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Eulogy for John Thomas Cloninger (1970-2012)

Eulogy for John Thomas Cloninger (1970-2012) by Jeffrey J. Denning on Sat. Feb 25, 2012 | Held at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I am reminded of the words of a congregational hymn.

Do thou, O Lord, anoint mine eyes
That I may see and win the prize.
My heart is full; mine eyes are wet.
Oh, help me, Lord, lest I forget.
So may my soul be filled with light
That I may see and win the fight,
And then at last exalted be,
In peace and rest, O Lord, with thee.[1]

Times like this tend to make us ponder how fragile life is. But this is not how the story ends.

In 1991, serving in the U.S. Army in West Germany, John volunteered to deploy to Iraq in support of Desert Shield. As 19-year-old in the midst of war, he had a lot of time to ponder the things of eternity. As it’s said, “There’s no such thing as atheists in foxholes.” But John wasn’t on the ground in a foxhole. He was a helicopter door gunner who did less shooting and more helping refugees in northern Iraq and Turkey.

The sense of life and death in war served as a catalyst to catapult John to seek out eternal, heavenly things. A friend invited him to hear about the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Full-time missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught him about the Savior’s restored gospel. Two young men, roughly the same age as John, taught the gospel in plainness and without dilution. They said, in essence, “Don’t just take our words for truth, but pray and ask God yourself whether what we’re teaching in true.” Such a message is available to—and encouraged by—every person seeking God’s truth.

John took that challenge seriously. He read in The Book of Mormon—Another Testament of Jesus Christ, and he prayed to know whether or not it was true. In his heart and in his mind, John felt that what was being taught was true. He received a witness of it, a comforting and calming reassurance—a peace he had never before experienced. That answer would forever change the course of his life.

These spiritual missionary discussions that started and ended with prayer were familiar to his spirit. It wasn’t that John was learning these things for the first time. No. He was re-learning it. The missionaries taught him that we all lived before we were born; we were spirits waiting to come to earth and gain physical bodies. What the missionaries taught may have seemed new—and it was the first time he had heard about it in this life—but, in reality, John was one of the great ones. He was prepared before the foundation of this world in the grand councils of heaven.  “Even before [John Cloninger was] born, [he], with many others, received [his] first lessons in the world of spirits and [was] prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men” (Doctrine & Covenants 138:56).

John would later teach others, especially his children, that God is our Eternal Father in Heaven, the Father of our spirits, and as such each of us are brothers and sisters. 

John gained a personal and powerful witness—a conviction of truth—that Jesus Christ overcame death so that we all might live again. John could proclaim with the Apostle Paul that because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, “Death is swallowed up in victory. 

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55.)

After honorably finishing his mandatory military enlistment, John was eager to begin his new life as a civilian. He wanted to find a companion, a helpmeet, someone to talk to and share his life with. Attending a single’s congregation in Dallas, Texas, John met Cindy. The two of them instantly became inseparable. Marriage soon followed.

As Cindy’s older brother, I must admit I was a little skeptical of this former military man, but that only lasted for a short time. Why? Because John had the uncanny ability to win the respect of others rapidly. His kindness and pleasant personality was attractive. He could instantly make others feel comfortable, and I was no different. I soon went from guarded and cautious about this man dating my little sister to feeling extremely happy that there was a man who could actually exceed the expectations of who I’d want to marry my sister. I knew he would protect her and provide for her.

Just starting out, John knew that he should devote everything to his new bride and the children that soon would come into their home. That even included getting rid of his second car, a Corvette. He had his priorities in order.

After starting their life together, John pursued his occupational desires. He wanted to become a medical doctor, although he didn’t yet have a college degree. Tenaciously, he began working and studying. He waited tables in the evening and went to school full-time during the day. He studying tirelessly and did very well. A few kids and several years later, John decided to choose podiatry—the study of the foot and ankle. He told me he chose that route because it was the shortest of all med school programs and, most importantly, being a podiatrist would allow him to spend maximum time with his wife and their children. Again, John had his priorities in order.

