My Eulogy for Connor

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Connor went through confirmation this year.  This is him answering professing his faith as he joined the church on Easter.  

This week has been the hardest of my 16 years of ministry.  After officiating a beautiful and fun wedding of one parishioner, my wife and I traveled the hour and a half trip back home.  About 30 minutes in I received a phone call.  We received the news Connor, a twelve-year-old youth of my church, died because of suicide.

We drove straight to their house and joined in the shock, sorrow, grief, and unbelief of what was happening.  I didn’t have words and still don’t.  The next morning, Sunday, I stood in front of our congregation and broke the news and their hearts.  We sang hymns and read scripture and just grieved.

As I prepared to lead Connor’s funeral I requested prayer and insights from every minister I knew.  I deeply appreciate the support I personally received and I know the prayers lifted up on behalf of the family were felt too.  People shared eulogies they did for families who lost children and ones they did for those who lost their lives to suicide.

I felt I would share what I said at Connor’s funeral.  Below is my meditation.  It is the longest and hardest one I have ever preached but one that was well received.  I said a lot but I felt a lot was needed and must be said.  I have permission to share this from the family and permission to use Connor’s name.

If this helps one person prepare to lead a similar funeral, then it is worth it.  If it helps one person realize what youth go through and how suicide is not the answer, then it is worth it.

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Meditation for Connor Francisco

From the moment we are born we are all heading in one direction. We are mortal creatures who have a finite time here on earth. We all will reach the same destination at some point. My grandfather had battled Alzheimer’s for many years and when he passed away it felt like death was a merciful healer. It is the same way when someone passes away with a chronic disease or has suffered for a long time with pain. For others, like my grandmother, she lived well into her 90s and her body simply gave out. Death, although still sad, seemed natural and that the timing was right. When death comes in these situations we are sad and we mourn but it makes sense.

When tragic events happen like a car accident or some sort natural disaster, we still have an event to blame. Death may come as a “thief in the night” but we still know whom to blame. There is still a bad guy. If we had to choose, which we never want too, these are the types of deaths we would prefer.

We gather here today to surround the Francisco’s with our love and our presence for none of these reasons. We arrive here today to cry out to God today because this is not how it is supposed to be. We should not have to bury a 12-year-old boy who was full of life. This is not how Connor’s story was supposed to end.

He is a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with stage 4 hepatoblastoma (hep-a-toe-blastoma), a rare type of liver cancer. He survived surgeries. He survived chemo treatments that were designed to bring his 2-year-old body to the brink of death to fight and kill his cancer. It did damage to his body, his brain, and set him back. He lost the ability to talk, to walk, and to think and had to relearn how to do all of that. However, he survived it all.

He learned to walk again and walked so heavy on his flat feet you could always know where he was. He learned to talk and, when he trusted you, he would love to talk your ear off about whatever was on his mind. He learned to think again and when faced with a riddle or problem in youth group, he would usually be the one who would help solve it. He survived and thrived through all of this. This is not supposed to be the end of his miracle story.

This is not the way it is supposed to be. This is not…this is not…this is not part of some major plan of God. This was not God’s plan at all. I do not want to worship a God who thinks this is some sort of way to bring people to Christ, to take a child so young. This is not a time to say God needed another angel because humans and angels are two different things in the Bible and I do not want to worship a God who pulls children away in their prime to be by his side for some demented reason. This is not the time, for any of us talking to this family to start any phrase with “at least.” If you find yourself talking to this family and you start the sentence with “at least”. Stop. Swallow your words and don’t utter another because there is nothing that follows those two words that will provide them with any comfort or peace. This is not the time for stupid platitudes and phrases that truly make us feel better but only do more damage to those who mourn. This is not the time to say things like “everything happens for a reason.” Those are truly half-truths that have nothing to do with the God who is present here in this place today.

This is not the time for me to stand here behind the pulpit and think I have any type of answer to why this happened. I truly wish I could shake the Bible and out would pop some sugarcoated pill I could give you all to swallow and make it all better. I wish there was some sort of theology I could condense into a tweet or t-shirt that would make all our pain, sorrow and grieve go away. But I can’t, because the truth is something like that doesn’t exist.

