Summary: Funeral service for Elizabeth Wilkey Abernethy, a quiet yet committed long-term church member who struggled with cancer for nine years. We can wait if, like Liz, we are self-controlled, upright, and godly, for the glory of the risen Christ is coming.
I am not very good at waiting. Are you? I do not like to sit and twiddle my thumbs waiting for something to happen. Do you remember that in days past shoe repair shops would advertize, “Shoes repaired while you wait”? You would go in, sit down, take off your old clodhoppers, and turn them in, only to discover that the cobbler was working on six other pairs and would get to yours in a while, just take a seat and wait, in your stocking feet, on the cold floor. I was not very good with that.
And let us not even speak of doctors’ offices. You rush to get there for your appointment, only to find a room full of people, some of whom have no appointments but are just being sandwiched in, and all your rushing turns into two hours of thumbing through stale magazines. While we wait, we fume about lost time and about all the all-important things we could be doing – while we wait.
I hold in my hand a precious document. It is of special value to Margaret and me. It is a card that Liz Abernethy wrote us, dated March 4. It expresses appreciation for our visiting her at the hospital and for a little gift that we brought. Howard tells us that Liz began writing a number of cards like this, but that ours is the only one that she was able to finish. It is very precious to us, Howard; we treasure this.
What sort of person writes cards while she waits to die? What kind of woman can, with all the discomfort she was enduring, grasp a pen and, in spidery handwriting, express gratitude, while she waits for the inevitable? What strong soul is this, who, knowing that she has only days to live, perhaps only hours, pulls her thoughts together to think of others? Most of us, I submit, would not know how to wait as Liz did. Most of us would thrash about in anxiety; we would worry and fret and give up. What sort of person, while she waits for that old enemy, writes, “I enjoyed your visits at the hospital”. Enjoyed? Enjoyed?! How can you enjoy anything while you wait for more suffering?
The New Testament Letter to Titus sheds light on this. The Letter to Titus is an instruction manual in how to wait. This little letter comes late in the experience of the early church. If it comes from Paul, as tradition says, it comes from late in Paul’s life, maybe even while he was in prison waiting to die. Or if, as some scholars suggest, it was not from Paul, we still know that it was written at a time when some of the early Christians were losing patience and giving up hope. They had expected to see the return of Christ within their lifetimes. They had supposed that God would bring it all to a swift and sudden end. But it was not happening. They were having to wait. And so the Letter to Titus instructs them in the art of waiting. For us, it interprets for us Elizabeth Abernethy’s way of waiting. Listen:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait ...”
Did you hear the qualities of the person who knows what to do while we wait? “In the present age ... live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait ...”
Self-controlled – what would you be doing if standing around your bed there were doctors, family members, your husband, and even your former pastor and his wife, all of them asking you whether you wanted heroic efforts made to keep you breathing? What would your reaction be if all these folks were talking about whether you wanted this tube inserted or that apparatus connected? Personally I would just want to hurry off into denial, pull the pillow over my head, and pretend they weren’t even there. But Liz participated fully and calmly in these decisions, and, I am sure, led her family to accept them too. I thank God there was no Terry Schiavo situation for you! Liz remained self-controlled to the end.
Then the Scripture says “self-controlled and upright”. Upright. Liz had a strong sense of what was right. She had convictions that did not waver. Throughout her 37 years of membership in this church, she saw many things change; some of those changes were too much for some of her contemporaries, and they found their way elsewhere. Liz and Howard did not follow them. Liz and Howard knew that the God of the gospel is no respecter of persons, that in Christ there is no east or west, in Him no south nor north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. The changing character of this congregation troubled her not at all, and whenever she was asked to offer leadership, invariably she would say, “I don’t know if I can do it, but I’ll try.” And try she did, and more; she worked, she gave, she participated. She had made a commitment, and she kept it. She waited, self-controlled and upright.