This past Monday, my mother died. She was only ill for a short time, and, in the end, death came unexpectedly. A week and a half before she died, she asked me to do something very hard. She wanted me to officiate at her funeral. I didn’t feel that I could fulfill her wish, so in the end we compromised. My cousin, Harry, officiated, I preached the funeral sermon.
Writing that sermon was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, certainly the most difficult piece of writing. What came to the page is liberally fertilized with tears and it was only the last time I preached it (I actually practiced this one) that I got through the whole thing.
Twelve or fourteen minutes are not enough to fully summarize a life, but I hope the words that follow catch some of the essence of who she was, and the way she lived her life in the shadow of God’s grace.
It seems a little surreal to be here today, celebrating a life, saying farewell. It seems like in the midst of life’s busyness , even though we knew how serious things were, death snuck up on us, took us by surprise, shocked us with its finality, as we watched last breaths, and stillness come over a once vital and active woman.
It’s in this sorrow, this shock, that we turn to scripture for a word of comfort, a bit of hope, some light to carry us through the coming days.
The psalm we will spend a few moments with here today, Psalm 103, has a back story, a van Donkersgoed story. Hennie was a van Donkersgoed, came from a large , and maybe more so in recent years, close family.
One of their longstanding traditions is to gather in a Listowel area church on New Year ’s Day to celebrate together. In our branch of the family, we continue to call this gathering, Great Mammas Party, even though great gramma has been gone for nearly 10 years.
Every year, before lunch together, once everyone is seated, uncle Elbert rises, with his Bible in hand, as he did here today, and, while tubs of Kentucky Fried Chicken cool on the tables, reads Psalm 103. I’ve since learned that the proximity of fried chicken, and the promise of unlimited dessert to follow, caused many people to not hear the words he was reading, but maybe the words doen’t really need to be heard to make a difference in life, because it became a theme for lives, really, and for many of us, it was already the theme, reiterated at the beginning of each year.
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
By the time Jocelyn and I returned home from a long bike trip, Mom had already been transferred to London. I, deferring to pastor mode, asked if she would appreciate a little scripture reading,
“What about Psalm 23” I ask.
“Oh” she says, “I’ve been repeating that one over and over in my head for days”.
So instead, we read Psalm 103 together. I say together because she recited as I read, word for word, until she ran out of breath about verse 6, just after the psalmist says the Lord “satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s”
As she said those words, recited those verses written on her heart, she did so with conviction, a conviction that found its foundation in a life where hoping in God, looking for God working, blessing the Lord, was not something to put on Sunday morning, but a way of life, part of the air she breathed. It showed up throughout her life, right up to her very last hours here on this earth.
The psalmist, in Psalm 103 does a wonderful thing with words. You’ll notice that there is only one command in the psalm, only one demand for the reader to do anything, and that thing is to bless the Lord. Some versions translate the Hebrew word as praise rather than bless, but the wonderful thing is that the Lord does all the rest. All the rest of the verbs, the action words, are the work of the Lord. The forgiving, the healing, the redeeming, the knowing, and removing all carried out by the Lord. For sixteen verses the psalmist reiterates all of the things the Lord does only to end by reminding us to get on with the blessing and praising.
Because that is the way God works isn’t it. God, in our lives does all of the heavy lifting. We don’t always feel very comfortable with that, because we think that we should likely do something to earn our way into God’s favour, to earn our salvation. We feel uncomfortable when we get things for free, when we can’t pay our own way.
The Heidelberg catechism though tells us that instead of being uncomfortable in God’s graciousness we should find deep comfort in it when it asks, What is your only comfort, the only thing you can count on, the anchor in your storm, in both life and in death? If there is one piece of the catechism many of us can recite it is this answer this statement of faith.
That I am not my own,
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven;
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.
Do you see how the catechism echoes the psalm. God does all the work, all the bleeding and paying and setting free, all the watching and assuring, in fact, even the living for God we do is inspired, and motivated, through Christ’s Holy Spirit.
For the last number of years, mom and dad have attended this church, but changing denominations did not get them away from good catechism statements.
The Westminster Catechism is even more clear in the simplicity of its first question and answer. It’s way easier to memorize, but really, comes to much the same conclusion
What is the chief end of man? Its old language but really it asks what are we supposed to do, what is our purpose?
The catechism answers: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Again there are no demands for work here, no heavy responsibilities, no demands of payment for the gift of grace. The paying is done and all that is left to do is the praising, the glorifying, the blessing.
What a freeing experience! The experience of finding ourselves in God’s love, living in a way where the only responsibility in front of us, the only work to be done, is praising God, watching God at work and joining in with that work, not as slaves compelled to labour, but as children, working because we love the Father, want to please the Father, want to be close to the Father and what the Father finds important.
It’s with this assurance that we can face death with hope, where we can face an uncertain future with a sense of calm, where we can say, in the Critical Care Trauma Unit of a big hospital, “Bless the Lord O my soul.” . The battle over sin and death has been won not by our strength or our work but by the work of our great God. In Jesus Christ, our future, mom’s future is secure.
She would want you to know that today. She knew it and if there was one gift she tried to give, one thing she would like to pass on to her children, her grand children, and her great grand children it would be the great sense of peace and security that comes from belonging to a faithful savior, Jesus Christ.
Many of you know that mom kept a diary. She had kept it for many years. Her last post was just a week ago. At one time they were the little three year diaries with a little lock and key and about four short lines to record the goings on of the day. In more recent years the diary had become bigger, and the entries a little longer.
It’s not the sort of diary that would need to be strictly private. There are no long outpourings of introspection, or soul searching, no record of offenses taken, or personal opinions. Most of it is straight facts. The weather, comings and goings of friends and family, health reports, the progress of the garden, or, in earlier years the number of bales of hay gathered in.
But even in the factual postings you can find a calm assurance, “a bless the lord o my soul” attitude that many of us could do well to strive toward, that she worked to foster in those around her.
Monday May 25 relates: Nice day in the morning, lots of rain in the afternoon. I went to Lucknow to see Dr Shubat. He tells me I have ovarian cancer. Period…. That’s all for that entry.
Tuesday May 26: Nice day. I transplanted the last of the marigolds.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.