Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Return to the Ocean of Being

One of the more difficult aspects of being a priest is the duty of burying those you love. This week I had the sad duty of saying goodbye to a wonderful friend, a fellow priest and sojourner in the long road to justice. I was asked to offer one of the two eulogies at his service and I was grateful for that privilege. Here is my homage to a brilliant man, a true patriot, a faithful priest and a dear friend. It was offered at his memorial service Friday, December 15, 2017 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Winter Haven, Florida.

A Fellow Subversive

There are three basic purposes for a memorial service like the one we are attending today. The first is to commemorate a rite of passage, the celebration of the life of a loved one who has departed our immediate company. The second is to acknowledge the grief that this loss has inflicted on our lives. And the third is to express the hope that this departure from this life is not the final word.

I am honored to have been asked to help celebrate the life of Warren Thompson. He was my friend, my mentor, my travelling companion and my fellow subversive in our efforts to resist what he routinely called systems of “domination and control.”

I greatly admired Warren. He was brilliant, well-educated and always well read. He was also funny and fearless. A member of Mensa, the organization for those with IQs of genius, Warren displayed a wide range of talents from playing the piano to telling some of the saltiest versions of limericks I’ve ever heard. Warren served our country in the Air Force before returning to get his undergraduate degree from the respected University of Wisconsin, Madison and later his Masters of Divinity from the Neshotah House Episcopal Seminary. Thereafter Warren served the Episcopal Church.

We became friends as a result of our mutual involvement in the Episcopal ministry among gays and lesbians called Integrity. Warren was our celebrant at many of our monthly Integrity Eucharists and often brought alternative liturgies to use for that purpose. The liturgies emphasized justice and equality. Warren insisted upon crafting worship in a manner that lived into the promise in our Baptismal Covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being.” It is a promise we Episcopalians make every baptism with the words “I will with God’s help.”

Important Questions

After the eucharists were over, Warren inevitably pulled out an article or book he had brought with him that was raising some new understanding of our Christian tradition. His materials always sought to address important questions:

·         Who was Jesus of Nazareth?
·         What can we know about him and how can we know it?
·         Who wrote the various passages within scripture that we read each day in Morning Prayer and each Sunday in our Eucharists?
·         What do we need to know about the writers of scripture to critically understand the literary legacy they have left to us? 

In pursuit of those understandings, Warren and I made a number of trips to Santa Rosa, CA where the Westar Institute, the parent organization of the often reviled but meticulously scholarly body known as the Jesus Seminar, met each year. The scholars came together in public meetings to analyze scripture, evidence from archaeology and anthropology as well as arguments from linguistics to try to ferret out the authentic words of first Jesus and later the Apostle Paul. 

Warren could not get enough of this and was always excited about each new report from the Seminar. He marveled at the conclusions about the historic Jesus the scholars had distilled from the writings of the early Jesus movement and its later editors that ultimately became the Gospels. Warren came to know many of these scholars from across the world on a first name basis. He will be sorely missed at the Westar gatherings.

The Archbishop of Mulberry

But they will not be the only ones to miss him. Warren was a faithful servant of the Episcopal Church even when it failed to respect the dignity of every human being, most notably gays and lesbians. And yet Warren happily served parishes in Central Florida from Longwood to Winter Haven to his final gig as the supply priest in the mission church in Mulberry.

Warren knew the Mulberry parish could not pay him the full amount required by the diocesan pay scale. But he believed the people of Mulberry deserved a pastor who would love them and serve their pastoral and clerical needs. And so he made a deal with them off the books to come every week but they would only pay him for every other week, essentially half pay. Warren drove the 45 minutes to Mulberry for several years under this arrangement, loving every minute of it. Those of us who knew him often teased him by calling him the Archbishop of Mulberry (a much more honorific title than that afforded him by his bishop who called him the diocesan heretic). 

And so today I celebrate the life of my friend, Warren. It is because he was such a dear friend that I am so painfully aware of his passing. Memorial services are designed to provide a means to acknowledge the grief of loss of those we have loved and I must confess that my life is decidedly diminished by the death of my friend, Warren Thompson. The presence of those who have gathered here today reveals that my loss is shared by many of you as well.

The Ocean of Being

The final purpose of memorial services is to express the hope that the departing from this world of our loved ones is not the final word. I want to relate a story that Warren often told about what happens to us when we die. Warren was widely read and open to the wisdom that other traditions provide those willing to accept it. And so Warren’s illustration came from the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist sage from the Vietnam War era:

“Think of walking along the beach,” he would say. “As you look out toward the horizon, you see a series of waves coming in toward the shore. The wave rises, builds, crests, and then crashes back into the ocean from which it came. That is the way our existence is,” he said. “We are never created out of nothing and we don’t disappear upon our death. Like the wave, we come from an ocean of being. For a moment we experience what seems like an individual existence. But in the end, we return to that ocean of being from which we come.”

I find much to admire in that understanding. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan sage
of our own generation, puts it like this: “G-d is the ground of our very Being. We come from G-d. We exist In G-d. And ultimately, we return to G-d.” And to that understanding I would simply add the familiar Episcopal response, “Thanks be to G-d.”

Today, I look forward to that return. And I look forward to being reunited with Warren Thompson in that ocean of being, in the very heart of G-d.

At the end of our Integrity Eucharists, Warren often dismissed the community with a blessing that included a quote from Swiss philosopher Henri- Frederic Amiel. I conclude my remarks today with that blessing:

Life is short. We don't have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.  And as we are blessed by God, may we be a blessing to all we meet. Let us remember that we are beautiful in the sight of God. The blessing of [+] Christ is upon us. Let us walk free and open our hearts to life, for Christ walks with us into each new day. AMEN.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

 © Harry Coverston 2017


1 comment:

John-Francis Friendship said...

Thanks for your panygeric. In particular I appreciate the quote from Thich Naht Hanh as I am looking to write something on death and dying.