Last week 200 people from many different parts of the land gathered in St Peters to celebrate the life of an extraordinary woman. I know that funerals are nowadays often styled as celebrations and the phrase can become somewhat cliched. But this one was. And here is the interesting thing – it was not primarily a celebration of the life of Adele Ann Ellis, but rather a celebration of the goodness and glory of God in her life. It was, for all who were there, an extraordinary occasion.
It is hard to describe what happened. We sang See What a Morning, There is a Hope that Burns Within my Heart, In Christ Alone and How Good is the God we Adore. We prayed. We read the Scriptures. Her brother John MacBeath and her son John gave tributes. Sinclair Ferguson brought the Word to us. We ate and drank together afterwards. But that is only a description of the outline.
Adele was born on the 27th of April 1936 and died on the 10th of November 2016. She was a mother of four boys (John, Graham, Paul and Mark), had a double first in languages, spoke Italian and French and was a woman of quite remarkable intelligence. Married to David, former assistant minister of the Tron and OMF leader, their life was one of struggle, joy, service and great support of one another. The bare facts of her life serve only to act as a container to describe the richness of it. If you listen to the funeral link below you will hear a wonderful tribute by her son, John and an incredible sermon on Psalm 23 from Sinclair Ferguson.
Adele was described by Sinclair as ‘the woman of the book’. Because she knew the author and loved him. Psalm 23 seems an almost too obvious passage of Scripture to read at a funeral, but it was so incredibly applied. When she and David became members in St Peters Adele was already in the advancing stages of severe dementia. Suddenly the words of the Psalm struck home in a new way ‘yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”. Dementia is most certainly the valley of the shadow…and yet even in that the Lord was with her. No – perhaps especially in that the Lord was with her. She may have forgotten many things but He never forgot her.
But now she is out of the valley. She is on the ultimate mountain top, at the ultimate feast. That is why we celebrated. As Christians there is a joy in death (as well as real sorrow) that the world just cannot grasp. You need to be in Christ, in order to understand even a little of the beauty of being with Christ. My hope and prayer is that those of the 200 who were in St Peters last Thursday, who are not yet in Christ, will at least have had a taste of what that might mean.
“Heaven was in her, before she was in heaven” (Sibbes).
The following is the tribute that my good friend John paid to his mum. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard….
27th of April 1936 to 10th November 2016. Adele Ann Ellis.
Most of you will have known my mother, as Adele. I have known her all my life – coming up for 50 years – and I have never once called her that. I am not alone. 4 people here have only ever called her mum, four more have come to call her mother through marriage, and 10 more have only ever known called her granny. some relationships are so profound we use the relational word over against any other and instead of the proper name: but this is familiar to the Christian then Jesus answered, when you pray say, “our father which art in heaven…” as far as we know even angels can’t say that.
Perhaps as the result of that life defining relationship, no child can really conceive of their parents existence before they were born. Even as I grew into adulthood, I heard stories like my Uncle John’s of my mother’s adventures before we came to be part of her story and I heard them with a degree of wonder, like news from another country and another time; news of a life lived large. She seems to me to have lived a nomadic and exotic life. Registering her death with the registrar in city Square last Friday, and looking at her birth certificate, I was struck by the thought that the town in which her birth was registered, Leopoldville doesn’t even exist any more (that’s modern day Kinshasa). Even the Belgian Congo no longer exists.
Betty and I went with D & S, two of her grandchildren to Southeast Asia to see one of the places I had lived and not one building was left standing of all that I remembered. This is trivial in comparison: for my mother, the child of missionary parents with their hearts set on pilgrimage she had no permanent home, and even her country has been renamed.
I knew of her double first honours degree in languages . But her intelligence never found expression through one-upmanship or showy display, but in the flashes of wit and in the deep, deep love of literature and poetry, which she passed on to us. I don’t know if it was a grief to her that we all seemed to follow our Father ‘genetically’ into technical and scientific subjects and left a love of literature to our private and personal lives.
Shona remembers at family gatherings in the house in Perth, how she used to slip away from the grown-ups to the bookcase upstairs. She knew it wouldn’t be long before granny noticed a child was missing from the gathering and would set out just as quietly, find Shona at the top of the stairs and begin to read to her.
