Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bethany Boyd is the daughter of my youngest brother, Ben. A few days ago she penned these lines for my mother. We printed them with the Order of Service for Mom's funeral services, and I wanted to share them with all who read the post below.


August 2, 2009

Dear Mama Ne,

You are Springtime. You are the encouragement of flowers, the reminder of new life, and everything I hope to bloom into. You are rains that refresh those who are in need of love, and sunshine that warms the faces of those who are near you. I wish I had been able to be near you more often, and learned from your wisdom. But I think because I was with you less frequently, our times together were burned into who I am, and will continue to warm me throughout my life. I can hear your laugh, feel your soft feminine hands, and see your smile that made your blue eyes sparkle. You are so beautiful Mama Ne, so beautiful.

I feel you Mama Ne. When I write a paper, when I look at a sunset, when Dad tells me to be considerate of others. You are in so much of my life. I hear you encouraging me, telling me I can be better, comforting me, telling me things will turn out alright, and loving me, telling me I am lovely. You rush through who I am, inside my veins, throughout my heart.

I wish you didn't have to be sick, or say goodbye, but it is impossible to really say goodbye to someone who will not leave you because of the impact they left on your soul. You may go to see King Jesus, but I won't stop feeling you in my life, until I come to be with you as well.

You taught me to love as Jesus loved, throrgh the consistent example of your life and I will always strive to be just like you, as I live each day of my life. Thank you for your devotion to the Lord. What a blessing it was to grow up seeing a life so surrendered to Christ and his will for you. As I strive to be closer to Jesus, I will always be able to shut my eyes and picture you, still so in love with the Lord, that every time the cross was mentioned, your eyes began to glisten with tears. I hope i never lose the wonder of the cross, just as you never did. To you, the good news of Calvary was ever fresh and ever incredible. I pray His love and forgiveness would remains to me as dear as it always was to you.

I love you Mama Ne. I love you as a princess that you were to me when I was five, I love you as the best friend and always compassionate listener that you were to me when I was fourteen, and I love you as the new creation in Christ, completely forgiven, beautifully white in the robes of His mercy, that you are to me now. Our memories are held as precious gems,
Funeral Services for Marie Bowers Neal
August 8, 2009

We are gathered here today to honor the memory of Marie Bowers Neal. On behalf of the entire family, thank you for being here. Your presence helps us cope with a loss that is difficult.
Family, look around. These people are here because they want to do two things. First, they want to honor our mother, wife, sister, grandmother. Second, they want to help us through this difficult time. But you know, it’s often easier to help someone ourselves than allow ourselves to be helped by others. So let us allow these folks to help us in the difficult moments and days to come.

Hopefully you received with your order of service a tribute letter, really almost a short essay, written by her grand-daughter, Bethany. If you have not done so already, we ask you to read that for yourself rather than us expending the emotional energy to read it to you. Marie’s son, Ben, will lead us in an opening prayer.

Opening Remarks and prayer – Ben Boyd

“O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”

As her family, we knew her as Marie. Or Momma. Or MommaNe. Or Aunt Marie. Or Sister, or Aunt Sister, or Sister Jane. Her sons teased her by using some pet names picked up in childhood innocence. Those names made the three of us smile, and made her smile too, but I won’t share them today.
Those of you who were not family knew her as a friend, as a co-worker, a member of your Sunday School class. Some of you called her Marie. At various times you may have called her Mrs. Crawford, or Mrs. Sanford. But mostly, whatever you called her, you respected her. You loved her. You honored her, and you still do. And we, as her family, are grateful.
A few weeks ago Momma and I sat down talked about her impending death. I asked her what she might like me to say to you today. She wants all of you to know that she is thankful for God and for all who loved her and helped her raise her children.

Mom and Charlotte were largely reared at the Methodist Children’s Home in Ruston. It was probably there that Momma’s amazing talent for memorization first appeared. There she learned the Apostle’s Creed, and though she spent most of her adult life in churches other than the United Methodist Church, she never forgot the Apostle’s Creed, nor it’s deep spiritual meaning. Even on her birthday, July 5th of this year, Mom could quote the Apostle’s Creed from memory. Will you stand with me as her son Whitey, the middle brother, leads us in repeating the Apostle’s Creed today? If you (like me) need to look, it’s in your program.

