Funeral Service of LaVerne Swanson Rayburn


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I preached the funeral sermon for my Father and for my sister and now I am preaching the funeral of my mother. It has been a great privilege for me, but it has not been without cost. I’ve noticed that members of the extended family now regularly cross themselves when they see me coming!

John Newton chose the text for his wife’s funeral, should she predecease him, some twenty five years before she died! I chose my text just a few days ago, after thinking at some length about what gospel message I wanted to convey at my mother’s funeral and how I might encourage all of us to appreciate again how great is the salvation of our God.

My interest in this text is Paul’s statement that the Christian is a “new creation.” There is something dramatically different about a person who is joined by faith to Jesus Christ and inhabited by the Holy Spirit. The difference is so profound that the Apostle Paul likened it to a person being made all over again. But it is sometimes hard for us to appreciate how radically different we actually are: how different from what we were at first, whether when we who have known the Lord all our lives were conceived in sin in our mother’s womb or when we who became Christians later in our lives were living apart from Christ. Part of our difficulty is that our new nature, our new life remains so much less obvious than we wish it were. Alas, so much of the old remains. There is, of course, a great deal of our outward life that does not distinguish us from the unbelievers around us. Our outward appearance is the same as theirs; we work at the same jobs, wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, eat the same food, get the same illnesses, vacation in the same places, live in the same homes, often listen to the same music, see the same movies, read the same books, and die of the same diseases. But more than that, so much of our former selves, the sinful self remains to blur the distinction between old and new. So many unworthy attitudes, thoughts, words, and deeds remain. To a great degree to credit ourselves as God’s new creations is an act of faith. We must believe that the difference is greater than we can see or others can observe. But, then, the conviction of things unseen is the very nature of biblical faith is it not?

I want to illustrate Paul’s remarkable description of the Christian as a new creation from my mother’s life, viewed from the vantage point of faith, seen as faith sees it and not as the world may observe it. On the other hand, when we say that we live by faith and not by sight we do not mean that we believe against the evidence. There are reasons aplenty to believe what we are taught to be true in the Word of God!

My mother was, as every Christian, an object of God’s saving love and grace. That grace was pitched upon her before the world began, it was purchased for her at the cross, and it was revealed to her when she was still a youngster. None of that, of course, was visible to anyone else however certain it was to her. What then does faith see of the new creation that the eye cannot? And what is the evidence for it?

  1. Great as the new creation is, its beginnings are often virtually invisible. Its effects do not appear at once. Just as the baby only slowly is transformed into the adult, so the new creation only slowly develops itself in a Christian’s life. Only sometimes does the new creation begin with a bang. Much more often it is more like a gentle breeze. Its consequence cannot be measured by its beginning.

 

As our Savior taught us, his kingdom grows in the world in the way of a seed. His contemporaries were expecting an earthquake; they were utterly unprepared for the coming of his kingdom to be like the planting of a field and the growing of a crop, believers having to wait  for it to mature so it could be harvested. How mundane; and how slow! We do not expect the new creation to plod or to seem so ordinary.

But so it was with my mother’s spiritual beginnings in rural western Washington. She grew up in Big Lake, five miles east of Mt. Vernon. Her father contracted TB as a young man and, as people did in those days, went to drier climes to try to stay alive. She saw him only a few times in her life and he died when she was still in her teens. Her mother was left with the task of supporting herself and her two girls and did so by running a small grocery store and gas station, something like our modern convenience store. I visited some years ago and the store and the gas pumps are still there at the north end of Big Lake. An insignificant place and an upbringing beset by difficulty. Small beginnings. But what is that to God! Into her life stole the new creation?

The key spiritual influence in my mother’s life was a dear couple, the Grangers, who ran a Bible club for local children. My mother attended, became a special favorite of the Grangers, and eventually virtually part of their family. I have often thought about this: how much in our lives can be seen later to have depended on the influence and the ministry of other Christians, ordinarily faithful Christians like those who taught my mother to believe in Jesus Christ.

