Monday, June 15, 2015

300 & 400

Friday, October 21, 2011

Three and out ('so far, so strange')

My daughter is in Oman or Dubai (she's going both places, I just don't remember which is first.)

She sent me a cryptic email: "Arrived. So far, so strange."

I've felt that way over the past year or so. I've done the funerals of three people who were not only my dear friends but my profound mentors. Ginny, Reed and Kay all played a remarkable role in the forming of my ministry and my life over the past 25 years. And now they are dead, each of them, all of them.

Ginny was the head of the Council of Churches in Waterbury when I arrived in Waterbury in 1989. She was an Episcopalian and sometimes came to St. John's though she was a member of a suburban parish. She was tough and nails and funny as hell. Ginny loved to work and she loved to play and she taught me a lot about how to navigate the weird, unpredictable waters of ecumenical relations.

Reed was, at the same time, the director of a non-profit called Green Community Services (not because it was near the Waterbury Green but because the Rector of St. John's, the Pastor of First Congregational and the Minister of First Baptist had a green file box they passed around, taking a month at a time to try to meet the needs of the urban poor and weed out the urban con-men. He was a member of St. John's and one of the most outspoken Liberal voices I've ever heard. He taught me how to treat people who disagreed profoundly with you with the kind of respect and kindness that made them at least 'listen' to what you had to say. And he liked nothing more than to laugh.

Kay was a long-time member of St. John's who was a political activist and mover and shaker. She was no nonsense but compassionate, dedicated but deeply humorous.

(As I write this, I realize that I admired each of them for their ministry and commitment AND because each had a great sense of humor. My wife decides who she likes by 'how smart' they are and that matters to me as well. But my first priority for a dear friend is 'how funny' they are. If we aren't having fun we should find something else to do.)

I only had notes for Ginny's funeral sermon and can't find them. But I have the text for Reed's and Kay's. I thought I'd share them. What I said in those sermons will tell you a bit about why I loved them so much and why I'm declaring a moratorium on the death of mentors. Anyone else 20 years or so older than me who taught me much must remain alive, for my sake. I'm three and out in the past year. I can't lose anymore people like these from my life.

So far, so strange....

Memorial for Reed Smith

“Then the Righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prision and visited you?'
And the King will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least o these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'” Mt. 25.37-40

So here is something I saw one day, years ago, looking out the window of my office that was above the Close of St. John's in Waterbury and gave me a view of the whole Green and much of downtown.
I saw Reed crossing the street between St. John's and the little store owned and run by some folks from India where I went, often, to get coffee. School had just let out and the kids from the high school next to St. John's on Church Street were waiting in front of the little Indian store for the next bus.
The high school beside of St. John's was the school of “last resort” for the kids who when there. They'd been kicked out of one of the three high schools in the city for something or another—certainly untowardly—and they were going to school there because no other school could contain them. There were about 20 of those kids standing on the street where Reed was headed. They were goofing around and smoking and being generally unruly. And here comes Reed.
Reed was dressed, I swear to you, in navy blue knickers (I never knew anyone besides Reed who wore honest to God knickers), blue and yellow argyle knee socks, dress shoes, a blindingly white dress shirt, a red bow tie, a seersucker jacket and a straw hat.
“This will be good,” I said to myself, watching Reed approach 20 or more high school students who were jacked up on teen-aged hormones and God knows what else, and these where teens who had somehow fallen through the cracks of our society. “Bad kids” in the estimation of most people.
As Reed approached, the kids (who didn't give in to anybody) parted like the Red Sea and let him pass. He tipped his straw hat to them and they watched him, silent and staring, as he walked two blocks, greeting homeless people, a police officer and several people in serious suits on the way. Once he was out of sight, having turned a corner, the kids remained subdued, didn't revert to the nonsense they'd been up to before Reed appeared. They seemed to be pondering something until the buses they were waiting for arrived.

They had been “Reed-ed”. Reed Smith had crossed their paths, shared their journeys for a moment and I believe, I truly believe, some few of them will remember that encounter years from now. I truly believe that.
When Reed crossed your path, something shifted, something changed, life as you knew it was somehow subtlety transformed.
Reed was like that. When you encountered him, something shifted, altered, changed. You were 'Reed-ed' in a way that mattered and made a difference.

No one could possibly challenge his commitment to justice, to empowering the powerless, to serving the poor and marginalized of society. Reed's life was spent, as his daughter Pam called it, “saving the world every day”. And he did it with total integrity and utter authenticity. Every Day.

I remember watching him load a bus with people from Waterbury—people on welfare, the working poor, the neglected and forgotten of the city. The bus was parked in front of First Congregational Church so I crossed the street and asked him where they were going.
“An excursion to Hartford,” Reed said, smiling that little crooked smile he smiled and his eyes twinkling, “to have a little talk with their elected representatives....”
Reed had no compunction about walking into the halls of government to advocate for the poor—but he went beyond that: he empowered the poor to advocate for themselves.

