Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Beautiful, Broken Line

A homily at the memorial service for my father, Bob Jones.

March 3, 2012 @ the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor, Maine.


So one rainy Boothbay afternoon, Dad throws on a long grey overcoat and rides into the harbor with Mom for a couple of quick errands.  And while she waits patiently in an idling car, Dad walks into First Federal right here in town, with his index finger poking through the inside of his coat.  A little bit like a gun.

Robert Allan Jones (1937-2012)
And he smiles at the tellers—whom he surely knows by name and who are undoubtedly glad to see him—and he tells them merrily that today he’s going to rob their bank!  He says something like, “Hey, guys, this is a stick up!”  Remember he’s got his index finger poking through his overcoat like a gun.  In a bank. 

Now the kind tellers are not quite as amused by all this as Dad is.  (Can’t you just see him grinning in there?  In his raincoat?)  “This is a stick up!”  But, thankfully, they resist any urge to press buttons or call in the troops; and Dad gets just a gentle and cautionary scolding from the bank manager.  “You just can’t do that, Mr. Jones,” he says.  “You just don’t walk into a bank these days and say ‘This is a stick up!’”

Can you imagine?  All the while, Mom waiting outside in the getaway car!  And when Dad finally returns to the car—and it has to be a Ford—he says to Mom, “Hmm.  I guess they didn’t think it was so funny.” 

So, as you all know, there was pretty much nothing Bob Jones wouldn’t say.  And he didn’t hesitate, right, to say the darnedest things at the strangest moments.  Bantering with a waitress—while our stomachs rumbled and grandkids fidgeted.  Ribbing a respected preacher about grammatical mistakes in the morning sermon.  Or challenging an earnest visitor—this was one of his favorites—challenging one of us to re-think, re-evaluate a cherished truth.  He just loved conversation, Dad did, meaningful conversation.  And he loved people, all kinds of people, from all walks of life.  For all of his bluster and all of his accomplishment, he looked down on no one.  Nor did he hesitate to defy the rules of the game and test us.  In a lot of ways, he lived for it.  To defy the rules and test us.


So I want to draw a beautiful, broken, crooked line here: from that bank in the harbor to the kitchen table over on Capitol Island.

There was a kind of fearlessness with Dad that showed up in conversation.  You know what I mean.  At the bank.  Across the dinner table.  In a Cambridge conference room.  Even sitting in a pew at church.  There was nothing he wouldn’t say.  Fearlessness and intelligence were a potent and winsome and sometimes, sometimes, a dangerous mix.    

Check this out.

Dad with Nine Grandchildren, 2011
Dad and I are sitting together at lunch, at the kitchen table over on Capitol Island.  It’s got to be the early 1980s.  And Dad’s enjoying the Reagan years, while I’m lurching awkwardly into a kind of late adolescent rebellion.  You know how it is with fathers and sons.  I’m learning—in the Reagan years—to stake out my own moral and political territory; learning to take stands because I believe in things, not just because Dad does.  It’s no small task.  He’s a huge influence in my life, and it seems incredibly risky, wandering off the map he’s drawn up for me.   

But this particular afternoon, something happens out in the bright blue bay between Squirrel and Southport Islands.  Something like a noisy flyover, Navy jets on their way maybe to the base in Brunswick.  There’s this mighty rush of sound and a flickering trail of exhaust.  And, just like that, they’re gone. 

So my little liberal heart’s pounding, the sandwich in front of me loses any appeal, and I’m genuinely anxious—about the Cold War and the arms race and warmongering at the Reagan White House.  And Dad’s sitting right there, right?  So I launch into this pietistic lament: the vanity of power, the ruse of war, the grief of God; and I’m shaking with the insanity of it all.  And in the end I say something really uppity, something like, ‘Peacemakers, peacemakers!  What the world really needs now—are peacemakers!”

And that, well that strikes a nerve.  Can you imagine?  Dad’s got his Navy pilots dancing over the bay, and his oldest son weeping for peacemakers, and he just can’t take it anymore. So he pushes away from the table.  And there’s that fierce look in his eyes—you know that look—and he says something like: “Peacemakers?!  Is that who you’re counting on?  Peacemakers?!  Is that who’s protecting you now?  Really?  Is it God?  Gentle Jesus?” 

It’s kind of like you’re there, right? 

Now—I’m gasping for air and wondering what on earth he’s going to say next.  And, believe me, he doesn’t disappoint.  Did he ever—disappoint?  Dad says, and I’ll never forget it, he says: “David, your Jesus is dead.  Dead, as in dead.  He’s got nothing.  Can’t do a damned thing.  Dead.  Jesus is just another dead guy.” 

Now it’s a crazy story to be telling at his memorial service—I get it—but it was one of the most profoundly jarring theological moments of my life.  I come back to it over and over and over again.  You see, Dad knew: that Jesus—and his faith—was becoming a big part of my life, the biggest part of my life.  And in his heart, in his great big Bob Jones heart, I know he was glad for that.  Really glad for that.  And just the same, in his fearless way, he insisted on challenging everything I believed, everything I wanted.  And he was right to do it. 

He was suspicious, after all, genuinely suspicious of organized religion and Christian piety.  Any piety: evangelical piety, liberal piety, my piety, any piety.  Dad distrusted anyone who bypassed commonsense and thoughtfulness for a quick spiritual fix or simpleminded superstition.  He wasn’t buying the Superhero Jesus that the evangelists were peddling on TV; and he wasn’t buying the Magical-Wizard-Jesus who protected the faithful few but ignored all the rest.    

