Josh, Alfred, and You

This “mind-numbing” sermon was inspired by the obituary of a young man named Josh who suffered “10 years of mind-numbing public schooling.” It was preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minnesota, “sharing the message of God’s unconditional love for everyone.”

Ever read an obituary that raised your eyebrows? Ever left a funeral thinking it was case of mistaken identity?

This week my old friend Bob Young shared this obituary with the annual gathering of seminary classmate. Bob has a wry sense of humor. We knew something was coming by the twinkle in Bob’s eye.

This obituary is the exception to phony. It appeared in the Ponca City News:

Joshua Micheal (nope, not a typo it’s really spelled that way) McMahan left this world April 18, 2012. He was loved, hated, praised, and cursed by relatives and friends alike. He ultimately passed as a result of being stubborn, refusing to follow doctors’ (or anyone else for that matters) orders, and raising hell for a little more than three decades. He lived life on his own terms.

Josh was born on Sept. 16, 1978, to Linda Burgert Waller. Josh was a beautiful, unique, kind, and loving spirit man. Joshie endured around ten mind-numbing years of public schooling. He had worked as a pizza delivery boy and call center representative before shockingly becoming independently “wealthy.”

He loved music, beer, movies, vodka, television, and women, but not necessarily in that order. He was also an awesome drummer!/vocalist? and was in several bands over the years. He lived in Ponca City his entire life except for the past year where he was forced to put up with his sister and brother-in-law out in the middle of nowhere — a little piece of terra firma aptly called Haskell.

He is survived by Rosie, his long-time canine companion; a sister, Melanie Waller Ochoa; a brother-in-law, DJ Ochoa; a best friend/brother, Cliff Crull; three nieces, Miranda, Emma, and Camille; and one nephew, Maxx. Josh had no children of his own (at least none that we know of). He was preceded in death by Mom Linda, Grandma Nina Burgert, and Grandpa Joe Burgert.

A remembrance service will be held at 2 p.m. April 25 in the chapel of Trout Funeral Home where you may re-tell the stories he can no longer share. Anyone dressed in a suit or Sunday’s best will be promptly escorted back to their vehicle. Just kidding … we’ll accept you as you are — just as Josh would have in life. Please be wary for any children’s sake, there may be profanity and/or alcohol involved. If you have a special memory or maybe just want to irritate Josh for all eternity, please bring a magnet or sticker to attach to his casket for evermore.

In lieu of flowers or memorial gifts, please give generously, in Josh’s honor, to

JRock will be placed to rest in the St. Mary’s section of Odd Fellows (the irony) Cemetery in Ponca City and I’m sure he would invite you to come by later and have a laugh on him — literally.

As Bob read aloud Josh’s obituary in his droll manner, we had a great laugh, just as Josh would have wanted, and we felt accepted as we really are. Lord knows we’re all likely “to pass as a result of being stubborn.”

We had a round in Josh’s honor and prayed (not really) that, if someone decides to tell the truth in our obituaries, the writer will have a lively sense of humor…and a whole lot of grace.

Harry followed the obituary with the laughter with the story of a man named Alfred.

Alfred left Russia at the age of 18. After spending a year in Paris studying chemistry, he moved to the United States. After five years, he returned to Russia and began working in his father’s factory making military equipment for the Crimean War. In 1859, at the war’s end, the company went bankrupt. The family moved back to Sweden, and Alfred soon began experimenting with explosives. In 1864, when Alfred was 29, a huge explosion in the family’s Swedish factory killed five people, including Alfred’s younger brother Emil. Dramatically affected by the event, Alfred set out to develop a safer explosive. In 1867, he patented a mixture of nitroglycerin and an absorbent substance, producing what he named “Dynamite.”

In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while in France. A French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary instead of Ludvig’s, noted that Alfred had died a very wealthy man as a result of inventing dynamite. Alfred was irked that the wrong obituary had been published. But he was more disturbed – deeply embarrassed, in fact – by a true obituary about his life. Disappointed with how he would be remembered, he decided to do something different with his life.

Alfred died of a stroke on December 10, 1896, in San Remo, Italy. After taxes and bequests to individuals, he left the majority of his estate to fund the Nobel Prizes. His name was Alfred Nobel.


Somewhere between Josh and Alfred there is you. Somewhere between the two there is I.

If you could write your own obituary, what would it say?

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott lays her life bare in print. Anne herself is a rare bird. She found her way to a church like Shepherd – small, humble, a bit odd, very loving and very joyful – in Marin City, California whose people accepted her as she was: depressed, addicted to alcohol and drugs, promiscuous, seriously depressed and feeling lost.

In Bird by Bird’s Acknowledgements, she wrote  “I want to mention once again that I do not think I’d even be alive today if not for the people of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Marin City, California.

But this is the paragraph I want you to remember as you think about the rest of your life and how you will pull together the pieces. The words were written for aspiring writers.  But, for our purposes this morning, I ask you to think of life as a kind of writing.  It’s a paragraph in a chapter on Perfectionism.

“Your day’s work might turn out to have been a mess. So what? [Kurt] Vonnegut said, ‘When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.’ So go ahead and make big sprawls and mistakes. Use up lot of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow…forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here – and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”

How would you want your obituary to read?

I’d be pleased if mine read something like the following, a mixture of Josh’s and Alfred’s, although it won’t be up to me. It will be written by Kay and family. I won’t get to read it or censor it.

Gordon Campbell Stewart died of a stroke. Actually he didn’t. He died because he wouldn’t listen to his wife, his friends or his doctors and because he had chosen to believe his dogs who thought his nightly bowls of ice cream and cashews would last forever, just like him.

He was a lot like his dog Maggie. Stubborn, occasionally amusing, playful, and very annoying when he didn’t get what he wanted.  He was a preacher man, or so he thought, although those who slept through years of his mind-numbing sermons often brought pillows and blankets, and sometimes a flask to church. Fortunately for him, Gordon never noticed.

After many years of self-absorption, he discovered the joy of being mortal. He stopped worrying about tomorrow.  He learned to appreciate the fullness of the moment. He learned to listen to the birds…well, actually…since he could no longer hear them, he learned to watch the birds and to imagine their songs after his hearing had gone. He watched the clouds and felt the wind, the snow, and the rain. He found solace in rainbows and rabbits, in squirrels, chip-monks, purple martins and woodpeckers.

He stopped trying to be perfect. He gave thanks for the messes as much as for the cleaning up. Because it was out of the messiness of his life that God shaped him into something more real. It was out of the death of pretense that the truth looked back at him in the mirror until he came to love himself. He gave up suits and expensive shoes. He wore the same pair of pants four days in a row…relaxed fit jeans…and extra large shirts to cover the paunch that eventually killed him.

In the silence of his shrinking world, he turned increasingly inward, sitting at the window at his computer, blogging hour by hour, and going deeper into the once bottomless pit of himself where he found not emptiness but fullness.

Out of the fullness, he has asked that the few people who gather around his ashes sing the strong traditional hymns that meant the world – literally “the world” to him – in hopes that the words and the music would lift you up.  “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our Eternal Home.”  “All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing, Alleluia! Alleluia! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer beam, Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”