When I was talking with the girls, one of the things they immediately told me when we were planning the service was the fact we had to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” because it was Donald’s favorite. As I looked at the many accomplishments in Donald’s life I could see that pattern of always moving vigorously forward the way the music suggests by its very beat. Always onward. Throughout his life’s work, and his commitment to conservancy, evidenced this day, his commitment to local government. And vigorous describes his commitment to this place, where it was well known and understood that unless you were sick, you were here! Onward! And in his life in the military and many years beyond he also lived in that overarching theme of victory. But then I thought about this day.
A day where we are here to celebrate the life and witness of a man who touched lives and lived fully and also here to proclaim resurrection victory through Christ in the face of his death. And in our loss we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers.” No matter how strong or weak we feel this day, joining that same voice across time. Yet words that sound different as the cross is not leading a throng of mighty men, but a single casket. “Like a mighty army moves the church of God, walking where saints have trod.” We join the song across the ages of the many who now are the saints. And it is at this moment made clear-these are words we can only sing in faith. Grasping in faith that improbable kingdom of God where our only weapons are faith and the Spirit. Reminded that our hope comes from reliance on more than the promises and protection we can muster, but what comes only from the power of God.
As I read Donald’s obituary he seemed larger than life, he was a giant. Not in a self-proud way, but simply a man who used well the gifts he was given by the Creator. I only knew him in this past year- in a very different time. And he was aware of its difference. He had suffered significant chronic health concerns though, in spite of them, in later years, he marveled in the year 2000 that he never expected to see the turn of the century yet through the power of prayers God brought him moments of unexpected healing and another 12 years after that century mark. All the way to 85, sharing yet again that birthdate he and Donna have in common. I believe in these fading years Donald grasped not so much a feeling of marching by one’s own strength, but a feeling of being carried by God.
Our Scripture readings this day all point to the fact- that no matter how accomplished we were in our lives, no matter whether you can trace your family back to the 1700’s, it all comes down to what God gives us- new life in Christ, and faith and the Holy Spirit to believe. In the words of Isaiah, and the words of our Psalm- we hear we can look to God for comfort, and strength, believing that we will receive them and have peace. That God is our helper. Certainly in these last days for Donald and for his family God has provided what only God could give- helping hands, moments of serendipity and the ability to be together with him at the critical time. In these waning times, there have been many such tender moments to sustain.
In later years as Lillian and Donald were separated in two different units for care, Lori was able to arrange to take them to a Hampton Inn overnight so that they could have a meal together and stay together and share in times of closeness that feed our souls. A great act of love shared made even greater by the fact that the Hampton Inn chose to not charge Lori for the room- an act of love and kindness. And there are many of these stories- of God placing people and blessings at just the right time. Right down to the loving care of the folks at St Joe’s who were able to let the family know it was a critical time. They say that the last of our senses to fade is hearing and I believe it brought peace and comfort that he could hear his family in that moment God gave them together. They could gather like that small but mighty army, to surround him with love that greatest of gifts- To be able to be there to complete an earthly circle. As someone said, he was there for our first breath and we were able to be there for his last.
These are the moments when we truly hang upon Jesus’ promise in the gospel- I am the resurrection and the life as an earthly life ends. This is the moment when we have to believe that it is more than living this life excellently. We are here to speak and sing that resurrection and to say-I believe. Over and over again Jesus uses this word in the Gospel of John often. Believe, believe believe…It’s actually best translated “keep on believing, keep on living into belief.” Over and over again. Said by a God who knows we need to be reminded and offering up for us to hear-Jesus words as we read them, and as we share them with one another. Sharing faith in the cycle of places we travel- not only in places of joy or victory or birth, but in places of fear, and death and doubt. Keep Speaking, keep believing.
Words for us this day. These words of Jesus day came as Martha meets Jesus to tell him that her brother is dead and to chide him- “if only you had been here.” This day we instead give thanks not only for Donald’s life but for eternal life he has now received through the power of the cross of Christ. And to this we say- Lord we thank you that you are here!
And that because of you, death does not have the last word
Because ultimate victory is yours in Jesus the Christ. A victory you give to us to share. This is what pushes us onward- your power alone. And this is how you carry us- as we await the day when we’re gathered with Donald and all your army of saints
In peace and for eternity. Amen.
POSTSCRIPT: Because the deceased was a former Fish and Game Commissioner, there was an honor guard in uniform who stood watch at the casket and who served as pallbearers. Because he was a military veteran of distinction there were military honors at graveside. As we arrived at the cemetery, there was a dove that came and sat in the tree above my head. (A little worried about how that would turn out for me) After the committal, and the salute and taps were played, the dove flew away. As it happened the Fish and Game officers caught notice as did I. When we shared this with his daughters, one said that when he father helped her work on her house, every day there was a dove that came and sat there while they worked on her porch. It gave her comfort to think of her father checking one last time before flying off.