Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Faith Works 1-14

Faith Works 1-14-12

Jeff Gill


Contemplating our mortality



Tuesday morning was a good time to contemplate our mortality.


I stood over the casket of my friend Tom Shonebarger; Father Tom, as he was known by all. Looking down, I saw his kindly face, diminished both by death and the illnesses that had worn away at him these last few years. He was fully vested as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, a rosary in his hand, a chalice laid by his side.


Back in the pews, I sat down next to Rev. Bill Rauch, two Protestant pastors from Newark just trying not to stand up or sit down at the wrong time during the funeral mass at St. Mary's in Lancaster.


Bill and I both had known Father Tom when he served as pastor at Blessed Sacrament; Bill had talked him into becoming CROP Walk treasurer, and when I came to Newark as a new associate pastor pretty fresh out of seminary, I'd met both of them and they'd gotten me right away on the CROP Walk committee, since I'd done that back in Indianapolis.


In those years, the CROP Walk committee met every month over lunch in the back of the Old Landmark downtown. Father Tom recommended the French onion soup, and it became my regular order (and I still miss that place, now a vacant lot next to the McDonald's drive-up off the square).


That wasn't the only advice I got from him. I'd had a very good mentor in my student placement during seminary, but Father Tom was probably the next most influential person I had in developing my sense of pastoral care, a ministry both public and private with a congregation and a community.


We talked during those lunches, when he would come in and sit and say without prelude or preface "we all should spend more time contemplating our mortality!" Which he said, as he said all things, with a smile.


And of course he was serious; his point, from devotional reading and prayer time he'd spent earlier that day (a point he never belabored, but you were always aware of this source of his strength), was that it could actually make us happier and more focused on the things of God's interest when we reflected on the fact that someday we will die, and the world will go on. "Those reflections don't have to be sad, unless we wallow in them; it should point us to what endures, what is truly eternal."


Our group would debate these declarations, along with planning the work of the CROP Walk, and often Father Tom and I would continue the conversation after lunch, carrying it across the street while buying socks from Floyd Maybold, and get his opinion (which was usually to agree with what Father Tom said, with elaborations all his own).


These ten kilometer walks were planned to move through the city in a visible but safe manner, passing through quiet residential streets, rundown neighborhoods, business strips, public parks. The idea was to get the hundreds of walkers to experience more of their own community (where a quarter of the funds raised stay to fight hunger), not through car windows, but at a walking pace.


Father Tom and I as route designers would lag back and stay at the end of the pack, checking for folks who were struggling and needed a ride flagged down, or whatever. We'd discuss everything from hymn tunes to Thomas Merton, for whom Father Tom had been a secretary during his days as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani Abbey, and whose funeral he had returned for as a pallbearer. He didn't make a Catholic of me, nor I a Protestant of him. We simply shared our respective understandings of Christian faith as best we could. He talked about how the importance of the Papacy as something more than any one Pope, and I explained my love of the Anglican poets, George Herbert & John Donne, and how they helped open a door for me into ministry.


But most importantly, we talked about the nuts and bolts of pastoral care. "What do you do when" and "how do you respond if" in reference to emergency rooms at 2 am, or when sitting in a family's living room after the world has come to an (apparent) end. How to show the face of Christ in a world full of fright masks.


I thought about that smile, and the injunction to "contemplate our mortality" looking into his casket. And I smiled, too; something I learned from the face of my Christian brother, Father Tom.


Rest in peace, my friend.



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what you contemplate at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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