Above the head of her bed at Meigle country house was a copy of 1 Corinthians 13, done in her own beautiful calligraphy. Paul says there that love does not draw attention to itself. For all her great learning and intelligence, Mum moved with an easy grace through the lives of those she loved and who loved her… …never drawing attention to that hinterland of learning and reading. In fact though intelligent and quick of mind, she was generally awful at telling jokes, but laughed with genuine delight at everyone else’s – happy that they, not she was in the limelight when they deliver the punchline.
All her life she was surrounded by boys: first by three brothers, and no sisters, Then a husband, then 4 boys. God perhaps preserved the gentleness of women, one of his tenderest gifts to her till her later life in the form of the nursing care she received Meigle house in the last two years of her life.
There, despite the cruelty of the Alzheimer’s, she loved and was loved. When dad could no longer care for her as he wished, Rhona and Karen and their team – round-the-clock – exemplified to us the imago dei -the image of God.
There is a line in Hamlet I often think of when I think of my father’s love from my mother, in it Hamlet, speaking of his dead father’s love for his mother says of the murdered King: “So excellent a king … So loving to my mother that he might not beteem the winds of heaven visit her face too roughly” When I think that the man – who loved his wife that well – could be confident to leave her in the care of the staff at Meigle I know it says more than words ever could about how highly we all is a family esteemed the loving, caring, patient, homely, gentle ethos of that place.
Sitting in my father’s dining room on the morning of the day she died Mark, Graham and I all retrieved at the same time one common memory. We were on the beach on a family holiday in Java playing in the sand dunes when my mother quite unreasonably and with no warning whatsoever began to do cart wheels. Balance and poise and athleticism, perfectly executed despite the fact, that unless she practiced them in secret, she must not have done a cartwheel for decades. All of us boys were so surprised we stop doing what we were doing, abandoned our play and dropped our mouths wide open. Such was my surprise that I remember exactly what she was wearing at the time. Slightly flared white 70s trousers with an Indonesian Batik top. None of the brothers at the time mentioned this to each other.
In the days after mum died I received a lot of lovely, thoughtful texts, and one very dear friend said, your mother is walking with her Lord in the cool of the evening of Eden…and I’m sure she is – sometimes – but I rather more pictured her doing cartwheels of utter, exploding, uncontainable, happiness in His presence!
Sharing just that one cameo leads me to ask; have you ever been to a funeral of someone you loved and thought that the eulogy was adequate? I don’t think so… in fact the more you loved them and the better you knew them, the more inadequate you probably thought the eulogy. Why? Because I think our expectations are understandable… but impossible. We want to see that person set free again in the eye of our imagination as they once were and in a sense we want, therefore, to see them again. And that isn’t possible. It is beyond the craft of even the best wordsmith. we can’t adequately describe another human being… Not really …not in that ultimate sense…
So I remember the family feasts and her amazing hospitality; and I remember FHB I remember when she declared ‘Manners Maketh Man week’ when she grew frustrated in her entirely reasonable efforts to tame 4 feral children – disgusted by our table manners – she decided to feed us our meal off newspaper spread on the dinning room table to illustrate the shoddy consequences of our actions – and who should turn up that mealtime but one of our uncles! He couldn’t stop laughing and the grandeur of the lesson was entirely lost!
I remember 101 recipes for mince and the fact that mum earned so many ‘frequent flyer miles’ with the butcher that he gave her 1 free lb with every 10 I remember she then tried to vary our diet with liver and onions – which we hated… But I remember how we always ate together at table… I remember her terrible sense of direction and her faulty personal thermostat – wearing 6,7 or more layers, even in the height of summer. And I remember and the amazing bread she made, daily, in a rusty old box oven – literally – lifted and placed on top of the stove in Jakarta, three legs supported by the dodgy gas ring and the fourth balanced on a cork.
