Sarah Lou's Homecoming

Sarah Lou’s Celebration of Life
January 16, 2019
Dozier United Methodist Church.
Dozier, Alabama

When I was home over Christmas, I picked up my grandmother and took her to run some errands.  We talked about her life and she said, “I had two great men that loved me, a beautiful family, so many friends and really a blessed a life.”  Jokingly, I replied to her and said, “Well, it ain’t over yet, I think you might have time for one more great man.”  She said, “Ha.  Well you know that they’ve been calling.”  I laughed out loud!  She said, “This one man called me and said ‘I’m not looking for romance Sarah, just a friend to maybe go out to eat with or go to the movies.”  I smiled and told her, “Well, what did you tell him?” 

 She said with a grin, “I told him I don’t need no more damn friends.”

And apparently this is true!  There are so many of you here today that we had to set up overflow in the fellowship hall, Sunday school rooms and even outside.  We are grateful for every one of you that came to celebrate her to day.

And If you happen to be the gentleman she was referring to, I’m sorry. I also often found myself on the receiving end of her sharp tongue.  In fact when I was home Christmas I wore my new jeans with the holes in the them – which I think are very fashionable by the way and as soon as she saw me, she said, “I hope you didn’t pay money for those jeans.”

Goodness.  She was really was one of a kind. 

Well, for those of you who haven’t met me, I’m Luann Riley.  Her oldest granddaughter and name sake. I’m currently in seminary and I am taking a class to understand the history of Christian theology.  The definition of theology is the “reasoning of God”; it’s us as humans, trying to understand the greatness and vastness of the creator, the all-knowing, the one true God.  And here’s the challenge in theology.  It’s trying to put God into words. It’s all bound up in our language.  A language that often fails us. Because when we try to accurately describe or put into words something so big, so all consuming, so beautiful - words fail us.   Simple descriptions fall short. 

I bet you know the feeling I’m talking about.  For example, when you stand on the edge of the shore and look out over the ocean, there aren’t words to describe the splendor and beauty and complexity of the sea.  Or when you visit the mountains and you look at the expanse of creation, these glorious peaks rising about the land; topped with snow.   It hard to find the right words to describe the feeling. It reminds me of how often I try to capture a moment in a picture on my phone and then realize, the picture does not do it justice. It can’t accurately capture the magic of the moment. And that’s how I feel about describing my grandmother to you today. 

There are no words that accurately capture the beauty, the joy, and the wonder in the way she lived.  She was to me, and I bet to most of you, larger than life.   

She was the centrifugal force of our family and she ran command central out of her kitchen while sitting on a stool with her huge book of phone numbers while drinking wine and eating cheese and crackers.  She worked the phone and found out about what everyone in the family was doing.  What my mom and dad were up to, my brother, all the kids, friends and certainly the details of where Colby was and what he was doing.  We talked almost daily and she would give me the full update.  And she did not hold back her opinion on what she thought about all the information. I can just hear her now, “I don’t care too much about that.” Or she would tell me, “well, I probably shouldn’t have said that.”  But she did. Most of the time she did. She wasn’t one to try and filter or hold back her words.

She kept tabs on all of us.  And she worried about all of us like it was her job.  She was took her job as chief prayer and protector of our family seriously. And her job wasn’t easy.  We gave her plenty to worry about over the years.

  • She worried about my Uncle Colby and Bob when they were in Tuscaloosa at the University together .. I mean, can you blame her? The family still worries when the two of you get together.

  • She worried about my mom Debbie when she moved away to take a job at Exxon.  And she really worried when she decided to marry JR.  And she didn’t stop worrying about him until just a few years ago.  (Y’all know I’m telling the truth)

  • Lord, Jb put her worrying into overtime when he dropped out of college and hit the road with  a traveling band.  She would call him and say “well, where are you today?  Where did you play last night? Was it smoky?”  And then what would she say “Well, I don’t care to much for that.”

  • And me, well I was the only one that didn’t worry her. Ha! There are some of you here today that might remember when one of my mature, adult cousins called her when he spotted me at daylight walking out of a bar with my shoes in my hands while on his morning run in Tuscaloosa.

Through our ups, downs, highs, lows, victories, and tragedies, she was there – cheering us on, praying for us, worrying about us, and telling us what we need to do.   

It was a big job to be the heart of family and it carried a lot of weight and responsibility, a lot of fear and worry. And I think it’s no wonder then, why she started the practice of reading Psalm 91 faithfully every night before bed. When she was in the hospital last May and I was sitting with her, she requested that I read it over and over.  She could recite most every word.  

 Psalm 91 is known as the Psalm of sovereign security or The Assurance of those Who Trust in God. It’s a Psalm that points us to the truths about God’s character, his care, his protection and His love.  There are truths in this Psalm that Ma turned to every day – and I want to honor and celebrate her life by talking about those today.

Psalm 91 opens with a declaration about God’s character.  In the first two verses, the Psalmist uses three distinct titles to praise to God.

Psalm 91

1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High

    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a]

2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,

    my God, in whom I trust.”

