Bertha Sparrow

Today we gather in our grief to find comfort in our loss.  Bertha Sparrow has died and we ache because of that face. Even more, we are here to celebrate and thank God for the life and faith of Bertha Sparrow.  Today we cherish the way she blessed our lives and the things we learned from her.  Today we celebrate Bertha and the faith that energized her.

Bertha loved God’s Word.  She used to enjoy getting off to a quiet place to read the Word of God. She believed that God’s truth was the only truth you could depend on. Eugene Peterson does a great job of speaking the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5 in a contemporary paraphrase,

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.

That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. They only remind us of the spacious living conditions ahead. It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going. Do you suppose a few ruts in the road or rocks in the path are going to stop us? When the time comes, we’ll be plenty ready to exchange exile for homecoming. [Message]

These words exemplify the spirit of Bertha Sparrow.  She lived her life seeking to please the Lord.

In 2 Timothy Paul looks back on his life and says,

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

I believe these are the same words Bertha could say at the end of her life (even though she would never dream of saying such things.)  With this hope and confidence in our hearts, will you turn with me to the Lord in prayer.

Father, today we seek you as our hope and our comfort.  On the one hand we ache terribly.  Someone we loved is gone and a void is in our hearts that we don’t how to handle.  On the other hand we are grateful.  We are grateful that Bertha has been set free from the body that kept limited her life.  We are grateful for the blessing she brought to us.  We are grateful for her faith which comforts us with the assurance that “she lives, even though she dies.”

Gracious Father, help us in this time of confusion.  Help us to grasp your promises and find the comfort and assurance that we need. Help us as we evaluate our own readiness for eternity.  Grant you presence and your blessing as we worship You.

We ask in Jesus name, Amen.

Bertha Sparrow was a character.  She was born on December 29, 1933 near LaHarpe, the daughter of Harold and Mamie Shutwell Negley.  She was raised at the time of the Great Depression.  She always said that it didn’t effect her household in the same way it did some others because the Negley’s raised all their own food.  The Negley girls always had a good time and their home was filled with music and with faith.

On May 16, 1954 Bertha married the love of her live, James Sparrow. They celebrated 50 years of marriage last May.  The two of them were always a team.  They were blessed with four children, 8 grand-children and 2 great-grandchildren.  It is accurate to say that they have always been a close family.

The Sparrow household was always filled with Bertha’s music and the home knew lots and lots of laughter and joy.

Bertha was an active member of the Union Church of Laharpe and was also a member of the Home Extension, the Late Bloomers Garden Club, and the Kum-Join-Us Class.  She taught Sunday School, sang in the church choir, and sang for many funerals and special events.

She is survived by her husband, Jim; two daughters, Deborah (and her husband Bill) Hamrick of Augusta, Ill., and Diana Lambert of Hamilton, Ill.; two sons, John (and his wife Pamela) Sparrow and Joe (and his wife Brenda) Sparrow, of LaHarpe; eight grandchildren; two great–granddaughters; and four sisters, Hattie Conner of Toulon, Ill., Kay Foster of Eureka, Ill., Clara Sallee of Nauvoo, Ill., and Mildred Schroeder of Salem, Ore.

She was preceded in death by two sisters, one in infancy, and her parents.


What a delightful woman was Bertha Sparrow!  Whenever you talked with her you felt that you were appreciated and loved.  She always had a warm smile and an incredible twinkle in her eye.  Her conversation was always filled with laughter and she had an uncanny way of turning the conversation to you.  I don’t think I ever had a conversation with her when she didn’t ask, “And how are you guys?”  The great thing about that question was that she really wanted to know.  Even when she was dying in the hospital, she still asked about my family.

Bertha was a person whose mind always seemed to be driving in several different lanes at the same time.  Occasionally she would switch lanes without the other person knowing about it.  There were times when I would feel that I stepped into the middle of the conversation with her and just about the time I figured out what we were talking about I was in the middle of a different conversation!  No matter what the conversation it was always fun, kind, and uplifting.

