When Norrine was in her 80’s her grandkids had a request of her when they visited. “Will you stand on your head,” they asked their favorite octogenarian. Preposterous! Or maybe not! Those of us in her fan base know that nothing was impossible with her! So Norrine would give them what they wanted, getting down on her knees—which would count quite a few of us out right there! She put her head on the floor then her feet went up, straight up! And she stayed in that balanced position long enough to please her impressed grandkids.
Today we said goodbye to one of the most fit members of our congregation. Norrine was athletic. As recently as the week before she died she walked down the halls of her care facility upright and without any assistance. Whether on her head or on her feet she was straight as an arrow! Years of teaching swimming lessons to Rockford boys and girls kept her in fine form for decades to come. Recently she showed her son, Dan, one of the exercises that her doctor suggested she do: she bent over and placed her hands flat on the floor, legs straight and strong. She didn’t ask Dan if he was able to do the same exercise—a good thing, since he (and most of us!) couldn’t! Did I mention Norrine was 102? She was not impressed with herself. She just kept moving because there was always something worthwhile up ahead.
I played golf yesterday morning with my husband and son. I literally cannot remember the last time I golfed. We will be playing in a fundraiser golf tournament this Friday so my fear of extreme humiliation is what got me out on the links. I started out flailing but began to figure out some pointers. First off, give up on the hole in one! Just let go of that goal as fodder for someone else’s dream—like someone who can actually remember when they last swung a golf club! I needed to simplify my expectations. “Focus on form,” I told myself. “Distance will follow.”
Form first. Distance follows. Right.
As I thrashed my way through nine holes, I thought of Norrine whose memorial service I would be leading the next day. She played golf into her 80’s. She took walks through her beloved hometown into her 90’s. She marched along the halls of her retirement home, passing up wheelchairs and walkers. Focus on form. Distance will follow. In a humble, matter-of-fact manner, Norrine made sure the form to her life was good. This propelled her almost to her 103rd year!
The Apostle Paul lived amidst the Greeks who were a competitive people. Races were a form of entertainment in the first century. So Paul borrows the language of fitness to connect with the worldly folks in Corinth. He wrote to them: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Norrine’s family and community didn’t gather at her funeral today because she was an impressive specimen of physical fitness—even though she was! We grieve her death because Norrine knew the kind of race she was running for over a century. It wasn’t pointless, like air boxing. It wasn’t out of vain ambition that she stood on her head for her grandkids or touched her toes with her 102-year old arms! She lived every aspect to her life with gratitude to God for the good gifts she had received. With a strong body she could better serve her family, her church, and her community. That’s what mattered most. Just five years ago Norrine was one of the faithful church ladies who trotted into our church basement with a cake she had baked for the funeral luncheon. Then she would set to the task of cutting the many cakes into even squares that could be set out on plates for the guests following the service. Quite often the person in the coffin was 20-30 years younger than Norrine but I don’t think she ever reflected on that. All she knew was that bringing a cake was an important contribution she could make in the life of her church and that her efficient efforts were needed in the kitchen.
She knew her way around the kitchen! After a 25-year long career, Norrine retired as the kitchen manager at the Rockford High School. The lunches for all the schools in the district came out of that kitchen so it was a great responsibility! Her husband was the custodian for the high school so, between the two of them, they tended to the needs of Rockford kids. Her son said it was comforting to have his parents in the same building where he attended classes on a daily basis. Whenever I called to set up a time to visit her, she insisted that I come during the lunch hour and she always served me a meal that came hot out of the oven. Hospitality mattered to this woman who was born in her grandfather’s farmhouse in 1915—hospitality whether it be around her table at home or served up on a tray to hundreds of hungry students. Form mattered and service to others was a gift she embraced for the whole of her long life.
Norrine loved her sons. She and her husband encouraged them from the sidelines of their games. They imparted Christian morals to them from involvement in my congregation for more than seven decades. Birthdays were a cause for celebration. She had a hand-written, carefully organized calendar of birthdays and anniversaries. As grandbabies and great grandbabies were born, she added their names to the family log. She proudly shared photographs of her great grandchildren with visitors. She traveled with family members to check out their new home or went out with her friends in the Women’s Fellowship to enjoy lunch in a new restaurant. But more than anything, she loved the companionship of her three sons.
