Thursday, October 15, 2009

Abide with Me

I'll be honest: I still don't have the heart to write about all things I love about my grandma. I'm feeling more joyful thinking about her dwelling in glory with her King, but I'm still so choked up thinking about my memories of her. While I continue to process, one thing has been especially sweet to me.

Over the past few months I've fallen in love with the Indelible Grace project, a musical effort initiated by Reformed University Fellowship at Belmont University in Nashville to resurrect old reformed hymns. At my churches in Richmond and in Nashville, these hymns became widely known, but in New England I'm finding they're still in need of resurrection. All of that just to say, I've been listening to these albums a lot the past few weeks. One of my favorites from the three albums on my iPod is "Abide with Me" because it always reminds me of my grandma Russell.

Once when Grandma was staying with us for a few days she was listening to me practice the piano. I loved hymns then, too, and was playing through a book of them for my lessons. I wasn't familiar with "Abide with Me," having never sang it at church. As I started to pluck out the notes, Grandma R. expressed that it was a hymn she really loved. It became instantly cooler in my eyes and I remember it as one of my favorites from that book.

While I was home this weekend, the fourth verse popped into my head and I realized how perfect it was for this season. We sang it at the funeral service in Champaign.

As I've been walking through this process of grief, the thing that's been most helpful to me is feeling connected to my grandma: knowing we shared common interests or a common personality trait, meeting her old friends, etc. This hymn is one of those "connection points" because I can just imagine her finding comfort in it as she slipped away...and now I am resting in its theology as I mourn. How like God to surface this hymn that we loved together while she was living to comfort me in her death.

Abide with me; falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers, fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, abide with me.

Thou on my head, in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious, and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, though I oft left Thee,
On to the close Lord, abide with me.

I need Thy presence, every passing hour.
What but Thy grace, can foil the tempter's power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, tears lose their bitterness
Where is thy sting death? Where grave thy victory?
I triumph still, abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross, before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies.
Heaven' morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, Lord, abide with me.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mother: A Tribute from my Mom to Hers

My Grandma Russell passed away last week and I was at home this weekend for services. I've been so spoiled to have all four of my grandparents--and I think they are just about the coolest people in the universe--living and invested in my life. These days of mourning the loss of my sweet grandma have been so dark...I'm still struggling just to process it. I want to write something to honor her memory and to make her just a bit famous, if only to my six or so faithful readers. But for now, as I try to wrap my head around the emotion of it all, I'll let my mom say what she so eloquently did at both funeral services this past weekend. She will no doubt be embarrassed when she learns I've made her a "guest blogger," but she captured Grandma so beautifully that I just couldn't resist sharing this with you:

Mother had no credits or credentials, professional designations or degrees. The only list of accomplishments she had behind her name is us, her 2 daughters (Kathy and Jennifer), their husbands (Rob and Kevin) who Mother considered her true sons, her 5 granddaughters (Emily, Kelly, Lindsey, Chelsea, and Taylor) and their 3 husbands (Joe, Bob, and Dominic) who Mother also considered her true grandsons, and her two little great grandchildren (Jack and Mollie). She devoted herself to her husband and life-long friend, Bill and their family. She loved her family above everything else on this earth and gave her life serving us most of all. She wanted nothing more than to see each one of us happy and content.

Contentment was a big thing for Mother. Always seeking it herself; having been impacted by Paul’s example in Phil 4:11-12 she strove to learn, “to be content whatever the circumstances.” It was her desire that each of us would know and love the Lord Jesus Christ and find our contentment in Him. I know she is rejoicing, and wants us to do the same, for she has finally found true contentment beyond anything we can know on this earth. And so for that we do rejoice!
Always interested in learning, Mother loved to be around interesting, funny, and happy people. She delighted in and was fiercely loyal to anyone she called “friend.” Always thinking of others and desiring to contribute to meeting their needs, she sought to love and serve God by loving and serving people. Well acquainted with pain and loss herself, she was especially sensitive to those who were sad, sick and suffering. How better to minister to someone than through a personal hand-written note or a heartwarming meal? Some women collect tea cups or figurines. My Mother collected greeting cards and recipes so she’d have a ready arsenal from which to choose when someone needed encouragement. All her grandchildren would agree, no one could pick out the perfect card like Grandma Russell! One of the ways we knew we were special is the painstaking efforts she took to get a card that, as she would say, “looks just like you!” And a card was never enough. There would always be a personal note written in perfect handwriting. (As I’ve been sorting and cleaning for Mother these last couple of years I’ve come upon notebook after notebook with personal notes to each of us which she then edited and put in the cards she wrote.)

She held herself to a high standard in this regard. She admired those who seemed to get cards and notes sent on time. Mother had a lot to give and desired to give it all. It upset her that she could never keep up with the need. And it grieved her especially in these later years as she gradually had to give it up altogether. The cards and notes that so many of you have sent to her over the years meant so much to her, too. She kept every one. I know because I’ve just been through them all and she wouldn’t let me throw even one away. She loved to go back and read them again and again. Through them she could feel your love.

