Father John Burns: Remembering Dad (Funeral Homily)

by Napa Institute
Published In June 15, 2023

Remembering Dad (Funeral Homily)

Father John Burns

Every once in a while, you meet someone so taken with zeal for life that everything around them becomes… delightful. They have a worldview, a thrilling one, within which small things become wonderfully important, and big things become the stuff of adventure.

These people live with a constant twinkle in their eye, a playfulness. They’re quick with a smile, always within easy reach of mischief. Yet they walk steadily in wisdom and sage sobriety as situations dictate. They possess an exceptional ability to take interest in other people’s lives. They are artisans of friendship.

I understand these people not simply because my father was one of them. But because for those who knew him, my father exemplified the entire category.

Dad had a radius, and when you were in it, you were somehow always the center. As he learned your story, as he drew forth your interests and your passion, he quickly became not only a friend but a cheerleader and champion of your cause. Unflagging in optimism,  he was able to see every obstacle as opportunity. And he delighted in the challenge.

Perhaps his favorite challenge was to bring a smile to whomever seemed to need it most wherever he went.

What a lot of people didn’t realize is that his deep goodness actually bore a hidden watermark, the etched familiarity of living friendship with Jesus. Not everyone knew that  Dad was a daily Mass goer, known to frequent the rosary and to lose sleep at night interceding for his friends. He read the Scriptures daily, with the Gospels on a constant loop.

His Bible always sat right next to his blue armchair, typically stacked on top of the most recent issue of Wine Spectator. I’m not joking; and, in fact, his second favorite book was literally called The Wine Bible. His passion for celebrating life’s blessings was intimately woven with the fine art of raising a glass in high cheer.

Dad barely drank wine himself, maybe having, in his later years, at most a glass at any gathering. But he brought wine with him to any dinner or event; whenever you stopped at his apartment, he’d tell you to check out the new shipment that just came in and insist you take a bottle with you. He understood wine in a quasi-mystical fashion,  deeply aware of its power to draw people together into friendship, conversation, and communion.

So, to honor him, a bit about wine. Wine is an amazing creature; it was central to the  Jewish world into which Jesus stepped as He began the story of our salvation. For Israel,  when the land bore a rich harvest, it was a sign of God’s favor. And when the year’s grapes made for fine and abundant wine, it was a sign of special blessing.

To the ancient mind, wine had a miraculous quality. In nature, fermentation for grapes occurs almost automatically, without any human intervention. As invisible yeast in the air and on the skin goes to work on the sugar in the grape juice, in just a matter of days that juice becomes something delightfully more; wine, as the Scriptures say, to cheer men’s hearts (cf Ps 104).

Grapes are a funny thing, though. The skin acts as a barrier between the sugar in the juice and the yeast in the air. To begin fermentation, grapes have to be crushed. Otherwise, they remain just pleasant fruit with grand and unrealized potency. As I’ve prayed these past days, I’ve realized an analogy here for my father’s life.

In his younger years, Dad was a man known and loved by people all over the city of  Milwaukee and beyond. He was engaged in countless civic endeavors as he ran  Heinemann’s Restaurants and the unforgettable John Byron’s, all the while tirelessly keeping his family as his prime love; Mom, myself, Meggy, Patrick, and Mary.  Everything, I can honestly say, was practically perfect.

Then, in the blink of an eye, in 1996, Dad fell ill as a result of a surgical mistake during a  routine sinus procedure. He was left half paralyzed after a long battery of brain surgeries.  It tragically changed every aspect of our lives, and it opened the next twenty-seven years to pains and trials none of us could have imagined.

Dad was crushed in shocking ways, and the weight of this cross drew us all into its wake.  Mom had to bear a thousand new questions and struggles as we all entered a world where none of our friends could ever really understand the things we bore together.

Now, we can see, it was precisely that crushing that brought about the realization of an unimaginable potency; the wine, if you will, of his life. In wine, fermentation often takes a bit longer than you’d like. It’s ugly, really, the grapes sitting in their own crushed and foaming mess. But slowly and with time, something rich and vibrant emerges.

As is the way with grace, what could have shattered us instead built us up, even if it took some time. St Augustine famously said, “God is so good that in his hand, even evil brings about good. He would never have permitted evil to occur if he had not, thanks to his perfect goodness, been able to use it” (contra Jul. 5.60).

This, really, is the story of the Cross of Christ. Zoom in too close, and all you see is a man dying, abandoned by his supposedly perfect father to the wiles of fallen humanity. Lean back, see by faith not sight, and you behold the grand victory of God over sin and death.  And, in the end, it’s Jesus Himself who told us that the only way into that victory is to take up our cross and follow Him.

I will never forget sitting in Dad’s apartment just as life was settling into a sad new sort of rhythm. He was half paralyzed, as was our family. I asked him if he was ok, as basically everything in his life was turned upside down. He looked down at his limp left arm,  shrugged his one good shoulder, and gave me a little smile. He said, “This is just what  God has given me. I can choose to get upset about it and wallow in self-pity. Or I can make the most out of what I’ve got.” And did he ever.

Back to wine for a moment. In nature, grapevines produce their best fruit in difficult soil.  They have to work harder, put down deeper roots to find water and nutrients. The stress on the vine makes the fruit richer, better for wine. It was Dad himself who taught me that fact about grapevines. And then I watched him live it out.

My father had plenty of opportunity to turn to bitterness, to stop trying, to despair or to abandon faith. God had asked Dad to grow in difficult soil. But God seems to have known  that it was the perfect setting for Dad’s grit and drive as he lived by Winston Churchill’s  famous saying: “Never give in!”

Dad was, for us, something of a sacrificial lamb, one who bore the brunt of a burden that became, mysteriously, a type of gift. As it pressed us down, and as he kept going, it actually drew us together. The fruit, which is only still maturing, is a family closer than we would ever otherwise be, and with a faith, profoundly tested, from which none of us will ever depart.

I can only speculate. But knowing Dad’s generosity, my hunch is that now that he sees how much fruit his suffering bore – especially as we’ve added David, Michael, and the grandchildren he loved so much – Dad would smile and say, “I’d do it all again, and exactly the same way, for you. For this.”

One last thing about wine. It was wine, with its naturally miraculous quality, that Christ took to the altar, along with the bread, and raised it to the heights to make it truly miraculous; the fruit of His own Body broken and Blood poured out in sacrifice, suffering turned to eternal life.

It is within the arc of that miracle that we gather here to pray for Dad. After his illness,  Dad was dependent on dozens of us for help. And rather than stumbling into shame, he just humbled himself, time and again, to ask whenever he needed something. He never wanted to burden, but he also knew he couldn’t do much alone.

While there is no question that, in many ways, he lived a lot of his Purgatory here, he would also be disappointed if we waxed presumptuous about his perfection. Certainly, we will celebrate, raise a glass, and share the stories of his life at the luncheon. But before that, this is like his last request for help: That we would pray for him, offering the sacrifice of the Mass for his final purification and his entrance into that which lies, through the  Cross, beyond the veil.

Our hope, as we remember his life in prayer, is that God’s mercy would be abundant,  and that it would also be swift… as was his passing. For it seems now that Dad can make  his own the words of St. Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I  have kept the faith” (2 Tm 4:7). And, he might add, “I did not give in!”

We pray that now, and finally, he might be no longer a toast to earthly mirth, but one of supernatural cheer… as he receives the words of the Father: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy” (Mt 25:23).

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