With the passing of Sept. 11, 2001, and after passing all of his final medical board exams, John was determined to join the Army once more. This time, he’d become an officer and a doctor. John carefully thought things through. He was neither overly spontaneous nor a flagrant risk-taker; in short, he was simply intelligent. Cindy, of course, had unwavering faith in his level-headed decision-making abilities and soon became a supportive Army wife.

John had excelled academically, and his talent and physical dexterity during surgery became very evident to senior military surgeons at Fort Bragg, and later Fort Hood. Operating on multiple wounds and injuries from the knee to the big toe, John performed literally hundreds of procedures during his military residency.

With wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of soldiers had received devastating injuries, so the types of procedures John was mandated to perform during his residency program came rapidly. John’s medical school classmates who took civilian jobs were jealous of the amount of experience he was getting. It wasn’t that John just got the experience, but he was wanted above his peers in the operating room. Humbly, John was very skilled at his life’s profession.

In 2005, John and Cindy’s life was about to take a challenging turn. They had already experienced a myriad of health struggles with their children and John had lost his step-dad, and now John was getting deployed to Iraq. There was nothing John loved more than Cindy and their children. He put nothing before them in his unwritten list of priorities. Family always came first.

Tearful good-byes weren’t easy. John had even prayed and asked God if he would live through his deployment; he was ready to accept God’s will for him. John knew that God heard his prayers; he knew his prayers were never ignored. He went forward in faith, although leaving his family was heart-wrenching.

I am confident that God, the micromanager of our lives, needed John’s skills and his priesthood power in Iraq. John would often tell me of how spiritual the church meetings were in Iraq. Through no fault of his own, John was being stretched emotionally. Undoubtedly, like I would also experience later in a deployment to Iraq, John’s prayers became more meaningful and heartfelt. Perhaps, like the Savior in Gethsemane, “he being in an agony, prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:44).

At one time, John’s site was attacked with great force. He was one of only five doctors stationed there (which included one psychiatrist). During the attack each of them were gathered together in an unprotected area when a barrage of deadly mortars came sailing in. One of them hit several feet from where John was standing. The ordnance hit and went through a fuel tank of a military vehicle, but it didn’t explode. John’s skills were needed. 88 casualties were received over the next 45 minutes. With the skills he possessed—and that he happened to be there at that time—is no coincidence in my mind. Only the Lord knows, but I venture to guess that some child has a dad alive today because John was there to save lives.

Saving lives wasn’t the only thing John lived for. John recognized the importance of the worth of a soul. He confided in me the joy he felt in sharing the gospel with others on the base there in Iraq. Through John’s example, others became interested in his peculiar lifestyle and his professional demeanor. Others wanted to know more about the Church of Jesus Christ because of John Cloninger.

He wasn’t like the others: John didn’t drink alcohol (although that wasn’t allowed in Iraq at the time anyway); he didn’t swear or curse; he didn’t look at pornography; he didn’t use tobacco products, or drink coffee or tea. He was faithful to his wife. He treated others with kindness and love, compassion and concern. Indeed, something was truly different about him and that difference attracted others to him.

In addition to keeping the covenants he made at baptism and the covenants he made with God in the temple, John had special gifts of charity (or pure love) and peace that his family, whom he missed so terribly, knew best. John was approachable and gentle. He missed cuddling his children and he certainly missed the way they would come and sit on his lap and snuggle up to him.

Nothing was easy for Cindy while she was home, all alone with the children. With John away she had to make all of the day to day decisions on her own. Cindy and the children continued to pray for his safety while he also prayed for them.

