funeral sermon – living with a Gospel bias

The last church activity in which Tony participated was the weekly bible study group. At that time I was asking the group to choose next week’s text for study. And the selection was one from either the Old Testament or the Psalms or from Paul’s letters in the New Testament or from a Gospel reading in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John—the first four books of the New Testament.

Tony always, always, always voted for the Gospel reading. The Gospel describes the story of Jesus—his life, death and resurrection. You could say Tony had a bias towards the Gospel. And especially the Gospel of John, for some reason.

The word, Gospel, means: Good News. Good news. Not bad news. Not about how we always fall short. Not about human folly. Not readings about our sinfulness, about what we should do to make it better. But about the grace of God. God’s forgiveness, mercy, love.

The example in today’s Gospel is typical: Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.[1]The Gospel, to recognize it, is always about what God does, as a gift to us. So, here’s the thing about the good news of God:

It’s about receiving more than it is about achieving. The grace of God must be received, not achieved. Normally at a funeral service we talk about what our loved one has achieved in life, as if somehow the more one has achieved the better.

And without second glance, Tony, on that measure, has achieved so much: publishing books in his retirement, building half a dozen houses, acquiring degrees in mathematics and engineering, qualifying himself in brick-laying and construction, even playing soccer into his 80thyear. He achieved a lot, if that’s how you want to look at it.

And certainly in our culture, it seems that’s what it’s all about.

But what a tribute to one who has learned to see, that in all that life has given him—good and bad—all that he received in life, there is grace. A gift of God’s love. To appreciate life as gift. This is right brain stuff. This is entering into the mystery that is God and life.

When he was young, he contracted Diphtheria which kept him isolated for some time, sequestered with the nuns in their abbey. Late in his life, Tony was able to confess that even having a disease was a gift, since it kept him from entering the war, a war that claimed the lives of his two brothers.

These traumatic events of life could have left him bitter. But, despite it all, he remained his true self—kind, loving and gracious.

The author bio on the back cover of both books he published in his retirement says the following about Tony: “Tony was always very interested in literature, history, religion, and cosmology.”

At the end of Act One in his book entitled About God, the World and People, the scene is set at an evening dinner party. Around the table sit different characters – a priest and a scientist among others. After covering such cerebral topics as ‘what is dark matter’, the origin of the universe and various forms of energy, the priest, Father Stengel, concludes with what I suspect is the author’s personal belief:

Father Stengel says, “I personally have no problem with what our diligent scientists discover. I clearly see in the development of our universe the guiding and loving spirit of our Father in heaven.”[2]

While working with numbers all his life and valuing their clarity and succinctness, Tony was also able to say, “They’re just numbers”, in light of God’s truth.

From the perspective of faith, analytics and left-brain thinking can obviously help with some things in life. But when it comes to the great mysteries of life, when we encounter great suffering or great love, when we experience death, or yearn for God, we need to access another ‘operating system’.

You can’t explain these realities adequately using the scientific method alone. It’s remarkable, for the mathematician and engineer that Tony was—that he was able to appreciate, discern and plumb those more intuitive and subtler depths of knowing as well.

It doesn’t make sense how grief works, really. I’ve told this to many grieving families over the years after a loved one died: That in a grieving process, it’s not just the pain of loss of that particular person that comes to the surface at that time. The death of a loved one triggers all the emotional baggage—if you will—of all previous losses you have experienced as well, all those unresolved issues in a family, everything. It can be quite overwhelming. I’ve recently experienced this truth myself. It’s not rational. But it’s very real.

And in those moments that can’t be explained, in the end, the only course of action is love. It’s the only way that does make sense in the turmoil of loss and pain. I think Tony knew that. Gospel bias towards love.

Tony’s teammates on the soccer team were well represented at the funeral home last evening. One of his teammates told me that Tony was the reason they kept playing together. He said that during a game teammates and the competition sometimes came to blows, emotionally if not physically. But Tony was always there trying to mend ways, trying to keep the group together, inspiring them to play on. Tony knew that. Gospel bias towards love.

Death changes some things. Death is final, in a way. And it hurts. Yes. But human death doesn’t mean the relationship is ended. Death merely changed the nature of our relationship with Tony.

