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God With Us (In Our Grief)

God

(I conducted a funeral today for one of the most pleasant woman I have ever met.  Her name is Betty Thornburg and I hope you will forgive the indulgence as I share the homily I shared this morning at her memorial service.)

Isaiah 7:14  Therefore the Lord himself will give youa sign: The virginwill conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.  

Matthew 1:23  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”(which means “God with us”).

God With Us (In Our Grief)

Why do I read scriptures associated with Christmas at a funeral?

Well, there are a couple of reasons.

 

One reason is that Christmas day was the last time I saw Betty.  We were getting ready for worship and as I looked out and saw Betty Thornburg and Lyla Hicks in the sanctuary of a Baptist church – and they were dancing.

 

Betty was one who was prone to dance.  Everyone who knows her knows she loved dancing, eating, singing, celebrating, partying, and checking out what she considered to be a good looking man.

 

So, Betty and Lila were dancing in church on Christmas Day, but what better a day to dance and sing than Christmas.  It was a happy morning.  We had gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose was given the title Immanuel – which means God with us.  It was the kind of day that should even get a Baptist to dancing (or at least tapping their toes rhythmically.)

 

So I quoted these versus because they reminded me of watching Betty celebrate Christmas with her family, friends, and church.

 

The other reason I have read versus of scripture is that I know a little bit about the human condition.

 

Betty’s passing came during the holiday season that spans between Thanksgiving and the New Year.  In fact, she died on New Year’s Eve.  As we enter 2012 there are going to be many significant days for the Thornburg family and their friends that will be celebrated without Betty’s presence.

 

There will be birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and holidays.  There will be all sorts of special celebrations unique to the Thornburg family.  Then will come another Thanksgiving, but Betty will not be at the dinner table.  Then Christmas, but Betty will not be dancing in the sanctuary.  Then will come New Years Eve and we will remember (especially her family) that Betty is not with us.

 

What I know about the human condition tells me that over the next year (and beyond) there will be many difficult days.  There will come a time when everyone else has seemed to move on and the busy schedule of life has resumed, but some of you will find yourself sitting is a silent corner with a tear streaming down your cheek that nobody understands.

 

When that time comes, I want you to remember these two verses.  I want you to remember the titled given to Christ.  This is a good word not just for Christmas Day, but for every day.

 

Isaiah predicted that the child would be called Immanuel which means “God is with us.”

 

The Gospel of Matthew affirms this titled as a fitting description for the person of Christ.  “God is with us.”

 

To use this title – Immanuel – is to communicate that no matter what the circumstances of our lives; no matter what it happening in our world – God comes to us and is with us.
Immanuel means that God came and dwelt among us, so that we might feel and know that He was near us and was one of us.

 

Immanuel means that God is with us in all situations: pain, unemployment, divorce,  poverty, illness, surgery, cancer, grief, sorrow, and yes, even death.

 

Immanuel means that in such situations God surrounds us with His love.

 

Earlier Ryan read and spoke about Psalm 23.  In that passage is says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”  That’s Immanuel.

 

There are others…

 

In Isaiah 46:4 we read, “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”  That’s Immanuel!

Matthew 28:20 says, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” That’s Immanuel.

Romans 8:38-39 says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s Immanuel.

 

Betty knew what it was like to experience Immanuel’s presence in her life.

 

For a while Betty would visit me and tell me how old she felt.  “I’m 73 years old,” she would say, “and I am feeling every bit of it.”

 

Then one Sunday she we were standing in the Welcome Center at the church.  She’d had a birthday the week before.  “I was 74 just this past week and I am feeling every bit of it.”

 

Just then, Eloise Ridgeway, who had recently turned 100, walked by and I said, “Eloise is old enough to have change your diaper and fed you a bottle in the nursery.”  Betty got a great big smile on her face and said, “Point taken!”

 

The following week Betty came to me and said, “You know, pastor, I am 74 years old and I feel like dancing.”

 

That was Betty’s default position, by the way.  She was always young at heart.  You can be that way when you know Immanuel.

 

Shortly after Jeana and I got settled, Betty handed me a video tape of an old variety show that members of the church had for the “fun of it” back about 20 years ago or so.  Betty had a special solo in that production, complete with feather-boa and flirtation with every man in the audience.