Last week, in a committee meeting on Lookout Mountain, I heard the testimony of a new professor of theology at Covenant College (Hans Madueme). He’s a Nigerian who grew up in Europe, where his father was a scientist attached to the U.N.’s Atomic Energy Commission. He got his M.D. in the United States and then promptly gave up medicine for theology. Though raised in a nominal Anglican home, his Christian life began as a teenager on a visit to relatives in Nigeria. It was listening to an Aunt read the Bible at the family table that sparked the fire of faith in him. Such a simple beginning, but it would eventually carry him on the wind of the Spirit all over the world finally to land with his family in the biblical studies department of a Christian college in Georgia! Such a simple beginning; invisible to others at first, it was Hans and the Lord in his bed that night after he listened to his Aunt read the Bible at the family table; but such a great change. So it was with my mother. Such a simple beginning, the way of the seed planted in the field, but the seed began to grow as seeds will and this supernatural seed always will. Her mother was a sweet woman and at least eventually a believer, but she was not the chief human instrument of my mother’s new creation. That was the Grangers. Mother has a sister, a year and half older than she, and there has never been a glimmer of true faith or the love of Christ in her life. Two girls from the same home, raised by the same mother, but only one of them became a new creation in Jesus Christ. The wind of the Spirit blowing where it will!

Here is the first demonstration of the new creation in the story of her life. From such simple beginnings an entirely different life emerged than anyone could ever have expected of this  graduate of Sedro Woolley High School in the 1930s. The new birth, the new creation, reveal themselves most profoundly in the direction of a life. She began walking with and toward the Lord as a girl and never stopped. She couldn’t do anything else. It was now her nature to do so. She was a new creation, a new person, and that new nature ordered the development of her life.

She went to the University of Washington but she stayed in a house for Christian co-eds at the edge of campus. She was also, by the way, on the synchronized swimming team at the U Dub. As I said, the remnants of the old nature still remain! She found herself associating with other believers as she grew into her young adulthood. She could never have known where this new life that had been given to her was to take her, but it would prove be a vastly different life than that of her sister.

A person cannot be recreated in the image of the living God and walk with Jesus Christ and be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and it not make a magnificent difference! It is a difference that is best observed by faith, which knows how to measure things in ways that are not obvious to the world. But at the same time it is a difference easy enough to see.

  1. The new creation, being the work of our God and the gift of his love, once it has taken root expands a person’s life, enlarges it, as we would expect, in that way that matters to God.

 

The world is invariably tempted to think that, if the gospel were true, a child of God would be richer, healthier, invariably more cheerful, more successful, and more famous than any unbeliever. And the Bible does not hesitate to say that the child of God, the remade man or woman, is richer, healthier, and happier than the man or woman still in his or her sins, but not necessarily in the crude way the world measures such things.

We are talking about the image of God after all. God’s children are certainly not going to live ordinary lives. They’re definitely not going to live the life lived by someone who does not know God or has not been changed into his likeness. And the Bible goes on to teach us that, belonging to God’s family, sharing the very nature of God, our lives are shot through with high purpose and real adventure; we partake, after all, of the fortunes, the battles, and the victories of the kingdom of God. Our life is shot through with high purpose and real adventure; the purpose and the adventure of the kingdom of God.

My father met my mother in 1943 when he came to Washington to play the piano for his brother, Jim Rayburn’s, evangelistic crusade. This was the very beginning of the ministry that you know today as Young Life. It was through the Grangers that they met, and nine days later he proposed. She was twenty, he was twenty-eight. The other day among her papers I came across an affidavit signed by her mother to the effect that she was agreeable to her daughter’s marriage. It was necessary because my mother was a minor and, according to Texas law, needed her parent’s permission to marry.

A few months later she was a pastor’s wife in Texas, a long way from home and from anything she had ever known in her life to that point. When my father went to war she came back to Washington where my sister Linnea was born. After the war and after the birth of her second daughter, Bronwyn, Dad was called to the College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. It was from that pastorate that he was called up to serve in the Korean War; then to Southern California and life and work at a fledgling Christian college. Then to St. Louis for 43 years at Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary, nine of those after the death of my father in 1990, and then thirteen more years here in Tacoma.

