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February 3rd, 2018

This is undoubtedly a first for Corinth Reformed Church – a funeral meditation by videotape. The reason for it is not all that complicated. I’m the only pastor Nancy has known for 25 years. Nancy’s children very much wanted me to be a part of this service, and I very much wanted that as well. But as you meet together today, my wife Linda and I are in Hawaii enjoying our first grandchild, who was born in December. As important as it was for Nancy’s children and for me that I be a part of this service, we all knew that Nancy adored her own grandchildren, and would be adamant that where I belong right now is with my grandson.

Still, there is an undeniable irony here, and I’m not sure any of us really wanted to ask the question families often ask, “Would Nancy Dowdy want it this way?” Pioneering the replacement of personal presence with technology does not sound at all like Nancy Dowdy.

But wait, there’s more. Nancy had written down her wishes for the time of her passing. Her notes to the family included these instructions for the home:  “be sure all plants look nice,” and “brasso the front door brass.” The notes also referred to the memorial service:  “please no sermon – just say my name.”

It was unanimous among Nancy’s children and their spouses that we should have a funeral sermon, and unanimous that this video format was the best available choice, even knowing their mother would probably not be in favor. Why did we do it? We exercised “wholesome neglect” of her wishes.

“Wholesome neglect” was a phrase Nancy herself coined to sum up her parenting philosophy. I’ll return shortly to the theme of Nancy as a mother, but first I want to point out that there is good theology in those words.

Eugene Peterson, a retired Presbyterian pastor who authored The Message paraphrase of the Bible, used a similar concept in describing God – “willed passivity.” I have often reflected on the remarkable freedom God gives to human beings. God is always God, meaning he is always sovereign and proactive, but he strategically gets himself out of the way and allows us unbelievable freedom and responsibility to ponder the mystery of life and our own existence, and to exercise our free will for good or bad. To use a current phrase, God is no micromanager.

In Psalm 121, the psalmist takes great comfort that God keeps us and preserves us, watching over our “coming out and going in” – in other words, all of the movements of our lives. Still, it is up to the psalmist to “lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” Even in the knowledge and security of God’s providence, we must constantly and consciously choose dependence on him “from whence cometh my help.”

Likewise in Philippians 2, the Apostle Paul, sitting in a prison cell where he is decidedly out of control of his fate and even his daily routine, tells his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” and then immediately adds, “For it is God who is at work in you to will and to do his good pleasure.”

We live so much of life under the assumption, partly correct, that we have to navigate life on our own – and that includes marriage and family, work and leisure, even faith and church. This feels to us like passivity or even neglect on God’s part. But make no mistake – on God’s part it is willed passivity; it is wholesome neglect. God strategically waits while we figure life out.

This brings us back to a reflection on Nancy’s life, and let’s begin by that piece of her identity most significant to her – her role as a mother and grandmother. The one story they shared that best reflects to me the balance of her motherly “wholesome neglect” took place up in the mountains, most likely before Harley was born. Nancy was playing golf and left the children in the care of a sitter. When she returned, she found the kids, the dog, and the sitter in a canoe on the lake. The frightening part was that they had no life preservers, and the sitter couldn’t swim.

She calmly but deliberately motioned for the canoe to come to shore. She never lost her cool, never displayed outward anger. She put the sitter in the car and drove her to the bus station for a ride back to Hickory, to be replaced by another in a series of sitters that summer. Nancy was always in charge of her children, always had them on her mind and heart. But she also risked wholesome neglect. In the language of Psalm 121, she was watching over their going out and coming in.

Stories like that one abound among Rosa, Snyder, Rebecca, and Harley. They experienced much more freedom as children than they in turn have given to their own children. In the mountains they had free reign, rarely accountable for what they had been up to all day. They turned any tree into a tree house.

The inside of their home was a playground, with forts inside and out, a golf course in the den, and trout in the bathtub. Alligators, snakes, and turtles shared the house from time to time. They were latch key kids, and she’d completely forget about picking them up at a certain time from school or an activity. She wasn’t much of a cook, and the kids remember Swanson’s TV dinners at least once a week when Maggie was off duty.

She did make rules, of course, like any mother. One list of 13 Rules in her handwriting included “1. Must be home by 6:30 every night except when you have special permission. 6. Any fights between children – must go to her or his own room for 15 mins. 8. Your bedroom must be straight before going to bed.” So there were rules, it’s just that her children can’t remember them actually being enforced. Dad was much more the disciplinarian. She was comfortable with chaos.

Nancy never was a morning person. To get a little extra sleep in the morning, she’d toss Sugar Smacks in Harley’s crib when he woke up. At age 10 Snyder slid down the banister, fell off, and hurt his arm. Sleepy Mom said, “Go back to bed,” and later called the doctor. “Hugo, I think Snyder broke his arm….” Not much with Nancy was grounds for urgency or panic. She once said her goal every summer was to stay out of the emergency room, and she rarely achieved it.

