“Longing . . . for What?”: A Memorial Message

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I’m not going to get into the habit of posting sermons on the Pastors Network, but I believe certain pastoral moments call for exceptions. Recent events in our community have provided deep challenges for families and friends of persons who have died. Two weeks ago I posted the sermon presented at the funeral of young man who took his own life. Many have commented personally to me that was a helpful element in the stream of pastoral care in which we as pastors and members are all involved.

Today I post—again with names changed—the message I presented a few days ago following the death of a senior who joined our community for the last two years and his last stop on his journey on earth. “Tony” was a maddeningly complex person, whose story I rehearse in the light of Paul’s own autobiographical revelations in Philippians 1:12-26, 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 and Romans 8.

I am grateful to his family for their urging and permission to widen the circle of their mourning and their comfort with this message. I hope this can be a helpful contribution to our ministries, to pastoral and congregational life—because we are all much more alike than we might like to admit. If you don’t know what I mean, read Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 2 for a big, broad hint!

“Tony, how shall we remember you? As the man of who yearned like the Paul of Philippians 1, longing to be with the Lord, but willing to be here, to use every minute, make as many connections with as many people as possible every day of the week and twice on Sunday?

“Or should we remember you like the Paul of 2 Corinthians 4 as the “jar of clay” or as the Paul of Romans 8 who wanted to do good, but didn’t do it, instead often beyond your own will, wandered elsewhere?

“Which of those men were you, are you, Tony? How do we remember you, celebrate you, keep loving you? Sometimes it was so hard really to know you.”

Family—children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews—of Tony, friends of Tony, which is the real of those three Pauls we have heard about? Which of those three Tonys is the real one? Sometimes it was so hard to know. How shall we remember Tony?

I found out reading the obituary that Tony had two names—Tony, as I knew. Teunis, the Dutchman, as I didn’t know. There was so much I and others didn’t know about Tony.

But that brings us to probably the most important question of this afternoon and for all our days, really. This is not about Tony. It is about us and how we relate to each other, to God. Which of those persons we read from Paul’s letters are all or any of us? How do we know ourselves?

We can’t pick just one Tony. We ourselves are not just one of those people whom Paul describes as himself at different times in Philippians, 2 Corinthians and Romans. Paul was at one time, many times, all of those persons, whether he liked it or not. He was honest–and still today he tells us God’s Word about himself, about Tony, about ourselves.

I know I sometimes long to be with the Lord. More often, though, I’d rather stay here for a long time; I like my life here. Too often the good I want to do, I don’t; the evil I don’t want to think about or do, I do anyway. Lots of times I try to make everything look or feel OK, at least on the surface, even when so much is NOT OK.

So here’s the question: Who isn’t both a good and a wretched person? We are all a mix of all three, sometimes so, so closely together, sometimes so mixed up. Who will deliver us, wretched people that we honestly are, from the body of this death? The same One who has delivered once and for all Tony. Thanks be to God, though, for Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Ultimately, always, it’s never all about us, was never all about Tony. It was and is always about God—through Jesus Christ, our Lord. But we’re always in relation to each other and to God—as was Tony.

I and most people from this community have known Tony for less than two years. Yet from what I have heard from family and friends, most of us came to know Tony more or less in similar ways to your own experiences and lives with him over much longer times and places.

Born Teunis near the beginning of the Great Depression, Tony couldn’t have had an easy time of it as a boy. You children have described his father as prosperous, but a hard man. He was not a kind person. He always drove Tony, made impossible demands, rarely accepted him, often shamed him. That sort of virtual rejection from a parent, whose love should be unconditional, harms anyone deeply and for life. You describe Tony as always longing, yearning to belong, wanting to look good, but not always knowing how to make that happen or accept it and deepen when it did happen.

I can’t speak for anyone else or from anyone else’s history, but we do know here that Tony found easy and pretty constant acceptance. Is it right to say he finally developed a sense of belonging that some say he rarely found elsewhere? Maybe Tony was in a position at this late point in his life when some of those flawed relationships from his past had tempered him so that he could forge new relationships here for nearly two pretty good years.

What didn’t he do while he was here?! Tony first eagerly bent my ear for two hours at Tim Hortons one January or February morning in 2009. I learned about his cancer, his first marriage and his wife’s early death; about his second marriage and the 20 some years of mixed goodness and not a little pain. I heard about his and Sarah’s years doing volunteer mission work with YWAM.

Now, that was one relationship, one work project that must have worked well for a long, long time–eight years, I think. I know from experience that YWAM—Youth with a Mission—is pretty rigorous and demanding about the people it allows to be part of their mission and training programs. Tony and Sarah must have met most of those demands most of the time. They belonged to YWAM longer than Tony belonged to most churches he attended.

Sure, we wonder why there were strained, often distant relationships with children, grandchildren; we regret that sadly. What happened that kept Tony from doing the good he wanted to for years and decades with some grandchildren after he’d made such a hopeful and often hilarious start of developing those relationships? I’m told there you have memories of Opa Tony playing dress-up with grandchildren, playing like a child himself. Maybe there was and remained a lot of little boy in Tony that could never fully develop.

But always do remember that Jesus said we have to be like little children to enter the Kingdom of God. We don’t always like little children, but we do love them, even when they drive us nuts. And God loves them always. And God loves us always when we drive others nuts too—which all of us do at some time or other. Who will deliver us from this body of death? Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, our Lord, Tony’s Lord.