For 45 years Norrine was a single parent. She lost her husband in 1973 but she didn’t complain that it wasn’t fair. She made sure to meet the needs of her sons in his absence. She lost her oldest son in 1996 and her youngest son just six years ago. She deeply grieved losing them but I never heard her cry out, “Why me?” Her faith offered a solid foundation from which she continued to reach out to others. Grief sent her on a different sort of race, however, urging her to move forward with her sadness in tow. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that we continue to journey with our departed loved ones in this beautiful passage from the twelfth chapter: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Form matters. Distance follows.
After her youngest son’s death in 2012, Norrine struggled. She was 96 and still living on her own. Everything became more difficult because, emotionally, she had had the wind knocked out of her. During this time she made the move to a lovely local care facility. She did so reluctantly but knew that it was necessary. Her family, her faith and her community revived her hope and slowly her strength returned. She could echo Paul’s words to the believers in Philippi: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” In her rejuvenated state, she confided in me that she had moved out of her home too soon! She was the only one who could walk to the dining room with ease to enjoy a meal. Others pushed walkers or were wheeled in. Conversation around those tables, she whispered, was not really happening! Folks were old! She could walk and eat and talk! She wondered what she was doing there. I would remind her that the grief journey had knocked her pretty low. She had needed to get out of her home and into a place that would serve her meals and minimize her responsibilities. She nodded but wasn’t really buying it! The saving grace was that her sister lived at the same facility when she first moved in. Imagine two sisters in their 90’s ending up as neighbors down the hall from each other in a retirement home! Unfortunately her sister’s health was fragile and she died not too long after Norrine moved in. But then her brother took up residence a couple of years later and kept her in good company right up until the day Norrine died. She had an amazing capacity to rise up from some of the most rigorous trials, her faith in a loving God intact and her eyes set on a bright horizon. Every leg of her journey, form mattered and distance followed.
Last winter this beloved church member struggled with pneumonia from which she never fully recovered. She was genuinely mystified that she would feel so weakened. She was accustomed to bouncing back. If there were exercises she could do to regain strength, she would do them! She voiced her intention to recapture her energy and some days she did. But, this time, her strong body was not able to fight the effects of her advanced age. She seemed to know her time was drawing to a close. In typical fashion, she took matters into her own hands. She crafted her own obituary with the help of a trusted family member. She still had a list going but the focus of that list changed. When Dan called her last week, she asked him when he was going to come visit her again. The way she asked was different. She loved her boys and only he was left. She wanted to close out her life with her son nearby. Dan and his wife changed their plans and flew in to accompany her for the very last leg of her journey. At the end of his difficult life, Paul wrote to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
These words could have been carved into Norrine’s tombstone. True to her good form, our sister-in-Christ was able to travel a great distance in her earthly life before she breathed her last. We’re all having trouble believing that she’s gone. After a certain age you begin to think that someone is truly going to escape death’s grip. We had a big party for Norrine in worship almost three years ago when she turned 100. She sat up front surrounded by more than 20 young children who asked her questions about her long life. She was very clear-minded and her smile won everyone over. We would have celebrated her 103rd birthday this November 16.
But instead I celebrate a different rite of passage. Norrine was so good at living that I don’t think she knew how to let go of the visible to embrace God’s gifts on the other side. Her instinct was to fight frailty, rise up after loss and take God’s guiding hand as she faced each new day. Retreating from her battles was never an option. So today I celebrate that Norrine made it to the other side! She let go of the fight long enough to, perhaps, get a glimpse of who awaited her on the other side. Though her smile faded on our side of heaven I suspect she began to direct her joy toward a husband who had supported her from behind the spiritual veil for 45 years. I am certain that the sight of two beloved sons who were ready to show her how to use her strength in a celestial setting was enough to convince her to let go of the earthly life to which she had so fiercely clung and slip into the joy of serving her Master! Perhaps the beloved prophet, Isaiah, could be heard welcoming her with these words:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)
Keep running the race, Norrine. I will miss you.