February 1st, 2018

I suppose it’s only fair that I begin with a brief explanation of why I chose the Scriptures I read. Kelly described her grandmother to me as “a needle in cotton,” a phrase from Tai Chi. One blogger explains, “the motion is soft and flowing, yielding gently like a ball of cotton, but with cold, hard steel on the inside. The practitioner yields to a push or a punch, making the pusher or puncher feel like he is moving against air, then suddenly turns the force around into a shock that knocks the other party off his feet.”

When I preach a memorial service, I like to look for some aspect of the person’s life that illustrates a biblical principle, or illustrates the Gospel, or reveals the character of God. We humans, after all, are created in the image of God, so we should be able to find in every human being some reflection of what God is like.

God is “a needle in cotton,” and Psalm 90 speaks both of his “compassion” and “unfailing love” on the one hand, and of his “wrath” and judgment on the other. I’ll come back to Psalm 90.

In our New Testament lesson, the Apostle Paul is dealing with a frustrating and frustrated church at Corinth. He gives them a choice: “Do you want me to come as cotton or needle? — because I can do either.” In his words, “Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?”

This is how Kelly saw her grandmother, and I suspect others who knew her best also saw both needle and cotton. I, however, and perhaps many of you, saw mostly or only the cotton. Most of us saw her as the gracious, gentle, soft-spoken, quintessential southern lady – always dressed impeccably, stylishly, and appropriately, and exuding grace and class. Kelly said, “She reminded me of Grace Kelly.”

Hazel was born to a Wilkes County family that could trace their ancestry back to the McNeil family and Kisimul Castle, a medieval island castle off the coast of Scotland. She was raised in Beaver Creek Baptist Church in Wilkes County, and came to Hickory to live with her sister. She met D. G. on Easter Sunday 1934. Their first date was dinner in Statesville that night. Two years later they married, and in the early years lived close to the parsonage of Corinth at its downtown location where BB&T bank now stands. Dr. Harry Althouse, the pastor of Corinth from 1930-1969, whose bust is in the corner of this room, was therefore a neighbor, friend, and mentor. D. G.’s grandfather was also a charter member here. You can see the family Bible and Peter Rowe stained glass window in the Rowe Welcome Center at Corinth. Three years of marriage and two children later, she finally traded her Baptist heritage and joined D. G. as a member at Corinth Reformed Church.

D. G. had gone to what is now N. C. State for a year, then transferred back home to Lenoir Rhyne.  Those were depression years, however, and he had to drop out of college and go to work. It all turned out well, because he wound up forming a business partnership selling Goodrich tires at the True Tread Tire Company. Due to the war, recapping rubber tires became a necessity, and D. G. owned several patents, including a “curing tube” for vulcanizing rubber.

When I preached D. G.’s funeral in 2008, I focused mainly on their long marriage of almost 73 years. Hazel’s part of that may have seemed to others as supportive, submissive, quiet, behind-the-scenes wife, but that was only part of the story. She worked as his business manager, but he knew more about that “needle in cotton” thing than anyone. She could put him in his place with a look or a word. When he went into the mobile home business for a while, he was the salesman, but she made the units “homey” and therefore sellable.

Dan came along almost exactly nine months after the wedding, and Christine followed 14 months later. Hazel gave herself to raising their children, but also served in the church as a den mother for Boy Scout Troop One, a Sunday School teacher, and a member of the Women’s Guild. Her ladies’ circle was named for Orpha Althouse, the wife of Dr. Althouse. Her hobbies included flowers, sea shells, cross stitch, and antiquing, but she became an avid golfer as well. She won the Elizabeth Arden Golf Classic in Hickory one year, and for a time lived golf.

The great sadness of Hazel’s life was the death of her daughter Christine. No parent ever expects to lose a child. Christine was in a terrible automobile accident and suffered a brain injury. She lived another ten years, and even bore a second child, but eventually a benign brain tumor, probably the result of the accident, took her life. This was part of what shaped Hazel’s cotton and her needle. A mother and grandmother has no choice but to go on, but she’s never the same person.

Dan’s the only person alive who can share memories of Hazel as a mother, and he remembers her as a “fantastic cook” and homemaker. Edith said she was a wonderful mother-in-law. Kelly remembers fondly a maid named Alberta who became part of the family and helped raise Hazel’s granddaughters. Dana also remembers her grandmother as an excellent cook of what she called “city food” – fresh salad, fish, healthy white meat – because “Granddaddy was a diabetic.” Dana also remembers that her grandfather went to bed early, but Hazel would stay up late to read and talk about “random things” with her granddaughter.

