I am remiss in not posting this earlier.
Memorial Service for Dorothy “Dot” Penn. Held at First Christian Church, on January 27, 2018, celebrating the life of our dear and remarkable friend and servant of Christ our Lord.
“Be kind to you, Dot,” I said.
We were talking one day early on when neither of us had any suspicion how long nor short our new friendship might be. This faith-filled woman of intellect, and devotion, who conversed with God just as she would any one of us, seemed a bit worried she had not measured up somehow; this follower of Christ who approached her faith with such rigorous intentionality and depth of expectation of God’s grace. It took me aback briefly that she had that worry. But, don’t most of us feel that at times in our lives?
She tilted her head and smiled at me, in that way of Dot, with her expressive eyes and puffed up round cheeks, a look for which she had earned the nickname “Bunny” in college, already then held in deep affection by an expanding circle of love. A lifelong student of faith and of life, my words seemed a new thought to her.
“Be kind to my friend Dot,” I said again.
She said she’d try. We all need to hear of grace. It was the subject of a couple of conversations amid her devotion to strive until the last to be what none — in this life – can ever fully obtain: a servant in complete conformity to the mind of Christ in being and doing.
It makes sense then, that the 51st Psalm would be a favorite of Dot,
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” Words that ultimately continue, saying: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.”
WHY BRING THIS UP?
You see, Dot’s hope to be cleansed wasn’t ever just about herself. It was about how her faith in God could best equip her life to be of service to others. Always, others.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the sealed letter she wrote in May of 2014, to be opened upon her earthly death.
Bliss had moved to Hampton so she could help her sister and true to form, Dot, as typical of both sisters, quickly got down to the proverbial brass tacks, when Dot looked far ahead and wrote of the inevitable day that comes to all mortal life. As she wrote Bliss with a final blessing to her sister:
“Thank you for loving me so much. I love you too!! You’ve forsaken your life to take care of me. It was a long journey, but we did it! As I have told you many times, I am not afraid to die – as all must do. I believe Jesus came and died to save us from hell, if we believe in Him we are saved. And I do believe in Him and you do too, so we are saved.”
Before going into the practical details of things Dot wanted to be handled upon her death:
Her first consideration was to give thanksgiving to a sister who was first of all, her best friend throughout life. Joined in a common heart and not just a few adventures, whether as kids cutting through a pasture and finding themselves running from a bull or in the more mundane elements of life, this “loyal love” [hesed] as the Old Testament would put it, was central to Dot’s life. It was the welcomed gift received as much as given – and so in everything there was thanksgiving for LOVE. Like one of the photos on the screen before the service, with Bliss and Dot as youngsters – through the “long journey, (they) did it” as an inseparable team.
Her second consideration was to give to a sister and a witness now to each of us, a confession of faith and hope, and Dot’s fearlessness in the face of death, one I clearly witnessed – because of her salvation in Jesus Christ. It was only the physical process, to this independent spirit, that at times was a bit of a challenge. In our last conversation, shortly before she passed, Dot said to me, “I didn’t think dying would be so hard.” When I asked her, “What did you think it would be like?” she pursed her lips in thought, looked at me and said, “Well, I’d just go walking in a park and that would be it” with an upward lilt to her voice. That was her vision of walking into the eternal embrace of love. I thought then and know now, how fitting a park would be the image she would hold up, this formerly avid gardener whose love of God’s creation was close at hand just outside her window with several bird feeders always occupied, or who in healthier days made trips to soak in the majesty of the Grand Canyon on more than one occasion, and other places – with friends in tow. I find myself believing that her dignified and always open spirit was granted precisely such an image as she moved into eternity.
The lifelong salvation Dot held close and her almost childlike wonder at God’s creation and his creatures was lived out in the largeness of Dot’s heart for others. It was an ever-broadening family that kept on taking in newcomers, a banquet table that kept being extended to accommodate yet more. That isn’t typical, especially for one of such years, when the circle of friendship usually shrinks because of both the passing of old friends and hesitancy to invest in new ones. Dot didn’t have that problem. She collected hearts, without ceasing her life’s mission – to love one another, as Christ first loved us. I think that’s why I just never quite grasped that Dot was 93 years old, because the passing of the years had left her spirit undiminished in her openness to learning and relationships. She remained young in heart, for in her was the Life.
