Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Memento Mori-- A Eulogy for my Father

Preached at Myers Park UMC Dec. 2, 2008

“Blessed are those who die in the Lord”

The Scriptures are clear enough that while Christians are expected to grieve, and weep with those who weep, they are not to grieve like those without hope. What then does ‘good grief’ look like, and what sort of theology of the afterlife does it presuppose?

Even Christians have remarkably odd notions about the afterlife, so let’s clear up a few things from the outset. My father is not a lost loved one. If anyone is in Christ they are now and perpetually and vitally alive. Dad’s not lost, we know right where to find him—in the very presence of the Lord in heaven. Secondly, my father is not gone, in the sense of ceasing to exist. He has simply gone on, like a ship goes over the horizon to a far destination. The fact that I can’t see him anymore here on this earth, says something about my limitations, not about his at this juncture. Thirdly, Dad has not gone from a greater form of existence to a lesser, quite the reverse. He has left the realm of suffering sin and sorrow, disease decay and death, which is this world, and he has gone to a realm where every tear is wiped from every eye, and all is well. As the resurrection of Jesus shows, God’s yes to life is louder than and triumphs over death’s no. Furthermore, Dad has not exchanged earthly excitement for heavenly boredom. He’s probably pretty busy right now with that good baritone singing the appropriate Advent carols and getting ready for a Christmas celebration up there even Myers Park can’t eclipse.

It has been said that the hammer shapes the hand of the one who uses it repeatedly. Similarly, a person is shaped and defined by those or that which they love. Some people love money, and their lives are shaped and defined in its pursuit. Sadly, money won’t love you back. Some people love fame, prestige, glory, and their lives are shaped and defined in its pursuit. Sadly, fame won’t love you back. Some people love power, control, and their lives are defined and shaped in its pursuit. But power won’t love you back. My father was like none of these persons, he never loved things and used people to get, them, but he was defined and shaped by the ones he loved—his Lord and Christ’s church, his wife, and children and grandchildren. His friends, and neighbors. His country, and especially his home state, the Old North State, and of course his beloved alma mater—Carolina. My father had a largeness of heart and a generosity of spirit like his Master, and he had plighted his troth to all those he loved, and that love was unconditional, unrelenting, unwavering, unending throughout his life.

We are here to celebrate the life and full promotion of my father into the living presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ this day. And while it may be bittersweet in oh so many ways, it should certainly be celebrated as my Dad knew in whom he believed, and he was persuaded that he had the gift of everlasting life. Life’s not too short, when it is everlasting, you know. How does one do justice to a life of 92 years full of incident and variety in a short span of time? It is like trying to sum up the varied and buried treasures in the Library of Congress. There are too many interesting things to tell, and too little time.

Shall I tell you about the adventures of his youth in Goldsboro like the time my father accidentally helped burn down Mr. Powell’s barn or the Saturday when he and his friend Billy climbed up into the steeple of the Primitive Baptist Church for a lark, only to discover—those Prims held church on Saturday, not Sunday? And when those church folks showed up and heard prowlers in the belfry they walked across the street to my dad’s house and had dad’s Mom call the police, not knowing who was up there? Shall I tell you about his many scouting adventures with Mr. Weston and others, a Mr. Weston who somehow Dad managed to persuade to allow me and some High Point Troop One boys into the good graces of so we could go with him and his Goldsboro boys to the 1965 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows N.Y.? Shall I tell you of the Thanksgiving in Statesville when Aunt Harriett had slaved long and hard over that turkey and accoutrements and ask Dad to say the Thanksgiving blessing and a little flustered he said “Dear Lord please pardon this food and bless our sins in Jesus’ name, Amen.” He would never live that one down. Should I sing you some of Dad’s old camp songs like “Oh Buck that Tally, Rooster Flink, Barnyard Stink…” I could regale you with many such fun details, but they would only reveal the fun and adventure loving side of the man which so endeared him to so many of us. But these would hardly encompass the real character and scope of who my father was.

