Monday, September 06, 2010

Come Labor On

Why didn't somebody tell us it was Labor Day? We just brushed our white bucks.

Truth be told, we are oblivious to all but a few secular holidays. St. Michael and All Angels we observe without fail, but Columbus Day is hit or miss. (And did you know there's actually a holiday dedicated to presidents in general? We wonder if that includes the presidents of banks and synods.) Despite the fervent objections of Mother Anonymous, we don't take those long-weekend Mondays off. They're a great time to sneak into the office and catch up on paperwork.

Ah, but Labor Day. Now that's different. Not because of any particular enthusiasm for the "labor movement." We like unions just fine. Mom and Dad were members, and their retirement is pretty pleasant as a result. Come to think of it, labor unions are probably the only reason we ever had any health insurance as a child. So we like unions, although we will never join one. But for us, Labor Day means something else entirely.

Father and Mother A. were married in late August, and try to take their vacation then. Most years, they visit the wee Adirondack camp where Father A.'s parents summer, both (a) because the accommodations are free and (b) because there is no place on God's green earth they would rather be. While there, we worship at the Church of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal congregation in Blue Mountain Lake, NY. It's a tiny wooden building, open summers only, right on the lakeshore. Some people come to church in kayaks or guideboats. Very picturesque.

But picturesque will get you one Sunday. It takes more than that to keep us coming back to church. "More" in this case meaning a unique community, able to embrace people of wildly different backgrounds and beliefs. Transfiguration offers that. (Music, not so much.) And for many years, the guy who brought that community together was the parish priest, a fellow named F. Lyman Farnham, or Barney.

We won't try to describe Barney in any detail. We couldn't do him justice, and would win d up making him sound like every other aging clergyman -- kind, conscientious, funny but always in a mild way. There was a lot more to him than that, and a lot more to the gentle but firm way he took hold of Transfiguration and steered it spiritually. His sermons were odd, but often oddly affecting. We could have lived without his chosen canticle of praise, but in every other regard, he was what we would like to be, in the same situation. Or even in our present one.

For more than a decade, he was the closest thing we had to a parish pastor.

And as sure as the blackflies swarm in June, Barney would choose the same hymn on Labor Day:
Come, labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share --
to young and old the Gospel gladness bear:
redeem the time, its hours too swiftly fly
The night draws nigh.
Since our vacation almost always extended over the holiday, we were going to be in church to hear it. And since it isn't in most of the Lutheran hymnals, this was the only place we ever heard it. So it makes us think of him, every time.

Barney died a couple of years ago. He had been getting sicker, and he let us know about it, one step at a time, preparing us as he was surely preparing himself for what happens. By the end, it wasn't a surprise, although it was a terrible shock. He died the way we feel a pastor ought to -- honestly, without denial or despair. Teaching the faithful to live is the easy part. Even a hypocrite can do that. Teaching us to die is another thing.

So, yes, it's Labor Day. For us, that doesn't have much to do with unions and worker safety, nor with the supposed end of summer. For us, it is reminder of our mission, to claim the high calling. It is a reminder of Barney, and every other honest worker in God's vineyard who has inspired faith not just with words, but with his life and with his death.


Gillian said...

Very nice reflection! I never knew Barney but I do know Suzanne, his wife. Have you sent this to her?

Father Anonymous said...

You know Sue? It really is a small world. No, I haven't sent it to her. Too personal, I think.

mark said...