Friday, October 15, 2010

Funeral homily for Jeannie McDowell

Jeannie was a teacher.  As a high school teacher for over 40 years, Jeannie knew something about getting her point across, and she also knew something about the different ways people learn, the unspoken needs for recognition or reassurance and the individual gifts and difficulties every learner has that make learning anything but a textbook exercise.  As a teacher, Jeannie was used to thinking about people, what lies beneath the surface, what motivates us and what sometimes prevents us from doing our best or seeing what seems obvious to everyone else.  That made her, of course, a force to be reckoned with in the life of our parish church – I often had occasion to be thankful for Jeannie’s ability to read between the lines and certainly for her local knowledge and the relationships she kept up with the schools in our area.

Over the last few months, I also had the privilege of seeing the teacher become a learner.  Jeannie invited me to share with her the journey we must all take, and it has been one of the great privileges of my life to have accompanied her as she accepted her diagnosis with grace, and as she reflected on her life in the context of eternity.

In one of the psalms, the psalmist prays that God will teach us to number our days, and in our first reading from the Bible this morning the Preacher reminds us that our lives are lived in the framework not of our own time, but of God’s time and God’s perspective.  We forget this so often, and think that time is our own to dispose of – we even talk about killing time! as if time were another commodity – but time belongs to God and unfolds before us as a mystery.  Jeannie’s death was not untimely, because her life was lived in the seasons of God’s time and God’s purposes, which are often hidden from us but which we always experience as loving.

And Jeannie has experienced God’s purposes these last few months.  She shared with me her growing understanding of the completion of God’s purposes in her life, and gave me a glimpse into the deep contentment and profound gratitude that she felt for the gift of life itself.  In this sense, Jeannie was a teacher to the last, because she taught me much about life in the way she lived her final months.

It has been said that death is our teacher, and I think this is true in a number of ways.  In the very obvious sense, death punctuates our human experience.  It sets limitations, and it imposes a perspective that we can’t deny.  You might say, well, that’s obvious enough!  not good – but obvious!  except that by revealing to us the limitations of our plans and experiences, death also reveals to us the relativity of our own purposes.  It asks us some questions – what you are doing today, the relationships you have with those around you – how well do your priorities stand up in the light of eternity?  Jeannie almost lived out the Biblical standard of three-score years and ten, but not quite.  Most of us would probably like a little longer.  But in the context of eternity we remind ourselves that time is not ours to command, just ours to fill with what is enduring and precious in God’s sight.

Secondly I think, because death reveals what is worthwhile in our lives and redeems what is not.  Jeannie knew this, the way she lived reveals that she understood and treasured what is of true value in the light of eternity.  The number of people here today, the great contribution Jeannie made as a teacher and since her retirement as a mentor, is testament to the fact that she set her priorities on people, not on things.  But death also redeems our regrets and our sorrows, and the burden of shame or guilt that prevents so many of us from being truly free to love and live as God intended.  Because as our lives are completed, so we come to participate in the mystery of resurrection through which we are completed and perfected, and through which our deepest regrets are transformed.   Jeannie saw her life as being a gift from God that she was handing back into God’s care, and as she reviewed her life was able to cherish all that she had seen and done, all whom she had learned from and shared her life with, and especially all whom she had loved.  Even in the final days of Jeannie’s life she was expressing care and concern for others, and blessing others with the gift of the time that she knew was now so limited.

Death teaches us that the most important thing in our own life is the relationships that we have with others.  Death makes us thankful for what we have shared with Jeannie, just as it makes us sorrowful that she has departed from us.  Death teaches us the beauty and the priority of love, and the profound grace of forgiveness.  In the context of the completion of Jeannie’s earthly life, this is the time for the putting aside of regret for words left unspoken and to receive with gratitude the gift of forgiveness and the knowledge that Jeannie, although hidden from us, is now completed in joy.

Finally, I think death teaches us the reality of eternal life.  Jeannie knew this, we ourselves know this, but in living through the journey of her final months with gratitude and grace, Jeannie experienced the nearness of God’s gift of resurrection life.  In her own unique style Jeannie spoke with me about her faith, and about her conviction that her life was passing into eternal life in the fullness of the love that created the whole universe.

Death was Jeannie’s teacher, as she has been my teacher.  And I suspect, the teacher of so many of us.

And so we farewell our friend with gratitude and love.