ORLANDO, Fla. (BP) – Jim Henry is "in the valley, but I'm not afraid in the valley" after the homegoing of his wife and his mother over the course of five days.
A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and longtime pastor, Henry said the "double-barrel grief ... hit our family pretty hard." His wife Jeanette, 79, died of Alzheimer's on Monday, Feb. 4, following the passing of his 100-year-old mother Kathryn on Thursday, Jan. 31.
"But it didn't surprise God," Henry said, "and so we're leaning on the grace that we've talked and preached about.
"I had Mom for a few extra years and Jeanette would have been 80 this month," he said. He and his wife "had nearly 60 years together, so I have no gripes with God, just thanksgiving."
In the valley, he wants to "honor Christ in it, to minister and be ministered to." And he is "learning to grieve" while also realizing in a deepened way that "the outward man is perishing but the inward man is being renewed" by an everlasting faith in Christ as the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4.
In Jeanette's seven-year struggle with Alzheimer's, Henry said, "I've learned that the Word of God – memorized or taught or preached – and the hymns and praise songs that we've sung all our lives really come to the fore."
In reading Scripture and praying with Jeanette every night, he turned a few weeks ago to the 23rd Psalm, which begins with her favorite verse, "The Lord is my shepherd...."
He asked Jeanette to fill in a word at various points, which she did throughout the psalm. The same occurred with John 3:16.
"We went to church ... and she would sing the songs all the way through. Whole hymns, she could still sing them word for word."
Henry's counsel: "Teach your children and your grandchildren the Word of God and to praise Him in song because that's something even illness doesn't seem to take away."
The prayers and compassion "of so many people ... from all across the country has astounded us," Henry, 80, said in a Feb. 4 interview from his home in Orlando, Fla.
"Your family and your brothers and sisters in Christ mean so much, and you don't realize it until all those hands are reaching out and squeezing your heart. I've been overwhelmed by the touch of people, all walks of life, [such as those who were] teenagers when I was their pastor, sending me notes about Jeanette and her influence and about my mother and her life.
"The joy of the journey is worth everything when you see the impact of two beautiful lives like Jeanette's and Mom's," Henry said. "And it continues on, their legacy of godliness.... People remember their lives and tell stories about them. So that's brought joy to us."
Jeanette had wisdom that came from her growth spiritually, Henry said, noting that her Bible study "gave her wisdom, because it was godly wisdom."
"A lot of women would turn to her for counsel. She loved people as they were and had a tendency to love the underdog especially. A lot of people have told me already, and I knew that through the years, that 'Jeanette said this to me' or 'I heard her say something to the class and never forgot it.'
"For my mother – Mom had some tough times in her life, but she was steadfast in her faith. She never wavered in her love for God and His church," Henry said. "I watched her steadfastness in family challenges through the years.... She worked hard, paid her way after high school through business school so she could learn to be a church secretary. She raised two boys, cooked fresh meals, prayed for us, never tried to run over us, just kept us pointed to Jesus and His love for us."
Henry said he had prayed years ago that his mother would have someone special with her at the time of her homegoing. He visited her in Nashville to voice his love several days before her death and his brother Joe "was there holding her hand when she went to heaven."
Much the same happened with Jeanette. Henry had become pastor of Downtown Baptist Church in Orlando in 2015 on an interim basis but stepped away from the pulpit in November to devote more attention to Jeanette. It was the only interim pastorate he ever had in Orlando and the longest since he retired in 2006 as pastor of First Baptist Church in the city.
"She had given me up a lot of weekends to go places to preach and been here and had the home fires burning," Henry said. But in serving at Downtown Baptist for four years, he was able to be with her "every day and every night."
The night she suffered a heart attack, hospice workers at their home awakened Henry so he could "hold her hand for the last breaths of her life."
Among the things he will miss, Henry said, "Every night she would reach over and touch me. They tell me with Alzheimer's you become their biggest security. They feel like you're the last one [with them on earth] because they spend more time with you. So she would shadow me a lot. [At night] she would reach over, and start touching my back, my head, my legs.
"Tell them you love them every day," Henry counseled, "and cherish the moment and appreciate the gift of God's grace and the gift of the body of Christ and the loved one that God puts in your life. Seize the day because you never know when those days will cease."
Henry hopes his experience will "encourage other pilgrims in the faith, that Christ be exalted.... In the stormy water, the anchor holds.
"And if anybody is lost," he hopes "they'll come to Jesus and know what a great Savior that He is and a great Lord that He is," evidenced by how "these two ladies lived the faith."
The funeral service for Jeanette Henry will be at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, in the worship center of First Baptist Orlando, followed by a reception. Visitation will be from 6-9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, at First Baptist's Henry Chapel.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested gifts to the First Academy student scholarship fund at First Baptist; the Jeanette Henry Ministers Wives Endowment Fund care of the First Orlando Foundation; and the Henry-Sturgeon Presidential Scholarship at Gateway Seminary in Ontario, Calif.
The funeral service for Kathryn Henry will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn. Visitation will be from 6-9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8, at Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville.
In lieu of flowers for Kathryn Henry, the family has requested gifts to the Henry-Sturgeon Presidential Scholarship at Gateway and the missions ministry at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville.