We gather this afternoon in this sanctuary to celebrate the life and mourn the death of John Francis Wood. John was born in Chicago on July 24, 1938 and he died January 12 of this year. We gather in appreciation for his life of 79 years and to give voice to our grief that he is no longer with us in the flesh. We gather to give thanks for his life, to laugh and cry, and to open our hearts, our minds, our souls to the reality of love that extends beyond death. 

To light the chalice, I invite John’s youngest grandchild, ___ to come forward. We light the chalice in honor of John’s life, all those who shaped his life and all those he touched, shaping others.

I invite you to sing hymn #354, We Laugh We Cry. Please rise in body or spirit.

Please join me in the Unity Temple covenant found in the order of service:

Love is the doctrine of this Congregation
The quest for truth is its sacrament
And service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
To seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve humanity in fellowship,
To the end that all souls shall grow
Into harmony with the divine.
Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.

We have four readings that reflect John’s life and commitments

from Rev. Augusta Chapin, one of the earliest American woman ministers, a Universalist minister and the minister of this congregation at the end of the 19th century:

We shall survive in the memories of our friends
as long as the remembrance will serve any good purpose;
and then our work and thought and influence
will mingle with the great ocean of human achievement,
and the sum total of that
will be something more,
something different,
from what it would have been without us. 

From Unitarian minister, William Channing Gannett

To live content with small means, 
To seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion,
To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich,
To study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly,
To listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart,
To bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, 
Await occasions, hurry never
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, 
grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.

Marge Piercy “To be of Use”

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls. 

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water-buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again. 

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out. <>

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.

From Rev. John Wood, a Universalist minister who served as the district executive of the central midwest district and served a number of churches in New England

A candle is a careless thing, God wot. See how it is always stretching up and reaching out. . . . A candle must give itself away. In the giving, the spending, the spreading, the sending, it finds itself.  There is a proverb, “the spirit of an individual is the candle of the Lord.” In the worship of my church let me learn to spend myself.

Song: Spirit of LIfe


Anthem: In Remembrance

Truly we are here because of love and memory. I’d like to begin by sharing his words, from a sermon John gave from this pulpit nearly ten years ago. 

One of my prejudices in life is that good formal education prepares us to be informed and knowledgeable and to think critically. But does anyone here doubt that many a well informed and knowledgeable person is at times a fool? And that many a person who relies mostly on life experiences can at times be wise beyond measure? 

As I have gotten older, now having lived a bit with the label of being “retired” I have been doing some thinking on the topic of wisdom. Such as “If I have a smidge of wisdom, where in the heck did it come from?” And with another very comfortable label on me as “Opa,” grandfather to 8 wonders of the world, this question immediately leads me to then ask myself, “ What can I do to help my grandkids on their path to judging rightly about their emerging life and conduct? Can I do anything to help prepare them for love and loss, friendship and betrayal, happiness and sorrow, success and failure?

Just as John reflected on how he might be a source of wisdom for his grandkids, so he reflected how he might be so for his peers, his sojourners here at Unity Temple, including his ministers, indeed everyone with whom he shared a smile and a kind word.

John was a proud Universalist. He had deep faith that we are here to live with hope and courage, not in fear or judgment, that we are here to spread the kindness and everlasting love of God. 

It is a good question to ask where did such faith get inspired in him? His was not a happy childhood when he grew up in Forest Park. His mother died just before his third birthday. His father struggled with alcohol, with unemployment, with his temper which lashed out. When John was 12, his father remarried and John had half-siblings. He spent weekends with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a German chef and a Lutheran. His grandmother was Jewish, from a family of 14 children and was the only one to leave Germany. John says no one influenced him more than his granny, who conversed with him, consoled him, and encouraged him to pursue his own interests.

John had a keen mind. He loved word games and he was an avid chess player. His love of chess led him to meeting Jane Liddell, the love of his life. Jane and John met at the chess club in Maywood when Jane was still in high school. Jane was off to Knox college and when she graduated, the two of them married. That was 1964. They moved to a 2-flat in the city where they could care for John’s disabled grandfather. In 1969 they moved to Oak Park and wanted to find a house to accommodate John’s grandfather. They wanted the house on South Lombard but they had difficulty getting a loan because the area was redlined at the time. One banker said pointblank they wouldn’t get a loan in this area. John and Jane went to ten banks before they found one to help.

John never finished college but believed far more in learning from experience than claiming credentials. He held many jobs from a travel auditor for Greyhound to overseeing technology systems for banks. He directed the development of systems at the American Medical Association and then the American Hospital Association. His last position was Chief Informations Officer at Northwestern who gladly hired him without a college degree because he was so capable and published in his field.

John began attending church at Unity Temple two years before he and Jane were married.  For nearly six decades, he dedicated himself to the caring community here that he happily noted was called the Universalist Church of Oak Park until 1961 when the Unitarians merged with the Universalists. You’ve already heard that he took on the newsletter and was a part of the potluck group that literally nourished in body and spirit several dedicated volunteers who laid the foundation for the extraordinary volunteer organization here.

When he and Jane joined the congregation, there was no choir. They were founding members of our congregation’s choir. He relished music. His tastes ranged from classical to folk. He sang tenor and remained in the choir until just a couple years ago. It was ten years ago that Marty Swisher asked all the choir members to wear hats because a photo would be taken entitled “Hang on to Your Hats”, and Marty tells me that John called all the members to make sure they knew.

