Eulogy for Gayland Pool
Trinity Church, Fort Worth
Friday, December 15, 2017
“I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
I cannot begin to count how many times I have said those solemn and amazing words in the past half century, starting down the aisle of some church to start the prayers we say for those who walk on from this life and into the great unknown where one day we all will join them. And every time I have done it, I’ve thought to myself, “Young man, if you don’t believe those words, you’d better act like it, no matter.” That’s because, I hardly need point out, we’re talking about life and death here, the Biggest of the Big Questions we all contemplate at some point. Life. Life! If you believe in God, you know it’s God’s greatest gift to us, including us in the divine purpose, in God’s . . . notion . . . of the fullness of his creation. I think most people love life, even when it’s rank with challenge and duress. I know I do, and I’d bet all of you here do as well. And people who don’t believe in God, they love life too; they may not name it the way Christians do, but they live it with just as much gusto and gumption. I reckon that even people who decide to end their own lives on earth do so more out of disappointment than anything else, just unequal to the struggle of living. Oh, I think we all love life.
I know for sure Gayland loved life. And how! He was into everything, curious about everything, often delighted, seldom bored, poking his nose here and there, sometimes until you wanted to scream. Katie says he was wonderful to travel with for just that reason. Me, I dunno. I know that once I drove us down to a funeral in Hamilton, a right smart piece down the road, so Katie got him up and out and in the car in plenty of time. Decided we’d grab breakfast at McDonald’s in Glen Rose and buy gas. Just wanted to get on the road. Well, there’s not a McDonald’s in Glen Rose, thank ya, so we pulled in at the Subway. Immediately Gayland had to get to know the high school girl who served us, all about her family, her cheerleading, her this, her that. By the time I got us out of there he knew her pedigree by heart, I was fit to kill, so mad in fact I flat forgot to buy gas. Along about Chalk Mountain the unhappy facts dawned on me: too far from Glen Rose to go back, too far from Hico to go on. I knew there was an ancient gas station just beyond Chalk Mountain on the right where you could then buy Dublin Dr. Pepper, and I hoped to God it was open. Pulled up and Gayland was right out the door, into the little store attached, straight to the back wall checking out the different jams and jellies for sale. Here I was about to pass out from vexation, and he’s . . . well, that was Gayland. He loved life. But. We are here today because Gayland’s life with us is over, came to a rather speedy—and Katie tells me entirely peaceful—end Monday of this week along about midday. Death finally caught up with him. I think of Emily Dickinson’s little poem that begins, “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me.” I reckon Death deserves to take a lap for that. Whatever’s the case, Death found him, and for all practical purposes that was that. So we gather today to pay honor to his life and love and the memories we treasure. We’ll laugh and we’ll weep and we’ll just be quiet. In the presence of Death, a great silence falls. Or should. I know when I walked into that hospital room only a few minutes after Gayland died, I could hear the silence of the heavens ringing in my ears. A life that loved life here on earth had slipped into eternity.
Now, at this point in funeral sermons we are often treated to a catalog of the Dearly Departed’s many virtues plus a glittering necklace of sweet, formulaic palliative and uplifting aphorisms, all meant to comfort and lift up, all about how Gayland is now with the One who loves him best, is relishing the greater presence of God, is praying for us, is renewing acquaintance with the horde of people he loved and many of whom he himself sent off into glory at countless gatherings like this one. And I have nothing against all that, often do it myself. But not today. I think with Gayland I need to be a little more specific, because there was nothing formulaic about the man. He was complicated. He was layered. He was not infrequently controversial. I know, because my own dealings with him go back to 1966, and for most of the half century since then, we have been close friends. Not always, of course, and for a while we were estranged; but God helped us past that, and most of the time . . . well, we knew so much on each other that either of us could have put the other in jail! So I speak with some authority here about the way I knew Gayland. I know that many of you here knew him every bit as well, maybe better, and you would have other points to make. I just want to make three. The magic number.