It reminds me of a quote from Mother Teresa (though Reed, I'm sure, would object to his being worthy to be spoke of in her company). A cynical journalist asked Mother Teresa how she could possibly imagine she could save the poor and dying of Calcutta.
“One at a time,” she replied, smiling HER crooked smile, her eyes twinkling.
“One at a time” is how Reed entranced us all. His devotion to 'the least of these' was only equaled by his devotion to his family and friends. “His lady” Marty, his children, his friends. To be in his presence was to feel you had his total attention, his interest, his love.
One of the most conservative members of St. John's, the parish's long time Treasurer, would wax eloquent about Reed. Though they agreed on....well, 'nothing'...Ed always knew he was friends with a man of authenticity and integrity. Just that—being authentic and having integrity and being able to love those who don't agree with you—is devoutly to be wished by any of us.
If welcome to the Kingdom does rely on serving 'the least of these', then Reed has been welcomed with laurels. And I'm sure he accepted his welcome with humility and good humor and walked immediately into the Nearer Presence of God and said, “I've been waiting to meet with you. There are a few things back on earth we need to straighten out....”

I've often heard it said that a successful life would entail leaving the world a better place than you found it. Reed went beyond that. He made every person he encountered a 'better person' than they were before meeting him.
Since you're here today, I know you've been 'Reed-ed' in some significant way. And I'm sure he's glad to see you. His eyes are twinkling, he's smiling that little crooked smile and he's tipping his straw hat to each of us and all of us—most of all to Marti....
Let us thank God that we got to walk a little road with Reed.
And let us thank God—profoundly, joyfully, always and everywhere for him.....Amen.

Sermon for Kay
I saw Sandy at the nursing home the day that Kay started slipping away from life.
“I think she just decided to die and get it over with,” Sandy told me. “Just like Kay, still making up the rules.”
That got me started thinking about “KAY'S RULES”.
Kay's Rules would be demanding and passionate. Kay's Rules would be rigorous and committed. Kay's Rules would be full of dedication to justice, to fairness, to compassion and to action.
There would be a Rule in Kay's Rules that required standing with and advocating for those who were oppressed by our society because of poverty, gender, sexuality or race. Kay's Rules would fight against discrimination in whatever guise it raised it's ugly head. Kay's Rules would not let us rest until Justice was done.
There would be a Rule in Kay's Rules that demanded a passionate commitment to education and learning. Kay's Rules would give everyone access to Knowledge and the Power that knowledge brings.
There would be a Rule in Kay's Rules that would not tolerate 'unfairness' in any part of our society—in access to health care, in economics, in equal pay, in government services.
There would be a Rule in Kay's Rules that would insist that we 'get involved' and 'stay involved' in politics. Kay's Rules would hold us accountable for being a part of the forming and reforming of our political system.
There would be Rules in Kay's Rules that would deal with friendship, with loyalty, with personal integrity, with devotion, with responsibility. All in all, the world would be a much better place if we all played by Kay's Rules—just as the world and our lives have been made richer, fuller, more challenging, more complete, more compassionate by having known and loved Kay Bergin.
We are better off—each of us and all of us—that she lived in our midst and touched our lives. Truly. That is profoundly True.

The only Rule in Kay's Rules that I would object to is that there would probably be a rule about having to play golf.
I once played in a foursome in the Hastings Open that included Kay and Fran. I don't play golf but I'm reasonably good at anything that requires hitting a ball with a stick of some sort. Mostly I was comic relief for the real golfers.
Kay and Fran amazed me. I could hit the ball much farther than they could, but almost always to the left or right of the fairway. Kay and Fran always hit the ball straight down the fairway. Not to far but always on target, always straight ahead.
That is a metaphor for those two remarkable human beings. They always advanced things straight ahead and with consistency and with passion and with commitment.
Often, when I was Rector here, I would notice Kay going back to the Columbarium after the Eucharist and sitting with Fran for a while. Sometimes she brought some flowers in a vase. And she would just be with him for a spell.
And now she is with him again.

“When people die,” a friend of mine wrote in a poem for a mutual friend who died in Viet Nam, “When people die, it's like a bird flying into a window on a chill day.”
With Kay's death, the bird flew into the window again.
And we are here today to remember her, to mourn her death and to proclaim the promise of God in the midst of death and loss.
Memory is one of God's greatest gifts. All of us fear 'losing our memory' more than we fear death. Memory reminds us of 'who we are' and 'whose we are'. Memory is the anchor that keeps our small boat stable and safe in the storms of life.
So, we remember Kay today and thank God for the gift of her to each of us and all of us. And in our memory, our stories, our recollections, Kay lives with us.
So, we mourn Kay today and comfort each other in our loss. Grief shared is easier to bear. A touch, a hug, just 'being together' helps us endure the pain.
And, we gather to proclaim the promise of God that death is not the 'last word'. It is certainly the 'next to last word', but the last word is hope and life and resurrection. A priest wears white for a funeral—not the black of mourning but the white of Easter, of life, of hope.
In today's gospel Thomas says to Jesus as he announces his leaving them, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Amen, Thomas. The land on the other side of the door of Death is not a place we 'know'. But I do know this, St. Francis of Assissi once wrote, “Death is not a door that closes, but a door that opens and we enter in all new....”
I do not 'know the way', but I do know the promise of God. And that promise is this: that in ways we do not imagine and perhaps 'cannot imagine', Death's door opened for Kay and she entered into the nearer presence of the One who loved her best of all, and she was made 'all new'....
We will miss you my dear friend, Kay, and we will mourn you. And we will also remember you and the rules you gave us to live by. And we will celebrate your life and the privilege it was to share some of the road with you as we journey to the Lover of Souls.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Don't get me started....

