(This is the funeral message I preached for my dad yesterday. You don’t have to read it, and it may seem a little strange even me posting it. But…it’s my blog. When you write a blog you can post strange things too. 🙂 Anyway, if you are in a strained or estranged relationship, there may be some hope on this for you.)
Many of my early childhood memories took place just a few miles from here. We lived in a pink, asbestos siding house in Florence. It was there that I caught the clothes in the closet on fire telling ghost stories to the girls and had to drag them through the snow across the street to the neighbor’s house. It was there I got in my first fist fight with Larry Taylor, my best friend from across the street. And it was there I learned to try and imitate my dad.
Dad was in the paratroopers, the 83rd airborne, just after the Korean War. He often told stories of jumping out of planes, once over a machine gun firing range. The drill sergeant in charge of the range looked up just before the men in dad’s company fell into the spraying bullets and screamed, “Cease fire. Cease fire.” One of the souvenirs he brought home was the small emergency chute they carried in case the big parachute failed to open. It was about six feet across, made of beautiful white silk, and just begged to be used.
Our backyard was a steep hill. Dad had built me a fort, a shed really, that was about two feet off the ground in the back and ten feet in the front because of the slope of the yard. I remember as a 7-year old, running down that hill as fast as I could, emergency chute tucked under my arm, leaping onto the two-foot part of the fort, dashing across the roof, and throwing myself and the emergency chute off the ten-foot front. Of course, there was never enough time for the chute to open. The best-case scenario was that it balled up under me and cushioned my fall. The more common happening was that I landed splat on the ground, breath knocked completely out of me, and the chute would flutter down and ignominiously drape over my fallen form, adding insult to injury. Most of the rest of my life was me throwing myself out into the void, trying to live up to the image I had of my dad, or maybe worse, throwing him into the void, trying to make him live up to the image that I had of him.
Dad died last Monday. I got to sit with him most of the day before and a few hours in the morning before he died. I don’t think either one of us were where we thought we would be when I was 7 and he was picking me up off the ground after another unsuccessful jump. But I think we had finally realized that we were both fine with where we were, and that was a good thing. A few minutes after he died, my newest daughter-in-law, Allison, who is a Medical Intensive Care nurse, and sits beside dying patients all the time, said to me, “I believe God has people right where they are supposed to be when someone dies.” That was true of Dad, not just at the moment of his death, but his whole life. God always had him where he was supposed to be.
My dad was a minister most of his life. Oh, sometimes he milked cows, or drove a water truck, or worked for the railroad. But he was almost always a minister of some sort. One of my favorite stories about dad was the first baptismal service he did in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I’m not sure how accurate the story is but it has taken a life of its own and become a part of the Courtney folklore. Dad had moved to Rock Hill to pastor the little Nazarene church there. It was a tiny church, a small little building, and it didn’t have a baptistry. Dad was always good at building things, so he decided to put a baptistry in the church. There was a room behind the platform at the front of the little church. Dad figured out he could take out that wall, put in a baptistry, build the wall behind it and still have enough space for a little changing room. He tackled the project and the whole church was excited. So excited in fact that we announced the first baptismal service before the thing was completely finished. Everything was in place but the wall. On Saturday night, dad went to K-Mart and bought one of those big, woven rugs with a picture in it, dogs shooting pool or Velvet Elvis, something like that. He tacked it up behind the baptistry and we were good to go.
On Sunday morning the little church was packed. It was our first baptismal service ever. Two people were going to be baptized, Bro. Smith and Sis. Jones. Bro. Smith went first, an elderly little man, and the whole church clapped. Then it was Sis. Jones’s turn. Sis. Jones was what we call in the south, a healthy woman. My dad was not a very big man at the time, and he was also deathly afraid of water. He dunked Sis. Jones under and both of her feet came out from under her and stuck straight up in the air. In a panic, she grabbed for the first thing she could reach which was my dad’s necktie. She pulled him under and now there are four feet sticking up in the air. In a panic, dad grabbed for the first thing he could find, which was that tapestry rug. It came down and there was Bro. Jones in the suit that God had given him. This was long before Michael Jackson, but Bro. Jones picked up a folding chair, held it in front of himself, and moonwalked out of the little changing room.
My dad was about as gifted a man as I have ever known. He could preach like a bishop, sing like Pavorotti, take apart a ‘57 Chevy and put it back together again. He knew how to build. He could drive anything. He understood computers when they were Commodore 64’s. And he could make little churches grow.
One of the neat things that has happened over the last week, (FaceBook is a marvelous invention), is the amazing number of people that have sent me messages about the way they remember my dad from those early years of ministry. I bet two dozen old people like me told me stories about when they were teenagers and my dad impacted their lives. One lady said, “He chaperoned us to Estes Park, Colorado, International Institute, and taught us about loving God the whole way.” A friend of mine said, “Your dad was always so full of joy and enthusiasm. He was constantly encouraging me when I was growing up.” One of my favorites was from Philip Lehman, a kid in our church in Myrtle Beach. Philip said, “The thing that I remember most about your dad is that he was preaching when MY dad was saved.”