 

Betty loved and was 100% loyal to her husband Ken for the full 55 years of marriage.   In fact, when asked how he proposed marriage, Ken said he that he didn’t, Betty did.

 

Still, Betty liked to flirt.  She told me a couple years back that her body may have felt 73, but her eye could see much younger.

 

Personally, I think her eyes were failing her a bit, too.  She would come to my office and tell me how good looking she thought I was.  If it were winter, she would tell me how hot I looked in my black overcoat.  I never did mind any of this one bit because I don’t get that sort of attention at home.

 

Betty’s heart was young – a gift folks get when they realize that Immanuel is near – that God is with them.

 

Earlier I spoke of Betty’s love for dancing.  I had the honor of having Betty as my dance partner once at a “Sociables” gathering, complete with Big-Band “swing music.”

 

But Betty didn’t need a dance partner to dance.  Heck, she didn’t even need music.  How many of you ever saw Betty singing and dancing all by herself, for no apparent motivation other than that she was happy?  That was Betty.  She was young at heart and enjoyed love to its fullest.  That’s a gift of Immanuel.

 

A few weeks ago, I bumped into Ken and Betty in the parking lot at Sam’s.  While Ken was loading groceries into the trunk, Betty took out a box containing a new pair of shoes she had just purchased.  They were bold, beautiful, and just a tad bit flamboyant, just like Betty.  “Look at my new shoes,” she said with pride.

 

She’s wearing those shoes today, by the way, along with a very attractive party dress.  Even in death, Betty is decked out, wearing dancing shoes, and ready for a celebration.  And today, because of Immanuel, she gets a party better than anything she has known before.

 

Betty was a remarkable person who lived a great life.  She lived with an ongoing awareness that Immanuel near – that God was with her.  Because of that, she became a gift of God’s presence to many who are gathered here today.

 

She loved her family with a passion.

 

She spoke often of her grandchildren.  She loved you all and was very proud of who she saw you becoming.  There was hardly a week that would go by when she didn’t have a joyful story to tell about one of you.

 

Eric, she would tell me all kinds of stories about the trouble you would get in as a young person.  I use to think that she might have been embellishing these stories a bit – then I talked with other people who knew you as a teenager, and I realized she was holding back.

 

Still, she was proud of the man, father, and husband you had become – and the family that you and Phong were becoming.

 

Becky, believe it or not, there is a lot of your mother in you.  I know you find that hard to believe, since she was so outgoing and you lean more toward the reserved side.  But I am not talking about that sort of stuff.  I am talking about things like loyalty to family, leadership, and sensitivity to the needs of others.  You share those qualities of your mother. She was very proud of you and overjoyed when you found Mark.

 

Ken:  Betty loved you with all her heart.  She always spoke about you with love and affection.  You were the love of her life and I know that she was as much a blessing to you and you have been to her.  My last long conversation with Betty was about the morning the two of you skipped church to cuddle and watch a movie.

 

Then there are all of the rest of you.

 

Some of you were taught by Betty in Sunday School, and you remember her love like it was just yesterday.

 

She was a joyful presence in the choir – and through the choir a blessing to worship.

 

You were all – we are all – made much better aware of the nearness of God (that God is with us) because we have known Betty Thornburg.

 

I know that the last few months or so have been a little difficult.  Betty’s memory was declining.  For me, that meant that sometimes she would come into my office twice on Sunday to hug me and tell me she loved me.  For family, however, there were struggles the rest of us did not readily see.

 

One day a few months back, Betty visited my office.  Usually very happy, this day she was a bit more pensive.

 

She sat down and said, “Do you have a minute?”

 

I came from behind my desk and sat next to her.

 

“I know my mind is failing me!” she said.

 

Then she told me about take her parent in to live with her.  She told me about the dementia, memory loss, and altzheimers that her mother experienced in the final days of her life.

 

“My family wants me to see a doctor, but I don’t want to go.  I am so afraid I am going to lose my mind.  Pastor, I do not want to be a burden on my family.”

 

I had no words of pastoral wisdom.  I sat with her for a few moments, holding her hand.  Then I stood up and hugged her neck.

 

“You look good today.  Is that a new dress?  I love you, you know that, don’t you?”

