The church is never more the church than at a funeral.
Or so I decided last week, as the members and friends of Salem Covenant joined five families in paying final respects to five saints of the church. I didn’t know all five well, but I am glad that I was able to attend last Friday’s memorial service for Alyce Hawkinson (1933-2015).
My heart and mind filled to overflowing as I participated in a service shaped by Alyce’s loves:
• Of God, “Our Help in Ages Past” and “Ever Over Me” — so proclaimed two of our hymns (the latter written by one of her sons-in-law).
• Of music… Blessed with perfect pitch and trained as a pianist, Alyce had selected for us three hymns out of a hymnal that she helped to edit. They were backed by the sounds of the piano that she sometimes played in accompanying our children’s choirs or the organ that stands just feet from where she often sang in our sanctuary choir.
(Perhaps the most memorable moment of the service came when our organist, Cindy Reents, moved to that piano and played a tune simply called “Alyce’s Song.” Her daughter Mary explained that Alyce’s piano teacher composed a piece for each of his students; Alyce was given to playing it around the house, which her children secretly recorded a few years ago. The transcription hung above the piano in her home.)
• Of neighbors… As hospitable a person as I’ve ever known, Alyce must have delighted in seeing so many friends from so many walks of life converge in our sanctuary and fellowship hall. (I had to leave early to teach my late afternoon class, but I’m sure the food at the reception aspired to the high standards of Alyce’s own kitchen.)
Indeed, sitting there in the midst of people I’d never have met but for the fact that we shared those loves, I found myself meditating on the nature of church, what Alyce’s son Peter called “the blessed community of pilgrim friends” in his moving homily.
Almost four years earlier, many of the same people had been in the same sanctuary to pay tribute to Alyce’s husband Jim. In my own eulogy for “J. Hawk,” I quoted from his 1965 essay on the church:
Will no one stand to defend my church? Will all her friends be silent? Is criticism all we shall hear? Is none being redeemed? Are none being nurtured? Is there death only at the heart, and not life? Where are the patriot’s voices? Where are the friends?
I will be a fool! I love her, the Church. I love my church. I love her institutions, though I am not unaware of their faults. I love her worship. I am revived daily by her quiet, yet constant fellowship. I love her hymns, and the Word she proclaims. I treasure her celebrations of the sacraments. I honor her teachers. I salute her servants. I stand behind her leaders. I laud her achievements and I love her aspirings.
Sitting in those pews for a second Hawkinson funeral, I felt a fool for the Church as well. I fell back in love with her faulty institutions, her quiet fellowship, her achievements that never quite reach her aspirings.
Peter’s homily quoted from Glad Hearts, the collection of Covenant literature edited by his father. Among its reflections on the Church are found these words from a history of Salem by our pastor emeritus Glen Wiberg (another speaker last Friday):
The church, with the pail and dipper, is still the bearer of God’s invitation—good news for the thirsty. There is a meeting place with an address where you are not only welcome but where your thirst can be quenched. There is a word. There is a font of life. There is a table. There is broken bread. There is a water pail and dipper.
And there is a cross, under whose shadow the dying gather to grieve the dead, and, by celebrating a life that was, testify to the life that is in Christ.
(“We are party crashers,” I hastily wrote in my bulletin, “turning what the Evil One would claim as a triumph into a proclamation of his defeat.” I’m sure I’m ripping off Screwtape Letters here…)
“There is no better menu any place,” wrote Glen. “The source of life is not a concept, nor a theology, nor a ritual, nor an organization, nor even an experience however ecstatic. The source of life is a Person—Jesus, the living One who speaks and with outstretched hand says to you, ‘Welcome!'”
The same word that Alyce Hawkinson said on his behalf, to so many people in so many ways.
Peace be to her memory.