In a couple of hours I will be at the funeral for my friend Nellie. She
was is a really sweet lady I’ve been blessed to know over the last 2+ years.
Nellie was a member of my church although she’d never attended while I’ve been pastor and has never, as far as I know, heard me preach a sermon. When I arrived here in 2009, the retired pastor, Roland, began introducing me to the dear ladies in area nursing homes and I inherited pastoral care of her from him. She stood out right away. Despite being in her mid-90’s, fairly immobile, somewhat hard of hearing, and enjoying vision in only one eye, she was always spirited, joyful, flat-out mighty with cheer.
Her beloved King James Bible was always near at hand. Once she told me the print was too small for her to read any more. So I got her a giant print KJV. She said she couldn’t read that either. But I think she just didn’t like the idea of a “new” Bible. She knew a whole lot of it by heart anyway.
One thing that always struck me about Nellie was her phenomenal memory. It could sometimes be a month between my visits but she always remembered details about my family and things going on at church. I remember her asking about Becky and how she was doing while we spent 9 months living in different states. I was blessed and impressed by that.
Nellie and Kate, another dear saint we lost last year, are part of an aging generation of Vermonters that I fear are the last for a while faith-holders of this land. They lived Vermont’s days of richer spiritual health and have held the faith while those following behind have not.
Nellie began writing poetry in 1987, when she was 72 years old(!), as a way to grieve and remember the passing of her daughter Norma. Ten years later some relatives collected all her poems and bound them. Nearly all of them gleam with gospel. Here’s my favorite:
My Only Hope is Jesus
My Jesus I love thee
I love thy written word
It’s the sweetest story ever told
that I have ever heard.
You are always with me
you live within my heart
and if I ever need a friend
you are there to impart.
You are always there to listen
to what I have to say
and you answer all of my prayers
in your own special way.
I can come to you in spirit
I can come to you with love
and know some day I’ll dwell with you
in my Heavenly home above.
When my work on earth is over
and my work for you is done
you’re my only hope for Heaven
you’re the only one.
I love it. This poem, like all her poetry, is guileless and without pretense. I even love the theological sophistication belied by the simple lines in the last stanza that basically say “after my life of work for God is done, my only hope for heaven is nevertheless Jesus.” No, this poem won’t win any awards, but the faith it displays has won the joy of Jesus, which is a treasure beyond compare.
Last Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, Pastor Roland let me know that the nursing home had contacted Nellie’s family to tell them she likely only had days and to start preparing for her passing. I visited her that night. She indeed did not look good. Slumped over, breathing with much labor, coughing, she welcomed me, but she didn’t recognize me. She began referring to conversations we hadn’t had, picking up trains of thought mid-stream that made no sense. I could see she was going.
I held her hand. I prayed for her. I read 1 Corinthians 15 to her, the whole long thing, and she sat in silence. When I was done, I said to her, “Jesus loves you and is proud of you, Nellie.” I told her that even though her body was weak, she was strong as Jesus inside. She looked at me and began reciting Psalm 23 perfectly, in the King James of course. When she was done, she recited it again. She knew it was too good not to rerun. Then she said, “Jesus died for me. I love my Jesus.” Sometimes I don’t know what “joy inexpressible and filled with glory” means, but at that moment I did. I had no words. So I just squeezed her hand gently and smiled at her through tears and sat there. That’s what you do in the presence of greatness.
Nellie died three days later, on Friday morning. She was 95.
I’ve struggled over the last couple of years sharing the gospel at the funerals of those who by most indications did not know Jesus. Today I am so happy I get to celebrate her life as well as The Life that gave her life and is giving her life even now and forever more.