by Michael UseyFebruary 27, 2021
If you’ve been watching the TV series WandaVision, you may have heard a husband say something incredibly profound to his grieving wife. Wanda is deep in grief over the deaths of everyone she loves: her brother, her parents, and now her beloved. Wanda is inconsolable. It is in that moment that Vision, her husband, reminds her, “What is grief if not love persevering?” So a month out from Denver’s passing, we pause to consider our loss, our grief, and our gratefulness.
I’m well aware that all of the people here today knew Denver Lennon much better than I. He was of course a gentleman of kindness, wisdom, laughter, and uncommon good sense. He left his thumb print on everyone here. Nevertheless, I’d like to share how I knew him as his friend and pastor.
He was the product of deprivation, not uncommon among folks born (in 1930) in the middle of the Great Depression. Born on the family farm in Columbus County, NC, he was the third of eight kids. Creativity and ingenuity came naturally to Denver. He effortlessly combined thrift, doing without, extending resources, and finally making a few valued purchases that he treasured and fully enjoyed-his sailboat, cool convertibles, several bikes (even a recumbent one) and a train set come to mind.
His early college education was remarkable in how incredibly spartan it was. He graduated first from Mars Hill then Wake Forest with a triple science degree. He loved Wake Forest basketball even when they lost. Yet his studies produced a capable, earnest, studious, hard-working student who took the best of a Christian college education and slowly re-examined every culture-bound expectation with a determined open mindedness that was unusual for its time. And, while he often shook his head at the mean-spiritedness that he saw in both society and the church in particular, he never let it embitter him or make him mean. His daughter Kelly said of him this lovely phrase: “He had hidden humor, unexpected jokes, and surprising forgiveness.” His son David say of him, “He never asked anyone for anything. He took life as it came to him and made the best of it.”
Denver served in the Air Force from 1951-56, rising to the rank of 1st Lt, flying B-29 bombers in the Korean War. A year ago this February we had what turned out to be our last lunch together at Lucky 32, and we had a marvelous time. He talked some about his time in the war, and his military time was very important to him. After training to fly bombing runs, he was late into the Korean theater. On his very first bombing run, while he was taxiing on the runway about to take off, all the planes were ordered to stand down, so he and the other pilots retired to the O Club. He never had to drop a live bomb (only sand ones on practice runs), and for that he was grateful.
After Korea Denver flew KC-97F refueling planes out of MacDill AFB in Tampa. He was skilled at flying “The Stratofreighter,” built as it was on the B-29 platform, a tanker to refuel jets. You had to be a steady pilot to handle one of these big mothers. While in Korea he had some noteworthy encounters with John Glenn and flew with Jimmy Stewart’s WW2 co-pilot.
Denver enjoyed a successful career of more than 30 years and retired as a Senior Sales Representative for The Upjohn Company in 1994. He was by all accounts a hell of a salesman, and always seemed to know the right thing to say. He was extremely well-informed about the complex field of medical drugs, which he sold and of course made a point to understand and research well.
He met Laura when she was a pharmacist and he a drug rep. She said he was different from the other reps: he made an appointment, was on time, dressed impeccably, always polite, never crude and didn’t tell suggestive jokes, and he didn’t overstay. He and Laura were both so internationally minded. Denver was so far from parochial. His upbringing took him from a small rural community, and even parts of his small Christian college experience were the same. Yet it’s so clear he wasn’t capable of staying stuck in that perspective. Every experience he had broadened him. Every year since 2001 they vacationed in Mexico.And he celebrated diversity with an openness that is almost shocking.
He was a faithful member of our church, College Park in Greensboro, for 27 years, where he was everything: a deacon, on building and grounds, finance, a teacher, helped with the sound, and even helped with our youth. He was a member here at Knollwood even longer, from 1962 to 94, serving as a deacon, photographer, and sound engineer. He was, perhaps, the best example of a liberal Baptist Christian, which some might consider an oxymoron. Baptist churches are often generalized as demanding a high level of conformity to a long checklist of doctrines. The actual origins of Baptist church polity is rooted in a personal reading of Scripture and interpretation. Denver was a thoughtful liberal, with his personal theology honed from years of careful thinking, reading, praying, and research. He was a magnanimous soul, and saw the heart of Christianity was about love, tolerance, and humility, and those qualities were evident in all of his thoughtful views. (But let me say here, that tolerance and kindness did not extend to those whose cars would try to cut in a long line!) While raised in a conservative Christian tradition, Denver carefully arrived at views about gender, sexuality, and tough ethical dilemmas, that were full of grace and compassion for people less privileged. He cared deeply about social justice and environmental conservation.
He was a man of the church. Some people are private wonderful Christians. Denver, in contrast, saw clearly that being a Christian meant investing in your community, your church. As an older adult in the church, he personally supported me as in a way I cannot express enough gratitude for. He often expressed high appreciation for my sermons and saw what I was trying to do in a number of sermons featuring scripture using a wide variety of methods. He was perspicacious, and made me feel like the study and effort I put into each sermon would always be deeply appreciated by the likes of him, which meant the world to me.
