Friday, January 8, 2016

In Memory Of My Sister Mary Beth Shifflett, 1946-2015, And Husband Harven, 1937-2015

with son Harlen, around 1970
My younger adopted sister and her husband of 51 years perished in a tragic fire on the night of December 12. After extensive autopsies their deaths were deemed accidental and we were finally able to lay their bodies to rest at the Evergreen Church of the Brethren cemetery in Greene County this past Wednesday. 

What follows is the meditation I gave at their memorial service at 1 pm Sunday, January 4, at the Dyke Fire Hall south of Stanardsville, attended by some 150 people:

We’re here today to try to find some closure to what’s been a horrific nightmare of a holiday season. A month ago none of us could have dreamed that Harven and Mary Beth wouldn’t get to celebrate this Christmas here on this earth. Or that they wouldn’t be able to be together for Harven’s birthday, on the 18th, just a week before Christmas. I know how much Mary Beth loved special days like these, loved getting gifts for people, loved surprising and blessing others with just the right present. 

And I’m sure that when little Harven Isaac was born, just over 78 years ago now, he was welcomed as a special Christmas gift. And I remember well when Mary Beth came into our home as a foster child not long after Christmas at just four months of age, she was a gift we grew so attached to that my parents chose to adopt her and make her the youngest special member of our family, replacing me in that slot. 

I was just six when my new little sister came in all her cuteness, a Christmas present indeed. She was always the one, as an adult who was most interested in getting our family together for reunions and special occasions, but no one could have imagined we would ever have to get together for an occasion like this.

I remember one evening I was in the dairy barn at feeding time and I overheard my Dad talking to himself. He didn’t know I was observing and hearing him. And I remember him saying, with excitement in his voice, something about that day being the anniversary of little Mary Beth’s coming into our home. He loved her. And we all loved Harven as a special brother-in-law—friendly, hospitable, a hard-working breadwinner. We adopted them both.

Mary Beth as a teen
Whenever my sister had questions about her adoption, or when she told us about something her classmates at school said about it, she was always assured she was special. Unlike the rest of us, she was chosen. Then they in turn chose their one and only son Harlen, celebrating the fact that it is the chosen relationships with unrelated people, as in marriage, adoption, close friendships, or with our church families where the bonds are often even stronger than with our blood relationships.

In a kind of condensed Christmas story in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, there’s a text that says, “When the fullness of time was come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, to redeem us, so that we might receive full rights as God’s adopted children. And because we are children, God’s Spirit in us calls out, ‘Abba’ (‘Papa’), Father’,… and since we are children, we are also heirs, by adoption.” That’s the way God loves us, as beloved and chosen ones. Whoever believes, God receives, adopts, and welcomes into his family.

Our older brother Sanford, who with his wife Martha, lived many years around Shifflett’s Hollow near to Mary Beth and Harven, and now live in Costa Rica, wrote these words after hearing about their tragic deaths: 

"I have so many happy memories of sister Mary Beth. The day she arrived as a little baby we were all so excited. As she grew she became my little “favorite”, often sitting on my knees, singing with me... (We) mourn a great loss but are committing ourselves to the hands of a just and holy God ...who is perfect in love, perfect in mercy, and perfect in grace.” 

Those words were a comfort to me.

But we are still left with so many “Why’s?”, so many questions, but we are together today to share our memories and our faith in a God who walks with us through the darkest of valleys, knowing that no sparrow falls without his notice, or without his love and compassion.

This is our hope, even though we’ll grieve for a long, long time. And our hearts go out to friends and especially to family members, son Harlen, grandchildren Michael and Brittany. This has been an unbelievable beginning of a winter. But just as in the middle of our mourning the winter nights were at their longest, so we trust that with each new day of the new year, the nights of grief will become a little shorter, and the days of healing sunlight a little longer, so God will restore ever more of our light and life.

I close with some words of a hymn written by Colin Gibson after the death of an adult son of a friend of his:

Nothing is lost on the breath of God,
nothing is lost for ever;
God's breath is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world for ever.
No feather too light, no hair too fine,
no flower too brief in its glory;
no drop in the ocean, no dust in the air,
but is counted and told in God's story.

Nothing is lost to the eyes of God,
nothing is lost for ever;
God sees with love and that love will remain,
holding the world for ever.
No journey too far, no distance too great,
no valley of darkness too blinding;
no creature too humble, no child too small
for God to be seeking, and finding.

Nothing is lost to the heart of God,
nothing is lost for ever;
God's heart is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world for ever.
No impulse of love, no office of care,
no moment of life in its fulness;
no beginning too late, no ending too soon,
but is gathered and known in God's goodness.
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