There are occasions in each one of our lives when time stands still. We stop work, school, and daily activities. It doesn’t matter what is happening in our community, country, and the world. Everything else can wait, as we get in the car, train, or plane to gather together as family and friends.
The events that bring people together in this way are normally those that recognize and celebrate life passages such as births, baptisms, graduations, weddings, and funerals. The way that we recognize such transitions says a lot about the value that we place on human relationships and the bonds of family.
Last Friday all 17 people in the immediate Haller family gathered in Sarasota, Florida, to remember and honor the life of Gary’s father, Paul Haller, who died on April 9 at age 89. We arrived from all over the world, including Paul’s wife of almost 65 years, 3 children, 7 grandchildren, and 1 great grandchild.
Although the family resemblance is easy to see, it’s also amazing to observe how very different members of the Haller family are. Like many families, the Haller’s don’t all agree on politics, social issues, theology, or sports teams. We’ve all followed diverse paths in our careers and enjoy varied hobbies and interests. However, the glue that has holds us together is family, especially our love and respect for Gary’s parents, Paul and Gerry.
Ritual is a critical element in the celebration of any life transition. Last Friday that ritual took the form of a memorial service at the Sarasota National Cemetery. Since both of Gary’s parents served during World War 2, Gary’s father as a Captain in the Army Air Corps and his mother as a First Lieutenant in the Women’s Army Air Corps, it was natural for Paul’s ashes to be interred there.
Because of the power of music to touch the depth of our hearts, we sang hymns that would be especially meaningful toGary’s mother. Recognizing how central God’s grace is to every human life, we began the service with “Amazing Grace” and “Nearer My God to Thee” and ended with “I’ll Fly Away.” We recited Psalm 23 together, andGary’s sister read a poem that was meaningful to her father. Then Gary shared a wonderful message of the hope and promise of resurrection as well as gratitude for Paul’s life and the impact he had on each person present.
After a few memories shared by Gary’s brother Dave and a solo, “Softly and Tenderly,” we observed the military graveside ritual. As a pastor I am always deeply moved when veterans are honored by the presenting of the American flag to the remaining family. In this case, it was especially poignant because 2 of our nephews are in the service. Jack is in the Navy ROTC at the University of Florida. Scott, a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army recently returned from Iraq, presented the flag to his grandmother with the words, “I am sorry for your loss.” Paul and Gerry and our entire family are very proud that Scott and Jack are following in their grandparents’ footsteps.
As I have pondered the weekend, several things stand out for me.
- I will cherish forever the time we spent on Friday as an entire family.
After the memorial service we all went to Dave and Jill’s house to eat together, catch up with each other’s lives, and reflect on Paul’s life. Everyone shared a story or memory of Paul, who was baptized and grew up in First United Methodist Church in Battle Creek. My favorite story of Paul’s childhood is the time when he and a friend were sitting alone in the balcony of Battle Creek First Church on Sunday morning because Paul’s mother was in the choir, and his father was an usher. Paul’s mother could see Paul and his buddy good-naturedly fighting in the balcony, but the best she could do was try to stare him down and will Paul to stop. Unfortunately, the next thing she saw was a boy’s shoe flying over the railing and landing among the congregation members seated below. I suspect there may have been some consequences for that particular incident.
A common theme for our reflections was how both Paul and Gerry were caring parents and loving grandparents. They taught their children how to be good citizens and faithful Christians and provided them many unique opportunities to enjoy nature, animals, and adventure. Most of all, they encouraged their children to lead with their heart and become whoever God created them to be. Although our family has always lived far from Paul and Gerry inFlorida, we were always intentional about using our vacation to visit them or welcome them toGrand Rapids. All 7 grandchildren, now ages 16-28, deeply loved Pop Pop and Mimi, as evidenced by their insistence on traveling toFlorida to be together last Friday.
- I was amazed at the outpouring of love and support by so many people for Gary, his siblings, and his mother.
Late Friday night, as Gary and I sat with his mother and read through all the cards that she received, Gerry said, “I can’t believe all of these cards. So many people took the time to pick out a card, write a thoughtful personal note on it, and then address the card, put a stamp on it, and send it in the mail. I am blessed.”
I was especially touched by a card that my father sent to Gary’s mother. Just as Gary’s mother took care of Paul for the last several years, so my father, who also shares the name “Gerry,” took care of my mother for many years until we had to admit her into assisted living last fall and into nursing care just last week. My father expressed condolences and then wrote, “I’m going through a similar situation myself… It’s a burden we have to bear, and we do the best we can.”
Doing the best we can to care for one another is all God asks of us. But God asks others to share those burdens as well and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). None of us can journey through this life on our own. We need Jesus, but we also need relatives, friends, and a church home, all of which become family to us.
- Having experienced the death of a loved one as part of the family rather than as clergy, I have a renewed appreciation for the importance of funeral and memorial services.
Often as a pastor I’ve heard people say, “I don’t want any kind of service when I die. Don’t go to a big fuss. I don’t need people to say good things about me. Just go on with your life.” I always respectfully disagree because funerals are not ultimately about those who have died. Even though we take time to honor what is good, true and kind in our loved one’s life, funeral rituals are about the goodness of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit to set our lives aflame.
The reality of human life is that when a loved one is dying, we need opportunities to bring closure to the relationship, ask for forgiveness, seek reconciliation if there is a need, and then say our goodbyes. After our loved one dies, we also need an opportunity to ritually say farewell, give thanks to God for our loved one’s life, and send that person off into God’s presence in heaven. When we do not allow ourselves to bring closure, it is much more difficult to grieve and move forward with our lives in healthy ways.
The most moving part of a military graveside service for me is the traditional playing of Taps. The tears flow every time, including last Friday. After Taps was played, Gary closed the memorial service for his father by sharing an inspirational story about Winston Churchill. Many years ago, when Churchill planned his own funeral, he wanted to imprint on the worshippers’ hearts his belief in hope beyond the grave. After the benediction of his funeral service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a bugler played Taps from the dome of this grand cathedral.
Day is done; Gone the sun; From the lake; From the hill; From the sky.
All is well, Safely rest, God is nigh.
Unexpectedly and dramatically, a second bugler on the other side of the dome then played Reveille.
You’ve got to get up; You’ve got to get up; You’ve got to get up this morning.
You’ve got to get up; You’ve got to get up; Get up with the bugler’s call.
Winston Churchill issued one final challenge to his family, friends, country, and the world. If Churchill’s funeral service did not move the worshippers beyond simply remembering him; if they simply “laid him to rest,” rather than dedicate themselves to a life of faith and commitment by making a positive difference in the world, then Churchill’s life would not have achieved its ultimate purpose. No matter what the transitions are in our life, the last note is never Taps, it’s Reveille.
Thank you for the witness of both your life and your death, Paul. May you fly away to rest safely in God’s arms. And for our part, may God grant us the grace to awaken to each new day ready to eagerly serve Christ, one another, and our world.