It wasn’t her only goal. Rebecca has recently found some of her mother’s papers and notes that give us a little insight into her private world, a world hidden to literally everyone. Her own children and extended family didn’t know about some of these thoughts, and of course many of them she would want to remain private. But some give a window into her soul.

She was a list-maker like nobody’s business, and often wrote down a list of resolutions – sometimes titled “goals” or “wishes” or “directions” – at the beginning of the year. Here are a few examples.

  • 1974 – Learn to type, Yoga each Friday, Time with Harley – read his Bible, kindness, patience, God-centered contentment, not be so gullible – flattery is deceiving.
  • 1984 – That Century’s new show room is wonderful, and new product and opening party are fabulous.
  • 1991 – Full of joy and peace serving Lord Jesus every day, balance between work, play, and worship, study the Word of God, patience when this is needed and action when appropriate.
  • 1993 – Cut down TV – read, Learn about Bridge, clean house of stuff – yard sale.
  • 1995 – Spiritual growth, Bible study, delight in the Lord, community activity, contribution – how can I serve? Travel, fun, sense of humor.

Nancy was passionate about self-improvement, reading and sharing Billy Graham and Dear Abby columns, always wanting to grow.

Her goals were not just about improving herself, however. One undated list titled “Goals or Options for Me” is especially community oriented – group leadership for Corinth (or other churches) – Sunday School Teenagers, study group of adults, Mental Health Center, Team Building in organizations, teach course in group dynamics and human relations, set up consulting service, work in school system, drug prevention program.

I don’t know if that list was before or after the deep racial conflict that hit Hickory and many parts of the South in the early 1970s, but Nancy committed herself to an active role in the issues. She joined and for one year chaired Hickory’s Bi-racial committee of black and white parents and principals. The group committed itself to riding school buses, welcoming blacks into white homes and vice versa, talking face to face about problems and ways forward when integration was such a volatile topic.

While others reacted with violence or anger, she strode into the fray intent on listening and valuing. She helped integrate Sunday School at Corinth Church. She sent Harley to church with Maggie. All this was at a time when interracial cooperation was controversial at best, and many whites especially thought church should remain a haven of segregation since the government couldn’t force anything on the churches. She was given the Human Relations Citizen Award in 1980 for her efforts in connecting the community across its historic barriers.

This service includes the hymn, “In Christ There Is No East or West,” because it is such a perfect expression of Nancy Dowdy’s view of people. Sometime during that era she wrote Rebecca, “The race issue is the most serious one today. I want you to know how I feel about this. I believe each person has worth. This worth is not earned but given by the grace of God. Feelings of superiority are wrong.”

There’s so much more we could say about Nancy Dowdy. I hope you’ll take time in Bost Memorial Hall following this worship service to share stories with each other. I want to share a little about her faith, but we can’t overlook some other qualities.

Athleticism. Her senior year at St. Catherine’s she wrote, “Athletics of all kind are always my main interest. I especially like tennis, basketball, and swimming.” She went on to mention horseback, golf, and softball, and added, “During hockey season, since I can’t make the team, I am a cheerleader.”

She went on to play point guard for the Tarheels and was state champion in ping pong. Later she was Hickory city champion in tennis. Golf became her passion.

She loved watching sports, and preferred ESPN and the Golf Channel to news and movies. As I shared at her grandson Luke’s memorial service, she’d come to Candlelighting service at Corinth, where you had to be early to get a seat. She would see Luke and Thomas keeping up with the Panthers game on their smart phones. She would elbow them – not because she wanted them to put away their phones but because she wanted to know the score.

Competitiveness. “She would bet you that she could beat you in gin rummy, ping pong, backgammon, tennis, Pictionary, golf, crossword puzzles (yes, that was a competitive sport), croquet, egg tossing, hell, she would beat you in knitting if you were dumb enough to try.”

Whether she was playing Mahjong with her friends or egg toss with her family, she played to win. On one of the Fourth of July get togethers in the mountains when she was probably 70, she was getting further and further away from her egg toss partner when she fell down and was briefly knocked out. Rosa said, “We started imagining the headline: ‘Grandmother dies in family egg toss game.”

Friendship. Nancy had a close group of Hickory friends, aka her Knitting Group, although no one can verify if any actual knitting went on. She took special care of those friendships, and would often have dozens of presents under her Christmas tree from all the people who just wanted to thank her for her companionship. She’d have regular birthday lunches with friends of all ages and both genders. Dear friends like the Boyers included her in their travels. When she was in Blowing Rock or Florida, she delighted in a different set of close friends.

Grandchildren. It would have been a great way for her to go. She adored her grandchildren and prioritized at least one major family trip since she turned 75. She’d leave the planning up to Gail as long as the trip included fun activities for the whole family and opportunities to enjoy Grey Goose. When each grandchild turned 13, she took them on a special one-on-one trip. She was generous to so many people, but especially to her grandkids. On one of those family trips when the grandkids had been able to charge whatever they wanted at the store, the final bill included “40 whistle pops.” She just laughed and paid the bill.