There are a lot of things that people think about when they think of Bertha Sparrow.  Many of us think of music.  Bertha was always singing.  She believed she got her musical talent from her dad.  Her family reports that Bertha was ALWAYS singing around the house. She sang while putting clothes on the clothesline, working in the garden and while doing household chores.  She not only sang . . . she sang LOUD.  The neighbors would hear her singing with regularity.  It was as if there was this joy in her heart that just needed to come out! One day she called the family to her and opened the window and started to sing.  Joe’s dog responded with a howl!  Bertha laughed heartily.  She never took herself too seriously.  She sang for more funerals than we could possibly remember.  I always loved to hear her sing the Lord’s Prayer.  It was hard for her when she felt she could no longer sing publicly.

It took me several years to catch on to the fact that often when she looked up from her music she would lose her place momentarily.  When that happened she would simply make up words that seemed to fit.  Truthfully, she was really good at it!  One time however we were doing a Nursing home worship service and she was singing a song where I think she was supposed to say something about Christ living in our hearts.  She lost her place and confidently sang that her Savior came apart!

While some people think of Bertha and think music, others think of her and think “donuts”.  People loved her donuts.  On several occasions the house was filled with donuts.  She made donuts for many civic gatherings.  As her children were growing up, their friends would always like to come over because Bertha was the donut lady.  People had to learn early that those donuts were wonderful when they were warm but if you ate too many you got sick!

Bertha was a giving woman.  She was willing to give whatever she had to anyone who wanted it.  She found it almost impossible to say “No” to anyone.  She believed a person should always show hospitality.  She would invite a stranger or salesman in for a piece of pie.  If you ever stopped by the house she was sure to offer you something to eat.  It wasn’t a bother to her; it was just the way she was.

Bertha Sparrow was not complicated.  She loved people but the people she loved the most were her family.  She was a hands-on mom and Grandma.  She loved to play with the kids and loved to watch Jim play hid and seek with the kids.  She loved their laughter. When it was your birthday you were able to pick the menu for the evening.  She wanted the day to be special.

Bertha loved Christmas.  She loved decorating, enjoyed the family meal and drew tremendous joy from watching the kids and grandkids open their presents.

She enjoyed playing games.  She was great at Chinese Checkers (even though she was known to cheat) and she enjoyed playing Rook.  If the kids were playing Bertha was always willing to play along.  She would go sledding or help them as they tried to fly a kite.  The kid in her never died.

The Grandkids loved to be with Grandma and Grandpa.  Keely always made cookies with Grandma.  Justin always wanted to go over the Grandma’s because she would make him anything that he wanted to eat.  Jim and Bertha took care of the kids often and did so eagerly.  Bertha ached when Sarah was being treated for Leukemia and when Justin was being treated for his tumor.  She would have quickly and willingly changed places with either of them.  She was willing to do whatever was necessary to help in these times of crisis. Bertha’s greatest regret would be that she will not be sitting with Jim at Meghan’s wedding.

Bertha knew the importance of raising your children correctly.  When the kids were young and they would fight she would make them sit on the floor and face each other until they could say, “they were sorry” and really mean it!  Then, they would have to hug and kiss each other.  Once Bertha became so frustrated with the kids that she punched a hole in the wall! She tried to hide from Jim by hanging a picture there. She gave a few spankings and always sought to teach her children to respect others and the things that belonged to others.  She was constantly passing on her wisdom,

  • “Beauty is as beauty does”
  • “Don’t make those faces or it might freeze that way”
  • “Go brush your hair!”
  • “God knows what He is doing”

However the most frequently heard words were: “I love you.”

Bertha and Jim had a wonderful relationship.  They understood each other.  You would see them frequently holding hands and never left each other in the morning without a kiss.  They loved to garden together.  It was always an adventure to go pick strawberries with Bertha because whenever she found a rotten strawberry she would throw it at you!  Bertha canned anything and everything and who knows how many chickens she dressed over the years.  She and Jim worked as a team.  Perhaps Jim best described her life when he said, “Bertha enjoyed life”.

