With Thanksgiving for the Life of Helen Vivian Otillia Cattell 6Sept21 + 5Aug14
Psalms 13 & 23; Hebrews 11:13-16, 12:1-2; John14:1-7
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
Well, this is another of those moments we knew would arrive and yet didn’t know when, and didn’t want to happen. It was just over 15 months ago that we gathered for a service for Ray, the man that Helen continued infamously to claim she slept with on their first night together, meaning on the trainride from Chicago. It was a marriage that caused some unexpected surprises for that city girl, as she had to live in the northwoods and discover the joys of an outhouse during winter. Though, we’d have to admit that she took to it all pretty well and adapted to life with Ray.
And some of what we’d say about him, we could also say about Helen. Which could begin with—boy—did she know how to give a person a hard time! She was also great at pretending to take offense when you tried to retort, until eventually she would call the truce and get you both out of trouble, saying, “I’ll be nice to you if you also behave.”
The fun-loving Helen had plenty of good days knitting and antiquing bowling and speaking Norwegian at you and playing cards (and she also enjoyed acting as if that were a shameful vice). Really, she enjoyed most anything as long as there was a good circle of laughter around it, and maybe some cookies and coffee.
And we should certainly recognize for her that those joys of life continued even after her move up to the Heritage. The move provided company at meal times, some old friends, and some new faces to get to know and enjoy, a new sort of home.
Yet in some ways the time of the move also marks a turning point, as some of her memory issues got worse, and as she kept on insisting she’d prefer to be back home. She always continued recalling memories of all the kids who grew up on Midmoor, the close friendships, the many fond delights of the neighborhood.
And that’s a pretty defining trait of Helen, the way she continued to encounter memories and to negotiate with the past. In some ways, they were simply happy recollections. But in other regards those confrontations with the past caused Helen a theological conundrum.
First and foremost was her grief for Marty. She raised the question repeatedly in conversations with me for a decade, and I’m sure she was pondering it for the decade before that, as well. Occasionally, she was struggling with who God was. But more often, even as she would lament missing Marty and how it didn’t seem right, still she simply declared with a deep trust that it’s a mystery we can’t yet understand, how our God works.
A similar side note with contemplating God and loving her children, another really regular conversation with Helen was concern about you, Spence and Wade, and being part of church and being able to trust this God. I think it’s worth giving voice to this serious hope (and sometimes) worry of your mom’s, for you and for all of us in younger generations who haven’t yet found faith to be the resource or the assurance that she did.
Overall, with her faithful kind of trust, it seemed that Psalm 13 was fitting for today. It ends with very confident words, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. The LORD, has dealt bountifully with me.” Such strong confidence, though, such deep faithfulness seems almost misplaced after the first two-thirds of the Psalm, that began with raising the insistent question, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?”
Both sides of that Psalm were Helen’s voice. She never doubted the goodness of the heavenly promise, but she most certainly questioned it. Her faithfulness wasn’t only blind acceptance, but an ongoing wrestling. She continued to feel lonely, not only because of Marty, but continually as she watched her close circle of friends die, as she was feeling like the only one left. She would ask why so many others had gone but she was still around, why her time hadn’t come yet. But then she’d answer her own question, in a way, by saying that it wasn’t up to her but up to God, and God knew the time and God was prepared and God would be ready.
That fits with our Gospel reading, words from Jesus of the blessing he has prepared for Helen and for you, “in my Father’s house.” There is still so much of this we can’t see, that even when we trust, it nevertheless remains mysterious. But here is the bold promise of Jesus: “I go to prepare a place for you, that you may be with me.” That promise of Jesus, that God was with her, kept Helen throughout her life, and continues to hold onto her in a new way, a new place now.
Being home with Jesus was and remains a good word for Helen. It was long at a house on Midmoor. It fit in a new home at Heritage. That home-making presence continues through valleys of the shadow of death. It fits her life among the saints of St. Stephen’s, a church family for 55 years, a place to call home, as the LORD prepares this table before you, as the communion of saints gathers around, as the heavenly feast is shared, as you dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
And with all of these details of our lives, all the races we run together, through the pains and the joys, amid our worst losses and all the amazing riches, it is a promise we will all arrive at together, the guarantee that we will all be remembered in God’s kingdom, with Helen, and with Ray, and with Marty, with all those who have gone before and all those yet to come, all welcomed home together forever.