Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Reggie's Homily for Jean Absher

The Lady in The Window
A Homily for Jean Absher

When I asked Bill earlier this week if there was anything he wanted to be certain that was said here today, he remarked, “it’s hard, it’s real hard when you have to face it,” and then he said, “you’re never prepared.”  I was profoundly moved at how well Bill captured with a few simple words what we have all been experiencing in these last few days.  We knew that Jean’s time with us was growing shorter and we did everything we could to let her know how much we loved her and appreciated her.  She did everything she could to show us a beauty that has taught us about the power of God to be at work in our lives when we must move from this life into eternal life.  Yet, as Bill so rightly said, “it’s hard, it’s real heard when you have to face it; you’re never prepared.”  So we gathered here in this place that Jean loved so much to remember the God she served so well who cares for her now in ways that we no longer could so that we may honor the gift that God gave us in her as well as the gift of eternal life which she now lives with her Lord Jesus Christ.
My first memory of Jean Absher goes back to my very first Sunday at Blacksburg United Methodist Church.  She and Bill were celebrating a wedding anniversary that weekend, I guess it was their sixty-second anniversary, and I was struck by the mutual love so evident in their relationship as well as the love of their family for them.  I would come to have a much deeper respect for that love as it has been my privilege over the years to serve as the pastor of this congregation.  In those early years, I have vivid memories of Jean entering the sanctuary from the door that goes out to the lobby.  She was always beautifully dressed, but the most beautiful aspect of her appearance was her wonderful smile which literally brought light into the sanctuary.  She would use the side aisle to make her way back to her seat and she would stop every few pews to greet friends and share a laugh with them.  She made the sanctuary a very loving place to be by the way she loved the people in it.  People in this church experienced the love of God at work in this sanctuary because Jean was sharing her love with them.  I can remember how folks like Harry and Irene Harris waited with great anticipation to share words with Jean.  She would eventually make her way to her seat where Doris and Bob would sit in front of her and Barbara and Archie would sit beside her.  When the service was over, Jean always made it a point to give me a hard time.  She was the kind of person who could tease you and convey to you how much she loved you at the same time.  We’ve spent the last nine years teasing and loving one another.  I always looked forward to visiting with Jean because I knew that she was going to do her best to get me with some quip and she often did!  Our banter continued at the hospital and after they brought her home from the hospital.  She was not about to let her declining strength rob her of her joy for life and the people in her life.  I know that she gave this same kind of love to other people and it is why so many of us did all that we could to convey to her in these recent days how much we loved her and appreciated her.
Barbara commented that her mother was not vocal about her faith, but that she lived it.  We know that Jean Absher could not have spoken more powerfully about her Christian faith than she did with her beautiful example.  She didn’t have to talk about Christian faith because it permeated everything she said and did.  Curtis wrote an email while his mother was in the hospital about her pleasant personality.  He cited Galatians 5 where Paul lists the fruits of Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.  She shared her beautiful smile even when her face was covered with a mask and she gave many “thank you Sweetie,” to the people who were providing her care.  This remarkable example in her most challenging days reflected a way of life that Jean had lived all her life.  Curtis and Barbara shared how she was raised not to complain, but to see the goodness of life and to celebrate it.  It was something she had learned from her own mother and she taught all of us about its power to transform life.  In the last few years, Jean had become even more affirming of her appreciation of life as she would declare that something that had been done for her was undoubtedly the best that she had ever experienced.  She was always positive and always appreciative.  She loved to brag about her caretaker, Mary, Janice, and Lodis and how great they treated her and Bill.  I think Mary, Janice, and Lodis would be the first to acknowledge that Jean made them better people.  You couldn’t help but be better when you were around Jean because she brought out the best in life with her love for people.
