Saturday, April 27, 2013
A few weeks ago on a Friday, I got a call from my mom who said she was worried that my sister hadn’t returned her phone calls in the last two days. My sister Bonnie lived alone, had been through a divorce a few years ago, and struggled with COPD, a lung disease that makes breathing difficult. Anita and I drove down to Norwood—praying in the Spirit all the way there—and banged on the front door. I ran around to the back and surprisingly found the door unlocked.
Inside I found her; she had passed away the day before. After I called 911, I phoned the rest of our family, then for the next several hours while police were there and waiting for a coroner to come, I found myself in a surreal experience. We left from there and drove to Kentucky to make sure my mom was okay, and left to go back to Mason about eleven-thirty that night.
On the way home I said to Anita, “Maybe I should call Joe tonight and see if he could pull a last minute message out and speak tomorrow and Sunday.”
She asked, “How far did you get on your message today?” (Friday is when I pray and write the weekend messages.)
“I’m pretty far. Another three or four hours tomorrow morning and I’ll be done.”
She looked at me and said, “Honey, you compartmentalize so well, you can do this!” I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but I’m glad my wife sees the male brain’s usefulness. That’s why I love her so much…she can make—as my mom used to say—a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.
Days later I spoke at Bonnie’s memorial service—by default I’m sort of the “family pastor”. What follows is my sister's eulogy...
There were all sorts of memories that I began to unpack this week. It’s funny which ones creep in. I suddenly remembered one Halloween in Augusta, Kentucky when I was probably eight years old and mom was working late in the beauty shop and dad hadn’t come home from G.E. yet. It was dark and I panicked because I didn’t have a costume to wear and all my friends were already out. I hate to admit this now, but it was a big deal then and I think I just laid facedown on the couch.
Bonnie came into the room and asked me what was wrong and then said, “No problem: I know what to do—we’ll make you into a hobo!” She scrounged up some old clothes and found a hat and made my face look dirty with some charcoal like I had just hopped off a coal train. I was thrilled—I had never been a hobo! She sent me out the door with bag over my shoulder and I caught up with my friend Stevie Thornsberry and we were off for an awesome night of high-caloric-junk-food collecting.
I remembered driving her to Pensacola, Florida and staying with our grandfather as she was struggling with what to do next at a certain point in her life. We turned around and drove back home a couple of days later.
I remembered Bonnie letting the whole band I was playing in stay at their townhouse in Atlanta several times on some of our many tours through the south.
I remember sitting with her in the oncologist’s office when the prognosis of cancer was given her. She sat stunned as he laid out a tough treatment plan of chemo and radiation. We prayed together in the car in the parking lot.
It’s interesting what floods back into your memory.
The truth was: Bonnie and I weren’t super close; there was an eight-year difference with us. When I was a little boy I remember Elvis music and her dancing with the doorknob of her closet door the first time we moved to Florence. And those “Far Side” cat-type glasses she wore. And her having the lead role in her senior class play where she played an old forgetful woman. And I have some old 8mm film transfers of her on a float in some parade of sorts in Augusta from at least fifty years ago.
It wasn’t until I was older and looking at old photos that I realized how beautiful she was.
But the memory dearest was after I had left home. I dropped out of college and moved to Cincinnati to play music full-time, living with a band. One night Bonnie came with a friend to a bar in Cincinnati where I was playing. I hadn’t seen in her in a while. On one of our breaks, her friend pulled me aside and said, “Dave, you should talk to your sister. She’s going through some really strange stuff.” That night I drove over to her apartment in Kentucky and we stayed up all night as she told me about some odd things happening in her apartment at night and she was scared. I won’t go into the details, but she had gotten involved in some occultic activity over the years that was beginning to play out in strange and dangerous ways. Being a young know-it-all atheist and materialist myself, I had no grid for the supernatural; I simply thought she was going crazy.
At the same time, even weirder things were going on with our parents. After all three of us kids had left home, mom and dad had an amazing experience with the Holy Spirit and got radically “saved”, in their words. I thought they were going crazy too…because when I’d drive to Kentucky to see them, all they ever talked about now was Jesus. I was sure aliens had invaded their bodies and sucked their brains out.
At one point during this time, mom and dad had given Bonnie two tickets for a movie showing at a theater in Covington, Kentucky. Bonnie asked me if I would go with her. It turned out to be a movie produced by Billy Graham called A Time To Run. Mom and dad were relentless. Soon into the movie we looked at each other and said, “We’ve been tricked!” At the end, a man stood up in front of the screen and gave an altar call…and we sneaked out the back.
