On Death and Resurrection: Thoughts, Reflections, and a Sermon for the funeral of my Great Aunt Lois

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What Is Success? – by Bessie A. Stanley:

“To laugh often and much;
 to win the respect of the intelligent people 
and the affection of children;
 to earn the appreciation of honest critics 
and endure the betrayal of false friends; 
to appreciate beauty;
 to find the best in others;
 to leave the world a bit better 
whether by a healthy child,
 a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; 
to know that one life has breathed easier
 because you lived here.
 This is to have succeeded.”

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This Tuesday was a bitter-sweet day.  I officiated my very first funeral… for my dear, sweet, fun-loving great-Aunt Lois… my “3rd grandma.”

Bitter… Dealing with death is never easy.  And it’s especially not easy when it’s someone you love and you will miss… someone whose positive outlook on life and joyful laughter were incredibly contagious… someone who has truly found joy in every aspect of life and has lived it to her fullest… someone who was independent and strong and – though she never married nor gave birth to children – she loved and embraced her nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews, and even great-great nieces and nephews as her very own…

And it’s not easy to maintain composure as you stand in front of your family – of whom are grieving – and pray that you can at least speak a little hope in the midst of such a painful loss and be able to somehow capture in words the incredible person she was to all of us… What are words when a life was so fully lived?

Sweet… When I offered to officiate her service, everyone kept asking me if I really was sure I wanted to…  if it would be too much to deal with.  But I confidently responded “yes” – because I was sure… To get the opportunity to listen to my family and Lois’ friends talk about what they remembered and loved most about her made my heart smile… To hear about how full of life she was, how much she made an impact on people, and how she made everyone around her feel special… To remember how sweet and fun she continued to be in her final days – and to recall the incredibly strong, independent, and adventurous woman she was before her memory began to fail her… To be surrounded by my amazing family whom I don’t get to see even close to enough and to laugh and to cry together over a woman who connected and brought us all together during her life and now continues to connect and bring us all together in her death… To be able to officiate my first funeral only a few weeks after my ordination for a woman who taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be… including a pastor.

This was not only a healing process for me… but it was a gift.  Maybe – as my second cousin, Linnea, suggested – it was a gift from Lois.

So I will take this bitter-sweet gift and cherish it always… and while I’m at it: maybe I’ll make myself a bitter-sweet scotch old fashioned in Aunt Lois’ honor.  Cheers to you, Aunt Lois!  Cheers to a life fully lived!

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“You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…In one of the stars I shall be living.  In one of them I shall be laughing.  And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.  And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me.  You will always be my friend.  You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure…And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky!  Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’  And they will think you are crazy.  It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh…”   – Excerpt from “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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The sermon I preached at Aunt Lois’ funeral:

Acts 9:36-42:

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

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When I was trying to decide what Scripture text I was going to preach on this morning, I was struck by a passage in Acts 9 that talks about a woman named Tabitha.  Now we don’t know much about Tabitha.  Actually, this passage in Acts is the only place she is mentioned in the entire Bible.  And all we are told about her, is this incident we see here in Acts 9 – after she has died.  And yet, as we read this passage, we can come to understand her character and how much she meant to the people she encountered during her life.

What we see in our text for today is that Tabitha was a special woman who was a widow (which – in the first century – meant that either her husband died or she never actually got married.) And Tabitha had a very special ministry for a community of other widows: a special ministry that was extremely necessary.  Since women had no inheritance rights and were property of men at that time, if they never married and their fathers cut them off financially or their husbands passed away, they would lose all their identity, their possessions, and their sense of belonging, and they would often be abused or taken advantage of.  For this reason, the widows in a port town called Joppa were in need of someone to provide for them… And here is where Tabitha comes in.

Our text for today suggests that Tabitha – the only woman in the entire Bible who was referred to as a disciple – was sort of this provider for a community of widows.  In this passage, we see that Tabitha was devoted to good works and charity, and she made tunics and other pieces of clothing by hand and had given them to the widows.  These articles of clothing would have been very valuable in the first century, and it would have taken an incredible amount of time for Tabitha to make each item.  And, yet, she sacrificed her time and money to make these pieces of clothing.  She saw the needs of these widows, and out of love and compassion, she did whatever she could to provide for them.

