Sermon for the Funeral of Bert G. Welch, Jr.
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
December 22, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Saint Bert Welch”
I greet each of you this morning in the name of God and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
This is a big day, a joyous day, a sad day,
A day of blessings in disguise, a day of blessings lived right out in the open.
This is also kind of a strange day -- a day long in coming perhaps,
Yet also one tinged with some surprise,
Because in our cultural mythology, Superman can’t die, can he;
And Bert, by any calcuation, was apparently indestructible for the longest time.
In the end, death does not discriminate. It has to come.
Time is everyone’s kryptonite.
I said last rites over Bert maybe eighteen months ago -- whenever he broke his neck.
I said the first half of that service in the prayer book.
The other half of that service is reserved for the actual time of death.
So I told Deb to call me when the time came, and I went home.
I thought perhaps one, two o’clock in the morning my phone would ring.
My eyes snapped open around 1:30. Nothing.
Was my phone sufficiently charged? Was it set to vibrate instead of ring?
A lot of us will have had similar experiences.
Bert was a man who by sheer circumstance was forced to learn how to two-step with death.
If you got to be around him, you understood this; you could learn from it.
And it happened early, at the age of 30.
The rest of his life would see him twirling and chatting with death on the dance floor of his life,
Off and on, but the last several and most recent years, mostly on,
When I had the pleasure of knowing him.
But dying was not the main thing. Not nearly the main thing.
And this is one of the characteristics of what separates the wise man from the foolish.
The fool is hounded by death, feels cheated, rails against heaven;
The wise man looks at death and says, Ah. How then shall I live today?
Henry David Thoreau said that he went to live in the woods because he,
“Wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,
And see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die,
Discover that I had not lived.
I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear;
Nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,
To live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life,
To cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner,
And reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean,
Why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it,
And publish its meanness to the world;
Or if it were sublime, to know it by experience,
And be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
Lots of high-school sophomores and juniors read Thoreau and get fired up; they can relate.
They, too, want to get everything they can out of life.
They, too, want to live Spartan lives -- lives of meaning and clear-eyed purpose.
They want to seize time while the balance of it is still before them.
Maybe they go camping for a week or so, and then ...
Well, it can be hard to hold on to that feeling.
Unless you’re told you really do have to go and live in the woods;
Unless life hands you a cross and lashes you to it.
Bert had a wheelchair (several of them);
And as long as he was in it, he was effectively at home in the woods.
Carlos Castaneda wrote that
“A warrior acknowledges his pain but he doesn't indulge in it.
The mood of the warrior who enters into the unknown is not one of sadness;
On the contrary, he's joyful because he feels humbled by his great fortune,
Confident that his spirit is impeccable, and above all, fully aware of his efficiency.
A warrior's joyfulness comes from having accepted his fate,
And from having truthfully assessed what lies ahead of him.”
The secret of any good spirituality is this:
What will you do with your pain? Will you transmit it? Or will you transform it?
Look at the symbol of our faith: Jesus, a man from Galilee, nailed up on a tree--
A broken, dying, bleeding, losing man --
And tell me, What happened to his pain?
I tell you, it became nothing less than the salvation of the whole of creation.
Bert looked at me last week, and there was a different sense about that day --
Maybe a non-Superman sense about the day, maybe this was our last conversation --
He looked at me and he said, with reference to this very moment,
He said that I needed to tell you all some very important things.
So I got a pen.
He said, “I did not struggle to live. I was determined.”
He did not struggle to live. He was determined.
He said, “I had a great life, even with the disability. Probably even better with it.”
Then he said, “No, no doubt. Much better.”
We talked about what happened to him on August the 16th, 1975,
When his car hydroplaned off the road on the Sawmill Parkway
And wrapped itself broadside around a tree,
And how he, a thirty-year-old naval officer quite nearly died that day.
How it began 11 months of hospital and rehab,
And launched him on the trajectory he would follow the rest of his life.
He said “Prior to that accident, I was an arrogant, self-centered --”
[And then he used a word but he made me promise to clean up his language].
“Arrogant and self-centered.”
In the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital, he said he saw a 15-year-old boy
Whose lower half had been torn up.
Just out riding his bicycle, age 15, and gotten involved in this terrible accident.
Bert lay there, at age 30, and he realized
That this boy in front of him had had only half the time he had had so far.