Now, Tony is no longer physically present with us. But he lives on—in our hearts, in our minds, in our spirit, in our conscience, in our actions. He is still with us, albeit in a different way. Tony’s death leaves us a gift, an invitation to make what was important to him, important to us. Life as gift, a grace to do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Gospel bias towards love.

“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”[3]Let what we do for others, be love.

 

[1]John 13:12-15,34-35

[2]Tony Bickle, About God, the World and People (Xlibris Corporation, 2008) p.48

[3]Most likely from Albert Pike, 19thcentury American attorney, soldier, writer, and Freemason. Sometimes this quote is attributed to 20thcentury American writer and biographer, Albert Paine.

 

‘Just beyond reach’ – a tribute to Jan

2015-10-04 15.23.20

In the Fall of 2015, we made a family visit to the National Art Gallery in Ottawa. Here is Jan, who was already struggling mightily with his dementia, pausing at a framed vision depicting images of his faith. Perhaps Jesus, the cross and other symbols in the painting awakened something deep within his soul, enough to make him stop and look. Perhaps it was an innate knowing that this painting described something of the final destination in his life.

Shortly after Dad died, we talked about how in his last decade of life, Dad’s ability to perceive the world around him had shrunk. Increasingly encumbered and limited by dementia, Dad’s vision slowly narrowed.

It’s curious that in the days after he died, we didn’t envision so many people would battle frigid, Ottawa temperatures to attend visitation and funeral services for him. How often our vision becomes encumbered. And we limit ourselves and for various reasons don’t see the wideness of possibility.

What a joy it is to be wrong! To see that there is more, that in life and reality therein hides something greater often just beyond the reach of our imagination.

I wish to share a few brief memories that speak to Dad’s/Opa’s rich imagination which kept him truly alive throughout his life. What we are dealing with here is sort of like Doctor Who’s Tardis: From the outside, it looks like a common, rather narrow, even flawed telephone booth. But once you risk going inside it, you enter a much larger world, a world that can easily be missed and overlooked.

I can still see the over two-dozen books written by adventure/sci-fi authors Karl May and Edgar Rice Burroughs lining the book shelves, along with the other ten thousand books stuffed on shelves against any free wall space in our home. Maybe Dad didn’t read every single one of those books, but he loved collecting them for what they symbolized to him: gateways to other worlds just beyond his reach.

In my youth, I came to believe that Dad’s hero was Lutheran Albert Schweitzer. Dad looked up to this gifted Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who did not specialize in any one thing, but was accomplished in various fields: an organist, a physician, a theologian, a writer, a humanitarian and philosopher. A virtual ‘renaissance man’, Schweitzer may have modelled for Dad the work and identity of a pastor. Dad was no Albert Schweitzer, but his expansive and creative spirit certainly resonated within him.

As a young child, I remember standing on the shores of Papineau Lake near Maynooth, listening to Dad tell us stories about good and evil battling it out on earth and throughout the universe.

Indeed, Dad’s imagination was expansive. He inspired in me a spirit of exploration, adventure, boundless in time and space. Perhaps motivated by a holy restlessness, Dad continued to seek ways to see more, envision more, experience the wideness of possibility, the wideness of God’s mercy. His desire to move, to change places and ‘go West young man’ fueled his passion for new things, new experiences. Dad was willing to take that risk.

I remember in Maynooth, in the front yard of the parsonage on Highway 62, we often played around the picnic table there. Chipmunks scampered on the ground and in the pine and spruce trees above us.

Once he let a chipmunk climb onto his hand, then up his arm all the way to his shoulders. I believe he wanted to show us how intuitively connected we can be to all the natural world. He showed us how to take the risk of trusting. He modeled for us, in a small way, how to receive a gift, how to surrender to the freedom of an unknown, unpredictable quantity in the chipmunk. And, in God?

His arms reached out to me the last time I saw him at St Patrick’s Home. He didn’t want me to go. That was a difficult leave-taking. That vision is stuck in my mind. Those arms stretched-out capture, for me, his stance of yearning for and living on the verge of loving possibility, just beyond his reach.

Today, I believe Dad finally experiences the fullness of what always flickered within his soul: For, he now flies with the angels, plays with the angels and rests in arms of a God who carries him to the farthest reaches of the universe.

Have fun, Dad. Enjoy! And some day, we will catch up to you.