Soon they were united again. The time came for John’s military obligation to end. He had never planned on making a career of the military, but he loved all the military stood for. John had raised his arm to the square more than once, making an oath to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

John and Cindy had made their faith in God the greatest priority of their marriage and their family life. They knew that “Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. [And that] Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.”[2]

Having received the Holy Ghost after baptism and being worthy to feel of the guiding hand of the Comforter, John had learned to recognize well the promptings of the Spirit. When asking Heavenly Father in prayer where they should raise their children, they received undeniable guidance. Our eternally compassionate and loving Father in Heaven, who knows all things and sees the future before Him, guided John and Cindy to move to the Morgan Valley. After seeing how wonderful the people of this community are, there is no wondering why the Lord led the Cloninger family here. The Lord knew the future. He knew who could best help Cindy and the kids.

I am reminded of what Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, during the final days of the Civil War and only a month before he was killed.  He said, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”

Even today, many of you have observed Cindy’s strength and their families’ faith. I believe your many heartfelt prayers in their behalf, and your loving, Christ-like service and kindness towards them has made—and will yet make—this transition and trial less burdensome. I thank you for that.

With five kids, John and Cindy felt they were missing another tiny spirit from their family. After penitent study by faith and prayer, John and Cindy flew to China to adopt an orphan who had foot problems. Through their eyes, and through the Lord’s plan for their family, John had the right skills to help Eli’s feet and legs, but even more than that, he was their son.

Having been sealed in the holy temple, not just “until death do you part,” but “for all time and eternity,” John and Cindy knelt across the alter gazing into the symbolism representing eternity, with their young, adopted child. He was now an eternal part of their family. Nothing could separate John and Cindy from each other or from each one of their six kids.

Cindy and John were sealed by the everlasting and binding priesthood sealing authority in the house of the Lord. When they were sealed, someone had made a cross stitch which was framed and hangs on their wall. It quotes a portion of a Bible verse, Eccl. 4:9-10 that “Two are stronger than one, for if one falls, the other will lift him up again.” 

I looked up the verse, including the following verse. There is more to it. In the King James Version, it reads,

“Two are better than one …

“For if they fall, the one will lift up [the other]: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.

“Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?”

As sad as it is today, Cindy and John had a celestial marriage and everlasting bond. They will be together forever someday.

All was going well. John had a successful practice he created and had wonderful relationships with each of his patients. He helped them. Since he genuinely cared for all people, every person who knew him or who made his acquaintance—particularly his patients—felt important in his presence. John had a unique humility. He was approachable and easy to speak with. He brought out the best in others.

The practically perfect life of John and Cindy Cloninger and their adorable children would unsuspectingly be interrupted forever on Sept 28, 2010. Without warning, John experienced an excruciatingly severe head pain. Cindy rushed him to the hospital. Within days John was undergoing brain surgery where a walnut-sized tumor was removed. John’s faith was unconquerable. He knew that the Creator of worlds without number—the Creator of mankind—could perform miracles that would defy the logic of man’s finite understanding.

Later, doctors stated that his recovery was remarkable. John had faith to be healed and, by the laying on of hands, through faith, the priesthood authority and the will of our Father, miracles occurred.

John, a committed and determined provider, had missed a lot of work due to his brain surgery. After the doctor’s found “no deficit,” and all were stunned at the remarkable recovery—which did, indeed, defy science but not the Creator in whose hands lay all the elements and atoms—John returned to see his patients. There were others who needed his help. Maybe we’ll know someday in full why the Lord performed this magnificent miracle, temporarily sparing John’s life. There are several reasons I can think of. It is certain, though, that his time had not yet come.

In this very chapel in December 2010, at the age of 41, Brother John Thomas Cloninger stood at this pulpit and spoke eloquently on a topic with which he had become very familiar: hardships.

I’d like to share some of the words he said that day. Thankfully, he wrote down the words to his talk. I believe his children, as they grow, will be very thankful to read their father’s words when they are having hardships of their own—the kind John told me was hurtful to him, not seeing them grow up.

John, in his talk, said this:

“We don’t seem grow as fast spiritually when things are going well …

“When we are going through trials we should be running towards our Lord, not running away from him … We must go to our Savior in prayer with a willingness to be meek, submissive, and a willingness to endure all that the Lord desires to inflict upon us.

