September 16th, 2015

It’s probably a good thing Sandy Davis was in ICU when I made some disparaging comments about cats a couple of weeks ago in a Sunday sermon. I happen to be allergic to cats, and our cats are only affectionate toward me on their terms and timetable. So I said the only reason God created cats was to show us what worship is not.

The dog lovers that day were high fiving me on the way out of church. Had Sandy been there, she may have scratched me with her nails on the way out. If Sandy had to choose between her love for Mr. Whiskers and Ollie and her love for Pastor Bob, we all know who would have won out.

Bev Forrest said when the other Newcomers would show off the latest photos of their grandbabies, Sandy would pull out the latest photos of her cats. So in preparing for this service, the first in my memory with pictures of cats on the front of the bulletin, I had to rethink my reflections on felines. I’ll come back to that when I close this meditation.

When my wife Linda and I visited Beth and James in their home Sunday night, I asked Beth if Sandy had any favorite Bible passages. As we all know, until a few weeks ago Sandy didn’t have any reason to plan ahead for a funeral, and until Friday of last week even five weeks in Intensive Care just seemed like a setback from which she would recover. So no, mother and daughter had never talked about about what Bible passage Sandy might want read at her funeral.

Although she was an avid Bible reader, Sandy didn’t mark in her Bible, with one exception. She marked 1 John 4:16. And it doesn’t surprise me. As I prepared for this service, I saw so many phrases in that chapter that reminded me of Sandy.

“Dear friends….”

Let’s start with the first two words in verse 7: “Dear friends….” In the original language of Greek, that’s actually one word – the plural noun of the word that dominates the whole chapter: love. John addresses his readers as “beloved,” or “loved ones.” “Dear friends” is a good translation – it’s warm, it’s personal, it’s plural.

Sandy Davis knew about “dear friends.” I suspect almost everyone here thought of themselves as Sandy’s “dear friend.” She was social in ways that introverts like me can never quite understand. She loved Jesus, but coming to church was as much about horizontal fellowship as it was about vertical. She loved the Newcomers Club because she enjoyed her friends. She reached out to and enjoyed her neighbors.

We all know Sandy loved games. Dianne Straley called her “a heck of a card player and “one of the best canasta players in our group.” Dianne added, “We all liked to play with Sandy as our partner because we knew our scores would be higher.” Sandy would be up for anyone’s Game Night. She loved Mah Jongg, which I’ve never played. When her neighbor Maureen Jones emailed me Sunday night about Mexican Train and Chicken Foot, I had to Google those words to find out they were restaurants or food dishes. Thankfully not! They ways to play Dominoes!

Then there were the Facebook and tablet games – Bejeweled Blitz, Farm Hero Saga, Candy Crush, and Words with Friends. Sandy was competitive, but the games weren’t ultimately about winning; they were about relationships. She loved playing Words with her baby sister because even though Tammy lives two states away, it was about keeping the connection between them.

Speaking of “dear friends,” ten years ago Sandy told me Barbara Laney was her “best friend.” Barbara is sad she couldn’t join us today because of a previously scheduled out of town trip. Barbara said when she thinks of Sandy these words come to mind: “faithful, committed, true, and loving.” Those are words that describe “dear friends.”

“He sent his on me and only Son….”

This chapter is really about you and me loving other people, but John says the reason we love others, and the standard by which we measure our love, is God’s love for us. Let me read again verses 9 and 10: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the word that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Sandy was born in Pittsburgh, PA, but not long afterward her parents returned to their home state of West Virginia where she grew up. They did not go to church. At about age 7 Sandy joined Brownies at a Methodist church, and ended up giving her life to Christ through the ministry of that church. In high school she attended a Baptist church where she was baptized. She fell in love and married young (age 18), then had three children in three years. She stayed in a difficult marriage until her kids were teens, and then she was divorced. Through the years she supported herself and her kids by working for the federal government.

The kids grew up and left the nest, and Brad moved down to North Carolina to find a job. Sandy and Beth wanted to get closer to them, so they decided to move to Hickory which had been named “One of the Ten Best Places to Live” in 1997 by Reader’s Digest. At Newcomers she met Barbara Laney, who in turn invited her to Corinth.

When Sandy sat down with me to share her life story, she told me all of this, but she also related what she felt was the most significant spiritual experience of her life. It was in 1996 when she had pneumonia and was getting ready to be sedated and placed on a respirator. She said she saw a bright light and heard an audible voice: “Do not be afraid. You will be all right. You are needed here to help raise your grandchildren.” That gave her peace and a reason to keep going.

The bottom line is that Sandy had come to know the love of God the Father who showed his love by giving his Son to pay for our sins. I am sure she would want everyone here to know the peace and purpose and joy that comes from experiencing the unconditional love of God. When you come to know Jesus in a personal way as God’s Son who died to give you an eternal relationship with God, everything is new.

“We rely on the love God has for us…”

John writes in verse 16, “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.” He adds in verse 17, “We have complete confidence on the day of judgment” when we grasp God’s love. This spiritual assurance grows in a lifetime of faith.

For Sandy, God’s love wasn’t just something she experienced at age 7 or had reaffirmed in a hospital vision and voice. Especially over the last twenty years, her faith became even more personal and she dedicated herself to learning and growing and serving.

