The full orb of the moon cast a warm glow on a vigil with eternal implications. A chorus of cicadas chirped in the distance. The first kiss of autumn cooled the night air. The light emanating from the second window from the right on 912 North Meadows Boulevard was dim. Her breathing grew shallow, Her eyes focused on a world we could not see. Judy Bagwell began her long transition from this world to the next. Worship music, prayers and expressions of love provided surround sound in her bedroom. This was holy ground.
In the brightly lit living room just outside of this sacred setting, the television broadcast the first game of the University of Tennessee football season. In healthier times, Judy's hospitable home hosted scores of football parties. Judy's cooking took center stage at these soirees, By kickoff, however, the kitchen work was finished. Judy was in her favorite chair cheering on her beloved Volunteers.
Judy was a man's kind of a woman. She liked football, watching Westerns and riding on the back of a motorcycle with her man Morris. Lest, however, you think she was simply a tomboy; think again. Judy had a black belt in shopping. She was the sharpest dresser in our church. She was always decked with jewelry and shoes that perfectly matched whatever outfit she was wearing that day. When our church became more casual, Judy did not. She had no criticism for others, but on Sundays she wanted to look her best for worshipping Jesus. One of Judy’s roles at the church was greeting people at the front door so that our guests could see at least one immensely elegant and dignified person before being introduced to the rest of our motley crew.
The opening game of the Tennessee football season was conspicuously unimportant on this night. Tonight, the game simply provided a distraction to family and friends who needed to step away from their grief for a few moments. The glow from Judy's bedroom far eclipsed the glare of the bright living room because we knew then what we have always known-knowing Jesus was all that mattered. On this night, no passage of Scripture was needed to bolster this claim. We had the living witness of one of Jesus' most devoted followers-Judy Bagwell. Those of us gathered in Judy’s home that evening thought it was the end. It was, however, only the beginning of the end.
As we reflect of Judy's life, we may imagine that it would be better for us to be at a party in Judy's living room than at her funeral. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived had a different opinion.
2Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies--
so the living should take this to heart.
3 Sorrow is better than laughter,
for sadness has a refining influence on us.
4 A wise person thinks a lot about death,
while a fool thinks only about having a good time. (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4)
We have come tonight to learn from Bagwell University. Before, however, we get too deep into the lesson, Judy gave me one instruction. Keep my funeral somewhat light, but not too light.
There are some lighter moments to reflect on. When Judy was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer many of us who were standing in her room were speechless due to the heaviness of the moment. Judy broke the ice by asking, "Why is everyone standing over me like a bunch of vultures."
One day her friend Debbie Cook was visiting from Morristown and Judy knew that the next morning, Debbie was going to be back in Knoxville for work. Judy didn't want her to have to travel all that way so she said, "You big dummy, why didn't you bring your clothes and sleep at my house?”
There was one medicine-induced moment when she insisted that she had to have "cow tails" candy at her funeral. I choose to believe that through the fog she was thinking of me. She knew I always emptied her amazing candy dishes of those deadly "tails."
When Judy went under the care of hospice she asked if they had hospice in South Africa because she so badly wanted to go on one last Missionary "getaway" later this month. Throughout the years, she traveled the world, bringing music and ministry to weary missionaries on foreign fields. Judy was the perfect musician for these trips. She knew everything from the oldest hymn to the most current worship chorus. I believe if they had given the okay, she would have spent her last moments ministering to missionaries.
Instead, however, she ministered in her home from her new fancy recliner. She talked about her Jesus to everyone who would listen. She prayed for people, blessed people, spoke on the phone with people, face timed people and even made a video recording for our church baby dedication in which she prayed over each of those babies whom she loved dearly. Judy inspired all of us with the faith and fearlessness with which she faced her own impending death. On one particular day, she went through her closet deciding which outfit she wanted to wear to meet her sweet Jesus.
