Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Time to Die

Homily at the funeral of Dr. John Joseph Benton, Wednesday, April 12, 2017, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Panama City, Florida. The Reverend Tom Weller

A time to be born, a time to love, and a time to die. John Benton, you did it right, you did it all just right: 

honor, kindness, blessing grateful parents and families with healthy children under your loving care,

blessing creation with ten children of your own that you and Freddie created and raised as responsible citizens,

generosity, blessing the world with service of kindness,

blessing St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church with loving and faithful service to the Lord, not to mention at times in the early years, nearly doubling Sunday attendance as the Benton family arrived with a quorum for worship!

blessing the earth with your and Freddie’s brilliance and your service, as physician to needy families in other lands.

John Benton, the Lord created you, as he created Father Abraham, to be a blessing to the world in which you lived, and like Abraham you have been a friend of God, who receives you into paradise as a good and faithful servant.

For us here at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, it was 1950. Some here those decades ago may remember, as I remember, the Benton family arriving here in Panama City in 1950. A beautiful couple in their middle-to-late twenties, tall and lanky, smiling young doctor with strawberry-blond hair, a happy personality, and a lovely young woman, wife, doctor and mother, John and Freddie Benton, with four adorable children — it never occurred to us in the beginning that this large family of six was only half complete, but they blessed us over the years with child after child, and when I would return home from college my mother would excitedly say, “Freddie is expecting!!” My mother loved the Bentons and their children so deeply that she was given one, Tom, as her god-son, and there was never a kinder, more faithful god-son, nor a more grateful god-mother.

The beautiful newspaper obituary told so many wonderful things about John’s life that I do not need to go there; so I’ll go one step deeper into personal memories (most of the family know this). In the late 1950s, when my wife Linda and I were college students at the University of Florida, John Benton arranged for Linda to live in the old family home in Gainesville where his mother, grandmother to the Benton siblings here, had rooms for college girls. Mrs. Benton was a feisty soul, who raised hell with me the first time I called at her house to visit Linda: 
BRRRRIIING - - BRRRIIIIIIING - - BRRIING BRRIIING - - BRRIIIIIIING 

Jerking the door open, Mrs. Benton told me in no uncertain terms that she was not deaf, and never to ring her doorbell more than once; ring once, period. 

Even so, I was a constant visitor there, and she got used to me. I drove an car that was not always reliable; and when my car would not start, Mrs. Benton would hand me the keys to her car, a light-colored Studebaker Champion sedan, and say, “You may drive my little Champion.” That’s what she called it, “my little Champion.” Linda and I used it so many times I got to love it and almost regard it as my own. That was trust and confidence that I was always careful to honor, and for which I am still grateful now, sixty years later to the year. I’m told the old house on University Avenue has been moved a block back but still in the family. I’m not sure about Mrs. Benton’s “little Champion.”

Lifelong memories, thanks to John and Freddie Benton, friends of seven decades.

In his years, John Benton blessed so many lives, both as beloved local physician whom our community depended on to look after generations of children; and as a doctor serving internationally as missionary doctor and with the Peace Corps. Some of the Benton children were on the overseas trips and still remember those adventures; others were moving on into lives of their own, but they all are blessed with parents who were good, and kind and loving, patient and generous. 

As with most anyone who lives long, and loves and works hard, John Benton’s life was much blessed, but also touched with grief. The loss in World War Two of his oldest brother, for whom Bob the first son, Judge Robert Benton, is named. The crushing loss of his wife Freddie, who became his love when they worked together in medical school as lab partners. We will lay John to rest this morning beside Freddie. And also there in the family plot, ashes and the grave marker of John Benton, Jr., whose life we celebrated here in St. Andrew’s Church a year ago last month: with him often since then, I saw that Dr. Benton never worked through his loss of John, Jr., never came up from that.

Yet the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God is good, and God is present with us, and God is love; that God mourns with us in our sorrows, rejoices in our joys, and finally delivers us victorious, from all pain and sorrow into life everlasting: we know by faith. One of the prayerful petitions we sometimes include in our burial service goes like this:

Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that we may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope, in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those we love. (BCP481)

We walk as yet by faith, and death is a mystery as to what God has in mind for us after this. But that prayer expresses the hopeful theology of our church: “the joyful expectation of eternal life with those we love.” This is what I will have in mind today, as we commit John’s earthly remains, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, there with blessed memories of Freddie, and of John, Jr. -> eternal life with those we love. And so, John,

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world, in the name of God the Father who created you; in the name of God the Son who redeemed you; in the name of God the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you: may your resting place be in the paradise of God; may your company be His saints and holy angels and those you loved and who loved you in this life. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace, throughout the ages of ages.

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