This summer marks five years since we suddenly lost my wife Tracy’s mother. What follows is the sermon I preached at her service of death and resurrection.
Prisoners of Hope: The Eulogy for Nancy Ruth Crittenden
Delivered at Memorial Baptist Church in Staunton, Virginia
June 28, 2013
It was Good Friday 1997 when I was a seminarian at the Divinity School of Duke University and made the decision to travel back to Virginia, to the Northern Neck to spend Easter with my family, worshipping in the churches in which my parents were raised, the churches where I had spent the Easters of my childhood, reasoning that when I graduated and entered our United Methodist appointive itinerant system as a clergyman, I would no longer have this opportunity to spend Easter in these congregations, as I would be serving a church of my own.
However, that Good Friday evening, I changed my mind. The transmission of my little pickup truck was proving ever more sketchy in its reliability, and I was afraid of getting stranded in the dark atop the Rappahannock River Bridge, so I pulled off the road and called a classmate of mine serving a congregation in rural Louisburg, North Carolina, asked if I could spend the night, and spend Easter with him, and he agreed.
In retrospect, where I went wrong was in failing to call my girlfriend and tell her of my change in plans, my girlfriend Tracy Crittenden, one of Nancy’s daughters, Tracy who became my wife fifteen years ago. This was before cell phones were ubiquitous and she had no way to find me. She never received the call that I had arrived safely at my parents home, which led her to the obvious and inescapable conclusion that I had driven into a ditch and been eaten by wolves. When I returned to Durham on Easter afternoon, my answering machine was filled with frantic messages from Tracy, Nancy, and one from the State Police, who had apparently heard about the wolves.
The following week, I received a handwritten note from Nancy explaining her reaction to my disappearance, and in this note, though it was long ago, I distinctly remember her explaining her concern over the weekend past by telling me that it was obvious to she and Jon that I was “very important to Tracy, and in turn, us,” words that were, I would learn, characteristically kind and generous, words that Nancy would spend the rest of her life, again and again, proving to be true.
Nancy Ruth Greenstreet Crittenden was born in Baltimore, Maryland. She met Jon at Emory & Henry College, and they eloped in Boone, North Carolina because Nancy was too young to marry in Virginia. Because college rules forbade married couples living together in the dorms, they returned to campus later that month pretending that they were just dating, and lived in separate quarters. They were married just shy of 45 years.
When Jon and Nancy went to inform Nancy’s parents that they had eloped, Jon was a wreck, he was sweating profusely, pale and shaking at the thought of breaking this news to Nancy’s dad Edward, a strong, silent type, who upon hearing the news, stared at Jon in silence for what seemed like an eternity before saying to him, “Well, I guess I can’t complain since I did the same thing. Welcome to the family!”
This was a little detail that Nancy had left out of the narrative of her family of origin.
Nancy experienced the death of a newborn, her first-born child, a boy named Edward from a neural tube defect, and the sending of her husband Jon to war when Tracy was but a couple of weeks old, an exception which required their United States Senator’s intervention. Nancy left college just a few credits from graduation and began work for the Cigna Insurance Company, becoming an account executive and working there for 33 years, having multi-million dollar clients in a company where she began as a secretary, yet where her tremendous work ethic and amazing gifts of organization, as well as her characteristic affability made her ascendency in the company all but inevitable.
Nancy defeated cancer twice, including one time when she was told there was no hope, only to hear the same oncologist years later announce her profound and miraculous healing. She defeated heart disease, surviving a difficult open-heart surgery, as well as an earlier surgery to remove of part of a lung when one of her cancers returned.
Yet through it all, she was a bastion of faith and courage, and active member of this church, its choir, and her Sunday School class. She was simply always doing for others, the kind of person who could seldom sit still because there was always something else to be done.
I was raised by television to believe that mothers-in-law were crazy, meddling women who interfered with your life at every opportunity, and who needed a separate wing in your house and who you would likely want to tie to the roof of your car. Yet, Nancy was nothing of the sort. She loved me like a son, and was a nurturing and mentoring grandmother to our children. Her home was a refuge and sanctuary for me throughout my ministry, a place of grace and safety during some of my most difficult days. She had that remarkable gift of knowing exactly what to say and exactly what not to say. She was a woman of profound faith, stalwart in the face of serious illness and loss, yet she worried all of the time.
