Our Father, who art in Heaven…

Dad thanksgiving 2018

R. A. McKinstry, Jr., 1926-2019 on Thanksgiving 2018, at the age of 92.

(What follows is the text I delivered at my father’s memorial service on March 23, 2019. He passed away on January 12, 2019. The memorial service was basically a second funeral in order that members of his family from Arkansas could attend. The photo above was taken at Thanksgiving of 2018 when Dad was, as my sister put it so well, “Still chasing the dog around with his walker.”)

I want to say thank you to Wilmar Baptist Church for graciously allowing us to hold this celebration of my dad’s life. Their generosity is a tribute not only to him but to the entire family who lived in the house that used to occupy what is now the parking lot. Pretty much all of us came to this church from time to time, but my great-grandmother, Eula Jane Haigh, was a long-time member and pillar of the church. This service is a blessing to her memory as well.

I want to welcome and thank all of you for coming. I’d mess this up if I tried to name all of you, but I do want to acknowledge my Aunt Joan, who was married to Dad’s youngest brother Victor. And I especially want to acknowledge my Uncle Joe and Aunt Mickey. They have very generously purchased the headstone for my Dad and Mom that will be in the cemetery at Greenhill. Thank you so much for that lasting tribute.

Since Dad was the oldest of the three brothers, I guess his passing offically makes Joe the patriarch of the McKinstry family. That is exactly as it should be. But Joe, I think Dad would want me to remind you of something. When my sons were younger and they got into the usual arguments and fights, I would often bemoan that fact to Dad and seek his advice on how to fix the problem. Having grown up with brothers himself, Dad was sympathetic but didn’t offer a lot of hope. “Boys will be boys,” he would say and he almost always told me something Joe said to him when he and Joe got into fights. “I can’t wait till I am older than you so I can beat you up.”

So I think Dad would like me to point out, Joe, that you’ve still got about two more years before that becomes literally true. So hang in there.

Our Father, who art in heaven…

Well, that’s a phrase that takes on even more poignancy today than ever before. As the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, it is first a reference to our Heavenly Father. But today, my earthly father is in Heaven. And I am grateful to God that he chose to reveal himself to us as “father.” Because I had a good one.

I did not always think so.

But that is just a symptom of the awkward relationship between fathers and sons that has existed since Adam and Eve were booted out of the Garden of Eden. Every man here knows exactly what I am talking about. As a son, there are times when you have thought, “Whose idea was it to give me that guy as a father?” And as a father, there have been times when you have looked up at God and asked with a little frustration and maybe a little anger, “What did I do to deserve this guy as a son.” I’m sure there is a similar dynamic between fathers and daughters, but I’m a son and I have four sons. So I don’t really know much about daughters.

I’m pretty sure all this awkwardness between fathers and sons is intentional. It is one of the most important reminders sewn into the warp and woof of a fallen world, that the relationship between God the father and all of his children is awkward, and in need of repair.

Dad was a good son, though he shared with me numerous times how difficult it was with his Dad, my grandfather, who was, according to my Dad, a stern taskmaster who demanded a lot from his three sons. But Dad often said that he and his father could never sit in the same room and carry on a real conversation and he didn’t want that to happen between us. I never doubted my grandfather’s love for me. He was a fun grand-dad, he loved taking me to the bank, and the farm, and he bought a horse and a shetland pony just for the grandkid’s fun when we got too big to ride on his knee any more. And he always had butterscotch candy on hand in case the conversation lagged. What’s not to like?

For whatever reason, and I am certain it was not my grandfather’s intent, Dad never really felt like he had my grandfather’s approval—something that every child, son or daughter, really craves. When we don’t receive it, it creates what psychologists and theologians alike call the “Father Wound.” Very few people completely escape it. And we all long to hear the same words that Jesus heard from his Father when he was baptized by John the Baptist, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.”

Please indulge me for a moment as I take care of some personal business that I believe Dad would really want me to do.

I want to say to my four sons, on the record, you have my approval. I am well pleased. Aaron, the Eagle Scout, gamer, and stained-glass artist who is working through the challenges of engineering school. Don’t give up. You have my approval.

Carson, the German major who realized after graduation two years ago that he needed to find something to pay the bills. He taught himself web development and will be leaving on Monday to go to work for Trivago, in Dusseldorf, Germany. Carson, you have my approval.

Jonathan, who, in the eighth grade wanted to become president, went to college in Washington DC and got a political science degree. He also taught himself web development and after working in Congress for several years decided he had seen enough and no longer wanted to become president. He moved into the private sector and now works for a succesful digital advertising firm. But I think his real job is managing social media for his dog Bently, who has over 24,000 followers. Jonathan, you have my approval.

