elizabeth Avenue created a spray and swooshing sound unique to tires on wet roads.

Mimsy had her mind on the scents contained within the piles of damp leaves along our route, my mind was on two funerals confronting us this week. We humans have a habit of attributing deaths that happen close to major holidays as somehow more tragic than those happening on a date with nothing more important than Fire Prevention Safety Week on the calendar. It’s not true, but hey, that’s what we humans do.

As Mimsy was busy sniffing, I thought of the two people recently deceased. One, a former co-worker, a woman only slightly older than myself. She had the gift of selfless giving and attending the needs of others before herself.  She will be missed. The other person … well, I feel sorry for the minister asked to give the eulogy.

Funerals seem to come often these days. It goes with the territory, I suppose. As Christians we have the head knowledge that we are not saved by our works or inner goodness, but as the tendrils of dampness find a way to sneak into my house, thoughts of doubt and insecurity sneak into my mind. What have I done?  Have I made a difference? Have I contributed to the great ledger? Will I, in some small fashion, leave the world a better place? Why am I even here?

It’s a safe bet you will never see my portrait on the cover of Time magazine as Man of the Year or read the announcement that Poppy has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor I would kill for. (sorry, couldn’t resist)

There will never be any fanfare over any action of mine, angels will not suddenly appear, singing a heavenly chorus above my head. (this is for the best as it would scare the crap out of Mimsy and myself)

I am as far from a celebrity or public figure as is possible. My sphere of influence is limited to my family, co-workers, neighbors, the check-out people at the grocery store ( because I’m there every other day). If I am to make any sort of difference, to contribute to the great ledger, it is with these people. Fortunately they are just as ordinary, just as flawed as I am.

I would love to be a veritable cornucopia of the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control … but I am not that guy. My best hope is to let a little of God’s grace show through, maybe just a touch of patience as the lady in front of me at the checkout line slowly and thoroughly searches through her purse to find the pennies needed to pay for her purchase with exact change.

Poppy

 

 

Lillie Bell Goes Home

We walked with Lillie Bell as far as we could, but at the edge of the long gangplank she left us behind, walking toward the great ship alone.  I had hoped at some point she would turn and wave, but her gaze never varied and her step never faltered, she was resolute in her desire to reach the next destination.

The sun was breaking over the horizon. Brilliant shades of coral and gold defined the line between the sea and the sky. The darkness of the night fled before the piercing rays that announced a new day, a new beginning.

I shielded my eyes in an attempt to make out the details before me.  The crew that welcomed her aboard, back-lit by the rising sun, appeared to glow against the azure sky as if they had wings.

The morning breeze picked up as the sails began to unfurl. Even at this distance, I heard the snap as the canvas caught the wind, becoming taunt, straining to be on their way. The ship was ancient, but the workmanship was beyond compare. Each wood plank polished and tightly fitted against its brethren, The sails were as pure a white as I have seen. As the crew cast off the lines and the ship turned slowly toward the horizon, the stern swung around revealing the name, “ZION,” spelled out in letters of gold

Surrounded by family and friends, we exchanged hugs and smiles, unspoken was the sentiment … it was time. We watched as the ship grew smaller and smaller until it was just a white dot. When the vessel slipped over the horizon and out of our sight, we raised our hands triumphantly and cheered.

Lillie Bell’s journey had been long, her pilgrimage lasting 102 years. Through it all she had steadfastly followed her Savior. For 78 of those years she had walked alongside her other great love, Ray. She had never been without those who loved her, and she returned that love in even greater measure.

Though we could no longer see the ship, we knew it was headed for another port. There, a great multitude awaited her arrival, watching as the ship which had disappeared from our sight grew larger and larger in their field of vision.

The gangplank at the port Lillie Bell had embarked from was constructed of wood planks, rough and splintered with age, turned a weathered grey by the sun and salt spray. The gangplank the ship was turning into at this port was of white marble, gleaming under a cloudless sky. It led to a circular courtyard. In the center of the courtyard was an intricate design of three interlocked circles constructed of gem stones and defined on the outer edges by bands of gold.

On either side of the courtyard, halfway around it’s circumference, were a pair of sweeping stairs, also made of white marble. They lead to a balcony that overlooked the courtyard. Built into the wall behind the courtyard and below the balcony was an alcove containing a large marble statue of a lamb, its foreleg resting over a  slender gold cross  extending over its back.

