An Eulogy for Joclair Ellenberg Taylor
October 24, 1928 – July 17, 2014
Amazingly, for a small-framed girl, the youngest of nine children, born on a non-descript farm, in the impoverished rural upcountry of South Carolina, Joclair Ellenberg’s life became an epic journey. Although she did not travel the world, she traversed regularly a vast landscape of faith. Though she did not subdue mythical beasts, she saw her family through many trials with unwavering hope. And though she did not brandish a sword to conquer, she won many hearts with selfless love. Her life was an odyssey – of faith, hope and love; these three, the greatest of which was her love.
Much has been said recently of her adventurous spirit. Of course, for an 85 year old, being told by the oncologist that cancer has spread through your body, then taking off on a “bucket list” trip to New York, and in the span of 24 hours riding a four-wheeler, a Bobcat, an Amish buggy, and a Harley motorcycle, would generate such comments. (As an aside, when she began to have hemorrhagic seizures in New Jersey, I knew one thing: I had to get that Southern lady back to South Carolina, or else she would haunt me forever.)
Joclair did have an adventurous spirit. She was continual learner. She wanted to experience new things and to go see what was around the bend in the road. She was not afraid to “live large,” as they say, but that’s not why she took the risky trip to New York. She knew it would accomplish two things: she would see three sets of grandchildren she might not otherwise see, and even more importantly, she wanted to demonstrate to all her grands, that you don’t give up.
Such an attitude characterized the journey of her life. You took what life gave you, you discovered its beauty, you trusted God, and furthermore, you improved what you could.
She had such a strong sense of determination that sometimes, it showed up as stubbornness. But don’t be mistaken, that resolve was built on hope, the belief that things could be better. It’s what got her through the sudden death of her father at age 14. It’s what led her to learn to walk again and even play the piano again after a major stroke. It’s what got her through her losses as those so close to her died. “Southern steel,” some might call it: you don’t quit.
Her journey was indeed one of adventure and hope, but that’s not what she would want to be remembered for. We could talk about her love of music. She played the piano so effortlessly, improvising and transposing a hymn to any key. She taught each of us to play as well, and insisted we practice. She would call out from somewhere in the house if we missed a note, or had the wrong tempo, or simply needed to clean up a passage.
At Christmas and other occasions, the only present she really wanted was to hear us sing together. Taylor gatherings have been legendary as musical events, all because that’s what Mom enjoyed, and expected.
We could talk about Joclair’s creativity. Children of three generations have gone to sleep with amazing bedtime stories. She drew, cut out silhouettes, wrote poems, and expressed herself eloquently in letters.
To her chagrin, we could talk about how prim and proper she was. Even around the house, she was not going to be dressed shabbily. And each outfit required some appropriate piece of jewelry.
We could talk about the love of her life, Houston Taylor, their 65 years together, and her devotion to him in his career and ministry. We could talk about family and what a godly mother she was. But, what she would want us to talk about, would be faith. And with your forbearance, that is what I will do. I will highlight the five pillars of Joclair Taylor’s faith.
First of all, she had a Solid Belief in God’s Providence. This was the bedrock of her faith. She knew without a doubt that God IS concerned with our lives, that God is ABLE to provide for our needs, and that God WILL provide according to his good will for us.
One of my earliest memories was Mom teaching God’s providence to my brother Houston and me through the story of the Exodus. I was only five, and Houston had to stay home from school as we both battled the measles. For a week, the extended sleeper sofa became the land of Egypt and the Middle East. Plastic Army men became the Hebrews and the Egyptians, and they traveled on carts and chariots made of construction paper. A blue towel was the Red Sea, which indeed parted at the right time. A ball of cotton led the Hebrews by day and a flaming candle stood over then by night. Bread crumbs fell from the sky like manna, and all the way, God provided.
Mom did not underline or mark many passages in her Bible. I wrote down the twenty or so that she did. One was Psalm 27:13-14which expresses her solid belief in God’s Providence: I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!
God’s faithful provisions, however, didn’t mean you that you could waste anything. Growing up during the Great Depression and years of wartime rationing, she knew the importance of making things last. As her children, we were schooled in reduce, reuse and recycle, long before it became fashionable. We know how to re-flatten tin foil, wash and reuse bread wrappers, and save everything. She taught us to tear napkins and paper towels in half so they would last twice as long. She made a six-pack of Coca-cola serve our whole family by tricking us into believing that a glass of one-half Coke and one-half sweet tea was actually delicious. God provides, but don’t waste.
The second pillar of Joclair’s faith was a dependence on the Word of God. She loved the Bible. To her the scriptures were dear friends and a means to commune with Jesus. Like the revolutionary Mary of Luke’s gospel, she sat at the feet of Jesus, choosing to be a disciple, ignoring social norms if necessary, in order to learn more.