I remember the letters. How many many letters she wrote, often illustrating them with watercolours of life or Tintin or Narnian characters.. Only one thing I don’t remember: I cannot ever recall her complaining. Ever. About anything. She was godly, and gracious and generous and gentle…
but I have always known, ever since the Alzheimer’s disease began its long, slow theft, what memory would linger longest and be most defining of her. I remember that apart from I think one week; literally perhaps 7 nights when I was ill and could not sleep, that every morning; any morning, whatever the day, whatever the time… when I came down to breakfast I found mum seated at the dinning table reading her bible. There were no exceptions I can remember apart from two weeks on one holiday in the lake district in a house with wooden window shutters when she wasn’t woken by the light (she was a very light sleeper) and slept in, something I didn’t know she could do… no exceptions. There she was reading her bible.
When I was a teenager in the 80s I sent off for a get rich quick book. It was rubbish and I threw it away. But – with some embarrassment – I do remember doing it, I thought nothing more of it until many, many years later I found that mum had kept an A5 trifold flyer from that mailing and used it as a bookmark in her bible. It had the firms slogan on the front and read “The secret of real wealth; how to quietly accumulate real wealth and retire rich” Well – better than those yuppy salesmen realised, she did quietly accumulate real wealth and retire[d] rich.
You will have recollections and profound memories I have omitted and I would have included many domestic and mild memories you might have bettered – There are many more examples of her godliness and faith in the book Dad wrote… But even if I shared a CV – a kind of catalogue of the years – that wouldn’t do it. You will have heard the kind of thing, that the average human spends 25 years sleeping and so on. Well I have reflected that in our life together as a family, mum spent 36 months pregnant 12 years dealing with toddlers under three and so on… but there’s one statistic in this slightly strange way of looking at things, that is sobering…
She – that is both my parents – lived through a total of 30 years of separation from their four children, between 1972 in 1984 (11 8 6 5). Twice a year for all those years, with a tender mother’s heart, she said goodbye to 4 children going away to boarding school, why? Because her Lord and Master asked it of her, and she knew him well enough to know that he would take care of her children for her.
I remember the joy of returning home, as the taxiing aeroplane reached its hold on the Jakarta tarmac, we could always see her amongst the waving crowd with a large white square; a white terry nappy kept for the purpose. And we always came home to our favourite food which was always pumpkin pie… And all holiday she dropped everything and, presumably every preference of her own and every wish for privacy, to create a secure world and family subculture that represented ultimate security and comfort.
My parents shared and passed onto us to love of CS Lewis’ Narnia in the last chapter of the last book, Farewell to Shadowlands… Part of which mum had written again in her beautiful calligraphy for my dad’s 70th Birthday Aslan speaks to the children;
“You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.” Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan.”… ”Have you not guessed?” said Aslan…Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them. “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly “….all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
Mum has reached the place where there is never any more separation. and, as she now knows all she needs to know about all God’s providence in her life, she will be able to add the delight of praising him that; as Psalm 119 says “You are good and [everything you] do [is] good..” by sure and certain knowledge, not ‘just’ by faith, as we do. She will know why so many partings and separations were right and needed and the cascading good consequences that could be achieved no other way that came from them… But not because the ‘joy of heaven’ is an explanation. No: all that is needed is one glimpse of the Lamb on the throne, and all questions will vanish; just adoring him she will know of course that “He is good and all he does is good” … mum is experiencing that truth, and The truth, that Revelation 21:4 does not say he will send one of his angels with a Kleenex to mum, to wipe away every tear, but he himself will do it.
Now I know that Mum is home, truly home, at the end of a life set on pilgrimage; that at the end of a life of partings, her tears have been wiped away and she is where there are never any more partings or separations …and she is truly whole. That beautiful God-given mind and smile and best of all, character so beautiful a copy, now perfected, of Jesus himself, that was fashioned and honed in this place of so many leavings and losses.
As a family we have been so grateful for so many comforting cards, letters, conversations and gracious, generous testimonies to the impact her life had on so many here, and confident expressions of the gospel hope we have for her… Indeed it is true that she is with the Lord Jesus whom she loved and followed all her life, …but she would have been severe with me if I implied that our confidence in that was based on how closely she followed him or how much she loved him. It is not, and not even with the love-biased, well-intentioned God-honouring testimony to the quality of her life and service. No; she is home now, because Jesus left his home with the Father to come to earth to find her. She lived, as she lived, always in response to that fact.