Meditation on Philippians 4:4-9
In Memory of Anita Thress
Service to Witness to the Resurrection
Feb. 2, 2016
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
The message came in one morning not long ago that Anita was on hospice. Would the pastor come to visit? The family didn’t know me, yet, when they reached out to the church, expecting someone other than me to respond. But they trusted this church they had known since the congregation was young- in the mid 1960s. Some years had passed since Phil and Anita had attended. The Alzheimer’s disease with which Anita was diagnosed about 5 years ago had affected her mind and body so that the woman who was so involved with MIPC in its early, formational years could no longer connect with the people, worship, and activities of the church she so loved. Their three “boys,” whose faith was nurtured in this congregation, had all grown up and moved away for lives and adventures of their own. I would be happy to discover, though, that Anita was the first secretary of MIPC; she also taught children and youth and was ordained an elder in 1977. She was worship committee chair beginning in 1979, was VP of the church corporation in 1983, and was elected commissioner to General Assembly to vote on the historic merger of the Northern and Southern branches of the Church, divided since 1861 when the issue was slavery.
I visited Anita and her family for several days after that initial request for support. These were Anita’s last days and her family truly did surround her with love, taking turns sitting by her bedside at a healthcare facility on Merritt Island. I felt honored and privileged to be used by God to carry the peace and hope of Christ to them–and encourage them that God was with them and loved them still. I didn’t expect that the family would welcome me — a stranger — with such warmth and affection. But they did. And I didn’t expect that I would immediately feel that I was “at home” when I was with them. But I did. Knowing what I know about her now, I believe Anita would have been very proud of the hospitality her family showed me.
At the first visit, we talked about the Alzheimer’s–and the falls that led to Anita’s move to a memory care facility and then, finally, to the hospice facility. Most of the time, though, we didn’t talk about the painful times, the deep sadness they felt and their worries for her comfort and peace. We spent our time together sharing happy memories. We were filled with a spirit of joy–a gracious gift from God. They would tell stories–and we would all laugh. I found myself staying longer than I planned to stay. They brought in photos one afternoon. The time would just pass–and then I would remember that supper was cooking and it was time to go home to my own family. I learned later, from talking to longtime church members, that Anita, like Phil and the boys, was a storyteller, too, with a keen sense of humor, so you weren’t always sure if the story were real or something concocted in her imagination.
I heard how and when Anita and Phil met; she was 17, and he was 19. They lived in rural East Tennessee. He was a country boy with a goofy grin and no job; she was a smart, sophisticated, college-bound town girl who loved to read. She had her own ideas and wasn’t afraid to express them, though others didn’t agree. This would serve her well years later when she and Phil moved to Merritt Island with their three little boys, and she worked as the church secretary. One day, she asked the session for a new fangled electric typewriter because the old manual Smith Corona was not doing a quality job. She demonstrated the old manual, with its problems, to the all-male board that didn’t want to spend the money. ‘Course, most men didn’t type back then, either. Her demonstration convinced board member Pete McCalman that she needed a new one; if the session would not buy it for her, he would!
Though Phil and Anita were very different in personality, they both shared a spirit of adventure. With the passion and impulsivity of youth, they snuck off and got married without telling their parents. Weeks went by, I’m told, until Phil worked up the courage to inform his in-laws by slipping their marriage license under their door. I heard about their honeymoon, camping in the Smoky Mountains–and how a bear stole all their food while they were in the tent. Truth or exaggeration, I didn’t know. But it was a good story, and it made me laugh! Then, sure enough, I heard the story again from Phil’s sister, Betty. I asked her, “Did you know they were getting married?” “Some of us new,” she said, mysteriously, smiling. “Do you know about their honeymoon?” she asked. “The bear?” I asked. She nodded. It’s all true. Or at least Phil and Anita had everyone convinced. Probably the bear gets bigger and hungrier every time the story is told!
Anita, an extrovert, loved to play bridge. A number of people in this room played bridge with her. She did it several days a week with different groups. She convinced Phil, an introvert, that he should play, too, though he always fretted about it and needed 3 “dread days” before every game, she said. She was known for her wicked one-liners, delivered in her “mountain twang” that she never lost, despite the fact that she and Phil moved to Merritt Island when she was only 30. She got tired of people always asking her where she was from. She started telling people, “I’m from Boston.”
