Friday, September 4, 2015

A Homily at the Burial Office of Shirley Waller


“Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.”

“What!”  It was the only word I said.  It is only word I could say when I received a call alerting me Shirley Waller had died.  My cell phone records indicate it came precisely at 1:00 on Tuesday afternoon and lasted exactly one minute.  I was in Newport News and all I wanted to do was get back to Suffolk and get to the Waller’s home.  Questions raced through my mind: How is Roy?  What can I do to help?  How can this be happening?  I suspect most of us had a similar reaction.

That initial shock has made room for a myriad of thoughts, feelings, and emotions.  I am so grateful that many of us were able to be here with Shirley on Sunday as we celebrated the baptism of Charlotte, her newest great-grandchild.  It could have been anybody’s baby and Shirley would have radiated with enough love and joy to fill this worship space, but a child from her own family made it even more special for her.  And then, like every Sunday, she had family and friends over to her home for lunch.  Last Sunday, with the baptism, it was a full house!  It gives me a deep sense of peace knowing Shirley was a part of that day.

I am also deeply grateful she passed peacefully, even though it did not make time for goodbyes, final words, and the opportunity to make amends.  But Shirley lived her life in a way that none of these things were necessary.  Was there ever a time she didn’t tell a family member she loved them?  Is there any word of wisdom she needed to pass on she did not convey every day through her actions?  Could there possibly be a person who had an issue with Shirley that needed to be resolved?  I would prefer to have Shirley with us for another twenty years or more, but am grateful for the way she lived her life ready to meet her Maker with no regrets or unfinished business.

How did people regard Shirley?  Let me read for you some of the things people posted on Facebook upon learning of her passing:

She was such a wonderful person and a big part of my church life while growing up.

Such a wonderful, loving woman!  My life was blessed and enriched for having known her.

What a true blessing to have known Shirley.

Shirley epitomized a true Christian in every way.

Shirley made everyone (including me) feel welcomed and loved at St Paul’s.

The last time I went to church… just before my last surgery as we went to the communion rail [Shirley] squeezed my hand and said are you ok... precious moments.

Always, always a wonderful smile and warm hug.

I will always remember sitting near to her in choir, and for her warm smiles, and heartfelt laughs.

She personified love and kindness.  She and Roy welcomed me into the St. Paul’s family, and have meant so much to… our whole family.  Heaven has gained a beautiful angel.

A beautiful lady and my dear friend.  I will miss you so much.

Someone once asked me if I knew a real Christian...  someone that… actually lived the way a Christian should.  Knowing they weren’t talking about me my thoughts went straight to Shirley… Anyone who could handle Mr. Waller for all these years definitely earned her hallo.

If these are not enough of a tribute, the Country Book Store has tweeted that they have lost a valued customer and in honor of Shirley will be running a half-off sale this weekend.  Not familiar with the Country Book Store?  It is located on Rt. 460 in Waverly right next to the 7-Eleven.  Shirley found it a couple of years ago while travelling with Roy and good friends Jesse and Kathy Pruden.  They were headed to the Boys Home in Covington and decided to make a stop for coffee.  Roy and Jesse went into the convenience store while Shirley and Kathy decided to check out what was next door.  They burst through the front door giggling with the delight of school girls at the prospect of investigating a never-before visited store.  If you know nothing of the Country Book Store, this is to your credit.  Far from what its name implies, it is an adult book store that specializes in, well, pornographic material.  I believe it was Shirley who, upon taking a survey of environment, first perceived something was amiss.  Kathy, seeing only video tapes, asked with confidence and curiosity, “Where is the book section?”  I like to imagine the looks on the faces of these two fine southern, Christian ladies as they realized the nature of the establishment in which they were standing.  Can’t you just picture the mortified look on Shirley’s face as she grabbed Kathy by the arm and said, “Ohhhhh, I think we had better get out of here.”  Shirley loved to tell that story and I love that she loved to laugh at herself.

It is a quality that pairs nicely with the deeply emotional and spiritual way she held those she loved.  Your joys and accomplishments caused her to soar.  Your burdens and challenges were something she carried in her heart.  Most Sundays and not a few weekdays I heard about both from her.  She carried the wealth and the weight of your worlds on her shoulders and brought it to this place where she shared it with God whom she knew as ever and always compassionate.

I want to say something to Shirley’s grandchildren.  I want you to know how much I envy each of you.  Two of my grandparents died before I was born.  The other two were gone before they made much of a formative impact on my life.  You have had not just a grandmother for three decades, you have been blessed to have an exceptional grandmother.  Because I didn’t have your experience I can’t imagine the pain and loss you feel this day.  We will all miss Shirley, but one of the first things Roy said to me on Tuesday was this would be especially hard for each of you.

Years ago I came across a book titled Mary’s Way by Peggy Tabor Millin and something she wrote always seems to come back to me at times like this.   She described a common, everyday experience that led her to see a deeper truth about life and relationships:

I was on a train on a rainy day.  The train was slowing down to pull into a station.  For some reason I became intent on watching the raindrops on the window.  Two separate drops, pushed by the wind, merged into one for a moment and then divided again – each carrying with it a part of the other.  Simply by that momentary touching, neither was what it had been before.  As each one went on to touch other raindrops, it shared not only itself, but what it had gleaned from the other. 

Millin then reflected on what she witnessed and wrote, “I realize that we never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace.” 

Her insight seems especially true today, doesn’t it!  For Shirley’s children, grandchildren, adopted children, co-opted children, embraced as children, “I don’t care who you are, you are a part of our family” children, for all of us – our task is not to be like Shirley.  It is to take what Shirley has given to us and make it our own.  I doubt there are many of us here whose life Shirley touched only ‘lightly’.  Her touch on each of our lives has been incredibly significant.  We are better people for it and we cannot help but enrich the lives of others because of it.