“And Can It Be...” (Amazing Love)

Some of Momma’s favorite scriptures are found in the fourth chapter of his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul wrote: “...Brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsover things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
Those of us closest to Momma know that she would want us to “think on these things” rather than some of the difficulties she faced in her last days and weeks of life. With that in mind, I would like to share with you some lessons my Mother taught me.

The greatest sermon ever preached, by the greatest preacher who ever spoke, begins with these words:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God....”

There is something desperately wrong with the world in which we live. We seem to have more money, more leisure time, more material success, more opportunities for a longer, and despite how we might feel on any given day, far healthier life. Yet we appear to possess less and less of those things which once made for a fulfilled and enjoyable lifestyle.
Our families are, literally, coming apart at the seams. Good, solid, lovely friendships are hard to come by. Neighborhoods, once the realm of safety and comfort, have become confrontational. And the church, which was once the center of all family and community activity, has been relegated to a position low on the list of social priorities.

Now I wouldn’t want any of you to think that I’m about to offer a lecture on the demise of contemporary culture. That would be most inappropriate. Somehow, in the mystery of God’s world, Momma would let me know how little she appreciated me lecturing her family and friends.

I’m simply trying to set this biblical text from Matthew’s Gospel, which we have come to know as “the Beatitudes” in the right context. Despite the efforts of some to make them more palatable; the words of Jesus here will slide right by most people today.

Our world has changed. Strength, is seen in terms of power. Wealth, is the measure of well-being. The individual, takes precedence over the community. My wants, are held to be more important than those of a neighbor-in-need. In this world, today’s world, these words of Jesus seem silly, if not senseless: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and peacemakers are not exactly qualities our world admires. Yet according to Jesus, these are what define Christian character.

While the world is looking for the wealthy, the healthy, and the hard hitters, Jesus searches for his followers from among those who are truly modest; those whose honesty is beyond doubt; those in whom one can confide; those who inwardly weep for the world’s wounded-ness, angered at the injustices perpetrated by political idiocy; those who live graceful and gentle lives. Those are some of the lessons my mother taught us.

Someone said that “There’s a meekness that’s all-powerful and a gentleness that’s all strength.” In a world threatened by terrorism and enamored with violence, we need gentle-men and gentle-women. We need those who inwardly shed the tears of a Christlike care, genuinely and graciously for a tragic and broken humanity. Our world desperately needs people who know what it means to “make peace,” who demonstrate peaceful living. Momma was among the gentlest, most peaceful, most humble persons I’ve ever known.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit... those who mourn... the meek.” What Jesus tells us in these three short proverbs is just this: “First to the spiritually dependent, then to the grief-stricken, and also to the gentle of heart, Jesus gives everything. Everything. God’s Kingdom, God’s comfort, and God’s green earth.
What the rest of the world knows, or thinks it knows – is that it is the self-confident (not to the spiritually impoverished), the positive thinkers (not those who long for justice), and the dynamically assertive (not the gentle peace-makers) who really get things done on earth. Yet I’m convinced that Jesus would point to my mother’s character as evidence that there is a weakness that is all-powerful, and a modesty that is almighty.

Reformer Martin Luther once wrote that in three of these beatitudes we are offered the fruits of faith. He said, “the poor in spirit, the mourners, and the meek are those who choose not to place their trust or hope in anything other than the heart of a gracious God. They trust that God will forever hold them in the hollow of his hand.” It’s this same faith that we – if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we witnessed in the life of Marie Bowers Neal.

We are blessed to have been loved by a lady whose character embodied the very best of the beatitudes. I can name those characteristics for you, should you ask me. But if you knew Momma, you need not ask me, or anyone else, about her. She was brilliantly intelligent without arrogance, wise but not pedantic, attentive, usually without being intrusive, brave but never bragging, angered by the immoral and unethical, but never judgmental.

For over 70 years – and oh, she would be upset with me for putting a number to her years – a time which seems all too short – we were gifted with the presence of a lady who demonstrated with her life what the beatitudes represent. She exemplified the very best of what it means to be truly spiritual, never presuming a right to God’s blessings. She never took God’s grace for granted; never touted the merits of her own behavior. And I never once heard her complain. Never. Never. Not about anything.

As a child, Momma often scolded me, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” She practiced what she preached there. Apparently none of you have ever had a bad day.... or at least I never heard of it. None of you have ever done anything wrong, or at least she never mentioned it. Instead, she told me how wonderful, amazing, smart, and good looking all of you are.

