Don’t be sorry.

When my Dad died three weeks ago, the news quickly spread and I cannot begin to tell you how many people said to me, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

I understand the sentiment behind those words. In fact, I’ve spoken them to those grieving the death of a loved one. But as I heard those words spoken to me, I thought, “Why are you sorry?” It’s not like you did something wrong. Are you sorry that I have to go through this? Are you sorry that I will no longer be able to go and visit my father? What is it that you regret?

I’m pondering this because I really didn’t feel that sad about my Dad’s death. Mom died fourteen years earlier, and I know that he’s been lonely since then. He lost some of the ability to care for himself about six years ago when we (his children) sold his house and moved him in with my brother. His kidneys failed three years ago, but after we gathered to be with him, he recovered. He didn’t want to eat anymore about two years ago, but after we gathered to be with him, and with a few bowls of ice cream, he regained his appetite. So in some ways, it’s been a long, three-year goodbye. Rather than being sorry he’s gone, I’m actually a bit relieved. I’m glad he fought the good fight of faith. I’m glad he finished the race (for him it was a marathon!) and finally crossed the finish line. I think we should be cheering rather than crying!

The last time I went to see Dad, he was basically unconscious for three straight days. We talked to him. We talked about him. We read scripture and sang songs for him. Not much response. I couldn’t help but wonder, “How long?” You just never know. A body created to live isn’t going to easily give up. All you can do is wait.

My memories of Dad are good ones. I remember the things we did together, the things he taught me, and the home and education he provided for me. I treasure the name he gave me (he was Junior, so I got to be the Third). Instead of feeling like I lost something, I feel like I gained so much. His ninety-five years were filled with family, love, church, work and hobbies. Rather than feeling empty, I feel so full of all the things Dad gave me.

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived near Dad. I’ve lived most of my life pretty far away and only got to see him a few times a year. So I don’t miss his presence, not like those who daily spent time with him. Instead, his death makes me more aware of all the parts of him that shape me.

A few folks have shared with me that they were a wreck for months after their father died. Some can barely hold back the tears when a departed loved one’s birthday comes around, or the anniversary of a death. I feel bad that I don’t feel worse, if that makes any sense. Maybe it’s my British (not Vulcan) heritage that enables me to contain my emotion.

The one thing that occasionally brings a tear to my eye is the mental image of my Dad seeing Jesus face to face. That had to be and is going to be the best moment ever, and that’s what makes emotion swell up in me. Oh, and imagining the shout of the archangel, the sound of the trumpet and then the resurrection. I always tear up when I think of that day. But rather than sadness, it is overwhelming gladness.

So you don’t have to be sorry. You can cheer along with me. You can be thankful along with me. You can share that joy with me.

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!

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.

Lunch with my dad and his friends

At the end of last month, I got to spend a few day with my dad. If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you know he lives on a memory care floor in a very nice assisted living facility in Springfield, VA. I not only got to visit with him for a couple o days, but also got to have lunch with him and some of his friends.

I flew up early on a Tuesday morning, took the Metro to Springfield and walked up the hill to his residence. On my way in, I mentioned to the front desk that I wanted to eat lunch with dad. Eight bucks. No problem; I had a little cash in my pocket. I was all set. That evening, my brother was surprised that I had to pay. They usually offered him lunch when he sat next to dad. Sure enough, the next day, I simply sat there and they brought me lunch. Sweet.

Dad wasn’t awake much the first day and only ate soup and ice cream on the second day. I, one the other hand, had a nice grilled ham and cheese sandwich on my first day there, and some really good lasagna on day two, plus much of dad’s turkey reuben.

But the best part was sitting there with all the other people at dad’s table. Across the way from me was Joe, who didn’t eat much, but often looked and me and smiled. Next to him was Irene, who kept trying to get Joe to eat some of her food. On the second day, she poured her soup into her juice glass and drank it. When one of the caregivers asked, “What are you drinking?” I explained that it was her soup. Both of them just smiled. Hey, when you’re that old and in a place like that, why not?

To my right was Bob, who though most of the food was so-so, even though he ate all of it. Next to him was Millie, who ate her lunch very slowly and deliberately. I must have looked young to her. She asked me, “So how do you like your classes?” At the end of the table was Glenn, who I later found out had been there as long as my dad, close to two years. It took a while, but he ate every bit of his lunch.

In many ways it is an alternate reality. These beautiful, sweet and wonderful folks welcomed me into their world. They graciously made room for me at their table, shared their food with me and accepted me with no reservations. It was a liberating moment, for no expectations were thrust upon me. All I had to do was enjoy my lunch.

I needed that moment. Not just to be with my dad, but to be with them. Life is so much more than all the stuff I have on my mind. Sometimes it’s just about lunch.

You can be there.