This morning we hear the words of Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.”  While “what?” may have been the first thing we said on Tuesday, emerging slowly – for some of us now just as a glimmer and for others only yet as a hope – is a sense of peaceful acceptance, joy, and gratitude.  Shirley had a wonderful way of holding loss and grief and allowing it to transform into trouble-free faith.  I pray that each of us who has been touched by her may find this to be a gift she has given to us.


Monday, August 31, 2015

Pots and Pans, and Dirty Hands, Oh My!

A boy is selling fish on a corner and to get his customers’ attention, he is yelling, “Dam fish for sale!  Get your dam fish here!”  A pastor approaches and asks, “Why are you calling them ‘dam fish?’”  The boy responds, “Because I caught them at the local dam.”  The pastor buys a couple fish, takes them home to his wife, and asks her to cook the dam fish.  The wife is surprised, “I’ve never heard you talk like before.”  So he tells her about the story about the boy.  At the dinner table, the pastor asks his wife to pass the dam fish and takes a bite.  The wife asks, “How are your dam fish?” “Why this is the best dam fish I’ve ever tasted,” he replies.  Their teenage son, observing all of this is quite perplexed and says, “I don’t know what has gotten into the two of you, but will someone please pass me damned potatoes!”

There is a growing sentiment that religion is ruining our world.  All the ammunition you need to make such an argument is right there on the evening news.  Rabbi Harold Kushner, one of the best known Jewish authors of our time, says this:  The problem today is not religion.  Life is the problem.  Religion is the answer.  Religion, he says, can teach us how to find the hidden rewards of holiness in the world, and how to cope with life’s uncertainties and disappointments.  He contends that true religion shows us the most direct path to being authentically human.

This, I think, is what Moses was getting at in today’s first reading.  He says that if God’s people follow God’s commands then others will look upon their example of living and see that it is rooted in wisdom and understanding.  The commandments that Moses delivered are called the ‘Torah,’ a word which is often mistranslated as ‘law’, but a more accurate rendering is ‘teaching’ because it is God’s gift to all people so that we will know how to live.   Maybe it would be better to call them the Teaching Commandments because they show us how to love God, nurture our spiritual nature, revere life and all created things, treat others with dignity, value fidelity in primary relationships, tell the truth, and respect the rights and properties of others.  God intends for these teachings to open up life in all its fullness.

Kushner writes of his own faith tradition that it is meant “to convey a sense of exuberance to life, a readiness to enjoy the pleasures of the world.  It removes from wine [for example] the taint of sin and self-indulgence and invites us to look at all God has created and find it good.” 

There is an old sage that suggests some day every one of us will have to give an account for all the good things God created which we refused to enjoy.   This is what religion is meant to be like – a wise and understanding teaching that points the way to genuine living – but it can easily disintegrate into a collection of irrelevant customs and unconnected prohibitions stemming from ancient times. 

This is exactly what Jesus encountered in today’s reading from the Gospel.  Religious leaders confront him because they have grown accustomed to wringing the life out of life.  They complain that his followers fail to observe suffocating rituals.  You can almost picture them walking arm-in-arm with worried looks on their faces as they say over and over again, “Pots and pans and dirty hands, oh my!  Can you imagine how frustrated Jesus must have been with them?  Is it any wonder that a central feature of his proclamation is “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.  We thirst, we pant, we long for religion that points the way to life. 

But this was the farthest thing from the minds of Jesus’ critics.  They had lost their bearings and transformed religion from being the answer to life to being at odds with life.  Have you ever known someone who does this?  Have you ever been in a church like this?  Probably not for long!  If we are honest with ourselves we will admit there are times when we ourselves have been a wet blanket on the flame of life.  It is so easy to fall into this trap. 

I remember reading Garrison Keiler’s book Lake Wobegon Days where he traces the history of all the Baptists churches in his mythical town.  Second Baptist split off from First Baptist over whether believers would be raptured into heaven before or after the great tribulation.  Third Baptist split off of Second Baptist over ladies wearing pants suits to church instead of dresses.  The True Baptist Church had its origins in a dispute that erupted at a Third Baptist pot-luck supper.  It seems that two families brought he exact same dish, prompting cries of recipe stealing and other ugly accusations.  There were several other Baptist splits in town, but you get the idea.  It is hard to find much wisdom and understanding in such disputes.  So often these differences are little more than pots and pans and dirty hands, oh my!

There is a saying in the Episcopal Church that we seek to major in the majors and minor in the minors.  This is to say we seek to make important the things that are important while not getting sidetracked by those things that are unimportant.  A 17th century English theologian by the name of Richard Hooker labeled what was unimportant as being ‘things indifferent.’  If it makes no difference whether you do something one way or the other, then by all means don’t treat it as if it is a matter of ultimate concern.  His famous phrase that guides the churches of the Anglican Communion is “unity in the essentials, latitude in the non-essentials, and charity in all things.”   

Jesus proclaims that religion is about finding answers to the problems of life and He makes the bold claim that he himself is the answer.  His critics complain about pots and pans and dirty hands.  Each of us must decide for ourselves what religion is meant to be.  Kushner says, “Religion should open the doors to passion, to holiness, to deepening of life’s joys, and to a fearless confrontation with life’s sorrows.”  Jesus, like Kushner, was a Jew and doesn’t this sound a lot like the religion he offers to us in himself?  Doesn’t this sound like a wise and understanding way to live life?