In Memory

Good afternoon to each of you. On behalf of my mom, I want to say “thank you” for being here today. Your love has been received and your prayers have been felt. God has been very gracious towards us in countless ways, but certainly by blessing my family with his peace and comfort.

I’m sharing my dad’s funeral message today from his iPad. There was a day and time whenever a pastor would share from the loved one’s Bible, but this just felt more appropriate. In his later years my dad spent a lot of time on this silly thing – even if he didn’t always understand how to use it.

Whenever I opened it after he died, I found 9 different versions of the solitaire app. He apparently also downloaded the TikToc app – which truly frightens me…His recent web history included, “Did Alex Rodriguez and J-Lo really break up?” and “Does Taco Bell deliver in my area?” His iPad was something that helped him pass the time and certainly a hobby he enjoyed with his grandsons…with no regard whatsoever for screen-time limits his grandsons’ parents tried hard to put in place. But I do think we have may have a problem. After I told our youngest son, Brooks, that Papa died and is in heaven, his first question was, “Did Papa take his iPad to heaven?!”

I promise this whole message will not be about my dad’s entertainment. But it will be, I hope, a tribute to a great man. As mentioned, my dad was born to Ray and Ruth Brannon right here in Fort Smith, Arkansas – at what is now Baptist Hospital, but will always be Sparks, to me. I think there is something really unique about living a long life, traveling the world, and yet his life came to an end in the same place it started…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

My dad was the oldest of two boys, and as I understand it, played the role of big brother well. He grew up in Mansfield, Arkansas where he succeeded in school and thanks to God-given size, played sports throughout. He was built like a football player, so naturally he started for the Tigers. Although, he never won a state title they did improve dramatically. His senior year they won twice as many games as his freshman, sophomore, and junior years combined – his senior year they won two games…He enrolled at Arkansas Tech University where he played both sides of the ball, offensive and defensive line. He loved football. So he was excited whenever I went out for the school team my 7th grade year – you know, that year every boy in the school plays football?! Yes, I’m sure the coaches were licking their chops whenever they saw my then 6’3” 300-pound dad show up to watch me at practice. You can imagine my dad’s disappointment whenever I became the only starting linebacker in football history who actually waited until the play was over before jumping on the pile of players.

It was not exactly a story of “country boy meets city girl” whenever my dad asked my mom on their first date – but with my mom’s beauty, grace, and talent it is pretty obvious my dad was out of his league. Nonetheless, my mom fell head-over-heals for his good looks and charm. They dated a while, then fell in love. My mom was the kind of young woman who was not about to make life easy. In what would be one of our last cookouts as a family this past April, my mom and dad told the story of how my dad got down on one knee and proposed to my mom. She actually said, “I don’t know…I need to think about it.” When asked about it now, my mom laughs a little and says, “I loved him, but I wasn’t going to just say yes that easily…” which probably says more about my mom than it does my dad.

My dad enlisted in the Army, serving in the Medical Services Corp. He excelled at every job he was given. While stationed in Japan during the Vietnam War, my dad was acting administrator for medical missions in and out of the frontlines – flying on helicopters which brought fresh units of blood to the infantry and then evacuated wounded soldiers back to the Army hospital. He rapidly achieved new ranks in the service and regularly received awards for both acts of valor and his dynamic leadership skills.

His life forever changed in the fall of 1982 whenever he learned my mom was pregnant. For sixteen long years, he and my mom tried and waited, tried and waited, until they were finally told they should give up – they simply were not going to get pregnant. Well, I don’t know if I should thank a Barry White album or a beautiful south Texas sunset, but whatever the reason, I for one am glad they didn’t give up! Then, in July of 1983 Les Brannon became my dad.

It’s at this point while writing the funeral message I realized I might have bitten off more than I can chew, emotionally speaking…but in some ways, I cannot think of a better way to honor my dad. Ever since I was a little boy, he seemed to push me, challenge me, to do more, try harder, and never back down. It was his mom Ruth, my Grandma, who as a professor of Speech and English and head of the drama department at Arkansas Tech University, used to tell how important it is to be good at public speaker. She would say, “You may never make a million dollars, but at least you will sound like you do.” I’m hopeful she would be proud.

A funny thing happened along the way. I became a Momma’s Boy. I actually went on to marry a baby of the family and we learned quickly we both can’t have our way…but that’s for marriage counseling on another day. My dad seemed to eventually accept I was a Momma’s Boy but that didn’t keep him from giving me a hard time about being spoiled. Like the one time…yes, I’m pretty sure it only happened once…I unloaded the dishwasher without being told. He brought home a big helium balloon with the words, CONGRATUATIONS printed on the side. Next to that, he wrote, MIRACLES HAPPEN…the deflated balloon still hangs on our garage wall to remember the occasion.

