It was a warm Saturday afternoon, late June a year ago, when I sat with Coleman and Irene as I have had the gift of doing just about every year for the past 31 years since I graduated from Colgate University.
Naming. The heart of what Coleman always did. Heard me out. All the words I poured out in fervent conversations, in times of confusion, discernment and distress. Read with care the long letters I wrote. The phone calls we shared. Heard beneath all the words, the essential word I was trying to say, but often didn’t know. Offered a turning word, a simple question, that opened my awareness to what was required. Called me to be more than I thought I could be or dare. Made me want to choose again to be a man of faith. To take courage in the midst of the questions and doubts, fears and anxieties. To live into my name.
What Coleman did for me, he did for so many that called him our mentor, our teacher, our pastor. Professor of Philosophy and Religion. Chaplain of our little Protestant community. 26 years at Colgate.
Last Saturday I went back to Colgate for Coleman’s memorial. To grieve his death this past winter, give thanks for all he has meant.
How do you remember a life? The kind of life that has touched, shaped, yours beyond any words can say?
I left early morning so I could visit again one of my favorite places in the world. At the top of the campus, a meadow called the “Old Golf Course”. Today, all that remains, a fire pit at the top, a view down the valley. Green hills, fields. Silos and sky. Especially the sky. Windswept clouds, gray and white, billowing, climbing the valley, as they are today.
Pulled out some brief reflections I’d written about Coleman years before. Read them aloud. Wept. A good time and place to weep. Not even sure what I was crying for. I didn’t want to be here today. And no place I’d rather be. Not here in this place of grief, no. Yes, here in this place of tears of thanksgiving for a life that has touched mine so deeply.
Down the hill, I slipped on my blue suit jacket, straightened my tie. Walked through the trees to find a place in the chapel. A crowd of strangers. Looked for any familiar faces from 31 years ago. Rose to sing. “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” “God of Grace and God of Glory.” Listened to beautiful testimonies about a life that mattered because he mattered to us. Had touched, shaped our own.
Heard echoes again and again that what Coleman had done for me, he had done for so many. He listened. Read our long letters. Heard us out through the struggles and crises of our lives. Shared words, old words, from those who echo the Gospel clear – Eliot, Auden, Niebuhr. Heschel, Tillich, King. Spoke, as they, with assurance, challenge, conviction. The reality of confusion and despair. He did not mince words.
Instilled in us, a passion. For the life of faith, the life of the mind and the limits of it. A great teacher in the classroom, the pulpit, the conversations in his book lined office.
In recent years, a changed relationship. Coleman had been in declining health and we no longer walked down to the Colgate Inn for lunch. No more long conversations, waiting for his every word. But the deep grace of just being together, sitting in silence.
After the memorial, a lunch, and a time for sharing of more remembrances. All I could have said, was finally beyond words. For how to speak of the way that some like Coleman have shaped our lives? Without his witness, his presence, I and so many others in my generation might never have been brought to wrestle with the essential questions of faith, “believers, seekers, doubters, yes, as we always are”, as Coleman reminded us each Sunday at chapel. So many of us, never imagined the possibility of ministry ourselves.
After the memorial, the Colgate Inn. I hadn’t seen Rich for 31 years. We shared the turns and twists our lives have made. The questions our lives were asking today. “What would Coleman say?”, we wondered, as we pondered the various decisions before us.
“Where can we do the most good?” Yes, maybe. I think that’s it. Something like that he would ask. And we would know, as maybe we do now, what we must do.
One last walk, up the hill. One last look. A single bird, crosses the sky.
Thank you, Coleman, for calling my name.
For calling me into the challenge and possibility of who I yet may be.