 

“I love you too,” she said.

 

Saturday morning, when I received the call that Betty had passed.  I sat and wept for a few moments.

 

Then two thoughts crossed my mind.  The first, I’ll admit, was a bit selfish.  I thought to myself, “Whose going to come into my office and tell me how good looking I am?  I certainly hope it’s not one of them Snead boys!”

 

Then I thought a bit more:  You know, Betty hoped and prayed that she would not be a long-term burden on her family.  Maybe this is God answering her prayer.”

 

On New Year’s Eve, early in the morning, Betty took her last breath and went peacefully into God’s presence.  She went very peacefully.  Hands together, on her cheek, look of contentment.  She was never along in those moments.  Immanuel was with her.

 

The title “Immanuel” means that God is no stranger to our sufferings, that God understands our pain, that God (in Christ) is familiar with all our struggles.

 

So our hope on days like this is to know that God in Christ sympathize with our loss.  God understands our grief and pain.  God is familiar with sorrow.  And He is with us through it all.

 

One of the most appropriate questions to ask at a funeral is this:

Where is God when we grieve over the loss of a loved one?

 

Where is God when we deal with all the pain, sorrow, and suffering of our lives?

 

Where is God when we feel overwhelmed by the current circumstances of our world – circumstances that sometimes seem to be getting worse with each passing day?

 

Where is God in a world of inflation, recession, deflation, depression, mortgage meltdowns, multiple wars, and ongoing acts of terrorism?

 

Where is God when we are in the funeral home, standing near a casket, or standing at graveside?

 

These questions are not new.  They were the kinds of questions that Jews in Palestine ask during the days of Joseph and Mary.  The people of Israel were poor, struggling, and victimized by Roman occupation.  Their days were hard and often wondered where God was in the mix of events that made up their lives.

 

Then the answer came.   An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said that his fiancé, still a Virgin, was going to have a baby.

 

Yet this was not just any baby.  This birth would be the fulfillment of an 800-year-old prophecy that said that a Messiah would be born who would be called Immanuel – a name that means “God with us”.

 

Jesus showing up on earth so long ago answers the question we ask on days like this and times like these.  Where is God when we stand near the grave of a loved one, feeling a bit helpless and hopeless?  The birth of Jesus tells us where God is.  God is with us.  Immanuel is right beside us.

That’s what I want you to remember when you are sitting in that lonely place, in the middle of the grief and melancholy that will come as you remember again that Betty is not with you.  I want you to remember who is near.  Immanuel is near.  God is with you.

Why do I read scriptures associated with Christmas at a funeral?

Well, there are a couple of reasons.

One reason is that Christmas day was the last time I saw Betty.  We were getting ready for worship and as I looked out and saw Betty Thornburg and Lyla Hicks in the sanctuary of a Baptist church – and they were dancing.

Betty was one who was prone to dance.  Everyone who knows her knows she loved dancing, eating, singing, celebrating, partying, and checking out what she considered to be a good looking man.

So, Betty and Lila were dancing in church on Christmas Day, but what better a day to dance and sing than Christmas.  It was a happy morning.  We had gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose was given the title Immanuel – which means God with us.  It was the kind of day that should even get a Baptist to dancing (or at least tapping their toes rhythmically.)

So I quoted these versus because they reminded me of watching Betty celebrate Christmas with her family, friends, and church.

The other reason I have read versus of scripture is that I know a little bit about the human condition.

Betty’s passing came during the holiday season that spans between Thanksgiving and the New Year.  In fact, she died on New Year’s Eve.  As we enter 2012 there are going to be many significant days for the Thornburg family and their friends that will be celebrated without Betty’s presence.

There will be birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and holidays.  There will be all sorts of special celebrations unique to the Thornburg family.  Then will come another Thanksgiving, but Betty will not be at the dinner table.  Then Christmas, but Betty will not be dancing in the sanctuary.  Then will come New Years Eve and we will remember (especially her family) that Betty is not with us.

What I know about the human condition tells me that over the next year (and beyond) there will be many difficult days.  There will come a time when everyone else has seemed to move on and the busy schedule of life has resumed, but some of you will find yourself sitting is a silent corner with a tear streaming down your cheek that nobody understands.