When Bertha and her sisters got together it was a wonderful gathering of white-haired fun!  The girls loved each other, needled each other, and laughed until their sides hurt.  They were all white-haired for as long as anyone can remember.  The kids were constantly looking at the girls to see which one was their mom.  Bertha actually tried dying her hair once but the kids made such fun of her that she never did it again!  She did love her husband and her family.

This recollection would be incomplete if we didn’t also mention that she was a woman of great faith.  She said,  “My mother taught me that God was the most important and absolute answer to everything.”

Bertha Sparrow was a Christian woman.  She was not simply religious, she trusted Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior.  Even in these last months of her life when things were often difficult and frustrating, her faith was rock solid.  She knew that she was living now to live again.  She was certain that there was life beyond the grave.  She knew that Jesus was the only way a person could get to Heaven.  Bertha knew the Lord.  She studied the Scriptures, she spent time in prayer, and she worshipped Him often through her singing. She loved the Lord, and the Lord loves her.  Bertha felt that she had been greatly blessed.  She would say, “I have been blessed more than any simpleton should have been blessed.”

Bertha taught us about joy, faith, family, and she even taught us how to die.  She was a woman of great dignity, was generous almost to a fault, and had an enormous capacity for love.  We will miss her greatly.


In the living room of the Sparrow house there is a wonderful picture.  It is a picture of Jesus.  He has his arms around a person in a bear hug.  The image is unmistakable.  This is a picture of Jesus welcoming one of His children into Heaven.

There is a wonderful song whose lyrics go like this,

A Great day is coming, Heavens gates will open wide,

And all who love the Lord will enter in;

To join with their loved one who in Jesus Christ have died;

Our eternal life in Heaven to begin.

And the Lord Himself will great us on that great and glorious day

And with the smile of the proudest Father He’ll look at us and say,

Welcome Home Children!  This is the place I’ve prepared for you.

Welcome home children, now that your work on earth is through.

Welcome home children, you who have followed so faithfully

Welcome home children! Welcome home children!

Here where I am you shall always be

Forever rejoicing with me.

It’s a great song because it gives us the perspective we need today.  They are familiar words indeed.  Jesus said to His disciples,

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God a; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”  [John 14:1-3]

The promise of Jesus is what we cling to today.  Jesus tells us that this life is not all there is.  He says that He is preparing a place for us.

When his dear friend Lazarus died, he told Mary and Martha, who were Lazarus’ sisters, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in my will live even though he dies.  Anyone who believes in me will never die.”

We all know that anyone can say these things.  The reason we have confidence that Jesus was telling the truth was because of the power of His teaching, the miracles her performed and His own resurrection from the dead.

The Bible makes it clear that we could never earn salvation.  Bertha Sparrow was a good person.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that she was a great person.  Yet, Bertha could not earn eternal life by her merit.  Neither can you and neither can I.

Bertha understood that it is only as we trust Christ that we can find eternal life.  She understood that we must believe that he was indeed the Son of God, that He came to give his life for our sin, and that those who trust Him will be forgiven and then be able to live, even though they die.

Bertha always felt a sense of gratitude at the grace that God showered on her.  She knew she didn’t deserve anything but was grateful she was given so much.  As she faced her death, she did so unafraid.  She knew where she was going because she trusted the only one who could take her there.

There are a couple of things I wish for you today.  First, I encourage you to keep that picture in your head.  Understand that though we miss Bertha and feel an enormous sense of loss, Bertha has arrived at the place she always longed to be.  She has felt the Savior’s arms around her.  She has been reunited with friends and family members who also trusted Christ.

Sometimes we wonder if we will feel regret when we get to Heaven.  Will we feel bad for those who have been left behind?  I don’t think so.  Though Bertha’s love for us has not diminished, I think she is so caught up in the wonder of Heaven that she has no time for regret.  I imagine it to be like when we are totally immersed in something so that you no longer notice the time.  Perhaps you are talking with an old friend; maybe you are involved in one of your favorite hobbies.  The time flies by and you don’t even notice.  You are completely absorbed in the moment.

