Emma Argue. I have never met this woman, but today I attended her funeral. Yesterday was to be the day that my brother had open-heart surgery, but his operation was cancelled due to a last minute dental infection. With three now-unscheduled days left in my trip to Philadelphia, I accompanied my musician-sister to a memorial service for which she had been hired to play piano. As an avid “people watcher” person (whose wardrobe just happens to consist of clothing that is ninety-eight percent black), it immediately occurred to me that being a Funeral Crasher (shades of the infamous Wedding Crashers movie should come to mind here, only with a darker twist) might make a perfect avocation for me, as I am a sucker for music, deep and reverent sentimental thoughts, and flowers. Funerals, by definition, eliminate the behind-the-scenes “odds-making” activities that weddings proffer; unlike the prognosis for wedding couples, the outcome for the person at the center of memorials has already been determined. Those in attendance can get right to the business at hand – celebrating the life that has gone before, remembering which aspects of it were illustrative of a well-lived existence and, hopefully, leave with a glass of punch, a cookie, and a grand “take-away” (a.k.a. “the lesson learned”). Today, I discovered that one not even know the decedent in order to feel the impact and beauty (yes, beauty) of the moment… with one caveat noted: no presence of a dead body, please.
Today, there was simply a photo of Emma. Her life of 90+ years had exceeded the Biblical expectation for her of “three score plus ten” (that’s 70 for those of you who cannot do the math). Emma’s life had culminated with the past 25 years in the Masonic home, where this morning’s service for her was being conducted. Emma had been a nurse, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law and a grandmother. Strikingly, I cannot report how much money Emma made, and there were no photos of her worldly possessions. No one at her memorial spoke of her financial assets, the make and model of the car she had driven, or the size of the diamond she had worn on her hand. Here’s what I can summarize for you about her: by everyone’s accounts, she had lived in covenant with the Lord. She had faithfully dedicated herself to her husband of 70 years and to her children and grandchildren. She had won the loving favor of her daughters-in-law (this is no small feat to do) and had been a blessing to countless others over the course of her life, always living life exuberantly, and in a way that was true to herself and her faith. Many people stood up and spoke about Emma. Even her neighbors at the Masonic home shared awesome stories of how Emma would arrive at their card games with extra nickels in her pocket to share with others, who had (in their senior moments) forgotten their betting money. One person captured Emma’s spirit by describing her as a woman who “not only tried, but was successful… at living a life dedicated to faith, family and friends.” Envy, for those who had known her, was suddenly mine.
Of course, there were the requisite Old Testament and New Testament readings and the singing of Emma’s favorite hymns (which, I will add, especially in case she is reading this, my sister banged out perfectly). Several verses of Amazing Grace and It is Well with My Soul later, I could imagine I had known dear, late, Emma for a long time because I had learned so many nice things about her. But, here’s my point: today I concluded that memorial services don’t serve the dead as much as they serve the living. They serve to make us inspect our own lives and to think about how we live them. They incorporate two very special ingredients: wonderful memories of the past… and dreams for how we might better live out our futures. After all, for those of us left behind, the future on earth is still ours, for a time.
The 23rd Psalm – often the Scriptural centerpiece of memorials – is a whole, poignant life lesson, in and of itself. “The Lord is my shepherd…”, as the pastor pointed out today, served to remind us that Emma had been accepted back into the heavenly fold. And, as he read it aloud, I realized that when one can sit in a memorial service in an non-emotionally connected capacity – as a bystander, per se – it becomes possible to examine one’s own “sheepish – ness”, as well as the ways in which we are called to shepherd others. Accordingly, here are a few of today’s fun facts: sheep are both smart and dumb. They are smart to seek the still water, because going to drink in a creek of rushing water would quickly weigh their wool down and drown them. They are dumb because they eat anything green… and would eat it right down to the roots if they were allowed. This is why shepherds keep them moving; left to their own devices, sheep would turn beautiful, rich pastureland into an empty desert. The shepherd leads his sheep with a staff, using the crooked end to literally catch the fallen sheep and to gently prod them into directions where they will be well fed, safe, and best cared for. That shepherd’s staff becomes the extension of the shepherd’s arm and also helps to stomp out things like bugs and dangerous scorpions along the journey. Shepherds literally lay down their bodies, in certain instances, to protect their flocks, often (in olden days) getting attacked, bloodied or even killed, themselves. Hence, we have an expression today – “over my dead body” – to which many people (especially my fellow parents) can relate and have probably said themselves, at one time or another, to their family flock.
Having suffered the loss of numerous loved ones, I had always associated the 23rd Psalm with death and dying. Today it spoke to me in a fresh, new way. How much we are both sheep and shepherd during our lives, as parents, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, grandparents, friends and mentors! As a parent, I have struggled with shepherding my two lambs – keeping them (to the best of my abilities) from wandering into dangerous places, or from being consumed by the wolves of the world. I have dedicated much of my earthly life trying to feed them in righteous and loving ways, and have endured the pain of them becoming lost or tripping on the path. Like a sheep, myself, I have sought my Heavenly Shepherd, seeking the un-earthly Leadership that turns darkness into daybreak and provides protection from the storms of life. I have actively sought the voice of some earthly shepherds too… sometimes heeding the counsel and direction of my husband, parents and lately, my mother-in-law. I am grateful – beyond words – for the abiding love, guidance, forgiveness and protection of special shepherds in my life.
The character of David – the-shepherd – who is central to the 23rd Psalm, further reminds us that he is both shepherd and sheep, righteous person and personal sinner, boy and king. He reminds us that although we always walk in the shadow of death, we should fear no evil if we live life exuberantly in covenant with Goodness, Truth and Light. Restoration is not always easy, but the promises and the amazing grace of the restorative process “shall follow me all the days of my life.” Emma Argue taught me that today. Emma, you are better “late”, than never.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.