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.