I think that is what Heaven is like.  It is one moment after another of mouth open wonder.  Our hearts are heavy; hers has been set free.  We need to understand that though it is right and proper for us to grieve; our grief is because of OUR loss, not hers.  We have experienced loss; she has experienced fulfillment and completeness.

The second thing I wish for you is that you would take this opportunity to examine your own life.  Do you have any confidence of Heaven?  Do you KNOW where you are headed?

May I be candid (in Bertha’s honor)?  Not everyone goes to Heaven. Jesus taught that only those who place their faith and trust in Him will be given a future in God’s eternal Kingdom.  The problem is that many people don’t understand what kind of belief God requires.

There are really three different kinds of belief.  I stress this often because it is essential that we understand this point.  The first kind of belief is that of mental assent.  In other words, people believe that there really was a person named Jesus.  They believe He died.  They often even believe that He rose from the dead.  Lots of people, when they say they “believe in Jesus” mean this kind of belief.  If this is the only kind of belief they have, they will not be in Heaven.

The second kind of belief is that of intellectual persuasion.  In other words, they believe that Jesus did indeed trade His perfect life as a payment for our sin.  They believe that the value of the Son of God was sufficient to pay for the sin of any human being who trusts Him.  They believe that those who truly trust Christ will be saved.  These people understand the message of the gospel.  However, if this is as far as their belief goes, these people won’t go to Heaven either.

It is the third kind of belief that the Bible requires.  We must only not believe the facts and the sufficiency of those facts . . . .we must be willing to entrust ourselves to these truths.  In other words, we must be willing to bet our lives on Jesus.

I’ve used the illustration many times because I love it.  It’s a riddle.  If three frogs are sitting on a log and two decide to jump in, how many are left on the log?  Most people answer “one”.  The correct answer is “three”.  Why?  Because deciding to jump and actually jumping are two different things.

There are many people who have decided that Jesus is the only way to Heaven.  They have decided to trust Him but they haven’t actually done so. Jumping . . . actually trusting Christ . . . putting our confidence in Him is what makes salvation possible.

This is the kind of faith that Bertha Sparrow had.  She wasn’t just religious . . . she was a genuine child of God.  She became a child of God not because she tried hard or was a good person.  She became a child of God when she placed her confidence, trust, and reliance on Jesus Christ as her Savior.  She believed what He told her in the Bible, she trusted Him through difficult circumstances and she trusted Him even as her body gave out.  Bertha Sparrow didn’t just decide to trust Jesus, she actually trusted Him.

Today, I encourage you to look at your own heart.  Do you have this hope of Heaven?  Do you have the confidence that you will live even though you die?  Do you know that you are going to Heaven?  If you don’t, then I encourage you to learn from Bertha Sparrow’s life. Open your heart to Jesus.  Give up that notion that you can somehow save yourself.  Listen to the promise of Jesus and then take Him at His word.

If you will place your trust in Christ; if you will allow Him to take the central place in your life, then you will not only live even though you die . . . . you will see Bertha again.  And if I know Bertha, she’ll have a song to sing and will have much that she wants to tell you.

Will you pray with me?

Gracious Father, thank you for the life of Bertha Negley Sparrow.  Through Bertha’s life we have come to see you with greater clarity.  Today we entrust Bertha to your care.  Wrap your wonderful arms around her and show her the place you have prepared for her.

Please help us.  Help those who don’t understand.  Help them to see the truth of Jesus’ life.  Help them to understand your grace.  Help them to understand the depth of Bertha’s faith.  Help them to truly believe and to radically trust you themselves.

Help those of us who do believe.  Help us to grieve, but to do so with the perspective that Heaven brings.  Increase our hunger for Heaven.  Deepen our faith.

Father, there is this part of us that is afraid that we might forget.  We are afraid that we are going to forget Bertha’s laugh, her voice, her songs.  Please, keep the memories fresh.  Help us to remember and when we remember, help us to rejoice and give thanks.

Thank you for your love.  Thank you for the promises of your Word.  Thank you for Bertha Sparrow.  Amen.

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