Today we gather to remember Junarita Rachel May Shinn.
She had a rather unique first name.
Many, many times, her name was misread or mispelled, and mistakenly pronounced “Juanita.” In my entire life, I never met another JUNARITA. I doubt many people have. And wasn’t this woman as unique as her name?
Many of you knew her as the MAILADY, the moniker imprinted on her specialized Oklahoma license plate. (Like this one.) She was the one who gave you a piece of candy if you came out to the mailbox to greet her. Some of you knew what time she would drive by and sat underneath that mailbox waiting for her, didn’t you?
The MAILADY knew which of her senior citizen patrons were shut in, and so instead of leaving the mail in the box, she would take it up to the house, which was against Post Office rules. But to the MAILADY, proper hospitality trumped the rules, as good country folk do.
It was also common practice if someone wasn’t home to receive it, to leave a package that was too big for the mailbox with a nearby neighbor. And since she was also intuitively aware of which patrons weren’t getting along, she would know not to leave that parcel with a feuding neighbor, lest it end up in the trash.
Some of you knew her as Mama Shinn, the origin of which was a little embarrassing at the time, but I’m all grown up now, so I can tell the story. I played Little League baseball in Ochelata. I was around 5th grade. I wasn’t very good but tried my best. During one game, as I was at bat, the pitcher threw the ball and hit me square in the left rib cage with a pitch. Immediately, the air was knocked out of me and I fell to the ground in pain. As only a mother could do, my mom rushed out of the stands and ran out to home plate to check on me. I think it was Eddie Trottingwolf that reassured her, “He’s OK, Mama Shinn. He’s OK.”
To all my teammates, she was Mama Shinn from that day on.
Others know her simply as Miss June, the woman with the smile. I can’t tell you how many times people said to me, “your mama has the sweetest smile.” In her assisted living apartment, some of the staff would take their break in Miss June’s room, because she was an unusually pleasant resident and the staff just liked being around her.
Sometimes when folk get old, they start losing things, like hair, hearing, memory. (I forget what else) But Miss June never lost her smile.
I had the good fortune to be by Mom’s bedside in her final days, served by hospice in the home of my sister outside Springfield, MO. I watched her decline steadily. She lost her appetite. She eventually lost her mobility and was bedfast til the end. But hospice teaches us that hearing is the last sense to go, so talk to her as you would any other person. And I did that. After receiving the news of her decline, on Friday, I drove the six hours from Nebraska to be with her. As I arrived, I entered her room as she was sleeping. I leaned over the bedside, kissed her on the forehead and whispered, “I’m here, Mom. I’m here to be with you til its time to go.” She raised her eyebrows, squinted her closed eyes and..
She gave me that smile.
“My boy’s here…” she said.
I’ll never forget that moment.
She lost some things as she got old, but she held onto the important things that could never be taken away. Her smile. The kindness that produced it. Her faith that sustained it.
As a son, that is a precious gift.
In the following days, she gave me an example that I want to emulate in my final days. Though she spent most of the time sleeping and was in obvious pain, she didn’t complain. As I sat bedside, I felt uncomfortable and helpless as I watched her struggle to breathe. I prayed for her, asking God for mercy on her.
In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus died, he spoke the words, “It is Finished.” What is “it?” We are taught that through His dying on the Cross, all of death had been defeated. So why did He leave it in place? If death is finished, why do we have to experience it? These were the thoughts interwoven in my mind, getting tangled with the sadness of being so close to my mom in her final hours.
Knowing that she could still hear, I played music for her on my phone; old hymns that she would remember. We also listened to scripture readings, mainly selections in Isaiah and Romans 8.
I’ve grown to enjoy listening to the Bible, because I take the passage in Hebrews 10 literally, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” As I listen, I often encounter His Spirit differently than if I were just to read the words on a page.
On one evening, I kept Romans 8 on repeat, listening quietly over and over. On one pass through, as the narrator came to verse 16, the Spirit drew my attention inward:
Therefore, since we are His children, that makes us heirs, beneficiaries set to inherit—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. It is this relationship that gives us the opportunity to share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
I paused the audio.
Share in His sufferings?
In that quiet moment, His Spirit reassured me, “She is sharing in my sufferings.”
Would you care to join us?”
As is common when I sense the presence of the Lord, I began to weep. Not out of sorrow this time, but out of worship and amazement.
At that moment, I had gained a new perspective on what I was witnessing in my mom’s cancer-ridden body in the back corner bedroom of my sister’s house. More than waiting to get it over with, more than enduring through the passing of my mom, I saw that she was in the midst of a fellowship with Jesus because of that suffering.
The famous passage of Psalm 23 affirms this appointment,
He prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies
I love this picture because I’m a chef by trade. I find my joy in setting a table. For me, preparing a table is more than just putting food on a plate. Preparing a table means anticipating my guests that will sit at that table. It means knowing what will bring them delight. It means preparing to surprise them. It means going above and beyond their expectations with an experience they did not envision.
Even as death was waiting for the Number of Her days to be complete, Death does not get to disturb fellowship with Jesus. And Jesus doesn’t get up and leave until we’re finished. He prepares the table and even stays to clean up afterward.
At that very instant, I saw I was invited to His table. I was included to join in, to share in Jesus’ sufferings. He was welcoming me into fellowship and a union with Him amid the pain of sorrow. Because He, too, had experienced death, the worst death of all by carrying the sins of the world. Which means He knows what it means to hurt. He understands what I am feeling, and asks if I would like to join Him.
I know from recent experience the importance of grieving loss. I lost my wife of nearly 30 years to cancer last November. Death is painful. We hurt today because we lost a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a dear friend. I would encourage you, don’t bypass the pain too quickly. Jesus wants to fellowship with you. He knows that our loss of Mom, Ms June, Mama Shinn, hurts because her life mattered to us. We honor it by sitting at Jesus’ table, not by hurrying to get over it. He knows that our tears are not just expected. They are necessary.
We need not fear grief because it is temporary. Sorrow comes to pass. Joy comes to stay.