Both Marty and I can attest to John’s hospitality, having taken each of us out to lunch. He took me to Papaspiros, when it was still on the corner of Lake and Oak Park. There, he introduced me to ouzo. Sharing food and drink I understand so many have shared culinary experiences with John. He took after his grandfather the chef. 

As he was so committed to the music and worship ministries here, it may seem odd that he never served on the Music and Worship committee that was founded 50 years ago. There’s a simple reason for this. The Music and Worship Committee was founded by his wife Jane who served on it for decades.

John was one of the founders of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. He supported it through challenging times until the Restoration Foundation brought in the gift that would complete the necessary work.

For John, the building itself wasn’t the point. For him, the point was the space within where life could thrive. John thought deeply, shared honestly, spoke frankly, conversed wittily. He had this way of blessing people. Saying something kind or gently admonishing them to be more loving toward themselves or others. I felt this support when he challenged me to stop taking responsibility for more than was healthy for me or the church. He reminded me that I will be of greatest use to the church if I take care of myself and cultivate a full life. 

As a Pastoral Associate here, he companioned people. He recognized his job wasn’t to fix or heal, it was to be present to others in their joy and sorrow, in their hopes and their struggle—and the best way to do this was to come to greater acceptance with one’s own struggles.

And John knew struggle. He struggled mightily with his father such that he distanced himself from his half family only to discover his half brother Earl was living a couple miles away. It was a happy reunion a year ago, and John made sure I visited him to meet Earl. Another struggle John had was with his adopted son Michael. He acknowledged that he didn’t know how to effectively parent Michael but that Michael clearly knew something about parenting because he raised three beautiful, well-adjusted children. And lastly he struggled with his own health. It is easy to think that it was the lsat two years that were difficult as he addressed his heart and back issues, but in fact it was the last seven that he struggled. Jane supported him unflaggingly, a testimony to their commitment. 

John was a Universalist. He believed that all people have the capacity to change and grow. He believed in life, in love, in laughter. He lived and loved and laughed such that  he cultivated friendship, focus, and faith. And when I say faith, I mean a Universalist faith grounded in the belief that all people have the capacity to change and grow, that we are here to live with hope and courage, and to spread the kindness and everlasting love of God.

Today, one of our readings is from Rev. John Wood, a Universalist minister who died 35 years ago. John and Jane were acquainted with Rev. Wood when he was the district executive for the central midwest district. Rev. Wood’s words get at John’s faith

A candle must give itself away. In the giving, the spending, the spreading, the sending, it finds itself.  There is a proverb, “the spirit of an individual is the candle of the Lord.” In the worship of my church let me learn to spend myself. The candle of John Wood’s life burned brightly, stretched up, reached out, and provided a lot of light. 

Let me close with John’s own words he shared from this pulpit ten years ago.

Now, many years at near the end of the game, or at least my game, I now realize that my most important education was gathering pearls for later, sometimes much later, integration into the person who still is becoming John Wood. And I am so happy to boldly state that such rare and priceless gifts as wisdom dust are still given freely for those who have what I take to be prerequisites to being wise—curiosity and a sense of wonder. The need, the urge, to look, to question, and the willingness to be amazed.  One of my steadiest sources of such gifts to me and my family has come from members of a caring community. Over the many decades that Jane and I have been privileged to be members of that community we have lived much. Deaths and births, marriages, graduations, unemployment, all the tasty things of life. And the same thing has been happening to others in our community. Joys and sorrows abound and are shared. Some held privately, others openly with honesty. What is my role in helping others to being wiser than I? I opine that it is first to do my miserable best at judging rightly on a daily basis. And it is my being a part of the daily life of a caring community that gives me the soul refreshment and friendships and life experiences to continue growing, despite me having become a bit gnarled on the edges. 

And of course—you are the beloved community I am referring to. Your personal and your community wisdom and example, your wise judging and your trying to judge as wisely as you can, ah! that is indeed meat for my soul’s appetite. It is your caring and working for what is really important to you personally and as a community, it is your grace, and your sense of fun and adventure that gives me some of the pearls I desperately need in my daily journey. 

May that magic of transformation, of trying daily to become more wise for our own sakes and for the sakes of the others we share the road with—may that magic last until the band stops playing. 

Amen and may it be so. 

I invite you to sing one of John’s favorite hymns that was to him like a prayer. It is #318 in the grey hymnal: We Would Be One.

O Spirit of Life, Source of All Love, Eternal Mystery of God within, among and beyond us, 

The dear man we have known as John Wood is gone. From our own sorrow we ask: May our love be with him as his stays with us. May we keep faith in the human spirit. May his love of people and music remind us that life is filled with beauty and grace. May his compassionate smile and keen observations live on in our hearts, knowing that his presence among us, his wholehearted participation in life, the love he shared has shaped our lives and will continue to shape our lives. For John leaves a legacy of compassion.

Comfort Jane as she moves into a new chapter of her life. Comfort Evan, Beth, and Michael, as they learn to relate to their father through memory and enduring love. May John’s legacy burn bright in the lives of his grandchildren whom he so loved. Be with all who will dearly miss John, and may his curious and kind ways continue to guide our beloved community on together. May we live with John’s memory as he would want us to, without making a great fuss but instead hewing to integrity, curiosity, and joy. May we remember the gifts of the spirit are forever, and the love we have shared with John is stronger than death. Blessed be. Amen.

Please join me in singing a favorite hymn of John’s, Joyful, Joyful, found in your hymnal #29.

And now may the Truth that makes us free,
And the Hope that never dies,
And the Love that casts out fears,
Lead us forward together,
Until the Dayspring breaks,
And the Shadows flee away