Memorial Service for Dr. Don McPherson
Oh, how much like us this younger son was! As
his son by birth, his Father had provided him with a very good
life. But he threw it all away, for this child was selfish and
self-centered. He was not satisfied with the life his Father
had given him, nor did he have the patience to wait for his
Father to die that he might receive his inheritance. Instead
he demanded that his Father give it to him now!
In comparison, we too are sons, sons of God,
that is, through Holy Baptism. As such we have a beautiful inheritance
that will never perish, spoil or fade away, St. Paul declares,
for it is reserved for us in heaven. Yet in the fashion of this
younger son we don’t always have the patience to wait
for our inheritance either. Instead, we selfish, self-centered
sinners want - no, more than that, demand that God, give us
the good life now, while we’re still living here on earth.
Yet we’re not always convinced that he will. And so, again,
in the fashion of this younger son we are quick to run away
from him that we might indulge in the sinful ways of this world,
convinced that that will give us a better life.
And now, here’s the surprising thing.
Even as the father in Jesus’ parable did his son, so our
Father is also willing to let us go for the time. That’s
right. He puts us on a leash of sorts and let’s us wander
away from him some distance into sin. But this he does only
so that we might experience firsthand the mess we make of our
lives when we sin. For this is how he wakes us up and shows
us how truly blessed we are to be his sons.
At least that’s what happened to this
son. I guess feeding pigs has a way of doing that. So he returns
to his father, but not as the same person he was when he left.
Clearly his misery has humbled him. You can hear it in his own
words, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before
you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son (not that
he ever was). Make me like one of your hired servants.”
Of course his Father would hear none of it.
You see, the relationship God established with us through Holy
Baptism never changes from his perspective. He is our Father;
we his children in Christ, and in his love for his children
he desires to give us our inheritance. What does change, however,
is how we view our relationship with him. In fact, that changes
constantly- indeed, daily- due to sin.
But by this parable Jesus wants us to know that
God is merciful; that he may let us go our way into sin at times,
but, as I said, only so that we come to realize how sin hurts
us; how it makes a complete mess of our life here and threatens
us with eternal damnation in hell. Then when we, by God’s
grace wake up to this reality, when we repent of our sin and
return to him humbled by our experiences, he does what the Father
in this parable did. He welcomes us back unconditionally as
his sons and heirs.
But how can a holy God, who threatens to punish
all sinners, do this, you ask. I’ll tell you how. First
off, he punished his only-begotten Son, Jesus, in our stead,
so that we could be forgiven. Then he applied his forgiveness
to us in the Bath of our Baptism, so that we would be forgiven
and become his sons in Christ. Now if we are sons, then we are
also heirs, St. Paul explains- heirs with Christ of everlasting
life in heaven. That is why our heavenly Father forgives us
when we repent, why he receives us back as sons and then invites
us as sons to celebrate with him, in joyful thanksgiving the
Feast of Christ’s true Body and true Blood.
But good as this all sounds, is it really true?
Is God really so gracious as to forgive us when we repent of
our sin? If he were able to speak to us today- and in a certain
way perhaps he is, Don would answer both questions with a resounding,
“Yes!” From a spiritual perspective, here was a
man who by his own admission had wasted much of his life. But
the fear of an approaching death caused him to reassess his
priorities. So he stopped by this church one day, where we talked
for a couple of hours, mostly about what he was and even more
was not looking for in a church. And through the course of this
conversation it became apparent to me that he probably wouldn’t
like our church at all. But he came the next Sunday anyway,
and the Sunday after that, and so it continued, until his failing
health forced him to leave the area.
Later on, when I questioned him about this, he
told me the reason why he did. It was because he had never heard
the Gospel in the way this Church presents it. Oh, he had heard
about Jesus before this of course, but here it was all about
Jesus and the forgiveness he won and desired to give to him
a man, who again in his own words, could never live up to God
standards. Time and again, he would express his amazement over
how full and free God’s forgiveness in Christ appeared
to be. And eventually the Holy Spirit convicted Don of this,
so that by the time he left, no longer was he saying, “I
hope God forgives me as you say he does,” but instead,
“It’s wonderful how God forgives me and will welcome
me in heaven when I die.”