And of course, there were many times when a note or card was not enough. Sometimes nothing says lovin’ like bakin’ from the oven! As I recall growing up, it seems there was scarcely a week went by that she wasn’t cooking a meal for someone. And of course she cooked for her family all the time. She really enjoyed fixing meals that we loved.

Mother was a self taught cook. Having lost her mother at age 16 she took up cooking for her “Daddy.” She never tried a recipe that she didn’t improve; always tweaking it to make it better; adding ingredients to make it tastier. Calories weren’t a consideration; fat content was not an issue. Taste! That’s all that mattered. How satisfying was it? To her cooking was both an art – an expression of herself – and a science. Our kitchen often looked like a lab, so many were the pans, dishes and utensils she’d use to create her masterpieces. As I write this I’m so hungry for her vegetable soup I’m sad to think I’ll never taste anything like it again. Always for my birthday she’d make me a batch. We used to tell her she should can and sell it. But, she said it’d be too expensive to market because of the time it took to prepare. We always asked her to write down her recipes and she would try, but since you have to go by taste, nothing Kathy or I make of Mother’s ever tastes as good.

Whether through cooking or writing cards, her aim was the same. She wanted the recipient to “feel the love”–her love for them, but more importantly the love of Christ.
To “feel the love” was her theme in life. I can see her holding her grandchildren. As she did you could see her absolute delight in them. She made each feel special, as though they were the only one. Chels always said, and I know all the granddaughters would agree, that Grandma Russell was her greatest cheerleader. She was absolutely captivated by every word they said. It is one of the things I will miss most about her; I could sit and talk with her for hours over every detail of my girls’ lives and she would never tire of hearing it. If it weren’t for Dad’s ability to do the same, and my children’s other grandparents, Cherry and Corwin, I don’t think I could stand it. She wanted no one or nothing to distract her from hearing every word.

Such is the love of a grandparent. But, I’d say Mother had a special gift in this area. She had the ability to get past information to hear your heart! I wouldn’t even have to finish my sentences or sometimes I just wouldn’t be able to find the right words to describe how I was feeling or what I was going through but I didn’t have to – Mother understood and could often articulate for me what I couldn’t articulate for myself. From that I learned something about God. Often I can’t praise Him as I’d like, I can’t articulate adequately what’s on my heart and mind. But, from my mother’s example I know, He understands. Mother “got me” in much the same way as God “gets me”. Very few people “get me” but my mother did just as she “got” all her loved ones. She understood and accepted each one of us just as we are and never sought to change one thing about us; she just loved us each unconditionally.

She loved her husband, my Dad, more than words can tell. Their story together began when they were both just 8 years old. My Grandpa Russell was the Pastor of my mother’s family church. One Sunday morning, unbeknownst to the other, both my mother Charlotte and my father Billy went forward to receive Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. At age 16 they started dating and the rest is history. This past September 11 they celebrated their 61st anniversary.

Their love story has been an inspiration to all of us daughters and granddaughters. To think they have known, been infatuated with, and loved each other for 75 of their 83 years boggles the mind. No love story could be sweeter and the loss my Dad feels, the loss of his beloved, is beyond comprehension. He has been her companion and lover, and in recent years also her 24/7 caregiver. Such love and devotion reminds me of Christ who demonstrated His love by laying down His life for the church. Mother scarcely made a move Dad didn’t know about this last year or more. Only if he could have wheeled her into Heaven himself might he have found this separation bearable. I’m grateful for all the sweet memories he has of her which will carry him and all of us through the very difficult days ahead. Dad, we’re going to want to hear all the stories about Mother from the early days again and again. They will help us all to heal.

Mother was meticulous about everything except housekeeping. She was, at heart, a girl who just wanted to have fun. Housekeeping was not fun. But what a gift she had for making things feel special! She valued hard work and would exhaust herself to create a holiday, a party, a birthday—each gathering more spectacular than the last. As a result, Christmas at our house was absolutely magical. But whether it was the yearly Easter egg hunt or serving your favorite meal on your birthday, Mother MADE it special; she sweat over the details to make sure it was fun.

She loved numbers and details. Serving as church treasurer at Penn Ave, as Class administrator for BSF, and as head of Wednesday night dinners was a mix that suited her well. She served in these capacities for many years, all at the same time. One job would have been a lot. But, what she considered most fun was being out there doing and seeing; using her gifts and contributing as much as she could.