A solitary figure stood on the balcony, his white robes gleaming under a light-source that had no definable origin. He rested his elbows on the balustrade, fingers locked together, faint scars visible on the back of each hand. Looking down at the assembled crowd on the courtyard  a smile crossed his face before he addressed his children. “Lillie Bell has fought a good fight, she has kept the faith. Today I called her home … it was time.”

Among the crowd were old friends and family. Saints who had toiled alongside Ray and Lillie Bell in the vineyard. The Morgans, the Chambers, the Boxes, the Wallaces, Roams and Yadons … too many to name, and of course members of the Boatman and Agnew families.

Standing slightly apart from the crowd was a tall man with dark wavy hair, a slight grin on his face. “It’s about time,” he said with a slow Texas drawl, “She was always running late for everything.” He laughed and started to walk toward the gangplank, “It’s about time.”

Poppy

Lillie Bell Agnew
December 25, 1915 – March 8, 2018

Funerals, Faith and Fog

The sun rose before Mrs. Poppy and myself. By the time we left Sikeston, Missouri the sun had been up an hour or more. We woke to a foggy landscape that would stay with us through most of the day. The fog was not so dense that it made driving dangerous. We had at least a half-mile of visibility down the road. At that point cars traveling in our direction, would abruptly disappear into the mist. On the opposite side of the highway, cars would suddenly appear as if emerging from an other-worldly portal.

Even knowing we were headed north, I could not locate the sun that bathed the landscape in a warm glow, softening the edges of everything it touched. The vista outside our windshield became an impressionistic painting as the fog settled into the valleys and low-lands that we passed, creating lakes and rivers of swirling grey mist.

I wrapped my fingers around a paper cup filled with hot coffee, courtesy of the motel we had stayed at the night before. It was better than expected for a complimentary cup of coffee, but mostly I appreciated its warmth.

The atmosphere outside the SUV fit the mood inside. Mrs. Poppy and I sat in a comfortable silence, each with our own introspective thoughts that required no conversation. The music of Leonard Cohen would have achieved the right level of melancholy for our frame of minds, but the situation required a level of purity that Leonard could not have provided. Perhaps a fugue by J.S. Bach would have been in order, as he slowly and mathematically created a musical world and then brought it crashing down, but that was not to be had, so we rolled on through the mist in silence.


We were returning home from a funeral. Funerals are always tough, but this one was particularly difficult. Dying is as much a part of life as being born. Intellectually  we know this, emotionally when it happens unexpectedly and at what we think is the wrong time, it’s a struggle.

This service was for a family friend, taken shortly after her 60th birthday and just a few weeks after her retirement. She had just started the next phase of life, devoting herself to her family, her art, her hobbies, and then unexpectedly in her sleep, she is gone. Her family and friends are left reeling and this huge question hangs over everyone’s head, … WHY?

I know there are people who think it’s wrong to question God. Personally, I think it’s a healthy thing to do. It is better to voice your concerns to God than to ignore him. He is not so fragile as to be wounded by our questions or diminished by our doubt. The Bible is littered with heroes of the faith, who have questioned God.

Every parent has experienced the questioning phase, where every other word from your child is, “why?” We do not disown our children for questioning, we understand this as a phase of learning. Neither does God disown his children for questioning.

Having said that, I have never received a direct answer when I question God and don’t know anyone who has. Instead I get the feeling that he’s saying, “Let’s continue this conversation as we walk along.”

Sometimes after a few miles and a few years, we look back and say, “Oh yeah, I get it now.”

Often though, we never get an answer and this is where faith enters the conversation. Faith enters because it is needed in times where there are tough questions but seemingly no answers.

Everyone understands faith is a virtue. How we come by that faith is a matter of debate. There are those of the belief that faith is something you make a decision to have, that if you concentrate hard enough, clench your jaw and are absolutely determined, than you will have faith. I have a suspicion that those who claim an absolute, unshakable faith are also proud of their humility.

I have a much more pessimistic view of myself and by extension, of humanity. I don’t see a lot of goodness naturally occurring within me. I’m not sure I want the type of faith that I can generate.

I believe faith, like grace, flows from God, measured out as we need it. Faith is not an anesthetic that numbs the pain that we are feeling, rather faith and its sibling, hope, walk with us, guiding us through the darkest times. Faith knows of paths that human logic can’t find.


We have driven an hour and the fog is still with us. I can’t see everything that lies ahead down the road. I can only see a short distance in front of me … but I can make the entire journey like this.

I have just enough faith to know that if I stay on this road, it will take me home.

Poppy

…………………………..

“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” – C.S. Lewis