Dear Christians, Don’s story is an encouraging
one for all of us prodigal sons who far too often run away from
our heavenly Father in pursuit of sin, for it reminds us that
God really is merciful, and as he once did for Don, so he now
also does for us. The fact that we are here today is evidence
of this. He leads us to repentance after we sin and then welcomes
us back into his family and to the Feast he serves his family
at his Altar.
And it is this grace of God, this deep and undeserved
love that our Father in heaven has for us and displayed to us
in his Son Jesus that gives us all the comfort we need today.
Let’s face it. Death is as frightening to us as it was
to Don, because what it did to Don, it will also someday do
to us. But rest assured! For us who were baptized into Christ
and now faithfully feast on Christ, the promise of God is sure.
We will die, but only so that we can live. We will leave our
loved ones on earth, but only so that we can be with all the
blessed saints in heaven. Our bodies will decay and return to
dust someday, but only to be raised and glorified; then reunited
with Christ and with all the sons of God to live a blessed life
that has no end.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and
of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Why Don Joined St Paul's
These are the reasons I am glad to be a member
of this Congregation.
When I was a kid, my religious experience was varied and spotty.
Mom thought the British rightfully lorded it over those northern
savages, the Scots. Dad believed the only good idea to come
out of Britain was Hadrian's Wall. Mom was Methodist, of course.
Just as rightly so, Dad was Presbyterian. So, for reasons I
never figured out, the family usually went to a Congregational
church. My religious legacy as a child consists of a few vague,
but pleasant, memories of being taken to some sort of Christian
church. Despite all the variety, something did stick, and I
am grateful for that.
My high school years were spent in a military school. [I have
never really been able to figure that one out either.] Non-denominational
church attendance was required, of course. The best I came up
with out of all varied experience in religious matters was that
I was "supposed to be some sort of Christian."
I didn't think about the details very much, if at all, until
years later. Fortunately, by their fine example, two great ladies
brought me to membership in St. Paul's Evangelical-Lutheran
Church. It was a very long road, however, and neither could
possibly know what good they have done me.
First there was Evelyn. My "experimentation" in making
a living has been quite varied: Market Research Analyst, Systems
Analyst, Computer Programmer, Graduate Student leading into
2/3rds of a law degree, Adult Education Instructor and University
Adjunct Faculty, Private First Class, College Professor, Education
Director for competing information societies (fortunately not
at the same time), Computer Department Manager, Graduate Student
(again?) and Graduate Student Assistant (had to eat), Computer
Instructor, Computer Applications Consultant, College Instructor,
budding (I hope) Web Site Designer, and (now that I am in academic
retirement) amateur union negotiations consultant. People who
research such things claim the average person follows 13 different
career paths during their lives. I'm at least two over my quota,
but there will no doubt be more "experiments' in making
my way - God willing I get the necessary time. Early on in our
marriage, the variety in my work made Evelyn very nervous.
At the frenzied peek of this vocational maelstrom, Ferris State
College (now Ferris State University) called my Graduate Advisor
in 1962 to learn if he could recommend someone with enough computer
and teaching experience to handle programming and information
processing courses at Ferris School of Business Administration?
With his recommendation, I became the first computer teacher
at Ferris. My Advisor first had to persuade me that I could
"easily" finish my degree by commuting between Big
Rapids, Michigan and Detroit. I, in turn had to persuade my
then brand new wife, that life in Big Rapids would be great!
All we had to do was sell our brand new house, just furnished,
and pack up her dad and two teenage daughters and go. I have
never been that persuasive since!
It was great in Big Rapids, but the frenzied pace we set getting
on top of the job, providing a home for Evelyn's nearly grown
daughters and her father, building a house in Big Rapids, and
my weekly trips to Detroit in pursuit of that Graduate degree
made everybody very nervous. Alas . . ., the frenetic pace continued
throughout the fourteen years of our marriage. She made a serious
effort to straighten me out. She tried to bring her own considerable
good influence to bear on our lives and, also, an occasional
demonstrations of "normal behavior" for me to consider.