Hazel continued to give herself to her husband, her son, her grandchildren, her church, and her community. She and D. G. enjoyed her place at the beach – fishing, walking, and boating. Friends and family members alike were invited to share the experiences.

The great love of her life was, of course, her husband. She said to me after he died, “As you grow older, you get closer.” They were still in great health well into their 80s, and they surprised me when they moved out of their single story ranch-style house on the golf course and built a split foyer house at a time when most people are moving into a one-floor home or even assisted living. Maybe all that stair climbing just kept them fit a little longer. Eventually D. G. passed. Hazel went for a while to live near Dan and Edith in Charlotte, and I remember one very special visit to her home there, even though it was clear her memory was beginning to fade.

Seven years ago Dana moved her to a senior home called Belvedere Commons of Franklin (Tennessee). It won’t surprise anyone who knew Hazel that her charming nature earned her the nickname, “Queen of Belvedere.” She was in remarkable physical condition for a nanogenarian, but eventually needed a walker and only moved to a wheelchair the last week of her life. She had a burst of energy on Wednesday, January 3, 2018, but the next morning the nurse said, “I’m not going to get her out of her bed.” My hunch is that was the first time since she was a baby she didn’t get out of bed, and that was her cue. At 4:45 PM that day, she breathed her last and entered the presence of the Lord.

A needle in cotton indeed – compassionate, caring, kind and gracious, but tough, persevering, determined, and firm. And that, indeed, is what reminds me of Psalm 90 and of the Lord.

I almost feel like I need to apologize for reading Psalm 90 at a funeral. My three brothers and sister are to blame. When my father died about three years ago, I read this psalm at his bedside with my mother and siblings gathered around. In settings where I’m the pastor, people are polite and appreciative, but my siblings were aghast and interrupted me. “That’s not comforting at all!” We all prefer God-as-cotton, Someone in whose lap we can climb as he says, “I’m here and I love you.”

God is cotton, but he is also a needle. Psalm 90 presents both sides of God. It was written by Moses, who knew about God-as-steel, both in his dealings with the Egyptians but also with the Israelites and with Moses himself. It’s wrong to think of God as only nice, just like it’s incomplete to see Hazel that way. God is tough, and by tough I mean to affirm with Moses his wrath and justice. Even the fact that we have to face death is his judgment on humanity. Moses, who lived two decades longer than Hazel Rowe, still said the norm for human life is seventy years, while the strong might hit 80. We do bear the consequences of sin.

Thank God, though, that all of this wrath, this justice, was poured out on Jesus Christ for us. Moses had only a hint of God’s “unfailing love.” But we know that God in love gave Jesus to us, and he bore it all – the due penalty for our rebellion, our brokenness, our bitterness, the distance we put between ourselves and between us and God. He knew all the ways in which we did and do break his laws, act in self-interest, and bring judgment on ourselves because of sin.

God would not let wrath have the last word. He wrapped the needle of his justice in the cotton of his grace. In the very human person of Jesus, God stepped into our world, lived the life of righteousness we were supposed to live, then died the death we deserved so that our sins might be forgiven as we put our trust in him. What a God! What a Savior!

I’d like to close this service with a prayer we read at D. G.’s service. It includes excerpts from a prayer in a book D. G. had preserved from his family’s heritage of faith. This prayer is titled, “The Evening After a Funeral.” Let us pray.

Father of mercies, and God of all consolation and grace! Thou hast often invited us to Thyself, by kindness; and it is evidence of our great depravity, that we think of Thee so little in our times of ease and prosperity. We are now before Thee in affliction and distress; but we rejoice to know, that Thou art a very present and an all-sufficient help in trouble. Thou takest away, and who can hinder Thee, or say unto Thee, What doest Thou? Thou hast a right to do what Thou wilt with Thine own.

Thou hast made our days as a hand’s breadth, and our age is nothing before Thee; verily man at his best estate is altogether vanity. For our days are not only few, but full of evil.

Oh let not the trifles of time induce us to neglect the one thing needful. While each of us is compelled to say, “I know Thou wilt bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living,” may we be enabled also to say, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him against that day.” Let not, we beseech Thee, the solemnities in which we have this day participated, be ever forgotten; for often, our most serious impressions have worn off, and our goodness has been as the morning cloud.

Thou hast permitted death to invade our circle, and hast turned our dwelling into a house of mourning. By the sadness of the countenance, may the heart be made better, more serious to reflect, and more softened to receive impression. May we remember that Thou has bereaved us, resuming what was lent for a season, but never ceased to be Thine own.

We now commit us to Thy care and keeping during the night before us. We pray Thee to be near unto us and to watch over us for good. May we awake in the morning refreshed, and find Thee present with us still; and we shall give all the glory unto the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.

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