This was the eulogy/homily I gave at the service of death and resurrection for my PaPa, Ernest Carter Stanley. Some of the stories you may have heard in a sermon or at a youth retreat, or read here on this blog. I read Revelation 21:1-7 from the small, pocket Bible that a chaplain gave him during World War II.
I had spent most of this warm, summer day helping my Momma clean, which is exactly what every middle school boy wants to do on his summer vacation, right? I managed to do what I think every middle school boy would do, escape under the phantom excuse of needing to take a walk. To my surprise, I actually did take a walk.
With the rural Virginia dirt under my bare feet, I set out on the longer of the paths that led through the woods behind the house, over the creek, and around the goat lot to the back field.
As I walked, I came upon the first creek to cross. I jumped over – well, really just stepped over – being careful of the barbed wire attached to the tree to my right. I stepped over the barbwire, with one foot on the ground and the other foot in the air when I heard it. It was a sound I had never heard in the woods before. I froze, listening intently to discern where the sound was coming from.
Then I looked down, uncertain why, where my raised foot was about to land. There, on the ground, was a small hummingbird. Awkwardly sidestepping the bird, I knelt down to get a better look. How often do you get to see a hummingbird this close?
When I knelt down in the dirt, I noticed that a piece of string was wrapped around the hummingbird. Unable to untangle itself, the bird was frightened and struggling. I tried to help, but each time I leaned in to try to untangle it, the bird would not stay still.
So, here I am, sitting in the dirt, watching this hummingbird struggle to get untangled. Leaving it here is not an option. Then, I notice an old piece of tree bark. I scooped the bird up with the piece of tree bark, and the bird slowly began to calm down. Then, I did the only thing I could think of. I headed to PaPa.
I ran the rest of the path, running through whatever, jumping over downed trees. I came out at the backfield and began to pick up speed, being careful not to drop the hummingbird.
I ran pass the garden and around the tractor shed, and I reached NaNa and PaPa’s house just as they, keys in hand, were getting into the car. I shoved the tree bark and its passenger into PaPa’s face. He took it from me, turned it a few times, as he examined it, and then handed it back to me. He walked down to his shop, and I slowly followed, out of breath.
Surprising, at this point, the hummingbird was the calmest it had been this whole time. PaPa came out of his shop with the smallest pair of scissors I had ever seen. I thought for sure the hummingbird would not be so calm when it realized PaPa was coming at it with those scissors. But that was not the case. PaPa leaned in, snipped the string, untangling it from the hummingbird’s wing.
The hummingbird flew away. Free at last.
The vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21 was first a dream in the mind’s eye of the Old Testament prophets. Ever since this vision was formed in the human mind, people of faith have been striving to see God’s kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven. Striving by caring for all of God’s creation, caring for family and friends, and showing compassion to complete strangers.
The man we call Daddy and PaPa; Honey and Uncle, is a man who has lived his life in such a way. A man who somehow knew that in order for the constant dream of a new heaven and a new earth to become real, we had to do our part.
About three or four years ago, while PaPa was sitting in the living room, he was talking with Cameron about his time in the service, and the beginning of building his forever home. He said he was ready to add-on to the old house, even though NaNa had expressed interest in knocking it down and starting new. PaPa replied that there was no way he was knocking his home down to start over. He simply wanted to add-on.
So he did. He said that a two foot concrete foundation was plenty, but he decided to go with a four-foot foundation. “Son,” he said, “You can never have too much foundation. It’s what holds everything up.” Cameron nodded in agreement and thought to himself, “Can never have too much foundation . . . . .”
For us, PaPa is the foundation, the strength that held it all together.
Responsible for three children, eight grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren. As Cameron said, “I guess God saw it the way Papa did. Why have two feet of concrete when you can have four?”
The old hymn says, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word!” You see, Papa was stronger than any concrete or building material. He was and is simply the foundation.
He wasn’t a preacher, nor did he stand on the side of the street handing out tracks. He taught us about the Word of God simply through the way he lived his life.
While in Germany during World War II, he would hand out his little bag lunch to the children in the streets who had nothing. During the War when a newly, married solider did not want to go out to the bar, PaPa stayed behind, so the guy wouldn’t be left alone.
Marilyn and Phyllis recall how, when they were kids, NaNa and PaPa would move into someone else’s home for a while to help care for whomever needed to be cared for. As a kid, I’d watch my grandparents serve endlessly this church they had grown to love. For over 50 years PaPa cleaned this space every week as her janitors. He would stop here on the way home on cold, rainy or snowy nights to make sure that the furnace was turned on for services the next morning.
More than that I watched them cook meals for those in need, care for neighbors and friends when they were sick. I watched as they rearranged their house (and their lives) to take in family members in times of need (including myself).
Once at a Wal-Mart, while NaNa was shopping, PaPa was wandering the store on his own. As he came down a center aisle, he saw a boy, he said, who looked afflicted. The boy’s father was sitting on a bench with his head in his hands. PaPa walked pass and the boy asked him to sit on the bench with him.
You already know what PaPa did.
He sat down next to him. But he did more than that. He proceeded to have a conversation with the boy. Every time the boy spoke, his father would elbow him, as if to say, “Be quiet!” Despite that, PaPa continued to have a conversation with the boy. Eventually, the boy began rubbing my PaPa’s bald head, and patting his hand.
After some time, PaPa stood up to go and explained that he needed to go find his wife, but that he would be back before he left. True to his word, after he found NaNa, he took her to meet the boy on the Wal-Mart bench. The boy saw PaPa coming and became very excited. He had a grin that filled his whole face!
The father, who earlier didn’t want his son speaking to PaPa, approached PaPa and expressed his thanks for his time sitting and listening on a bench in Wal-Mart. Turns out that the boy was in his 30’s and had a mental disability.
Things like that didn’t bother PaPa. He didn’t see a disability or an illness. He didn’t see a person based on their shortcomings or mistakes. He saw people for they were. He saw others, I dare say, as God sees them. All this was done out of a deep love for his Savior, who taught to love others as he loves us.
There is no doubt in my mind that I am who I am today because of the foundation in my life that is PaPa. It is from watching his devotion to the Kingdom work that God has called him to that has left me marveled at what God can do through us when we answer, “Yes, Lord, yes.”
PaPa is the solid foundation that taught us to love all, judge none, and serve everyone as if they were family.
Today we may find ourselves tangled up in sorrow, grief, pain, and uncertainty. The scriptures remind us, as one scholar has put it, that “The new creation lives out from under the cloud of death. It is eternal life. The old life has gone.”
The old life has gone.. . . . and the new life. . . . the new life has no suffering, no mourning, no crying, no pain, no cancer, no more death. The new life is where God will wipe away every tear.
This past week, during one of those late nights with PaPa, a humbling thought crossed my mind. It was one of the nights Angie, Jennifer, and I stayed at the house. I think we were in the bathroom. I was holding on to PaPa, and in his weakened state, he had a grip on me.
I had a flood of thoughts, as I was serving the man who taught me to serve. And I was reminded of yet another lesson from my PaPa: while it is important to serve others, we must allow ourselves to be served. We must humble ourselves and let someone else scoop us up on an old piece of tree bark and take us to the One who can untangle us and set us free.
Every thing I learned about faith, I learned from watching my PaPa. My hope and prayer is that my life will model to the best of my ability the life of my PaPa. And my hope and prayer for all of us, is that when we leave this place of mourning, that the life we celebrate today will continue to influence us to do our part for God’s Kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven.