As you can see by looking around today, the church is still in full Christmas regalia which is exactly what Dodson would have wanted. He adored the season of Christmas! And I suspect that he as a lifelong educator would delight in the tree at the back of the church decorated with ornaments made by kids in our afterschool program who went through a whole lot of glitter and glue. I only met Dodson within the last couple of years as the new pastor here, but one of the first things I noticed when I first met him was the notebook. A small and well-worn spiral notebook that contained the titles of all the books he had read throughout his professional life, recorded by year.
He proudly showed me the notebook and we had a conversation about what he had read recently. And he allowed me the liberty of paging through the sheaves of paper that had gone before. Always learning, always sharing.
I got a sense as I often do, that here was a man I wish I had known better and sooner. I know that sounds almost like a cliché throwaway line, but in sincerity and especially with Dodson, it is most certainly true. Susan’s sweeping words soar in his obituary, a snapshot of his life and witness, both personally and professionally. And knowing he was a man who traveled the world to learn and share, we placed several of our global nativity scenes up front, including this one on the pulpit with me, from Peru, belonging to one of the members of the Bible Class he loved so well.
At first when Susan and I got together after her Dad’s death so much of what was on my mind was about Dodson and Louise together, for to speak of one almost necessitates speaking of the other. But then as we spoke more specifically about Dodson, one of the things I learned was his love and regard for Abraham Lincoln.
With that, and based upon Dodson’s love of books, it is today with a wry smile that I know how I could have become a good friend. Lincoln had the answer, once noting that “My best friend is the man who will get me a book that I haven’t read.”
As a history aficionado, I can see many parallels between these two men. Challenging beginnings, success by endeavor, the capacity to bond with and influence people while maintaining a moral compass.
And also a wry sense of humor and a life story that includes living in seasons of great sadness as well as joy. As we gather this day there are many words about Dodson or Lincoln I could lift up, and there will be a few. But we are also here to give thanks to God for the man we were all in our seasons privileged to know, and for God’s words that transcend this moment and offer promise for the story from here.
As I endeavor to capture the man God gave us to know and to love, and his legacy in this earthly life, perhaps the meta-narrative, the overarching theme would be found in these Lincoln words: “In the end it’s not the years in your life that counts, it’s the life in your years.” As I consider Dodson’s life witness, it is why I selected the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be.” Because the very next words are- Consecrated, Lord, to thee. This was Dodson.
You all know far greater than I his great influence but also great devotion, in his professional life, and his relationships. Despite his influence he was not a clanging gong or crashing cymbal, but one who gracefully engaged life with a firm sense of commitment, and fairness, and taking genuine interest in humanity and enabling people to learn, the world over. Not in a haughty way, but with faithful persistence. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention his time here as a leader at Holy Spirit. Always preparing for others to receive, he was a man who took his commitment to education and married it with his commitment to faith.
But it might never have been.
All of this would not have been possible much less achievable without a sense of optimism and openness for opportunity and growth. There is much in his life that would have suggested a different way….frail, not athletic, health woes, poor, not dominant.
But when a door opened to give him a scholarship to college, he grabbed it, even though it destined him to become an educator, not the lawyer he intended to be. Which leads me to a second Lincoln quote.
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or we can rejoice that thorn bushes have roses.” Dodson lived this, and seemed to grasp more often than most the patterns and seasons of life. Even these later years that were not at all what he desired for himself or Louise. Nowhere was his faith more evident than when I visited and had come to offer communion. He was lying down sleeping, but I nudged his shoulder. He woke and with a look of delight of anticipation realized, and cried out, “You came!” He insisted that Louise, who’d gone down the hall in her wheelchair, be present. All must be prepared! We dispatched a nurse to find her, and he got everything ready for her when she arrived. When she came, he cheerfully told her I was there to visit and to offer communion. If you know Louise in later years you know that to the casual observer it would seem his words were not quite understood. But ever optimistic, and gracious and leaning into that faith, he helped her eat the communion wafer. As she smiled, he turned to me and exclaimed- “She really is SO happy you’re here!”
Ever gracious, ever devoted, ever faithful. That is the measure of life in his years. Shown in both large ways and in that simple moment in the room at Berks Heim where reason alone would not have been enough to believe what was taking place.
Abraham Lincoln was once reading a Bible and a skeptic upon seeing it, asked why a man of such education and reason would read it. To which he replied, “Take all that you can of this book upon reason, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man.” Which I think places us squarely not only in the life we recall, but in our gospel for this day. While we can know seasons, and we can read books and expand our minds, just beyond us is the truth for which only faith can provide the key.
Faith is what helps us hear that in Christ there are more chapters in the book and more of the story to know- for Dodson and for us.
For a man for whom most of his life was spent preparing others, all has been prepared. For a man for whom these last years have seemed a test of faith, there is now certainty. For a man so dedicated to justice, the words of Jesus are trustworthy- “this is true. I wouldn’t tell you so unless it was. And there you shall be also.” And he is.
And I imagine the joy of seeing the fullness of all that teaching now experienced!
Dodson, you have taught us well. May all you have shared not be forgotten. And may almighty God strengthen us to live by faith that the next chapters of our story are yet to unfold but the ending is assured.