You may not remember Al, but he loved you. Even in his eighties he had an unerring capacity to relate to kids. You and your brother grew up while he finished his ministry. Al died one week after he stopped work as the assistant pastor of our church.
Al stood about five feet tall. He was bald, hairless as a billiard ball. He wore thick glasses. One friend, who never says a critical word about anyone, once said that Al was the homeliest person she had ever met, but no one ever noticed because he was so loving.
I met Al when I was myself a teenager. Actually, I had known him during my childhood, as an infrequent clergy visitor to our home, a large and foggy category of preachers, ministers, chaplains, priests, itinerants and other vaguely odd spiritual leaders who were vaguely connected to our parents.
In high school I went to Owasco lake for a week of summer camp. Al I think led the camp, or at least he was around. A few years later I was working there as the lifeguard and every summer, without fail, Al would take his volunteer week to work with high schoolers. I remember drinking beer with Al past midnight around a fire down on the shore. One young cleric was busy criticizing the nascent fundamentalists (a group for which Al also had some disdain). After the hot air faded, Al sipped and leaned forward to say to the young turk: ‘I suppose you are right, but those folks have had a religious experience—something you might want to have yourself sometime.’ He added later that clergy who were hyper active in liturgy or politics usually had never had a real religious experience. Those two categories pretty much included, one way or the other, all the fire lit faces around that midnight hearth.
Al knew you, and your brother, during the years I hired him at our church as my assistant. We paid him hardly anything. He and Ruth bought their first home, on at tree line street, at age 70, after he finally retired. He took out a thirty year mortgage, a daily source mirth for him, a mirth he contrived to share with all comers. In fact, though, he personally lived to pay twenty of those years, if I remember right. It is hard to convey how simply happy Ruth and Al were to have their own home. After five decades of life under the leaky roofs of various parsonages, and after five decades of life under the stingy thumbs of various parsonage committees, their thousand foot house and postage stamp lawn was their prize and paradise, their pride and joy. To think of it makes me ashamed of the times in life I have thought I should have more, or would like more, or deserved more. In the winter he died, Al hornswaggled a friend into redoing the kitchen for Ruth. He saw that the parsonage kitchen was redone and decided Ruth should have something just as nice. It was. She used it for a decade more, to good hospitable avail you can be sure.
Al loved you and your older brother, and your Mom and Dad, who loved him too. Sometimes Al would hold court in his front room, his big black dog between his legs, Al rubbing behind the years. You may remember that the dog’s name. Satan. Al smoked pretty heavily, well into his late eighties. I say that not as recommendation but as recognition, recognition of humanity. He also drank some beer. One neighbor on Scott Ave called the Bishop to complain that he saw the retired pastor drinking beer in the evening. ‘It’s nice to have people so concerned about your well being, isn’t it?’ This was Al’s wry comment.
I noted such Alphorisms. He called one of our great hearted lay leaders, Iva Gorman, ‘stormin’ Gorman’, and is the only person she would have allowed to do so. Sometimes he called Iva, ‘Iva the Terrible’, but not directly to her face. Another person, a female type woman as he would say, who shall remain nameless, Al identified vocationally as, to quote him precisely, ‘a test pilot in a broom factory’. Of those who seemed, to him, wrong spirited, he offered this proverb: ‘I don’t mind people being Christian as long as they are nice about it.’
In his parish, a good village church along one of the deep, great Finger lakes, one of the saintliest women in town, a recently retired single school teacher, was struck by lightning while she trimmed her roses. I am told that at the funeral, Al got up, tried to speak, cried, and cried, and wept, and, at last, said, ‘we have no idea why these things happen, we have no way to explain why these things happen’. Then he sat down.
I knew, during my own college years, that if I ever got into a pickle that I could not get out of alone, and could not discuss with my parents, I could go to Al. I never did, though I almost did once. But I had him in the back of my mind all those stormy years. While I gaze at that in memory I realize that that is just about the best definition of a pastor I could give. Someone you could go to, even if you never do, when the chips are down.
I had a good friend whom he counseled well, a young man who had been away from home, and came home to learn that his girlfriend had been dating other boys. The young man did not come to Al for counsel, but one evening Al found him on the street and told him a joke. ‘A man and woman die and go to heaven. St Peter gives the man a tricycle for transportation and explains that heavenly vehicles are based on the amount of dating activity you had on earth. The next day the man sees his wife driving a Cadillac.’ They laughed, and Al caught the young man’s eye, with a tear filled eye of his own. They laughed so hard they cried, Al crying the harder. While I gaze at that in memory, I realize that that is just about the best definition of a pastor I could give. Someone who accompanies you, overhears your pain, pierces your pain with wit and skill, drains your hurt, and walks away with you as you walk away well. The tricycle and the Cadillac lived happily ever after by the way.
