This is the eulogy I preached for my grandfather, Donald Dorris. Two particular readings that I referenced were Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-18 (Adam in the Garden of Eden) and John 15:1-11 (I am the True Vine).
Let’s be honest, we’re all just happy he didn’t die by falling off a ladder while putting up Christmas lights. Honestly, are there any other 95-year-olds who would insist on putting up their own Christmas lights?
About a year ago I sat down with my grandfather to plan his funeral. He was not feeling well and thought this may be the end (maybe he realized it was about time to clean the gutters).
As we sat in the den of his home, with pictures of family members covering almost every inch of the wall, we reflected on which readings might fit such an occasion as this.
It didn’t take much prodding to choose the readings we just heard. You may have noticed that many of them are garden themed. It seemed fitting for a man who truly loved his plot of land. Behind faith and family, it’s without a doubt he loved the ground that he and my grandmother called home since the 1950s.
He was a master gardener, seemingly knowing ever corner of his land, and which crops would grow better in the different parts of the property. He, like Adam, felt a call to tend the garden, and for Donald Dorris, West Iris Drive might as well have been Eden.
It wasn’t until later in life that he let his kids and grandkids do more than pick a few ripe peppers and tomatoes. His increasing frailty was actually the opportunity for us to join him in this great passion project of his life.
And though the size of his garden, which once was the pride of Berry Hill, began to dwindle to a handful of tomato plants, Eden’s gate was left cracked open, and we rushed in at the opportunity to learn from the master himself.
Soon enough we were planting and weeding and watering while the master gardener gave us much needed advice at the end of each row.
As we trimmed the young plants, ensuring their health for the long season ahead, Jesus’ words echoed loud and clear: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”
My grandfather, Donald Dorris, knew how to bear much fruit, both in his little Garden of Eden and for the Kingdom of God.
He did so by quietly abiding in Jesus (the True Vine) all his life, or as the author Eugene Peterson described the Christian journey: “A long obedience in the same direction.”
It was inspiring to witness this long journey whose path and ultimate destination was Christ Jesus himself.
Like everything else in his life, Donald was not flashy or boisterous. He humbly and diligently walked that long path of obedience. He was a quiet presence in all our lives; quiet but constant. He may not be the one leading the cheering section, but he was always there.
All the gifts in the world could not match the value of his presence at every event we were a part of growing up. His presence mattered; the only difference is that he knew that then and I’m just realizing it out now.
He was a man of few words, but his words mattered—many times it felt like he had ruminated on them for a few hours, if not days, before speaking. A great example of this were his prayers. We knew we were listening to something special when he invited us to bow our heads before a meal.
It was evident his life was steeped in prayer—one continuous conversation with God, and we somehow were invited to get a glimpse into that intimate dialogue. Even Billy Graham would’ve been jealous.
And so, Donald abided through stability of place (meaning a genuine love for the land God had given him); he abided through presence (a heartfelt love for those in whose company he was with) and lastly, prayer. Come to think of it, he would’ve made a really good Benedictine monk…but he loved my grandmother too much to leave her and didn’t have a clue what a Benedictine monk was.
But love…that deep in your gut kind of love was the glue that held together his life and his faith. And that’s what makes today hurt so much…it’s because of love.
The night I heard that he had died, I sat in bed, my mind flooded with memories. As I tossed and turned, trying to rest, I then remembered how C.S. Lewis described death at the very end of his children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
On the last page of the final book, the Christ-figure Aslan (this big, majestic Lion) is talking with Lucy, the sweet protagonist who has just entered into the new creation. The old Narnia had passed away, and she was worried that she would be sent back into her world like all the times before.
But Aslan reassures her that she will never have to leave. Tragically, he tells her she had just died on earth in an accident, but what that meant was that she would never have to leave Aslan’s presence or the beauty of this new and glorious Narnia.
Instead of mourning what was lost, Aslan tells her, “The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
And then Lewis ends the book this way: “And as [Aslan] spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion [because he was turning into Jesus]; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at least they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Whether you are a child or an adult, I believe Lewis has summarized the Christian hope of life after death so perfectly in this paragraph. This life is merely the cover and title page to the Great Story that lies just out of our grasp, behind the veil of this life.
But even if we are just piddling on the cover page, we can’t help but look for resolutions and sound conclusions to this earthly pilgrimage.
In his later years, my grandfather reflected on his life—both the great blessings (which made up my list of place, presence, and prayer), but also his shortcomings. He brought up specific moments where he felt like he didn’t act fairly to another person, or how he could have been a better father in this-or-that way.
At moments he was proud of his work as a teacher and the lives he impacted, and at other times, remorseful he didn’t do more. Even his faith, as strong as it was, he still asked questions, plumbing its depths, seeking the Source of all truth and beauty—many times while sitting and pondering these questions on his back patio as the world slowly passed by.
He was in a constant state of evaluating and re-evaluating himself and his actions. Now as tough as that may seem, it actually shaped one of his greatest attributes, whether he realized it or not.
Though he was stubborn about getting on a ladder even into his 90s, internally, he was doing everything in his power to come before God with open hands; he tried not to make quick judgments about others, and he never assumed he had all the answers.
This is the definition of humility. But what people may not realize is that humility was not always natural for my grandfather, it was actually cultivated; tended and cared for like a young plant in a garden, and all he wanted to do in his life was abide—just as God had abided in him.
I want to close with a dream/vision that my grandfather wrote down over ten years ago, and I believe he shared it with the Wartrace Sunday school class he taught.
It is the perfect example of his desire to come before God with open hands, and is the fitting conclusion to this eulogy. He wrote:
In his 2nd coming Jesus comes back to deal with all these Religions. He brings many mimeograph copies of the Book of Life. He hands 1 copy to Mohammad and says, “Gather all your faithful Moslems.” Another to John the Baptist, “Gather all your faithful Baptists.” To Pope John Paul, “All your faithful Catholics,” another to Brigham Young, “Gather all your Mormons.” To Chief Red Fox, “Call your Indians,” another Rabbi Posner “All your Jews.” Another to John Wesley, “All your Methodists,” and so on.
The Primitive Baptists said, “Where did all these people come from?” The Church of Christ said, “How did all these people get in?”
Well, I was standing there with Mother Teresa and I looked and saw Hitler and Nero walking down the platform and I said, “Let me off.”
About that time the giant Platform began to rise, and I was standing alone on the Mount of Olives, and I saw Jesus standing on the edge and I called, “Dear Jesus, forgive me of all my transgressions and for thinking I am better than anyone else.” And he reached down with his Arm of Love and pulled me up and said, “Let’s go home.”
I looked over the edge and saw the Ocean evaporate and the Earth a ball of Fire and in its place came a New Heaven and a New Earth which is to become our eternal dwelling place.
And so, while you and I are stuck on the title page of our earthly story, our dear, sweet Donald has begun Chapter One of the Great Story with none other than the Good Shepherd by his side. He has come with open hands into the Kingdom, only to find that Jesus’ hands are outstretched too, open wide to embrace him, and welcome him home.
And when it is our time, he will do the same for us.
Donald Dorris Eulogy. Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-18. Psalm 100. Romans 8:31b-32, 35-39. John 15:1-11. Lewis’ The Last Battle.