A web sight called "Stumpy's Stickers" has bumper stickers for sale that say (I kid you not!)

Defeat Obama

There's another available with a picture of four hooded KKK members with their arms crossed in front of a burning cross that says

The Original Boys in the Hood
Defeat Obama

I grew up in a segregated county--the southernmost county of West Virginia. I didn't go to school with Blacks until High School and then only the 'brightest girls and best athletes' --5 blacks in a graduating class of 99.

The older black people in my little town of Anawalt--which was 50/50 white/black called me "Mr. Jimmie", and , much to my embarrassment, I didn't realize until I was 11 and 12 how wrong that was. My father and to uncles were all business owners and Black folks wanted to stay on the good side of the Bradleys.

I never played with a Black child in my childhood. Never knew any of their names. But they all knew me. It wasn't Mississippi, but it was toxic and bad.

A guy from Gary District High School (as opposed to Gary High--the white school) and I became friends in college. He would introduce me to his Black friends by saying, "Jim and I went to different high schools together...." I was properly humbled by that. This man who I became quite close with went to a different school less than a mile from mine, who had lived 10 miles from me for all our lives, who had my interests and my concerns-- and we had no opportunity to 'know each other' until we went to college--the SAME college, together.

The first parish I served was an African American parish in Charleston WV--even in 1975 there was tacit segregation in WV--and I learned great wisdom from the good folk of St. John's. They were of my class and education--not quite right, about 1/3 of the congregation had Ph.D's and were several steps above me economically--but it was close enough that, just like my one black friend in college, I realized we shared a great deal, more than I shared with many of the white people I knew.

But we didn't share everything--we listened to the same music, read the same books, voted for the same democrats (though some of them were still members of Lincoln's party because it was Lincoln's party) laughed at the same jokes and shared many social passions. However, I once was watching a parade in downtown Charleston with Col. Ben--a Corneal in the segregated army of WWII--and he said, "Jim, do you know how you're different from me?"

I wasn't sure and said so.

He took a deep breath and a great risk: "When you hear a band coming from around the corner, you can decide if you like it or not. But I have to wait until I see it. And if there are young Black faces in that band, then I like it, no matter how good they play."

I had been accepted into a Black community with grace and compassion, unlike any Black priest could have been accepted into a white church. I was blessed. More than blessed. I was transformed by the people of St. James. "Integration" has always concentrated on "how we're alike" and ain't that great. What true equality means is noticing 'how we're different' and celebrating that.

(Tonight at a wondrous St. Patrick's day corned beef and cabbage dinner at St. James in Higganum--hundreds of people came to eat or take out meals and some were probably delivered to a nearby elderly housing group and 10% of the proceeds went to a local soup kitchen--these folks in the Cluster really 'get' being a Christian....I said to Howie, half-in-jest, half-in-truth, "you know the thing I'm still not used to in the Cluster is being around so many white people."

Howie laughed and agreed the group was 'quite white'.

The three churches I served before I retired were a Black church, a totally integrated church and a totally integrated church that began a successful Hispanic ministry that became the 2nd largest of the three Sunday services and will, I suspect, become the largest of the three some day, through God's Grace.

I felt dirty after viewing Stumpy's Stickers web site. Dirty and despondent and fearful. Such hatred of 'the other' is full of ignorance and resentment and fear. How can this still be in this time and in this place?

Think back to the last time you didn't say something when someone told a joke or made a statement that was racist or sexist or xenophobic 0r homophobic or anit-Semitic or anti-Muslim?

Don't let it happen. Don't let it happen.

It is up to us, each of us and all of us, to Stand Up against Hatred and Fear and proclaim Inclusion and Hope. By the way, Courage is not the opposite of Fear, Hope is. That's because Fear allows no possibility and Hope is ultimate possibility.

You know the quote: John Locke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of Evil is for good men (sic) to do nothing."

I want to live in a world where Stumpy's Stickers would not exist. I support freedom of speech absolutely, but if we could all come to realize that we are all Children of God, with differences, and celebrate that (the 'differences' most of all) something akin to Sanity might become part of our national dialog.

Maybe. Hopefully.

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.