Saturday, October 03, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Alpheus J. Dolan

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 3, 2009

Sermon for the Funeral of Alpheus J. Dolan
Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 35-38, 42-44, 53-58
John 14: 1-6

“Number 5”

The lesson I just read comes from the account of the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. Jesus is saying farewell to his friends and they are beginning to realize just what this means. Jesus is going to die. Jesus – their friend, their teacher, their Lord – will no longer be with them, at least in the way they have known.

Even two thousand years later we can still feel the urgency of Jesus as he tries to assure them that he is going ahead to prepare a place for his friends.
And all these centuries later we can still hear the sadness, fear and confusion when the Apostle Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

And then Jesus tells his friends more than they can understand, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”

In his own quiet and practical way, Al Dolan placed his trust in Jesus as the way, and the truth and the life. He lived a life of faithfulness and dedication. And we’ve come together here this morning to mourn the loss of this good man, to give thanks for his well-lived life and to pray for him, his family and for all of us who miss him already.

Each time I visited Al, without fail, he would ask how things were going at Grace Church. Many times he told me how proud he was of this church.
Al was, of course, interested in how the people – especially his old buddies - were doing, but, to be honest, he was at least as interested in the furnace, the wiring, the plumbing, the bell and all the other things that unfortunately I know almost nothing about.

Good thing his pal Gene Carpenter, who has forgotten more about these buildings than I’ll ever learn, would regularly update Al on all the technical aspects of life at Grace Church.

Al wanted to know about the mechanics of Grace Church because, as many of you know, he was the one who had designed, built and maintained much of what makes these old buildings go.
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus assures Thomas and the other disciples that he has gone to prepare a place for us – a place to live with God forever.

Al is surely alive in that place, in the presence of God, but Al Dolan also lives on in the wires and switches and circuits and control panels that are quietly and faithfully doing their work right now all around us.

In part because he had the mind of an engineer, a mind that was always eager to design and build, it was always interesting to talk with Al – and to follow his train of thought.

Over his last months when he couldn’t do much else, he had a lot of time to think. In our talks he told me how he was trying to fit together all the pieces of his long life. He looked back to his childhood. He reflected on life as a husband, father, and grandfather. I hear he was a particularly doting grandfather, making a daily stop with Caroline at the bagel shop on the way to school. In fact, they were such regulars that one day the bagels were on the house!

As he worked at putting together the pieces of his life, Al looked back on his professional life – his accomplishments during a long career at Westinghouse. He also reflected on his deep friendships with Peg Helmers, who died just a few months ago, and Ginnie Brandt, who’s here with us this morning.

One memorable afternoon Al and I went through his family photo album – filled with so many remarkable pictures. What a wonderful keepsake for your family!
As I turned the pages, there was Al’s mother, the lovely and rather bohemian-looking concert pianist married to Al’s father who seemed to always be the sober-looking businessman. There was Al and his brother, Court, as boys growing up in Queens. There was his beloved wife Betty and there were his children, Jack and Lu Ann. And finally there was his son-in-law Mike and his granddaughter, Caroline.

And, as we turned the pages of the album and talked, Al puzzled over his life – how did he get to this point, how did all the pieces of his life fit together?
Just the other night, a line in a novel I’m reading jumped out at me because I think it may capture what Al was feeling as he looked back over his life, trying to fit all the pieces together.

In the novel there are two old men who grew up together and have been lifelong friends. They loved to tell stories about their youth and to laugh about them, even though to others the stories seemed not particularly funny. Other people couldn’t see the joke. Here’s the line from the novel’s narrator that grabbed me:
“The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.”

Near the end Al found a great deal of peace. It was a great gift when Mike and Lou Ann moved in with him and an even greater gift that Lou Ann got to be with her dad at the end.

The last time I visited as usual I asked how he was doing. He pointed and told me that he spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about that locomotive. At first I didn’t know what he was talking about, but then I looked over my shoulder and on a shelf above the window there was a model of a steam locomotive.
He told me the story of “Number 5.” When he was about five years old Al had ear surgery. Al’s father gave him this model engine, Number 5, as a gift. He had kept this deeply meaningful gift for all of these years.

As Al looked up at the engine with its headlight shining forth, true to form, he patiently explained to me how a steam engine worked.

But then he said that now Number 5 didn’t have much of a power source, just enough to keep the little headlight going but not enough to actually move. Number 5 had only a little power and sat on just a bit of track.

After a long pause, I asked Al how it made him feel seeing Number 5 that way.
He said one word, “Peaceful.”

I don’t know that Al was ever able to put together all the many pieces of his long life but lying there in bed that day near the end of his life he felt the love he had received from his father so long ago – the same kind of powerful love that Al shared with so many over the course of his long life. And that love was just a hint of the divine love Al is experiencing in the presence of God right now.
Al Dolan lived a good and faithful life and now he has completed his journey back to God.

Al’s journey is over, but for us, the journey continues. Last night here at Grace Church the bishop dedicated and blessed our new building – a building Al took great interest in and lived to see in person. There is great symbolism in that timing.

Just as the life and work of Al Dolan helped to lay the foundation for our lives today, so too with God’s help the life and work of Al Dolan can serve as an inspiration for us to live the rest of our lives with his kind of dedication and faithfulness.