Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The death of a saint

Yesterday was the memorial service of an old friend.  She's been battling cancer for years, and finally let go of her ravaged body and this old earth last Friday.  One of her daughters has been keeping us in the loop for the last week, so I've been thinking about her a lot.  And thinking of her five daughters, three grandchildren, husband, parents, siblings and especially her youngest sister, Karen, who was my college roommate.  I've known the whole family a very long time.  In fact, after my own family, I send more Christmas cards to the Barnes family than any other.  I've been in relationship with one or more of the them since I was twenty years old, and have even had Joanne's niece and nephew live with us (separately) for a season over the years.

Joanne I met many years ago, when Karen and I drove down to the family home in San Jose for spring break my first year at college in Eugene.  Joanne was also staying with her parents while her husband was away...serving a year-long prison sentence, actually.  Joanne had two daughters then, dark-haired four-year-old Ginny and the bright-red-haired baby Aimee, who was absolutely adorable!  I enjoyed Joanne, her calmness, her great sense of humor, her quiet love of Christ. Her certainty that God was in this trouble she had, that He would redeem it, somehow.  I was instantly awed by that faith, that love of Christ.

Then years later, when the Beve and I moved our family to Sequim, there was Joanne and her now larger family, going to the church we chose, living next door to her parents, who had retired there.  By then Joanne had five girls and the youngest two were the same ages as E and SK, so we had an instant connection.  Joanne invited me to a women's Bible Study she was starting on Wednesday mornings, which we quickly named "WOW" or Women on Wednesdays.  For the next five years, we met weekly through the school year to study and pray.  Joanne played worship choruses on the piano (until a real pianist joined our group), plunking out simple melodies while we praised.  Our children--E started Kindergarten that fall, and the other two were younger--were cared for in the nursery(well, when they weren't causing havoc around the building--there was the time when one of them climbed up the cement fountain in the church's courtyard, and broke it! Like every other mom in the room, I was sure it was one of my children who'd done it--J, to be exact--but fortunately it wasn't!). And we spent the morning together, discovering what God might have to say through our communal prayers, and our deep desires in knowing Him through His word.  Joanne was the defacto leader of our group in the early years.  She had older children, she had a sense of God's presence, she was absolutely in love with Jesus.  And it was all very appealing, contagious.  We sat around the table with God and Joanne, and soaked up what she had to teach us. 

A couple years later, I asked Joanne's mom, Ruth, if she'd disciple me, so another morning a week I went to their geodesic dome house where Joanne joined us in more directed prayer.  Those were sweet hours, listening to the wisdom of such Godly women.  I felt blessed to be with them, and humbled by both Ruth's and Joanne's deep, honest praying.  It taught me a lot about how to approach the throne of grace confidently--without religious words or mere platitudes.  I was changed by those hours sitting in the dome's large living room, just as I was around the table with Joanne at church.

Joanne didn't have an easy life, nor an easy marriage.  But no matter what struggle she faced, she never seemed to lose her calm certainty of God's provision and real presence in her life.  It was often a struggle for me to understand how she could maintain such equilibrium in the face of difficulties which would surely destroy me, but she was a witness to me of God's faithfulness in whatever fire slammed through her life.
I remember driving somewhere with her, and her confiding that she'd been told she would probably get breast cancer, given what she was already dealing with.  It surprised me how nonchalant she seemed about it, how unafraid she was to face cancer, and even death. 
Soon after that she moved away, and by the time she moved back to Sequim, the Beve and I were pulling up stakes and moving across the sound to where we now live.  I saw her a few times after that, but we were always rushing out of church to see Beve's dad, or she was on her way somewhere.

The last time I saw Joanne was at the wedding of her nephew, about two years ago.  By then, she'd been living with cancer for several years, and wasn't recognizable to me because steroids and other drugs she was on had ballooned her slight frame.  Karen got up from where we'd been visiting, walked over to a rather large woman, and hugged her.  After the woman left the reception, Karen sat back down, and told me it was Joanne.  I would have walked past her on the street.  And didn't have a chance to speak to her. 

I'm feeling sad about that today.  I was sad yesterday when I realized it wasn't practical for me to try to get to the memorial service.  But I know what that service was about.  I know what was said.  Joanne had gone home, was receiving a hero's welcome within the gates of heaven.  The father knows her name, knows her heart, and was glad to have her home.  And I know that, for all the sadness of that loss--for Ginny, Aimee, Ruthie, Brooke and Brittany, for Manuel, her husband who she remained faithful to for so many years, for her parents, Ruth and Bob, her siblings, especially Karen--there was also a true sense of celebration.  "Blessed in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints," says the Psalmist, and Joanne was absolutely one of His saints.  Her witness, her story, is as complicated as anyone's, but never did she falter, never was she anything but in love with Christ.  Even in the bleakest moments, she held on (sometimes by her fingernails!), and I know He's honoring that now.  I know there are balloons (metaphorically) and cake and homemade icecream at the party going on in heaven, celebrating a life well-lived, a life honoring Him.

I'm sorry not to have been in that company yesterday, but not sad for Joanne.  For her, she finally is where she's longed to be--face to face with her Beloved.  Hallelujah!

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