Jesus said “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Momma said, “If you love me, scrub my floors.” Your actions will show your heart. And love us, she did! She was your protector from all that would make us even crazier than we are. No matter what you did or had done, she loved you. As one of you mentioned to me a few days ago, no matter how badly we may have messed up, there was never a question about her forgiveness. She didn’t forgive, she just graciously and gracefully accepted you. God is like that. He just loves you and accepts you as you are.

Being meek does not equate to being cowardly. There was nothing cowardly about my mother. She was brave enough to face down injustices in the Monroe City School System by standing up for what was right, even if her job, even when her very life was threatened.

Above all, I’ll always remember the special relationship Momma shared with Aunt Charlotte. There was an unusual bond there. No sisters have ever been closer. Not twins, no one. Though Charlotte says it was from some of her friends in Baton Rouge, I think the idea of calling each other “Sister and Sister” was picked up years ago from the TV show “The Waltons.” You may remember the two elderly sisters on that show, naively enjoying a little bit of “Papa’s recipe.” But don’t get the wrong idea. I think Mom and Charlotte enjoyed a pickle recipe more than any other kind. Whitey, Ben, and I have really had the joy of almost having two mothers. I think Michael has enjoyed that blessing as well. And we thank God for Aunt Charlotte, not only in the last few days, but for all our lives. Put Mom and Charlotte together as some sort of strange composite and what you find is the embodiment of what it means to have a gentle heart. In a world gone mad with hatred, violence, greed, and passion, I can come into the presence of these gentle ladies and find my own troubled and anxious soul soothed, quieted, relieved. So Aunt Charlotte, you’ll have to forgive me and Mike and Ben and Whitey for thinking you are perfect, but we always have and always will feel that way. And thanks, Jerrell, for being exactly what Momma needed when she needed it. No one could have been better to her than you were.
Jackie, over the last few months you have brought her great joy and lots of laughter. Any time you walked into the room, even this past week, her countenance changed. It glowed with the light of joy. Thank you for all the joy you brought to her life. You were there when Momma needed you, and we appreciate that

You see, it’s about a warm, generous heart. Momma was one in whom the glory of God shone with a particular brilliance.
Somehow, in and through the mystery of God, Momma’s character shone forth a light that was beyond human means to produce. Sometimes her smile was the sun, burning through clouds of gloom and confrontation. Always an affirmation of God’s goodness poured out of her life, and subsequently on ours as well.

Who among us could doubt the spirit that radiated from her. It was not the spirit with which our world is so enthralled. Not the spirit of self-satisfaction. Not a spirit which seeks only personal gain. Instead, it is what we are given from God. Marie Bowers Neal was a taste of the Spirit of Christ as peacemaker in our conflicts, compassion in our distress, counsel in our disappointment, consolation in our losses. Always, in every way, her faith poured out of her life.

Let our world say what it may about the words of Jesus. For those of us who have known and loved this kind, humble, gentle, loyal lady, the words of Jesus have taken on flesh and blood and lived themselves out in our presence. Thanks be to God for the person she was, and is, and shall be.

You will not be surprised to know that I find great delight in Norman MacLean's novelette "A River Runs Through It." Chances are, you've seen the movie, starring Brad Pitt. At the end of Paul's (Brad Pitt) life, he is found beaten to death. His father, a Presbyterian minister, wonders about his son's demise and asks, "Is there anything else you can tell me?" Over and over he questions his older son, Norman, asking "Is there anything else you can tell me?"

One final time Reverend MacLean returns with a different question: "Do you think I could have helped him?" After a pause, Norman answers that question with a question of his own, "Do you think I could have helped him?" Finally Norman says, "I've already told you all I know. If you push me far enough, all I really know is that he was a fine fisherman."
"You know more than that," his father said, "He was beautiful."
"Yes" Norman replied, "He was beautiful. He should have been — you taught him."

My mom, was, beautiful. And so are those of us who knew her. For she taught us to be.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I Thessalonians 2:6b-12
“Where Always is Heard an Encouraging Word”
July 25, 2009 Life Church

1. Thank you for the opportunity to share a few words with you this morning. Do you feel better now than when you came in? I think our relationship to God, and therefore, going to church, SHOULD make us feel better. I hope you feel better right now than you did when you got here, and I hope you’ll feel even better when I am through in 25 minutes than you do right now.
Working with you folks at Life Church touches my heart and my life. You very likely don’t even realize the difference you make, in me. But I want you to know I am grateful. Encouraging one another is a vital part of the life of a healthy church. Sixty-two times in the New Testament alone the word “encouragement” is mentioned as a duty, a responsibility of all believers. In John 13, Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” The nature of love, is encouragement. Love encourages.