Rebecca, you know the chapel at that old Campground on Owasco lake. You remember it is a rustic all wood Adirondack style Chapel, with a fifteen food window behind the cross, looking out at five miles of Finger Lake beauty. You grew up in the gaze of that chapel. You learned to swim two miles down from that window and cross. You got your boating license in order to run the motorboat back and forth past that campground, that chapel, that window, and that cross. You know the people who built it, or at least their names. (G Y Benton, Vivian’s uncle. L Schaff, who convinced the Case people to give the land for Methodist youth. C Skeele—he built the building, ‘Skeele-built’ he would say, add 10% to the price. Irving Hill, President of the Conference Youth Council at the time.) People like Al, and Ruth, who gave whatever meager shekels they may have had, with typical, generous, careless, abandon, and who gave their time to kids, sitting on the hard benches of that rustic church. I bet you can hear the bell ring, in your mind’s ear, the big old church bell that sits at the doorstep.
Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong.
In my last month as a lifeguard there, I came sauntering down the road. My friend asks me to be attentive to the etymology of the word saunter. I am. I came sauntering down the road at age twenty. From there, because of the incline, you can see right into the full chapel, and up to the cross, and on through the window, and on a clear morning, right down the lake, right down to the end of the lake, right there where Charon has his boat. It was a clear morning that morning. Sometimes when I have had too much religion, I travel myself by memory back to age twenty, your age Rebecca, back to that downhill road, back to that campground, back to that chapel, back to that window, and back to that cross. I have not decided what to do in life as I come down that road. I am not married. I have no children. I have no parchment, no degree. I have no military experience, no romantic experience, no financial experience, no tragic sense of life. Not quite yet. I am lollygagging, breakfast served and done, swimming lessons to teach, sunshine on my shoulder. Sunshine on my shoulder.
In the chapel I see, though he cannot see me, a short, bald, bespectacled, homely fellow, swinging a broom in the air. At first I find it a source of hilarity—old Al has finally lost it. But as I approach, as I peer into the darkened church, I see that Al is deadly serious. He is utterly absorbed in his flayling about. A sparrow is trapped in the chapel, and, Al must have seen, is set on flying straight toward false deliverance, straight at the clear glass, straight at the brightly scrubbed religious glass cleaned up with so much Methodist cleanliness is next to godliness piety that the poor thing is deceived into mistaking piety for salvation, glass for air. Kyrie Eleison! Al swings, shouts, jumps, doing as he can everything he can to drive the bird out of the church, to drive the bird out the open door, past the steps, out the path, over the bell, beyond the little steeple, and into the grace and freedom of the open air.
His parishioner however is an orthodox bird, religious and pious, and set on a disciplined course. What bird anyway ever understands until it is too late the difference between air and glass, freedom and religion?
I watch, and I suddenly have the dread feeling that I am an uninvited observer in a personal drama, trauma, amid flora and fauna. Al swings, the bird loops, dives, lifts, flies—thud.
Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong.
Unseen, I watch Al as Al groans and cries. He moves to the window, and shamelessly I watch from my hiding place. Under the cross he finds the bird, another victim of religion and piety, deader than a doornail. He takes a large white handkerchief from his pocket. Later in life, his and mine, I learn the constant contents of his pocket—handkerchief, cigarettes, billfold, pocket knife. He bows to the bird. He gathers the sparrow in his hands, weeping, covers the bird in his handkerchief, weeping, holds the bird at the glass, weeping.
I saw this with my own eyes.
There he stood, before the beautiful blue expanse, the home and heart loveliness of Owasco Lake, in the heart of the Finger Lakes, the single most beautiful place in the world, heaven for those of us who did swim there. I stood as long as his back was toward me, a good long while. Then, when he began to move, to find a way toward some natural burial, I jogged out down to the waterfront, and to my safety duties, and to the teaching of the prone float. I never mentioned it to Al, and he never spoke of it in my hearing.
In the next several years I became better acquainted with, better related to tragedy, of various sorts. Into each life a little rain must fall. I ended up a preacher, too, not least because of Al. I preached at funerals. I preached at memorials. I preached on Memorial Sundays. I preached at commemorations. Once a year I preached on Good Friday. Thirty and more years later I look back through the open chapel door, past the pews, over the cross, out through the window and over the lake. There still is Al, still before the silence of lake and cross. I felt that day that I had been given a front row seat at something, somewhere, (Mercy? Calvary?), at the origins of loving and giving. We live out of the future and understand out of the past. While I gaze at this in memory, or recollection, I realize that this is just about the best definition I can give of a pastor. One who knows the difference between religion and salvation, between glass and air, between cross and freedom, and chases those hiding from life out of church into life, with all his might, and when he fails, knows and shows cruciform love.
Rebecca, my Memorial Sunday prayer for you is that you will take a sense of cradling care with you, for every hour, on every day, enough to sustain you and your family, and enough more to share with your neighbor.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these…The Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. Even the hairs of your head are numbered. Fear not therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.