What I do know is today is a day to cry. Today is a day to let the tears flow and let the sadness sink in…because today…today…sucks. It sucks because this is not the way it is supposed to be. Today we are to mourn that Connor isn’t with us anymore. We won’t be able to see that infectious smile that would bust through those doors right there. I won’t be able to feel that smack on my back that takes my breath away. I know it came from a place of love and admiration but also it came from a happy kid who didn’t know his own strength. Today we mourn because we don’t have around us anymore a hard-working kid who thought the harder the task the more fun. We don’t have this kid who loved Camp Care and all the kids that looked and went through the things he went through. We don’t have this kid who was so proud he was taller than his mom and catching up with his dad. We don’t have a kid to play each Sunday at the nursery door and make the little kids laugh as he playfully scared them. This day…today…sucks.

This is the day when we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is the day when we learn we will have to simply be okay with uncertainty and never knowing the answers to the burning questions we have. We will never…never know why. We will never truly understand and somehow we will have to go on with our lives never knowing. That is the reality of today.

Today is also a day when we need to be thankful for how Connor affected and touched our lives. Connor loved to help people. He would serve meals, drinks, and desserts at fundraiser dinners for hours. He was one of the few youths I know who wasn’t afraid of hard manual labor and he almost relished in it. He knew he was strong and so he happily would agree to carry anything and everything, even if you were fine carrying it yourself. We need to be thankful that this wonderful kid who would greet everyone in this church on a Sunday. If he were actually the greeter, he wouldn’t wait until you came inside…no. He was outside on the front steps dragging you into the church with a hug and his huge smile.

Connor had a great eye for construction. Whether it was cultivated from Bob the Builder or simply because he loved working with his hands, he had a gift. The chicken coop he built is beautiful and so are the other wood projects he worked on with Sam, like the rifle he made Matthew for Christmas.

Connor loved the groups he was apart of. He would tell me all about Camp Care and camping trips he went on with boy scouts. I was looking forward to asking him how his hike went last weekend and how he outlasted older Scouts of his troop with a 40lb pack on his back the whole time. He loved this youth group and although he was the only boy most nights, he still knew he was accepted and loved. Just because the games we played were against girls, it didn’t stop his level of competition. Oh, and when he laughed…that belly laugh was infectious and could be heard for miles around. We witnessed that laugh a month ago at our last Youth Sunday. He won the Family Feud for the neighbor’s team and when he did; he raised his hands in triumph as the congregation all clapped and cheered. He was the king of marshmallow towers, pumpkin baseball, and waterslide kickball.

However, you know Connor, you could see a boy who simply wanted to be loved and truly was by so many people. The amount of love that has been poured out on the Francisco’s this week is simply a small testimony to the love we all have for Connor and all of them. The love we have for Connor is wonderful but it is nothing compared to the love his family has for him and the love God has for him. When I see Diane, David, and Matthew, I see people who were willing to sacrifice everything for him. You all have been the example of what unconditional love looks like. You all gave so much to Connor and he gave so much back to you as well.

Hold on to those memories, those moments, and the time love was shared because that is how Connor will continue to live on and affect so many more people in this world. I know you all are proud of him and the journey he has taken. Two years ago, when the youth did a youth Sunday focused on Disney movies, Diane left the church in tears. This was the first time Connor spoke in front of people. He did an amazing job. Her tears were tears of joy and pride in her son because of how far he came from a five-year-old who couldn’t say a word. Hold on to these memories and tell his miracle story.

Connor was one of my three confirmands this year. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church is when youth take their faith seriously for themselves. They profess their faith in God in front of the church and then welcomed as full members of our congregation. Connor attended every night and worked hard with his mentor, Andy, to discover God’s love for him and the grace God offers through his Son Jesus Christ. This past Easter Connor stood up here, about where he is now, and professed his faith in Christ. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, he loved God and understood God loved him. I know that God surrounded Connor his entire life and loved him.

But here is another hard part…the other hard question I know many are asking…where was God on Saturday? I firmly believe God was right there with Connor and God’s heart was the first to break when Connor died. I also know, without a doubt, that God has made sure Saturday is not the end of Connor’s story. Connor’s story continues and it doesn’t end in darkness and in grief. Jesus says in Matthew 19:14, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.” The Romans text says, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” It is because of death and resurrection of God’s Son that Connor’s story continues in the light and in the grace of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As I talked with the family this week there was something that truly stuck with me. As Connor would help Diane or David with things around the house when he was done getting something from the top shelf or moving something heavy he would look at them and say, “Aren’t you glad you got me.” “Aren’t you glad I’m here.” Although this is not the way his life was supposed to end, I’m glad, I’m sure you all are glad, Connor was here for the almost 13 years. I’m glad he was here and I got to know him because I am different because of Connor. This was a very safe place for Connor and as we witnessed that change in him, going from a wallflower to the life of the party, we all understood what the church is truly supposed to be. As Elizabeth, one of our wise youth, said this week, “Connor felt this was more than a church because we became his church family.” We are better because of Connor. He has taught us so much in the short time he was here and I’m glad I got him for as long as I did, I’m glad he was here. And I know all of you would agree with that.

