My top ten “Dad” memories

After the recent death of my 95 year old father, I stopped to list my top ten memories of him. Most of them are from many years ago, but they are all vivid in my mind.

10 – My Dad usually got paid on Fridays, which for him meant going to the bank to cash his check. I remember watching him divide up that cash into various envelopes for church, food, mortgage, clothes, etc. He was raised and lived most of his life in a cash world without credit (or credit card debt). When I read about money-management systems that emulate cash envelopes, I always think about Dad. He was either ahead of his time, or there truly was nothing new under the sun.

9 – One summer, instead of going somewhere for vacation, Dad put an above ground pool in our backyard. Since much of our yard was on a giant hill – great for sledding in the winter, tough to mow in the summer – it was a major project to level out a 15 foot diameter level circle for the pool. But we loved it! You can do a lot of laps in a 15 foot pool without surfacing to take a breath. You can do a lot of snorkling too. I believe that was one of our best summer vacations!

8 – My Dad was an electrical engineer in the 50’s through the 70’s, which meant he went to work in a white short-sleeved shirt and tie. My mom would send his work shirts out to be washed, bleached, starched and pressed at the local cleaners. When they picked them up and brought them home, each was folded around a rectangular piece of cardboard. As kids, we loved those pieces of cardboard for drawing and coloring.

7 – In the summer, Dad would often sit on the back steps and smoke a cigar. Usually a Phillies blunt. Sometimes I would sit out there with him and just talk about whatever, throw a ball for the dog, or just watch the sunset yield to the night. Just before the ash fell, he would tap it into his palm and toss it out into the grass. It was all about the timing.

6 – One summer, when I was in elementary school, Dad went to a salvage yard and bought a whole bunch of wooden planks. After we pulled all the old nails out of those planks, he helped me and my neighborhood friends build a “fort” at the bottom of the hill in our backyard. It certainly wasn’t fancy, but it did have a window and door, shingles on the roof, a dark green coat of paint, and a door. My friends and I spent a lot of time playing in that fort.

5 – My Dad had played some high school baseball and had a glove from the 1930’s that was much different from the baseball gloves of the 1960’s and beyond. The baseball gloves of my generation were huge baskets, but his was little bigger than his hand. His glove meant you had to use two hands to catch. The gloves of my generation let you use one hand to grab the nastiest grounders. Dad spent a lot of time teaching me to throw and catch, a skill that kept me busy with friends for many years.

4 – My Dad commuted to work in Camden, NJ and Philadelphia, so he was usually the first one up in the morning. His go to breakfast was Wheaties. Every morning, he would be up about 5:30 am he would be up eating a bowl of Wheaties with milk before he got dressed and caught the train to work. I remember getting up early just so I could sit with him and have a bowl of cereal and enjoy his company before he went off to to work and I walked to school.

3- Speaking of vegetables, Dad always had an all-star garden. He grew tomatoes, peas, green beans, peas, beets, carrots, kohlrabi and radishes. In front of our house, though, he planted and cared for beautiful flower gardens. From tulip and hyacinth bulbs in the spring to gorgeous azaleas and mums, the front our house was a gallery of color.

2 – My Mom was a pretty good piano player, and she would sometimes play classic sing along tunes that my Dad would harmonize to. The song I especially remember is “Moonlight Bay.” Sitting in church next to Dad, we learned to harmonize to many church hymns.

1 – When my brother and sister were old enough, Mom went to work on weekends. She was a nurse and picked up weekend shifts at the local hospital. My Dad had to make supper and feed us. His go to meal was Hamburger Helper, or sometimes, just browned hamburger and brown gravy. We ate this along with bounty from his garden, which usually included green beans, tomatoes, radishes, kohlrabi, carrots and in the early spring, lettuce. He also made some instant mashed potatoes for the gravy. We grew up thinking he was a pretty good cook!

There you go – my memories of Dad, each of which brings a smile to my face!

