Good afternoon and think you all for coming today. On behalf of my mother, my sister, my Aunt Cathy and the rest of the family, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all the love and support you have shown us over the past few days. I also want to think Pastors Tim and Lucia and the beautiful people at First Presbyterian Church here in Brandon for hosting this service and just loving on us as we go through this time of loss and grieving. You folks are special, and we appreciate you.
I ask that you would indulge me for a couple of minutes to talk about my father. Over that past few days, I have been thinking a lot about him and a lot about his life. I have also been thinking about death and loss. As I was making the drive down here from the Charlotte area, I thought about how God knows our sense of loss and the suffering that comes when a loved one passes from this life to the next. My mind went to the episode in the Gospel of St. John when Jesus’s friend Lazarus died. After waiting for four days, Jesus went to visit the family. He encountered a family in grief. The hurt and pain of the loss were overwhelming, and Jesus wept. He wept not for the loss because He knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. He wept because he felt the pain that the separation of death causes. God knows our grief. But like the story of Lazarus, God also provides hope. It was in this hope that my father placed his trust. It was in this hope that my father lived the last 12 years of his life.
When thinking about my father, I believe that there are three separate periods in his life. You can see these periods displayed in the pictures in the books and slides that are about the church. The three periods are the pre-mustache period, the mustache period, and the post mustache period. I think my father would appreciate me not mentioning the toupee period, so I will kindly leave that out.
When we talk about folks that have passed on, we tend to focus on the positive aspects of their lives, and indeed we should. But my father was a fairly complex man through most of his life and to fully understand who he was and what he became involves dipping into the trough of memories that are uncomfortable to think. It was tough being Darwin Johnston’s son for the longest time. Just like it was hard for him to be Howard Johnston’s son. My dad dealt with a father that was aloof and often cold. My father never felt like he measured up to the expectations that his father had for him, and so in his fatherhood, passed that on to me. During the early years, he was warm and loving, and everything a boy could hope for in a father. But as the years went on, my father dove further into depression and alcohol and became a very dark individual.
Most of you here have no idea who that man was, but it was the father I grew up. If you look at those pictures of him with the mustache, you see an unfortunate man lost in his depression and alcoholism. Yet there was a part to my dad that I did not know. He still had a passionate love for people, and this was expressed in acts of service and kindness – snowplowing neighbors driveways, walking the floor of the factory at his job. Who here has ever heard of a corporate vice president taking time to come in early every day to greet the workers at a factory? This activity was a part of my father, but not a piece I knew.
Just recently, I was at a motorcycle rally in Rock Hill, South Carolina. There I ran into a couple who did not have South Carolinian accents. We started talking and realized that we were both from upstate New York – me from Clinton and them from Oneida. As we talked, I learned that the fellow used to work at Oneida Silversmiths before he retired. I ask if he knew Darwin Johnston. The man lit up and talked on and on about my Dad and how wonderful a man he was. He said, “I knew all those other big wigs in the offices didn’t care about us workers, but I knew your dad cared for us and looked out for us.” In talking to my father later about this, he indeed remembered the man and spoke very fondly of him.
But again, growing up, that was not the man I knew. But it was not the man Dad was to become. August 30th, 2002 was a day that I will never forget. I was filling up my gas tank in North Beverly, MA, getting ready to make a 6-hour drive to my parent’s house. They did not know that I was coming. I was taking the trip to deliver a letter to my father telling him that I would have nothing to do with him anymore. His drinking had gotten so bad that he was not allowed to be around my children, and now for my health and sanity, I had to let him go. I intended to deliver that letter, but God had other plans in mind.
As I was filling my tank, my phone rang. It was my father. He told me he had had enough, wanted to stop drinking, and was willing to do anything to do so. Instead of driving to deliver the letter, I drove to Tully Hill rehab and checked my father into his first day of sobriety. From that day forward, my Dad’s life changed, and the man that he genuinely was started to come out. Through the following months, my dad’s sobriety was something that we all had to get used to, but as he was working out his sober journey, he encountered his higher power. He understood forgiveness and the power of grace. He started to see himself not as his dad saw him, but how his heavenly father saw him, as a child that needed forgiveness and healing.
The last 12 years of his life, the life most of you know him, was when we truly got to know who Darwin Johnston was. It was now easy to be his son. He loved me, and I knew that with every fiber of my being. He loved his daughter, and He was passionately in love with his wife. Don’t get me started on the grandkids! But he also had a passionate love for people. As my father grew in his faith, and God revealed more of Himself to my father, I believe my father took it as his mission to make every person he met to feel special. Sometimes it would be a little embarrassing as he told a checkout clerk how wonderful she was, but that was our problem, not his. All of you have Darwin stories, and we need to tell those stories. But I want to leave you with this – if it were not for the all-surpassing transformative love of God, were it not for the power of the cross and the grace of forgiveness, those stories would have never come to pass. My father gave himself over to God, and God did a marvelous work in him.
So as I finish here, let’s tell those stories. Let’s remember the kindness, the quirky sense of humor, the passion he had for his family, and the love he had for those who were hurting. When we think of Darwin Johnston, let’s think of how powerful the love of God is, and how when showing that love to others, we can continue the work that he started in my dad. Thank you, and God bless you.
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