My Father

Today is the Feast of All Saints. In honor of this wonderful festival that celebrates the connectedness that all Christians share in our Baptsim, I am publishing, for the first time, the homily that I delivered at my father’s Funeral Mass, held at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, June 11, 2016.

 

“Live up to your baptism!”

My dad would shout it from the kitchen as I left the house for a night out with friends. I’ll tell you something—and this is a pro tip for the parents in the room—there is no better way to put the kibosh on an evening of teenage carousing like those five words.

“Live up to your baptism.” It wasn’t a mere slogan for Dad, it was a mission statement for his life. Dad was baptized in the Patoka River in Dubois County, Indiana—the rural county where he grew up, and where he would largely raise his own family. Now for those of you who aren’t students of fluvial topography, the Patoka is a tributary river of the Wabash, which in turn is a tributary of the Ohio River, which joins the Mississippi River, which, at the Gulf of Mexico, spills into the Atlantic Ocean. Dad was baptized in living water, running water, water that had a destination. And Dad, from the earliest moments in his life of faith, wanted to swim to the deepest waters of his baptism, to find the richest deltas, to discover the treasures of the faith that lay in the heart of the ocean of God’s grace.

As a teenage boy, Dad told me, he would sit in his room and read his Bible, going over each verse three times so he would be able to quote scripture accurately. This wasn’t an exercise in biblical trivia; he desperately wanted to hide God’s word in his heart. Dad also recounted to me many times—in a tone of deep appreciation—how the little Pentecostal church he grew up in would celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament wasn’t observed often in Dad’s childhood church, but when it was, the people entered deeply into the mystery of Christ’s presence, broke the bread with reverence and humility and shared with one another with gladness and joy.

It was always Scripture, Baptism, and Eucharist for my father. The Word, the water, and the table were the center of his life of faith. This never wavered.

Dad grew restless in the Pentecostal faith of his youth. As he grew in faith and knowledge, he found himself less and less able to sing “This world is not my home, I’m only passing through” and mean it. No, there must be something more to the faith than simply escaping the evils of a fallen world.

So he swam on, looking for deeper waters, for new treasures of faith. He never disparaged or discarded the truth at the heart of his childhood church. Nor did he ever once deny the power of the Holy Spirit. He never stopped speaking in tongues. In fact, he’d often quote his father, my grandfather, on the subject of tongues. “I can’t deny what God has done for me. And though I would never force speaking in tongues on anyone, I highly recommend it.”

I experienced Dad’s faith journey as a child and young adult. My youngest days were spent with Daddy serving as a pastor in Assembly of God and independent Pentecostal churches. He established a non-denominational Charismatic church, which eventually became the Church of the Holy Cross upon his ordination to the priesthood in the Charismatic Episcopal Church.

Between the time he sojourned in the Pentecostal and Anglican traditions, Dad spent time in the vibrant rivers of Reformed theology, finding much to appreciate. Dad also deeply appreciated the anglo-catholic tradition of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist movement. In his early years of ministry, Dad was the student-pastor of several United Methodist Churches in both the Arkansas and Kentucky annual conferences. The hymns of Charles Wesley were well-loved by my father, and the Wesleyan understanding of grace was an enormous influence on Dad’s theology. In fact, if you wanted to trace a through-line for my father’s journey from Pentecostalism to the Roman Catholic Church, it would have to be Wesleyan theology. After all, the Pentecostal movement Dad was born into had its roots in Wesleyan teaching and piety; and Wesleyan theology is a sort of bridge between classical Reformation teaching and the counter-Reformation of the 16th century. There’s only a “hair’s breadth,” as John Wesley would say, between Wesleyanism and the Reformed tradition on one side, and Tridentine Roman Catholicism on the other.

Now, I know that to an observer of Dad’s journey, it might seem as if he was one of those folks Paul talks about in the letter to the Ephesians: tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. But Dad’s life of faith is better described by the words Paul uses in the couple of verses that precede his description of wind-tossed wanderers. Dad always sought to build up the Body of Christ, so that all might “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

Dad’s quest for spiritual truth, his ongoing journey from river to river, was him seeking the living core of faith, the vital heart of the Gospel. While he certainly experienced God’s love at every stage of his journey, Dad was always wanting to go, as C.S. Lewis described it “further up, further in.” In the Roman Catholic Church, Dad discovered a rich deposit of faith that connected him in a very special way to the faith that comes to us from the Apostles. Dad took great comfort in uniting with the Roman Catholic Church. He often described it as “coming home.”

But Dad’s entry into the Roman Church in no way diminished his admiration and respect for the many traditions that formed him. Dad and Mom wrote a song together called “Steps of Faith” which they sang as a prayer for one another at their wedding. “Steps of Faith” is the prayer, and the journey, of Dad’s life.

The unity of the faith was Dad’s deepest desire and most earnest prayer. Dad prayed as our Lord prayed “that they all may be one.” Dad, as both a Protestant and a Roman Catholic, would frequently cite the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism: What we all have in common is greater than what separates us. Dad never ceased to work for the cause of the Gospel and the unity of the faith. Both as a clergyman and a layperson, he was tireless in sharing the Good News that God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to himself. He devoted himself to ministry, laboring as a preacher, pastor and priest for 42 years. His co-workers at the Dubois County 911 Center in Jasper, Indiana, and at First Tennessee Bank here in Knoxville can all attest to his gentle-hearted and kind spirit, and to the way his deep faith informed everything he did.

Dad’s faith was essential to his family life as well. I told you about his admonition for me to “Live up to my baptism.” He was also fond of telling me that he was praying for me, and I that I needed to “cooperate with his prayers.” He was a devoted and loving husband and father of four—Dad loved his family so much—and his first wish for all of us was that we would have the same yearning he felt for a deeper relationship with Jesus.

Our family worship life centered around the Lord’s Table. Weekly Communion was the standard of worship for our family from some of the earliest days I can remember. Dad wanted us to gather at the Lord’s Table over and over again, because he truly believed that it was in the Eucharist that we received all the life of God. It was during one of these communion services that Dad and Mom extemporaneously wrote a communion anthem that I can still sing by heart. “‘Eat my flesh’, he said. ‘Drink my blood. That there may be life in you, my life that I give to you.’” Dad would sing that anthem over and over again as he distributed the consecrated elements.

Dad’s baptismal journey has certainly been longer and more winding than some, but one thing Dad never denied was that no matter what river he was swimming in, it was irrevocably connected with all the other rivers—for the waters of baptism united them all. He has now swum a new river, the Jordan River. And today, in the presence of God, he is experiencing the fullness of the depth of the ocean of God’s love, as he awaits the glorious resurrection and renewal of all things.

In my own Anglican and Wesleyan traditions, there is no formal process for canonizing a saint. But a custom we have developed is for each of us to adopt “saints of our lives.” Sometimes these saints are drawn from the annals of Christian history, sometimes they are important figures in our own lives who have gone before us. For me, Dad will always be one of my saints.

We—all of us Christians—are bound together in our baptism, no matter the river. And so nothing separates us—not even death. That’s why we pray for the departed, as we pray for my dad here today. And that’s why I believe the saints pray for us, that the great cloud of witnesses intercedes in the name of Jesus on behalf of the those who have yet to finish the race. And so today I’m adding to my prayers: “Blessed Dennis, pray for us.” If you feel comfortable, maybe you’d like to join me. “Blessed Dennis, pray for us.”