Sunday, June 21, 2015

Celebrating a Life - Jennifer Cox

When my husband, Nate, was asked to do a portion of our sister-in-law's funeral service, his biggest concern was that he wouldn't be able to sufficiently honor her. How, with mere words, can you pay tribute to such a life? He wanted to get it right - very right - and thus he actually typed out the majority of the message beforehand. (If you know him - you know that's rare.) I wanted to keep it for future reference, as many agreed that he did indeed get it right:

June 20, 2015
Psalm 23 - A shepherd who gave us a place of rest.

We are here to celebrate the memory of Jennifer Lea Riley Cox. How do we honor a life so well lived? How do we remember her in a way that will make us better and not bitter? 

People have often reflected in these days how Jennifer did not let cancer beat her. She beat cancer...she won. Now that may or may not be your perspective. It all depends on how you score the match. How do you define a winner? In a world of fallen heroes - a perfect champion meets what objectives in your mind? What does it take to make a real star in the ring?

A happy letter I like to read again and again has these rules for scoring, "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe, as you hold out the word of life - in order that on the day of Christ (and I now paraphrase) Jennifer did not run or labor for nothing. But even if her life was poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, she is glad and rejoices with all of you. So, you too should be glad and rejoice with her." Philippians 2:14-17 Nate's International Version

If we keep score by looking at who fell to arguing, "Why me?!" then Jennifer obviously won. Cancer lost.

Cancer is a disease that takes more and more; it is a selfish monster that pushes its way in to grab anything valuable it can and it will not let go. Jennifer fought back to keep life and she did not ask, "Why me?" She did not complain. She WON.

But will you share in her victory? Did she pour out her life for nothing? Was it in vain? How will you honor her memory?

If you become selfish - arguing and complaining - questioning why you would lose something so precious - someone you feel you cannot go on without...and if you complain, if you insist on arguing and asking, "Why?"...if you hold onto bitterness and are not able to let go - cancer wins. Death wins.

That, in my mind, does not honor or represent what the LIFE of Jennifer has taught us.

What did Jennifer teach you? Reflect with me, as Lori and I did with her only two weeks ago as we sat with her on her living room couch. We were reminiscing and telling our precious sister-in-law, sister-in-love, what she meant to us and taught us. What she had modeled for us in the way that she lived and the philosophy of life she embraced. For me, all of that is best summed up by the word CELEBRATE.

So, in preparation to share this day, I did some searching to see what the Word of God had to say about celebration. I found a nice passage in the back of the Book of Esther (Esther 9:22) that helps shape my memories of what Jennifer taught. You may know that Esther was a queen in her time, but not in her own land. She won a beauty contest - must have been an extremely attractive young lady, perhaps with a "1,000 watt smile" like Jennifer's. The memory of Esther, how she poured out her life on behalf of her people, is still celebrated by the Jews on a holiday called Purim. So, here is what that celebration includes:

Giving gifts to the poor.

Observing the days as days of feasting, by giving presents of food.

Sorrows being turned to joy.

A reviewing of the record of victory over a ruthless enemy.

I hope in my brief memories of Jennifer, you will identify your own memories that convince you of the things she taught us by the way she lived her life.

Giving gifts to the poor
When Jennifer married into the Cox family, she immediately became Aunt to my four daughters, and in Jennifer's family, aunts and uncles gave gifts. This was a value modeled by the Riley/Clark families, and thus, within only months of becoming their aunt, she wanted to bless my little girls with a dream vacation. Jennifer had always wished upon a star - and that lovable little mouse had a place in her dreams. When Jennifer's aunt found out that Walt Disney World's job interviews are only five minutes long, as they know most of their employees will only have that much time or less to interact with guests, she knew Jennifer and her smile could get the job. She did, and landing that job at Disney Resorts gave her a way to pass on dreams to other little girls. Didn't she help you dream?

A family Florida vacation would have been way out of the question for this part-time preacher living on a tight budget - but they said just get here, and we'll put you up and get you in the park. And they did. TWICE! Saving up those employee passes and doing all she could to pass off my youngest ones as even younger ones...she got us ALL into Disney World for free. Wow! My mother-in-law remembers such an overwhelming feeling as we were all on the boat back after a long day at the park - just having her entire family there in that place. Jennifer excelled at always giving gifts - wonderful gifts. What can we learn from her?

Observing the days as days of feasting, giving presents of food
Part of being a guest in David and Jennifer's home was always enjoying presents of food - often new foods for us. I'll never forget our first trip to their apartment in Orlando. They wanted to feed us a shrimp feast, but, as a young Baptist preacher I was a bit apprehensive when I saw the case of beer on the kitchen cabinet. David explained to me that all of the alcohol would cook out, so serving beer boiled shrimp to my girls would not get them intoxicated. That meal is now one of our family's favorite celebration meals. Things like pico de gallo (the real deal, like they make it in Texas) smoked salmon with hot pepper jelly, and so many others. Giving gifts of delicious food and feasts just came naturally for her. Did Jennifer teach you anything along those lines?

Sorrows turned to JOY
It has been helpful for me to replace the word "enemy" with the word "cancer" as I've studied the scriptures these past few weeks. Cancer has long done battle with us, trying to take us down into sorrow. M.D. Anderson - Houston's battleground - was familiar to us long before Jennifer's diagnosis in 2011. My daughter's best friend, the daughter of my dear friend and cousin, was battling this enemy at far too young of an age, and Houston had become quite familiar to them. David and Jennifer's home, with the swimming pool out back, served as a lovely haven when we all converged there to visit and support our cousin's family. Celebrating their twins 16th birthday poolside, with an ice cream cake and balloons, provided a place of joy for a family who's memories of Houston are very sorrowful. Jennifer helped provide celebration in the midst of sorrow. And long before - probably right after we had just enjoyed our first beer boiled shrimp feast at David and Jennifer's - we got the phone call about our friend Cathy McDaniel's death following her own battle with cancer. The enemy was present long ago, trying to overwhelm with sorrow. We didn't realize then how Jennifer was already doing battle against it, with her celebrations and joy. Did Jennifer help YOU turn some sorrow and struggle into joy?

Reviewing the record of victory over a ruthless enemy
photo by Erin Carlyle

We study battles for centuries later, long after the final shots and victory cry. That is, if we want to be good soldiers and good generals, we do. That's how we learn. This room is full of the records of battle that Jennifer fought. The pictures tell it all. Fight with a smile. Never loose hope. Go somewhere that you've only dreamed of. Always have family around you. Enjoy God's creation - ride a dolphin and feel the rush of life. Embrace EVERYONE you meet and leave no strangers. Jennifer taught us that if you have just five minutes, it's enough time to make a friend. Immerse yourself in those friendships. Embrace life and the people in your life - that would be the lesson Jennifer taught me, and so many others, so very well. Did you learn anything by observing her battle?

Finally, those of us who watched her battle the enemy to the end knew that strength that Jennifer fought with so very well did not only come from within her. Jennifer had known God before, but the enemy caused her to know God better. His strength became her strength in the battle. I saw Jennifer's faith grow over these past years.

As we followed Jennifer's updates on Facebook and CaringBridge, we often heard her issue a call to prayer. Just like Esther asked her people to pray before laying her life on the line before her enemy, Jennifer asked us to pray. And we sensed that her requests for prayer were genuine and we saw that through those prayers, Jennifer's strength increased. That's the essence of how faith grows. 

I want to close with a passage from Ephesians that I first saw as our prayers for Jennifer, but later came to see this as her prayer for us. "For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come." Ephesians 1:15-21