Jay Blogs – Requiem for a Friend

Phillip holding a fish

I had an opportunity to preach the memorial service of a dear friend, Phillip Dancy, this week. The following is that message. I pray it continues to honor my friend and the Jesus he loved.

We laid to rest a friend of mine this week, a pastor, husband, father, former board member, and hero of the faith. You know how you have certain friends that you have certain connections or conversations with that you just don’t have with others? For me, my friend Phillip was one of those guys.

Phillip had a strong mind. He was a scholar. He was super funny and outgoing, so people sometimes mistook him for an extrovert, but he wasn’t. He was a classic ISTJ, if you know your Myers-Briggs. These guys typically make great pastors, because they are true students of God’s Word; they deeply care about getting it right. They hold it in profoundly high regard. Phillip loved the Word of God because he loved the God of the Word. When I asked his wife, Amanda, why in the world she wanted me to preach his service, she responded, “He would have trusted you not to screw up the theology.” No pressure. She said Phillip would often tell her, “If you have nothing else, preach Jesus, because Jesus is all there is. He’s all that matters.” Getting Jesus right mattered to Phillip.

Over the years, I have had a lot of pastors sit on our school board at Grace. They don’t always truly understand their role, why they’re there. As a result, they don’t typically talk very much in the meetings. Philip talked a lot, because he clearly understood his role. He knew that his purpose was to keep us on track missionally, to make sure that we were always in line with the gospel of Jesus. Philip was one of the best at making sure we stayed solid on the “Jesus” part of teaching Jesus, and in the 20 years that I have served at Grace, nobody has done it better. Our school families and I will always be grateful for that, even though many of them may never have been aware of the role he played until now.

Here’s some church history trivia for you: Did you know that Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John, and that his relationship with John was essential to ensuring that the truth of the gospels survived some of the early church heresies? Did you even know that Polycarp was an early church father, rather than a brand of fishing line? Or, do you know that the Protestant Reformation arguably actually began with Jan Hus in Bohemia, the modern-day Czech Republic, a century before Martin Luther? Do you even care? Phillip did. He was a church history guy, a geek like me, and probably the only guy I could sit with at Oliveto’s (our lunch spot) and talk about Athanasius or Augustine and not get one of those looks reserved for people who wear Spock ears and think Klingon is an actual language.  Because Phillip loved God’s Word, He was deeply interested in God’s work in and through his people throughout history. I am, too, so I loved and appreciated that about him.

Phillip and his family

Phillip wasn’t just a brain on a stick, either. He was a man with a powerful heart. He loved his family dearly, and talked about Amanda and his three boys all the time; he was totally “that dad.” He was so proud of his guys, and the young men they are becoming.  Phillip was a creative- a painter and a writer. The last conversation I ever had with he and Amanda was about their sign-planting business (they had a business putting out those signs in yards wishing “Happy Birthday” and for other special occasions). Amanda said Phillip was the one who was totally obsessive about the aesthetic of the signs, always wanting them to look beautiful, just right. Phillip’s painted an amazing lion, who stands guard over his youngest son Liam in his room every night, and probably will for the rest of his life. Because he was a gifted writer, I joked with Amanda that maybe I should spend my time at his memorial service reading long passages from his books “Pity the Fool” and “What about Mary?” or from his dissertation. She assured me that, if I did, the day I walked into the New Jerusalem he’d be waiting there to take it out of my hide, so I decided to use my time more productively.

Most of all, Phillip was a humble, encouraging, lover of God and people who led his family and congregation well because he cared so deeply about them. I’m a better man for being his friend, and a lesser man for being deprived of his friendship now.

And, because Phillip was that man, that father, husband, pastor, and friend, he would demand that we preach Jesus now. So, that’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to spend the rest of my time here spending a moment talking about how he died, then the rest of the time talking, most importantly, about how and why he lived.

When someone takes his own life, as Phillip did, there’s a natural inclination to ask why, to seek answers. I truly believe that some of that is a natural, human desire to make sense of the world around us, to bring meaning to something that seems so meaningless.  But, if we’re honest, some of it is the hope that if we can come up with a reason, an explanation that might not apply to our circumstances, we can explain it away, put it in a box and compartmentalize it, and then rationalize that it’s not capable of happening to us.