They called her Grand Mommy, Nana, and Mae. And loved their own version of “wholesome neglect” whereby they could be around her and just have fun as kids. They created chaos in her house and she never cared. Once she wanted to buy the grandkids a Nintendo but Mom didn’t want her kids hooked on a game all the time, so Nancy just put it in Grandma’s house. She never sweated the small stuff, especially when it came to her grandchildren.

Joy. You can see her humor in her eyes, if all you’re looking at is a picture. Ralph said he never could call her by her first name, so in the early years he called her “Mrs. G.” Then she remarried, and he decided to try out a new name and see how she’d respond: “Mrs G-D.” When she laughed he figured it was OK.

Joy was her aim. She refused to hold on to bitterness and self-pity. She chose the joy that accompanies forgiveness and contentment. To be sure, patience was not her strong suit, but it was always her aim. She just wanted to love every moment of life that God had given her as a gift, and to spread as much joy as possible.

Even in the slow decline of these last few years with Primary Progressive Aphasia, she just determined to keep positive, stay active, play golf, travel, and choose joy. She never, ever complained. When she couldn’t talk any more, she had fun with that too. She’d make cards to pull out of her purse:  “Thank you.” “Diet Coke.” “Grey Goose.” “Give the bill to my son-in-law Ralph.” She drove as long as she could but sometimes had trouble navigating. She’d just write out a note:  “I’m sorry I hit your car. Please call my brother Pope Shuford.”

Her granddaughter Nancy Ronalter shared a story from those years. Grandmother and granddaughter were driving from West Palm Beach to Hickory. Mae drove the first leg and all of a sudden started frantically pointing to her eyes. Granddaughter Nancy panicked a bit. Did Mae need sunglasses? Eye drops? Was something in her eyes? Could she even see? Were they about to wreck? They pulled over at the next exit where Mae pulled out her notepad and wrote, “I’m a little tired and I want to take a nap. Can you drive?” They laughed for the next few miles at the misunderstanding.

What makes a person confident, bold, elegant, loving, generous, and joyful, even when her physical life is being taken from her? Why was the one word that characterized her from beginning to end “strength”?

I would suggest it is a deep and profound awareness of the God of wholesome neglect, of willful passivity. Those who become disillusioned with God in times of trial misunderstand him as a micromanager, who believe God is constantly pulling strings to make our lives easier and safer and healthier and more prosperous. God is much more like Nancy Dowdy – always watching our coming and going but leaving it up to us to develop strength through trial, joy through pain, courage through adversity.

It was especially interesting to me to watch the development of Nancy’s faith in her notes through the years. She kept her Cradle Roll enrollment card at Corinth Church from 1936. Her summary of years at St. Catherine’s said almost nothing about faith. She wrote a paper titled “An Appreciation of the Gospel of John” in 1957 for religion class at Carolina, and I was quite impressed with her grasp of the book, which she called “the summit of Biblical revelation.” She articulated its primary message, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

In 1972 she wrote out a statement she called “My Faith,” which expresses where she was then. I would definitely quarrel with some of her theology at that point in her life. For example, she said, “Easter is the most difficult time of year for me,” because she had a hard time accepting the resurrection. I still love that she was such a thinker to write out eight pages of what she believed, and I believe that her personal faith in Jesus as the Son of God who was crucified and raised for our salvation grew stronger as she grew older.

In the 1990s she became involved in Bible Study Fellowship, and Barbara de la Garza said she prepared thoroughly and participated eagerly, encouraging others. You may recall that 1995 was the year she set her goals as “spiritual growth, Bible study, delight in the Lord.” Rebecca took a picture of the book shelf beside her bed, and there was certainly a variety in what she read – but among the books were volumes by Billy Graham, Max Lucado, and Bruce Metzger, as well as books on gratitude, God’s promises, and prayer. The notes I received from her during those years generally had to do with crises being faced by her children and grandchildren.

She also left one special note for me, perhaps with this service in mind. Whether or not she would have approved of my funeral sermon or this video, I do know she would love for you to hear what she called “my favorite poem.” It comes from a little devotional book called Be Still and Know. Copyrighted in 1953, it may have belonged to her mother or grandmother, but it had her name in the front and was clearly well-used.

It’s based on Psalm 121, and titled “The Peace of God.” I would like to use it as our prayer of response. Please pray with me.

 

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.

The everlasting mountain of the Lord.

And feel within me that great calm that stills

Unrest, the peace that holy things afford.

 

Snow-crowned in beauty, chaste and strong they stand.

Unmoved by restive turmoil of the earth;

They speak of long eternities and grand

Wherein their maker brings His will to birth.

 

And so, O little man, why hurry so?

And let your life be fevered with alarms?

God has great patience; it takes time to grow;

Trust Him, and like the hills lean on His arms,

You mountain peaks, so calm, serene, and strong.

You and my questing soul to God belong.

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