There is one more piece of scripture I want to read today. It comes out of the Gospel of John and it is a selection of verses in the 14th chapter. Hear now the word of God…

[John 14:1-4, 18-19, 25-27]

In this scripture Jesus is telling his disciples and us, he never leaves us alone. God doesn’t leave anyone behind.

Connor always wanted to help. When Madison was cold he took off his jacket and gave it to her. When someone needed a refill on their drink, he would pop up and get it for them. Connor had a servant’s heart and was always willing to help. This is what Jesus was able to do for Connor. Connor had to be in some dark place, a place he didn’t know how to get himself out of. But after he slipped from this world to the next Connor wasn’t in darkness anymore; instead, he was surrounded by light. This light doesn’t leave him alone, it doesn’t abandon him or leave him behind. It keeps coming because that is what Jesus does. Jesus keeps seeking us, surrounding us and never leaving our side. Connor now is at rest. He is made whole. He doesn’t have to fear cancer returning. His fears and anxieties are now gone because he is basking in the presence of God and is surrounded by the light of Jesus Christ.

Please know that no matter how dark your world is or gets in the future. Know you are always surrounded by the light and grace of God. God is right there with you in your mourning. God is right there in the darkness offering an inextinguishable light. There is nothing you can do to separate yourself from God’s love and God is always with you…always.

Today we mourn. Today we cry. Today we remember. This is not the way it was supposed to end. As God cried because Connor’s life was cut short, God still welcomed him in with loving arms. I can picture Connor looking up into the eyes of Jesus and asking, “what can I do to help?” Then, after a full day of working in God’s glorious kingdom, asking Christ, “Aren’t you glad I’m here? Aren’t you glad you got me.” And Jesus, looking into Connor’s eyes and his big smile, replying, “Well done good and faithful servant, the kingdom of heaven belongs to children like you. Yes, I’m glad you are here. Yes, I’m glad I got you. I have always had you and I always will.”

May the peace and love of our God, the creator, the redeemer and the sustainer be felt in your heart today and always.

Amen.

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Winning against Cancer: Reflections on Death and Stuart Scott

I remember in college being excited about watching Monday morning’s Sports
Center.  Stewart Scott was usually on as one of the top broadcasters and I loved the catch phrases he would use.  “Boo-yah!” “Cool as the other side of the pillow.”  Rich Eisen does an awesome job summing them up in this highlight reel.

Yet, what caught me was the quote from Scott’s ESPY award speech.  “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer.  You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”

As a pastor, as a Christian, I never like hearing someone say that they ‘lost their battle with cancer.”  Stuart Scott seemed to be a man of faith and walked, the final days of his life, as one who goes on to live.  Another quote points to this.  This quote comes from ESPN magazine back in 2010 while discussing Tim Tebow’s scriptural eyeblack.  When asked if he would be offended if someone wrote “There is no God” on their eyeblack Scott replied, “Dave, if that [is] what you want to do, I don’t care.  But Tim and I and billions of other believers in the world know you’d be wrong.  I’ve seen the workings of God many times in my life…If you don’t believe in God, watch a child be born.  Then if you still say you don’t believe in God, that’s okay.  The thing is, I think He’ll watch over you anyway!”

I just did a funeral from someone who passed away from Alzheimer’s.  At any funeral when someone has gone through a long battle with illness and disease I remind the family of what Scott echoes.  You never lose when you have faith.

During the committal service at the graveside this is what the United Methodist Book of Worship reads, and something I love, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed.  For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting.” But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We will all change, we will all die, but it is through the salvation work of God through his Son Jesus Christ that we can go on to live.

I remember distinctly the pastor of my church as a youth (Bruce Jones) announce, “Mr. ______ just won his battle with cancer.”  It caught me off guard at first but then the reality sunk in.  As people of faith, God’s love wins.  No disease, illness or tragedy ever has the last say.  Scott seemed to understand that, echo that, and live that out in the last part of his earthly journey.

To him I say thank you.  Thank you for reaching a millions with that quote and I pray that they will know the faith and the grace behind it one day for themselves.

Let us pray, “O God, who gave us birth, you are ever more ready to hear than we are to pray.  You know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking.  Give to us now your grace, that as we shrink before the mystery of death, we may see the light of eternity.  Speak to us once more your solemn message of life and of death.  Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us form your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.”  (UM Book of Worship)

Prayers for Parson

My heart goes out to fellow blogger, Questing Parson. He lost his wife tragically. His words are inspiring, mournful, and found deep in the pit of grief.