Where did this kind of faith come from? Judy's faith was forged as a young child being raised by a godly mother. She walked out that faith as a young girl, playing the piano and singing in her home church. One night, as a sixteen-year-old, she was singing at church when she caught the eye of a young man who was visiting her church with his girlfriend. Until Judy sang, he was slouched down in his pew near the back of the sanctuary. He slowly sat up in his seat, however, as he heard the angelic voice of the person he described as the prettiest little Indian girl he had ever seen. The following Sunday, he figured out a way to leave his other date early to go over to Judy Bowman’s house to "listen to records." Surprisingly, shy little Judy was the one to initiate this invitation. The other girl faded into the background as he was smitten by Judy. Judy and Morris were married within the year.
Morris had a larger than life personality, but Judy clearly kept him grounded. She was the love of his life. Judy was not a wallflower or a sidekick. She was a minister in her own right. After Morris’ death everyone know she would be okay when she famously pointed at her husband’s body during his funeral and made a play on the wording of her last name and said, “He’s the bag, and I’m very well.” It was a joke Morris used to play on her calling Judy “the bag” Judy, however, got the last laugh.
Most of my knowledge of Judy came after Morris' death. She grieved him greatly. She regularly visited his grave and spoke of him often but she didn't stop living. She became an elder in our church due to the mature example she was for people who are growing in their faith. She was a woman of prayer. She read her Bible daily. Judy was reading the entire Bible from cover to cover this year as she had in other years as well.
Judy made her home a haven for people in need of community. She didn’t recognize race or status and treated everyone equally. She had a servant's heart. Judy didn't like to speak on stage. Her personal interactions with people were her pulpit. Judy was a quiet giver. If she knew somebody was in need, she quietly gave to help him or her out. She loved preacher’s kids and was especially kind to my children.
Her home was always immaculate but she had the rare ability to make people feel comfortable in a perfectly kept home. She let people eat in the living room, dining room, kitchen, or on her back deck. She didn’t like to use paper plates. She would rather do the dishes so that her guests could feel special. One great example of her hospitality is that she had a beautiful in ground pool and she didn’t even swim. She had it put in so the rest of us could have a good time.
I consulted with one of her dearest and longest friends, Phyllis Cantrell, about what I was missing about Judy’s earlier life. After thinking for some time she assured me that I hadn’t missed a thing. The beautiful Christian lady who always wore a smile was the same now as she had always been. The trajectory of her life was set by her early relationship with Jesus.
Judy was blessed with great friends. Many of them came from other parts of the state and country to say their good-byes. Steve and Mariann Kidd even stopped by on their annual trip to Knoxville from South Africa. Judy held tightly to a “word” given to her by Mariann that not one branch of her tree would be broken. She understood that to mean her whole family would serve the Lord. Condolences for Judy are being received from around the world.
Judy was all about family. She loved her children Lora and Lakieta and her grandchildren Ben and Eric fiercely. She also loved her great granddaughter Kinzli. She treated her new son in law Jamie as her own. She loved her sisters and brothers and all her extended relatives. She was their biggest fan and she made it her life goal that all of them would know the Lord like she did. In fact, that is what she wanted for all of us.
The opening night of the Tennessee football season began her final chapter in this life. She would somehow live eight more days. Her final days seemed to be marked by signs in the heavens; a total eclipse, two epic hurricanes, and one beautiful God kissed moonlit night. Tennessee, by the way, won that game dramatically in overtime. Compared to the beauty, love and faith that surrounded Judy, however, the game paled in comparison.
Earlier that day, on my morning drive to work I was listening to the Bible as is my custom. These ancient words from Isaiah billowed through my speakers. I knew I had to use them for Judy’s funeral.
“6 This is what the Lord says—Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies:
“I am the First and the Last;
there is no other God.
7 Who is like me?
You are my witnesses—is there any other God?
No! There is no other Rock—not one!”
13 the wood-carver measures a block of wood
and draws a pattern on it.
He works with chisel and plane
and carves it into a human figure.
He gives it human beauty
and puts it in a little shrine.