But, we’re all capable. The press of life is great.  There’s a pain and a weight to ministry like Phillip’s, to carrying the burdens of the people you love and whom God has given you to shepherd, that’s tremendous and, at times, overwhelming. As I was talking with Amanda the other day, there are layers of pain and struggle, and challenge, that piles up like sedimentary rock over time. And, we have an enemy. 1 Peter 5:8 tells us that “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” And, as we’ve seen over and over, he has a special target on those who are leading God’s people.  At any given moment, if the pressure is great enough, and the sadness deep enough, and the enemy strikes at just the right time, we are all capable of great darkness. Maybe that’s the answer, and maybe it’s not. But the best answer we’ll get is the answer for us all: we live in a fallen, broken, fallen Genesis 3 world, one in which all of us are wounded, and none get out alive.

The fact is that Phillip failed that day. Pastors and heads of school aren’t supermen; they’re human, and humans fail. We all do. Hebrews 11, the hall of heroes of the faith, is filled with people who failed as much as they got it right. But Phillip was a pastor, a teacher used mightily by God, and in that failure, he’s teaching us still. Our best lessons as teachers and leaders, pastors and heads of school are when we teach and lead out of our own brokenness. And Phillip, who was in all things humble, if he were here, would teach you by first asking you to forgive him. He would know that his failure reaps consequences on all of you, consequences that will be felt for years. And, on his behalf, I’m asking you to forgive him, as he would ask if he were here. Forgive him, family. Forgive him, Church. Forgiveness is a continuous process, not a “one-and-done;” as Jesus said, it’s “seventy times seven,” meaning forgiving every time the hurt arises in your memory again. So, keep on forgiving him. Phillip would tell you all he can do is fall back on the blood of Jesus, as he did all his life, as he encouraged you to do. Release all of that to the Lord, and let the blood of Jesus cover it.

And, while you’re at it, release that guilt and shame you’re feeling, too, all those “could haves”, “should haves” and “if onlys.” Guilt and shame are not Kingdom of Heaven emotions, but tools of our enemy to keep us wallowing in something we’re not. Release those, too.

Phillip would also say, “learn from me.”  On Saturday, I had a really dark moment. The weight and the grief of multiple things that have transpired over the past few weeks, some of which some of you know about and some of which you don’t, broke me, and I fell to the floor weeping- I was weak, in despair. In that moment, my friend and brother Phillip taught me to call out to God and others. I called my pastor and one of my close friends who does what I do in another town, and told them what was going on, and asked them to pray over me. Like Aaron and Hur in the battle against the Amalekites, those guys held up my hands as I cried out to Jesus for protection and strength. Phillip would tell all of us to learn from him- to cry out to Jesus, and to this community, those around you right now, in those moments of darkness. God created life to be a team sport, and gave us one for another, and we have to press into each other in need.

All this sadness and darkness that we’re capable of, and that we all feel, points to the need we all have for the gospel, that’s why Phillip would say we have to preach Jesus. Because we all desperately need Him. We live in a broken and fallen world, destroyed by the state of sin, and by our own individual sin. Phillip loved all of God’s Word, but I’m pretty convinced that, if he played favorites, the book of Romans would have been his favorite. Romans 3 tells us that we have all fallen short of God’s glory, and that none of us are righteous. We are all desperately in need of God to redeem us; we can’t do it on our own.

Jesus met us in the depths of that pain and sadness and pressure, and willingly gave up his life to pay the penalty for our sin, and to destroy the state of sin in our lives.  Romans 5: 6-11 tells us that when we were weak and living in rebellion against God, his sworn enemies, Christ died for us. His death atoned for, meaning paid the penalty for our sin, and reconciled us to God, and we are now saved by his life.  Ephesians 4 tells us Christ’s sacrifice for us is a free gift than can never be earned; it can only be accepted.

Paul tells us in Romans 9 that if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe with our heart God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. Saved through our faith in Jesus and His provision for us. Saved not only from death, but given new life in Him. And, once we’ve been given that new life, it’s ours in Him forever.

As Amanda and I have been reminding each other all week, the great truth is that you can’t unearn what you never earned to begin with. Once the blood of Jesus pays for your sins, they stay paid for, and to suggest that any sin, any error, any failure, no matter how thoughtless or ultimately harmful to others, is unforgivable, is to say that the blood shed from the Almighty is not sufficient to atone for sin. If it atones for some, it atones for all, and we can rest assured for that.

