Remembering Joan Douglass

Nearly four years ago, Bill, Diane, Reyna and Brad stood with Joan on the parking lot following worship. It was a warm, sunny May afternoon. Joan taught Sunday school to Grace United Methodist Church children for 37 years- our son Linus was in her final class. I am sure that was a coincidence. Joan was also a long time supporter of Project Transformation, a United Methodist summer reading ministry serving children all across our country. So when we dedicated the Little Library in her honor, packed for kids in the neighborhood with free books to be enjoyed, it was no small gesture. 

Bill told me Joan was affectionately known as the White Tornado- an acknowledgement of both her white hair and her tenacious energy she brought to any task- at work or as a volunteer. By the time I became Joan’s pastor six years ago, she had endured one stroke in recent years, and a second would come a few years later. The energy she was known for before the 1st stroke was now different- not gone, different. The energy I witnessed every Sunday she was able to be in worship was heart energy. Following worship she would want to meet any new person there. She would warmly greet long time friends. Over the last year, mostly confined to a wheelchair, Joan still held court after worship, hugging and kissing as many people she could reach. In a favorite quote of Joan’s, Henri Nouwen says, “Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of life…all our life. One of the most moving experiences of life is the experience of giving.”

It’s interesting to me that Joan chose Matthew 28:16-20, the Great Commission, to be read today. I’m not sure I've ever read it at a funeral before. The resurrected Jesus, at the very end of the gospel, calls his followers to the mountain for final words of blessing and instruction:

“16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, ‘I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.’”

Joan certainly took the “teaching them all you’ve been taught” command to heart over 37 years! Again, this is the resurrected Jesus sending out the apostles. They are on the other side of the cross, the other side of death. Compelled by the Good News of their risen Lord, they are freed from the grief of recent days and empowered by the Holy Spirit to go and serve. We are here today to honor Joan’s memory, to perhaps share a few tears and much more laughter… but the best way to honor Joan’s life is to reflect it with our own. We will see Joan again. The power of resurrection is available for all who believe. But in between the day when we are reunited with our loved ones, there is work to be done.

Let’s go back to the Nouwen passage from the book The Life of the Beloved I mentioned earlier, a favorite of Joan’s. It concludes, “True joy and happiness and inner peace come from giving ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others.” Jesus is ready to leave the apostles and all of earth for good. They are a mixture of excitement and grief, even confusion. Summoning up his authority, Jesus sends out his former students: Now go! Train people, baptize people, teach people, and remember I will always be with you. The apostles are sent out. I believe Joan was sent. Sent to be a wife, sent to be a mother and grandmother, sent to be a teacher and volunteer and leader. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Joan was sent. You and I are sent by the same Spirit.

In addition to Matthew 28:16-20 and the Nouwen section, Joan also left instructions to share Psalm 23, which, she said, she memorized when she was five years old. The psalmist ends that classic prayer with a sense of God’s presence. The King James version, probably the one Joan memorized, puts it this way: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” but the Common English Bible, a favorite of mine, says this: 

“Yes, goodness and faithful love

    will pursue me all the days of my life,”

God’s love doesn’t just follow; it pursues. We are commissioned. Sent. To serve. To love. Ready to use the gifts we have received to improve the lives of others. On that May afternoon four years ago, we concluded our brief service with this prayer: “Grant us your blessing, as we have consecrated this Little Library to your glory, that it may be an enduring witness before all your people, and that our lives may be consecrated in your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” Today I paraphrase the prayer this way:

“Grant us your blessing, as we have celebrated Joan Douglass to your glory, that she may be an enduring witness before all your people, and that our lives may be consecrated in your service as hers was; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”