God is addressed as - Most High.  Almighty.  My God.   When you see repetitive language in the Scriptures, it’s pointing to the importance of what is said. The Psalmist declares that “God is the most high in His life” - He comes first. He is the Almighty - No one is greater.  And the use of MY God declares that not only is He the most high God of all creation but He is a God that we can access and rely on personally. 

God was the most high in my grandmother’s life.

In fact, I found a note she had written down and it said this dated September 26th, 2016.   “I lay here reading the Bible.  Debbie and Luann I’m thinking and praying for you. I know both of you are Christian.  I love my family.  God first then my family.”

He was her God, and she turned to His Word in Scripture every night to hear His voice and find her assurance. I love that through her example she teaches us how important God’s Word is – that when worry or fear for her children and family or friends would creep – she would find her solace and comfort in Scripture.  I saw my grandmother’s faith grow stronger over the years as she learned to depend on God.  She went through many trials that refined her faith. He was the source of her great strength.  

In Psalm 91, after the Psalmist declares God’s character and His reliance on God, he declares His protection and the security we find in God.

3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler

    and from the deadly pestilence.

4 He will cover you with his pinions,

    and under his wings you will find refuge;

    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

5 You will not fear the terror of the night,

    nor the arrow that flies by day,

6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,

    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,

    ten thousand at your right hand,

    but it will not come near you.

8 You will only look with your eyes

    and see the recompense of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—

    the Most High, who is my refuge[b]—

10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,

    no plague come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you

    to guard you in all your ways.

12 On their hands they will bear you up,

    lest you strike your foot against a stone.

13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;

    the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;

    I will protect him, because he knows my name.

As I was studying Psalm 91, I came across an interesting story.  I was drawn to it because of the imagery and the importance that bridges played in my family history. 

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is one of the largest and most spectacular bridges in the world. It spans 8,981 feet through the air.  When it was being constructed several men lost their lives, falling from high positions two hundred feet about the water.  The work fell behind schedule and then someone had the idea to build a net under the construction area so that if a work man fell, they would not tumble to their death.  So a giant net was made out of sturdy cord – the first time in history anything had been made like that.  The cost was one hundred thousand dollars which was in incredible amount in the post-depression years.  But the effect was immediate. Because the net was in place, the workers weren’t afraid. The work proceeded at a much faster rate because the workmen knew that if they did slip, the net would catch them and their lives would be spared.

And that’s what God is to us. Much like the net under the bridge, God gives us the security that He will catch us if we fall. When the net is in place, we can build, work, dream, and fly without fear because of the security of knowing we have a safe place to land.

God was my grandmother’s security – he provided the net and because of that – Sarah Clark could dare to be brave to brave. She could dare to attempt big things. She held on to the bold confidence we have in God has believers. God’s people have the courage to move forward in great faith.  My Ma demonstrated this through many brave and daring moves in her life.

  • She was the youngest student to attend the nursing program at the Northington General Hospital in Tuscaloosa which was the world’s largest burn hospital during WWI. soldiers were sent there from all over the world because it was one of the most technologically advanced Army hospitals of it’s time.  She turned the dirt for the ground breaking of the new Druid City Hospital 1950. She was so proud that she was recently mentioned and honored in the Tuscaloosa News about that historic event.

  • She was brave enough to elope with my grandfather to Meridian, Mississippi.  Y’all. That’s scandalous.  My mom would have killed me.. although I’m sure my dad would have appreciated the bargain!

  • And then she and my grandfather started a business – Clark Construction which was their life work and legacy.  She often told me about how she did payroll and worked in the office.  She told me stories about how Grandma (that’s my grandfather’s mom) would make sack lunches and she would take them out to jobs. I recently made chili for a party and she told me the story about how Grandma made her chili and it was the first time she remembered every having it.  Ma would take it to the job site and it was a popular request. My brother and I loved spending time in the family business growing up. I have no idea how they afforded the amount of office supplies my brother and I would go through in the summer! Some of her best stories came from Road Builders conventions and highway lettings when they would prepare bids for jobs.

  • She loved to travel.  And she especially loved to travel for Alabama football.  I’ve heard the story about her and my grandfather going to Hawaii (or Hawa YA) as she called it so many times.  California.  New Orleans. Miami.  She followed her beloved team faithfully and could be guaranteed to find and make friends wherever she went.  I can’t tell you how many times when I was traveling with her that I would get up to go to the bathroom and by the time I got back she knew a person’s entire life story and often they would keep in touch. 

  • She was interested in people.  When she talked to you with that spark in her eye, huge smile, and magical laugh – you knew that it was genuine and that she cared about what you were saying.  She dared to love big and to love hard. Her friends became family. In fact for many of you here today I don’t know if you are really a cousin or not!  One of the most common phrases I’ve heard about her this week is “there is nothing Sarah wouldn’t do for you.” 

