Monday, September 14, 2015

A Tribute to Our Friend John


            One of the most poignant parts, for me, of preparing for a memorial service is the time I am able to spend with the family, listening to their memories of their loved one.  On the afternoon I spent with Sandy, Debbie, and Ross, I was able to ask some questions and hear their answers, as they thought about their lives with John.
            Tell me what you’ll most remember, I asked, and Debbie mentioned her sense of connection with her big brother, his help with her homework, the paper route she helped him with and their many times together at Sand Lake as kids.  Ross remembered John’s dry sense of humor and John’s service in Viet Nam where he received the Purple Heart.  Sandy spoke of John’s extended family, the Carpenters, and how the two of them, when they married, expanded their families beyond their own biological families.
            We talked about that empty seat in the bakery, where John held down the “locals” table and offered his perspective on a wide range of topics, volunteered his help with every project, giving generously of his time and expertise to anyone who needed it. 
I was so grateful for his help when I was moving two months ago, for John offered his pickup, his time, his expertise in packing the storage locker, and then driving the huge UHaul truck through downtown Astoria and the narrow streets of Alderbrook to my new home.
            There were river trips and fishing trips, golf and boating, building things and tearing things apart to fix them.  John helped every neighbor on the block in their Portland neighborhood with the myriad of household repairs that always crop up—water heaters, toilets, kitchen sinks---he knew how to fix them all and when he and Sandy moved to Gearhart permanently, he continued his generous donations of time and talent.
            He loved to play games, to hear a good story and tell another.  I remember how carefully he’d think through his explanations, striving for just the right word to describe what he was thinking.  It was important to him to be right on the mark.  He presided over the barbecue pit at many neighborhood gatherings, as he and Sandy invited neighbors and friends to eat fried clams and barbecue.
            John Duncan was a generous man who strove to be fair to all; he was honest and ethical, a moral man who believed in doing the right thing.  A God and Country guy, loyal, law-abiding, exacting, an engineer to the bone, John was a Scot---thrifty but not stingy, accepting of all people.  He loved to distribute lottery tickets to his friends at holiday times and was tickled if somebody won something.
            John and Sandy were a good pair.  They enjoyed being together and I was tickled by his always referring to Sandy as his bride.  He depended on her, loved her deeply, and lit up when she came into the room on those mornings at the bakery.
            John had very high standards, for himself and for others.  He was frugal, sometimes to the point of missing the big picture in order to save a few bucks.  We laughed about the story Ross told about John’s giving him a certain tool for his birthday and then immediately borrowing it so he could use it on one of his own projects.
            Sandy said she met John when he came to fix her sink, and her friend Sherry quipped---“he fixed your sink and he didn’t swear once!  You’d better marry him!”
            John’s pride in his grandson Marcus, son of Nicola and Michael, was strong.  He and Sandy regularly attended Marcus’s athletic events and were involved in Marcus’s life.  Marcus, Michael, and Nicola were important in John’s life, and they will carry forth the values they learned from John and Sandy.
            When I talked with Nicola, she spoke about her Dad’s great intelligence and his sense of humor---which lots of people didn’t get!  She felt so well-loved, that her Dad’s love for her was deep and endless.  “He was always teaching me,” she said.  “Before I could drive the family car, I had to prove that I could change the oil, change a tire, know what was going on under the hood.  He taught me to drive a stick shift, and through all the ups and downs of the teenage years, he was laid back, calm, even-tempered even when I was furious about something.”  “Life’s a giggle”, he would say. 
            Nicola’s partner Michael and John were close---and very similar in personality, intelligence.  The two of them were good friends and understood each other well.
            Marcus told Nicola, ”Papa did everything he could for me; he wanted to make me happy.  He always supported me in all my activities, my ball games, plays, school activities.  He always supported me in everything.  He played catch with me, taught me to golf, and he took me to work with him on the Ridge Path.”  Marcus always wanted to tell John about his life; they shared a strong bond.
            John’s generosity and commitment to community service are well known in Gearhart.  He was proud of what he’d done to extend the Ridge Path, and it is in his honor that the John Duncan Fund for the Gearhart Ridge Path has been established.  You will have a chance to donate in John’s name when we meet at the Firehouse after this service for a reception.
            In closing, as we thought about our loss of this dear man, we just wished we could have had him with us a longer time and that we hoped he knew how we loved him.  And Nicola confided that she wished her Dad had been able to meet the new puppy; John pretended he didn’t much like pets, but she knew better. 
            It’s hard to lose someone who has been such an integral part of our lives.  But I found a quote by A.A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories that fits here:
If ever there is a tomorrow
When we’re not together,
There is something you must always remember.
You are braver than you believe,
Stronger than you seem,
And Smarter than you think.
But the most important thing is
Even if we are apart,
I’ll always be with you.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Being Prepared

