I’ve lost my biggest fan

My mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on December 16, 2020. What follows is a written version of the message I shared at her funeral. I share it because she was worth bragging about, but would NEVER allow anyone to brag on her.

We did not anticipate being here today. But life throws us curveballs. When I think about it, the fact that momma’s death is a curveball for us is somewhat fitting, because she experienced curveballs in her 75 years on this earth. And you’re looking at one of them! 

If you know the most basic information about our family, you know that momma and daddy have three children. Of those three, two weren’t big surprises. One was. Life threw her a curveball in 1978 when she and daddy learned that, 16 years after their firstborn, Carol, arrived, and 13 years after the arrival of their second-born, Jeff, that they would have to make another 18-year commitment of raising a surprise third child. I’ve heard a rumor that when they received the news that I was on the way, momma cried for a day, and daddy cried for a week.

She handled that curveball well, and gladly sacrificed to continue to fill her duties as a mother. I could not have asked for a better mother, and if you’ve ever experienced the pure love of a mother, as she did with her mother, you know the blessing that that kind of love is. 

I preached my first funeral in July, 1994, just a couple of miles up the road at Big Bodcaw Baptist Church. Aunt Mary Jo Goodwin / Gregory asked me to have a part in the service for her late husband, Delbert Gregory. In the 26 years since that first funeral, I have stood in this context hundreds of times. Each time I preach a funeral message, I am reminded of a truth that I started sharing some years ago: we preachers don’t really preach a message about the dearly departed’s life; we simply offer commentary. You see, every person preaches his or her own funeral as that person lives his or her life. I’ve heard it said that our goal as individuals who have yet to die is to live our lives in such a way that the preacher doesn’t have to lie at our funeral. 

I’ll not have to lie today, nor will I share with you anything that you don’t already know about Peggy Russell. My only goal today is to honor the Lord by honoring her memory. 

One brief phone call on Wednesday morning changed everything. Because of the event that precipitated that call, the date of December 16, 2020, will be etched into our family’s memory for many years to come. When I received the call that momma had passed away, I quickly informed our staff at church, went home, shared the heartbreaking news with my wife and children, tossed some clothes into a bag, and left our home in Milton, Florida, to head to Bodcaw, Arkansas.

The weather was appropriately gloomy. A mild Florida Panhandle morning was void of any sun. The further I traveled, the deeper the temperatures dropped and the colder it became. That, too, seemed appropriate. I can’t recall any sun shining through, except one or two brief moments in Alabama. For over 8 hours I drove in silence. I turned the radio off as I backed out of the driveway, and it remained off the entire drive. In that silence I contemplated the life of my mother. I cried. I smiled. I repeated the off-and-on crying and smiling all the way. 

The tears I shed then and shed even now are not for her, but for me and my family. They’re shed because of our loss. The smiles were for her, as moments of joy would break in and disrupt the moments of grief. Because as much as we miss her already, she is getting to experience something she pursued in this life. And while her pursuit of this fruit of the Spirit was somewhat realized in this life, she is fully realizing it now. 

That fruit of the Spirit is the simple three-letter-word, JOY. 

It is rare to find a person whose primary source of joy on this earth is simply in seeing other people experience joy. Momma didn’t find joy in possessions, toys, or trinkets. She found her joy on this earth in her family. Though she was quiet, her love was very loud. Though she was always behind-the-scenes, her compassion for her family was always known. She was fiercely devoted to her husband, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as her siblings, nieces and nephews, and friends. 

A walk into her house shows you the source of her joy. She has three plates hung on the side of the entertainment center that daddy built. Each plate has one letter. Together they spell J-O-Y. 

On the shelves of that entertainment center are pictures of all three of her children and some grands. Hanging on a wall and a shelf in that den are pictures of family weddings and some great-grands. On the refrigerator is a picture of her grandparents and her great-grandchildren. The defunct wall heater in the dining room is now used to show off more pictures of great-grandkids. In the room my family stays when we visit, there are pictures of Jake and Cam as toddlers. In her bedroom are pictures of her with her siblings, her parents, and her husband.

Her family brought her joy. In fact, our joy was automatically her joy. Similarly, when her family hurt, she hurt. For her, family was everything. 

She didn’t have to win an award or get a degree or achieve some accomplishment to have joy. Rather, she had joy when her family experienced those things. Whether it was completing a grade in school, earning a degree, doing well in a job setting, hearing that a grandchild got a hit in a tee ball game, or killing that buck on their own property on the last day of your out-of-state-license, when her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren had joy, she had joy. 

She loved to watch the grands and great-grands open Christmas gifts. This wasn’t because she liked the gift itself. In fact, most years the parents bought the gifts with the money she gave us. She LOVED seeing eyes light up and smiles break out. I believe those moments were the most joy-filled moments of her life. She found joy in our joy. 

As I drove up Highway 49 through the heart of Mississippi a couple days ago, a reality settled into my heart and, to be honest, it broke me. I became aware in that moment that, in losing my mother, I have lost my biggest fan and supporter. Every Facebook post from our church had a “Like” by Peggy Russell. The web browser on her computer has a shortcut link to our church website. She would comment on videos of sermon clips. Even on that fateful day, just a short while before she died, she had “Liked” a post from our church that was posted at 8:00 AM. 

In Matthew 25 Jesus told a parable to illustrate the responsibility of the believer in being faithful to do what God has entrusted them to do. The servants who were faithful heard their master say these words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21). 

I find it fitting that this woman who found so much joy when others experienced joy is now getting to experience a level and depth of joy that can only be found in eternity, through a relationship with Jesus Christ. As much joy as she experienced in this life, it is NOTHING in comparison to the joy that she is experiencing and will experience for ETERNITY. 

Many years ago, momma made a decision to trust Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. That decision has made all the difference. It’s because of that decision that we are able to have hope and even joy in this setting. We are still in a stage of shock, we are heartbroken, and we will spend a bit more time in this process of grief, but we also have hope. 2 Corinthians 5:1 reminds us that “we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” 

Momma spent YEARS at this church. Outside of daddy’s first pastorate at Laneburg, this is the only church she has ever known. There’s no way to accurately note how many songs she has played on the piano in this place, but it numbers in the thousands upon thousands. For DECADES she played the piano while her dad, Papa, led the singing. 

One of her favorite hymns was also one of Papa’s. It’s titled “That Glad Reunion Day.” We’ll sing that song momentarily. The first verse reads, “There will be a happy meeting in Heaven, I know; When we see the many loved ones we’ve known here below; Gathered on that blessed hilltop with hearts all aglow; That will be a glad reunion day.” 

I’m thankful that she has experienced that reunion day. She has been reunited with her mom and dad. She and Aunt Nancy are together again. She has now met a granddaughter, a great-grandson, and a great-granddaughter that she was never able to know on this earth. She has met her Savior face-to-face. I’m glad that she has had a glad reunion day. 

We will be reunited with her one day, and in that we find hope. John tells us in Revelation that a day is coming when death will be forever removed, pain and heartache will be erased, and the tears we shed in seasons like this will no longer be an option. This is why we have hope, and this is why we have joy. 

I mentioned earlier that the skies stayed gloomy and gray as I traveled from Florida to Arkansas. Appropriately, yesterday morning, the sun was shining brightly. I was reminded of Psalm 30:5, which teaches us that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” 

I wish I could have one more conversation with her, not really to hear her voice, as I can still hear it in my head, but rather to tell her two simple things: I love you, and thank you for being my biggest fan. 

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