So Dad tested my faith, and questioned my idealism; and in the process, he insisted I dig deeper.  He knew so well—from his own experience—that believers pay a price for their faith; that love often hurts the lover and peacemakers bleed real blood.  So he insisted I face that Jesus—the broken man, the wounded healer, the generous friend who suffered for love.  Not the Superhero, not the Wizard, but the broken man.

Dad pushed me to the crazy edge more than once.  And believe me when I tell you there were times when he really ticked me off, I mean, really ticked me off.  (Can I get a witness?)  But over time, his wariness about religion made me a much better minister and, I hope, a much more genuine Christian.  And today I want to thank him for that.


So let me extend that beautiful, broken, crooked line now, from that kitchen table on Capitol Island to Dad’s big blue chair at the house on Oak Point. 

It was—so terribly hard to watch him suffer these past couple of years: to watch him challenge doctor after doctor, resisting that terrible diagnosis; to see that robust body weaken and wobble; and to know that he had words to say, but watch him struggle to get even a few to us.

Dad in his big blue chair, 2009.
But I want to say how proud I was of my father during these last years.  I was proud of the way he let all grievances go, all those grievances that accumulate through the years.  I was proud of the way he said “thank you”—two words he could always get out—“thank you, thank you, thank you”—to the women who bathed him and fed him and ministered to him every day.  I was proud of the way the big man wept and pulled me close when I knelt by his side and said prayers at bedtime.  And I was proud of the way he cried like a baby when he said goodbye to his grandchildren this last Christmas.  At the very end, his soul shined brightest.

He knew what was happening: to his body, to his brain, to his family.  Just the same, Dad chose to appreciate every one of you, every touch, every massage, every gentle kiss, every warm memory, and Mom’s steadfast love.  Especially Mom’s steadfast love.  In his suffering, Dad chose love, he chose tenderness.  Turns out: he had that Jesus thing going on there at the end.  He really did.  Dad’s Jesus wasn’t dead after all.  Just frail and vulnerable, bruised and broken.  Right there with Dad.  In the big blue chair.  Releasing every grievance.  Weeping with those he loved.  And saying ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’ 


How about another beautiful, broken, crooked line: this one from Dad’s blue chair on Oak Point up river to an empty little church on Route One in Edgecomb.  Many of you know that Dad bought that old church for a group putting together a mid-coast wellness center, a mental health center.  He’d seen enough heartbreak to know that everybody needs a network of compassion and support: everybody.  So he helped some folks he trusted put together that new center up on Route One.  “Seasons of Change.”  The center never really made it; and that was a disappointment for Dad in a lot of different ways. 

Empty as it is now, it’s an odd symbol of his remarkable generosity.  Dad succeeded in so many other places, with so many other charities: with the Salvation Army in Cambridge and the Boy Scouts and the First Church Homeless Shelter; helping so many young people get to college and pay for college and fulfill their dreams; and supporting the church of his childhood, our own United Church of Christ, in Belmont and Cambridge, Boothbay Harbor and Santa Cruz.  The list is long.  And he did so much for so many. 

But I pass by that little church now, that empty little church—and it seems a fitting symbol of Dad’s faith.  Not that failure is the symbol.  But effort is.  Effort and compassion.  That little church stands for Dad’s willingness even to fail—in pursuit of the common good.  He really and truly believed that a community, a true community, pooled resources and extended grace to every one of its members.

The vocation of a community is compassion: and Dad intended, here on the coast, to build an institution that embodied that compassion, especially for the poor and the lost, the forgotten and the lonely.  Pardon the editorial, but this was his undoing, I think, as a Reagan conservative: because, in his heart, in his great Bob Jones heart, social Darwinism was the worst sin of all.  He just couldn’t stomach it.  A true community pooled resources and extended grace to every one of its members.  That was Dad’s faith.  We thrive together, all of us—or we miss the mark.  (By the way, I really, truly believe that that was not only his faith, but his patriotic ideal as well.  He believed in just that kind of America.  We thrive together.  And he was fierce in that belief.)

Now I don’t know what will happen in that empty old church.  But my family’s prayer is that, someday, Dad’s vision will be realized.  We’re proud that he tried.  After all, there is no failure in faith, only seeds that get planted in the dark and rise later in the greening of spring.  Dad was fearless in trying; and those seeds will someday shoot through.  We know they will.


One last line, then, one last beautiful, broken, crooked line:  from that empty church on Route One back to this full one in Boothbay.  And to you, Mom, sitting in the first pew.  You have to know that your faith has been a remarkable source of comfort and strength: not only for Dad, but for all the rest of us.  I know it hasn’t been easy for you.  But you were patient when his illness required the most profound patience.  And you were generous and gracious beyond measure.  Dad treasured your tenderness, you know that he did; and he said ‘thank you’ every chance he got.  And today, we say ‘thank you’ too.  All of us.  You are a blessing—a beautiful, beautiful blessing—to me and to Allan and to Rob, to every one of those nine grandchildren, and to your entire family.  And we love you so much.

Remember the prayer you used to say at bedtime, the Prayer of St. Francis?  “It is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

For what it’s worth, Mom, I believe in that prayer.  I believe we’ll see and hear and dance with Dad again.  Across the Jordan and around the bend of time. Today marks an ending, absolutely, a painful and sad ending to an unprecedented life.  But buried in every ending, hidden in every death, is the promise of a strange and new beginning.  I want you to know that I choose to believe in Jesus’ promise: a promise of resurrection and grace, a promise of feasting and friendship—beyond the bend of time.  We’ll dance with him again.

Until then, friends, let us give God all kinds of thanks and praise: for a big heart and a big spirit, for the life and love of a good man, my Dad, our friend, Bob Jones.