I was listening to some of Phillip’s sermons this weekend, and I listened to Phillip’s Easter message from April 9th. Sylvania Church, he loved and led you so well for 13 years. I loved listening to his voice of love for you, his shepherding heart.

As Phillip said that day, “There is hope. The world is a trainwreck of a place. Sin still runs rampant in our world. And yet, we have an undefiled, imperishable, won’t-fade-away inheritance of hope in Jesus Christ. How do we believe that? Because he has been raised from the dead…The crucifixion pays our penalty, but the Resurrection secures our victory.”

I know, because we live in that broken, Genesis 3 world, it can get confusing and seem like the devil has victory when death comes for us.  In the depths of her grief, Amanda asked me several times this past week, “the enemy didn’t win here, did he?” I know that our enemy, stabbed through the heart by Jesus on Easter Sunday and writhing around in his long dance of death, can do some damage as he thrashes around awaiting the final blow, but rest assured that the victory secured by the Resurrection is full and complete.

In the passage that Brother Michael read earlier, Romans 8:28 tells us this: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  We have to read this passage for what it says. It doesn’t tell us that all things are good. There’s nothing good about a man who loses his life prematurely, or a wife losing her husband, boys losing their father, or a church losing its pastor, or us losing our friend. But what it does say is that for those of us who are joined with Christ in his death and resurrection, everything, even those things that hit us hard, punch us in the gut and drive us to our knees, even those things the devil intends for evil, God takes, turns on their head, and brings good from evil, beauty from ashes, and victory from defeat. That’s the gospel that Phillip loved and preached.

Victory. What happened Tuesday night is that Phillip went home to be with His Lord. The devil got no prize; he just lost Phillip faster than he was going to, anyway. As Phillip told you at Easter, Church, the same words that applied to Jesus on that first Easter morning apply now to Phillip: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen. He is alive.” Victory.

And, now, Sylvania Church, God will call other men who love Jesus to rise up and lead you in Phillip’s place, preaching God’s Word and shepherding you. It’s already happening with God’s powerful ministry there. The pulpit that God built through Phillip will be stronger and more vital than ever. Over time, you will heal and emerge stronger than ever. The Church is not a man; the Church is the bride of Jesus, living forever. Victory. This body of believers, church, school, and beyond, who love Jesus and Amanda and her boys have and will rally around them and care and provide for them for the rest of their lives, just as Amanda and her boys will provide for others in pain in the months and years to come, bringing healing and love in Jesus’ Name. Victory. Over time, three young men who are wounded by the devil’s blows (because, let’s face it, none of us, including Jesus, walk out of this Genesis 3 world unscarred) three young men will honor their father’s legacy by joining him in declaring war on the devil, our ancient foe, being men of God’s Word whatever they do, and dedicate their lives to pulling as many people as possible out of his clutches and discipling others in the name of Jesus. Victory.

Make no mistake, Amanda, and all y’all. The enemy has won nothing today, because at the same time we grieve and mourn, we do so as victors, because the Church of Jesus continues to roll forward over the gates of hell.

Phillip was a great pastor, a hero of the faith. Church, every word he spoke from that pulpit was true and complete, and will profit you well in continuing onward to being and making disciples of Jesus. Building a strong and healthy church on the Word of God will honor him and be his greatest legacy.

Phillip was a great husband and father. Boys, speaking as a man whose father and mother did not love each other as I grew up, I can’t tell you what a gift it has been for you to spend all your childhood and most of your adolescence in a home where your mom and dad modeled godly love for each other, and for you.  You are becoming godly men, and learning how to use the discernment of the Holy Spirit.  Learn from the example of your father and other men who love Jesus, and use discernment to press into Jesus and not us when you see us falter and fail, because we all will. Press into Jesus, and become the best of us.

To live in Jesus is to live in paradox. We feel joy and pain, anger and love, and grief and celebration, fully and completely, together and well. This is what it means to have the abundant life Jesus promises. Don’t avoid it; embrace it all. Grieve and rejoice, sons and daughters of the living God, and celebrate the life of one of God’s great husbands, fathers, pastors, and friends.

Thank you, Lord, for Phillip, aligned with you in death, and joined with you in resurrection.  Amen.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.