Death came to visit last week. Death whispered in my ear before taking my love away and filled me with fear. But death is a liar. There are some things death cannot take away. Love is always mine and will always live. Memory is always mine and rekindles the presence of that now gone. The presence of her I discover is not dependent on the physical. Death’s whispered threat is that, only a threat.

Death came to visit last week. Yet death left empty-handed. I am alive; I am so much alive with all we were together, and as long as I live she also will live.

To hell with you, death.

My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family QP.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

One of my parishioner’s cousins was in a serious incident and past away last week. After two weeks of living in the hospital under a drug induced coma he slipped from this world unto the next. He and his wife had been going through a rough patch and they were separated. One night during what looked like a heated debate he was shot in the stomach with a shotgun. The wife told the police he did it to himself. Maybe it was out of grief or to call her bluff. They checked him for GSR and it came back positive.

The doctor’s could not close up his wounds because he literally did not have skin to pull together to stitch. For the last two weeks of his life he laid in the hosptial bed with this ambdomen wide open. Finally organs started to fail. The doctors woke him up from his coma and his family said goodbye. The police had some questions as well. According to my parshioners he was able to tell them that he didn’t do this to himself.

Last week the family said goodbye at his funeral. During the visitation before the service people approached the casket and some people placed objects into the casket for rememberance purposes. His wife placed a photo of him and her in western wear and a shotgun in his hand. My parishioner told me, “I know their redneck, but it was everything we could do to stop my aunt from taking her out back and giving her a beaten!”

That’s been on my mind all week…you can’t make this stuff up…

Last Lecture

Watching Oprah today (yes I actually typed those words), she had a show with Dr. Oz about death. They focused on two people who dying of cancer. She had Kris Carr who was the star of a documentary called Crazy Sexy Cancer. She also had on Randy Pausch who is dying of pancreatic cancer. He has become a big hit on the web because of his last lecture that he gave at Carnegie Mellon University. You can check the whole lecture starting here, although on Oprah he gave a shorten version of it.

These two people are facing death in the eye and they are doing it well. Although I was sad that neither of them called themselves Christian. They said they were spiritual but never used the word Christian or Christ. I had two of my parishioners pass away on the same day, last Friday. One I was really close too, even though I only knew her for four short months. She was a spiritual matriarch of our congregation and she will be missed.

She died with the most dignity and the most hope I have ever seen. She demonstrated faith and love like a true follower of Christ does. I wanted her life to speak outside the congregation as well, just like Oprah allowed these two people to have a broader audience. What made them so special is their hope in these dire times. Jackie had the same, yet even deeper hope.

Below is my eulogy, my testimony to her life she had here on this earth. She is in the presence of God know, with no pain, and no suffering. She is resting in peace, a peace unlike the world can give. Jackie we will miss you…

Today is a good day to cry. Today we can cry because we will miss Jackie. Jackie is participating in the next step today. She has gone back to the world that she once knew. Today is a good day to cry because we are happy that Jackie is no longer in pain and her suffering has stopped. Today is a good day to cry.

As we cry together we need to remember that our tears do not dissolve the certainty that Christ, in his death on the cross, conquered sin and death for us and for our salvation. Our crying does not contradict our faith in Christ, and does not drown out the fact that the Resurrection is real. It is in these tears, in our vulnerability that we can see the risen Christ in our midst. His spirit is here with us and his love will always be in our hearts. That is something Jackie knew well and found hope in.

I only had the pleasure of knowing Jackie for the four short months I have been here. But like anyone who met her, she made an impression. Everyone that knew Jackie talked kindly of her. Actually the didn’t talk kindly, they glorified her. But to ask her, she was truly humble about herself, her life, and her faith. Jackie was a women of dedication. She dedicated 57 years to the love of her life, Bob. They feel in love when she was only 18 and they loved each other more in these last months then in their whole marriage. Jackie told me that Bob and her were never closer than they were in these last months. They were closer mentally and spiritually. That is a testament to the type of love they shared with one another. That is the type of marriage that others admired and people strove to emulate. Bob and Jackie were a team. They did everything together and loved every minute of it. It did not matter if they were driving across the country on I40 or square dancing all around the nation. They loved being together.