When that time comes, I want you to remember these two verses.  I want you to remember the titled given to Christ.  This is a good word not just for Christmas Day, but for every day.

Isaiah predicted that the child would be called Immanuel which means “God is with us.”

The Gospel of Matthew affirms this titled as a fitting description for the person of Christ.  “God is with us.”

To use this title – Immanuel – is to communicate that no matter what the circumstances of our lives; no matter what it happening in our world – God comes to us and is with us.

Immanuel means that God came and dwelt among us, so that we might feel and know that He was near us and was one of us.

Immanuel means that God is with us in all situations: pain, unemployment, divorce,  poverty, illness, surgery, cancer, grief, sorrow, and yes, even death.

Immanuel means that in such situations God surrounds us with His love.

Earlier Ryan read and spoke about Psalm 23.  In that passage is says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”  That’s Immanuel.

There are others…

In Isaiah 46:4 we read, “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”  That’s Immanuel!

Matthew 28:20 says, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” That’s Immanuel.

Romans 8:38-39 says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s Immanuel.

Betty knew what it was like to experience Immanuel’s presence in her life.

For a while Betty would visit me and tell me how old she felt.  “I’m 73 years old,” she would say, “and I am feeling every bit of it.”

Then one Sunday she we were standing in the Welcome Center at the church.  She’d had a birthday the week before.  “I was 74 just this past week and I am feeling every bit of it.”

Just then, Eloise Ridgeway, who had recently turned 100, walked by and I said, “Eloise is old enough to have change your diaper and fed you a bottle in the nursery.”  Betty got a great big smile on her face and said, “Point taken!”

The following week Betty came to me and said, “You know, pastor, I am 74 years old and I feel like dancing.”

That was Betty’s default position, by the way.  She was always young at heart.  You can be that way when you know Immanuel.

Shortly after Jeana and I got settled, Betty handed me a video tape of an old variety show that members of the church had for the “fun of it” back about 20 years ago or so.  Betty had a special solo in that production, complete with feather-boa and flirtation with every man in the audience.

Betty loved and was 100% loyal to her husband Ken for the full 55 years of marriage.   In fact, when asked how he proposed marriage, Ken said he that he didn’t, Betty did.

Still, Betty liked to flirt.  She told me a couple years back that her body may have felt 73, but her eye could see much younger.

Personally, I think her eyes were failing her a bit, too.  She would come to my office and tell me how good looking she thought I was.  If it were winter, she would tell me how hot I looked in my black overcoat.  I never did mind any of this one bit because I don’t get that sort of attention at home.

Betty’s heart was young – a gift folks get when they realize that Immanuel is near – that God is with them.

Earlier I spoke of Betty’s love for dancing.  I had the honor of having Betty as my dance partner once at a “Sociables” gathering, complete with Big-Band “swing music.”

But Betty didn’t need a dance partner to dance.  Heck, she didn’t even need music.  How many of you ever saw Betty singing and dancing all by herself, for no apparent motivation other than that she was happy?  That was Betty.  She was young at heart and enjoyed love to its fullest.  That’s a gift of Immanuel.

A few weeks ago, I bumped into Ken and Betty in the parking lot at Sam’s.  While Ken was loading groceries into the trunk, Betty took out a box containing a new pair of shoes she had just purchased.  They were bold, beautiful, and just a tad bit flamboyant, just like Betty.  “Look at my new shoes,” she said with pride.

She’s wearing those shoes today, by the way, along with a very attractive party dress.  Even in death, Betty is decked out, wearing dancing shoes, and ready for a celebration.  And today, because of Immanuel, she gets a party better than anything she has known before.

Betty was a remarkable person who lived a great life.  She lived with an ongoing awareness that Immanuel near – that God was with her.  Because of that, she became a gift of God’s presence to many who are gathered here today.

She loved her family with a passion.

She spoke often of her grandchildren.  She loved you all and was very proud of who she saw you becoming.  There was hardly a week that would go by when she didn’t have a joyful story to tell about one of you.

Eric, she would tell me all kinds of stories about the trouble you would get in as a young person.  I use to think that she might have been embellishing these stories a bit – then I talked with other people who knew you as a teenager, and I realized she was holding back.

Still, she was proud of the man, father, and husband you had become – and the family that you and Phong were becoming.

