Five years ago today, my friend Isla Bagbey was buried at Amis Chapel Baptist Church cemetery in Oak Hill, NC. She meant a lot to me in the short time I knew her. Following is what I said at her funeral.
Isla Nelson Bagbey was not only a member of this church, she was my friend. This funeral is hard for her family. It is hard for me, too. When we came here, Mr. Floyd and Mrs. Isla had been over at Nelson Church for nearly two decades. I had heard that she continued in an Amis Chapel WMU group, but it was April of last year at a steak dinner for the community, when I met them.
When I did, there was an instant attachment. Suddenly it seemed I had known them both all my life, and they had known me. There was an instant, eternal content to our new friendship. It was not one of those normal surface relationships. There was a heart connection.
Isla’s quiet fortitude and quick wit kept me intrigued. Isla’s encouragement and friendship were significant to help us through a difficult year. The Lord sent along a friend at just the right time in the right way to love this rookie pastor and laugh with him. Can’t you see those rosy cheeks now filling up and her whole body bouncing up and down as she sits there laughing from deep in her belly?
You know that Isla nursed nearly every child in Nelson, VA, and Floyd has been under nearly every house around here at one time or another. You know how Isla took care of folks, young and old. She’s straightened out many a hard head who didn’t want to go to the doctor. She’s cuddled many a baby in these parts. And she’s responded to many a medical emergency and sniffly nose all over Hitesburg, Nelson, Virgilina, and Oak Hill. Did you know that Isla didn’t do it because she was just a good woman? Did you know that her motivation was beyond some empty human philosophy? Did you know that her chief motivation was serving her Savior and Lord Jesus Christ? Did you know Isla had a motto for her life’s work as a nurse? Did you know that motto always motivated her? Do you know what that motto was? It comes from Matthew 25.
35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
As we stood in that hospital room last week and the hope that we could keep her a little while longer on this side dwindled, I silently cried out to the Lord, and He kept giving me the same Bible verse over and over.
15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.
The Lord was making clear to me that it is His turn to have Isla close by. He is calling for her, and He is sovereign. On Monday, while we wept, the Lord called it Precious.
And Isla, I’m completely confident, was thrilled. Yes, she had loved ones and friends here. But she had had a glimpse of the other side. In her patented wit, she threw me a curve ball about five minutes into my first visit at her house. She said, “You know, I died.” She threw me. I drew a blank. And I could see the corner of her mouth curl into a chuckle she couldn’t hold back. Then she continued, “I was on the table, and they couldn’t get me to respond. And I saw these beautiful green hills.”
I stopped her: “Were there beautiful flowers on those hills?”
“Yeah,” her eyes lit up.
“Did you sense a peace?” I asked.
“The most magnificent peace I had never imagined. I thought, ‘This is where I want to be.’ Then the doctor said he was going to try to shock my heart one more time – I heard him say that – and then the next thing I knew he was looking in my face, and he said, ‘Isla, you gave us a scare.’ And I told him, ‘Man, where I just came from, looking at you is a scare.’”
“Isla,” I said, “my great aunt Inez Jerry in Laurens, South Carolina, experienced those same hills and flowers and peace several years before she died. She didn’t tell many people because she thought they’d think she was crazy. But her one sure hope through Jesus Christ alone was to see those green hills and flowers again.”
Isla said, “Well I’m gonna tell you something, young man. If I ever get the chance to go back, I ain’t coming back. You hear me? I ain’t coming back. Y’all can have it all here. I know where I want to be.”
I found out this past week that it happened just over 30 years ago. The Psalmist echoes Isla’s sentiments exactly in the 73rd Psalm.
23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
If you know Isla, you know that you never had to wonder where she stood on something. Don’t ask her what she thought if you don’t really want to know. Her banner was ever clear. And she had a deep longing to be in the presence of her Lord. And she had a clear belief in her Lord Jesus, His saving power, and her resurrection at His command. Can you hear Isla declaring these words from Job 19?
23 "Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll,
24 that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever! 25 I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; 27 I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
Isla had the same perspective as the Apostle Paul when he wrote in Philippians 1:21: 21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten Season, the time of preparation for the celebration of the Christian’s most important holiday: Easter and the Resurrection. On Ash Wednesday, the ashes of the previous year’s Palm Sunday leaves are rubbed in the shape of a cross on each person’s forehead at the altar. Isla understood well the phrase said by the officiant at Ash Wednesday services, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But Isla knows better than that awaits for those who trust Christ. It is Isla’s sure hope in the resurrection that gave her great confidence and eagerness to cross over to be with the Lord. My wife Amanda reminded me Monday afternoon that while this is a sad week for us, it is the happiest week Isla has ever known. The Lord calls this week Precious. Isla is thrilled.