I have hidden your word in my heart.Psalm 119:11
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) – people whose lives bear witness to the goodness of God, and who teach us to trust in God’s mercy, come what may. These witnesses can be people like Abraham and Sarah, John the Baptist, Mary, or Peter. But they can also be people that we know personally, people like my mother-in-law, Elaine.
Elaine was not just my mother-in-law. She was, for me, one of the most important witnesses in that great cloud, who taught me – mostly by example – so much of what I know and believe about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It began 30+ years ago, when my wife and I got engaged. That was when Elaine told me that she had been praying for me since Karen was a baby. Praying for Karen’s future husband. And I believed her.
Elaine was a woman of deep and abiding prayer. My wife told me that she remembers, on many occasions, coming into the family room of their house and seeing her mom promptly put down her Bible to ask her how she was doing. Elaine read the Bible often, and prayed without ceasing. She found both direction and solace in these ancient practices of the faith. This was true even through her struggle with dementia.
Her husband, Bill, shared a story with me that describes this so well, of Elaine with her Bible, after her dementia had progressed well past her ability to read. Elaine would still take her Bible, open it up, and place it on her lap, and be in silent prayer, her soul at rest, finding solace in God’s Word, just as she had done throughout her life. It is a picture of a line from Psalm 119 that Elaine had highlighted in her Bible: “I have hidden your word in my heart.” May we all hide God’s word in our hearts in this way.
Familiar prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer and the meal blessing that the family uses offered this same consolation to Elaine, even as her dementia advanced. And so did worship services. In the congregation where I serve as pastor, it was always moving to see how peaceful Elaine would be while in worship. From the moment she walked into our sanctuary, she was at peace, even as her dementia advanced. At our house, she would often be restless, wondering who we were waiting for, thinking that it was time to leave, not being able to sit still. (With the occasional exception being on our back porch, where she would pat our dog and look at the birds and have some moments of peace.) But always, in the sanctuary, Elaine would be at peace. It was where she was supposed to be. And she knew it. It made me think of Psalm 27, “One thing I asked of the Lord; this I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, and to behold the beauty of the Lord.”
Just as Elaine planted in me a desire for God’s Word to give me lifelong peace, she planted that same desire in me for finding lifelong peace in prayer, and in the house of the Lord.
It is one of the most remarkable things about a remarkable woman – that even as her dementia progressed, she continued to teach us about the Christian faith. Her life continued to bear witness to the solace that comes from trusting in God. Her faith and trust in God was woven so deeply into her soul, I think, that nothing could take it away.
My mother-in-law continued to bear witness to her faith right up to her last breath on this earth, just a couple of weeks ago. It was after a long week of dying. She had not been responsive that week, but was still hanging on; her body strong, and resisting that last breath. But that Saturday, her husband began reading Scripture to her, at the suggestion of a friend, passages that are often suggested for Funerals. And he got to the Psalms, and in particular to Psalm 90:
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations … From everlasting to everlasting you are God … A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past or like a watch in the night … Our years come to an end like a sigh … they are soon gone, and we fly away.”
Except that Elaine “flew away” before that last part. Because at the very moment that Bill read, “Our years come to an end like a sigh,” she opened her eyes, and looked at him, the first time in five days, and died. At that very moment. With Scripture still echoing in her ears, and in her mind, and heart, and soul, just as it had done throughout her life. Still teaching us, by example, what faith looks like, right until our last breath.
My prayer for Elaine, for several years now, has been from Scripture, Philippians 4:7, to be exact. That Elaine would always know “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” and that it would “guard her heart and her mind in Christ Jesus.” And I am grateful to have seen this prayer being answered in so many different ways. But I also have come to realize that this has been her prayer for me, and for all she knew and loved. That we, too, would know the peace which surpasses all understanding, the peace that continued to guard her heart and her mind throughout her life.
My mother-in-law now fully understands the peace that surpasses all understanding. Isn’t that amazing to think about? She spent a lifetime receiving that peace, from her faith and trust in Jesus, and teaching us how to do the same. It might be her greatest legacy, at least to me. The ways in which she taught me what it means to receive and share the peace that surpasses all understanding.
My wife told me a beautiful story about her mother, from back when she and Bill began to serve as foster parents for medically vulnerable children. Elaine told Karen that she would sing “Jesus Loves Me” to them, and show them Jesus’ love, knowing she would not have them long. But wanting to plant those seeds of Jesus’ love in the time that she had with them. She did that for me, too. And for so many others. She planted those seeds of Jesus’ love, in the time that we had with her.
And isn’t that all that God asks of us? To plant those seeds with the time that we are given? As Psalm 90 reminds us, the days of our life are not long; “they are soon gone, and we fly away.” “Our years come to an end like a sigh.” So teach us, the Psalmist prays, to count our days, that we may gain wise hearts. And help us, dear Lord, to share the love of Jesus in the ways that Elaine taught us. Until that day when we, too, cast our last breath on this earth, and close our weary eyes, only to have them opened again in Jesus’ presence, to be filled with his love, in a way that we can only imagine, but in a way that Elaine knows now, fully. Amen.