On December 15, 2012, my dad, Winson Manning, passed peacefully from this life to the next after a five month journey with stage four liver cancer. Shortly before his death, he asked me to officiate at his funeral. It was a request I could not refuse. Here is the homily from that service, conducted on December 20, 2012:
Whenever Winson went on a shopping trip, it was usually carried out with methodical precision. He knew what he wanted. He had a list. He had the layout of the store in his mind’s eye. Even as he ambled down the aisle, he was moving toward his goal with focused attention. Get what you need. Get in line (always the shortest!). Pay. Be on your way. Although he rarely seemed to be in a hurry, Dad didn’t waste any time.
One day a year, though, Winson broke his usual shopping discipline. On that day he would go to store after store with little regard for how much time it was taking. Never mind the crowds. Never mind the hubbub around him. Never mind the traffic, the long lines, the harried people or the crying babies. He would leave the house early in the morning and return after the stores had closed in the evening — usually with both arms full of shopping bags. The day? Christmas Eve!
Yup, Daddy loved shopping on Christmas Eve. He seemed to revel in the confusion and the frenetic activity of last-minute shoppers. For the most part, his annual shopping extravaganza was something done “solo”. If, on the rare occasion he took my sister, Debbie, or me with him, we were deposited back home in the early afternoon so he could continue his mission alone.
Christmas was THE holiday for Winson. The frugality and practicality that defined him 363 days of the year was suspended for the 48 hours of December 24-25. He took great joy (and an appropriate amount of pride) in making sure there were piles of presents under the tree. Dad continued that annual Christmas Eve shopping tradition for many, many years — long after the two children had left home.
As a kid, I could never tell who got more excited about the kids’ toys — the two of us or Daddy. Looking back now, though, I’m pretty sure I DO know.
I’ve shared quite a number of Winson stories over the past few months with friends and co-workers. Daddy and I retold some of our favorite stories to each other (and ON each other!) during the course of my visits to Florida this fall. Over this past week, our family has been telling stories. Lots and lots of stories.
This sort of remembering isn’t simply an exercise in sentimentality. It situates us in a time and place. It helps us gain perspective about who we are and from whence we came. I suspect there will be plenty more Winson stories in the days and months ahead.
I’m pretty sure most of the people in this room have a story or two about him — how you met him, or your first memory of him, or when he shared a funny anecdote, or dropped one of those trademark bits of Winson-wisdom on you. I encourage you to tell those stories to anyone who will listen. Not because Winson needs us to tell them, but because we need to tell them.
Christian folks are ALL about stories! Think about it. This time of year we tell the story of Jesus’ birth. In a few months, we will tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Along the way we will tell stories of Jesus restoring sight to the blind, unstopping deaf ears, making the lame leap for joy and raising the dead to another shot at life. We even tell stories about Jesus telling stories — only we call those stories parables.
Those of us who’ve been around church for any amount of time listen to those Jesus stories over and over — even though we know all the punch lines and have heard all the endings. Those stories comfort and challenge us. Instruct and excite us. Inspire and encourage us.
Winson was the consummate story-teller and a keen observer of life. He was also the first to tell you he thought the best way he could give witness to his faith in God was to go easy on the words and heavy on the actions. Many of our Winson stories likely recall times when he helped us in some way — either through something he did on our behalf directly, or simply when he took the time to listen to us when no one else seemed to have time to spare. The way Dad lived his faith can’t be inscribed on a wall plaque or summarized in a newspaper article. And that seemed to suit him just fine.
I don’t know if Dad ever heard of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived centuries ago in Europe. But I know he would have said a hearty Baptist, “AMEN!” to one of Francis pithiest pieces of advice, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
A verse from one of Winson’s favorite bluegrass gospel songs summarizes this way of LIVING the Good News of God in Christ:
While going down life’s weary road; I’ll try to lift some traveler’s load. I’ll try to turn the night to day; make flowers bloom along the way.
Dad was convinced that actions speak louder than words. I’m guessing none of us would argue his point. But sometimes, we DO need to hear a word, don’t we?
When Jesus gathered with his disciples, just before his death, he offers them some words of encouragement. These words have comforted Christians throughout the centuries. Jesus says to his frightened and confused followers, “Let not your heart be troubled. I go to prepare a place for you…I will receive you unto myself…where I am there you will be also…and you know the place where I am going…”
And then, Thomas (God bless him!) says, “Uh, Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?”
Jesus answers, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
The story we Christian folks tell at funerals is that the end of this life isn’t the end of it all. Death does not destroy hope — even if sometimes the death of a loved one stretches our hope to a breaking point. We keep on hoping though, and not in some anemic, wishful-thinking sort of way either. We hope along with the apostle Paul that, “we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” We say our farewells to loved ones at the graveside, holding as tightly as we can to the hope that “farewell” is not “good-bye”.
Between now and the day when God’s great, unfinished future dawns like the brightness of the sun, we tell stories. We tell the stories of our faith and we tell the stories of those who have lived faithfully. We do our best to walk in the Way of Jesus. We do our best to live in the Truth of Jesus. We do our best to reflect the Life of Jesus. With the eyes of faith, we look toward the day when we will be reunited with loved ones and with our Lord — in the place prepared for us.
I finally figured something out about Winson’s Christmas Eve shopping adventures. That annual retail pilgrimage served a purpose for him. It helped Daddy get out of the day-in-day-out routine of work, kids, bills, groceries, household chores and car repairs. Those shopping trips prepared him to REALLY celebrate the holiday. As it turns out, he brought much more home on those Christmas Eve nights than bags full of candy and games, trinkets and gizmos. He busted through our front door carrying generosity and gratitude; laughter and love.
Today, as Winson’s family and friends, we’re taking some time away from the details of living — the details which, all too often, blind us to the reality that this life, even in moments of difficulty and pain, is a wondrous gift — a treasure to be received moment by moment and day by day. We’re pausing today to reorient ourselves — to remember a man whose life touched most of us here in one way or another. We are pausing to gather strength from each other and our shared faith to face the days ahead. We are pausing to give thanks for a life well-lived.
A few weeks back, while we were sitting out on the front porch, Dad dropped one of his pearls of wisdom on me. He said, “You know, when something comes along that slows you down, you wonder why you were in such a hurry in the first place.” Indeed.
Perhaps the best tribute to the life of Winson C. Manning any of us could offer in the days ahead is to SLOW down and take our time. Amble instead of sprint. Watch the breeze filter through the trees. Listen to the rhythm of the waves at the beach or maybe slip off and wet a line from the creek bank. Hold loved ones close. Tell friends and family we love them. And then? Get up and live!
Live tenaciously. Give generously. Pray fervently. Hope endlessly.
As Daddy would say, “There, that should keep you busy for a while.”