Saturday, September 21, 2013

Eulogy for Lonnie Beckham

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:1,27)

Some Buffalo Grill Action
To know Lonnie Beckham is to know Lonnie’s family; Lonnie and his family were inextricably bound together; If you spent time with him, you were also spending time with his family – whether that was literally when you were invited to fold into a family get together or figuratively when he talked so transparently revealing his love and fondness for them.

As I look out upon all you family, I tell you what you already know: Lonnie loved you fiercely. It was, I’m convinced, the main thing that kept him around so long, through all the various odd maladies that he experienced in the last 15 years of his life. You were the apple of his eye (he would have said, you were the apple of his one good eye, but he wouldn’t have meant anything less). As much as he loved to hunt, you all were the great joy in his life (and knowing him that’s saying a lot, isn’t it?). You know that. But I know that too, as well as all of us out here, because he told us that in a 100 thousand different ways.

No matter where he lived – whether it was in the wilderness in an old abandoned one room school house, without running water or electricity, with three year old Melanie running around, or in the comforts of a nice home in Houston, as long as family was there, Lonnie found it to be home. Although there is good comfort in knowing he belonged to God and has returned to God, he will be missed by all of us. And so, we take comfort in the words of Jesus, and we rest in the peace that Jesus came to bring.

Penny Comes for a Visit
Of course, second to his family, Lonnie loved to hunt. It is the single most often thing said about him. He was an excellent huntsman and marksman; whether it was at the Gaither’s 4-D ranch or somewhere else, rarely did he ever leave any of the places he hunted without killing something. He trained and hunted with lots of dogs, but none became as precious to him as Marian’s dog, Penny – and none, my family would all agree, were any sweeter.

Jim, Lonnie’s son-in-law, learned very early how important hunting was to Lonnie, where it fit in the priority list of what’s really important in life. And though we can laugh about it now, for Lonnie at the time it was no laughing matter. The date for Melanie and Jim’s wedding was set, but as they drew closer to the wedding date it became clear that Melanie’s school schedule was going to make that date impossible. So, they simply did what most flexible people would do and moved the wedding by one day and set it forward to December 30 – what’s the big deal, right? Well, as it turned out the new date was the last day of hunting season, and you would have thought that Melanie and Jim had made the most egregious social faux pas imaginable. Lonnie was indignant. “How could anyone plan their wedding day on the last day of hunting season? Why would anyone want to?”

The biblical figure Lonnie must have resonated with the most was King David, but David before he became king, David before he became the slayer of Goliath. David even as a boy tending his father’s sheep, when a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, David says, “I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by the hair, struck it and killed it” (1 Samuel 17:34-36). The only thing I'm sure Lonnie wondered, I'm sure, was did he skin it and eat it.

Like David, who learned to kill the bear and lion and found in those experiences lessons and force for living faithfully before Giants later in his life, so Lonnie’s experiences lead him to lessons and force to slay the giants in his own life, not the least of which were the many strange afflictions he endured in the last 15 years of his life – he lost a finger, had a head and brain injury, facial nerve damage, prostate cancer, heart problems, he lost sight in one eye, and most recently endured the agony of dialysis. But through it all he never really complained, except for the occasional colorful, “It’s hell getting old!”, but always finished off with a laugh. He was not only a man with a lot of courage, but if you want to know the truth, he was a living example of real faith under fire.

In my own personal experience, Lonnie was one of the people who modeled the meaning of integrity. His word was his bond. He did what he said he was going to do. Or came back and honored his word when he didn’t.

For all of his virtues, Lonnie was a human being with some standard ways of being that I’m sure got him into trouble at times, maybe even caused some pain for others. Most of us also knew him as quite stubborn. Our common experience of Lonnie is as a stubborn man. But there is stubborn and there is stubborn. He wasn’t irrational. He wasn’t selfish in his stubbornness. He just had strong convictions and good reasons for the stand that he took, and he did not give them up without a fight.

Some of you may not know that Lonnie’s hardheadedness almost caused him to never graduate from the University of Houston. In one of his engineering classes he got into an argument with his professor about some engineering principle, and the professor flat out failed him. Did that stop Lonnie the next time he had to take the class? No. He got into the same argument, with the same professor and the professor failed him again. After literally the third time failing the same class because of the same argument with the same professor, Mimi – his mother-in-law – had to go down to the university and talk to the professor. She told him, “He’s got to graduate and get a job!” We’ll never know what was actually said, but the professor passed him after that. You have to wonder, if Mimi hadn't intervened, Lonnie would probably still be at the U of Houston (taking that same class, having the same argument, with that same professor).

Lonnie loved to tell stories, whether they were stories about hunting (he had quite a few of those) or stories about the church, or his family. But truth be told, he was the inspiration for many stories we told about him. 