One of the closest things to Jackie’s heart was her family. I have to be honest today, I have had a hard time keeping track of who is who and who is who’s. When she spoke of daughters, nieces, nephews, brothers, uncles, sister-in-laws, it was hard to tell you apart. It was hard because every time she would mention your name, she did with such compassion, love and care. It was how people talk about their own children. That amazed me. She loved each and every one of you equally. She would welcome people into their homes. Her door was always open, literally and figuratively. There was no time when I saw her at Hospice that her door was shut. She welcomed all into her care and into her heart. It was a type of unconditional love that I have never truly seen before in a person. I know only one other person with that type of love and Jackie and Him are enjoying each other right now.

I know her family will miss her dearly. They will miss her strawberry shortcake, chicken and dumplings, and potato salad. I heard she was a great cook and many of her dishes were requested at every family event. They requested it so much that one time Jackie wrote Uncle Harvey’s name on the potato salad with pickles to let him know it was for him. Now I cannot give Jackie all the credit for her cooking because Bob will rapidly remind you that it was him that did the grocery shopping, picked the strawberries and cut up the onions and other things for these recipes. Like I said, they were a team.

On the other side of her heart was the love for this church. A little over a year ago Bob and Jackie moved and they wanted to move so they could be closer to this church. They went here for many years and she touched everyone in this place. She was a spiritual matriarch. It was her optimistic and hope-filled way of seeing life that made it impossible not to be transformed by her faith. She regularly attended a Tuesday night Bible study. She attended every single night when she was feeling well. The people who attended with her will tell you that she was able to find the good in anything. They would all wait on baited breath to hear what wisdom would come from her about the subject they were studying. We will look back at our last studies together with her with fondness. And I know they will cherish those memories forever.

Jackie made such an impact on this group of people that about a month ago, right before she went to hospice, they decided to name their group after her. Now I have waited until now to publicly announce this because she was truly embarrassed by it. She told me that she could think of at least three other people the group should be named after instead of her. She was truly humbled by this honor, which speaks volumes about her character and spirit. But from this day forward, the Tuesday night Bible study will be known as the Jackie XXXX Bible Study.

As I got to know Jackie better and we talked, she told me how much she loved this congregation. I told her that she has a unique and wonderful opportunity to craft this service as a way to remember her but also to inspire this congregation. I asked her if there was anything she would like me to say to Trinity UMC. She told me that she feels like this congregation is warm again. You all have gone through a tough time and the sanctuary in the past felt cold to her. But there is warmth once again and she hopes we never lose it.

This illness has been hard on us all and probably hardest of all on Bob. Bob said the toughest thing he had to do was to call his girls and tell them that their mother was going to die. Jackie knew this day was coming, we all did. But she would be quick to tell you that she enjoyed her time here. She had a great life and she looked upon this day as a celebration and a time of joy. She died with dignity and went just like she hoped. She passed on from this world to the next holding the hand of her friend, her partner, the love of her life. They did every thing together and this event in their life was no different.

For Jackie death did not scare her because she had faith that the grace found in Jesus Christ was real. Jackie won the battle with cancer because she can boldly say today, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Jackie wanted us to celebrate today because she is taking part in that next step. In our sinning ways, in our poor attempts of praise and thanksgiving, in our happiest times in life and in our last days here on earth; Jesus Christ, Son of the One True God, promises that he will always be with us. Death for us, the believers, is just a door into a world we once knew, a world that is filled with the peace, the love and the grace of our Creator. Today is a good day to cry because we deeply cherish the faith, hope and love with which Jackie lived and shared her life with us. Today we come to remember the life she shared with us and celebrate that now she has a new life with God. We can find peace today knowing that God is here in our mourning and cries with us, but God is also celebrating that another one of his children are back home. Death is not the end, but really the beginning, the beginning of a new life with our creator, our Sustainer and Our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN

Death myths

I have always heard that deaths come in threes. I have seen it in my first appointment and I am in the middle of my first here. On Friday two people affiliated with my church past away. One was a member and the other a long time visitor. The first expected. The second totally unexpected.

With two deaths on the same day this got me thinking about the urban myth that deaths tend to come in threes. On Gray’s Anatomy they suggested it came in threes, sevens, and elevens. Should I expect another parishioner to be called up to the heavenly feast?

My wife worked in a nursing home before and she said they talked about certain times that many people would pass on. People would wait for holidays to be over and then depart. Others would wait until life events, like anniversaries, birthday’s or a family member was married, to go. Full moons always provided more action. There are tons of urban legends out there. Will this one come true?

I am simply wondering if other ministers or anyone else has come in contact with this phenomenon. If there happens to be a third death I will certainly let you know. I pray not.