But during those years: the places she went, the people she met, the things she accomplished. She was involved in the life and work of God’s kingdom on every continent except Antarctica. Hers was a large life, as every Christian life is when rightly understood, because it was a kingdom life. She married a minister and spent the rest of her life in the Christian ministry. Her great part in that work was her home into which were welcomed literally thousands of people through the years. She has friends all over the world who have sat one time or another at her table or slept in her guest room, or at whose tables in far flung places she sat herself. But most of them, not all, but most of them were Christians and most of them were Christian ministers and missionaries, or students who would become ministers and missionaries or who would in other ways serve Christ’s church and kingdom.

I grew up in a home dominated by the interests of the kingdom of God. It should be the inheritance of every child in this congregation, to grow up in such a home. Mother was revered by others simply because they found in her a woman who shared the same faith and the same interest in the kingdom of God, because they found her a fellow-servant in same kingdom, and because she was so cheerfully employed in the business of that divine kingdom.

Every life, of course, will be different in many ways, but every Christian life, the life of everyone who is a new creation, will be lived in some wonderful respects high above the ground. How could it not be when one’s nature, by the grace and power of God, has become a heavenly one? And if the new creation is God’s work and God’s gift you can be sure that the Christian nature, the person in his or her truest self, will be drawn inflexibly, invariably, inexorably drawn to those things that are most important and precious to God himself! Faith knows this, but reason can follow the logic easily enough.

  1. The significance of the new creation, which is, after all, the most extraordinary and eternally significant thing that ever happens in this world, must be grasped by faith also because it does not insulate a person from the shocks of life. Our Savior lived a difficult life though a perfect man. His sorrows were necessary because as we learn in many places in the Word of God the kingdom of God advances by suffering. And until Christ comes again there is no path to heaven that does not pass through the gates of death.

 

My mother’s life, as I think most Christian lives most of the time, was generally a happy life, a cheerful life. There was a lot of laughter in our home and a lot of laughter around our family table. But there were also tears, as there always are in Christian families, and great challenges as there always are for those who seek to serve the Lord. My parents lived a pioneering life. In the early years of the College and Seminary money was in short supply, payroll was frequently late, sometimes very late and, as the president of the institution, my father was always the last to be paid. My mother did much with little in those days.

But more severe trials were to come. My father was diagnosed with cancer on three separate occasions and eventually died in 1990 when my mother was 66. She would live 23 years as a widow. Then, perhaps a still crueler blow, her second daughter, Bronwyn, died at 49 years of age. After she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, mother went to Atlanta to live with her and help her and, when the family eventually returned to St. Louis, she continued to care for her daughter who eventually died in my mother’s bed.

Going through my mother’s papers, the other day, I found two pieces she had written after my sister’s death. To one friend she wrote,

“As near as I feel to God, her death has been a great grief to me. I am often teary-eyed and I struggle to get things done. She was so bright and delightfully funny and since I have been with her night and day for two and a half years, you can understand the chasm in my life.”

And, apparently just for herself, she copied on a piece of note paper a remark made by Queen Victoria to Dean Stanley in the early days of the Queen’s widowhood: I am “always wishing to consult one who is not here, groping by myself, with a constant sense of desolation.”

Where, the world asks, is the so-called new creation? Where is the great advantage of being a child of God when one must pass through sorrows like those? Where, the unbeliever wants to know, is the life of God in the soul of man in such circumstances as these?

Ah, but the only perfect man who ever lived was the Man of Sorrows and men and women made in his image must be sorrowful too and for the same reasons. The sorrows of the new creation are supremely the sorrows of love, of sympathy, of offended righteousness, and of frustration that this world is not yet heaven and we ourselves are not the Christians we will someday be. Faith knows that the new creation must suffer; faith knows why. Faith can see that the only authentic human nature is the nature that suffers in the right way for the right reasons. A heavenly nature in a dying world must grieve. Faith knows that and reason, at least, can follow the logic. And, above all, the Christian experiences such sorrows very differently, because of God’s loving presence and because of the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ. The new creation is a wonderful thing even in the darkest night of the soul!

  1. Finally, the new creation must be seen and appreciated by faith, according to the teaching of the Word of God, because we cannot now see its future fulfillment and its heavenly reward.