The “Manager’s Special”

After I recently booked a flight on an airline website, they gave me the option of renting a car, which I would need for a few days at my destination. To my surprise, the most affordable option that popped up was from Hertz. Usually they are the highest priced rentals, so I usually go with Alamo, Thrifty, Budget, whatever. I was taken in by a nice low daily rate, and also the promise of the “Manager’s Special.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded good. I booked a car for a few days.

When I got to the airport and went to the rental counter, everything was in order and I was directed to the area where I could pick any car I wanted from section 3. I walked through aisles and aisles of cars in sections 1 and 2, and finally arrived at section three, where just three cars were parked.

The first one I went to, a Hyundai Accent, didn’t look too bad. But when I walked around, I saw it had a cracked tail light. So I decided to check out the small Toyota just a few spots away.

It was an iA. Never saw one of those before. When I tried the doors, though, they were all locked. The keys were inside the car, but I couldn’t get in. I looked around to see if anyone could help me. The little rental hut for Hertz was about a mile away, and there was no other human being in sight. So forget that one.

I still had a third choice. An even small white Toyota Yaris was parked at the end of the row. It was a little smaller than I wanted, but it was just for a few days, so I figured why not. When I reached in to get the key, it was just that, a key. No fob, no automatic locking doors. Roll up windows, too. When I tried the key in the hatch to put my suitcase in, the key wouldn’t even turn in the lock. My experience just kept getting better and better.

I went back to the first car and made sure the tail light still worked. I also made sure to show it to the attendant at the exit gate. She didn’t seem all that concerned. She made a note on the rental agreement, and without a smile said, “Have a nice day.”

Now that I understand how the “Manager’s Special” works, I’m pretty sure I’ll be passing up that offer in the future.

What do you say at your father’s funeral?

I was the third of three preachers at my Dad’s funeral. My son Adam (pastor at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church and School, Dallas, TX) went first, followed by my brother Jim (Pastor at St. Athanasius Lutheran Church, Vienna, VA), and then me. Here’s what I said.

“[The women] departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” (Matthew 28:8,9).

That’s a game-changer, isn’t it? It’s a life-changing moment for the women who came to the tomb early on the first day of the week. It’s a life-changing moment for Jesus’ disciples who were hiding in an upper room. It’s a life-changing moment for us who have gathered here today in the name of the one – Jesus – who met them and said, “Greetings!”

Just like us, those women and disciples were dealing with death. On Friday, Jesus had been crucified. Some had heard the sound of nails driven through his hands and feet into the wood of the cross. Some had been there through the three hours of darkness. Some had been there to hear his last words and witness his last breath. Others had wrapped his body in linen and laid it in a tomb. A few witnessed the rolling of a huge stone across the opening of the tomb, to seal it shut. It was a dark day. A sad day. A tear-filled day. A Friday.

But these words are from Sunday, the first day of a new week. The earth shakes. An angel comes rolls away the stone from the tomb. The guards pass out. And the angel says to the women, “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.” (28:6). The tomb no longer contains a corpse. It is empty. Jesus is no longer dead. He is alive. Jesus’ words about death and resurrection are no longer a prediction. They are now a reality.

This moment really does change everything.

  • Jesus is clearly not just a man or a great teacher. He is truly the eternal Son of God.
  • We can believe every word Jesus says.
  • We are not simply sinners who will always fall short of God’s glory. Jesus died in our place to pay for our sins. We are forgiven. We’ve been declared righteous. We will share his glory.
  • The grave cannot hold God’s people. Not for very long. “For the Lord himself will [one day] descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thess. 4:16).

These truths certainly changed everything for Dad.

  • Baptized ninety-five years ago, he became a child of God.
  • He sought and found the truth in a lifetime of hearing and reading God’s Word.
  • Words of absolution from his pastors (and his sons) continually and consistently announced  God’s forgiveness for all his sins.
  • And now he waits, along with us, for that day, for that voice, for that trumpet and for the resurrection!