Today was Water Communion and Homecoming Day, the first Sunday after Labor Day, when we begin the new church year.  We had forty-five folks in the service, with several new visitors, some of whom are already ready to join!  I had doubts about this homily, but it seemed to go over all right.  And they loved singing:  
          “Be prepared, that’s the Boy Scouts’ marching song,

            Be prepared, as through life you march along,

            Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well,

            Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell”…

            The next few lines might be considered NSFC, not safe for church, so I won’t go farther; you can go and look them up later!

            Many of you may recognize those words as the first lines of a rather bawdy song by Tom Lehrer, the musical social critic of the 50’s, who wrote such other “interesting” songs as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, “The Vatican Rag” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go”—the latter a tribute to the Cold War’s nuclear nightmares.

            A few weeks ago, a New Yorker article by Katherine Schultz, entitled “The Really Big One”, sent the rest of the US into a frenzy and we denizens of the Pacific Northwest yawned and said “we already know all that stuff”, whether we did or not.   The topic, of course, was our Cascadia subduction zone, which will someday let fly and cause an earthquake and tsunami on the West Coast.

Some of what riled locals up was her suggestion that people come to the coast but spend the night outside the tsunami zone.  As if that would protect them from an earthquake.   But it does give new meaning to Tom Lehrer’s nightmare title:  We will all go together when we go---as if we will have a choice. 
            But being prepared is important, whether it’s for surviving a cataclysmic natural disaster or some other crisis.  There are a lot of things we can barely prepare for---a sudden accident or illness, the death of a loved one; in life, unusual circumstances can pop up at any time.  How do we prepare for those kinds of things?  Or can we?

            I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as I packed my go bags and survival-proofed my car.  And it made me remember something my dad said when I got my first job as a teenage pea bum, driving truck in the  Athena pea harvest, in the late 50’s.  I got some good advice from my dad at that time and it made me think about this particular bit, which seems to apply in other situations as well. 

How many of us, in our wild and crazy youth, had the need or the opportunity to ride in the back of a moving pickup truck.  Did you ever do that?  Do you remember how we did it?  Did we stand with legs akimbo, not holding on to anything?  Did we hang over the side and try to grab things off the ground going 50 miles an hour?  Did we jump up and down as the truck roared down the road?

            No, well, maybe some of us did!  But those of us who were more cautious found a place to stand where we could hang onto something and face forward.  And we kept our knees bent, to absorb any shock waves from the bumpy road.
           That’s how you ride in the back of a pickup truck out on the road or in the field.  It isn’t really safe and it’s probably against the law now, but in those days, it was just fun and a handy way of getting from one place to another on the farm or the ranch or in the small town.  And that was the advice I got from my dad, and maybe you did too----hang on tight, face forward, and keep your knees bent.  This is useful advice for life, if you think about it.
In our Summer Sunday forums this year, we had three, count them, three discussions about end-of-life issues.  Each discussion seemed to cover new ground, as though we had endless stories to tell about our own needs, the needs of our loved ones who had died, and the need for dignity and as much self-determination as possible in those last months of life.

