a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Dolly Marjorie Paterson (29 July 1919 + 29 August 2015)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We’re here today because we are in some way connected to Dolly’s love. Some have good reason to be loved, for example you family whom who she held so, so dear, while others of us may have been continually surprised by the love and care that radiated out from her. I’d like to reflect on this amazing abundant love we recognized from Dolly and draw a few of the parallels to the love of God in Christ Jesus. Since she knew and embraced Scripture so dearly, I’m going to tour through lots of Bible verses to compare with Dolly.

We can begin with that abundance of her love, that seemed to exclude no one. She cherished old friends and new acquaintances. She delighted in the company of other seniors around the lunch table and also of rambunctious great-grandchildren. She loved peers long close to her, but also kids and those in need she’d never meet. I liked noting how she also keenly got to know the staff working with her, and not just to know them, but learning about their families, too, and what they did in time off. That points us already deeper into this reflection.

But before we get too far into it, let’s pause to make some of the connections to the love of God. For abundance, we may start with that popular scripture verse, “for God so loved the world” (John 3:16). That wideness of love isn’t restricted to a certain chosen people or family, but goes past every barrier, breaking down walls to access both those of us “who were far off and those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17).   As it says in Acts, the love of God “shows no partiality” (10:34). We could see that exemplified in Dolly’s vast concerns and cares.

And just as Dolly clung to the words of Romans 8, which tell us that “neither death, nor life, nor things present, not things to come, nor anything else will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (8:38-39), such expansiveness was also familiar in Dolly’s love, which really felt unconditional. When the gaps were long between my visits, I worried that she’d be grumpy at me or disappointed or critical. Instead, her love persisted and all she voiced was how busy I must be.

That was like so many positive and encouraging words from Dolly, somehow devoid of even hints of disapproval. So when there were things she worried about or didn’t agree with for you, rather than intrusively badgering you with it, instead her practice was to quietly hold it in prayer, patiently asking for assistance for you and resolution.

With that positivity, we might return to note what an eager learner Dolly was. This is how she got to know about everybody’s families and to keep track of your friends and all. She was always attentive and asking questions, keeping up on her reading of newspaper sports results and church newsletters and much more. Connecting to God, that pairs with statements from Jesus that your Father in heaven “knows what you need before you ask” and watches you so carefully and attentively that “even the hairs of your head are all counted” (Matthew 6:8 and 10:30).

This inquisitive nature from Dolly gave you the sense of her devotion to you. It engendered both charm and the occasional frustration. I’m used to getting to hear lots about people’s lives on my pastoral visits, but Dolly would turn that relationship on end by pressing to ask how things were going at church or how my family was doing or sometimes she’d simply say, “Okay, now you talk.”

That helped her learn about all of us and be devoted to our lives, but the occasional frustration was that it could be difficult to learn about her, to get her to divulge those details of herself.

Again, that seems to square with a God who is so entirely devoted to us, who will hear every word we have to say, will listen to complaints and laments and every form of prayer, always attentive, yet a God about whom it can feel difficult to know much. Prayer often feels like we do all the talking, though we’d prefer for God to inject a few clear words. This hidden nature of God is especially a focus of the Gospel of John, which finally responds to our frustrations about the invisible and unknown by declaring “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29).

Another striking detail of Dolly’s loves is the range of time—past, present, and future. Verses for this are in Hebrews (13:8) declaring that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, or Revelation (1:4) proclaiming the endless grace and peace of the one who was and is and is to come.

For Dolly, there was love certainly in the past. I met her in the months after her husband died, and she continued both to celebrate their relationship in old letters and memories and also to grieve the loss. The same for others close to her who were no longer alive, and the cherished recollections of old days in South Dakota.

Yet she didn’t dwell in the past, as they say. She persisted to feel those losses, but still was able to live in the present, to enjoy all of you and each day.

And she was able to look to the future. We may say that as looking to the next generations; when she was two days from the end of her 96 years she cradled baby Nash two days into the start of his years. Or we may see the direction of her love into the future as her hopes of heaven.

With that, as a concluding note, since you also loved Dolly, it bears sharing a few words about how she encountered this ending. In the months since a fall in May, she wavered on whether to keep on struggling for recovery and putting up with the suffering in order to continue enjoying you, or whether she was really ready to die. She delighted in her birthday outing to the Nitty Gritty, but also wanted to be done with pain and enter the joy of salvation.

That conundrum parallels a remark from Paul at the start of his letter to the Philippians, that he was torn between the desire to depart and be with Christ, which would be better, or to continue to remain for the sake of others. He summarized this pairing by saying for himself, and I believe for Dolly, that “living is Christ and dying is gain” (1:21-24).

At this point, I also need to repeat Dolly’s Confirmation verse from the end of Philippians. It served her well, and also so many others she tried to encourage and support in difficult times, that she wrote regularly in sympathy cards, and which she was repeating up until the end. Philippians 4:19 says, “my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”

You should know that Dolly’s faith was sustained in that verse and in her daily devotions, in her prayers for you, in watching Bethel on TV when she couldn’t get to church, in so many of these verses she held as favorites and knew by heart. It was a strong, beautiful faith she had.

And yet still, in her final resolution of readiness to die, it wasn’t simple or easy. Along with all the confidence of her faith, nevertheless our hope remains unseen in this life. Until that moment comes, we wait, as Dolly knew it feeling parched and longing, thirsting for God, as a deer longs for flowing streams (Psalm 42:1-2). But there is still room for doubt, for uncertainty, for wondering what heaven will be, to be reunited with those who have gone before and those who come after us, to the immortality and imperishability that await us (1Corinthians15:53), to open our eyes and arise to eternal life (Ephesians 5:14).

In that hard waiting as in so much else, Dolly was a guide for us, for this faith of loving our neighbors as ourselves and being loved by God into eternity, for now hoping and trusting as best we can that “my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” Amen


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