And then there is Nicholas, the father of my two bright and beautiful grand-daughters, Jonah and Havah. He is a gifted musician who is smart enough to recognize that music is a pretty good hobby but in the real world, with real responsibilities, the Masters in Public Administration he completed in December will serve him and his family much better. Nick, you have my approval.

I say all that because I am so proud of you guys I could burst. Not because of your accomplishments, those are just icing on the cake, but simply because I love you. You have my approval. Follow your dreams and seek the incredible life that God has prepared for you. I also say this because your grandfather was equally proud of you as he was all of his grandchildren, and he wants you to know that.

Does it matter that we have our Dad’s approval? Of course it does. Is it the most important thing in the world? Not by a long shot. What really matters is that you come to know how much your heavenly father loves you.

When I was in junior high school Dad packed up the family and, following his career, moved us to Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Mark Twain. In our Presbyterian church, I think I may have learned more about Mark Twain than about Jesus. But one quote of Twain’s that I have always remembered is this, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-three, I was astonished at how much he had learned in nine years.”

Like a lot of things Mark Twain supposedly said, he probably didn’t say that. His father died when he was eleven, so there really is no way to work out the math. But that does not change the truth of the statement. And I am happy to say, that after I came to my senses, like the Prodigal Son, Dad acted like the father in that story, running to meet me on the path of my return. We became very good friends.

Dad was a man of faith. He might not have agreed with that as faith was always a bit of a struggle for him. But struggle isn’t all bad. Remember, the name Israel means “struggles with God.” If you aren’t struggling with God at least a little, you might not be paying attention.

Dad was a believer but in that old-school, Calvinist Presbyterian way where grace means being part of the elect, and being part of the elect comes with just a hint of pride, but since pride is a sin, that makes you feel a little guilty — so you don’t talk about this stuff very much. And as a hedge against any misunderstandings about grace, you work your tail off to earn God’s favor.

Today, I am certain he knows that admission to heaven has absoutely nothing to do with how hard you work to earn God’s approval, but has everything to do with the gift of salvation you can receive through what Jesus did for all of us on the cross.

To quote my favorite agnostic, Mark Twain, again, “Heaven is by favor; if it were by merit your dog would go in and you would stay out.” Dad loved dogs. I’m pretty sure that he would do anything necessary to get to heaven
if you told him there were dogs in heaven. And tomatoes…
And women.

I don’t mean anything untoward by that, he was a faithful husband, but he was, at least in his last few years, a bit of a flirt.

I have to tell this story that occurred at the funeral in January. We were toward the end of the service when a couple of older women walked in. I was on the front row, so I missed exactly what happened, but piecing together the story from others in the room, it went something like this.

There was music on the loudspeakers as they came in— a hymn that Dad was fond of sung by Randy Travis, I think. As they came into the sanctuarly, one of the ladies, lets call her Mabel, said to her friend in fairly loud voice, “Gladys this music is awful. I sure hope it gets better.”
They walked to the center aisle, and as they were headed toward the front, they continued their oblivious conversation, using their “outside voices.” I think Gladys was a little hard of hearing.
“Gladys, do you want to sit down front? You know it’ll get pretty loud once they start.”
They settled on about the third row. Once they sat down, still chatting with each other, it suddenly dawned on them. Not fifteen feet away was Dad’s open casket in all of its funereal glory.
Mabel blurted out, “Oh my God, Gladys, I think this is a funeral!”
They jumped up and, with great embarassment, scurried back up the center aisle toward the door. The funeral director’s wife, Carla, met them at the back of the sanctuary and asked, “May I help you ladies?”
Mabel, obviously a little flustered, said, “We’re here for the singin’.”
Carla, said, “I’m sorry but that was last night.”
Mabel then turned a little defensive and said, “No, the newspaper said it was Saturday evening.”
After Carla politely pointed out that this was Sunday evening, the ladies made their exit.

I still think the best way for that story to end would have been for Dad to sit up in the casket and say, “Ladies, we’re about done here, but if you can hang around for a little while after, I’d be happy to chat.”
He was a charming guy.

Dad married and buried two beautiful women. He was married to my mother, Mary, the yellow rose of Longview, Texas, for 50 years until she passed away. He was married to my stepmother Lois for 15 years before she passed away. He was 89 at the time and if he had his way he would have married again. I think he had a gift.

