Tuesday, October 31, 2006

My Daddy Is Dead

Francis Johnson

Francis Johnson, age 88, went to be with the Lord on Thursday, October 26, 2006, after an extended and courageous struggle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

He was born on August 27, 1918 in the family home of his fathers at Franklin, Alabama and enjoyed this Alabama River community as an avid outdoorsman throughout his entire life. After graduating from the Monroe County High School, he worked on his family farm until July of 1941, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He served throughout the remainder of WWII as a Staff Sergeant in the 24th Combat Mapping Squadron in the China-Burma-India theatre of operations. Upon returning, he attended Auburn University, after which he opened and operated an agricultural supply store in Monroeville, Alabama. He married Carol Brown of Repton, Alabama in 1950. In 1956, he joined Liberty National Life Insurance Company, serving for twenty-five years until his retirement in 1981.

He was a faithful member of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola where he was active in the homebound and hospital visitation ministries.

He is survived by his wife, Carol; his four sons, Langdon of Mobile, Alabama and wife Cheri; Francis of Mobile and wife Rose; Charles of Atlanta, Georgia and wife Jana; and Dennis of Louisville, Kentucky and wife Tracy; eight grandchildren, Chad, Cliff, Will, Peter, Chris Anne, Langdon, Nathan, and Anabeth; brother Foster of Franklin, Alabama and sister Lillie VanRoy of Montgomery, Alabama.

Memorial services will be on Saturday, October 28, 10:00 a.m. in the Pleitz Chapel at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, 500 N. Palafox Street, with the Rev. Dr. Barry Howard officiating. Graveside services will be held later that day at 3:00 p.m. in the River Ridge Cemetery of Franklin, Alabama.

Pallbearers are Glyn Brown, Rusty Corcoran, Dr. Robert Howard, Buck Laird, Ray Lynch, and Dr. Robert K. Wilson.

Memorial gifts may be sent in lieu of flowers to the Joyce Goldenberg Hospice Inpatient Residence, 10075 Hillview Road, Pensacola, Florida, 32514.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

My Daddy Is Dying

When I reported this to my seminary community in chapel worship on Tuesday as we shared our joys and concerns, it was as shocking for me to say as it was for our young students to hear. Death is not a category immediately accessible to creatures in full commencement of their lives.

For the first time in this years-long slow sink, Dad no longer recognizes Mom. Those clear blue eyes have now clouded. He forgets how to swallow. His brain can no longer tell his tongue to lick the trickle of drool descending down his chin. He has been sucked into a watery unwaking. Mom wonders if he will ever emerge.

Where does he go? Is there some alternative world into which he descends? Does he know others there? Is he awake in this place in a way our wakefulness cannot detect? Is he aware? Happy?

The doctors cannot say with exactitude, but my father is nearing death. Medical professionals are understandably reluctant to forecast such mysteries, but, when pressed, one finally ventured only a matter of weeks remaining.

Dad got ready to die a long time ago, long before neurological disease calcified his brain cells. Rarely have I known a person to live with greater readiness. Cavalier or wise, who's to say, but he always had a wry insoucience about what lay ahead.

I carry an early childhood movie in my head of an approaching hurricane, the neighborhood in panic, folks scurrying and scampering to protect themselves against the coming storm. In the midst of this frenzy of boarding up windows and packing up cars, my father reclines on the porch swing, gently rocking, his head laid back in calm as he draws on a cigarette. "Daddy, aren't you scared?" a wide-eyed little boy asks as he climbs up in his father's arms. "No, son. We'll be fine. Just fine," my father says, smiling, as he bends down to pick me up, his Marlboro dangling between his lips.

And, of course, we were. With him, we always were.

The National Weather Service warns us about such people, and with good reason, as recent weather events indicate. I'm not suggesting such stoicism is smart. Only interesting for a small child looking for clues about how to act in the face of fear. (No wonder my oldest brother rode out '04 Hurricane Ivan at his bayside home in Mobile, his wife Cheri having evacuated to stay with her mother in the relative safety of inland Montgomery, but Langdon stubbornly staying, declaring he would rather ride out a hurricane than spend the night with his mother-in-law!)

Now, the darkening cloud is settling in on my daddy. We know it will soon carry him away. No greatness of spirit will be able to prevent it. If he could speak, he would say those familiar words, "It will be fine, son. Just fine."

Come, cloud, carry.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Communion of the Saints

Recently, Jana and I were invited back to the West Point Baptist Church, my seminary pastorate of a quarter-century ago-- how's that for dramatic time measurement?-- to help celebrate their 150th anniversary.

West Point is located in the Kentucky commmunity of Matanzas, which has yet to find its way onto any state map of Kentucky I have ever seen. It is located on the Green River (remember that old John Prine song: "Mama won't you take me back to Mulenberg County/Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?"), 5 miles west of Centertown, pop. 300, which is 9 miles west of Hartford, a town of "2000 happy people and a few soreheads," as the sign at the edge of town reports.

I became pastor the 32nd pastor of West Point in September of 1981, having passed the simplest theological examination in the history of Christendom. "Brother Charles, do you believe this book?" even-then-old Deacon Foster James asked, not accusingly like an inquisitor ready to pounce on apostasy, but gently, while cradling his well-worn, black leather-bound King James Version like a mother holding a child.

My affirmative response, however tentative it was for a beginning seminarian, must have been acceptable. I served the church for three years by weekend commute from the seminary in Louisville 120 miles northeast, traveling every weekend in a beat-up 1967 Volkswagon beetle which local farmer Rex Igleheart declared he wouldn't drive to Hartford, much less back and forth every week from Louisville.

After I completed my Masters of Divinity in 1984, I fully relocated to the rural community, ministering full-time. More than a few of my family, friends and professors thought it was a strange career move to remain at this tiny country church two more years after my seminary training. I took ribbing that among my close circle of fellow students, after graduating from the seminary with their basic divinity degree, Greg went to Harvard to pursue Ph.D. studies, Chuck to Princeton, Michael to Emory... and I to the West Point Baptist Church of Matanzas. My father, ever supportive even when he didn't quite understand the vocational strategy, would ask, "Son, are you sure the Lord knows where you are?"

Those two years proved to be intensely formative for my pastoral identity. I learned what Carlyle Marney called "the ethic of identification" with those wonderful country folk. I hauled hay and stripped tobacco and pulled a calf or two (ask a rancher to explain). Still single, I took most of my meals in the homes of the churchfolk, indeed some of the most masterful eating I have ever done.

Stories abound. We rehearsed them at the 150th. We laughed and cried and remembered. Those passed on, like Foster James, were as present that day as a witness. I swear to you I shook his wrinkled hand at that reunion. I swear it.