This last week-and-a-half have been a week of contradictions and choices for those of us who knew and loved Nancy. It is not overstating the case to say that we are all simply dumbfounded, flabbergasted that she is gone. We spent so much time with her when she was so seriously ill, illnesses which started when Tracy and Stephanie were pregnant with Ellen and Annaleigh and continued off and on for so much of the remainder of her life, and that in so many ways, the possibility of losing her was so present for so long, and yet that she had persevered against death for so long, that we had almost lost our ability to be aware that we could lose her at all, especially suddenly, as we did.
And here lies the problem: we feel like we have been robbed, robbed of memories yet to be made, robbed of years yet to be lived, robbed of conversations yet to be had, robbed of experiences yet to be shared. And we are angry. We feel as though death had the audacity to enter our home in broad daylight and take what belonged to us, and we are hurt and we are wounded and we are broken by the weight of the grief that has been placed upon us by death.
And yet, we are reminded of the promises of God. We are reminded of what Paul taught the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 15, where he writes, “For Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Do you hear that, sisters and brothers, that death, death itself is destroyed by God in Jesus Christ for those of us who believe in his name.
And we believe this because we believe in the power of Christ and his resurrection, because we believe that on the cross, and when the stone was rolled from the tomb, our God, had the audacity to enter death’s home in broad daylight and take from death what belonged to God, and though we are hurt and we are wounded and we are broken by the weight of the grief that has been placed upon us, we know that that it is God, not death, who wins the final victory, that death is Christ’s footstool, that death itself has been relegated to the servitude of Christ, and this is how Christ tells us “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
This is why we can, with joy and hope, proclaim that though “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” all because our God, your God, my God, and Nancy’s God has forever conquered, forever robbed the final say and the final power, from the one who robbed us.
Sisters and brothers, we have been given a choice. I believe God is laying before us two options for how we can process from here: we can be bitter and angry about the years with Nancy that we lost, or we can give thanks to the God of life for dozen extra years of life and love and faith that Christ the great physician gave to Nancy, and gave to us, and furthermore we can choose to to embrace and celebrate with joy Nancy’s life which in Christ will have no end.
This was the faith and life that Nancy Crittenden, mother, grandmother, wife, sister, aunt, and friend embraced, and this is how she was able to model for us a faith and life that shows that life is good, that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, [for] his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.”
This is how Nancy demonstrated for us a life characterized by extravagant generosity, knowing that the adage is true, that it is better to give than receive, and that the greatest blessings in life are the ones that are shared, that are seen through the eyes of those who we love. She brought out the best in everyone. Nancy loved without condition, she believed in you and me in a way that allowed her to be patient with us, because she believed that the good, and the God, in us would ultimately prevail. Nancy made it easier to believe in yourself, that you could do whatever life demanded of you, because she believed in you. She lived a life of gentle grace which allowed her to be confident but never haughty, persistent yet patient, serious yet self-effacing, realistic yet hopeful, blessed yet exceedingly generous. She was the kind of person that all of us, on our best days, hope we can be.
One spring afternoon in 1997, I went to the mailbox of my home on Lancaster Street and received a handwritten note from Nancy telling me that it was obvious to she and Jon that I was “very important to Tracy, and in turn, us,” words that were, I would learn, characteristically kind and generous, words that she would spend the rest of her life, again and again, proving to be true.
So thank you Nancy. Thank you for wife you gave me who is so much like you. Thank you for your patience with your United Methodist weirdo-vegetarian-Yankees fan-son-in-law. Thank you for the refuge of your home. Thank you for your availability throughout the years. Thank you for helping us in all those moves. Thank you for praying for us and for worrying about us. Thank you for your witness to your grandchildren. Thank you for your refuge and support of Stephanie and Annaleigh during dark and difficult days. Thank you for the loving and faithful wife you were to Jon, and for the daughter-in-law you were to Gram. Thank you for showing me and my children the Gulf of Mexico. Thank you for food and fellowship and home and hearth. Thank you for giving me an additional family, and for being so good to mine.
Thanks be to God for this life so well lived. Thanks be to God for all this life has made us to be who we are, and thanks be to God for all of Nancy, that in your love will never, ever end.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.