He falls down in front of it,
worshiping and praying to it.
“Rescue me!” he says.
“You are my god!”
18 Such stupidity and ignorance!
Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see.
Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.
19 The person who made the idol never stops to reflect,
“Why, it’s just a block of wood!
He trusts something that can’t help him at all.
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
“Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?”  (Excerpts from Isaiah 44)
What are you trusting in today? What lie are you holding onto? Is it career? Sports? Education? Money? Fame? Politics? There is nothing wrong with pursuing a career, or cheering for your team, getting an education, making money or voting for your candidate. Compared to knowing Jesus, however, they are just a block of wood. Worthless idols.
Nothing else matters
The Apostle Paul, after recounting his resume including his education, his blood lineage, and his religious zeal, said,
“7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. 10 I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, 11 so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!  (Philippians 3:7-11)”
Nothing else matters
The Psalmist said it this way: Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God. (Psalm 20:7)
Nothing else matters!
The hymn writer put it this way: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness, I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand all other ground is sinking sand.
Nothing else matters!
At Bagwell university we learn that only Jesus can give you peace that passes understanding, joy unspeakable and courage in the face of death. Judy will never have another bad day. Suffering for her has ended. Pain for her has ceased.
On the week before our three babies at the church were dedicated, I was trying to record a video of Judy praying for them. On my first attempt, she was just too sick to do it so I decided to try later in the week. Judy was really focused on doing it and all night one night she kept crying out, I’ve got to pray for those babies.
Finally we were able to get a recording. When she was finished she was exhausted. She called Lakieta and Lora and Ben and Natalie over to her chair. She clearly said, “I’m finished now. I’m finished” These moments were so intimate that Melanie and I quietly stepped away and returned to our home in order to give them this special private time.
Later that night, Lora posted a picture on Facebook of her mother along with the text of Proverbs 31 describing the virtuous woman. One of the lines of that Proverb says, “her children rise up and call her blessed.” Lora. Lakieta and Jamie- The care you provided your mother over these last weeks was awe inspiring. You put careers and homes on hold so you could constantly be with her. You were amazing nurses and caregivers. Even Ben and Natalie took up residence at the end. It was like an extended camp in. We laughed, cried, and ate great food provided by so many wonderful friends. I can’t name you all, but each of you was important to Judy and the family is forever grateful for your care in these days.
I feel so blessed that our families are forever intermingled now by the marriage of our children. I teased Lora and Lakieta that the Nordstrom family was legitimate until we got mixed up with those Bagwells.
I covet your prayers. Melanie and I have been asked to do an impossible task-filling the shoes of Morris and Judy Bagwell. We can never replicate their ministry. God broke the mold when he created Morris and Judy Bagwell. Melanie and I promise with everything in us to honor their legacy of service at our church along with our founders, Paul and Jean Cowell. More importantly, Melanie and I will point people to the same Jesus they pointed people to.
Nothing else matters.
On the morning of September 12 when I received the call that Judy had passed, I quickly got dressed and came over to the house. I was amazed at what I saw. The family was no longer in Judy’s room crying. They were cleaning. The vacuum cleaner was running, beds were being made and dishes were being washed.
Lora explained. Mom mom told us that when you wake up in the morning, be sure to make your beds are made because if you were to die that day somebody might come and find your bedroom a mess. She told a story of Judy getting in a wreck one day and the first thought that crossed her mind was, “my bed’s not made.”
Let’s review what we know…
“We know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not hand-made—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.”
Nothing else matters
To use the words of Winston Churchill in a different context, For Judy, this is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end. This is the end of the beginning.
And now it is up to us to live and love like Judy. After reflecting on Judy’s words at Morris’ funeral, I will summarize this message in one final sentence. We’ve been left holding the bag, but she is very well.
Dr. Phil Nordstrom is the pastor of Life Church in Knoxville Tennessee. He is passionate about being a father to his three children, loving his wife, and leading people who are far from God toward their highest potential as followers of Jesus.