And getting back to that yearning to belong—brother, did we see that fulfilled pretty honestly and lovingly around here. Whenever Tony was in town on Sundays, he’d not only attend worship, he’d drive over to wherever the after-worship fellowship coffee social was held Sunday after Sunday. Longing to belong—and belonging, at last.

There were those remarkable, surprising times when so much of what happened to Tony did, in fact, “really serve to advance the Gospel.” Apart from his years at YWAM, you children tell me that the best years of his marriage with Sarah came when he was a broken jar of clay, battling the colon cancer from which he suffered for more than ten years. Cancer he couldn’t control or turn to his liking.

Cancer makes you honest, lots of people have told me. Tony was never more honest than when he admitted his total dependence on Sarah to care for him, even though he sometimes complained about that. Go figure. But then maybe the most profound honesty Tony or anyone can ever admit is that we cannot live life on our own terms. We are totally dependent on our Lord Jesus Christ, though we might not own up to that until we are so painfully vulnerable. And often, whether we like it or not, we are dependent on others too. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Remember whatever we might about Tony, during his sojourn in our community he belonged more fully to Christ and to this congregation, I believe, than anywhere or anytime else in his life. It was more than after-church coffee. It was his visits, his calls to people going through very bad times. Tony had cancer; hated cancer; knew cancer. Tony called, visited  Rolfe, Maria and William during their times of living with cancer. Thanks be to God through Jesus, our Lord.

Tony attended, was deeply part of, a men’s Bible study group almost from the first week he moved here. He couldn’t join again this year, because by then he was in extended care.  Thanks to the children for working diligently like the squeakiest of wheels to get your dad in that wonderful place, even though he fought that for a while almost as doggedly as he fought cancer, almost as angrily and stubbornly as he fought giving up his car. 

Tony once told me he wouldn’t mind being considered for elder one last time, even though he was pretty sick. No, I couldn’t figure that out either; didn’t make sense. He hadn’t had the best or most congruent experiences in several churches over the years as elder or member. Usually some friction developed during parts of Tony’s yearning and longing. Often some ill developed when things just didn’t mesh, when the surface just didn’t blend with what was below the surface.

About bad church stuff it was more than once your children’s memories of the struggle to get to church on time, the shouts. And then Dad read the sermon in worship. Just doesn’t fit. At home it was more than once the memories of looking good, dressing well, but simply running out of money for family basics. Jars of clay, broken, fragile, all of us.

About pretty good family stuff over the last years, it was sometimes distant, but deliberate relationships. In those years it was also about the honourable and honest efforts of children and grandchildren, about the love, the reconciliation after hard times of alienation and stubbornness.

Sarah—what a blessing that two days before Tony died he called you, apologized for not being able to do a promised errand. You experienced peace during that call—which was not always the case. You experienced peace after you heard Tony had died—to be with our Lord Jesus.

Walter—it was such a remarkable blessing for you and your dad to have a last visit Wednesday afternoon, after weeks of not seeing him because of his abruptness, even anger about the car six weeks ago. Who would have known? It was such a blessing for grandson Philip in late summer to see his grandfather at his last home.

It was eerie, yet blessed for me to see him for 15 minutes Wednesday evening during the supper break during a meeting in the facility where he finished his life on earth not ten hours later. Son Terry ushered me into the room. Tony looked surprised and pleased. He turned off the Dutch TV program he was watching. I asked how he was. He said in a pretty strong voice that really was ready for this to be over with. I asked if he was ready.

He said, “READY. I want to be with Jesus, but I’d like to stay here too.”

I said, “Hmm, Tony, sounds a little like Paul. Can I preach that at your funeral?”

“That’s a good idea. I’d like that.”

Who would have thought the funeral would be so soon? I prayed with him. I blessed him in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He grasped my hand hard during and after the prayer and said, “Praise and thanks to God.”

So where DO we go from here? How DO we remember Tony?

As conflicted Teunis who fled Holland to Canada to build a new life that only sometimes worked? Or as Tony who sold houses and all manner of things in Onatrio? Who served YWAM and various churches imperfectly, but as sincerely and honestly as he could with the toolbox he carried? Or was it baggage he carried? Maybe both.

I think it’s best to remember Tony as the imperfect, but hopeful father, who raised children who love the Lord, love each other and their families. Somehow, despite or because of how you lived and felt sometime, you learned well, you absorbed mysterious Holy Spirit lessons in easy times and hard.

Finally, we should probably remember Tony as we ought to learn to know ourselves. It’s no exaggeration to say that all of us have some of Tony/Teunis in us and Tony/Teunis had some of all of us in him. We are mysterious mixes, broken jars of clay, yearning to be with the Lord, but not all that soon all the time. We are all people who just plain don’t do all that much good we want, but whom Jesus Christ loves, accepts, forgives and trusts, despite our own better judgement anyway. But it’s a good thing we don’t judge and Jesus does.

Who shall deliver us from the life of this body of death? We know the answer: The One who has delivered Dad, Opa, friend Teunis/Tony. The One who loves him, who has welcomed him from the body of this death to never-ending Shalom. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. We belong, Tony belongs, to this faithful Saviour, in life, in death. Amen.  

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