Of course, the people she loved the most and rightly so, was her family.  She and Bill shared 71 years in marriage and Jean loved to tell how Mrs. Wall had declared that their marriage would never last at the time that they got married.  Bill shared with me that he had said it before, that people that can get along like he and Jean did, that he wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Jean took care of Bill in a way that demonstrated how proud she was of him.  In an essay that Curtis wrote on his blog entitled “The Lady in the Window,” he recounts how his mother polished Bill’s brogan shoes and made certain that there were well starched creases in his work clothes.  Jean wanted to give her husband the best that was possible and she did it with a well-ordered home, with well-cooked meals, and with a love that left no doubt that Bill was the most important person in her life.  Even in recent weeks, she would continue to ask Bill if needed something, still doing her best to take care of him.  Jean gave this same kind of care to Curtis and Barbara.  Barbara said that her mother’s family was her career and those of us who know and love this family know what an outstanding job Jean did with her family.  The essay that Curtis wrote is a beautiful testimony to a mother’s love that did the very best she could for her children.  It recounts how Jean sewed clothes for them and polished their shoes.  She was very proud of her family and she wanted them to look their very best.  She took great pride in them and they gave her great joy.  Barbara told how a neighbor once commented to Jean after she had dressed after a nap, “Well, Jean, where is she going, to a party?”  While Jean dressed in a way that accentuated her God-given beauty, she was often seen wearing an apron.  The apron reflected her life of service in keeping her home in perfect shape as well as preparing food that couldn’t be any better.  Her grandchildren will long remember her macaroni and cheese and the care packages that she would give them when it was time to go home.  Karen, her granddaughter, talked about the barrels of boiled custard Jean made and took to people.  She made everyone’s favorite foods and that made everyone know how special they were to Jean.  Curtis shared that his mom once told him that her favorite things to do were to clean house and write notes.  When asked about that comment sometime later, she wasn’t sure about the cleaning, but she continued to affirm her joy for writing notes which became a source of joy for all of us who received them.  I know I kept those notes, which typically had a little quip and an affirmation of love, with notes that my mother wrote to me.  Jean was like a mother to me and many others.
I am confident that all of us will remember Jean’s beautiful sense of humor.  It was never cutting and it was  always loving.  Barbara and Curtis shared how their mom would call the church office and ask Janet Tabor to put her name on the list of jobs that Bill was doing at the church.  She enjoyed joking with everyone.  Jean and Kenneth McCoy loved giving each other a hard time.  Jean was comfortable with everyone because she loved everybody.  Jean’s sense of humor was a reflection of her enjoyment of life.  Karen, her granddaughter, wrote about something all the family will remember.  She recounted how Jean used to sing while she swept the floors, did dishes, whatever.  She wrote, “I don’t know that she even knew she was doing it and sometimes it was more of a hum.”  Curtis and Barbara recalled their mother singing “Oh what a beautiful morning” when she was starting her day.  I think Karen is probably right that Jean didn’t know that she was doing it.  It was as natural to her as breathing.
It is because Jean was such a remarkable, beautiful, loving person that it’s hard, real hard, to think that she is no longer with us in these life transforming ways.  Yet we know that she will always be with us in this way because her example will always challenge us to live with a greater joy and appreciation for life.  I am confident that Jean would want us to remember the life she now lives with God.  She remained secure in her knowledge of God’s love for her and for us until her last breath.  Because Jean was loved so well by so many, it was difficult for me to provide any real pastoral care.  But there was one night when Kaye was the only one with her at the hospital when I was finally able to engage Jean in a way that will forever confirm her deep faith and abiding trust in God.  I tried to lead Jean into a conversation about how difficult, about how frustrating, about how hard her situation was.  She genuinely didn’t see it that way.  I explored whether she was depressed or dismayed and she truly wasn’t.  She was so grounded in her Christian faith that the approach of death gave her no anxiety whatsoever.  She was perfectly at peace.  The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, taught us that we are to strive for perfection and he defined that as having the mind in us that was in Christ.  It is total and complete trust in God.  Wesley didn’t think that most of us experience perfection in this life, but rather he thought that most of us would experience it in the life to come.  Nevertheless he held out that it was possible for a few people to experience perfection in this life because he discerned it in a few people under his care.  If you ever want to understand this teaching of Methodist theology, you only need to remember the life of Jean Absher.  I have no doubt that she had experienced Christian perfection because of the way she lived and the way she died.  She has shown us what is possible in Jesus Christ.  Thanks be  to God for the gift of Jean Absher who was a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.  It’s hard, it’s real hard.  May we always understand our heartache as a reflection of the precious gift given in Jean Absher and may that always help us to appreciate the precious gift given in Jesus Christ.