My father was in so many respects a remarkable man. Born in 1916 and reared in Goldsboro North Carolina the son of a man who worked for the Southern Cotton Oil Company and a mother from diminutive Stonewall Mississippi, he grew up a son of the South where barbecue is hickory smoked pork, and Cheerwine is a soft drink, not a hard one, and you don’t have to order grits for breakfast in a Southern diner, they just come. He loved the Old North State, and he double-loved his University where he ran track and was a cheerleader—UNC-CH. Be prepared in a bit to avert your ears as I will be singing one of his favorite odes to the Heels in a moment, with apologies to James and other Duke or Wake or State grads here present. My father loved the history, the geography, the very landscape and contours of our state. I remember so many trips to Civil War battle fields, old churches, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the beach, beach, beach…. This was our home and it seemed a good a pleasant land, indeed it seemed to be the Southern part of heaven.

Shall I tell you about all those football and basketball games we went to, to see the Tar Heels, having the privilege of seeing the Tar Heels win four National Championships in basketball? I do still dimly remember Dad and I listening to the voice of the Tar Heels when I was six recount the miraculous 3 overtime victory over Wilt the Stilt Chamberlin of Kansas in Kansas for our first NCAA championship in 1957? No wonder he most often called me Sport—we shared so many sports moments together. Shall I tell you all those WWII stories he recounted to me about being in Germany and Czechoslovakia late in the war and seeing its horrors? I could tell you a lot of these stories, but in the end they would only give you a tiny glimpse of who he truly was.

Instead I want to tell you four things that are most revealing. My father, one hot day in 1968 or 69 whilst strongly disagreeing with me about the Vietnam War nonetheless went with me down to the Post Office on Green Street to pick up the conscientious objector papers, with me being the only non-Quaker who asked for them. Yes my father, a decorated veteran of WWII understood it was a matter of conscience and he loved and respected me even when he vigorously disagreed with me and tried to talk me out of it. I still have that form, as I never filled it out.

Secondly my father on his own birthday used to give others presents! “It is better to give than to receive” says Jesus, and my father practiced that in spades. He was all about loving self-sacrifice like Jesus, and just as he would have laid down his life for his country so he would willingly do so for his family or his Lord. In an age of egotism and ‘me first’ and narcissism he was a breath of fresh air, that smelled like the aroma of the Gospel to me.

Thirdly, my father was there every Sunday he was able with Mom in church. My daughter Christy tells me that three weeks ago when she was sitting vigil with Dad in the hospital Sunday morning rolled around, and Dad, even with all the tubes in him, sat up in bed, swung his legs off the bed, and said "It's Sunday isn't it, where are my clothes, we've got to get to church!" Christy gently explained that his clothes were at home. My folks taught Sunday school they did the every member canvas, they went on trips with adults plus and many other groups, for their personal lives revolved around the Lord and their family. My Dad was married to and loyal to my Mom for almost 60 years, and that my friends says everything about his character. He knew that fame is fleeting, wealth withers, but a person who reveres and serves the Lord and his people will live a rich and wonderful life. And so he did, indeed. Knowing all the trials and travails in Dad’s life, I am often reminded of Jimmy Stewart in that wonderful movie that plays at this time of year--- It’s a Wonderful Life. It is you know.

My father had gone off to Carolina, only to have a tragedy hit the family, when his father Ben Senior came down with pneumonia and died many years before his time. And so Dad, the eldest came home to support his Mom, his brother Pat, and Aunt Midgie, helping them to get on with their lives so they could go to college. He would not finish at Carolina until after WWII and it was hard after a long hiatus like that. For him there was no question but he would come home and help his family survive after the tragedy of losing a father many years too early. As Dad would say “it was the right thing to do.” It reminded me of the point in his memoirs where he fessed up to the police he and Billy had climbed up into that steeple that Saturday passing it off by saying “so of course when he asked we told him the truth.” That was my Dad, he didn’t just believe in the truth, he lived it.