One of the things she greatly missed after Dad’s death, she told me, were the times they would sit together, usually after breakfast, and discuss the Bible. She was so inquisitive. I know, because she began “saving up” her queries for my visits: questions about universal salvation, the purpose of the sacrificial system of the Temple, the means of sanctification, and a right reading of the early Genesis stories.
The scriptures sated her thirst for God, as expressed in Psalm 63, one of only four psalms she marked in her Bible: Psalm 63 “thirsting for God”
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
The third pillar of Joclair’s faith was an attentiveness to the needs of the least. A hallmark of Jesus’ ministry was his attention to the poor, the oppressed, the lost, and the least of these. (Luke 4:18, Luke 15, Matthew 25) Joclair demonstrated a similar focus in her own journey. In a large family gathering, you would find her seeing that the little ones were taken care of, or she’d be on the floor playing with the youngest. For her, fairness didn’t mean equality, but that the differing needs of each person were met.
She was always alert to identify and resolve potential problems, before they became problems. She taught us to give, especially to those who could not give in return. She taught us to be in mission to others. In their younger years, she and Dad led summer camps for youth, and in retirement they were site leaders for a couple of years at a Salkehatchie camp.
It is beyond my ability to count the number of mission trips that have been taken by and led by members of the Taylor extended family. Mom probably didn’t know the number either, but she would remember the trips you’d been on. She supported them financially, prayed for them, and when you returned, she wanted to be debriefed. In the van on our trip to New York just last week, she sat looking at pictures on Lauren’s computer of Lauren and Daniel’s recent trip to South Africa, asking question after question.
She sought imitate her Lord with her attentiveness and service to the least and the lost.
The fourth pillar for Mom was her assurance in knowing Jesus as her Savior. One scripture underlined in her Bible was Romans 5, verses 1 and 2: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
In fact, of the 17 New Testament passages she had marked, nine had to do with the assurance of salvation and the Holy Spirit bringing others into saving grace. Early in my ministry she was still worried about me no longer being of the Pentecostal faith. She wasn’t sure how liberal I had become as a United Methodist pastor. She would regularly ask me, “Are you preaching salvation? Are you telling people they need to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior?”
She had an evangelical heart for others, but she despised revivalist manipulations. Once we talked about the way preachers in some traditions would try to get people to come to the altar. We’d also been talking about reaching young people with the good news, and so I asked her about her experiences of altar calls when she was a teenager.
She shyly smiled and said, “Well, remember I had asthma, and so I had an acceptable excuse to leave the worship service. Whenever they’d start will all that, I would just start coughing real bad, and then go outside and sit in the truck until they finished.”
She was indeed an independent thinker, but a relationship with Christ meant everything. Quoting an epistle of John, she said many times “I have no greater joy than this, but to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 John 1:4)
The final pillar I must highlight was her confidence in the Resurrection. Receiving a terminal diagnosis of cancer just three weeks ago, left her sad, but calm. She did not want leave us, but she was ready for heaven. After we’d called in hospice care, she said matter-of-factly, “I want to go see my Savior.”
Her confidence was rooted in John 11 (another underlined passage from her Bible). Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
On the first anniversary of Dad’s death she wrote these words: Nov 2, 2012:
One year ago today when the hills were ignited with the beauty of death, Houston left this world. But as in nature spring explodes with a glorious resurrection of color, so also we have an assurance of an eternity with Christ and with loved ones, a beauty and joy impossible to comprehend!!
Joclair Ellenberg Taylor’s life was an epic journey of faith, hope, and love.
Let me close with this. Sometimes in teaching I ask the rhetorical question, “If you could boil the Bible down to one message what would it be?” For me, that one simple summation would be this: The One who knows me best, loves me the most.
God knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows our beautiful parts and our ugliness, our grace and our sin. God knows the secrets of our hearts and in such complete knowledge of us, God says, “I love you so much I would die for you.”
John 15:13 No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Joclair Taylor made it her business to know you. We experienced that as her children, and grandchildren and great-grands, but she extended such loving interest to friends and church members and even to strangers she’d meet.
She had that rare ability to focus on the individual. In her presence you knew you were seen by her, and heard by her, even if distractions were all around you or the room was full of people. As her children, we knew (and were told) she did not always approve of our behavior or choices, but we also knew, without a doubt, that she loved us. She made incarnate (clothed in flesh) the great love of God, for through her love, we have learned that the One who knows us best, loves us the most. And such love is eternal.
Thanks be to God for this petite powerhouse, a woman of faith, hope, and love. Amen.
July 19, 2014 – Rev. Stephen P. Taylor
Wightman United Methodist Church, Prosperity, South Carolina