Becky, believe it or not, there is a lot of your mother in you.  I know you find that hard to believe, since she was so outgoing and you lean more toward the reserved side.  But I am not talking about that sort of stuff.  I am talking about things like loyalty to family, leadership, and sensitivity to the needs of others.  You share those qualities of your mother. She was very proud of you and overjoyed when you found Mark.

Ken:  Betty loved you with all her heart.  She always spoke about you with love and affection.  You were the love of her life and I know that she was as much a blessing to you and you have been to her.  My last long conversation with Betty was about the morning the two of you skipped church to cuddle and watch a movie.

Then there are all of the rest of you.

Some of you were taught by Betty in Sunday School, and you remember her love like it was just yesterday.

She was a joyful presence in the choir – and through the choir a blessing to worship.

You were all – we are all – made much better aware of the nearness of God (that God is with us) because we have known Betty Thornburg.

I know that the last few months or so have been a little difficult.  Betty’s memory was declining.  For me, that meant that sometimes she would come into my office twice on Sunday to hug me and tell me she loved me.  For family, however, there were struggles the rest of us did not readily see.

One day a few months back, Betty visited my office.  Usually very happy, this day she was a bit more pensive.

She sat down and said, “Do you have a minute?”

I came from behind my desk and sat next to her.

“I know my mind is failing me!” she said.

Then she told me about take her parent in to live with her.  She told me about the dementia, memory loss, and altzheimers that her mother experienced in the final days of her life.

“My family wants me to see a doctor, but I don’t want to go.  I am so afraid I am going to lose my mind.  Pastor, I do not want to be a burden on my family.”

I had no words of pastoral wisdom.  I sat with her for a few moments, holding her hand.  Then I stood up and hugged her neck.

“You look good today.  Is that a new dress?  I love you, you know that, don’t you?”

“I love you too,” she said.

Saturday morning, when I received the call that Betty had passed.  I sat and wept for a few moments.

Then two thoughts crossed my mind.  The first, I’ll admit, was a bit selfish.  I thought to myself, “Whose going to come into my office and tell me how good looking I am?  I certainly hope it’s not one of them Snead boys!”

Then I thought a bit more:  You know, Betty hoped and prayed that she would not be a long-term burden on her family.  Maybe this is God answering her prayer.”

On New Year’s Eve, early in the morning, Betty took her last breath and went peacefully into God’s presence.  She went very peacefully.  Hands together, on her cheek, look of contentment.  She was never along in those moments.  Immanuel was with her.

The title “Immanuel” means that God is no stranger to our sufferings, that God understands our pain, that God (in Christ) is familiar with all our struggles.

So our hope on days like this is to know that God in Christ sympathize with our loss.  God understands our grief and pain.  God is familiar with sorrow.  And He is with us through it all.

One of the most appropriate questions to ask at a funeral is this:

Where is God when we grieve over the loss of a loved one?

Where is God when we deal with all the pain, sorrow, and suffering of our lives?

Where is God when we feel overwhelmed by the current circumstances of our world – circumstances that sometimes seem to be getting worse with each passing day?

Where is God in a world of inflation, recession, deflation, depression, mortgage meltdowns, multiple wars, and ongoing acts of terrorism?

Where is God when we are in the funeral home, standing near a casket, or standing at graveside?

These questions are not new.  They were the kinds of questions that Jews in Palestine ask during the days of Joseph and Mary.  The people of Israel were poor, struggling, and victimized by Roman occupation.  Their days were hard and often wondered where God was in the mix of events that made up their lives.

Then the answer came.   An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said that his fiancé, still a Virgin, was going to have a baby.

Yet this was not just any baby.  This birth would be the fulfillment of an 800-year-old prophecy that said that a Messiah would be born who would be called Immanuel – a name that means “God with us”.

Jesus showing up on earth so long ago answers the question we ask on days like this and times like these.  Where is God when we stand near the grave of a loved one, feeling a bit helpless and hopeless?  The birth of Jesus tells us where God is.  God is with us.  Immanuel is right beside us.

That’s what I want you to remember when you are sitting in that lonely place, in the middle of the grief and melancholy that will come as you remember again that Betty is not with you.  I want you to remember who is near.  Immanuel is near.  God is with you.

God

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