Most of the stories I heard involved their 3 boys, all of whom were born in Tennessee. Russ, the oldest, was 6 when the family moved to the same house on Merritt Island that Phil lives in now. Quite a few of the stories had to do with big messes. The Thress boys drank a lot of milk. T.G. Lee came out with a handy dandy 2½ gallon container with a slide-out spout. Anita told her middle son, Brad, “Don’t spill the milk.” Brad retorted, “I’m not gonna spill the milk!” Guess what happened? Milk everywhere. And then there was the story that begins with Phil buying Anita a new can opener, “a really good” can opener (but not electric) and installing it about 5 feet off the floor. She was opening a can of tomato sauce when the boys’ arguing distracted her. The can dropped 5 feet to the floor. “It was an explosion of tomato sauce,” Russ says. “There was tomato sauce on the ceiling.” But it wasn’t only the children who caused the messes and got into trouble. Anita got home early once to discover that Phil was using her blender to stir paint. She arrived just in time to catch him in the act. “What ARE you doing??” She asked. Phil answered, with that same goofy grin, “I needed to mix some paint.”
Anita was the one who brought order to situations. The efficient organizer. She was what we would call nowadays a “multi-tasker.” Everything she did seemed effortless. She was the teacher. She taught the boys how to clean house, do dishes and do their own laundry. And each one had to cook at least 1 meal. I asked Russ, “How did your mom get you to do all those chores?” He said, “There was no doubt that we would do it.”
Phil came to visit me at the church early one morning, some time after Anita had gone home to be with the Lord. He had other stories–and the joy of knowing and loving Anita– to share; we laughed together, once more, so much so that the women working in the church wondered what we were giggling about in my office. He told me how Anita grew frustrated that Phil would not get up in the middle of the night when their sons were babies. He’d say they weren’t calling him; they were saying, “Momma.” Then he’d roll over and go back to sleep. So Anita didn’t teach the third son to call her “Momma.” She taught him to say, “Daddy.” Clay, thinking he was calling for Anita in the middle of the night, was crying, “Daddy!”
Phil, knowing he had been outsmarted by a superior mind, got out of bed.
As I considered the scripture to share with you today for this day when we celebrate Anita’s life in a service of witness to the Resurrection, I remembered the joy that we miraculously experienced in what were undeniably some of the hardest days of this family’s life–waiting by Anita’s side in those last days.
Paul was facing death on house arrest in Rome when he wrote the letter to the Philippians, a church that had become to him so much more than a congregation he had planted. They were his friends. Paul often boasted that he had never taken help from any man or church–that he was able to work as a tentmaker and pay his own way. He DID accept gracious gifts for himself, though, from the Philippians, including a servant named Epaphroditus, who was sent to care for Paul during his imprisonment. But Epapthroditus falls ill and Paul sends him home with this letter. Paul worries that the Philippians will think Epaphroditus is a quitter, so he goes out of his way to give him a testimonial. “Receive him with all joy,” Paul says in 2:29-30, “and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ.” There is something so moving as we imagine Paul, himself awaiting execution, seeking to make things better for the servant sent to care for him–and to lift up the church–his friends–in their grief over his circumstances.
Paul writes that the secret to joy and peace during the most painful times of our lives is to receive and express the joy of the Lord. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul says, “Again, I say rejoice.” He says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” That word gentleness has been translated many different ways; it’s that difficult to translate from the Greek. Translations use moderation, patience, softness, modesty and forbearance. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase, The Message, says, “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.” William Barclay, famed Scottish New Testament interpreter and author, writes that epieikeia is “the quality of the man who knows that regulations are not the last word and knows when not to apply the letter of the law.” Consider the example of the woman caught in adultery. Found guilty, according to the Law, she should have been stoned. But what did Jesus say? “You who are without sin, cast the first stone.” Her accusers walked away. This word, “gentleness,” does not simply mean speaking with a soft voice and not getting angry; it means having grace for one another, accepting one another and helping one another be the best we can be, with God’s help, not judging or being harsh with one another. For God has shown such grace for us! Now let’s look at the full sentence–let your gentleness be known to everyone. Notice that he doesn’t say let your gentleness be known to your family, friends and church. He says, “everyone.” That means that people in the community and beyond should be talking about the grace and kindness of those Christians on Merritt Island–or wherever you live and go to church. We should be different than the rest of the world–because of our grace, the grace God has given to us in Jesus Christ.
And then Paul says, “Do not worry about anything.” He says this because he knows the Philippians ARE worrying about him. But they don’t have to! The cure is prayer. Take everything that worries you to the Lord in prayer. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. And “Finally, beloved,” Paul says, don’t think about all the bad things that might happen to me. Don’t think about how you may not see me again or that the same persecution may happen to you. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” And keep doing the things –the acts of love and grace–that I have taught you to do.
The Lord is saying to us today to keep on telling the stories of our loved ones we have lost. Let us keep on telling the stories that make us smile, that remind us of the joy, not just the joy of knowing them, but that remind us of the joy and peace that is a gift from the Lord to strengthen us through difficult times. Keep on telling the stories–and keep on lifting all our worries up to the Lord in prayer. Pray for everything! And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.