November 6th, 2018

One of the high privileges of shepherding one congregation for 25 years is knowing someone’s story for longer than a short season of their life.  I knew Gray Briens when she looked like that picture on the bulletin cover.  More importantly, I knew her long enough to know her husband, to see firsthand that playful gleam each of them had when they talked to or about each other.  I can’t imagine preaching this funeral service without having known the other half of their love story.

Bill Briens died almost 21 years before his beloved wife, and I still have in my file the Scriptures and meditation notes from his service. The reason I chose to read Romans 8:28-39 today is because that was one of three texts we read at Bill’s service.  I read it then because “love” is the theme of this passage, and “love” was one of three words I used to describe Bill Briens.   (The other two were “faith” and “work.”) I noted that you couldn’t be around Bill long without hearing him brag on how beautiful his wife was, to which she would inevitably respond, “Oh, Bill, come on now.”

He had no family because his parents died when he was young, so the large Jones family became his family.  He loved talking about their wedding in “the church around the corner” in New York City on July 3, 1946.  He also loved to tease her.  One of his favorite lines was, “I always wanted to go to Florida for two months during the winter, but Gray wanted to go one month.  So we compromised and went one month.”

Bill and Gray’s love, I said in his service, was only a picture of God’s love for us, which is Paul’s theme in Romans 8.  I’ll come back to that shortly.

Love is the only word I’m going to use to describe Gray, but I’d like to talk about three different loves.

First, the love of self.  The Bible says we should love others as we love ourselves, so there’s a certain love for self that is simply assumed.  Gray was certainly not narcissistic or self-centered, but she had a strong sense of what we could call today self-awareness and personal identity.

She was a married woman, but she was a career woman as well, owning and operating Marie’s Beauty Shop with her sister Nell for more than four decades.  As Brien, Nell’s granddaughter who was named for her, said, “Gray always wanted to present her best self.”  That meant hair, makeup, lipstick, and being “dressed to the nines.”  She walked daily as long as she could and used hand weights to keep in shape into her 90s.  The beauty shop was about doing for others what she loved doing for herself.

Gray didn’t mind bragging on herself a bit either – whether it was her standout skills on the high school basketball team or her pride in having made the first ever hole-in-one at Lake Hickory Country Club.

Second, the love for others.  There were concentric circles of love that started with Bill, her greatest and lifelong love, then BuMae, her twin sister, then her other siblings, then the rest of her family, then her friends at church and clients at the beauty shop, and well, even they weren’t the limit.

I’ve already spoken of Bill’s love for Gray, but it was so mutual.  She was proud of the man he was and of his profession, chiropractic, even in the days when many people looked on chiropractors like they were charlatans.  She loved dancing with him as long as they were able, loved the home they shared overlooking the lake, loved trips to the mountains or the coast with him, loved partnering with him in projects like the creation of Corinth’s memorial garden in the 1980s.

Next to Bill, and maybe even rivaling him, was the love she shared with her twin sister, BuMae.  She teased BuMae about being older, even though the difference was four minutes.  The two were not identical twins, and BuMae would say that’s one reason they got along.  Gray was far more outgoing and active.  Both of them not only outlived their siblings but their respective husbands.  BuMae’s health declined faster than Gray’s, and that only gave Gray the opportunity to demonstrate her love over and over again to her sister.  As BuMae’s granddaughter Ginny put it, “Their devotion to one another was truly unmatched and I believe Gray is the reason my grandmother lived as long as she did.”

Gray’s love for others extended to all of her siblings and their children and grandchildren as well.  Brien wrote eloquently about Gray’s memories of the early years growing up on a large family farm near Fayetteville, NC, on the banks of the Cape Fear River, about swimming in the watering hole, chasing chickens around the yard for dinner and wringing their necks, climbing trees and picking apples, eating in shifts around the big kitchen table, helping with family chores, sleeping multiple children to a bed (often waking up wet!), hanging stockings by the chimney at Christmas and feeling like they were the luckiest children in the world when Christmas morning found those stockings drooped to the floor because they were filled with apples, oranges, and nuts.

Gray and Bill never had children of their own (“We wanted to,” Bill once told me, “but it just didn’t work out for us”) but all the Jones children and their children’s children and their children’s children’s children might as well have been Gray’s.  She entertained them, kept toys ready for the kids when they visited, played on the floor with the little ones, rejoiced with every new pregnancy, and adored every one.

Gray’s love for others extended even further to her clients who returned the love and loyalty.  Even after she and Nell sold the beauty shop, they would still go in for special customers.  She loved her church family and, like with everyone else, was such an encourager.  She and BuMae were faithful attenders at the Wednesday 11 AM Bible study – unless it conflicted with their bridge club.  She served in the church where possible and where needed.  She blessed others with notes and cards.  I found several in my file addressed to my wife Linda and me.  Bill had served on the Search Committee that called me to Corinth, and she would write and say things like, “We are fortunate in having you and Linda.”  “We just want to tell you how much we appreciate the fine job you are doing at Corinth.”  “Your sermon yesterday was very uplifting.”

Third, love for God.  As Brien said, “Gray was the most positive and thankful person I have never known.” She didn’t complain about things.  Why?  It was her love for and trust in the Lord. If she was a little tired she would say, “God has been so good to me and blessed me with so much.  I know he has a plan for me and I trust in that.”  She once told me that Proverbs 3:5-6 “has always helped me when life gets to be a puzzle.”  The verses say, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths.”

The Jones family was raised in the Baptist church, and Gray came to trust Christ early in life as her Savior.  She grasped the truth that we love others because God first loved us.  This is what the Apostle Paul expresses in Romans 8.  We trust that God works all things together for good because of his love.  We know that if he did not spare his own Son, that he will graciously give us all that we need.  We know that we are loved unconditionally, forgiven completely, and viewed as blameless because Jesus died for us.  And we know that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Not even death.

And so now Gray finally – and it’s been a long wait, in earth time – can enjoy again her husband, her twin and all her siblings, her parents, and all the great cloud of witnesses, loving and being loved as God intended.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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