And, if you knew Denver, you had to know that sermons were only one part of the worship experience. He was a man who loved music–especially Big Band and New Orleans jazz; he was intensely moved by other worship elements, the anthem, testimonies, and quotes. We all can remember Denver getting misty-eyed or choked up when trying to say what a certain song or testimony had meant to him. And he said, in the final years of his life as he saw his health waning, that he treasured, absolutely treasured his hour at worship at church. “It is a precious time to me,” he said, “and my flagging weary soul gets real sustenance from being here.” People like that make being a minister feel ennobling. For some people, church may be just a social gathering, even a country club exercise in hanging out with similarly minded friends. Never so for Denver.
Denver read constantly. He loved to discuss; he never shied away from controversial subjects, but explored them calmly and sanely; he could often whip out statistics that had informed his careful views. He was truly open when he researched a subject, not given to knee-jerk assumptions. He was also fully aware of how his early southern rural roots could sometimes lead to blind spots. That uncritical acceptance of “the good old days and ways“ kept a lot of southerners unwilling to consider society forces that needed revamping. Not so with Denver, and one doesn’t find that keen theological nimbleness readily among 90-year-olds.
Instead of being “a jack of all trades but master of none”, he knew pretty much all trades and somehow managed to be master at several of them as well. He took it as a personal challenge to learn and master, often by self-teaching, a myriad of skills and fields, both blue and white collar.
He became a Master Gardener, literally, and we Useys know that was definitely quite the master carpenter. That was because Denver volunteered to help us (almost 20 years ago) to renovate our sadly dated kitchen. We probably all underestimated how labor-intensive it would be. But it is not a stretch to say that Denver saved us thousands of dollars, due to hours he gave us deciding among overwhelming choices, steering us away from poor options, actually installing stuff like cabinetry and flooring—and even some appliances. We STILL love that room perhaps more than any other in our house. It’s a place that builds community, and he gave us such a graciously huge dose of it while he helped us install ours. He and my wife had so many hours, discussing not just options and obstacles, but detours that led to him sharing bits of wisdom and fascinating glimpses of his past and views. She grew to appreciate his goodwill, generous spirit, steady, consistent work ethic, and careful sense of boundaries to always honor our sometimes crazy choices and concerns.
He even went the extra mile bringing into our backyard his Airstream when our sink and oven were being replaced. That Airstream had been meticulously renovated over the years, and my children spent wondrous hours playing in there as well. Our daughter Hannah says that her early memories of Denver were embedded in memories playing out in her glorified playhouse trailer parked in the backyard. He had a wonderful way of gently offering counsel, especially as we were overwhelmed by a multiplicity of options. He knew about almost every aspect of kitchen choices (cabinets, floors, electricity, appliances, ceilings). An example: We thought we wanted stone tile floors, until Denver and Laura counseled otherwise, and gently shared their preference for Pergo—a composite floor tile alternative that has a little give and is much easier to clean and walk on—even for pets. To this day, every time a glass jar jumps out of the frig onto our pergo floor—and doesn’t break; but instead bounces, we thank our lucky stars that they suggested we think beyond what initially looks hip and stylish—to what functions well.
His kids joked that growing up they thought a repair truck or a plumber’s van were just fictional TV props, since there was never one at their house. His daughter Laurie said of him, “The most important thing I learned from him is to be self-reliant and have a growth mindset, meaning if someone else can do it, I can learn to do it, too. That might be servicing a car, repairing a dishwasher, reflooring the bathroom, or really anything. Because if something is already broken, I can’t mess it up any worse. It’s worth a try. It might just work.” Before my son Nate left for the Peace Corps, we had a send-off as part of Sunday service; people gave him encouragement and advice. Nate said the best and most helpful advise he received was from Denver, who told him: “Never forget that we serve a forgiving God.”
At our last lunch (that has such a biblical sound), he said he hoped to live until Christmas, and to have the opportunity to vote against Trump. He did that and more, living to see the new president’s inauguration. He told Laura the night before he died, “I’m not ready to leave you yet.” He saw his death coming a long way off, and faced it with courage, humor, and grace.
Kelly wrote to me this week and said, “I’ll never forget when our first kid Owen was born, he was at an Upjohn conference in Atlanta, and drove home early by way of Charlotte with friend, co-worker Bill, who had a big voice. They got to our apartment and I could hear Bill’s voice in the parking lot from my bed upstairs. I heard Philip open the door for them, and I’m not sure Dad even said hello, I just heard him bound up the stairs two at a time, to come see me and his first grandbaby. He held Owen and I got great pictures of them. His face was one-of-a-kind happy and wonderful. He was very proud of all his grandkids, and he couldn’t get over Kera being a veterinarian. He grew up on the farm, and the vet was the most important person. We have had a great life, thanks to his good fathering for me, and what he taught me about being a human and a parent. I have loved him dearly, and now he has taught me how to die well too, how to live as himself fully until the last moment.”
What is grief if not love persevering? Laura said his last words before they retired to bed the night he died were, “I’m good.” And he was. Now if we can just live our lives with some of the virve, some of the same chutzpah, some of the deep love and kindness and grace, that Denver lived out of, then just maybe we could say the same on our deathbed. Thanks be to God for the life and love of Denver Lennon. Amen.