Sandy had a thirst for knowledge. She spent her early adult years raising babies, but went back to school when they were teens and earned a BA in Business at age 34, summa cum laude.

She loved travel, whether in person with her longtime companion Isadore or vicariously through the Travel Channel. She loved to read, especially novels, but in particular historical novels. She became one of our librarians almost as soon as she joined our church because of her love for books (and Barbara!).

Barbara also introduced Sandy to Bible Study Fellowship. My wife Linda says that one of the first things that impressed her about Sandy was her love for God’s Word. When we challenged the congregation several years ago to read through the Bible in a year, Sandy and Beth read it out loud together and really thought it through as they read.

She also got involved in Bible studies at church and in her Sunday School class. Bruce Yergler, a member of her class, said he and Arlene appreciated not only Sandy’s smile and positive attitude, but her keen insight into the lesson.

When John says “we know and rely on God’s love,” he knows that personal bond and intimate trust is only developed over time as we talk to God and read his Word in private quiet times, and also join in the fellowship of believers who struggle and pray and study together. Sandy knew that as well.

“We love because he first loved us….”

Our growth in the awareness of God’s love changes our attitude toward others. “We love because he first loved us,” John says in verse 19. We could talk about Sandy’s love for many people, but let’s focus on her family. I’ve already mentioned Tammy, Sandy’s Words with Friends buddy. They were very close and Tammy said Sandy was “like a second mother.” They knew they would always be there for each other. Sandy even told Beth at Conover Rehab that she was going to Tammy’s house and get in her bed. Tammy and Diane are so glad they felt God’s nudge to come visit Sandy three weeks ago. “It was a great visit and will always be treasured,” Tammy wrote me.

There were three people who knew Sandy’s love more personally than ever because they knew her as “Mom.” At the funeral home Monday morning, Brad had one of those God-moments that often follows a loved one’s death. The good folks at Bass-Smith asked if they wanted something to drink, and Brad chose a Diet Coke. You probably know that Coke has been personalizing their bottles and cans lately. Beth sent me a picture of the can Brad was holding. It had the word “Mom” on the side. Brad’s wife Darlene added, “I looked the world over and could not have found a more caring and devoted mother in law.”

Moms are loving, but they can be tough as well. I love how John expresses tough love when he says in verse 20, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” Tell me how you really feel, John. But love sometimes has to be blunt.

When Blair was a teenager, he was going down the wrong path. So Sandy told him to get in the car for a trip to the store. They pulled in front of a military recruitment office, and Sandy handed him $5.00. “That’s for a taxi ride back home,” she said, “and don’t come back until you’ve signed a contract.” He enlisted in the Air Force and later thanked her for changing his life.

As Beth said, her Mom “led with a strong heart and hand.” Beth would know, because as a teen she didn’t get along too well with her Mom. Sandy said Beth might have been a rose between two thorns, but she was the thorniest. Still, she loved her kids and they never doubted it.

She also loved her grandchildren, two sets of which she helped raise when they moved in with her after their parents divorced. Marie, who couldn’t be here today because she just left for Spain over the weekend on business, says one of her earliest memories is an 80s style black t-shirt her grandmother always wore with colorful hands all over it. Marie remembers holding her hands up to the hands on the shirt. What she somehow missed until her mother told her on Monday in an e-mail was that those hands were actually handprints of Sandy’s grandchildren. What the kids were doing was finding which one of those hands was theirs.

And then there’s James, who’s never really known life without his grandmother as a major part of it. They had a special bond. I mean, you’d have to when as a tall, strapping young man you find yourself holding your grandmother’s purse in the middle of a doctor’s office. Sandy would use James as a bit of an excuse to indulge herself. She’d make yeast rolls for dinner and say, “James loves yeast rolls.” They enjoyed the Travel Channel together, and once in a while he might even tolerate her Hallmark movies or Dancing with the Stars.

The point is that knowing God’s love is not just about being loved, but also making sure that love overflows through you into those God has placed around you. Sandy did that well.

I’ll close by coming back to Mr. Whiskers and Ollie, and to the only verse in her Bible that Sandy ever marked.

My wife doesn’t really share my lack of warm affection for cats, even though she shares my allergy to them. She grew up in a cat family; we never had a cat growing up. She thinks I overstate their independence and lack of affection. And indeed, our cats do come much better when she calls them than when I do. Do you suppose maybe the cats sense a different attitude in her than in me?

Could it be that cats are really a better illustration of faith than dogs, precisely because of their independence? Dogs can be conditioned, brainwashed, trained, to do exactly what you want, like robots. Cats are always going to be free, and respond on their terms.

So did God create people more like dogs or like cats? OK, he created us free, independent, with the choice every moment to respond to him or ignore him. What he wants us to know, however, is that his heart is so full of love for us. He’s good, and he’s kind, and he’s for us. He may seem distant at times and we may not understand him – just like our cats may not understand why Linda, because of her allergies, can’t cuddle them or hold them on her lap and have them in the house. But somehow they still know that she loves them, and they’re more willing to respond to her than to me.

The more we remind ourselves of the heart of God, the more likely we are to love him. That’s why it’s so significant than in her big, thick Bible, the only verse Beth could find that her mother ever underlined was 1 John 4:16, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” That’s really all we need to know. Amen.

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