In Dot was a heart that once connected with young children at the beginning of their schooling, among the very first teachers to work with Title I, which includes Head Start and other programs to help disadvantaged children catch up and thrive. In her was a heart that caused her to befriend a young woman of 13 who had lost her own mother, becoming a second mother to her and modeling for her what would become Denise’s own vocation. In her was an expansive heart for spiritual daughters of varying ages and yes, even a few sons, all children to her – not merely linked by blood, but of heart and of soul. Each brought under wing, offered friendship of the highest order and gifted with a commitment that lasted until death. Friends, neighbors, this congregation, and even the maintenance man, all found themselves equally brought under the expansive and ever-accommodating roof of the house of Dot.
One of the first stories, a defining one that Dot shared, was of her father. A bank custodian who worked to ensure her education would continue into college, his words had echoed across the decade. When the day came for her to go to college, his parting words were: “Don’t bring home anything you didn’t take with you.” With teen pregnancy all around, she recounted, he did not want her stepping away from the larger vision for her life. Such a vision for others and that directness of speech – the “word of truth in love,” as it is referred to in scripture, was certainly a characteristic passed from father to daughter, as we all know.
So if Psalm 51 was what grounded her, I find myself thinking of Dot in terms of our second reading, from I Kings 2, of that transitional time when a spiritual parent is soon to pass. Elijah knew his time was approaching and was at peace with it, but clearly his spiritual son Elisha had become anxious. Death has a way of catching that childlike anxiousness in us of being left behind, doesn’t it?
And so, as it is written, “When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ (to which) Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’”
There is an insightful hope in Elisha’s words, a hope that is echoed today; to inherit that double portion of Dot’s spirit. Double the elder’s share of the spiritual estate, it isn’t about having twice the spirit of his spiritual father and accomplishing twice as much. There simply is no replacement for Dot, no more than there was for Elijah. We know this, for each is uniquely created and each serves by the will of God in their own season according to their own calling. Elijah noted he had no power to give away the power he had received, — and yet, Elisha’s prayer was indeed answered. Such is the grace of God, as Elisha took up the work.
Today is about receiving the transference of unfinished tasks. The mantle which has fallen is the one we now gather up as family of the heart: to serve in the full measure of our own lives, as, like Dot, we honor our Creator. The purposes remain, to love, to encourage, to befriend, to mentor – in the full measure of our own gifts. Life continues and a new voice speaks from the seemingly empty place.
So I want to ask you all to take a moment right now and really look around this sanctuary: Look at one another, at the diversity, depth and size of this extended spiritual family that Dot (with Bliss’ help, of course) created out of her love. I want you to FEEL Dot here because she truly is. She is in all of us, surrounding us, lifting us up to be the best we can be. See in your head, in your heart, how she is smiling in her Jesus’ presence. You see, today isn’t about gaining a new part of Dot. She had already imparted to us her most precious possessions – her heart and her faith. Today is holding close how she has shaped us and beckoned us to likewise serve God through relationship with others – like her, GRATEFUL recipients of God’s great love!
The family of Dot Penn has asked that memorial gifts may be directed to: First Christian Church, 1458 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA 23666. For more information, call the church office at (757) 826-0711.
Obituary of: Dorothy “Dot” Brown Penn
Dorothy Brown Penn, 93, a long-time resident of Hampton, passed away peacefully on Thursday, January 11, 2018, with her loving sister and caregiver, Bliss, at her side. She is a native of Petersburg, VA. She is preceded in death by her parents, Bliss and Mary West, and her beloved husband, Lieutenant Colonel James W. Penn, and granddaughter Kaitlin Ashby. She was a retired educator from Newport News Public Schools after 30 years of service, an avid gardener, and enjoyed traveling with family and friends. Dorothy is survived by her loving sister, Bliss Wagstaff of Hampton, her nephew, Bliss Armstead and wife Karen of Williamsburg, her numerous nephews, her beloved cousin Brenda Evans and husband Michael of Pittsburgh, PA, her children, Denise Ashby and Kermit Ashby, M.D. of Yorktown, Trudy Kelly of Newport News, Katrina and Micheal Foster of Newport News, Brenda and Robin Vines, Sue Van Vector, Robin Faith, and Beverly Sustare (special friend) all of Hampton, granddaughters Kristen Ashby, M.D. of San Antonio, Texas, and Kathryn Ashby of Franklin. In addition to those mentioned, there are so many more extended family members and friends that were dear to her heart.
Thank you to the caring and compassionate professionals of Riverside Palliative and Hospice Care, and the physicians, team nurses, and Telemetry Team at Riverside Hospital. And, special thanks to her wonderful neighbors, and Rev. Vinson Miller, Linda Kuster, and Dorothy’s entire church family at First Christian Church of Hampton for all their prayers and support.
Private interment will be at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery.
The family requests memorial gifts be made in memory of Dorothy Penn to: First Christian Church, 1458 Todds Lane Hampton, VA 23666, (757) 826-0711.