 

There would be no doubt whatsoever that Christians are new creations, that God has touched them in a remarkable way, that they have become utterly different men and women than those who do not believe — it would be a truth obvious to even the most defiant unbeliever — if the believer were made perfect at once, if it were not something only begun in this world not to be finished until the next.

Christians would be without sin; they would be men and women of such perfect and powerful love that it would take the world’s breath away; they would rise above every temptation to small-mindedness and contribute generously and valuably to everyone else’s life and with natural humility and kindness they would do so with joy and gratitude. They would live for others every moment of the day. It would be astonishing for sinners to see it. The absence of selfishness would be shockingly visible to everyone because pervasive selfishness is now the warp and woof of our existence as human beings in this fallen world. Nothing would be more obvious to us than a genuinely selfless life. And their bodies would be perfect as well: strong, healthy, and beautiful to look at no matter how old they were.

But the new creation is very imperfect in this world. It may be that the imperishable seed of the word has been planted in us, but the harvest is still in the future. Like every Christian my mother remained a sinner. Among her many strengths, there were weaknesses to be sure. Those of us who knew her better know what some of those weaknesses were. As with every Christian in this world her righteousness consisted more in the forgiveness of her sins than in the moral perfection of her life. And, like so many others, her body eventually succumbed to the ravages of old age. Her mind failed her and then her body as well. No one could see the new creation as she lay on her deathbed, old and shriveled, her face pallid and her eyes vacant. Only faith knows that

“…what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.”

“It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.”

“We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

But even in this world, this fallen world, this still sinful world in which the still-sinful Christian lives, the new creation produces much that is the anticipation of what is to come. The new creation made my mother a woman of prayer. I came across a little notebook among her papers in which she had written down the matters she was praying about month by month through several years. She prayed for many others. But her greatest work, she often said, was her children. Her life here may have been but the beginning of her life, but in that beginning she was the instrument of the beginning of a great deal more eternal life. My mother raised four children to love and serve the Lord. Those four have produced sixteen, also all walking with the Lord, and, so far, twenty-six great grandchildren, all of them the Lord’s. One woman, almost 50 Christian descendants: the mathematics of the kingdom of God!

So hers was in many ways an ordinary life, but it was pulsing so much with life that it had life to spare and by the grace of God and the promise of his covenant, life to share with still others. You have heard before the little poem I recite to you from time to time.

Lord, lay some soul upon my heart
And love that soul through me;
And may I nobly do my part
To win that soul for thee.
And when I come to the beautiful city,
And the saved from around me appear,
I want to hear somebody tell me,
“It was you who invited me here.”

There will be many in heaven who were invited by my mother or who were invited by people who were invited by my mother. It can seem that we live, you and I, ordinary lives; but there is nothing ordinary about them. And if we could see their future and if we could somehow see and calculate their consequence, we would never think them ordinary again.  Already the divine life itself throbs within, already the very nature of God is within us, already a seed has become a plant that can bear fruit not only in this world but in the world that is to come.

When Paul reminds us that we have been made all over again by the power of God, that God’s grace and Christ’s cross have combined to make us brand new people, profoundly different from what we once were, he is reminding us what a surpassingly wonderful thing it is to be a Christian, how great is the grace of God, how wonderful the salvation we have in Jesus Christ, how significant our present life, and how beautiful our life to come. True enough, very few of us make the front pages of the newspaper or become familiar to those who watch television or internet news. But what does the world know. The great Jewish historian and the great Roman historians all missed the most important events ever to occur in the history of mankind, even though they occurred right under their noses! A Christian, any Christian, is the most extraordinary thing in all the world.

We rejoice in her new creation, as we rejoice in our own, we who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; we genuinely rejoice in it, begun long ago and now, in my mother’s case, more perfect still. But it is not yet completely finished; for soon, very soon, at the last trumpet, she will rise to perfect, eternal life. The day yet awaits when she and all the saints will be finally new creations in their entirety, perfectly complete in soul and body.

And death itself, to her, was but
The wider opening of the door
That had been opening, more and more,
Through all her life, and ne’er was shut.

And never shall be shut. She left
The door ajar for you and me,
And, looking after her, we see
The glory shining through the cleft.
John Oxenham, 1900