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As we can see, Tabitha was an incredible caregiver for this community.  And my guess is that she knew and loved each one of the widows dearly – like they were her own sisters, nieces, or possibly even grandchildren.  Not only that, but Tabitha was a leader. She was independent… a woman who stood strong and carried on even as she faced the harsh, patriarchal system that oppressed women in her day.  She was ahead of her time: and instead of living into the expected gender roles and allowing them to dominate her and bring her down, she chose to live an incredibly fulfilling life.  She used her experiences as a widow to reach out to other widows and set up a community where they could find belonging and hope, and where she would love them, nurture them, and encourage them to be strong and independent women.

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Tabitha reminds me a lot of Lois… Sure, we all know that unlike Tabitha, Lois did not weave or knit tunics or shawls with her hands… or cook… or do anything for that matter that was particularly an expected “gender role” of her day.  But that was one of the things that was so great about her.  Like Tabitha in the first century, Lois was – in many ways – ahead of her time.

She was determined, intelligent, full of life, excited about new opportunities, and she was extremely adventurous.  As the executive secretary at the American Can Company, she was always finding ways to move to a new branch that was opening – if it was in a city that sounded exciting to her.  And her bosses obviously had confidence in her competence and her skills because they were always willing to send her off to the new branch to help with the start-up process… From Chicago to Minneapolis, to Los Angeles and San Francisco and back to Milwaukee: Lois had so many stories to share about her adventures.  Lois was a leader and extremely gifted at what she did.  And she taught her family to be independent and strong, always encouraging us – espially her nieces and great nieces – that we could do and be whatever we wanted – even and especially because we are women.

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Lois was devoted to her commitments: she was a regular member of bowling and golfing leagues she joined with her niece Sandi, and she was an active member of Westminster Presbyterian Church up until the past few years when she started slowing down.

In addition to this, like Tabitha, Lois was incredibly loving and nurturing and made sure her flock was provided for.  She attended games, choir concerts, plays, and graduations of her nieces and nephews – even if it meant traveling out of town, and she called several of us at least once a month to check in on us when we went off to college.  She never missed birthdays, she brought gifts back for her family from her vacations, and she always gave her great nieces and nephews chocolate bunnies for Easter.  Just this year, when she said goodbye to her 7 year old great-great nephew Wesley, she told him to make sure his grandparents didn’t let him walk away without cash in his pockets.  And – just as her father made sure her pockets were always full of cash, she would often shove a few bills into her great nieces and nephew’s pockets – which usually were a bunch of $2 bills… She always had a stash of $2 bills.

Maybe it was her love of parties – but she somehow managed to attend almost every holiday celebration and bring joy and laughter to the family gatherings.  She cracked jokes, played a lot of family card games, and was one of the active participants in sharing stories about the family around the dinner table after the food was eaten.  And she could always be found 1st: in the kitchen – sneaking a “sample” of dressing or turkey before it was served and 2nd: back in the kitchen after dinner with her nephew-in-law, Lloyd, washing the dishes.

She joined her family on so many road trips and vacations: whether it was traveling to Estes Park or to Chicago for the Heitzman/Peters annual Christmas trip, vacationing in Florida or Arizona with the Apels or traveling to Maine with her brother Wes and sister-in-law Harriet.  And just as when she, Wes, and Harriet somehow entered their destination city in Maine from the north rather than the south: there was never a dull moment with Lois.

Lois looked forward to treating her great nephews and nieces to movie dates, joined them for pool parties in the Apel’s back yard, and prided on hosting sleepovers at her house with all of the great nieces and nephews: which consisted of many Skippo games, Ninja Turtle movies, and talent shows… And – even after the time we all sang and danced to “In The Jungle” down her apartment staircase at the top of our lungs – she still somehow decided to keep inviting us back for more.

Like Tabitha, Lois saw the needs of her family members and did whatever she could to make sure she provided for them.  When her mother was living at home with a caretaker, Lois would come home from Milwaukee at least once a month to help care for her.  And several years after her brother Don and his wife Jeanne had passed away, she moved back to Dubuque and began to develop a more intimate relationship with their daughter Sandi, thus becoming a very special sister figure and best friend to Sandi and a grandmother figure to Sandi’s kids.

Lois absolutely loved her family.  She prided on being a daddy’s girl and as the youngest and only girl of three, she was cherished and dearly loved by her older brothers, Wes and Don. Lois loved her siblings and siblings-in-law, nieces and nephews, both “great” and “not-great,” and her great-great nephews and nieces.  (She always loved to brag about how she was the GREATEST aunt because she was the ONLY GREAT-GREAT aunt in the family.)