“I do have a testimony that as we pray and show faith through our trials, our burdens may not be removed on the timeline we want, but our strength to endure will be magnified.

“God is a God who performs miracles in the past, present, and future. I can’t control the events that are about to occur. My part is to have faith and prayer and the knowledge all [is] going to be well.”

John had faith. He was a stalwart example of faith, especially as his faith was tested and tried.

In the midst of John’s great suffering and pain, he was totally selfless. He prayed for my friend who had a brain aneurism. John prayed for him, although had not ever met my friend before that time. John was like the Savior in that he was full of compassion, mercy and charity—the pure love of Christ.

John believed in modern-day prophets and apostles. One such prophet had a vision of the spirit world. John was not bereft of such manifestations. In speaking of the life hereafter, this prophet declared,

“I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead.

“The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,

“And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation” (D&C 138:57-59).

I have no doubt where John is or what he is now doing. He is a vanguard for his family, preparing the way for them to join him in their heavenly home together when the time is right.

Finally, forgive me for telling a personal experience; but I believe it has relevance, and I feel impressed to share it.

John joined the military before I did, so I often asked his advice and questioned him about his service. He went to Iraq the second time before I went the first time. I think I knew a little about his experience in Iraq. 

In my own desperate circumstances, with a lovely wife and four tiny children (at the time) home in America, separated from them by war and conflict, I leaned to my Heavenly Father, the One sure refuge for peace in a troubled world.

During one particularly troubling day after nearly a year spent in Iraq, living in the torment and pain associated with war and conflict, I was walking on the dusty roads silently pleading for help, comfort and peace. My prayers had, at that time, become much more fervent.

As I pleaded with our Heavenly Father, I felt an overwhelming feeling burning deep into my heart and mind. I knew and comprehended that He was listening to me—that He could walk beside me and hold my hand, as a little child needing his Father’s loving guidance. As I watched my swaying hand, I learned more about our divine heritage than I ever had previously. We were created in His image! (See Genesis 1:26-27.) His hand was in likeness of mine, and mine like His. I comprehended and knew in my heart that God, our Father, has a body of flesh and bone as tangible as man’s, though perfect and immortal (D&C 130:22). I realized more deeply then than ever that I could speak with Him as a man speaks with another man, face to face.

God is our Father—our Father in Heaven. I believe that when we reunite after this life is over, it will surprise us just how familiar His face is to us.[3] We are indeed God’s children. If for that reason alone—knowing we are children of a loving Heavenly Father—we should never give up and always have hope.

I prayed to Heavenly Father as His son. Sons need fathers and fathers need sons. John is now at home, walking hand in hand with his God and our God, with his Father and our Father. He is now back to that God who gave him life (see Alma 40:11).

I know God lives. He is our Father, the Father of our spirits. I know that Jesus is the Christ and that through His infinite atoning sacrifice we all will live again. We can be sanctified and justified to enter into His eternal presence. I know that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored through the prophet Joseph Smith—that the prophet today holds all the keys and authority to stand at the head of Christ’s church. I know—I know—that families can be together forever through Heavenly Father’s plan. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

[1] Joseph H. Dean, “Before Thee Lord, I Bow My Head,” Hymns 1985, no. 158, vs. 2.

[2] “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102.

[3] See Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” in Speeches of the Year, 1974 (1975), 313; see also “Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” Ensign, Dec. 1988, 6; Tambuli, May 1977, 24.

Jeffrey Denning

Jeffrey has written award-winning articles for the Washington Times, Guns.com, and other publications. He is the author of seven books, including Warrior SOS: Military Veterans’ Stories of Faith, Emotional Survival and Living with PTSD. He teaches courses on peer support, suicide prevention, and other mental wellness and resilience to public safety professionals. If you would like Jeff to speak at your event or training please contact him HERE.

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