She was also meticulous about laundry. I don’t know what it was about doing laundry that was fun, but something about it was rewarding. I especially remember as a little girl the hours she would spend ironing. As I think about it now, perhaps it was fun because she could iron while watching As the World Turns, her favorite soap. But the result was crisp, starched dresses whose big bows in the back would stand straight up at attention all through the long Sunday mornings at church. It was Dad’s duty, in helping to get the family ready for church each Sunday morning, to tie those bows right before we left for church and he did it perfectly. Mother and Dad were such a great team, always working together; cooperating like that in little household and family matters.

Another thing about Mother that I will always remember was her determination. When she made up her mind about something, just try—I dare you—just try to change it! Oh, she might look like she was cooperating with you; she was so sweet!! But, soon you’d find she was not cooperating at all! While this meant there was some head butting at times, this steadfast determination served her very well. When she was in the hospital two years ago she developed pneumonia with complications that kept her in nursing care for 90 days. She never wavered in her determination to get well. She was sick to the point of death – we thought one night that we’d lost her. But, she fought like a tiger (Jack, Great Grandma was a superhero tiger grandma! Did you know that?) She fought with every ounce of strength she had not to succumb. And in the months of recovery at Carle Arbors she suffered every kind of indignity, yet she would say, “I can’t let myself get upset about it; I have to reserve my strength so that I can get well and go home.” She handled it all with such dignity and grace. Even in those circumstances she sought to be positive, kind, and gracious to her friends, family and those who served her so well at Carle Arbors. What a great example she was as she persevered to fight the good fight of faith.

It would be an injustice to my mother also not to mention that in all she did to love others, she loved Jesus most of all. Her greatest desire; her motivation was always to point people to the love of the Savior. She never got over what Jesus did for her that Sunday morning when she went forward to receive Christ in my grandfather’s church at 8 years of age. She wanted many things in her life; to travel, to have and enjoy friends, to use her gifts to serve God, to have fun, to learn, to improve herself; but her greatest desire in all that she did was to point others to Christ. In this way, too, she has been a wonderful example for me.

There are so many things about Mother’s life which warrant telling, remembering and treasuring. How can you in one short eulogy ever really capture what a person means to you, her church, or her community; her value, the depths to which she is loved, the grief we feel in loosing her? But, Mother would not want us to wallow in self pity – she hated that! Nor would she want us to stay stuck in our grief. She would want us to fly! She’d want us to remember her at her best, and she’d want us to find joy, peace and contentment in the fact that she is not suffering anymore; that we will see her again; that she is with her Savior and reunited with her firstborn, Caryl Deen, her beloved “Daddy,” Mother, her big sis, Mary, her nephew Chet, and Uncle Art. There is a whole company of believers who’ve gone before her with whom she is celebrating. How could we deny her that? We needed to release her. And we all know she would want us to LIVE and enjoy life NOW with the hope of seeing her again.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bethel: The House of God

Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you
Psalm 84:4

Tonight is my first night in Bethel, in my new apartment, in this home that God has provided. (Well, technically last night was my first night here, but I’m not counting that because it was due to a minor catastrophe involving a lock-out, no heat or blankets, and a pretty sleepless night.) Tonight is the first official night. Tonight is the night my home was filled with friends--new friends who feel like old ones--and with laughter and prayer and big dreams of how God might use this place. Tonight is the night I am rejoicing in God’s provision here in this land that still feels a bit foreign.

Beth’el (pronounced with the accent on el) is the Hebrew word for “house of God.” In the ancient Near East, the word El was a generic word for “god” that the Hebrews used to refer to the one True God, Yahweh (see my post titled HaShem for more on ancient Hebrew names for God). Beth is the Hebrew word for house. Maybe it’s sentimental, but when I started thinking about moving up here to take the job at Walnut Hill, I couldn’t help but want to live in Bethel (rather than Danbury or Newtown or Brookfield) because of the name. I know—nerd city.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe firmly that God’s house, that sacred place where He resides, is no longer a temple made of stone and adorned with blue curtains and bronze and goat hair (Exodus 36). No—the temple is human hearts infiltrated with the Father’s grace, handed over to Christ Jesus, and moved by the Spirit. The church is people, as my friend Eliza likes to say. You and I are Beth’el (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)! Still, God has always used names to emphasize truth. And this name, Bethel, is significant.

Bethel is mentioned 13 times in the book of Genesis. It seems that it was a significant place for both Abraham and his grandson Jacob. Both built altars there to praise God for His provision (Genesis 12 and Genesis 35). Bethel was the place where you could be sure of God's presence.

Fittingly, Bethel was the site of Amos' brief prophetic ministry. There pleaded with the people of Israel-Judah to purify their worship of Yahweh by laying aside cultist ritual and seeking justice. In this way, the transfer of the temple from an external structure to the hearts of believers was foreshadowed.

As I settle into this new home, I'm rejoicing with Jacob, "Come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God...who has been with me wherever I have gone" (Genesis 35:3). Lo, this is the God who is ever-present--in Nashville and in New England--my great Pillar of Cloud who is faithful to lead.