First, let me say it plain: Gayland had guts. I used to see him mainly at diocesan gatherings, conventions and other clergy gatherings, and I promise you the very minute a convention, say, got reared back to pass some resolution roundly condemning this or that bunch of people they didn’t cotton to, Gayland would be on his feet, calling out the hypocrisy and the bigotry and the intolerance of the whole smelly thing. I remember asking myself at the time, “Man, does he know who he’s talking to? He’s gonna get crowned!” And you know what? He very often did. Others would rebut and laugh and ridicule him right there on the floor, and we’d all hunker down for the beheading. Never scared him. Not once. And the next convention and the next and the next, he was there raising particular Cain if he smelt . . . well . . . hypocrisy, bigotry, intolerance, phobia. At times the reaction from those he called out got personal and right ugly. Did not faze him. I remember him saying once, “You accuse me of something, and I might just turn around and own up to it. Then what are you gonna do?” Where’d that gumption come from? I think Gayland behaved that way because he thought Jesus would have done the same. Resisting that kind of evil was just in his spiritual DNA.
Second, many (including me) found the young Gayland theologically . . . dubious, un peu louche. I can remember him going on and on about this or that theological point which the ante-Nicene fathers had dealt with sufficiently and finally and to my own complete satisfaction. That was the young me when I knew a whole lot more than I do now. But I, like others I consorted with, tended simply to dismiss Gayland as a lightweight, a top water, blown this way and that by every wind of tainted doctrine. Do I sound like the fourth chapter of II Timothy? Well, that’s the way a good many of us thought about Gayland. Over time, however, after life turned off my Supercilious Override function, I noticed something. Gayland actually read pretty carefully. I learned that he, like many of us in the mid-sixties, got and read Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God, even if the seminary faculties scowled. Beside that we listened furtively to the noise coming out of our seminary in Austin, the “God is dead” stuff that caused many of us to run screaming from the room, gathering up our theological skirts so all that heresy didn’t splash up on us. And then, of course, came Bishop Spong. I remember telling scandalized parishioners that I was “glad the good bishop was asking those questions, but I wish he wouldn’t do it out in public.” Well, Gayland’s attitude and response were different. He paid attention and did not dismiss the tender-as-your-eyelid nerve endings of a theology trying to come to terms with an existence in which so much of centuries-old orthodoxy was plainly at odds with undeniable circumstance, the bed-rock facts of life in a world often bent on its own destruction. I don’t really have a notion what Gayland’s eventual theological conclusions were, don’t know if he ever came to any. I know we both agreed not so long ago that neither of us had really made his mind up about God yet. And that awareness of the friction between theological formulation and first-hand experience of God and of life with God made it possible for Gayland to talk with people who doubted their own faith, who had no faith, who believed in no God at all or hated God—no matter, Gayland could hear them without judgment, and the openness that some might call laxity let countless people whose lives he touched make headway on their own pilgrimage to whatever destiny lay in store for them. Where did that come from? I think Gayland thought Jesus would have listened before he prescribed. Jesus chatted theology with the woman at the well, for Heaven’s sake. Gayland chatted theology with all comers, though maybe happier with a gin and tonic than with a bucket of well water. He never weaponized God, and that’s something we could all emulate profitably.
Third, Gayland loved life without the gnawing need to improve it dramatically. In his play The Fugitive Kind, Tennessee Williams set a character, a woman, Carol Cutrere, daughter of an old, rich, corrupt family, some four or five years past her prime who spends most of her time careering an old Jaguar convertible along the back roads of Three Rivers County, hitting the juke joints and looking for love in all the wrong places. From time to time, however, she repents on steroids and becomes what she calls “a church-bitten reformer.” Well folks, Gayland was not a church-bitten reformer. Oh, he had a keen moral code and sensitivity to be sure, but he didn’t go about forcing it on others—unless, of course, he spotted hypocrisy and that lot. No, most of the time Gayland was “live and let live” in a clerical suit. If you go look at the hodge-podge of stuff he collected on his travels over the years, you’ll see what I mean. Everything from truly fine art—paintings, prints, sculpture, other artifacts—to odds and ends from building sites or trash dumps or wherever. If he liked the way it looked, he threw it in his kit bag and noodled on. One of the most interesting pieces of . . . well . . . art on his and Katie’s compound is a busted pool table top.