These truths have certainly changed things for me! Just about every day I look at the picture of Mom and Dad holding me on my baptism day, September 29, 1957, and remember that I too am a child of God.

Next weekend, when I am back in the pulpit, I’ll be preaching about God’s discipline. The writer of Hebrews says that’s how you know you’re a child of God. Discipline was a little bit different when I was growing up, but Dad never hesitated to remind me that I was his dearly loved son!

I’m not sure how he did it, but somehow Dad got us to fight over who got to read the bible at family devotions. We had to keep a calendar to keep the peace. I don’t remember ever doubting that God’s Word was true.

One of the greatest gifts Dad ever gave was making sure we met Jesus on the way. In the Word. In worship. In song. In prayer. In life. And in death.

Very few people will ever hear of Dad’s faith. Yet his quiet faithfulness, left a legacy. Three pastors – so far. Three generations of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren – all zealous for the Lord. What a great gift to receive. What a great gift to pass along. And what a great gift to celebrate today!  

Preached at the funeral for William Douthwaite, Jr. (1924-2019) at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Ridley Park, PA on Friday, August 16, 2019. The entire service can be viewed here.

Finally, a funeral

Funeral for William Douthwaite, Jr.
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Ridley Park, PA

We had been getting ready for this funeral for three years. That’s how long it had been since my Dad fell, his kidneys failed, and my brother, sister and I gathered to say goodbye to him at age 92. By the time I got there, though, he had rebounded and returned home after a few days in the hospital. Rather than a funeral, we started making arrangements for assisted living.

Two years ago, still in the memory care unit of a very nice assisted living facility, Dad stopped eating. Rather than another trip to the hospital to find out what was wrong, we admitted Dad into hospice so he could stay where he was. Once again, we gathered for what we thought would be the end of his ninety-three year earthly journey. However, his appetite soon returned, especially for ice cream and other desserts, and we did not need to make any arrangements.

This summer, after about three days into the Dallas portion of my vacation, I got the call that Dad had a fever that wouldn’t break, and was less and less lucid each day. The hospice nurse predicted he would only last a few days, if not a few hours. I quickly booked a flight as my sister boarded a train, and we once again gathered to be with Dad.

This time was indeed different. Dad was on oxygen, was not responsive, and indeed looked like he was at the end. My sister and I spend three days there, watching and listening to his rhythmic breathing. We read to him, sang some hymns, and agreed that even though this might be the end, we would never bet against Dad recovering.

At the age of ninety-five, though, his body just couldn’t fight the infection. No eating or drinking for days took its toll on his strength. But not till he stuck around for another six days. I had returned to Dallas and then home. My sister had gone home and returned over the weekend.

The call from my brother came early Monday morning, August 12. We had gotten home late, so we didn’t hear the phone buzz the first ten times. Finally, I heard something about 4 am, and my brother confirmed that Dad had died shortly after two, with him, my sister and sister-in-law holding his hand. Calm, peaceful, and pain-free, accompanied by families on this side and angels on the other. Not a bad way to go at all.

Over the next few days, my brother made arrangements for the funeral that had long ago been planned for Dad’s long time church in Ridley Park, PA and internment next to Mom at a cemetery in Aston. I booked flights for my wife and I, my son, and one of my daughters who brought her youngest along.

That Friday (August 16), a few family, friends and church members gathered to worship, remember Dad’s life, and look forward to the resurrection. My son, a pastor from Dallas, my brother, a pastor from Vienna, VA and myself co-officiated the service and all took a turn preaching. My sister played the organ and my nieces played violin. It was a unique and fitting moment for a man whose quiet faithfulness had left a legacy of three pastors (so far), and three generation of faithful children, spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When you live to be ninety-five, you outlive most of your family and friends. Dad was the youngest of seven children. His last remaining sibling had died some fifteen years before. Five of my cousins who were still in the area joined us that day. About half-a-dozen members of the church who had known Dad were still around and attended the service. A few folks from my brother’s church and some area clergy friends also attended.

