Alice, with her daughter Barbara, my wife's mother, circa 1948
Alice Nowell, my wife's grandmother, died at the age of 90 on June 10, 2012. I was honored to give the following Pastor's Message at Alice's memorial service on June 14, 2012, at the Vanston & James Funeral Home in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
In offering a few words in memory of Alice Nowell, I’ll begin in a strange, distant place—a place far, far away from Scranton, Pennsylvania.
On Monday, the European country of Ukraine hosted the opening round game of a soccer tournament called the European Championships. Beyond soccer, what I couldn’t get out of my mind was the Ukrainian national anthem preceding the game. It is called: “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished.”
Something eternal caught my heart in a sudden moment as I watched grown men and most of an enormous stadium passionately sing their country’s defining, uniting song as if in a huge worship choir. Everything is surely destined to perish, but their country so far had not—which, of course, gave them incredible joy.
After all, what joy is there when something perishes?
Which brings us to the person of Alice Nowell this morning.
As a would-be suitor of her grand-daughter Amie, I first met Alice in 1993 when she was a spry 71-year-old. In the lobby of Grace Bible Church in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, she told me with a sort of earnestness—and in no uncertain terms—that I better treat her grand-daughter well.
What manner of assertive grandmother was this? I remember thinking.
It was this assertiveness—with a dab of occasional feistiness—that I would come to know through one of Alice’s favorite past-times (as it turned out): playing the card game called Phase 10. Of course, many of you would also have known her long-time Phase 10 partner—and husband—Bill Nowell, who died in May last year.
My guess is: one year of not partnering with him was all she could take.
Alice, with her husband of 64 years, Bill
If she was sometimes assertive, and occasionally feisty, she was also intently curious. And I especially loved that about her.
When I was a pastor of college students and young adults in Oregon, when Amie and I visited Scranton, she would occasionally pepper me with the out-of-the-blue question about “next generation” culture in America. Since these questions often came while she and Bill were treating us to lunch at Old Country Buffet, if the question was too difficult, I would simply decide that now would be a good time to go get seconds.
Once, when she visited the university church I served in Clemson, South Carolina, before our family moved to Richmond, Virginia, after one of the more lively worship songs by our band—a song that included the unique phrase “stubborn grace”—she wanted to know how God could be thought of as in any way being stubborn.
So we talked about God’s relentless, never-ceasing desire to offer us humans grace.
It was, in fact, her very sharp mind into her 80s and at 90 that made it so very satisfying to pull a clever joke on Alice—to see her face break out, uncontrollably, with that almost surprisingly big smile.
Today, as we each remember in our own way and reflect on her living, Alice desperately wanted us to hear Psalm 23.
And I suspect that she wouldn’t simply want us to hear these words on behalf of her life, or in the context of her story, but on behalf of our lives, in the context of our stories, too, as her family and friends.
What do you hear in that psalm, I wonder?
Psalm 23 is divine scripture. But it is also exquisite poetry, and you could consider it a rather moving worship song as well. And in the middle of the song, the artist says: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
In those words alone we are left to ponder our own story. No matter the deepest darkness through which any of us is destined to travel, God is near.
And in the Gospel we come to understand that God has expressed this nearness most dramatically, most clearly, in Jesus the Christ. Alice fervently embraced God’s nearness to us in and through Jesus Christ.
Alice, at the front, in her trademark stance, flanked by her daughters Leann (left) and Barbara (right)
It is quite true: Toward the end, Alice actually shuffled through the valley more than walked.
Her shuffling—an obvious sign of her perishable body—became more pronounced in my vision as I would watch my young boys and my young girl running around in Barbara’s [their grandmother's] apartment—almost, as it were, doing laps around the elderly Alice.
But especially without Bill, these last few months, I suppose she has known and experienced something unique of God’s shepherding presence—something of God’s “stubborn grace.” She has indeed shuffled through this shadowy valley—on her way to dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.
And forever brings us back to this inescapable subject, to the question seemingly posed at every funeral or memorial service like this:
What joy is there when something perishes?
How you and I come to answer this question will be shaped, of course, by our worldview.
According to the worldview found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to some very anxious first-century Christians in the city of Corinth:
"When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' 'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'"
In the case of Alice, we believe that her perishable has now found imperishable, her mortality has become incredibly acquainted with immortality.
And here is the best anthem a person could ever hope to sing in this phase or the next: Death has been swallowed up in victory!
Today: Sing your songs of mourning for Alice. They are more than appropriate.
But sing this song, too: Those who dwell in the house of the Lord will never perish.
Thanks be to God!