Last Wednesday, May 13, my grandmother passed peacefully into eternal rest. Yesterday we celebrated her nearly 92 years of life, and I had the privilege of co-officiating with our home church pastor at the Avon United Methodist Church in Indiana. It is very interesting that since my appointment to Smithville United Methodist Church a year and a half ago, I have not had a funeral. So my first funeral / memorial service as pastor was my grandmother’s and it was a special honor. Since my family is originally from Philadelphia we will have another memorial service and the inurnment there on June 2.
Here is a portion of my meditation from yesterday’s service.
Florence Hensel Dillon Gounder was known by many names. I knew her as Grandmom. To some who have already gone on to glory she was known as Daughter, Sister, Wife. To some here and many others who could not be here today but are grieving and remembering, she was known as Mother, Aunt, Me-mom, Friend. To the staff and visitors at Heartland Health Care Center she was known as the lady who greeted everyone at the front door with a big smile. To some of the residents there, though, she was also known as the cantankerous old woman in Room 302 who would hit you if you changed the channel on the TV in the TV room or the one who would wrestle you to the floor – literally – for a bowl of Jell-o. Florence was known and loved by many. The One who knew her best and most intimately, though, was her Creator. Her most important identity was that she was a beloved child of God.
Although she didn’t talk about her relationship with God very often, my grandmother was a woman of faith. As a child she attended Sunday School and learned the important Bible stories. When she got older she relied on that foundation of faith to get her through the rough times. She was widowed at age 27 with two small boys to raise. She was fortunate to have the help of her parents in that endeavor, but just a few short years after her husband’s death, she was faced with another loss when her mother died. Life was not always easy for her, but she made sure to take her two boys to church each Sunday so that they, too, would learn the Bible stories and verses she had learned. She wanted them to know just how much God loved them.
Once her boys were grown and she got remarried, Grandmom did not attend church as frequently as she once had, but she still read regularly from her Book of Common Prayer. When she moved to Indiana with my parents ten years ago, she attended church at Avon United Methodist Church. She loved the music. In fact, her favorite service was the praise service. People chuckled at this 80-something lady sitting in the front row of the sanctuary listening to and singing along with the band. If the truth be known, she thought the drummer was cute!
Grandmom loved the old hymns, too. A few months ago when I was home from school I visited Grandmom at the nursing home one evening. It happened to be a night when a gospel music group was there. When I got to the home and didn’t find her in her room, I went looking for her. I found her in the makeshift auditorium sitting in the front row singing her heart out as the musicians played. When she saw me at the door, she pushed a few of the other residents out of the way – yes, that was her style – to make room for me to pull up a chair next to her. She held my hand – an act that was typically NOT her style – and together we sang the old gospel hymns with the musicians that night. It is a memory that I will cherish.
Grandmom’s favorite Scripture was the twenty-third Psalm, a favorite of many. Psalm 23 is one of those passages that is so familiar that sometimes we don’t stop to take in all of its words. Yet at other times, it is a passage that we cling to when a loved one dies and our world has been shaken. It is a passage that provides comfort in the midst of the dark places and death. Grandmom knew what it was like to journey through dark places – to face the deaths of not just one, but two husbands, one of whom was quite young. Knowing that the Lord was her shepherd was something that sustained her. My mom tells the story of overhearing my grandmother recite this Psalm. When my grandmother lived with my parents she went to the Senior Center several days a week to have a meal and play games with her friends. In the mornings when she was waiting for the senior van to pick her up, she would say her prayers and recite the twenty-third Psalm. Mom overheard her one morning, and said it broke her heart because Grandmom got to the middle of the Psalm and couldn’t remember the rest.
“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want; he maketh me to … he maketh me to … he maketh me to … oh shoot. The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” Those who knew Grandmom well will know that is a slight paraphrase – I cleaned it up a little bit since we are in church!
Even when she could no longer remember all of the words to the twenty-third Psalm, the image of the shepherd and sheep is one that Grandmom clung to. Now I recognize that as a “city girl” she really had no context in which to understand a shepherd. In fact, most of us in the United States in the 21st century cannot grasp the sheep/shepherd context and we have a tendency to romanticize this image. The truth of the matter is that the life of a shepherd was and is dangerous and risky; and sheep are not as dumb as we often make them out to be. Unlike cows who are herded from the rear, sheep prefer to be led. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you. Cows can be pushed, but sheep must be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else – their trusted shepherd – does not go first, to show them that everything is all right. Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.
The thing that is significant and comforting to me – and what I cling to just like my grandmother even if it is romanticized – is the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd. It is an intimate one. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and the shepherd is willing to risk life and limb to care for the sheep. The shepherd’s voice is key. As Jesus says in John 10, “I know my own and my own know me.” And not only that, Jesus gives his very life for the sheep. Jesus makes it clear that he gives his life willingly: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Herein is the power of the Resurrection, the message that gives us hope. When we get lost or find ourselves in the midst of deep dark grief, the shepherd risks his life to find us, and it is his voice that draws us home. Jesus promises that he will never let us go. His voice will bring us back and comfort us. We belong to him. This is a strong word of reassurance in our struggle and in our grief. Jesus is there, going before us, leading us –even through the valley of the shadow of death – leading us home to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” that place where we are surrounded by the One who created us and loves us and calls us by name.
This pic of my grandmother and me was taken on her 90th birthday – June 23, 2007.