While neither my brother nor I wanted to preach at my Mom’s funeral fourteen years ago, we both wanted to speak for Dad’s. I didn’t know how I would feel. You never really do, until you’re in the moment. My voice cracked just once, when I spoke of Dad, along with us, waiting for “that day, for that voice, for that trumpet and for the resurrection!” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). My brother Jim spoke on Dad’s favorite verse from Romans 8, that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. My son Adam reminded us that even though our hearts and minds are filled with great memories, the best is yet to come when we get to be with the Lord.

My brother and I draped Dad’s casket with the funeral pall as my son reminded us of Dad’s baptism. We took turns reading scripture. Isaiah 55:6-13; Philippians 1:18-26; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 28:1-10. We preached around some great hymns. “For all the saints,” “The Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want,” “My hope is built on nothing less,” “I know that my Redeemer lives,” and “Jesus lives, the vict’ry’s won.” It sounds like a lot, but only lasted a little more than an hour.

The procession to the cemetery had to navigate some interesting interstate traffic, but we all made it. After a brief committal and military honors, many of us gathered at a nearby restaurant for lunch, memories, laughter and a few pictures.

I had to get my son back to the airport for an evening flight home. My brother’s family, my sister and my family then hung out at our hotel suite that evening. That night was much more relaxed.

And just like that, it was over. Everyone returned home safely the next day.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel. I don’t feel sad, but I know I’ll miss Dad. Our recent visits weren’t much. It’s not like I’ll miss our conversations. He typically sat and snoozed while I sat and visited with him. I’m a bit relieved. I didn’t get up there to visit him very often, and I always felt a little guilt about that. My brother, on the other hand, was there every day. This will leave a bigger void for him. We didn’t shed that many tears. Smiles and laughter predominated those last few days and the funeral service. Dad always made us laugh before, so why not now?

Most of all I’m just thankful. I’m thankful for what he taught me, for my memories of him, and for the faith he and Mom passed along to us kids.

Spelunking at Home Depot

I finally had enough of a weekend free to put up the backsplash in our kitchen. It was neither a huge nor complicated job, and I had done some floor tile before, but never tackled a backsplash.

My wife had helped me pick out the tile which was more like a mosaic of rough stones. I got to Home Depot, found the tile, and started to count them out. I needed twenty-three pieces, but only found thirteen on the shelf. Come one, there must be more back there. It was on the very bottom shelf, so I stooped down and peered into the abyss. Was that another box back there? I couldn’t quite see. I lit up my phone light and shined it in, and yes, it was another box of that tile!

OK, now I have to get it out of there. Surely I can find someone to help me. I looked up and down several aisles and of course, saw no one in an orange apron. I guess I’m going to have to do this myself.

I got down on my stomach and crawled into the space between two other stacks of tile. Not much room to spare. Thank you paleo and CrossFit for helping me shave off a couple of pounds. I got all the way in up to my waist and got a hold of the box. It was a whole box of ten tiles, still wrapped in plastic, exactly the number I needed! As I wriggled out, I wondered how many had walked by wondering what I was doing. I expected a tap on the leg and the question, “Do you need some help?” But as I extracted myself, I was still the only living soul in the aisle.

Mission accomplished. Backsplash done. Not bad for my first time.

“Got any nails?”

A man was standing out in front of our house the other day, and I knew exactly why he was there. The truck pulling a trailer filled with extension ladders said it all before he even spoke. He and his small crew were out looking for work trimming palm trees.

He had rung our doorbell, but I had disconnected that a long time ago so the sound wouldn’t wake up napping grandchildren. So I walked out front and we began talking about my four palms badly in need of a trim. After he made an offer, I said, “Can you do it today?” He quickly replied yes, and we shook on the deal.