Reginald D. Tuck
Blacksburg United Methodist Church
November 19, 2010

Monday, April 11, 2011

W. J. Absher, Final Chapter

The Unpreachable Sermon
A Homily for Bill Absher

We preachers know that there are some sermons that even on our best days we are not capable of preaching.  The truth of what we are trying to convey is too large, too deep, too thick, too profound for us to express with words.  The way that God has been at work is beyond belief and it makes belief possible; but the preacher knows that no sermon can fully express what has been experienced.  This is the situation that we face this morning as we gather to remember and give thanks for the life of Bill Absher.  There is no sermon that can adequate convey what we have experienced in the life of Bill Absher because his life was a sermon and it was much more powerful than anything that will ever be preached from a pulpit in a church.  The church was found wherever Bill Absher happened to be.  Some people talk about being the hands and feet of Christ; Bill Absher was the heart of Christ.  He was also the hands and feet of Christ, but the way that Bill used his hands and feet gave expression to the heart of Christ.  Bill was not holier than thou, but Bill was holy and his holiness allowed us to see and experience the beauty of God’s love.  When we celebrated Jean’s life in November, I shared my impression that Jean reflected what we Methodists call Christian perfection.  I thought the same was true for Bill.  When I related this impression to him during his last hospitalization, Bill commented something to the effect that he should have learned something in ninety years.  He had learned what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and his example taught us the deeper truths of our faith which was the greatest sermon that it will ever be our privilege to experience.  So I trust you will recognize and understand that I am not capable of preaching the sermon that was Bill Absher.  Rather I will simply recount some glimpses of a much larger sermon in the hope that it will remind us all of the God who was at work in and through Bill Absher as well as the way God cares for him and promises to help us.
Curtis observed at the prayer meeting this past Tuesday that a sociologist would have predicted a bleak future for Bill when he was a boy.  Bill’s father was killed when he was ten years old and Bill assumed responsibilities for his family that did not permit him to finish high school.  Bill had often dreamed of going back to school and he had often said that he would have liked to have been an extension agent.  Bill taught himself to be a successful business man which prompted George Allen, an extension agent, to call Bill an extension carpenter.  People in Blacksburg knew that they could go to Bill Absher for good guidance and fair treatment.  People would often bring some item to the store that they wanted to replace by buying another one.  Bill would examine the item and fix it.  People knew that they could trust Bill Absher and he built more than a business; he built a reputation that made him one of the most loved and respected people in this community.  Bill started his own business at age 51 after working as a carpenter at the arsenal in Radford where he was later hired as an employee.  While visiting Curtis in Kentucky, he bought a delivery truck, paint shakers, and shelves from a company that was going out of business to do something that he had contemplated for many years.  No sociologist would have predicted that a man who had to grow up without a father, did not have the benefit of finishing his education, and served his nation during the Second World War would turn out to be one of the most respected people in his community.  A sociologist would have predicted many other things, but Bill Absher was always predictably reliable and trustworthy.  I’m sure many of us remember how Jean loved to tell of the woman who had predicted that their marriage wouldn’t last.
Bill and Jean not only had a marriage that lasted far beyond what anyone would have predicted, but they enjoyed a relationship that made them predictable in their devotion for one another.  They were always there for one another and I know that Bill deeply missed Jean.  The depth of their relationship was given its most beautiful expression in the love of their family.  Barbara and Curtis cared for their parents in ways that left no doubt that they were deeply loved and appreciated.  I spent many times with Bill and Jean looking at photographs of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Bill and Jean were immensely proud of their family and they took great delight in the lives of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Mindy, Bill’s granddaughter, sent him a letter last week that read in part, “I love that I was able to share your home with my family!  There is no place where we all love to be like Blacksburg.  I know that having my grandparents around to get to know my children is a special treasure.  I am so thankful that you and grandma set such a wonderful example of love and life and that my children have had the opportunity to experience that as well!”  Beth wrote from Chile, “I want to thank you for living your ministry for the world to see, regardless of whether or not the world was watching.  You have taught me, and others, so much by your quiet example.”
It is impossible to talk about Bill Absher for very long without talking about his Christian faith.  It permeated his life and touched the lives of all who knew him.  Beth continued in her letter, “There has been much said in recent months, and I am sure much more to be said, about your life of service . . . to your family, to your church and to your community.  Thank you for that witness of giving oneself, of using the unique set of talents that God has given you in order to bring Him glory.  Yours is a life that has brought Him glory, and continues to do so through the lives of your children who also live lives of dedicated service to their families, their churches and their communities.”  Beth later wrote, “Other than reading the Roanoke Times, the only books I can remember seeing you read are your Bible and your Sunday School lesson.  In fact, one of my fondest memories of you is coming home from school one day when you were visiting us in Kentucky and finding you sitting under a tree reading your Bible.  It made quite an impression on me because I realized that if you were reading it, it really was an important book.”  Mindy recounted in her letter, “My first memories of Blacksburg are probably at your church.  How fitting is that?  I remember feeling so small while I looked up at that beautiful wood ceiling and thinking that it looked a hundred miles to the front of the church.  All my life, every time I go into a new church, I compare it to the Blacksburg United Methodist Church.  I’ve yet to find one as compelling!  I think though that maybe the reason your church is unparalleled is not because of its architecture but because of the people.”  As the pastor of this church, I know that a lot of the people are here because of Bill Absher.