  • She was a trail blazer - She was the first female County Commissioner in Crenshaw County.  I fondly remember campaign fish fry’s.  We had shirts that said “Vote for my Ma.”  I think that must have clenched it!  As a child, I didn’t understand the significance of what she was doing. But as an adult, and as a woman who has found herself to be the “first woman” in many arenas, I am so grateful that she demonstrated to me that being female doesn’t limit me. She led the way.

  • She was also brave to do a few things that her children didn’t appreciate. Particularly where her grandchildren were concerned.  If we wanted it, she didn’t really ask permission from our parents, she just got it for us.  And that is how she ended up with a poodle named Max for a companion.  And man, did she love my cousin Madison’s little dog and that dog loved her.  And it lived like 15 years – it was always at the doctor for something.  It had to be the oldest living poodle with a collapsed lung on the planet. 

  • And no where was she more brave than on the dance floor.  Street dances, the Legion, barns -  It didn’t matter.  All she needed was music, her red boots, and maybe a Scotch or two.

My brother said something interesting to me the other night which I think is a wise insight into my grandmother’s life.  He said – “Even though she wanted to be with us and spend time with us and she never missed an opportunity to tell us how much she missed us - She wanted us to live our lives. She wanted us to pursue our dreams, to work hard, to make good choices, to live life as an adventure. 

And much like God provided the net of security for my grandmother, she provided the net of security for us.  She gave us all a safe place to land when we needed it.  And she found great joy in and pride in our accomplishments.

  • I can’t tell you how often she bragged about my mom and Colby’s golf skills and playing on the golf team.  I think it’s a real shame my brother didn’t really get their athletic ability.  Oh well, I guess we have to leave that to my husband Justin! She gets the credit for swapping our phone numbers and I will always be grateful she did.. I was with her in Myrtle Beach the first time he called and the rest is history. It was the best gift she every gave me although anytime Justin was in the doghouse with me, I would call her and say, “It’s all your fault.”  And she would just laugh!

  • She was proud of JB’s musical talent - I am pretty sure she played JB’s songs to any person that would listen. It was a proud moment for her that she got to come to JB’s recent wedding to Lauren.

  • She was so excited when my sister Gracie won the Miss Brantley pageant and she told me often how beautiful Gracie is.

  • She was incredibly proud of my mom and the way she cares for my younger siblings. Part of our daily calls were to tell me some funny story about something Katie or Sissy said, or some antic of Gabe or how polite and respectful Ezra is or what a smart and kind young man Malachi is turning out to be.  As proud as my Ma was of her independence and how hard she fought to keep it, she treasured the time she spent living with my Momma because she was surrounded by her grandchildren who would come and check on her every morning and every day when they got home from school.

  • She was so proud of my dad’s business – she looked forward to the Airtek party every year with expectation and just a few weeks ago she called and got my voicemail.  She said “Lu. I just have to tell you about this party.  Debbie has really outdone herself this time.”  Which is hard to do because if there is one thing my mom knows how to do, it’s throw a party!

  • She was proud of how much Colby loved his girls and how he would do anything for them.   She relived memories of them often – going to the mall to the food court and their adventures in Dothan and Birmingham.  And Colby took great care of my grandmother too. In fact, he recently bought her a HUGE TV that she was so proud of. She couldn’t wait to watch Alabama football on it. She called me one day and told me how she could now actually read the words at the bottom of the screen! Anything she wanted, Colby got it.

  • One of her greatest joys and proud moments was being able to come to the birth of my precious twins – her great grandchildren Beckett and Eli who love to check the mail box for cards from Ma (because they always had money in them). 

My ma loved her family. She loved her friends.  And she loved her God.

In verse 14 the Lord begins speaking back to the Psalmist and He says -

14 “Because he[b] loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;

    I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.

15 He will call on me, and I will answer him;

    I will be with him in trouble,

    I will deliver him and honor him.

16 With long life I will satisfy him

    and show him my salvation.”

A mutual love and fellowship exists between the Lord and the one who loves Him. I am so grateful that my grandmother knew God’s great love. The love of God that sent His only Son Jesus to die for us so that through His death and resurrection we can receive salvation and eternal life.   That is why we have hope and joy in our sorrow today.

The Lord says that for those who love me, I will satisfy him with a long and abundant life.   I can’t think of a life more abundant than my Ma’s.

I found a poem on a tattered piece of newspaper, tucked in her Bible in the kitchen and I think it’s a fitting way to finish my words today.

Seeing God

I see God in the heart of a rose

I feel His love in the breeze that blows

I see God in the beautiful trees

I hear Him in the hum of bees

I see God in the blue of the sky

I trust He guides me with his eye

I see God in the beautiful spring

I hear him when the little birds sing

I see God, Yes all the year round

Even when the snow falls on the ground

I see God in a little child’s face:

Sense His abiding, sweet love and grace

I see God when His dear people meet

I hear Him in the songs of Zion, sweet

I see God when we bow down to pray:

Sometimes feel His glory on that day

I see God when the Apostles preach

I see Him as they comfort and teach

O may I see God fully, complete

Praise Him in Heaven when we all meet

Amen and Amen

Luann Riley