My dad was a good teacher, though I’m sure I pressed his patience from time to time. He taught me the basics like, “righty tighty, lefty loosie,” how to grill burgers over a charcoal flame, to kick the lawn mower bag while walking behind it to see if it’s time to dump out the grass – and probably a few other things I now wish I had paid closer attention to. He taught me how to hit a golf ball straight and put the correct spin on a reverse layup. But what I will remember most are the special, little things that were so important to him. Like how he told me when walking a trail in nature, never stare at your feet. Instead, always look around, or up in the sky. He had a deep love for nature and being in God’s creation. If you ever need proof, I now have dozens of pictures of random, generic brown squirrels on his iPad. Perhaps the most priceless piece of advice he ever gave me was to, “Always remember, you are the one who has to look yourself in the mirror when you shave.” Advice I try to live by daily and has already served me well at the crossroads of significant life experiences.

There were days when the very man my dad was trying to make me become would be the teenager that caused him much angst. My dad’s addiction to overindulgence mixed with my misguided passions of youth made for many emotionally violent encounters. Me being unable to harness my emotions and he being unable to put to death his besetting sin eventually caused distance between us.

But whoever says, “lightening doesn’t strike twice,” doesn’t know the overwhelming power of a loving God. Not only did I experience the mercy and grace of a Heavenly Father who welcomed me home as a prodigal, so too did my dad return to his faith in the later years of his life. Which causes me the need to take a moment to honor my mom. In maybe the most unexpected, un-flattering compliment possible, I want to thank you, MOM, for being the taxi driver of our family. Now, just let me explain. In a city like New York, a taxi driver has one main job. He welcomes stary-eyed tourists or Fortune 500 businesspersons into the back of his car. All day and all hours of the night. Then he takes them to their destination. But what happens along the way, is that driver is the one who weaves in and out of hair-raising traffic, deals with miserable conditions, and works through the muck and grime day in and day out – without reward, credit, or praise. No sick days. No time off. At times, sadly, not even getting the acknowledgement which he truly deserves. All the while, that tourist or businessperson is taken from point A to point B as comfortable as possible, with their every need being met.

And you were that taxi driver for my dad and me. For decades you cared for us long into the night and early every single morning. You met our needs, provided us care, and loved us from point A to point B – rarely, if ever, receiving the praise and gratitude you so rightly deserved. In our own unique ways, your sacrifice of love made us both into the men we are today. On behalf of my dad, I say thank you. And now I encourage you to hang up your steering wheel and park the taxi in the garage. It’s our turn to drive Miss Daisy! By God’s grace, you are entering into a new season of your life. Don’t feel guilty, for you are not reinventing yourself nor will you make you the center of the universe. But what you must do is know the favor of God toward you. His favor for you to go and live and do as you have so wanted to do for so long, but were too busy sacrificing for others to do for yourself.

Becca, my beautiful, sweet wife. You were a daughter to my dad. I will never forget when after we were dating a while, I told my mom and dad I wanted to marry you. At that news, my dad kept saying, “She is so pretty. She is tall. I’m glad you want to marry a tall woman. Tall women are beautiful. And on and on he went.” I said, “Dad, mom is sitting right here. She can hear you – she’s short, not deaf!” My dad already thought you hung the moon, but whenever you gave him not only one grandson but two…you became the queen of his world. He loved you deeply and cherished you very much. I want to publicly thank you for loving my dad. Not only through good times and bad, but in these last ten days. When my mom had given 100% but my dad needed more, you were the one to dig deep, keep giving, and find the extra 10% needed, always by his side.

If there were ever a man who was custom made to be a Papa, it was my dad. He loved and adored his grandsons, Cooper and Brooks. As the cliché goes, he worshiped the ground they walked on – every breath they took was a gift to him. Even though he was dramatically limited by poor health, he gave all that he could to be at every birthday party, share every holiday, and make special every trip home to Fort Smith. The boys loved watching Dallas Cowboys games sitting in their Papa’s lap. Brooks always wanted to go on walks with Papa and Cooper always loved simply being around Papa, his gentle giant.  Some of the most special gifts the boys have is a collection of wooden built-it-yourself cars my dad bought, built, and painted out in his workshop. Cooper would display his in his room and Brooks would play with his until it broke – which is basically their personalities in a nutshell – and Papa would have it no other way. I could go to seminary a hundred years and never learn of God’s great love towards a person as I saw God’s love on display in the relationship between my dad and my sons.

