“He was brilliant,” said his friend Joel Frederickson of our late colleague Adam Johnson, at the Bethel memorial service this morning. “But he never acted like he was brilliant.” Over and over that hour, we heard students, alumni, and friends bear witness to Adam’s humble brilliance.
But the meaning we most often attach to the word “brilliant” — at least in an academic community — is actually not the first one in the dictionary. To be sure, Adam was “distinguished by unusual mental keenness or alertness” — a wonderful example of the category of “brilliant scientists” that Webster’s uses to illustrate that definition. But first and foremost, something is brilliant because it is — or he is — “very bright, glittering.”
In fact, our word descends from a medieval term for a sparkling jewel. To be specific, beryl: the substance from which the first eyeglasses were fabricated.
And as that etymology came to mind, I suddenly realized how many times we had heard people link Adam with the sense of sight. One former student described his mentor as gazing in wonder at the human brain. Another emphasized Adam’s empathy: his unusual ability to see through the eyes of others, and so to see himself more clearly.
As we heard such accounts, we all of us saw our friend, colleague, teacher, partner, brother, and son a bit more clearly.
This is one of the most important things that happens at a funeral. A community is gathered together by different connections to a single person. As we tell stories, it’s like seeing different facets of a brilliant jewel, aspects previously hidden from us by the limitations of our experience. Now, eulogizing someone can seem less to shed light than to obscure unpleasant truth. (Adam wouldn’t have wanted it to be all “sunshine,” said another.) But ultimately, I think that the purpose of eulogy is not to cover up faults, but to let such incidentals shift to the periphery of our gaze — and let the essentials of a life come into focus.
But despite ourselves, we start to lose that focus almost as soon as we walk away. The words we heard with such clarity disappear into the ephemera of memory — not obscured entirely, but brought to light imperfectly, intermittently. (Adam’s service, held in the same space as Stacey Hunter Hecht’s, certainly caused those three-year old memories to bubble up from the back of my mind.) Our attention ceases to be fixed on another person’s life and is again divided between all the shiny objects of our own existence.
One of the friends who had spent long hours with Adam during his weeks in hospice shared a poem that described those caregivers walking back into the world, slipping on the frozen sidewalks and failing to notice the hints of green in the trees above. Those “rebellious buds,” he reflected, began to bring into “fuzzy relief” the “new life” that springs forth from the seeming death of our seemingly perpetual winter.
It’s a powerful metaphor for the Christian hope at the center of our current liturgical season. But that image too made me think of sight — this time: its limitations. Not just walking home in late winter, but in most walks of our life, we fail to notice. At best, we let what is good and true come into “fuzzy relief.”
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night,” goes the second line of The Beatles song that played as the service’s postlude, “Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.” But in so many ways, we can’t. At least, not by ourselves, not perfectly.
So it was reassuring to sing — to pray — the words of Adam’s favorite hymn: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.” To trust that long before we can fully see “bright heaven’s Sun,” the High King of that realm will be our unfailing sight. Indeed, in the hymnal of Adam’s denomination, that famous song is nestled between two similar pleas for vision: “Show us, O Lord, your steadfast love” and “Open my eyes, that I may see.”
As it happens, our service bulletin had a photocopy of “Be thou my vision” from my own denomination’s hymnal, where it appears under the topical heading, “Guidance in Pilgrimage.” And that too seems appropriate, as we citizens of heaven are bound to spend our earthly sojourn seeing dimly, knowing partly, and led by a Guide who is at once the “Ruler of all” and “Heart of my own heart” — who will remain our vision, “whatever befall.”