|Broken pool table slate as art|
I used to say, “Gayland has a thousand ideas a day, and two of them are good. So pay attention.” He loved the variety of life, especially exuberance and flourish, though he could fall silent in the presence of transcendence and just . . . soak it up. Some might call that a kind of spiritual and moral dilettantism. Dilettante. Usually not a nice word. Someone I respected tremendously once turned it on me. But you know what? Just like Gayland, you accuse me of that and I may just own it. It’s an Italian word, and originally it means someone who enjoys. What’s wrong with enjoying? It takes a cynic to turn the word dark. Gayland made no imperious demands of life. He just enjoyed it, and that made it possible for him to be at ease with high and low, rich and poor, all God’s chillen. He loved being with rich people, and he loved being with people without a dime to their name. What caused that? Oh, something in his childhood, no doubt, but also I think because he knew Jesus behaved that way. Got in trouble for it too. Gayland was comfortable over at Rivercrest, you bet, but he was just as comfortable at the Night Shelter across town. A truly genial spirit.
Well, that’s some of why I admired and loved Gayland and will miss his company. You all have your own version of that, though perhaps not so long-winded. At any rate, it’s time now to turn our minds to the matter at hand: resurrection. We bandy the word about almost reflexively, sort of glossing over what is usually our considerable confusion about just what it means. We all live with lots of resurrection, regeneration, both in nature and in our own lives. We see things die, we see things come to life, we understand the concept in general terms. But when we talk about Christian resurrection—“the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”—what does each of us believe that means? Likely most of us here grew up in fairly standard Christian homes and learned of a three-decker universe in which good folks went to heaven to play harps on golden streets and sing psalms with Mamaw and Papaw and Aunt Laetitia and Uncle Verl. Most of us likely have found that less than satisfactory over time. But what replaces it? What happens when we die? Does each of us survive personally and individually? Lots of the world doubts that; Eastern religion rejects it entirely. But the questions persist. Will I know me after I die? I know I’m not much, but I gotta tellya, I’m the only me I’ve got. I want to live. But when I look at the images from the Hubble telescope my courage collapses around my feet and turns to skim milk, and I wonder who I think I am, hoping to survive as li’l ol’ me amongst all that welter of time and space and creation. But I hope against hope, because I really want to know about the Big Bang. Who banged it? Why? Where’s God going with all this? I really want to stay in the game. I figure you do too.
Well, Jesus says we can. All the scriptures we read at funerals say we can. Job says we will see God face to face and not as a stranger. Paul declares that neither height nor depth nor things past nor things to come can separate us from the love of God. John tells us today that Jesus is the good shepherd who comes to find us and fold us with his own. Jesus says he is resurrection and life, life caught up in the Father’s own life and love. The creed says that the kingdom prepared for us from the very beginning will have No. End. When the disciples in the upper room doubt him, Jesus asks, “Would I lie to you about something like that?” Well, know what, I don’t think he would, and armed with that promise, this pilgrim gathers his soul up in his hand and does his best to trust that affirmation. I just hope that when my time comes, I’ll have the presence of mind to say, “Lord Jesus, take me with you.” Yes, in faith I believe in the resurrection, and in faith I claim it for Gayland.
Katie says that just before Gayland slipped away, he took two deep breaths and shifted in the bed. Bishop Terwilliger used to say that death is a meeting with someone you know. I could suppose Gayland saw Jesus reaching for his hand and said, “Oh, there you are! It’s about time. What have you got to show me?” Faith tells me they’re about that right now, and I’d bet Jesus is having as much fun as Gayland is.
Now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed, as is most justly due, all honor, power, might, majesty, and dominion henceforth and for evermore.