A Celebration of Life
We are a month late on our quarterly blog update. It's been quite the start of what is sure to be a wild year. I spent the last half of January and most of February in Kansas City so I could be at my mom's side during the last few weeks of her life. She was diagnosed this past Christmas with late stage aggressive cancer and passed away last month. This is not how we expected our year that we plan to move to Tokyo to begin, but I wanted to share with you all the words I spoke at my mother's Celebration of Life. Below is the manuscript I put together. I hope you will be blessed and encouraged by these words and see a little more just how much God loves you.
There are many things my mother will be remembered for by many people. As her son, there are many precious things that I alone will remember her for. Or that will be only between my sister and I.
Today with you all, I am compelled by love to share with you that which was most defining of her life: her faith. It is my great honor and privilege to do so with you.
You see, I still remember as a 4 year old when I first became aware of my mother’s faith. Some of you may know I am on staff with our local church in Columbia as we begin final preparations to move my family to Tokyo, Japan to join a small young church there as they disciple one another and make disciples of the wonderful people of Japan. So I cannot understate the role and the impact my mother’s faith has had on my life.
The object of my mother’s faith is specific. In a culture and society where we have freedom to entertain belief in a host of things, my mother’s faith was in one thing. In one person rather. A Jewish refugee, son of a carpenter from a little nowhere town in modern day Israel. His name is Jesus and his love, his life, his death and his resurrection from the grave changed everything for my mother and changes everything for us.
I’ve been struggling over the past week or so in what I would say to you all today to honor my mother. But during my mom’s last few weeks with us I was reflecting on how powerfully she loved God and loved other people. More so than anyone I’ve known in my 32 years of life. And that is meaningful to me because in my personal journey of faith over the last few years there is a passage in the New Testament that has stood out to me more and more, that I keep coming back to. It’s in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life. You can find it in Matthew chapter 22 verses 36-40 on the back of your program. A jewish student of the law comes to Jesus and says picking up in verse 36,
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” And he said to them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the Prophets.”
Friends, as a follower of Christ for the last 12 years I have been continually asking what does it mean to be a follower of Christ? And this is the passage that I keep coming back to again and again. So as I was putting together the program in your hands I asked my sister if there were any verses that were particularly meaningful to my mother and as you can see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. This happens to be one of my mother’s favorite passages of scripture.
I want to take some time with you today to break that passage down. What does that mean to love the lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and what does it look like to love your neighbor as yourself? All we have to do is look at the headlines or go on social media to see what loving your neighbor as yourself does NOT look like. The world tells you to love yourself, Christ tells us to love others like we love ourselves. That is hard. That requires sacrifice because to truly love others means we will have to lay down our own rights, our own preferences. Christ has done just that. Why do I say these things? In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi written in the first century he says this to the young church:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God, a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
And so when we consider the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ written down by eyewitnesses in the first century we see what it looks like to love your neighbor as yourself in the way Christ loved those around him, he healed the sick, he was known as a drunkard and glutton by the religious authority because of who he associated with, he loved the loveless. And as I think of my mother’s life, I have seen that same love lived out. And I am thankful.
But what about this great first commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.” First, as the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek, I believe it is important if we at least have a basic understanding of the original intent or meaning of the words used. The heart, mind and soul. In the Greek: Kardia, Psyché and Dianoia.
This first word, Kardia indicates the center of both spiritual and physical life. It includes our understanding of the will, of our character, of our passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes and endeavors.
This second word that we translate as soul, Psyche is similar in terms of meaning to heart, it refers to you as a living being, your life breath, the seat of your feelings, desires, affections and aversions. They are closely related, these terms Kardia & Psyché, all of who you are. Your identity.
And this last word Dianoia we translate it as thought, the Greek understanding denoted it as meaning the seat of understanding, and our thoughts. Well now we know what those words meant in context it should be easy to unpack right? Essentially if I were to boil it down, it means to love God with everything you are. To love Him by giving him your time, by investing in a relationship with him, reading His word, prayer. I could spend a long time fleshing out the application of this passage.
When I look back at my mother’s life, it seems quite clear what it means to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. But where did that ability come from? Was she just one of the few good ones, one of the lucky ones? No, I would tell you today that it was not something that came from within her own self, it came from outside of her. It was the gift of God that enabled and empowered her through His Holy Spirit to love Him and others. It was His free gift of Grace towards her that poured out of her and into the lives of those around her. You see my mom was not sinless… she may have sinned less than the rest of us in this room all put together but she was still in desperate need of the Savior to rescue her from sin and its wages. What I’m trying to say is, when you walk out of here I don’t want you to think “I’m going to be more like Karen and do what she did in my own strength.” SHE didn’t even do it in her own strength. My hope is that when you walk out of these doors you will be asking God almighty to give you the same free gift of grace that enabled and empowered her to live a life devoted to loving God and loving others. That gift was made manifest in the life of God’s son, Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection.
Last summer I had the privilege of delivering a message at a family reunion with my mother and many of the people in this room. The text I chose to exposit for them is an account from the Gospel of John found in chapter 11. This is an amazing account of Christ in the midst of grief. Today, this passage is especially relevant for us. You see Jesus and his followers received a report that a friend, the brother of Mary and Martha, was sick. And in verse 4, it says, “But when Jesus heard it he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death, it is for the Glory of God that the son of God may be glorified through it.’ Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” You see in the time that Jesus stayed where he was, this man, Lazarus, died. So already we see this peculiar thing, Jesus loved them so he waited for Lazarus to die. That sounds almost absurd right? If Christ really loved them, if he was really God’s son how could he possibly let him die, how could he let them experience the suffering that comes from the loss of a loved one gone too soon. You see, this question is relevant even for us in this room today.
When Jesus finally gets to the place where Lazarus has died, the man has been dead for four days and it’s here that Christ makes one of his most audacious claims. Martha, the man’s sister comes to Jesus, she says “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” God if only you’d done something, if only you were here, this would have gone differently. We’ve all been there right, some of us are there right now. And that’s where Jesus says, “your brother will rise again.” to which she replies with the common, “I know he’s in a better place now and I’ll see him again in the resurrection.” and Christ tells her plainly, “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” It’s a little later when he comes to the tomb that he sees people grieving and he himself weeps. And so this passage of scripture which ends with Christ raising Lazarus from the dead shows us a powerful glimpse of the humanity and divinity of Christ moved with sympathy at our grief because of death, yet showing how He loves us by overcoming death itself.
In the sermon I preached last summer on this text I drew three main points from it, The reality of death, the reality of Christ’s love and the reality of God’s glory. We are here today because we have felt the sting of the reality of death. I stand here today in the midst of my grief to tell you of the reality of the love of Christ. And I would invite you today to join me in glorifying God.
There is one more passage I would leave you with today. It’s found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In Chapter 8 starting in verse 28: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first born among many brothers."
He goes on a few verses later to say in verse 38,
"For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Maybe you are here and you have felt far from from the love of God in Christ Jesus, maybe on a day like today, you question, does God really love me? I would tell you, Christ would tell you. In the same way I tell my daughters with my arms outstretched to embrace them, “I love you this much” Christ’s arms were spread out, nailed to a cross so as to say, “I love you this much, and not even death can separate you from my love.” Christ says to you today, “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” My mother believed this with her heart, soul and mind. And so we rejoice and we celebrate her life and what God has done. On February 21st another child of God went home to be with the Lord, his name was William and he said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” Today the same is true of my mother, Karen, and so we rejoice.