It started early in his life. When he and Thelma, his little sister, were young little kids, they used to walk a long way to school together. They had gotten into some tiff, and Lonnie got mad and picked up a rock and threw the rock and hit her in the head with it. She dropped immediately to the ground. When he saw what he had done, he said, “Oh my goodness. I've killed my sister!” And so, he did what every good, red blooded American brother would do for the sister he loved and thought he had killed – he high tailed it on to school and never told a soul! He just kept worrying himself to death all morning long, feeling guilty, “Oh my goodness. I've killed my sister!” Then at the lunch break, he went outside with the rest of the class to eat. He looks out and here Thelma comes walking up the road to school. Can you imagine his relief? He ran and gave her a big hug, overjoyed - because now he wasn’t going to be in trouble for killing his sister.

There’s not a soul in this room, who knew Lonnie Beckham, who doesn’t have their own amazing story about him, a story that comes out of an encounter that was personal, joyous and honest.

One that I had him tell me frequently was when he worked for the US Geological Survey. He and a buddy were miles out in the Wilderness Mountains of Colorado engaged in survey work. These two gentlemen came appearing out of the woods like out of nowhere dressed in shirts and ties. It was the oddest thing. Of course, they all got to chatting, and Lonnie explained all about what he was doing. Just before the two men left, one turned to Lonnie and said, “You see that mountain face over there?” Lonnie said, “Yeah, I see it.” The man said, “Well, you might want to invest some money and buy a portion. It’s going to be valuable someday.” Lonnie said, “I didn’t think much of it.” But as Lonnie tells the story, that mountain face later became the ski slopes of Vail Colorado. Shaking his head he said almost under his breath but loud enough for me to hear, “I’m still kicking myself for not believing the guy and buying some of that land.”

Well, we could go on and on. And I’m guessing we will at the BBQ reception after this.

Psalm 91 says,

1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

4 He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

9 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For [The Lord] will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;

you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

When Marian passed away in 2008, after they had been married for 53 years, we met in this very room for her memorial service; this place which held such a special place in both their hearts and which is now occupied by so many beautiful memories of their life together in Christ. The Scripture for her service also held images of eagles and wings, nuanced a little differently, because it was from Isaiah 40 and because Marian was her own person. The prophet's message to us on that occasion was, “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint.” Marian’s last years were a battle with ovarian cancer that eventually took her life, with Lonnie next to her the whole time. Through it all she never lost her will to live, her Spirit of life and her ultimate hope in the resurrection; it was indeed as if the Lord renewed her strength, and her own faith under fired carried us in our faith as well.

Neither Marian nor Lonnie were the kind of Christians who wore their faith on their sleeves, Lonnie perhaps even less so. But neither did they leave any doubt whatsoever to whom they were committed to follow. Yes, they were committed to the church. Yes, they were committed to each other. But at the core, they were disciples of Jesus, and Jesus informed who they were and how they lived.

I don’t know if Lonnie would have called Psalm 91 his favorite or not, but it sure seems to fit, doesn’t it? Like a great eagle’s wing, the psalmist says, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”

A man who found that what gave him life was the great outdoors would immediately understand that

imagery? The one who walked in the back country wilderness and saw many eagles drafting on the winds overhead would understand the need for good shelter and the gift of shade and shadow as a protection against the hot burning sun; who would in turn resonate with those wildlife images of God and find, in his own quiet way, his own deep faith enlivened.

The psalmist says in this chapter, “If you say the Lord is my shelter and you make the Most High your dwelling place, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.” For a guy who suffered just about every physical malady you could imagine, that may seem like an odd verse for him. If you listen carefully, however, the verse doesn't say you will be shielded from every disaster, every harm, every malady, every bad thing, but that they will not overtake you, that they won’t be what overwhelms your spirit, your determination to live.

Lonnie, all of us would agree, was never defined by what he suffered. In my experience, that’s what I got from him, learned from him; that’s how he fed my own faith in Christ.

As Jim and Melanie related to me about being at Methodist hospital with Lonnie the day he died, learning what exactly had happened, pleased that the hospital staff honored Lonnie’s wishes that if anything should happen that no extreme measure be done to keep him this side of eternity, Jim and Melanie said to me, “You know, we knew that the time was coming soon. He was ready – both in terms of his faith, but also his body was just simply giving out.” And then after a pause, Jim said, “And Marian was coming to see him.”

I said, “Yeah?”

And he said, “Yeah. The last month or so Marian was stopping by to visit.”

Those visits by Marian are a reminder to us all that Death may be the last word in this place, but death is never the last word of God.

And so, we declare in this place, the words of the Apostle Paul:

Death is swallowed up in victory.
O Death, where is thy victory?
O Death, where is thy sting?

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)