Now my front yard palms are well over twenty feet tall, requiring a much bigger ladder and a lot more courage to climb than I possess to maintain. I was really interested to see how they would get up there. The three man team had clearly worked together for a while. One guy set up the ladder and climbed to the top. The second disposed of the branches he cut off. The third owned the company and he watched while they did the work.

Back to guy number one. After leaning what looked like a twenty-four foot ladder against the tallest tree, he started up a chainsaw, hung it from his belt, and started climbing as it idled. At the top, he belted himself to the tree, and then quickly trimmed the tree to a neat “ten and two” (think clock). I thought the guy at the bottom would load up the trailer with branches. Nope. He just dragged them off into the adjoining vacant lot. I don’t know it you’re supposed to do that, but I didn’t ask any questions.

While all this is going on, my across the street neighbor is hauling some trash out to the curb. The third guy picked up a piece of plywood and proceeded to use it to repair a hole in the bed of his trailer. He yelled to me, “Got any nails?” I did and brought a box over to him. With a smile, he said, “My man!” and took a handful to fix his trailer.

When he was done with the trailer repair, he sat on my front porch with me. He asked for a Coke. All we had was Lacroix. He was thankful. I offered three, but he said the other guys wouldn’t like it. He asked me how long I had been in the house. I’ve been here twenty three years, but he has lived in Flagler County his whole life, sixty-one years, the same age as me.

He then told me about his first job in Flagler County when he was sixteen. Back then there were few roads through what is now our city. He and two friends were looking for work and came across a construction site. His friends were bolder than he was and went right to the foreman. When they asked for jobs, he asked, “What can you do?” They both said, “We’re operators.” He handed each a spade and showed them where to start digging. Then he asked this man, “What can you do?” He looked at his friends and said, “I’m not an operator!” The boss pointed to a truck and said, “Can you drive that?” He said, “Yes.” “Ok, pull it around here.” He did and that was his job. His friends all had blistered hands while he got to drive the truck.

My palm trees were trimmed and my yard was all cleaned up in about 30 minutes. The trees looked great! What a difference. And what a nice afternoon talking with a few guys just out making a living.

A big slice of today

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I had the first appointment of the day when I recently took my car in on a Friday morning for some routine maintenance. With computer, journal and coffee in hand, I found a table when I could read, write and wait. Other than a few service people, the place was mostly empty. Over the next hour or so, I watched as the receptionist, sales, finance, managers and, eventually, a few customers arrived.

As I eavesdropped on casual conversations about their plans for the weekend, one outburst caught my attention. “I’m ready for this day to be over!” He passed by so quickly I never got to find out anymore details. But I thought to myself, “What a dismal way to begin your day!” The sun is barely up, and you are already yearning for dusk.

Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe he had a funeral to attend, a root canal scheduled or knew he was about to get chewed out by the boss. So he just wanted to get it over with.

I wonder if he’s the only one. Are there others who just want to get life over with? What happens to your soul when each day crawls by with nothing but boredom, pain or loneliness?

When I catch myself just wanting it to be over (and yes, sometimes that happens), I remind myself that I really don’t know what this day will be like. I don’t know who I’ll meet, what I’ll learn, or what will arrive in the mail. I have to remember that what I dread usually only takes up a small slice of a day rather than defining the whole thing. Most compelling stories begin with a person with a problem who learns something about themselves and creates new possibilities. I want to be a part of such stories, so I don’t want the day to be over until I’ve experienced all of it. In other words, give me a big slice of today!

How about some grace?

So, if I weren’t a pastor and I went to a church somewhere, what would I expect of the pastor?

I think that’s a heck of a question, one worth asking from time to time when I wonder where my time went. Am I doing more than I need to do? If so, then why? How much time am I spending on unimportant tasks? Why am I doing that?

OK, here is my list. Yours may be different, but that’s OK.

I would expect the pastor to proclaim God’s Word to me. Preach the word. What is God saying to us through his word right now? I expect that the pastor has studied and prepared some good news for the congregation from scripture.

