Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Another method of spiritual growth

Along the road of discipleship, there are many helpful things we can do to increase our commitment to Christ and the church. One of these is found in Hebrews 13:7:

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.

This verse is on my mind because today, our congregation buried a very dear member, Gertrude Prillaman. Gertrude was 93, and had been a member at Central since 1945. 1945!!! Wow.

Gertrude's life provides fertile ground for those who seek to imitate our leaders. I share with you the message I preached at her funeral this morning. The text is Acts 9:36-42, the account of Peter and Dorcas.

It was several weeks ago, as I thought about Gertrude’s declining health that I realized the potential of this passage for Gertrude’s funeral message. I would be interested to know—and will probably ask a few of you later—what connections you see between Gertrude and Tabitha. For me, the immediate connection was that both women were talented seamstresses. Gertrude held jobs as a seamstress, and up until just a few months ago would take clothes into her home for alterations, a job which required her navigating the stairs into the basement, where she kept her sewing work. There is a talent to being a seamstress that is probably being lost to us these days, as fewer and fewer people know how to sew and either make or alter their own clothes.

The connection of being seamstresses, however, ends up being something to hold our attention long enough to discover what is really a rich passage about the life of this faithful woman, Tabitha, and someone who was very much like her, Gertrude. We learn a few more things about life and faith as we compare these two women.

Both women were devoted to the church. In verse 36, Tabitha is identified as a disciple. It is interesting to consider that in all the book of Acts, only four persons are clearly identified as disciples, and Tabitha is the only woman to be so identified. What a way to be remembered, because the Bible tells the truth about people! Many times, this remembering of people’s lives is not especially favorable, but for Tabitha, she receives the highest identification that was available to persons: being a disciple!

At times of loss, it is natural for us to look for ways to remember our loved ones. It’s natural to spend time looking at old pictures, or telling stories, or wanting to shape the memorial service a particular way. Beyond that, you don’t have to look very far to realize that a family can invest a lot of time, energy and money into monuments and memorials that they hope will cause people to remember an individual for a very long time. We have a fear of being forgotten. But none of those things are a substitute for being remembered first and foremost as a disciple. Whatever the women said to Peter when he came in the house, the Bible first remembers Tabitha as a disciple.

I do believe this is one way we can remember Gertrude. She was so very faithful to the church, yet one more of a generation of Central members who found their way to church when it would have been easier to just stay home; consistent in giving when money was tight; helpful in encouragement to those who are in leadership; curious about newcomers to the church family, and wanting them to be made welcome; faithful in supporting the ministries of the church. We will remember Gertrude as a disciple who served faithfully in the Central congregation.
Both women were generous in their support of others. Tabitha is remembered by being devoted to good works and acts of charity. One of the first things that people tell me about Gertrude is how she helped in the kitchen, preparing the Wednesday night meals. That might seem like a small, unimportant task, until you realize how important those Wednesday night meals are to our church family. Having someone able to fill that role makes it possible for other persons to more easily make it to church on Wednesday, and strengthens church for us all.

Furthermore, Gertrude’s support of other persons very much included members of her own family, simply doing the things that needed to be done as a family member. We shouldn’t overlook the value of a stable home as an important means of support. Linda and Wesley remember a home where the family spent time doing things together: visiting other family members at reunions; going to the beach, having family picnics when they were children. And it’s not too often that the funeral director knows the family, but in this case, Gerald Sink from Oakey’s grew up on Bunker Hill Street with the Linda and Wesley, and remembers many stories of playing together as children, simply doing things that kids like to do.

I received a note yesterday from Gertrude’s nephews, Paul and David Bowman. They remember Gertrude with these words,

Paul and David Bowman, the sons of Herman and Agnes Bowman, are very grateful for the wonderful care and devotion their Aunt Gertrude exhibited toward their mother, Agnes Bowman. During their mother’s final years at Brandon Oaks, Aunt Gertrude was an encourager to her during times when she needed encouragement, and faithfully came to her side and stayed with her when she had significant health issues before her death. Paul and David are eternally grateful to the Lord for using Gertrude, a willing and faithful sister-in-law, to support and lift up their mother in her times of need. She demonstrated a beautiful example of heartfelt Christian love.

Finally, both women were well loved by their church family. This fact became apparent through the actions of the church family as they responded to a challenging need. Tabitha’s church family stepped in, and hearing of how the Holy Spirit was enabling mighty things in Peter’s life, the church sent for him when Tabitha died. In the meantime they cared for her body while they waited, tending to what they thought might be her final physical needs.

Gertrude’s church family has acted in a similar manner. It was hard for Gertrude to accept help. She was part of a generation that was raised to help anyone who needed it, and to live in such a way to be self-sufficient. Several of us from the church would go by and press Gertrude on this. Finally, she accepted help because she simply had no choice.

As I have watched our church family care for Gertrude, many people have complimented our congregation for that. But it really was a demonstration of how much Gertrude was loved by her church family. I wish that in my own heart I could love everyone equally and sacrificially. Maybe someday I will, or will at least grow in that area. I would say the same for our church family. It is hard to love other people. But Gertrude made it easy for us to love her.

While there are many similarities between Tabitha and Gertrude, there is one significant difference that is also worth pointing out. Tabitha’s death was somehow a tragedy. We really aren’t given any insight into why this is; the only hint of a suggestion is the multiple references to "widows" in this passage. One commentator suggests that Tabitha may have been the head of a house where many widows lived, and she supported them both financially and in the work of the church. This is somewhat like Gertrude’s contributions to our church life, where the investment of time and energy by one person doing what they can enabled a significant impact in ministry received by other persons.

Whatever the case, Tabitha’s death was interpreted as a tragedy, and the response to it was resurrection. Her resurrection was a work that was needed at this time, and this act became a means by which other persons came to know the Lord; the work of the church prospered.
Gertrude’s passing is not a tragedy. It is sad, it is a loss. But it is not tragedy. I wouldn’t seek Gertrude to be resurrected in this life. At some point, we need to decide if we really believe what Jesus said in John 14:3, And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also, or what Paul says in Philippians 1:23, I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

And as far as the revival goes, while Tabitha’s resurrection led to a revival, I believe in our day the better chance of revival will come through people like Gertrude, who demonstrate a deep and long-term commitment to Christ and the church. Imagine the impact on a community if we all loved everyone who walked in these doors as much as Gertrude loved us, and we loved her. Imagine if we started to show some sacrificial love to her, like we show to one another! This would turn the world upside down!

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