A Walk Down the Hall

There are for most of us those rare moments that give definition to one’s life. Such singular moments cast a wider light on all the other moments on calendars and clocks.

These are moments of the heart that touch us deeply — like Sunday’s return to Cincinnati to preach the sermon for the ordination of David Annett who was a boy when I served as his pastor at Knox Church 25 years ago, and the Monday and Tuesday times with my best friend Wayne as he nears the end of life in Indianapolis. Jean-Paul Sartre’s words from Nausea were never far away:

“One is still what one is going to cease to be,
and already what one is going to become.
One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life.”

The friendship with Wayne began at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago where the housing director had assigned us to room together in Room 311 of Alumni Hall. No friendship has been longer or deeper since that day in 1964. We have lived our deaths together over the years, and now one of us is in hospice care dying his life. The visits last Monday and Tuesday were what they have always been: moments described by the old hymn “Blest be the ties that bind Our hearts in Christian love.”

Front row: Don. Back row: Harry, Wayne, Bob, and Gordon at Wrigley Field

Sometimes a singular moment of time reveals one’s continuing character. I cannot yet find the moment that would open the window into who Wayne is or what our friendship has meant over the years since we met in Room 311. Memory will open it when the time is right, as it did when David invited me to preach his ordination sermon.

Our life stories rise out of the meeting points when our separate journeys converge as a dramatic moment that feels like fiction. As I spiraled back to the 11 years with David here at Knox, a singular moment in time seemed to put a frame around who you have ceased to be but still are, David, and who you will become after we have prayed over you with the laying on of hands.

The day I’m remembering happened years ago. You were eight years-old the day I’m remembering. Your grandmother was dying, You asked me to take you to see you grandmother one last time. We drove to Mercy Hospital and talked about what it’s like to visit a hospital, what he was likely to see in preparation for David’s visit with his Grandma.

At the hospital, David punched the elevator button for Grandma’s floor. When the doors opened, we exited the elevator, and walked side=by-side down the long hall toward her room. As I recall, I had to slow you down! You marched down that hall like a soldier, brave and true, a soldier of love for you grandma. You went directly to your grandmother’s hospital bed and stood there, refusing to submit our culture’s denial of death. You didn’t run. You put your hand on her arm and stayed awhile in the silence. And, when you’d taken in the sober reality of it, you spoke the words you had come to say, “I love you, Grandma.” We offered a brief prayer by her bedside and walked back down the hall in the kind of silence that comes over you when you’ve said good-bye to a loved one.

I was so proud of you that day! That moment will stay etched in my memory so long as my memory lasts. I feel that same pride now as you become the pastor who takes a walk down the hall with the other Davids of this world — the children here at Knox and at Cranston Memorial, and their parents; and the Syrian, Yemeni, and Guatemalan children and parents who have been left to fend for themselves. That brave, compassionate walk down the hall that is behind you is the ministry before you. As your train makes the curve around the bend to ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament, the connections slowly emerge, and the way you’ve come is the way ahead. Long before today, David, you were already what you would become.

Excerpt from Ordination sermon, Knox Church, Cincinnati, OH 1/13/19


The Monday following David’s ordination, I drove two hours to Indianapolis, knowing it likely would be the last time with Wayne. But funny things happen on a walk down the hall to the room that soon will be empty. To my surprise, the one dying his life was more cheerful than the one who expects to continue living his death. Sometimes, the one who’s dying becomes the pastor to the boy.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 20, 2019.

Friends

Those who have lived their lives in one place are blessed with enduring friendships over time. The schoolmates who stayed in my home town see each other all the time. They still bump into each other at Vince’s Barber Shop where Vince gave us Kindergartners crew cuts while the older men leafed through the stack of Playboys. The Playboys aren’t there anymore, but the little boys are, complete with oxygen tanks. Vince and his brother Tony, now in their 90s, are still behind the chairs telling stories that recall their relationships over time.

On my way to the 50th high school class reunion back in Broomall, the question occurred whether Vince’s Barber Shop was still there. It was. I walked in and began to introduce myself. “You’re Ken Stewart’s son.” I was a Kindergartner, a sixth-grader, a ninth-grader, and a senior all over again – a boy-turned-man who had been known over time once upon a time.

There are the friendships that date back to childhood, and there are the friendships that come by choice for those of us who left home for various parts of the world. These friendships also come by mutual bonds of affection that date themselves to different times and locate themselves in definable places. Like the hometown friendships that fell into our laps by birth, these later friendships endure by virtue of shared experience. If the early friendships are sustained by common memories of being called into Pop Werfel’s principal’s office for shooting spit balls in class or getting into a fight at recess, afternoons playing hide-and-seek or capture the flag in each other’s backyard, catching fire flies at dusk, or playing in the school band or on a school team, the friendships that come later happen because some spark of commonality draws us to each other.

Old dogs at The Gathering

Old dogs at The Gathering

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between the later friendships and those early one. I’m thinking now of my friend Steve Shoemaker from Urbana, Illinois. Although we were in graduate school at the same time, we barely knew each other. Steve was married and lived in the married student apartments. I was single, living in the singles dorm. Each had a job that diminished our free time. We rarely took the same classes. We barely knew each other except by sight and name until 12 years ago when our mutual friend Wayne brought seven kindred spirits together once a year for renewal, friendship, and theology. In jest we called ourselves “The Chicago Seven” until Dale died earlier this past year. (Views from the Edge published “The Surrogate’s Voice” following Dale’s last time the group.) Now we’re just The Gathering.

Steve and Nadja were guests these last two nights here in Minnesota. Steve drove 11 hours to do a program of poetry and reflection on Becoming Free: Go Fly a Kite. When I presented him with the honorarium for Shepherd of the Hill’s Dialogue program, he refused it… on the basis of friendship. “Besides,” he said, “You’re my publisher!” I insisted. So did he. Friendship prevailed.

During last night’s poetry reading Steve was asked how his poems come to be. He often writes in the middle of night, lying in bed, composing on his iPhone, like the other night when a combination of three compound words came to mind: “sleepy-head, lazy-bones, slug-a-bed.”

Then, early this morning in the night following his presentation, the egg was hatched.

Verse – Missing Sunrise

Sleeply-head, lazy-bones, slug-a-bed,
where were you when the sun raised its head?
Purple and violet, rosy-red:
you lie there like you’re already dead…
Get up and greet the day! Live instead
of hiding – cat and dog must be fed!
Alarm dinging, birds are singing, led
by sunlight bringing New Love ahead.

Steve’s verse reminded me of a few lines from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crown: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership as Written by Himself:

“What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the place’s true being, its presence you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, expect that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the place was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears. This would come over you and then pass away, as fragile as a moment of light.”

Two barber shops. Two barbers. Two places. One story. Don’t “lie there like you’re already dead! Get up and greet the day… led by sunlight bringing New Love ahead.”

Thank you, Steve.