[This was shared during the funeral of Bessie, a member of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, the congregation I serve as pastor.]
1 Corinthians 15:1-7
For some of us, myself included, there’s a disappointment that, though she had a full life, Bessie didn’t make it to her one-hundredth birthday. But Bessie, I can assure you, does not share in that disappointment. She took a dim view of having a fuss made over her if she turned 100 and besides, she told me, “One-hundred seems so old.”
But there are other reasons that Bessie wouldn’t share our disappointment.
One is that she may have been the most upbeat, positive, joyful person I ever met in my life! She had pain and griefs in her life, of course. And she acknowledged them. But she wasn’t defined by them. She wasn’t laid low by them.
I told her about a year ago, “You know, Bessie, when your circumstances dictated that you move out of your home and into the Carlin House, I never heard you complain.” “Well,” she said, “there were two ways I could have reacted. I could have been unhappy or I could have been happy. I chose to be happy.”
I chose to be happy. Now, it’s true that some people are able, by nature, to more easily make the decision to be happy and make it stick. And Bessie understood this. When she consider people who suffered from depression, she clearly understood that depression is a disease that sometimes happens to people. “It must be awful,” she told me, with empathy. And I saw her display her empathy toward people who were depressed. She was a comforting presence to them.
But the big reason, I believe, that Bessie was able to choose to be happy was that she had a rock solid faith in Jesus Christ. And hers wasn’t the superficial faith of someone who had a passing acquaintance with the teachings of the Church. She had a relationship with Jesus Christ.
That was so clear every time I visited with her over the past nearly six years. I took Holy Communion when I visited Bessie, whether at her home on Culver, or later at Carlin. Every time she received the Sacrament, she expressed gratitude that Christ had come to her and offered her forgiveness and His presence and His promise of eternity once more. “Oh, thank you,” she would say, sometimes with tears, “It’s such a gift!”
And the last time I was able to take Communion to her, Bessie told me, “You know, I don’t think some people realize what a blessing this is!” She knew that in the Sacrament, the God of all creation was coming to her and she was grateful!
No one needs to be reminded, but it should also be pointed out that Bessie had a lot of oomph! (Someone said earlier that she had a lot of spunk!) She had energy and joy to the end of her days.
I told her once, “I used to visit you thinking that I was going to inspire you. But I always leave here inspired by you.” She looked at me quizzically. She couldn’t understand what a special person she really was.
And maybe that was part of what made Bessie so special. She lived. She loved God. She loved others. She didn’t try to impress anybody. She didn’t know how impressive it was that someone legally blind would take the time and the effort to send birthday greetings, notes of encouragement, or thanks to people. (Every time I saw one of those notes, I was struck by the effort it required to do that!)
Bessie lived in the freedom of being a child of God, a living, loving member of the Body of Christ, the Church. That was inspiring!
Bessie remained special to the end. Deprived of much of her sight, she was also deprived of pursuing her lifelong passion for reading. Even big print books wouldn’t have been big enough for her to read. Undeterred, she ordered cassettes and later, CDs, of books and was always ready to recount the plot of the latest book she’d “read” in this new way.
She was part of the garden club at Carlin. (She told me once, “Some people just stand around at garden club, but I like to get my hands dirty.”)
Though she couldn’t see, she still helped out with the crossword puzzles the residents did together at Carlin.
She was always in Bible study and the weekly devotional worship there.
She went out on shopping forays whenever she could.
She made the best of challenging situations, like when Carlin was without power and she and the other residents had to be moved to the high school, where they slept on cots. Interviewed by the newspaper about it, Bessie, in typical fashion, talked about what a good job the Red Cross was doing.
She was always ready to talk about the Cincinnati Reds!
And, she seemed to pray for everyone!
Sometimes, she could give me the devil. When I forgot appointments with her or my commitment to do worship at Carlin, she let me know about it. I would get a phone call and a little lecture the next time I saw her. But she was quick to forgive and could tease me about the incidents later. And she was always after me to take better care of myself.
As was true of her attitude, Bessie’s oomph too came, I am convinced, not just from her nature or her upbringing, but from her faith in Christ. This is a person who truly lived in daily repentance and renewal. She used a scanner connected to her TV set to read the daily Bible readings and devotions and she regularly prayed for everyone on our congregation’s prayer list.
Bessie had no fear of death nor of dying. She knew that the crucified and risen Savior Jesus in Whom she believed had destroyed the power of sin, death, and futility over the lives of those who turn from sin and follow Him.
Bessie didn’t see Jesus as a rabbit’s foot who would make the bad things of this life go away. She agreed heartily with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:19: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
In the time I knew Bessie, her life demonstrated the truth that while Jesus doesn’t insulate us from life’s difficulties or from death, knowing that we have eternity with God, we are set free to live this life with joy, hope, a love for others, and a positive attitude. These attributes were all ones that Bessie lived out.
Especially, I think, joy. Joy is the word that springs immediately to my mind when I think of Bessie.
Now, I know for a certainty that there was nothing that Bessie more passionately desired nor more fervently prayed for than this: That all her friends and family would entrust their lives to Jesus Christ. She often spoke with me about this. She often asked me to join in praying with her about it. She believed in Jesus’ words in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believed in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
The Bible tells us that the capacity for faith in an unseen God Who has conquered sin and death through His crucifixion and resurrection--the ability to believe in such overwhelmingly good news in a bad news world--is the proof of this unseen, loving, compassionate, powerful God.*
Let Bessie’s faith in Christ be exhibit one for any who may doubt this God in Whom she believed.
Let her life of joy, hope, love for others, and incredible positive attitude in the face of life’s challenges be exhibit two.
And may we all learn to believe in and follow Christ as Bessie did and so, live this life to the fullest, and one day, enjoy a reunion with our Lord and with all the saints who have believed in Him, including Bessie, that will last for eternity. Amen
*Hebrews 11:1 says: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."