So Dad, this song is for you “I’m a Tar Heel born, and a Tar Heel bred and the day I die I’m a Tar Heel dead, so its RA RA Carolina, Carolina….” Were my Dad here to day, he wouldn’t want all this fuss made over him. He was all about serving others, as Jesus once said…. “I did not come to be served but to serve and give my life a ransom for many.” It has been said that you become what you admire…. Well when I finally grow up, I want to be just like my Dad. My sister gave my Dad a paper weight that still sits on his desk—on it, it says “ I have a super hero, and he’s my Dad.”

“Blessed and holy are those who die in the Lord” AMEN


Marc Axelrod said...

This was a beautiful message. You are right. Your dad is not a lost loved one, he's a "found" loved one. Thanks for posting this touching eulogy.

I'm reading NT rhetoric and should have a brief review posted before long.

phil said...

That was certainly a memorable eulogy. I will probably never meet you in person in this life, and I never met your father either, but after reading that eulogy I feel like I have been a part of your family before. Thank you for sharing your heart and introducing me to a great man of God that is now with his Father! Peace to your family.

Rory said...

You've honored your father well. Blessed are those who die in the Lord indeed-

Sam Ochstein said...

Dr. Witherington, I'm sorry for the loss of your father. I lost my own father six years ago this past Friday. He was only 44, and I 25. Your Eulogy was moving and I appreciate you sharing it. It sounds like your father was a remarkable, Godly man.

Matt Wallis said...

Thank you for sharing your beautifully eloquent and personal thoughts and memories of your dad. You and your family will remain in my prayers. I am a better person for having known you and studied with you and I can better appreciate the person you have become because of your dad's influence. You are a richly blessed person. I appreciate your openness and honesty.
Matt Wallis

Crowm said...

Thanks for sharing. He was a special man. And you have a special way of writing about him.

I pray you and your family are blessed during this time.

MWT said...

Beautfully written. But, it makes me feel like a loser... I'm a father and, sadly, not anything like yours. I'm often cranky, selfish, inconsiderate, etc. - just about the opposite of how you describe your dad. What are my kids going to say about me one day? He was a run-of-the-mill sinner?!?!

Erstwhile Editor said...

Your eulogy for your father was inspiring, evocative and moving. The entire service, especially the selection of hymns, set exactly the tone I think he would have wanted, and I could only smile as I heard "Hark the Sound" on the carillon — a perfect recessional. I've sent your blog post to my children who could not be there but who knew and loved your father. I was intrigued to hear you say that he had written a memoir. I asked Pat, who is compiling his World War II memoir, if he knew his big brother was doing that, and he said he knew nothing of it. I'd love to hear more about your Dad's war years. I heard only the briefest outline from Pat. And Ginny is serious about getting the whole Witherington family together sometime. We look forward to a time when your mother can tell old stories for everyone's entertainment and enlightenment.

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cls said...

Thank you for sharing this eulogy with us. Your father sounds like a truly inspiring person.
God bless you and your family.

Carrie said...

Dr. Witherington -

Sorry to hear about the loss of your dad.

The eulogy was beautiful, and I praise God that your dad is with our Lord right now!


Saleema said...

Your father sounds like such a cool guy. I just stumbled on your blog. May he rest in Peace with God. In Islam we say "To God we belong and to Him shall we return."

I just happened to stumble on your blog and I think I will be visiting on a regular basis now.

Laura Roberts said...

What a wonderful tribute! I was so sorry to learn your Dad passed away. He was nearly like a family member to all of us. Our Dad was so lucky to have your Dad as a lifelong friend. They shared many good times together -- and I was fortunate to enjoy their company at many football games in Chapel Hill. I appreciated your Dad's terrific sense of humor and his great laugh!

Kathy Howell said...

Dear Ben,
Thank you for posting these words about your father, his life was certainly a remarkable one. Please accept my condolences on the absence of your father from this earth. You and your family are in my prayers.

Kathy Howell