I would want the pastor to be a regular person. Wife, kids, hobbies, joys and frustrations. If I stop by his house, it’s not perfectly kept. If he comes to my house, he’s right at home.

I would want the pastor to baptize, marry, and bury those whom I love. In those very special, emotional moments, please remind me that God is a part of those moments, too.

I would want the pastor to project grace. I don’t need someone to tell me what to do or how to do it. I already have plenty of people in my life who do that. But grace is hard to find. Maybe the pastor can bring it.

That doesn’t sound too tough, does it? Yet, when you are the pastor, you feel like everyone expects a whole lot more from you. You feel like everyone is expecting you to

  • make the church grow
  • keep the kids engaged
  • attend any and every meeting
  • bless things (crocheted prayer shawls, bibles, necklaces, urns, bricks, cross necklaces…whatever)
  • keep the church sanctuary at a comfortable temperature
  • go after those people who don’t even want to be a part of the church
  • make people behave better
  • tell people how they ought to vote at election time
  • visit people in the hospital who didn’t tell you they were in the hospital because they thought somehow you knew
  • perform a funeral for someone who never came to church but was a pretty good person most of the time
  • conduct a wedding for a couple from out of town who wanted to be married on the beach because you live at the beach
  • remember who can’t drink wine, eat gluten, or likes to drink from the common cup

I don’t know if everyone really expects those things. It’s just that I think people expect those things. We should be able to reach a compromise here. If you expect grace and I expect grace then I can let go of many expectations and simply give you the best gift of all. Grace!

Is it warm in here, or is it me?

Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash

As you know (or maybe don’t know) anything can happen on a Sunday morning. As a pastor, you want your Sunday mornings to be uneventful. Should the Holy Spirit choose to blow through and dramatically change someone’s life, I’ll go with it. But in general, I prefer no surprises.

Especially the physical plant surprises that might crop up at any moment. In Connecticut, the worst thing that could happen in the winter was no heat. In Florida, however, throughout the year, the one thing you don’t want to encounter is no air conditioning.

I arrived a little earlier than usual last Sunday morning. I was staving off high-pollen laryngitis and wanted to give my voice a little more time to wake up. It was gravely, but would endure the morning with lots of water and no singing. After running through my sermon, I noticed that the sanctuary was strangely silent as six-thirty AM came and went. Usually, the big AC units kick on at 6:30 to begin cooling down the room for worship. Especially on a humid February morning.

I checked everything I knew how to check. As I often tell my leaders, I barely passed my HVAC class at the seminary. I just knew it was going to be warm if something didn’t happen soon.

About 7 am I called the AC guys. I know that I woke up the owners wife who was handling the phone that morning. They would send someone out.

As the musicians arrived to warm up and early arriving worshipers arrived, the worship folders doubled as fans to cool a quickly warming room. About five minutes before worship was about to being, an AC tech showed up and pondered the mysteries of the box which controlled everything. All I could do was remind myself that it wasn’t that hot yet. Surely he would figure it out soon.

About 30 minutes later, I could feel cold air beginning to circulate through the worship space. Thank you, Lord! It’s not like we can crack a window or anything. We opted out of that when we built. As cool air began to course through the room, those fanning themselves soon put their sweaters on. Feast or famine. Sahara or Arctic, I guess. By grace alone we made it through the morning.

Today (Monday morning), I arrived at the church to begin another week, and noticed that all the big units were running. Still running. I looked at the status display, and it read, “Forced schedule.” Now what do I do? A little later a tech showed up and explained what the other guy did and what to do next time. It’s not an elegant solution, but it will work.

I have plenty on my mind every Sunday morning. I’d like to focus on preaching and teaching. In my dreams! I usually have to deal with electrical (the lights won’t come on), acoustical (my microphone is popping), atmospherical (it’s kind of cold in here, pastor) and medical issues (someone passes out in church). I hope you’ll forgive me if I lose my train of thought.