Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An Indelible Influence

Bruce and Amelia Gulley

As many know, the past year has brought multiple deaths in our congregation and community, and among our family and friends. The loss of the aunt and uncle who contributed greatly to the first fourteen years of my upbringing, and who continued to be an exemplary and loving presence until very recently, are among the most profound losses I have experienced. I was privileged, though, to share musically (in a duet with my sister) and homiletically (that means I preached the sermon) at my aunt’s funeral and graveside services last Friday in West Union, Ohio. Here is a close approximation of what I said at the funeral.

Ephesians 2:8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” This sentence address the very heart of the Christian faith. It also addresses what I believe to be the most common misconception that I face in my own life and as a preacher and teacher of God’s word. Do I trust in what Jesus Christ has done on my behalf as the only grounds on which I may claim a relationship with God and, with that relationship, eternal life? Or do I “hedge my bets,” making sure I’m a good person, doing good things, hanging out with good people…just in case He grades on a curve, or there’s a checklist I need to complete, or—like those jokes about Peter at the Pearly Gates—I’m going to need to justify my right to enter into heaven when this life is done.
As a young pastor…in fact, while I was still at Bible College—I remember the conversation taking place by phone from my dorm room, actually—my Aunt Meadie said something I had heard her say many times before. I don’t remember what it was that my Uncle Bruce had done. Either some kindness to a neighbor, or some volunteer service in the community (it may have been the time he replaced the cabinets in the church kitchen). But she said, as she had before, “That Brucie sure is a good man. Y’know, if Brucie ain’t going to heaven, there ain’t nobody going!” I remember objecting. I asserted that the basis for a restored relationship with our Creator God and the means for attaining eternal life were only through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ in His life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and intercession.
It would come up again, dozens of times over the past thirty years or so. She’d tell me something my uncle had done, and finish with “Y’know, if Brucie ain’t going to heaven, there ain’t nobody going!” I’d start to say something about being saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, and she’d interrupt: “Yes, I know. We’re really only going because of what Jesus did for us. But you have to admit, your Uncle Bruce is a good man.”
I wouldn’t argue that with her.
Meeker Funeral Home, West Union, Ohio
Nor would I argue a number of other assertions she made. I never argued with her that if “it’s good to the last drop,” then it stands to reason that “that drop’s good, too.” I wouldn’t argue that it’s insufficient to love someone “a bushel and a peck,” but that you should love them “a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” I never argued that, regarding the one time she spanked me, it made a much more profound impression upon her than it did me. (She mentioned it often, but I really don’t remember it happening.) And I would never argue that since I wouldn’t “call and reverse the charges,” she was going to tell me, whenever I called, “Hang up and I’ll call you right back so you don’t have to pay for this call.” And then, at the end of the conversation, she’d say again, “Next call and reverse the charges.” I never did.
All that and so much more meant that on those few occasions when she was the one to call me first, I couldn’t argue with her reasons. But I’ll say more about that in a moment.
First, I want to finish that sentence we started earlier. For those of us who grew up in Sunday School, and those of us who have desperately tried to catch up, we know that Ephesians 2:8-9 is one of our most important memory verses. But I see the sentence continuing through verse ten.
Ephesians 2:8-10 “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. [And now, verse 10:] For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” If that sentence ended with “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” then it would sound like God has this big farm with lots of chores, and so He recruits and adopts us because He needs to get some things done. But what I understand from the idea that God prepared these good works “so that we would walk in them,” is that He didn’t build us to get the chores done, but put the kinds of chores in front of us, along with the experiences, and the relationships that would shape us into who we were created to be. Not just bearers of His image and likeness in some general sense. But as that’s being restored in us through Christ, we’re also intended to find, to fulfill, and to find our fulfillment in becoming all we were created to be: our specific, unique, divine life purpose.
But that also means that we sometimes face circumstances that none of us would willingly choose. And if you know Meadie and Bruce at all, you know they faced lots of those. I was in elementary school the first time we got the call that my Uncle Bruce was in the hospital, and might not pull through the heart surgery. Then there were cancers, and strokes, and more heart issues, and lung problems, and broken hips, and more. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the realities of being separated for most of four years immediately after getting married, not to mention all that Uncle Bruce experienced in the South Pacific during World War II. If they’d been asked in advance, I think that none of us would have argued with them if they said, “No, thank you” to many of those circumstances.
Now, we know that our relationship with God and our eternal life comes by grace through faith. And yet, what we truly believe is seen more clearly in what we do, not just in our words. There’s a short poem that I’d like to read for you. It sums this up for me pretty well.
“When that which I say
        isn’t that which I do,
I’d ask you to pray
        that I’d see which is true.
For it’s what I obey
        that brings faith to view,
and the only clear way
        I could show it to you.”
Adams County Court House, West Union, Ohio
What that means for me in this context, is that the worries of a young Bible College student, pastor, and aspiring theologian about his aunt’s faith in Christ, or her dependence upon “being a good person”—well, I did worry that Aunt Meadie knew the right words to say in order to make her theologically-correct nephew feel better. And yet, over time, I came to believe that my Aunt Meadie believed that our Redeemer lives. And here’s why.
Those few times that she was the one to call me? It was because she believed that God answers prayer. And if you paid attention to how the two of them got to be ninety-two years old, there appears to be strong reason to believe the same. God does answer prayer, and He did answer prayer—in many ways, many times. Sometimes simply, in little things, but also in circumstances we could never have imagined ending well. Sometimes through human means, and sometimes utterly miraculously.
I believe that my aunt believed that our Redeemer lives. And my Aunt Meadie’s beliefs shaped how she lived her life, and in turn her life has shaped mine, and all of ours who were blessed to know her. That’s how it’s supposed to work. That’s why we gather together not just for family reunions at funerals, but week after week, as members of Christ’s body, as brothers and sisters in the family of God, so we can see what each other needs, and so we can share what God is doing in each of our lives. But it is also a big part of why we do funerals, memorial services, and gravesides.
Let me read us II Corinthians 1:3-4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
We gather at funerals and memorial services and gravesides to share that comfort and peace. And the best way that happens is through reminiscence. It’s helpful to hear yourself say aloud the things that are true about your relationship with Meadie, and the reality of having lost her. Whether you share that openly with all of us here, or later with just another person or two, you’re also helping them to receive that comfort and peace from knowing more and more of the life she lived, and what that loss means to us.
Wilson Children's Home, West Union, Ohio
Now, just a word of explanation, though. Some of us would like to share some memories, but the thought of speaking in front of any group of people is so petrifying that it would be impossible. That’s okay. Even if it’s not in front of anybody else, though. Give it a try. Speak aloud what you know to be true about your relationship and your loss. Others of us would like to say something here, but the reality of our overwhelming emotions would make it impossible to coherently string together words into sentences. That’s okay, too. There will be plenty of time to share with one another following the graveside. You’re all invited to join us for dinner at the West Union Christian Union Church. But for those who would like to and are able to, this is your opportunity to share some of those memories.

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