For me, the issue of “being prepared”, or rather not being prepared, came sharply to a head this summer when a friend died suddenly and unexpectedly and with absolutely no apparent forethought about preparing for the future inevitability.  

We survivors, her friends, were angry.  How could someone so smart, so organized, so apparently on top of her life, do this to herself or her small circle of friends?  We  had no answers for that, and so “being prepared” took on great meaning for us and is probably one reason why I spent so much time thinking about this topic this summer. 

My friend needed to prepare for a moment in time when a sudden mishap might make it impossible for her to help herself, when others would need to come to her aid.

            What, in your experience, do we humans need to prepare for?  (cong resp, repeat aloud)

            Your thoughts and mine have some similarities:  when I made a list in my journal recently, I listed:

 the earthquake/tsunami event that might come in our lifetime;

the challenges of aging and changing health that affect all ages;

deaths (expected and unexpected);  

changes in the old ways, the old social patterns that cause societal unrest when disrupted;

changes in friends’ and families’ lives;

disappointments in jobs or in relationships;

and always, our children’s lives.

            How do you prepare for these changes?  (cong resp, repeat aloud)

            Again, we’re on the same wavelength: 

we have our go-bags poised by the back door;

we have the best insurance we can afford;

we have written out our wills or our POLST documents or talked to our families about our wishes, if we’re getting old or ill

---and have talked to our parents if we’re young;

we’ve stayed informed about changes in the social climate and have thought through our responses;

we’ve taken the temperature of our own relationships and made amends when we need to;

and we resign ourselves to the inevitable consequences of raising our children to think for themselves and not panicking when they do.

            In all of life’s challenges, I have come to the conclusion that our greatest survival mechanism, the best way we can survive crises of all kinds is to be resilient.

            Resilience is not a magic wand or a miracle-working drug.  It’s not the universe changing a law of nature to give us a break.  And whereas it might be considered an answer to prayer, chances are the answer actually comes from inside our own hearts and minds.

            Resilience is the quality of being able to recover from whatever difficulty life throws at us and move ahead.  It’s not being halted permanently in one’s tracks by a sudden turn of events.  It’s not denial; it’s acceptance and a determination to take the present, make the best of it, and move on.

We’ve seen countless examples of this human ability as we’ve lived through our years on this planet.

            Jimmy Carter, our former President, whose health has taken a turn for the worst, spoke about what sustains him in this time before his death.  And he said that for him, the invisible qualities of justice, truth, humility, service, compassion, and love are the guiding lights of his life.  He has relied on them all his 90 years and we have learned that they form the backbone of his resilient character.

            A Facebook quote from an author named L.R. Knost struck me the other day as also appropriate:

            She writes:

Life is amazing.  And then it’s awful.

And then it’s amazing again.

And in between the amazing and the awful

 it’s ordinary and mundane and routine.

Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful,

and relax and exhale during the ordinary. 

That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing,

amazing, awful, ordinary life.

And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.


            I like that.  And I love Jimmy Carter and will be sad when death claims him.  But I’m inclined to think that my dad also had it right when he told me to hang on tight, face forward, and bend my knees.

            Hang on tight to those around you and to your values and find a firm place to stand, face forward so that you can see what’s coming down the road, at least as far as you are able, and bend your knees to absorb the shocks as they come along.

            Life isn’t safe and the law won’t always protect us.  Sometimes we can’t control what happens and we have to deal with whatever we get.

            So when those times come, hold on tight, face forward, and bend your knees.

            And, I think my dad might add, if you can, help others do the same.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

HYMN# 1064, “Blue Boat Home”


BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, thinking about how we might increase our ability to be resilient in an ever-changing world, committing ourselves to helping others make it through, and preparing our children to thrive as they enter the future.  Amen, shalom, salaam, and blessed be.