Philosophically, I recognize the the danger of stagnation, the necessity of adaptation, importance of progress. But it's rarely been something I enjoy.
Rev. James, our minister and friend for nigh on 7 years now, is moving to Richmond Hill, and in a lot of ways, it is kind of a tough pill to swallow.
Again, the necessity of it cannot be questioned; his father is in declining health, and unable to come out west, as had been the assumed plan for many years. As the offspring with no children and a job that affords him some latitude in relocation, it is eminently sensible for he and Glen to relocate back east. As much as I recognize the rationality of it though, my inner Dr. McCoy is yelling "Damn your logic, Spock!"
Inner Spock will probably win, as he often does, with a relentless inevitability that is belied somewhat by the recognition that James is unquestionably doing the right thing, and for the right reasons, as well as the fact that it is clearly exacting an emotional price on him as well.
Today's farewell service and the pot luck that followed was not very elegant, but it was earnest and heartfelt and honest, all characteristics I value and admire, and see in James. For the first time I can remember, he had to refer to his notes during his sermon, because reading it afforded him a modicum of emotional control that simply speaking them from the heart could not.
He told us he was proud of how far we had come in our efforts to be more inclusive and welcoming, from becoming an Affirming Ministry and marching in Pride, to the work we did in respect to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. He choked up, telling us he loved us, and that he would continue to pray for us on our journey, as he knew we would for him.
The staff presented him with a brilliant painting by a local artist, and an envelope that started circulating only three weeks ago came back with a significant amount of cash in it, which seemed to rock him back on his heels a bit. The original intent was to turn part of it into a gift card for a posh restaurant (the thinking being that even $300 for food can be 20 x $15 fast food dinners or one spectacular night at someplace posh), but there was no time to arrange it. Also, many givers felt cash was a far more sensible gift due to its flexibility, and you have to respect those wishes. As one of the presenters though, I had a chance to hug him immediately after he received it, and whispered in his ear "A third of that must be spent in a single night!" in the urgent manner of a gypsy prophecy.
I repeated it to James' husband Glen, who was seated next to me in the congregation, and he grinned and said, "That shouldn't be a problem in Toronto!"
The pot luck was a bit chaotic because just so many people wanted to take part in this final farewell, and there were over 40 feet of folding tables laden with food. A mic was set up so that people could share stories or remembrances or public wishes, and a few people took advantage of it, giving heartfelt thanks and wishing James and Glen all the best in their travels and new home.
And of course I was one of them.
I began by recalling a couple of incidents early on in our relationship which occurred at Worship Committee meetings. At one, a gift basket had been prepared, but the aggregator was unable to gussy it up for presentation purposes. James immediately volunteered, saying, "Give it to me, I can make anything pretty."
Knowing his fondness for musicals, I grinned and replied with, "Pretty? Oh, so pretty? You feel pretty and witty and-"
"You cut that out!" he interrupted sharply. But he smiled when he did it.
At a different meeting, he took note of the Muse t-shirt I was wearing from a concert the night before. He asked if I had been there, and I was impressed he knew the band, since many didn't, but when I told him, yes, I had, he immediately held up his hand for a series of high fives, to punctuate his declaration of "Best! Concert! EVER!"
We then turned and looked sheepishly at the chair of the committee, who had no idea what was going on and was watching us with incredulity. James offered a mea culpa and said, "We were just having a moment, there..."
(For his part, James told me that he knew that he and I would get along famously when, at a church council meeting, we fell into an animated sidebar discussion about whether it made more sense to use sesterce or denarius to refer to the contents of a church's coffers, which devolved into the proper pluralization of these ancient currencies, when we were sharply called to attention by the chair of council. Even he grinned, though, as he threatened to put us in separate seats, like errant schoolboys.)
I followed up these anecdotes by mentioning that I had watched The Shawshank Redemption with my nephew Mark the night before, as he had never seen it. (I should mention that there were appropriate gasps of disbelief at this revelation.) I described the scene where convict Andy Dufresne strides outside the authority of the warden by barricading the door to his office and broadcasting an aria from The Marriage of Figaro over the prison P.A. system, mesmerizing the inmates, and earning himself two weeks in 'The Hole'; solitary confinement.
Frank Darabont, in the commentary that I watched last night, says, "The whole movie is in that scene: he is [trapped] in a place. He does the best he can. And he shares his soul with the people around him."
He gives them hope, a strange overlapping of the Venn diagram between a two-decades-old prison movie and modern Christianity.
To me, this describes James to a 'T', and I told that to the assembly.
In a spirit of honesty and commitment to right, he presented us uncomfortable truths and asked what we were prepared to do about them.
He taught ancient wisdom, but carefully explained the historical and societal context it came from.
James spotlighted injustices and cruelties in the world around us, some of which we ourselves were complicit in, and suggested ways we might do better.
Onstage, my voice caught when I turned to James and thanked him, and told him how much I hoped he knew the extent to which his shared soul had galvanized us, and how he had forever changed the way in which many of us view the world, and how grateful we were for his leadership and for showing us what being a loving and inclusive community really means, How appreciate we all were, that I was, that we had him in our lives for the time that we did. How happy Audrey and I are for the influence he had on the lives of our daughters.
I reached across the table to shake his hand again, but he was having none of it, and came around for a hug. Again.
There was a lot of eye-sweat going on in the Friendship Hall of St. Albert U.C. that day I can tell you.
The week previous, Audrey and I had James & Glen over for drinks after supper, ostensibly to say goodbye, but in truth, it was a way for us to extend our connection, and to offer the two of them a bit of respite, some non-obligatory decompression time in a familiar space. We had talked about watching a movie: I had lent James the Firefly DVDs some time ago (two years, perhaps? I'd lost track, having an extra set that I had subsequently replaced with BluRays...) abd he'd had yet to see the theatrical movie, Serenity, which capped off the series.
After everything today, and heading out tomorrow at 7 am, they swung by after dinner to check it out. My nephew asked to stay, instead of heading back to his residence at UAlberta, because of the gratitude he feels for the influence James has had on his life. We lounged, snacked on chips and popcorn, downed a few beers and ciders, and watched a decent sci-fi movie, but mostly, we just enjoyed the pleasure of each other's company.
We paid no mind that it may be some time before such an opportunity presents itself again, and the only indication that tonight was any different than our regular Monday night Game of Thrones viewing was the fact that I got Glory to snap a picture of the four of us at the door when it was all over.
I'm tired and sad now; my keyboard hasn't been this wet since I sat here and wrote out my Dad's eulogy, which is stupid. I mean, Canada is a big place, but it is not as though we will never see each other again. James & Glen have already made plans to return next summer. We are due to return to Ontario at some point, and in the meantime there is Skype, and long distance, and both James and I keep a blog, so the connections will be stretched, but not broken. Never broken.
But for the time being, I am giving myself permission to be miserable, and to lament this change, and the fact that in addition to a swell couple of friends, a tremendously influential mentor are no longer going to be as accessible as they once were. The Sunday sermons, the Oscar parties, the Game of Thrones viewings, the Canada Day celebrations, they are all going to be a little bit diminished because a couple of intelligent, compassionate, smartasses that mean the world to Audrey and I are moving a couple of time zones over, and if the ocular humidity that I saw going around the Friendship Hall this afternoon are any indication, I am not the only one who feels that way.
Godspeed, James and Glen. You will be missed, and we all count the days until we can see you both again. (The Oscar party invite is decidedly not perfunctory.)