The most important of these occurred when we joined the St.
Peter's Lutheran Church in Big Rapids. But, over time I pressed
my luck too far. Evelyn and I are no longer married
After about four years of stirring things up pretty much on
my own, Jackie came into my life. She has been my second model
of excellent behavior for nearly 30 years. Unfortunately, wanting
to be closer to her daughter [at least that's what she told
me], she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio a few years ago. Of course
there was that other time she spent three years in Saudi Arabia
working for the King. . . Well anyway, when I visit, Jackie
sees to it that I am properly turned out to accompany her to
her (Lutheran) church nearby. Unfortunately, I must admit, when
on my own I was not in the habit of going to anybody's church.
Fortunately, in very recent years, that has changed.
Over the years, I have spent a lot of time looking for all sorts
of things One of the more important has been a nice place to
live. I have found that the Belleville area is a nice place
to live, but it took a very long time for me to get here. I
first encountered Belleville in 1948 when I stopped in town
for lunch with some friends. While I have always thought since
that the town, and its beautiful surroundings, were "very
nice place", I never imagined that I would ever live in
the area. Yet, when I had the opportunity to move to yet one
more nice place back in 1983, I did think of Belleville. I'm
very glad I did. Here I am, and here I have been since - a very
good move indeed.
I made a couple of other good moves in the past two years. I
have thought a bit about mortality and immortality. It was depressing.
I am just about out of mortality and there were no prospects
whatever on the immortality side of the ledger. I began to wonder
how I got so lucky to get this far, so easily, with so little
merit. I thought about far better men and women I have known
now long gone. Why was I still here enjoying life without having
done much to earn the privilege? These were unsettling thoughts
and to make matters worse there was this growing sense that
time was surely running out. Now I'm not inclined to live with
regret over what I have not, can not, or would not. Still, I
believed that something very important was missing? What? Some
sort of church? Perhaps. Maybe - even - God?
I was now occasionally experimenting; going to church on my
own - looking. Looking for what? Didn't know exactly! While
I was unsure of the process, I kept at it. Eventually I found
St. Paul's Evangelical-Lutheran Church. My church!
What had I been really searching for? God - no doubt about it!
While over the years I have often been very close, I have not
seen Him clearly. I had been missing God! When I started to
think about this more clearly, I began to see that I was still
alive was indeed very lucky. I could still do something about
But exactly what was it that I would do? It was the middle of
the year 2000, and I still hadn't figured out that part. I hadn't
found St. Paul's yet.
I sampled churches as far as Ann Arbor, but I always felt out
of place. Now the fault is as much mine as any I'm sure, but
there seemed to be too much evidence of competition; show; and
little substance in the churches I visited. At the same time,
I never thought a moment about St. Paul's. I didn't know about
St. Paul's, but I should have!. In the nearly 20 years I have
lived in the Belleville area, I must have passed this church
at least a thousand times, but I never paid any attention to
For some reason, that changed in November, 2000. One weekday,
late in the month, I decided to see if there was someone at
the Church I might talk to about oh you know - about relevant
matters. As I parked the car I saw a man in pastoral garb bidding
a lady good by at the side door of the Church. Now that's a
nice touch in this phony, first name basis, me first world,
I thought. This man is enough of a gentleman to see a lady (properly)
to the door. The man, it turned out was James Frey, Pastor of
St. Paul's. Now perhaps I should not give him too much credit.
The lady was his wife, after all. However the notion this could
be a civilized place did stick in my mind.
I found Pastor Frey to be a most credible young man who brokered
no nonsense on matters religious! He is refreshingly honest.
He's candid and convincing. I was impressed. He is a man I could
After a fairly long and probing discussion, on both sides, Pastor
Frey showed me around his church. The main Building was constructed
in 1976. The Narthex, a Classroom - Office wing, and an Activity
Hall were added 1995. "This is a very nice Church."