My dad became really funny as he got older. As the song lyric says best, I’m afraid my dad may have been, “the last of his kind.” Or at least until now as I see so much of him in myself – as my wife reminds me often! At Christmas it is a Brannon family tradition to pass out one present at a time and watch as that person opens it – the perks of having a small family, I guess. One year we gave my dad the latest James Bond movie on DVD. He took off the wrapping paper, showed it to everyone and we moved on to the next giver and gift. Several minutes went by and when it came time for my dad to open his next present, we looked over to seem him struggling and wrestling with his pocketknife. My dad had not only taken off the wrapping paper, but he cut the plastic off the DVD case and cut out the paper from the cover, thinking that was part of the wrapping! He held a damaged, black case in his hand, laughing, and said, “How was I supposed to know – I’ve never opened a DVD before!”

One time in Memphis when he and I were running errands, I stopped to get us a cup of Starbucks coffee. Of course, he ordered a cup of plain black coffee, no cream, no sugar. As we came to the end of our errands that morning, I noticed he finished his cup, so I asked, “What did you think of the coffee?” “Hated it,” he said. So, I asked, “then why did you drink the whole thing?!” He replied, “Because you paid $5.00 for it – which is ridiculous…”

Or the time he walked in from the garage wearing his tennis shoes, a gray t-shirt, and his boxer shorts. My mom said, “Oh honey, don’t forget to go to Sam’s later.” To which he replied, “I just came back from Sam’s…” and that’s when he realized he forgot to put on his pants….

I could tell a thousand stories but I cannot end this time together without giving glory and honor to God. In the past ten days God was very gracious toward my mom, my dad, and me. Long good-byes are never easy, but God knew they were necessary. After dad was admitted to the hospital we knew things were serious and he was placed on hospice care. Thanks to a wonderful church staff family at Fellowship, I was able to take a few days to be with dad, sit with dad, as God was writing the final pages of his last chapter. My mom, dad, Becca, and I told stories, laughed together, and loved on each other as much as we could. The nurses were even kind enough to let my mom bring our family dog, Ellie, up for an afternoon visit.

As we think about salvation and God’s love, we immediately think of Ephesians 2:10 – that it is by grace through faith that we are saved. But God truly humbled me in these days. I confess I was guilty of a kind of over-commitment to apply this verse to a person’s life before they become a Christian. Good news! You can’t earn or deserve God’s free gift of salvation. Yet, sadly, I failed to remember more scriptures which teach us it is by God’s great power and love which we are held to him. In Colossians 2 Paul teaches it is in the same means by which we were saved that we are to walk: held fast to God by his grace. It is but our role to confess sin and believe. It is God’s sacrificial love for us, not our function as a Christian, which has secured our eternal residence in heaven. This was the sacrificial love my dad knew. My dad had a relationship with Jesus, even if for a majority of his life it was a faith that was unimpressive. For those who have a relationship with Jesus, yes we are to glorify and honor him by living lives of glory and honor. Yes he receives glory and honor when we are obedient to him and deny sin. However, let us not fail to remember that those who are born again by the power of God’s great love may be described by sin for a season, but are truly no longer defined by it.

And so it was, these last days that I found myself in the crucible of God’s grace: I was not in Little Rock, helpless to do anything about daily Care Ministry for a church I love. I was in Fort Smith, yet unable to do anything about my dad’s dying condition. In a moment of emotional desperation, I laughed a little toward God as I finally understood that our loved ones are not our own. My dad was a son of God’s. Our time is not our own, it is a gift given by the Creator. Salvation not mine to declare or fear. But that we are held fast by God’s great love and he alone will carry us, hold us, and see us through every life experience.

Grief is never easy, nor is the death of a loved one pleasant. God never promises that painful experiences will not happen, but he always promises he will be with us when they do. I’m grateful my dad is in heaven, completely healed – no more pain nor suffering – although Peter may regret letting him through the pearly gates as I’m sure my dad has asked God several times now if he has considered a reverse mortgage for this place. To which God may reply, “Les, take your golden snuggie back to your mansion and relax.”

We are sad he is no longer here to experience the good stuff with us. Yet we are relieved he no longer experiences the bad stuff. And as children of God we know that good stuff will happen again some day. In the presence of Jesus. We believe by faith what he now sees by sight.