Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Tribute to a Special Lady

Last Saturday, (June 3) my aunt Loraine Jonas passed away at the age of 94. She, along with her older sister Jessie (who passed away 15 years ago) never married. They lived with my Grandmother Jonas, effectively giving me 3 grandmothers.

My family asked me to eulogize my Aunt Loraine at the funeral yesterday. Here are my comments which are truly from my heart as a tribute to her.

The Measure of a Person
Revelation 14:13

We gather here today, to remember and celebrate the life of Miss Loraine Jonas, or “Own” as I and my family always called her. I guess I get blamed for the nickname for when I was just a small child, I couldn’t say “Loraine” and so she forever will be remembered by us simply as “Own.”
This is also a great honor for me and I am appreciative of the opportunity to say a few words about my aunt on behalf of my family. Her life was so important to my life, particularly when I and my sister were children. Most of you know that “Own” never married. Neither did her sister Jessie. They both lived with my Grandmother Jonas, effectively giving me, my sister, and my cousins three grandmothers. I always thought I was blessed in that way. And, today, it is with a heavy heart that we come together, but also with a grateful heart for the many ways she touched our lives. In that wonderful movie, “Forest Gump,” starring Tom Hanks, there is that terribly sad scene at the end of the movie where Forest is standing at the grave of his beloved Jenny and he says, “Momma always said “Dying is a part of life.” I sure wish it wasn’t.”
I guess all of us are here today saying the same thing Forest Gump said. Dying is a part of life, but we sure wish it wasn’t. Nevertheless, no matter how much we wish it wasn’t, we all know that death is one of the few certainties in life. And, for that we grieve, because “Own” is now gone from us.
When Methodist Bishop Warren Candler died, a friend said of him, “When he left us, it was as if a great tree had fallen in the forest, and left a lonesome place against the sky.” Carl Sandburg wrote about Lincoln, “A tree is best measured when it is down.” And so, we are faced with an empty sky and a tree that needs to be measured.
Ever since Saturday night, when mom called me about Own’s passing, I have been reflecting about her life. And, there is one thought keeps running through my mind. The measure of a person’s life is best determined at the end of life. And, we should measure a person, not on the basis of what she accumulated in life that can’t be taken with her, but rather we should measure a person on the basis of what she accumulated in life that continues on after her. There is a sense in which “eternal life” has both an existential and a corporate quality. The great hope of the Christian faith is that we will live on beyond the grave. But, in the memories of the community of faith and especially in the love of our families, we also live on eternally. And so, our hope and our comfort this afternoon is that “Own” is alive “in a land that is fairer than day,” and she is also still alive in our love and memories of her.
And so, what is the measure of Own’s life? Ultimately, of course, that has to be determined by God alone. There is a passage of Scripture that I would like to take from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. It is found in chapter 14, verse 13. It says very simply:
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes, says the Spirit, they will rest from their labors, for their deeds will follow them.
There are three points that I’d like to draw very quickly from that verse.
I. Blessed Are the Dead Who Die in the Lord
I have no doubt about the life of faith that “Own” lived. She was active in this church. She sang in the choir as long as she was able. I can still hear her voice singing the songs of faith around the house or even in worship services I attended in this church as a child. She also taught children in Sunday School for years and years.
She was also an active member of this church. She did not just attend every now and then like so many people today. She was a regular. She could be counted upon to be present. She gave of her time and limited resources to this church and never grumbled or complained. In short, she was a model church member.
All of that was an outgrowth of her faith. And so, when her life on this earth ended Saturday evening, indeed she was blessed to die “in the Lord.”
When Isabel Coleman, a longtime missionary to China died, her funeral service was conducted by some of the Chinese to whom she had ministered. One man read a brief biography of Miss Coleman’s life. When he concluded, he said, “For those who did not know Miss Coleman, no words are adequate to describe her life. For those who knew her, no words are necessary.”[1]
Indeed, if you didn’t know Own, no words are adequate to describe her life for those of us who loved her. But, if you knew her you know that no words are necessary either.
II. They Will Rest From Their Labors
Loraine Jonas worked hard all her life. Much of her working life when I was a child was spent working in textiles, in cotton mills. I spent one summer working in the textile industry, only 12 weeks. And, I learned firsthand how hard that work is. She spent years working shift work in the textile industry.
She also worked in her family. But this work was joyful. At some point in her life, and I am not sure when, she made a decision not to marry, leave and have children of her own. We became her children. And for someone who never had children of her own, she sure did understand children and treat them well. My sister and I spent lots of hours at her house during our childhood, as did some of my other cousins. And she did not just sit us in front of the t.v. and then go about her own plans. She actually interacted with us. She was interested in us.
One recent story I will share with you. The last time I saw “Own” was the day after Christmas. I took my two daughters Hannah and Gracie down to see her. I sensed that this would perhaps be the last time I would see her and I had not seen her in some time. So, we went. I brought my guitar and let Gracie sing “Away in a Manger” for her and then Hannah played her recital piece on the piano for her. She enjoyed that. But do you know what I believe she enjoyed most? I think she enjoyed playing “dolls” with my girls’ new American Girl Dolls. She held the doll, stroked its hair easily and softly. And then Hannah and Gracie asked her to put the doll’s hair up in a rubber band.
She then took us to her room to show us her doll collection and even gave Hannah and Gracie their own dolls from her small collection. She was 94 years old. But, she was glad to see us and she interacted especially with Hannah and Gracie. I will never forget that last visit.
Now she rests from her labor, a rest well-deserved from a life well lived serving others.
III. For Their Deeds Will Follow Them
I guess this phrase brings me back to the beginning of this eulogy. What lives on after us is not really those things that we can’t take with us. What lives on is love and joy we create by the people we love. Those deeds are the deeds that live on in the memory of those we love. And it is so with Own. She leaves behind a legacy that none of us will ever forget. That legacy includes a lot of things. Her smile and laughter. Her peaceful demeanor. Yes, her pride. Her grace and elegance as a lady.
She taught us how to love. She taught us not to worry. She taught us to eat cornbread crumbled up in sweet milk. And, she had the best sugar cookies at Christmas that I have ever eaten and probably ever will eat. She modeled for us how to live with loss after Grandmother Jonas died and then Jessie, and then her other brothers and sisters.
I believe she liked poetry. Indeed, she did seem to have a flair for the aesthetic side of life. I don’t know if she had a favorite poem. But she did have some poetry books on her book shelf and several years ago she gave them to me. There is a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that I think sums up her life quite well. It goes like this:
Within the maddening maze of things,
When tossed by storm and flood,
To one fixed trust my spirit clings;
I know that God is good!

No offering of my own I have,
Nor works my faith to prove;
I can but give the gifts He gave,
And plead His love for love.

I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.

And so beside the silent sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from Him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.

I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.
[1] Paul Powell, Gospel for the Graveside, p. 62.

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