In Memory of Phil

Sunday, June 21, the text from Faith in Minneapolis reached us in Montana.

“6:15 p.m. – A great soul has passed.”

Phil Brown and I go back 55 years when we met as freshmen at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. Within two weeks we were doing something entirely juvenile. We were running for President of the best class the college had ever admitted or would ever see again. J 😇

From the day I met Phil, I knew him as a person of dignity and stature. He carried himself with an outward confidence that belied an inner self-doubt. His posture was erect, shoulders back with a disgustingly athletic physique and stride, a classically chiseled face, and the brains to go with it. He was a Big Man on Campus from the day he set foot on campus to the day he left it for Law School at Indiana University in 1964. When he left law school to prepare for a vocation in ministry, we again became classmates at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

In ways we only later came to understand and celebrate, in spite of the early competition, we were tied by similar family histories and destinies, although anyone who knows us well could easily call us the Odd Couple, one of us like Felix Unger, the always well-groomed, meticulously tidy maintainer of order and propriety played in the film by Jack Lemon; the other more like the unpredictable, care-free, disorganized, careless slob named Oscar Madison, played by Walter Matthau. Can there be any doubt who was whom?

At Phil’s retirement party as Synod Executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, his beloved sons, Ian and Jess, delivered a comical roast of their Dad who, they said, had taught them many things, not the least memorable of which had to do with tools from Phil’s workshop. “If you took it, put it back where you got it!” was his consistent teaching. I always wondered, though, why Phil didn’t put the special microbrewery beers that Ian mailed him back in the refrigerator where we’d gotten them.

Phil and Faith are Kay and my best friends in the Twin Cities. Our tears have fallen for more than two months, as we have watched with Faith the inexplicable, undiagnosed loss of energy that came on like an sudden thunderstorm that drenched him in night sweats the evening he returned from a North Oaks Association Board Meeting.

Always the most gracious of hosts, he and Faith hosted newcomers to North Oaks in their home a few weeks later with the understanding that if Phil grew weary, he should retire early. He did. It was not like Phil to call attention to himself or to bow out on a promise, a duty, or a commitment. He had to be restrained from overdoing, but restraining a race horse committed to doing the right thing takes a trainer with strength not even the strongest life partner or lifelong friend could muster.

At Maryville Phil chose Economics for his major. His academic advisor and mentor, Bob Lynn, was a professor known equally for his brilliance and his demands for academic excellence. At McCormick Theological Seminary, Phil again chose to study with the very best, Jack Stotts, Professor of Christian Ethics. Phil was always drawn to the highest standards of excellence.

As Presbytery Executive with Blackhawk and Milwaukee presbyteries and as Synod Executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, he embodied that combination of ardor and order, grace and discipline that is the signature of the Presbyterian theological and ecclesiastical tradition where all things are to be done “decently and in order”. In that respect Phil and I each followed in our father’s footsteps. Phil succeeded at it much better than I.

But, if our friendship began as student competitors and friends wandering in the night through the foothills of the Smokey Mountains around Maryville, my last memories will be of Phil as the patient at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Though so weak that he could barely speak aloud, he unexpectedly joined me in saying the 23rd Psalm. His faith was on his lips, bubbling up from a deep, trusting heart, the secret place of the son of Victor and Francis Brown. I’m sure he noticed, as did his son Jess, my omission of the line “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake” — an omission made, whether consciously or unconsciously, I suppose in retrospect, because I wanted him to give up the struggle for righteousness in order to rest peacefully beside the still waters there beside the valley of the shadow of death.

There are no still waters here in Montana where I am committed to serve as summer minister at St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel in the ghost town of Silver Cross where we prayed for Phil, Faith, and the Brown family this morning. After receiving Faith’s message this evening, Kay walked to the backyard of the Manse and returned with a bouquet of wild purple irises and other wild flowers in honor of Phil. We read the Psalms and prayers from The Book of Common Prayer and found some solace there in the company of the saints in light.

Good friendships last a lifetime. Over time, the tears of loss and mourning will be turned, by God’s grace, into the tears of great thanksgiving.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Georgetown Lake, MT, June 23, 2015