His gift wasn’t being a titan of business or making a lot of money, although he was very successful in his career, retired early and he almost made it to 93 years old before the money ran out, so he did something right. He wasn’t a great orator. He would rather have a root canal than get up in front of a crowd and speak.

Although I was blind to this when I was growing up, and he would likely deny it as well, he had the gift of mercy. He had good helpings of the others: service, leadership, kindness, encouragement, etc. But I think mercy was his big one.

He taught me a lot of things. How to bait a hook. How to throw and catch a baseball. How to shoot. How to clean a fish and dress a squirrel. I’ve never been any good at those things, but that’s not his fault. He aslo taught me how to mop a floor the way they do it in the Navy, though I am not very good at that either.

But the biggest lessons I believe I learned from him came through watching him as both of his wives suffered from disabling and terminal illnesses in their last years and months.

My mother, Nana, developed emphysema and for the last decade of her life dealt with all of the trials that brings. But she did not have to deal with it alone. Upon retirement, once they settled in North Georgia, their plan had been to relax and to travel. Nana’s illness took away both parts of that dream. Ever the engineer, he was always tinkering and coming up with ways to improve her oxygen intake, and make her equipment more portable. That was 20 years before the advent of the portable oxygen equipment available today. Those were not easy times for them. He confessed to me that he simply did not feel up to the job, but in the end, he was faithful to her, to God, and to himself. He remained at her side and was her primary caretaker until the end. He persevered.

Later when he married Lois, who had battled cancer three times—and won— before they met, he was able to realize the dream of travel with her, at least for a while. Their 15 year marriage was a beautiful testimony to the way God, as it says in Psalm 30, “turns mourning into dancing.” But we all know this life is never without struggle. When Lois was stricken with cancer for the fourth time, he was her primary caretaker for three challenging years as she fought a valiant fight and then passed away.

So even though he was never outspoken about his faith, I learned so much about God, from watching him minister to those two wonderful women. All of us were able to see Dad’s gift of mercy on full display with Nana and with Lois. It was a beautiful. It was the embodiment of Jesus words in Luke 6:36, “Be merciful even as your Father is merciful.”

At 92 you could say he died of old age. Of course as he put it, old age isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and if anyone ever asks, 92 is the new… well, its the new 92.

Even before Lois died, he was beginning to show signs of dementia though we didn’t know enough to recognize it at the time. He exhibited behaviors that were completely out of character for the man we called Dan-Dan.

One of those behaviors was a fascination with get rich schemes, scams and of all things, the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes. Anyone could call him up on the phone and tell him they had a brand new Mercedes and a check for a million dollars if he would give them a $400 handling fee and he would fall for it. We did not know that until way after the fact, but scammers cleaned him out—due in part to a little gullibility, but also to his trusting and generous heart.

If you want to watch a movie that tells a similar story, watch the movie Nebraska on Netflix, where Bruce Dern’s character starts to walk all the way across Nebraska to the Publisher’s Clearing House office because nobody will take him. But he got that letter, right? And he may already have won 10 million dollars.

I say all that to highlight the problem of Alzheimer’s and dementia and why we have asked that anyone who wishes to memorialize my Dad, do so with a gift to the BrightFocus Foundation at Brightfocus.org. Dementia comes on even before you or other people around you know it and it is as evil a disease as cancer. There are aspects to it that—when we retell them sound almost humorous—but in the moment it is very painful.

In some ways we all suffer a kind of dementia. It is analagous to the problem Paul describe in Romans 7 when he said “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it… there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. What a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Paul answers that question and elaborates in chapter 8: “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.”

For Dad that war is over.

When it became obvious that Dad did not need to be living by himself, Nikki and I offered him a choice of living with me or with her. After months of wrestling with it, and some arm twisting by my sister and brohter-in-law, Nikki and Montie Ray, he chose to live with them. Oklahoma just seemed to him like it was on the other side of the planet.

It was for the best though, because I don’t believe I could ever have done the extraordinary work that Nikki and Montie Ray did in these past couple of years. Caring for someone at the end of his life may be the hardest work anyone is ever called to do. All of the merciful care that Dad gave Nana and Lois was repaid to him in kind. A hundred-fold.

To Nikki, to Montie Ray, and all of their beautiful kids, grandkids, cousins, in-laws and outlaws who were there for Dad in his last days, he says thank you, and so do I. And for all of you whose prayers supported him in his last days and months, We owe all of you an eternal debt of gratitude.

So whether you knew him as Dick, Dick, Jr. or Dan-Dan, may God richly bless you and your memory of him.