(September 20, 1934- April 11, 2011)Salvation Army Chapel
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Jeremiah 29.11-14; Psalm 71:5-9, 14-24; Hebrews 6:9-12; Luke 12.4-7
+ On December 25, 1990, my aunt Shirley gave me a Bible. In it, she wrote,
“To my dear nephew Jamie
I pray that you have a happy and prosperous New Year!
Remember JESUS loves you and so do I
In so many ways, that captured who Shirley was in her faith and in her personality. She was a person who always put Jesus first. But it wasn’t enough that she put Jesus first. By putting Jesus first in her life, she also wanted Jesus to use her. She truly wanted and longed to be a vessel for God to use.
In a few moments, we will sing her favorite song—the song that summed up her life, “Lord, make me a vessel”. In that song, we will sing,
Use me, Lord, to do your will,
I want to be used in your perfect plan.
I want you to use my tounge
To spread your word to everyone I can.
Use my mind so I can think right,
Please use my heart so I can love everybody;
Lord, please make me a vessel,
I want to be a vessel for you.
Being a vessel, as she would quickly tell us, is not easy. It involves something this songs tells us that must have been very difficult for Shirley.
In the song we also hear
I surrender my life totally to thee,
So mold me and make me whatever you’d have me to be.
Being a vessel means surrendering. It involves absolute and completely surrender. And surrendering, sometimes, for Shirley was difficult. It’s difficult for any of us. But as she learned more, as she experienced God’s love and grace in her life, she realized something about being a vessel for the Lord: She realized that a vessel doesn’t have to be perfect. God no where expects us to be perfect vessels. Sometimes a vessel is cracked. Sometimes it is imperfect. Sometimes it is dirty and misshapened. But no matter how imperfect the vessel may be, God can still use it.
And I think, when Shirley fully realized that in her life, she was truly able to be the vessel God wanted her to be. She found a certain freedom in that. And that is a real message from her today. She is still teaching us. She is still with us showing us the way forward.
Her daughter-in-law Pam told me a great story the other day—one that perfectly sums up who Shirley was. Even as far advanced as her Alzheimer’s was in these last few years, there was a moment when Pam’s dog was there with Shirley. The dog, sensing that Shirley wasn’t well, snuggled up to her and looked at her closely and with very sad eyes.
At one point Shirley asked Pam,” Does that dog know that I’m not feeling well?”
“I think so,” said Pam.
Shirley, without a moment’s notice, even in that fog of Alzheimer’s, immediately laid hands on the dog and began praying for it. And in that prayer she prayed that God would use that dog as a vessel.
No matter how much that disease took away from Shirley, there were some things it could not take away. And one of those things that it did not take away was her strong spirit of prayer and her incredible faith.
In January, when we were not sure Shirley was going to be with us much longer, I went into the Emergency Room. I told Shirley that I was going to pray with her. Immediately she went into prayer mode. And, as I laid hands on her and anointed her and we prayed, I saw her lips moving and—I swear—she was speaking in tongues.
Even this past Sunday, when we all gathered together in her room in the nursing home in Enderlin to bless the marriage of 57 years she had with John, we prayed prayers at the time of death and, again, I anointed her. Even in her unconscious state, she seemed to physically reacted to the prayers that were being said for her and to the anointing.
This was truly the kind of person Shirley was. She was a Christian through and through. She was a true vessel of God’s love and light.
And she led a truly scripture-saturated life. Her daughter Cathy was telling me that there were scriptures everywhere in her house. Cathy opened up a cupboard, there were scriptures. Even opening up the medicine cabinet, there were scriptures taped to the door. In her Bible, as I went through it this week, I found a small card. On one said, it “Prophecy for Shirley” by someone named Sharon. On the other said, under the date January 2, 2003, was the scripture we just heard from Hebrews chapter 6, verse 10. I’ll repeat it:
“God is not unjust; He will not forget your work and the love you have shown Him and you have helped His people and continue to help them.”
When I read it, I sort of gasped, because that prophecy for Shirley has truly come to pass. God has not forgotten the work Shirley did, nor has God forgotten the love Shirley showed to God and to others. Truly, in Shirley’s life, she helped people and continued to help them. And, I would say, she continues, even now, to help. Whether, the help was to her parents, to her siblings, to her husband, to her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, or her foster children, or to her nieces and nephews or to the many, many friends she had over the years, Shirley was a source of love and acceptance.
It really is incredible. Today, we are truly celebrating the life of this incredible, wonderful woman. We are celebrating the life she lived and the life is now living with her God. Now, I can just imagine if she were here with us this afternoon (and she IS with us today—I have no doubt) she would have a problem with me going on too much like this about her. She was not comfortable with praise. Shirley was one of the first to admit that her life was not perfect and that she herself was not perfect. She, like all of us, failed at times.
As I was going through her Bible the other day, picking out scriptures for this service, I found several notes she wrote in the margins. These notes were for scriptures that were essentially speaking to her as she sought to forgive herself for the failings she perceived in her life. She knew fully that she was a fractured and often broken vessel of God.
But what we can celebrate today is that she is now whole. She is now complete. She is in that place she longed for and hoped in all her life. She is in a place of unending light, where she tastes “the blessedness of perfect rest,” where angels now surround her. She is in that place where her heart and soul now ring out in joy to the Lord, the living God and the God of those who live. She is in that place in which she now gazes upon her Savior face to face. And, because she is there, we have much to celebrate today.
But…we can’t end our celebration of her life without a life lesson from Shirley. She wouldn’t want us to go away from here without taking something meaningful with us. And, if she were here with us today—and, as I said, she IS here with us today—she would want everyone here to remember this.
You too are vessels. You too are called to be vessels of God in your life. And, like her, you don’t have to be perfect to be a vessel. You don’t have to be pristine and without flaw. You don’t have to have perfect faith, without any doubts. Even with whatever brokenness you have within you, even with whatever flaws and shortcomings you might have, you can be a full and completely useful vessel of God in your life. Even broken, even incomplete, even misshapened, God loves us fully and completely.
And so did Shirley.
There is a line in that song that we will sing in a few moments that must’ve really spoken to Shirley, because she really did live it out fully and completely in her life. The line in the song is:
Please use my heart so I can love everybody;
God really did use Shirley’s heart. I don’t think there was a person that Shirley didn’t love in at least some way. Even when we were not good, even when we failed, even when we messed up, Shirley, we all knew, still loved us, still cared for us, still welcomed us with open arms and with all the love she could muster in herself. And, let me tell you, that was a LOT of love. That heart of hers was overflowing all the time. I sometimes was amazed at how big that heart of hers was. And I truly believe it was that overflowing heart and all that love that she had that kept her going these past few months. She was full of love, even at the end. Even in the midst of that awful illness, she was overflowing with love.
Last Sunday, when we all gathered in her room with her, the love was so strong, was so real, you could’ve cut it with a knife. And now, that love, fully freed , fully surrendered, is what sustains us today and in the days to come. Because now there is no hindrance in her love for us. Where she is now, is a place of unending, perfect love.
Be a vessel of God’s love, she is saying to each of us today. Love each other. Love God. Be a vessel of love.
And that, Shirley would say to us today, is what God wants of you. In being a vessel, we are closest to Shirley. In being a vessel for God, we will feel Shirley closer to us than we have ever felt her before. When we surrender ourselves and let ourselves be what God wants us to be, we will hear her voice in our ears, encouraging us. If we listen closely, we can almost hear her saying it to us:
“JESUS loves you,” she is saying to us today and from now on, “and so do I.”