Dad never pastored a big church. Never made a name for himself in any denomination. Honestly, never stayed anywhere a really long time. But in little places in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Florida, in little towns like Glens Fork, and Orangeburg, Ashland City, and Rock Hill, there are still people that are in the kingdom because of the work he did.
I remember one of his favorite sermons. He preached it more than once. He must have because to be clear, I didn’t listen that well back then. The scripture is in II Timothy 4. It is one of the last letters that Paul wrote before he was put to death. He is in prison in Rome. He is feeling a little lonely and unappreciated. He says in verses 9-11, “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved the world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me.” Paul is probably looking back over the work that he did and wondering if it paid off. He certainly doesn’t have much to show for it. He says, “I don’t even have an extra set of clothes. When you come, (verse 13), bring the cloak I left with Carpus at Troas.” Well, Paul, surely you have your library? You know preachers are proud of their library. But Paul says, (verse 13) “Bring my scrolls, especially my parchments.” Yes, but what about your friends Paul? After all you did, surely you have a bunch of loyal friends? “Alexander the metal worker did me a great deal of harm, (verse 14). At my first defense, no one came to support me, (verse 16).”
That story sounds vaguely familiar doesn’t it. After all of those years of ministry Dad doesn’t have a lot to show for it. There is no church named after him. No honorary degrees after his name. Maybe not that many people that knew where he ended up or what became of him. But remember what Allison said, “God has you right where you are supposed to be at the end.” Linda and Rudy and John and Eddie (dad’s wife and adopted kids), I think you were right where dad was supposed to be. Dewey, and Ricky and Crystal and the kids (the rest of dad’s adopted clan), I think that’s right where Dad was supposed to be. Potter’s House Church, and Peggy and Diane and Jerry, his sisters and brother, you were right where Dad was supposed to be. And I thank all of you for being that for him. My cousin, Haley sent me a message and said, “Your dad took me to church when I was little. I remember him singing How Great Thou Art. It is still the gold standard of that song for me.” Julie, another cousin said, “I was a little girl and the night of my birthday we had a blizzard here in Northern Kentucky, so no one could get out to come to my party. Your dad walked a long ways through the snow and showed up on our porch to celebrate with me.” I can’t begin to tell you the number of people that told me my dad led them to Christ.
Frankly, I don’t understand just how God works in our lives. My sister and I went long periods of time not seeing my Dad, something we probably would all change if we could. There were lots of battles that he fought that are hard to give meaning to right now. But I just have to believe that we were and are, in the providence of God, all right where we were supposed to be.
Because of that, the heart of Dad’s sermon and Paul’s letter rings true. Let’s go back to II Timothy 4. Look at verses 6-8. Remember Paul is facing death. He knows he doesn’t have long. He knows that there is really nothing left for him to do. Right now, with few friends, no earthly riches, no great success stories, he must be wondering if God was in all of this. But then he remembers, “Oh, of course God is in this. He has been with me every step of the way.” Paul gets his second wind, a wave of gratitude sweeps over him and he says, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time of my departure is near. 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 me on that day—and not only me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.”
So, there’s answer to all of this. Are we really where we are supposed to be? Is this what God planned for us? Even when our chute has failed to open, and we are laying flat on our face and the wind is knocked out or us? Yes. Yes. At the end, God has us right where we are supposed to be as long as we can say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Dad fought the good fight. Sometimes we didn’t understand the battle. Sometimes we felt like he was fighting us. Sometimes it probably felt like we were fighting him. But that’s not true. He was fighting to be the man, to be in the place that he was supposed to be. That battle took him a long, circuitous route. But he kept fighting, and in the end, he ended up where he was supposed to be.
Dad finished the race. He didn’t quit. Didn’t give up. Didn’t give in. He finished the thing. Last weekend Dad was out of it when I got here, and we never spoke. The weekend before I came up and sat with him for a couple of days. He was alert and on Saturday pretty talkative. At one point I asked him, “Dad, is there anything else you need to do? Anything else you need to say?” He thought about it for awhile and then shook his head and said, “No. There are some things that I wish were different, but I think I have done all that I can do.” He finished the race.
Dad kept the faith. Listen, Paul had his doubts in this story. David made his share of mistakes in the Old Testament. Peter lost his temper and his nerve. Abraham lied his way out of trouble. Who among us hasn’t messed it up somewhere along the way? But each one of those guys kept the faith. My Dad kept the faith. It doesn’t matter what our perception of that is. It doesn’t matter what image we had of him that he was supposed to live up to. It doesn’t even matter how many times his chute didn’t open, and he fell flat on his face. He knew, and God knows, he kept the faith.
On Monday morning, when it was pretty clear that the end was near for Dad, everybody was out of the room and it was just me and him. I have been trying to memorize the 27th Psalm. I have been living in it lately. So, I decided to practice on Dad.
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me
to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes
who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted
above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
Last Monday morning, the long hard battle ended for Dad. His race came to a conclusion. And his faith kept him in good stead. Last Monday morning, Dad went running down the hill, his little emergency chute under his arm. He hopped up on the two-foot part of the fort, dashed across the roof and threw himself and his emergency chute off the ten foot part. And you know what happened? His chute opened. He floated right down into the arms of Jesus and the Lord, the righteous Judge, put a crown on his head and said, “Charles, you are right where you are supposed to be.”