(This was delivered at her service on September 30, 2018)

John 12:1-8

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


Mazie Lauthan was on course to live a life of exemplary Christian service and commitment. Upon graduation from college she began working at a boarding school for young African American girls who wouldn’t have had access to an education in their racially segregated and oppressive hometowns. She also participated in these caravans of young people who would go to churches in different places to help rejuvenate youth programs. That’s what she was doing when the fine trajectory she was on took an unforeseen turn – she met Lewis.


I couldn’t quite remember the details of how they met and got together, but I remembered it being pretty unusual. I asked Lewis to remind me of the story and it turns out that it was even stranger than I thought. Mazie was on one of those youth ministry revitalization caravans in northern Washington state, and Lewis was working for Boeing in Seattle. He had been invited to meet a friend from college at the caravan sight, and when he went up there he met Mazie and was instantly smitten. Over the course of that first weekend he was asking her where they should spend their honeymoon. She said she didn’t know where he should spend his but that she planned to go to Mexico.


I think Lewis saw her again a couple of weeks later at a church in Spokane, Washington, and right after that he asked the Boeing human resource officer to transfer him to a location closer to Asheville NC, where Mazie was living and working. The closest Boeing plant was in Florida, and that’s where he was headed within a couple of weeks, and on that trip he stopped by Mazie’s parents house in Nebraska. When Mazie’s mother answered the door, he asked her if she was Mrs. Louthan. She corrected his pronunciation of her name, and after fumbling her name again and not telling her his own name he said he wanted to meet her because he intended to marry her daughter. A reasonable response would have been to shut the door, but she responded by saying, I’ve been praying that she would meet someone this summer.


I don’t know if she became more specific with her prayers after that or not, but Lewis’ intentions became a reality before long. He said it took about four months to win her over, but she did warm up to him. And with that, Mazie went from living an exemplary life of Christian service and commitment to an extraordinary life of discipleship. Lewis was an equally committed Christian, but I dare say her marriage to Lewis took her in to some unexplored mission fields. I know this to be true because I was one of the students at the Wesley Foundation where Lewis and Mazie both worked when I arrived there in 1977.


Lewis was the director, but Mazie was the host. I think her official title was secretary, but she’s the person you could count on seeing and who made sure you feel like you were one of her favorite children.


When I think of this image of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with that costly perfume I think of a person who knew how and when to exhibit extraordinary love. Nobody other than Mary really understood what Jesus was facing and how timely it would be to anoint him in that way. I think Mazie had a similar ability to know when and how to extend extraordinary love. I don’t really remember her words (actually I do remember some of her words – I can recall very clearly the way she would say: Ooohh Lewis!) but I remember her kindness, and her ability to make you feel loved.


I also remember her authenticity. She had a genuine presence. And she also had something that’s not easy to describe in church, but I think you’ll understand what I mean when I say she had a sensitive bull-bleep meter. Mazie was an authentic person and she had little patience with inauthentic religiosity. I never heard her use the word bull-bleep to describe the behavior of someone parading their faith, but she knew it when she saw it. And we all know it happens in this business. It started happening before Jesus was crucified. This criticism that Mary got from Judas wasn’t motivated by his concern for the poor – it was his love of money that motivated him to say what he did, and I know Mazie had little patience with anyone who was more interested in money than the truth.


I consider Mazie to have been a truly holy person. As did Lewis and anyone else who knew her. Occasionally I would tell Lewis of some frustration or obstacle I was facing, and he wouldn’t say he would pray about it, he would say that he would get Mazie to pray about it, and I was always glad to hear that.


Mazie set out at an early age to live an exemplary life of Christian service and commitment. I’m so glad Lewis altered her trajectory and brought her to Arkansas where she came to bring us the love of Christ in her particularly extraordinary way. Mazie Chesser was a true and gifted disciple of Jesus Christ. Her presence was a gift, and I feel blessed to have known her.


Thanks be to God. Amen.


Genesis 32:24-31


24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.



I’m honored to get to share a few thoughts about Van in this celebration of his life. Van was about 6 years older than me, so we weren’t exactly peers during our early years. But like Van, I grew up in Wynne, and we were both nurtured by many of the same people. We were both graduates of Wynne High School, members of this United Methodist Church, and of Boy Scout Troop 126. I remember when Van was injured in that car wreck, and I can recall the way in which it affected the community. If my memory serves me correctly, the car was towed to a lot at my father’s business, Murray Chevrolet Co., where I saw the dreadful sight and heard the deep sighs of adults who knew what was in store for Van and his family.


I would run in to Van on occasion over the next few decades, but we weren’t in touch with each other until we somehow reconnected in Little Rock sometime around the year 2000. I don’t know how or exactly when this came about, but at the time I was the director of the UALR Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist Campus Ministry Center, and that’s where Van and I became reacquainted. I wish I could remember how that came about, but I don’t. All I know is that the Wesley Foundation became a place that Van adopted as a place to go for coffee and conversation, and I was so happy about that. As I say, Van and I shared common roots, and it was nice to revisit our various connections. I also enjoyed the wacky randomness that Van brought to the Wesley Foundation community.


