Lily has been in Heaven for some 15 years or more. She left no children, so there’s no one left of her family to read this and no good reason not to tell it.
Lily was a classy lady, about the age of my father and the widow of an executive who left her fairly well off, although not rich. Before retiring, she had put in a full career as a public school librarian. Because she had no children she was generous with her two nieces, with her church, her college, and her pastors.
When I announced I was leaving and would no longer be her pastor, she invited me to lunch and handed me a check for $1,000. “I want you to come back and do my funeral.” I forget my exact promise to her, but it was probably along the lines of “If I possibly can, I will be here.” Pastors are unable to make long-range open-ended promises because of the nature of their responsibilities. (Complicating the matter was that I had taken a leave of absence from that church with no knowledge of where the Lord would be sending me next. Distance could be an issue on returning for her funeral, as well as unforeseeable circumstances.)
Over the next few years, she would repeat the “agreement” we had, that I was expected to do her funeral.
Lily was one of those members who refuses to turn loose of the former preacher. She stayed in touch through an occasional letter or phone call. When a relative drove her to Baton Rouge to visit a friend, they detoured down to New Orleans to see us.
One day I received a letter from her with a check. If memory serves, it was for $10,000 and made out to my church to use any way we pleased. It allowed us to do something I had long wanted to do, a morning radio program (a live two-minute “Phone Call From the Pastor”) over a local station. Lily’s gift funded it for several years.
From my kitchen table, I would phone in at 10 minutes before 7 each weekday morning. Libby, the on-air personality, would introduce me and I would make some comment about things going on in the world or the city (always keeping it current so listeners would know this was not canned) and tie it in with a spiritual point. We started the program the weekend Princess Diana died, September 1997, and ended it in 2004 when I became director of missions for the SBC churches of New Orleans. To this day, a full ten years later, strangers will hear me talking and say, “Excuse me, sir. Are you the one on the radio?” A Catholic priest recognized my voice in an elevator one day, years after we went off the air. Truly fascinating.
Once when I was doing a revival in that part of the country, a friend and I drove into the city for a couple of errands and to have lunch with Lily. We picked her up and drove to her favorite neighborhood eatery. When she opened her checkbook, I said, “Lily, put that away. Lunch is on me.” She said, “My accountant said I have to give away some money. I’ve sent some to my college and given some to my pastor, and I wanted you to have some.”
The check was for $5,000.
She had no way of knowing that the revival just ended had produced a much smaller love offering than my wife and I had hoped. We were struggling financially and were hoping the offering would be enough to repair our household air conditioning system. That morning when I phoned home, I told my wife the amount of the offering and said, “But let’s remember that the Lord is our Resource, and not that church. He will supply our needs.”
I’m so glad I said that. (Smiley-face goes here.)
When Lily died, one of her nieces was in the will for only $1,000. She could have had so much more if not for her selfishness. Here’s what happened.
A few years earlier when the house beside hers went on the market, Lily contacted the niece in another state and said, “If you will move here beside me, I’ll buy this house and give it to you.” The niece agreed and Lily was delighted. She would have family living next door. What could be better, particularly since she had no children of her own.
One month after moving her family into the house, the niece posted a “for sale” sign in the front yard.
Lily said, “What are you doing?”
“Oh,” she said, “We thought we would sell it and move back to Tennessee.”
The niece sold that house and pocketed the entire selling price.
Lily told me, “She has received all the inheritance she’s going to get.”
I remembered what our Lord said about the Pharisees. They prayed and fasted and contributed, all out in public, for no other reason than to impress people. “They have all the reward they’re going to get.” (Matthew 6)
Early in the year 2000, Lily died on a Tuesday which happened to be her 88th birthday. Her financial advisor called to inform me that the funeral would be the following weekend.
I had to decline. I would not be able to attend her funeral.
I had two weddings scheduled, one for Friday night and one for Saturday, and could not leave. The advisor understood and assured me that two ministers of her church would be taking care of matters.
As it turned out, not only did I have those two weddings, but also a funeral, one of the most heart-rending of my ministry. A young man who had grown up in a previous pastorate in Mississippi, a buddy with my sons and the son of a deacon, and a graduate of the Air Force Academy, was killed when the jet he was flying crashed. The family asked me to participate in the Sunday afternoon funeral. My son Neil drove the 300 miles with me that Sunday morning and back home that evening.
I felt badly about missing Lily’s funeral. But there was not one thing I could do about it.
Every pastor understands.
That weekend, I received a phone call from one of Lily’s nieces. Whether it was “the” niece who had conned her aunt out of the house next door or not, I had no way of knowing. She said, “Doctor McKeever, you’re going to have to apologize to Aunt Lily when you get to heaven!” According to my journal, I told her, “My friend, Lily is in Heaven. Her funeral service is the farthest thing from her mind!”
The next time my wife and I were in that city–that might have been six months later–we drove to the cemetery and found her crypt in the mausoleum. There, all alone, we had our own private funeral service for Lily, the sweet, generous, lovely lady who did everything she could to bless everyone around her.
I suppose we could say that in one way, I did keep my promise and held her funeral service. After all, if Heaven is one continuous day, she died in the morning and we did our little memorial service a few minutes later.
That’s almost the end of the story, but not quite. It turns out she put me in her will, the first and last person to ever do that not related to me.
The lawyer’s letter accompanied a check for $5,000 and indicated more would follow. Some months later, another letter arrived saying they had miscalculated and there would be no more to the inheritance and would I mind returning $500 of the original amount.
The financial advisor informed me that Lily was not rich after all. Her husband had set up a trust fund for her, and upon her death, it was not to be parceled out as she pleased but in accordance with his original plans. Some ministry or foundation–I forget what–got the bulk of the money Lily left.
I appreciate all the more that she did not feel the need to pile up a huge bank account and sit on it, but kept investing in the people she loved and believed in.
Lord, help me do likewise.