It has all the impact such places are supposed to have without
being pretentious. It is a large building, but intimate. Nice!
St. Paul's has the air of being alive and building, but not
yet quite reaching its destiny - whatever that was to be. I
felt that this church would probably have down to earth and
genuinely decent people in its congregation. That notion appealed
to me enormously [and - I have since learned that it was a pretty
good guess on my part]. I have become desperately tired of swimming
with the sharks.
I attended my first worship service on the 26th of November
2000. I have wanted to attend every service and opportunity
for religious instruction. I failed of course, but did manage
to attended most religious instruction and liturgy classes.
The latter followed Sunday morning service. First I had to down
a cup of coffee and a cookie or slice of cake provided in the
Activity Center by the Ladies Aid. That was one of the hardest
things for me to do in my early experience at St. Paul's.
Mixing in" with members of the Congregation after Sunday
service was very difficult for me because I am too shy for my
own good. I'm just not very good at "socializing."
It took several weeks before I got up the nerve to try. Over
the years, I have delivered speeches about computers and computing
to thousands; harangued standing room only crowds in a lecture
halls for 400; and, by turns, enlightened and bullied hundreds
of college classes. But - I just don't fare too well in small
groups. In my element, I can take refuge in computer bafflegab
when the going gets a little rough. In a social situation, especially
in the usual case where there is no interest in computers whatever,
I'm extremely uncomfortable. Is almost as bad as the horror
(for both of us as I recall) of my first date!
Why mention these things? I mention them because I have learned,
and you should know, one is made most welcome from the very
beginning by members of the Congregation at St. Paul's. That
is the point I am trying to make here. In a few weeks I was
past the worst of my fears. If you do not experience such fears,
then all the more reason for you to joint us. The Congregation
at St. Paul's is made up of people who are profound and able
in many ways that I am not, but they are far more like me (and
you) than they are different. They are great fun; very human;
and decent to the core! I like them and I believe that they
I'm trying to show you that St. Paul's is a great Church. In
the attempt to demonstrate just how that might be, let me tell
you about another great Church. It's in Cincinnati. This beautiful
and imposing structure is high on a hill. The windows along
the left side of the Nave overlook mature trees, onto a beautiful
lake in a fine public park. On a sunny, summer day dozens of
paddleboats ply the water. Ducks abound. Joggers jog. It's an
absolutely beautiful spot!
When I visit Cincinnati, Jackie and I usually go to the Saturday
evening service because it is less crowded. Occasionally we
have access to Communion.
This past December, we attended, for the first time in my experience,
the Christmas Eve Service. I have been there often enough on
Saturday evening in recent years to feel quit at home. Many
of the Congregation knew my car and that I'm from Michigan.
Some knew who I was and appeared to be no worse for the experience.
This is Ohio remember, and I am a Michigander [no matter what
our legislature chooses to call me]. Every member of the congregation
present (400, or thereabouts - standing room only) was turned
out in their finest feathers. The full time Music Director conducted
a choir of 37 beautiful voices with enormous skill. A 6-piece
brass choir of young and very talented musicians performed flawlessly
on two occasions. The brand new $750,000 pipe organ was played
with exceptional grace and delicacy by an organist engaged especially
for the occasion. Pastor delivered an outstanding sermon. It
was an incredible experience!
I love this church in Cincinnati. I love to go there when I
visit. But - it's not my church. In the middle of all that beauty
and splendor this past Christmas, I remember wondering what
was going on at St. Paul's?! St. Paul's is my church home. I
love St. Paul's more because I believe that I am far more important
there. I think, maybe, that God might be just a little bit closer
to me at St. Paul's too? I can sit in any corner at St. Paul's
and know that the people there are friendly, do not judge me,
will talk honestly with me, and really listen - if I could only
think of something to say worth listening to. And most importantly
- I know God is there, and I am certain that He will always
be there at St. Paul's for me.