The Wesley Foundation was a bit of a crossroad for students and other people who were somehow connected to somebody around there, and to have Van show up at the Wesley Foundation meant somebody was going to experience something they hadn’t expected to encounter that day. Because you didn’t just meet or visit with Van – you experienced Van.


For one thing, Van had become a bit of a contortion artist. As many of you know, Van generally sat in his chair in the lotus position. He was sort of like a live Buddah statue on wheels. But he could also twist his legs up in a way that enabled him to rest his arms and chin on the bottom of his feet. It really wasn’t a sight that you ever got used to seeing, and it was always interesting to see the reaction of someone who saw him sitting like that for the first time. And you never knew what he was going to say. Encountering Van was an experience that confronted and engaged a variety of your senses.


Van’s body was twisted, and he had the sense of humor to go with it. I guess he could bring out the twistedness in others as well. In fact I’m sharing my thoughts about Van with you today because of a twisted deal. I’m a fan of Camp Aldersgate in Little Rock which provides summer camp experiences for kids with different medical conditions. They have an annual Fish Fry and silent auction fundraising event, and one year I mentioned to a handful of people that were hanging out at the Wesley Foundation that I should offer a glowing eulogy as an auction item. Van was in the room and he immediately said he would buy that. I told him to make a check out to Camp Aldersgate and if I hadn’t previously expired I would make good on the deal – so here we are.


Van would call me every now and then and ask if his glowing eulogy was still in effect or if he needed to make an additional installment. I always assured him it was still intact, and I hope my words will measure up to our agreement.


It’s not hard for me to speak well of Van. Van enriched the community life of the Wesley Foundation, and it was a blessing for me to know him. He was generous in his support of that ministry, and he was sort of a living morality play. Van didn’t lift himself up as a beacon of morality, but he was honest about who he was and what he thought. In his own unique way, Van could help you see who you are and who wanted to be.


There are many wonderful words you could use to describe Van. He was appreciative, clever, funny, compassionate, loyal, resourceful, and certainly intelligent. Neal Raney gave me the word Quixotic, which I think is a good one. I know this is supposed to be a glowing eulogy, but I’m also compelled to be relatively honest, and there are some other words that could be used to describe Van. No need to share that list, but it’s no secret that Van could push buttons you didn’t really know you had.


There was a period of time when Van was feeling aggrieved about something going on between himself and his loved ones, and he couldn’t talk about anything else. I couldn’t even follow his logic on how he had been done wrong in some way, but he wouldn’t quit talking about it. He was like a broken record – he would continually repeat something about something that didn’t make sense to anyone but himself. A handful of us had been eating lunch at the Wesley Foundation one day, and when I got up to start cleaning up the kitchen he started in once again on his litany of grievances. Now I’m not a person known for over-reaction, but I suddenly found myself screaming these words: Van, you are driving me CRAZY!


A person with normal sensibilities would probably have left and never returned, but as we all know, Van wasn’t normal. Van smiled and said, you know, my family took me to court to have me certified as crazy, but I beat the rap. And that did a good job of releasing the tension in the room. It diffused my agitation, and he took no offense at my outburst. As he left he maintained his ritual of checking the bathroom to make sure it met his moderate standard for hygiene, and gratefully he returned.


I loved getting to know Van. He enriched my life with his humor, his insight, his generosity, his raw transparent humanity, and his spirituality. I wish I could remember the way he described his religious affiliation. It was a made-up word that incorporated his expansive view of God. I know it included the phrase Metho-Buddist, but I can’t remember the rest. You would think a man who had pledged to provide a glowing eulogy would have taken a few notes, but I didn’t.


When I considered what Biblical story of faith best represents the way in which Van lived out his relationship with God this story of Jacob instantly came to mind. Like Van, Jacob didn’t live the life of a conventional man of faith, and like Jacob, Van suffered injury in the process. Van did things his own way, and it wasn’t the easy way. This story of Jacob wrestling with a man who may well have been God is a story that could be used to describe the life of Talmage Van Spence. Van was a man of faith in God, but it wasn’t exactly the faith we were taught in Mrs. Cook’s Sunday School Class. It wasn’t contrary to that faith, but it was far more complex.


Van cherished his roots here in Wynne, and in this church. He liked to point out that he received his Boy Scout God and Country Award from Brother John McCormick. He probably has that award squirreled away somewhere in his rich collection of memorabilia.


Van was a rare man who collected more than trinkets throughout his life. He collected friends and he cherished relationships. There’s no end to the stories that could be told of the twists and the turns of our various experiences with Van, and those stories have suddenly become much more valuable. It was a vivid experience to be around Van, and sadly for us that experience is over. But it’s easy for me to be happy for Van. He has shed his twisted body and I trust he is enjoying some new-found freedom.


I don’t know if my words have met the criteria for a glowing eulogy, but he deserved one. I’m grateful to have gotten to know Van and to have experienced his rare presence. Like the rest of you, I was touched by Van, and I’m grateful for the impact.


Thanks be to God for the life of Talmage Van Spence.

Thanks be to God that his suffering is over.

Thanks be to God.