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When talking to numerous family members, friends, and acquaintances about Lois, the thing that everyone has said about her – even if they didn’t know her very well – was that she had a sweet and joyful spirit, never had an angry bone in her body, and people always loved to be around her – up until her final day… Oh, and also that she was a “character.”  She even was a part of a breakfast group that was named after her: based on “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the group was called “Thursdays with Lois.”   And even in her later years and final days as her memory started to fade, she laughed about it and found ways to embrace it.  When she forgot the name of Sharon, her caregiver, over and over… and over again: she gave her a new name: “Whosit,” which has stuck with Sharon (and is what people at Hy Vee continue to call her.)

While her memory began to fail her in her later years, Lois never forgot how to love and find joy and laughter in life.

So as you can see, Lois was a lot like Tabitha in our passage from Acts chapter 9.  As we have seen, Tabitha was loved and cherished by her community of widows.  So it is no wonder that the widows in our text mourned so much when she died.  It is no wonder that they called out of desperation for Peter – the man who by the power of the Holy Spirit had been performing great miracles in the name of Jesus Christ – when they heard he was near Joppa.  And it is no wonder that when he arrived, they wept and passed around their tunics and articles of clothing that were made by Tabitha, reminding themselves and one another of the memories they shared with her and of the many pieces of clothing she had woven out of love and compassion for them.  These women had lost their dear friend, their aunt, their sister, their grandmother figure, and the one who had clothed them with the love of Jesus Christ, invested in them, and helped them speak their voice and find belonging when they had not found such things elsewhere.

And it is no wonder that we come here this morning – as well – weeping and grieving as we experience the shock of Lois’ sudden death without warning and as we gather together to recall our wonderful memories of her.  For we have also lost such a special woman who has left a loving and joyful imprint on our hearts that we will always hold onto.

We will truly miss her.

And yet, just as our passage does not end with the grief and mourning of Tabitha, we have hope that our journey with Lois does not end here in our grief, either.

As we see in our passage, after Peter appears to the widows, he heads up to the upper room.  And after listening to the widows, he sends them out of the room, and then he calls to Tabitha to “get up.”

… And she gets up.

And Peter calls to all the saints and the widows to see that she is alive.  And all who were there believed in Jesus.

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This miracle in Acts reminds us of the center of our hope.  This act of Peter resurrecting Tabitha from death points us to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise he gives us (as we see in Luke chapter 20) that we – as children of God, are children of the resurrection.   And as Paul states in our passage that was read from Romans 6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his… if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

Now Jesus – in the book of Luke – and Paul – in his letter to the Romans – do not lay out what exactly will happen in the bodily resurrection – in our life after death.  As much as many of us may wish that they did: they do not tell us details about how we will be resurrected, what we will look like, what age we might appear in, how we might be reunited with our loved ones – all of those questions we often ponder when we think about death and eternal life.

For Jesus and Paul, these details are not important – and my guess is, once we experience eternal life with God after death ourselves, they won’t be important to us either…

At Easter and every time we say the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, we proclaim our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  – That in his resurrection, he conquered death and brings forth new life.  And because of this great act that occurred 2000 years ago because God so loved (and loves) the world – we – as children of God and as children of the resurrection – are promised this, too.  We are promised that we, too, will be resurrected from the dead and given new life eternal.  Death does not win.  It does not have the final word.  And when we are resurrected, we will be reconciled to God and, in Christ, to one another (however that may look)… for all eternity.

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Aunt Lois knew she lived a joyful and fulfilling life – up until her final day.  And we can find comfort knowing that she looked forward to the time she would be united with God and reunited with her loved ones – her father William and mother Lena, her brother Don and sister-in-law Jeanne, and her nephew-in-law Lloyd – as she often told many of us several times the last few years: “I’m going up THERE (pointing up) sometime soon.”

We are coming up to a time of year that often brings us joy and yet sometimes brings us pain – as we miss those who can no longer gather around the table and celebrate the holidays with us.  This year, the holidays will be more difficult without Lois.  And yet, we can find joy as we come together as a family: remembering, crying over, and laughing about all of the wonderful holidays she brought joy and laughter to.

I would like to leave you this morning with a quote by Anne Lamott: “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

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4 responses »

  1. Love and prayers being sent to Lois and the entire Family. I knew Lois growing up in Dubuque in the 60’s and when she came to Germany with Don & Jean to visit my Parents and to travel in Europe. She was a lovely Lady and will be missed dearly! Rest in Peace Lois….you will be missed!!

  2. Em, I’m so thankful that you shared this. Your Aunt Lois sounds like an amazing woman who imparted so much to you. I really enjoyed how you wove together the testament of Tabitha with your Aunt’s life. Very moving. Praying for your family as you grieve.

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