Saturday, March 12, 2005

Remembering Jesse Cole

The phone rang on Friday morning a little after 6.30 as I was sitting down at my desk to begin a day's work. I knew something was wrong when the name displayed on the caller ID did not match the voice I heard, telling me that Jesse Cole, our senior warden at the Church of the Apostles, had died not long before. I was stunned. It was true that Jesse was undergoing treatment for cancer, but he had been making such tremendous progress that all of us were cautiously optimistic he would make as full a recovery as possible.

Jesse was a senior citizen, it is true, but this was one strong man who had hardly missed a day's work since he was sixteen, and until January had been at his business at 5.15 in the morning. It seems there were complications overnight and that he had finally succumbed to the "cure." In disbelief, Rosemary and I quickly drove over to the home.

The day became a blur. Appointments cancelled, hours spent with parishioners telling them what had happened and pastoring them, and then the business of nudging the family to make the necessary arrangements for the funeral. All this was made more difficult by the fact that one of the family was in Japan visiting a son and daughter-in-law.

Today I helped chair one of the listening forums in the process toward electing a new bishop in the Diocese of Tennessee. My heart, however, was intensely involved with the earthy business of death and dying, and the whole process left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Our numbers were small, but there were those present who were determined to make sure that their view was heard, and while some good things were probably achieved, it was clear that far too many of our contemporaries, us included, are so bound up in their own narcissistic "stuff" that they are detached from the fundamentals of the human condition and even the grace-filled message of the Gospel.

So on getting home I changed into some old clothes and disappeared into my yard to use the glorious sunshine of an early spring afternoon to prepare my hillside which in a few weeks will be alive with countless wildflowers and the first shootings of a variety of prairie grasses. It was good to smell the earth, to get my hands dirty, and to be able to stop and watch the hawks wheeling overhead in the blustering thermals. While I was getting to hillside prepared, Rosemary was on her hands and knees burying the first batch of seed potatoes.

The greatest instincts of life are our urge to cultivate the soil, and the reality check that it always is to come face to face with the spectre of death. Adam was a gardener, I kept telling myself as I worked my land, and it is to the earth that I was now tending that the earth of my body would eventually return -- dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Was not this much more in tune with the Gospel message than the cacophony of the morning?

I am not looking forward to the next few days. We will probably have a larger than normal congregation tomorrow, but the delight will be tempered because the focus of our service will be our grief (yet thanksgiving) over our brother, Jesse. In the days that follow there will be preparations for the funeral, visitations, the darling (yet draining) business of being with those who are grieving down to the very depths of their being. This is something I have done a hundred times before, but it can never become routine.

Yet this is what the pastoral ministry is about, not the jockeying for position that took place in that stuffy parish hall today, nor the shenanigans of the House of Bishops now meeting in Texas. Meanwhile, I know that I am going to miss my fellow-laborer in this corner of God's vineyard, but he has already been received into the everlasting arms, and on Sunday's when we gather we will remind ourselves that he is with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. This is much closer to what the church is all about.

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