It didn’t help when that summer a new movie came out that was freaking people out all over the country: a movie called The Exorcist…an over-the-top movie supposedly based on a true story of a child possessed by the devil. The band I was living with decided it would be a good idea to get high and then go see the movie. Twenty minutes into the movie, we were holding hands like little girls. I had nightmares for weeks. But it got me thinking about the possibility that perhaps there is more to this life than what we can taste and see and feel. And if there really was some sort of evil, then it seemed to me that there must be a counterpoint to that. Maybe even…God.
Bonnie came over a few times to the house I was living at in Oakley and would tell me about things she was experiencing that were scaring her, but again, I didn’t know what to tell her because I had no slot in my brain to put any trans-rational supernatural stuff.
She was getting desperate and scared, and so one day I finally said to her, “Bonnie, why don’t you look into that Christian-thing that mom and dad are into?”
I didn’t want anything to do with it, but maybe it would help her!
Some months later she did check out that “Christian thing”…and God did an amazing work in her life. I was stunned. She was the first of the three siblings to surrender her life to Jesus…and she began to change. One-by-one, eventually all of us came into a life-giving relationship with Jesus. It was the greatest legacy our parents could ever give us…and it changed the course of our entire lives and family. None of us were ever the same.
Like all of us, we’re in process; Bonnie had big ups and downs and complexities that only God knows how to untangle. Up until she became so weak, she loved attending Crossroads Church on Saturday nights near her home. A few years ago she decided she wanted to get baptized there on a Wednesday night and asked if I would go with her and baptize her. That was a no-brainer: of course. She had never been baptized as a follower of Jesus. It was a spectacular night. She gave a public demonstration in front of hundreds of people that she was under new management.
Mother, daughter, wife, sister, grandmother, aunt, cousin, friend. We each had a unique relationship with Bonnie…and Bonnie was as unique as she could be: Independent. Generous. Stubborn. Funny. Opinionated. Loving. Puzzling. And not always an easy life.
It was Jesus who told us that in this world we are guaranteed to have trouble; and then He follows that up with: “But it’s okay: I’ve overcome it.” In other words, Trust Me—there’s more to this life than what meets the eye. Everything is heading somewhere. It may not all be made right in our blink-of-an-eye-lifetime, but there’s way more to come.
This isn’t the last page of your book.
It struck me sometime back that I lived under the illusion that if I knew why some things happened it would somehow ease the pain. It would make me feel better if I knew why “stuff happened”. And then it hit me one day: even though Jesus knew all the answers to all the big questions of life, He still felt deep pain. He knew in advance how He would die on a cross, He knew why He was going to die, He knew the outcomes of His closest friends…He knew all the “why” answers, but He was still referred to in the Bible as the man of sorrows.
He wept over the city of Jerusalem. He wept over the tomb of His friend Lazarus. He wept in the garden of Gethsemane as He understood His last hours. And so even if I had the capacity to understand all mysteries, it still wouldn’t keep me from pain, from the sting of a loss.
But as we know, this isn’t the whole story.
But what bothers us is using “past tense” language, as in “remember how feisty Bonnie was”…as if they no longer existed except in our memory. The reality is that Bonnie is more alive now than she ever was in this life. She’s in the sensory-overloading presence of God, joining in worship with millions of people and creatures like we can never imagine, all singing the Song of the Lamb.
The apostle Paul—who had his own fair share of pain and loss—once wrote:
We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. . . .Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling… (2 Corinthians 4:7-8, 16-5:2)
In other words, we trade this temporary tent for a permanent house. Two weeks ago Bonnie slipped out of her tent and into a fantastic new adventure. Immersed in a new world, the world that is to come, Bonnie is now face-to-face with the One she had surrendered to many years ago. If she were here now, she would want each of us to experience what she is now: unimaginable joy and beauty and health and power…but even more, that we would have a taste of that now and make a vow to follow hard after Jesus, to give our lives to bringing the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit to others, and to be reunited in worlds to come…joining her in knowing God even as we are known.
When anyone leaves us suddenly, there are bound to be regrets: I wish I would have done or said this or that. But regret has no place in the boundless forgiveness of God. Give all regrets to Him. But what it can do is cause us to shape the way we live out the rest of our own numbered days.
For we are now reminded again that life is fragile. Treat each other kindly. Let forgiveness flow freely. Let’s surrender ourselves completely to God. Let’s remind each other that as Paul said, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Let’s trust instead of doubt. Let’s encourage instead of criticize. Let’s default to faith, hope and love…and according to scripture, love never fails.