2. The mind and pen of the Apostle Paul shared the nature of encouragement with the people of Thessalonica in this letter. Listen again to his words, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God who called you into his kingdom and into his glory.”

3. Did you hear the words? Encouraging, comforting, and urging. The nature of our ministry to each other, and therefore to the whole world, is encouragement. Take just a minute and get those words in focus. This is God’s word for you and me today, speaking to us through the writings of Paul the Apostle, saying, “This is how you will live a life worthy of me.”

I. First, be an encourager.

A. Encouragement is the nature of the Christian life. What does the word “encouragement” mean? In the original language, it means a strong, positive appeal. Put an emphasis on “strong.” It’s a command of Jesus. What’s the old song? “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word.” Discouragement should never, ever, ever, happen in the life of the church. Discouragement should never happen to anyone, here, in the church.
I fascinated by one account of the frontier church. When John Wesley Hardin, the famous outlaw, was converted and called to preach, he wisely demanded that worshipers check their guns at the door. (He may have been defending himself against what might happen if he preached a bad sermon!) In the same way, when we come to church, we leave our personal agendas at the door. We check our politics; we check our soapboxes, our hatred, our frustration, or whatever it is that we have toward another person. We check it at the door. It isn’t permitted. It isn’t allowed. Discouragement is no more allowed than standing up and speaking four-letter words in the middle of a Worship Service. It simply is not done.

B. In the church, we simply do not permit negative discussions. Loveless, negative criticism is a prime component of selfishness and sinfulness. You know what I hear all the time from folks? I hear people who say, “I can hardly wait to get to church. I take such a verbal beating all day every day at work that I look forward to coming to church so that I might be encouraged, so I might hear a strong, positive, appeal.
During the Boar War of 1899-1902, a man was convicted of an unusual crime. He was found guilty in court of being a discourager. He went down the front lines, walking through the trenches, speaking to people with worlds of discouragement, discord, and distrust. He said, “We’re going to be defeated, we cannot win this battle. This is wrong for us to be here.” When the war was over, he was brought to court and put in prison because he was a discourager. He had no weapon in his hand. His weapon was the power of discouragement.

C. That’s simply not allowed in the fellowship of the saints. Let me try to say it another way:
In the church of Jesus Christ, those who know Him, those who love Him, must learn, and must honor the idea that we CAN and SHOULD disagree. But we must NEVER dishonor one another. For to dishonor one another is to dishonor our Lord Jesus Christ.
We may disagree politically, we may disagree philosophically or pragmatically about nearly any issue, and even some doctrines. But disagreement is no license for dishonor. I respect a brother or sister in Christ who disagrees with me. I am not called to do battle with them. I am called to talk with him and pray with him that together we might seek a higher level of understanding in Jesus Christ.
For you and me, the question is: Are we encouragers? Or discouragers? We cannot permit rumors, gossip, cynicism, and sarcasm to characterize any atmosphere, any climate where we are. We are to counteract it, to contradict it with encouragement -- a strong positive appeal.

II. The second thing Paul said was we are to Comfort one another.

A. The Christian fellowship is meant to be a haven for comfort. In the original language it means “design to cheer up.” The whole concept is a design, a plan, to uplift the spirit. And the result is to “inspire correct behavior.” Not beat it into someone, but “inspire” correct behavior. If you glance back to verse 7, there is a word picture of a mother nursing a child. A kind of gentle compassion. A mother should always take care of her own health, keep herself well-fed and healthy, because if she doesn’t, her child will not get the nutrients needed to be healthy, and the child can become ill. It is horrible to see the TV shows with mothers so starved themselves that they cannot nourish their children. The picture carries itself to us. We are to feed on encouragement from God in order that we might comfort others.