Bill Absher will always be one of the most important people in the history of this church.  His love for this church is legendary.  Bill is the one who often found his way through the church basement in the dark to insure that the church was warm and comfortable on Sunday mornings.  Bill is the one who often did the hard work of starting some new ministry and never wanted a place of prominence in the leadership of that new ministry.  He helped to organize the prayer breakfast with Gunnar Teilmann.  Bill was told that if he would get the people, Gunnar and Richard Barker would see to the leadership.  Bill told them that they had a deal and Bill faithfully called people to invite them to be a part of that ministry.  Bill had a way of inviting people to join in ministry that was loving and compelling.  He never gave up on people, but persisted in his loving invitation.  Bill was an important part of the Murrill Bible Study and while he was well qualified to teach the class himself, he always took on the role of finding people to teach.  He had recruited Carter Elliott and Mark Smith in more recent years.  Bill was truly a servant of the church who understood the Christ who came not to be served, but to serve.  Curtis called him a talent scout who would figure out who could do what and then worked to make it happen.  I am confident that it would have been a whole lot less work for Bill to do it himself, but he understood ministry.  It is a lesson that I am still learning myself and Bill Absher was a master teacher.
As the pastor of Bill Absher’s church, it was my privilege to experience his witness of Christian faith in the most challenging times of his life.  Bill demonstrated the strength that is possible in Christ as he experienced Jean’s death.  He was always man enough to cry and he had studied materials given to him by Hospice about grieving the death of a spouse.  He kept those materials tucked in his chair and often studied them.  He did not try to minimize or ignore his grief, but he entered into it, trusting that God would meet him in that place.  He knew what we are experiencing this day and he would want us to know that God will find us even in this place.  As Bill’s condition became more difficult and he had to make a decision about going into Hospice, we had some serious conversations.  We talked soon after he made the decision to go into Hospice Care and he was quite clear with me that he was comfortable with his decision.  As Bill began to move into that place which is somewhere between life and eternal life, I would question Bill about whether he was having any dreams.  For a while, Bill reported that he was not having any dreams, but a few weeks ago, he shared with me, initiating the conversation himself, that he had had a dream.  He was here at the church digging a new well.  When I asked if he had hit water in his dream, he said no.  I shared my impression that the dream might be about how this experience was going to take him to a deeper place in his spiritual life since this experience was unlike any that he had ever known before in life.  Bill shook his head in agreement and he continued to report having that dream.  It is instructive that what was most on Bill’s mind was a project at the church; a project to provide water.  The images and the deeper meaning of a well and water reflect a depth of spirituality that is deeply grounded in the Biblical witness.  When I related the dream to my wife, she offered her impression that the dream might also be about the church.  She suggested that Bill’s dream might be Bill’s final lesson for us; teaching us to go deeper, to look for new sources of living water to sustain us in our life as a Christian community.  Curtis thought we might both be right.  Because Bill had periods in the last week when he would not sleep, I probed him about this situation.  I asked if there was anything on his mind and he indicated that there was.  When I asked him if he wanted to talk about it, he would begin to tell me how much he loved me.  I thought that was his way of avoiding talking about what was on his mind so we went through that sequence of conversation three times.  Wanting to be certain that I had given him every opportunity to express any anxiety that he might have about his approaching death, I bluntly asked him if was afraid.  He responded immediately and his response was a resounding and clear, “No!”  So I think what was truly on his mind was telling me that he loved me.  Then Bill turned to the subject of my mother saying that he was sorry that she had died as tears rolled down his cheeks.  Later Bill turned the conversation to my father saying that he knew my father and that he was a nice man.  He said something about my father having a delivery job.  Now Bill never knew my father or it may be more accurate to say that Bill did not know my father when my father made his home in this world.  As I listened to Bill, I began to discern that Bill may have come to know my father as he was moving into that place between life and eternal life.  So I asked Bill if he would take a message to my father.  As he shook his head affirmatively, I asked Bill to tell my father that I love him.  He agreed to give him the message.  Now do you understand what was happening?  As Bill Absher was dying, he was still doing ministry.  He was able to do that because he knew and served a living Lord.
When Bill Absher took his last breath, Lodis, his caretaker, was playing a CD and singing, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.  Until his last breath in this world, Bill Absher was focused on the love of God.  Thanks be to God for the sermon that was Bill Absher which has taught about and touched us with the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Reginald D. Tuck
Blacksburg United Methodist Church
April 7, 2011