Thursday, March 17, 2011

Funeral Service

Today, our congregation gathered to celebrate the life of Leon Michael. At the time of his death, Leon was Central's oldest living member, at 97 years of age. Here is the Scripture text and message delivered at his memorial service on March 17.

Psalm 121
I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life;
the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

When you live in a place such as Roanoke, the "hills" are a great source of strength and a reminder of the things that are important to you.

On Tuesday, I flew home from Chicago. It was overcast most of the way; I saw very little ground during the entire flight. As we descended from the sun-lit sky above the clouds, there was a several minute period when the plane was entirely surrounded by clouds. I wondered when and where we would emerge from the clouds. When we got low enough, I recognized Salem, VA. I looked around and saw familiar sights; the Red Sox field; Lewis-Gale and Roanoke Memorial Hospitals; the Wachovia Tower; and a bit farther on William Fleming High School. But what always catches my eye flying into Roanoke are the hills. Mill Mountain; Roanoke Mountain; Sugar Loaf Mountain; Read Mountain. When we see these places, we are aware of one thing: we are home.

Psalm 121 contains so much more than nice, comforting, poetic words; the Psalm is highly contextual for the people who lived in that day. Because we tend to view the Psalms as comforting words to hold internally, it is easy to overlook the very real choice presented in verse 1: I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? From where will it come, indeed?

In the Psalmist's day, the hills contained both dangers and sources of hope. As one traveled through the hills, dangers could be found in the rough paths that might make a traveler stumble, or the heat of the sun, or the loneliness of the night. Danger might come in the form of the bandits, robbers and wild animals that hid in the various nooks and crannies of the hills. Travel through these hills was not safe, because a person never knew for certain who or what might be waiting for them just beyond the next bend in the road.

This is largely a foreign concept for us, especially here in Roanoke. If we were going to hike from Rivers Edge park and to the top of Mill Mountain, there really would be no sense of worry. There are two paved roads, multiple paths, and the police are just a cell phone 9-1-1 call away. It would be pretty safe—unless someone had gone up to Mill Mountain Zoo ahead of us and let the animals out. Then we might think differently! Suddenly a trip that was challenging only because of the height of the mountain would take on a different reality.

But that was not all; there was also an alleged source of hope in the mountains. In the very mountains the Psalmist had in mind—and maybe was looking at when he or she wrote—were all manner of false gods. An offering at the shrine of the sun god might help you fight off the heat; an offering at the shrine of the moon god might help you battle your struggles through the night; participate in some other religious ritual for extra protection from some other god.

When the Psalmist says, I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? he’s asking a very relevant question. From where does our help come?

As I mentioned earlier, when I lift up my eyes to the mountains we can see right outside these doors, I am reminded of home. I’m reminded of faith and family, friends and familiar places. These are the things that keep me grounded, remind me of who I am, and remind me of whose I am.

Knowing Leon, it is easy to realize that he connected with these things as well. The part of Leon I knew was the one who had a twinkle in his eye, always willing to share a laugh, joke and kid around. Leon had the most prominent twinkle in his eye that I have ever known. Watching that twinkle disappear was one of the ways I knew last Thursday that he wouldn’t be with us long; from visiting him the first of February and again the first of March his health had noticeably declined but the twinkle was still there; but from just Sunday to Thursday of last week, the twinkle left. I always enjoyed that twinkle, and the smile that came with it.

Some persons knew Leon as someone who loved to play golf and was one of a group that helped Blue Hills golf club get started. Leon was an avid golfer, and has a plaque commemorating the day he shot 85 at age 85. Another connection that he and I shared was growing up in Rockingham County, VA. We often talked about his sports-playing days in Bridgewater.

Others talk about his friendships with various people at Central; including a group of ten persons who liked to get together for dinner and trips. Willis and Eunice Bateman; Waller and Bernice O’Donnell, Dick and Miriam Coleman; Jack and Mildred Overfelt and Leon and Ruth Michasel were known as good friends. It’s hard to find just one or two friends; but to find a group of ten like that who spent time together is a special thing. Today we realize that just two of that group remain: Eunice Bateman and Ruth Michael.

Leon’s connections to faith will also be one way we remember him. It was fairly easy to go back through old directories and find his name; the mid-1960’s saw Leon serving Central as a deacon, other roles certainly existed as well. We could mention he was Central’s oldest living member.

But a story of greater importance was told to me yesterday. Doris Garst reminded me of the garland that hangs from our church balcony each Advent. It stretches the length of the front of the balcony, draped appropriately, with a string of lights running through it. It is easily the most prominent part of our Advent display, and is a special blessing at the Christmas Eve candle lighting service. Doris mentioned that she makes a special effort to stand near the front of the church during the candle lighting, to gather the full effect of the lights. Many others comment that the church looks so bare when that particular piece is taken down; something is noticeably missing. We often wish we could leave it up for a few weeks more.

That’s the way it is with people’s passing, as well. Someone is noticeably missing, and we often wish we could have a few weeks more. But it’s here when the Psalmist’s question comes directly into view: I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? It’s a good question, indeed.

Retired pastor and current author Eugene Peterson says this: "Some people would have us believe that the moment we say no to the world and yes to God, all our problems are solved, all our questions answered, all our troubles over. Nothing can disturb the tranquility of the soul at peace with God. Nothing can interfere with the blessed assurance that all is well between me and my Savior. Nothing and no one can upset the enjoyable relationship that has been established by faith in Jesus Christ. We Christians are among that privileged company of persons who don’t have accidents, who don’t have arguments with our spouses, who aren’t misunderstood by our peers, whose children do not disobey us."

He continues, "Is that what you believe? If it is, I have some incredibly good news for you. You are wrong." (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 37)

In place of that, we have a God who is faithful. I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help—and I know your help, Ruth—comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. God is faithful, and will see you through.

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