B. I was heartened a few days ago by the words of a young woman who said that she was coming to this church “Because it’s the warmest, most encouraging place I have found. I want to be in a place where people are that loving and caring and accepting.” Maybe the design to cheer her up is working!!
But Paul goes farther. He states that the comfort we give is designed to “inspire correct behavior,” as “a father deals with his children.” Dads, pay attention. There’s no heavy handedness here. It’s done by inspiration. This is the loving father who has such compassion for his children that he gives them boundaries and makes demands on them. The example of his life is so authentic to the children that they derive comfort from his inspiration toward correct behavior.
Everyone has experiences in life that you just don’t forget. In Junior High School, I played quarterback on the football team. I worked hard in practice, and was determined to do my best. The last thing I wanted to do was let the team down. But I got in a situation where I didn’t know what to do, and threw a pass that was intercepted. The other team scored. I was devastated. — Then I had to go to the sidelines. Now, I loved our coach, but he was a little like Mike Ditka, or John Gruden, if you know what I mean. Before I even got to the sidelines, he was insulting my origin! He raised some rather serious questions about my character. He implied some ugly things about my mother. I had never seen a man so mad! I thought he was going to kill me. That rage was intense! He was out of control, screaming and yelling and waving his arms. But I bowed my neck, and looked him right in the eye, and took it. Every word he said. But inside I was devastated. I didn’t mean to throw that interception. I wouldn’t have done it on purpose for all the world. I went to the sidelines and just stood there. At times like that, all the other players give you a lot of space. They don’t want to be next to you. And I was standing there staring at the ground when Coach Walker walked up beside me. He just stood there, and let me know I was not alone. And then, he said, “This week in practice I’ll show you how to correct that so it won’t ever happen again.” And he did, and it didn’t!

C. Good discipline is taught. Not demanded. That’s why we are to encourage one another. I’ll ask you again, “Are you an encourager, or are you a discourager?” May I ask you another question? “Do you cheer people up?” I mean, when people see you coming are they really glad or do they say, “Oh, no! Here he comes again! Here she comes again!”

III. There’s a third dimension, and I think this is the best. We are to Urge one another.

A. The word for urging means “earnest entreaty.” It is a genuine, serious plea to improve, to achieve a goal. We are to sincerely, genuinely urge one another on. We’re to urge people to know God’‘s grace in Jesus Christ. The very nature of the Christian life is that we’ve experienced something so wonderful we want everyone to know about it. And so we are to urge one another to come to know Jesus.

B. I have on my desk a stack of cards from a 1-2 grade SS department at a church I served. If I get low, all I have to do is pick up one of those cards. One says, “Yur my favrit prchr.” I can go a week on that! Another says, “I like church. You preach good. Can you preach shorter?” There it is, folks, encouraging, comforting, and urging! Right now, I need to pay attention to the urging.

1. How long has it been since you wrote someone a note? Just an “I’m thinking of you”? After I preached here a few weeks ago, one dear lady from this church wrote me what I think is the sweetest note I have ever received from anyone outside my family. Thank you. Everyone needs that encouraging word. People are out there every week getting stoned and stomped and criticized and condemned. They need that encouraging word. So make a call. Write a note. Send a card. Pat a back. In doing so, you urge people to live lives worthy of God. Is there any greater goal? Is there any greater need?

2. Charlie Shed tells a wonderful story about Johnny Lingo. Years ago, Johnny, upon completing a career with he Merchant Marines, found an island with a group of people that he loved. He decided that he was simply going to go there, take the way of the native, and live his life out on that island. He was going to get married and raise a family in that wonderful, simplistic lifestyle. During this time he learned a custom of the island. The custom of the island when you wanted to marry was to buy your bride from her father. On this island, the highest form of economy was a cow. If people had cows, they considered themselves wealthy. So it was very common for a suitor to negotiate a price of one cow or two cows, or it cause a big uproar when someone offered three or four cows. Johnny met a young woman named Muhanna. When he went to propose to her father, the people on the island were shocked. Because Muhanna was just a plain, ordinary appearing girl. Nothing extra-ordinary about her appearance. No one would accuse her of being pretty. She was, in the language of the island, a “one-cow” girl. Johnny stunned the island. It spread like wildfire that he had offered ten cows for Muhanna in marriage! An incredible price! Well, by now you should be able to guess the rest of the story. Because he said, “Muhanna, you are this beautiful to me,” she became beautiful to look at, and more importantly, beautiful to live with.

3. Folks, I want you to hear me loud a clear. I’m urging, “Welcome to the ten-cow church!” Where the spirit of God is so strong that He looks down inside a plain, ordinary life that’s not worth much at all and He says, “I give you my Son, Jesus Christ, who is the greatest gift I can give you ... far beyond ten cows. I have given my Son to you. That’s how much I love you. That’s how much you are worth.. That’s how much I am going to change your life.
That’s the church of which I am glad to be a part. Amen “By this,” Jesus said, “shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”