I drove to Washington on Saturday to preside at the funeral of my good friend Francis Dennis, a member of my church in DC and a former ambassador from Liberia. Printed below are some excerpts from the service:
I am honored by the invitation to come back to this place and to this pulpit to say a word about my friend Francis Dennis. He was one of those people I was told about when I came to First Baptist in the summer of 2000. “One of our members is the former ambassador from Liberia” someone said, proudly, and so, even before I met him, I was looking forward to meeting him. I don’t know what I expected—some ambassador I had seen in a children’s book, maybe, wearing a top hat and tails, with a monocle held up to one eye, medals on his chest, and a sheaf of important documents in his hand—but what I got was Francis Dennis, this warm, personable human being whose laugh was one of his most distinguishing trademarks.
After we got to know each other when we met in the hallway Francis would stop, draw himself up to his full height, bend at the waist in a formal bow and say, “Dr. Somerville.” And I would return the gesture, bowing to him and saying, “Ambassador Dennis.” But both of us did it with a twinkle in our eyes, as if we knew that for all the formality of our titles and positions we were really just two children of God. If we had been born in the same time and place we probably would have climbed trees together as boys, wrestled, run races, and gone swimming in the river. One of the things I loved most about Francis (and there were many) was that he never lost his childlike spirit. He seemed to understand that life is funny, and if you can’t see it in the good times you will never be able to see it in the bad times. I don’t think I ever visited him in the hospital that we didn’t end up sharing a laugh.
What can we say about the children of God, about this child of God named Francis Dennis? There is an old prayer, often recited at funerals, that says: “Life is eternal, love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.” I believe that for the children of God this much at least is true: that life is eternal. It was never God’s intention in creation that we should die. And his intention, in redemption, was that we should live. He sent his only son so that we could if we believed, and I don’t know anyone who believed more than Francis. I think it is also true for God’s children that love is immortal, although all I can really offer here is my own experience. I know that I loved Francis before his death and I know that I love him now. My love for him has not been diminished in any way by his death. If anything, my love for him is stronger.
And finally, this: the idea that death is only a horizon, and that a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight. I’ve been picturing Francis standing on the deck of a ship as the lines are cast off and it begins to pull away from the dock. I imagine him going off to his next assignment, dressed in top hat and tails, with medals on his chest, holding up a white handkerchief and waving as long as he is in sight. But eventually that ship slips over the horizon and disappears from view. It doesn’t mean that Francis is gone. It only means that we can’t see him anymore. But somewhere he is still on his way, standing at the bow, sailing toward the rising sun. A child of God whose adventure has just begun.
I can almost hear him laugh to think of it.