Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Grief and encouragement at “graduation”

Preachers are allowed, I hope, to feel both a due sense of grief and encouragement when members they have loved “graduate” from this life into the life to come. (That expression — “graduate” I owe to my colleague and mentor the Rev. Dr. T. Russell Nunan, longtime minister of the Presbyterian Church in Greenville, who is said to have used the expression in every funeral he conducted in Greenville. (For details, see the wonderful book, “Being Dead is No Excuse: The Southern Ladies’ Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral,” by which two members of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Greenville — Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays — turned what would have been an ordinary Mississippi Delta church recipe book into a New York Times best-seller.)

So I felt both encouragement and great loss as we said farewell to Howard Buford — one of my great Holly Springs friends who had suffered greatly in his homegoing. Last Saturday, when the call came that Howard had passed away and as I was driving to their home, Paul’s word to Timothy came immediately to my mind — “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” To these words I would add Paul’s words in Philippians, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

That is what Howard did. Here was a man who kept the faith, and who — if I may put it this way, died with such an integrity and spirit of gentle fortitude — that his suffering — and it was suffering — was an inspiration to his pastor. I have never seen someone persevere through hardship with the strength of purpose and quiet trust that I saw in this good man. What a gift his life has been to us all!

The New England Puritans used to preach about “making a good death.” We would not be as grandiose as they in such matters, but I think that is what Howard did. Not everyone has the choice or the possibility of making a good death, but Howard did, and when someone exercises the will and the raw courage that such a calling requires, we are placed in awe by the experience, and are grateful, simply, that we had opportunity to be strengthened by that witness.

Most who will read this knew Howard as the postmaster. He was, I suppose, the last locally-appointed postmaster: certainly the last one to have an office in the post office on the square. Many’s the small child who remembers how he would stamp your hand “Postage Due,” and place the tiny tots on the postal scale to be weighed. I would guess he dispatched many a letter to Santa Claus, but when the weather was bad, he saw that the mail went through!

Others here will remember him as their Scoutmaster. There are some wonderful stories about that. He helped boys become men and develop that strength of character that scouting is supposed to engender. He was proud of his Troop 119, and held the highest honor that scouting can bestow, the Silver Beaver award — and let me say that is not an honor that is lightly given.

Howard had a wonderful way with young people. One of my best Methodist friends, whose grandmother was a Presbyterian, told me how Howard kidded him after he had spent the summer with his grandmother in Okolona, and attended the Presbyterian Vacation Bible School there. Howard had asked him, “What is this I hear about you a good Methodist boy, going to the Presbyterian Bible School?” And Howard said, “From now on I am going to call you ‘Fred P — for Presbyterian.’” And so he did for a good 40 years!

Howard had some rougher times to face. He was in the U.S. Army during World War II — in the second wave of soldiers who assaulted the cliffs of Normandy, and he later served in the 438th anti-aircraft artillery battalion in Belgium. After that he served in the Reserves, retiring in 1961 with the rank of captain.

Tom Brokaw said it best — that this was “the greatest generation.” Howard spoke very little about his experiences in the war, though he did tell me once about it. Men of that era said little about those experiences. They simply did their duty, but mark you, we are here in freedom and faith because of them: few remember the peril to which our civilization and way of life was exposed by Hitler and his minions. Perhaps this country could not bear to think about it; but these men not only thought about it; they braved the foe, and there should be no end to our gratitude for what they did. 

How easy it is to bandy about the words “patriotism” and “sacrifice,” until you meet someone who truly practiced in his own life all that those words demand of us — for, mark you, freedom is never free — so note this flag at the altar of Jesus Christ, and think with thanksgiving, about what it means that we are here, and the men and women who made that possible for us in our own generation.

I could talk of Howard and Mississippi State — or of his courtship of Tommy Jean at the “W.” But just look at the “match” they made: four much-loved children — five grandchildren. Fifty-eight years they were married: what kind of record is that, and they loved each other to the end! Would I be too sentimental to note that his memorial service was on Saint Valentine’s Day?

How he loved his brothers — and here is his brother Richard who is now the sole surviving member of the children of that generation, and of course Howard’s children and grandchildren. Catherine, Elton, Laura, Jake and Evan: Every one of them was precious to him, and he was so interested in all their activities.

They pleased him, and we are proud of them, too. If you would honor him, then emulate his love for his family, Jesus Christ, and his support of Christ’s church.

For, finally, finally, Howard was a churchman. I knew him as a man with accomplishments and interests in many departments of life. But first and foremost I knew him as a churchman.

For a good many years he was the first person to arrive at this church for Sunday school, and he participated in the class I taught as one of the most careful, intelligent — and sometimes questioning (in a good way) listeners I have ever known. He came as close to “perfect attendance” as anyone I knew! (Presbyterians do not keep roll, but I would think he deserved the attendance ribbon, were we to have given one out in those years when his health was good.)

And even when Howard’s health was bad, there he would be in our Sunday school class and in his pew there in the back north side of this sanctuary. I could sense he was often in great pain, but even with difficulty, he honored his commitment and fulfilled his duty as he saw it. For whether it was to his fellow soldiers at Normandy or to his customers in the post office, or to his family, or to his church, this man understood the meaning of the word commitment, and more than once I have gotten up on a Sunday morning when I’d have just as soon called in sick and taught a lesson and preached a sermon — just because of the example of this faithful Christian gentleman.

He was an elder of our church — an honor not lightly bestowed. It is a calling, really. And one that Howard fulfilled, as the ordination vow says, “with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” Garry Bray’s term in the same office begins as that of his father-in-law concludes: it is a worthy inheritance.

But let us end with the scriptures: with some good verbs — “Fought,” “finished,” and “kept.” Those are Paul’s words in 2 Timothy, and let those be our words just now. If that could be said of you and me, would we not feel our lives and witness had been worthwhile?

Howard was too modest to have let such things be said about him in life. But they are words we would use about him now. So what should we do to honor his memory? Just what St. Paul said to the Philippians: Let us “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus!”

Someone said to me recently that Christian people ought to make our funerals a celebration. I could not agree more! So now we have good work to do, and we may give thanks and be joyful, because the God whom Howard loved and served keeps Him still, and calls us to follow in his stead.

I am not sure I can explain to you all that is encompassed by the terms “resurrection” and “eternity,” but this I can say with confidence, that death is not frightening when those we love have led the way. And if Christ and those we love wait for us on the other side, then whatever we must face by way of trial and difficulty in this life is of small consequence.

Would that we could see this world from his perspective now, and God’s!

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