He said it was a long process from there on, but he “figured out how to live.”
“Either let it get to me, or I could make the best of it.”
Then he fixed me with that gaze of his and that little eye-twinkling smirk of his,
And he said, “People know which one I choose.”
He said that the Serenity Prayer was what got him through the initial part of his disability:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
There’s another part to that prayer that’s just as good as the first:
“Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.”
That tree on the Sawmill Parkway.
You know, sometimes God is subtle and sometimes God really has to get your attention.
Sometimes we’re so thick God needs a 2x4 just to wake us up.
Bert said, “God didn’t use a 2x4 to get my attention --
He used the whole tree.”
He said, “Most people don’t escape life without adversity.
We don’t go into heaven all pristine --
We go in bruised up, beat up, bloody --
Slide in, saying, What a ride.”
As a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a brother,
As a Naval officer, a counselor, an advocate, an elder, and a good friend --
As Proud Eagle, who “lived [his] life in a way that encourage[d] other men
To live with Integrity,” which was his personal mission statement --
And as a friend and parishioner to me --
Bert was the living embodiment of one of the most powerful quotes I have ever encountered:
Wisdom I would have to put just below Jesus instructing us
To love God with all we have, and to love our neighbors as our selves.
It’s a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw:
“This is the true joy in life --
Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one…
Being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances
Complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community
And as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.
I rejoice in life for its own sake.
Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me.
It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment,
And I want to make it burn as brightly as possible
Before handing it over to future generations.”
My sisters and my brothers: Can you see? Can you see it?
Every human life has value -- before God and betwen and among all people.
And the point of life is not to selfishly consume the value we possess;
The point is to kindle it in ourselves in others and to pass it on, to pass it down,
While doing something impeccable and fruitful with it. Perhaps even many somethings.
We were each given something amazing beyond all calcuation
When we were brought into this world.
Now is the time to do something with it.
You have a gift -- not if you have a gift -- no, you have a gift! Offer it up! For the good of all.
Be creative, be kind, tell jokes, tell the truth, cut to the chase, show excellence in all things;
“Rejoice in life for its own sake”;
Love the world with all its flaws, stop complaining and open your heart.
Forget about escaping this life without adversity or pain; that’s a pipe dream.
Just love openly.
You don’t have to struggle in order to live. Just be determined.
Finally, my dear friends, let me offer this to Deb.
At last night’s prayer service, I disclosed
That yesterday I had been hunting around for the right words to say about something,
And I just said, “Well, Bert, how do you think I should say this?” and started writing,
And good words poured forth. Trustworthy words.
So then. When at last I left the funeral home last night,
And walked out into all that heavy fog and dew,
And touched it lightly on the roof of my car with a gloved hand
Before getting in and starting up and driving off --
When I left and drove away, and I was listening to the most boring radio show you ever heard,
I said, into the dark of the night through my windshield, I said,
“Well, Bert, is there anything else you want me to say? Like tomorrow? In the pulpit?”
And there was just the stillness of the air around me
And the hum of the motor and the grooves on the road.
And I switched radio stations, because as I say, just boring talk --
And I swear there was Stevie Wonder, Deb -- Stevie Wonder! --
Singing that beautiful song about his daughter Aisha,
Singing to his wife, Londie, about their new daughter.
Isn’t she lovely
Isn’t she wonderful
Isn’t she precious
Less than one minute old
I never thought through love we’d be
Making one as lovely as she
But isn't she lovely made from love
Isn’t she pretty
Truly the angel’s best
Boy, I’m so happy
We have been heaven blessed
I can’t believe what God has done
Through us he’s given life to one
But isn’t she lovely made from love
Isn’t she lovely
Life and love are the same
Life is Aisha
The meaning of her name
Londie, it could have not been done
Without you who conceived the one
That's so very lovely made from love
Make of it what you will.
Deb, I choose to see it as a clear communication and a word of gratitude from Bert to you.
I choose to hear it as heaven bending to this moment.
That it’s amazing -- it’s lovely and pretty and wonderful and precious --
What two people can make together in this life, out of any circumstance --
Have made together out of this life,
And thank you thank you thank you.
That’s what I think I heard, Deb, and I just had to share.
In a way, it extends to all of us:
There is a simple song of gratitude being sung somewhere beyond our sight at this moment.
Thank you thank you thank you.