It’s been about three months since I’ve seen my dad. My brother gave me a heads up last week that he thought dad was slowing down. Sleeping more, eating less, not sick, just wearing out. Since I was going up to northern VA, i took time one morning to drive about 2 hours to see him.

My brother was right. Dad was different. There but not really there. I could only keep him awake for about five minutes at a time. I showed him pictures of the great-grandkids, read with him, drew a picture on his white board, but he quickly dozed off each time. So my visit became more of me just being there. Ironically, that’s all dad could do, too. Just be there. 

I thought a lot about that on my way home. Is just “being there” a good thing or a bad thing? We spend a lot of time telling people in the church and community, “Don’t just sit there; do something!” Yet there are times when simply being present is not just meaningful, but is everything. 

I’ve heard some describe this as “ministry of presence.” Maybe there’s not much you can do. There aren’t any profound words to speak. There’s nothing you can bring. But you can be there.

You can be there when your child looks up in the stands or out into the crowd. You can be there when someone comes home. Or when it’s time for them to leave. You can be there when they open their eyes. Or when they close them (maybe for the last time). 

You can be there because it’s not good to be alone (you or them). 

Things I learned from my dad

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Dad and I – August 7, 2017

Having spent more time with Dad these past few years has given me time to talk about the past with him, look at pictures of family, and remember the things my he taught me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve answered the question, “How did you learn to do that?” with “My Dad taught me.”

Dad taught me

  • How to throw, catch and hit a baseball.
  • How to keep score at a baseball game. (We went to a game about once a year at Connie Mack stadium in Philadelphia.)
  • How to drive.
  • How to drive a car with manual transmission. (My first few cars had a stick.)
  • How to tune up a car (When cars had distributors, points and carburetors.)
  • How to do a brake job. (Again, when cars were a bit simpler to maintain yourself.)
  • How to plant, weed and harvest a garden.
  • How to play pinochle. And double-deck pinochle.
  • How to sing and harmonize. (My mom would play piano and we would sing in harmony together. We sang a lot of parts in church, too.)
  • How to hang dry wall and mud it.
  • How to prep and paint walls and woodwork.
  • How to wire basic electrical circuits. (Dad was an electrical engineer by trade.)
  • How to solder.
  • How to make Hamburger Helper. (When we got older and my mom went back to work as a nurse, she would work weekend shifts when my dad was home. We had Hamburger Helper for supper about 90% of the time on Saturdays and Sundays.)
  • How to be there for all your kids’ events. (I can’t remember a concert or other event he didn’t attend.)
  • How to build a fort. (When I was about 9, he bought a whole pile of scrap wood and let me and my friends build a “fort” at the bottom of the back yard.)
  • How to eat Wheaties. (For most of my childhood, dad ate a bowl of Wheaties with milk for breakfast before he left for work.)
  • How to eat sardines. (He always spread them on white bread.)
  • Hot to tie a tie.
  • How to be faithful (to God, to wife and to family.)

That’s a pretty decent start. I’ll be back to add more from time to time.

Thanks, Dad!

Two fingers with Dad

FullSizeRender (1)At the breakfast table this morning, Dad held out the pinky and middle finger of his right hand, holding the ring finger in with his thumb, looked at me and said, “When you order two finger of something, do it like this.”

Good advice, Dad. But where did that come from? I’ve never seen you drink more than a glass of wine. Now you’re sharing some drinking hacks with me. I’m going to remember that one.

It’s been than kind of a morning. The night nurse told us he didn’t sleep at all last night. Sitting at the kitchen table, he suddenly began talking about his graduation from high school (1942) and then his job at the mill (loading up carpet for shipping) until Uncle Sam summoned him for service in the Army Air Corps (1943-44). He then marveled at the good education he got at Villanova after his return, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

“Yeah, I’ve come a long way since Smedley Park.” Smedley Park, now a very nice recreation are in Delaware County, PA, was the boyhood home of my dad and his family. Back then, it was where he and his brother Tommy hunted rabbit. Dad then mentioned how they got water to the house. They pumped water all the way up the hill from the spring on the other side of the railroad tracks. From there, gravity took over and carried water down to the house.

I always learn something new from and about Dad whenever I come up to visit and help take care of him. Definitely worth the airfare.

Top ten ministry moments – #1: “Pastor Dad”

Finally, here’s the one you’ve been waiting for. My number one ministry moment, though, is actually a series of moments when being a dad intersected with being a pastor and I had the unique privilege of baptizing, confirming, marrying and ordaining my children. Continue reading

Pretty sneaky, Dad

If you’ve been reading my posts lately, you know I’ve been spending a lot of time with my Dad, who, as far as we can tell, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. One of the perks of this experience has been the chance to spend time with my brother and sister. But when the call came that Dad might be cashing in his chips, we converged.

We hadn’t been doing much of that lately. Continue reading