Saturday, March 03, 2007

Family as Blessing: In memory of Cecil M. Roper (1924-2007)

J. Barry Vaughn. Broadway Baptist Church, Ft Worth, TX. March 3, 2007.

For two years I taught introduction to Old Testament at Samford University in Birmingham. The Old Testament is great fun to teach because it is so realistic about human nature. Even the patriarchs of Genesis and their family members lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get what they want. Cecil gave me a line that I always used when I was teaching Genesis. Lot’s wife, he told me, was a pillar of salt by day and a ball of fire at night.

And yet the Old Testament tells us that families can be places of blessing, In fact, a lot of the lying and cheating and at least one murder in Genesis is because of blessing. Cain kills Abel because God blessed Abel’s offering and did not bless Cain’s. Jacob disguised himself as his brother Esau and lied to his father Isaac in order to steal the blessing that was Esau’s by virtue of having been the first-born. Joseph’s brothers were so enraged at the favoritism that their father Jacob showed him that they were ready to kill him but instead sold him into slavery. The Sopranos has nothing on Genesis!

I was surprised to learn this week that Cecil never felt that he had received the blessing from his parents that all his hard work and accomplishments deserved. That may be why he was so generous in blessing others. He was certainly generous in blessing me. The blessing usually came without words but it was unmistakable. He flew to Cambridge and stayed in a dorm room for a couple of nights when I graduated from Harvard. Both he and Milly came to St. Andrews when I received my Ph.D.

Cecil’s blessing was unconditional but not uncritical and I’m glad that it was. Cecil set high standards for himself and others, and I believe that because of him I went further and higher than I might otherwise have gone.

Maybe on this side of heaven there are no unmixed blessings. That’s certainly true of families. The relationship between parents and children is always complicated and conflicted. Often a favorite uncle or aunt can do things for us that our own parents are unable to do, either because of their limitations or because of our resistance. Someone outside the immediate circle of the family can bring a fresh perspective. They are just far enough outside the circle of our immediate family to make them easier to talk to and listen to.

Cecil and Milly have always performed that function for me. When I was a very small child they seemed impossibly glamorous to me because they were the first people I knew who routinely traveled by air. In that day airlines still gave small gifts to passengers and they would often pass them on to me. They might as well have been traveling by magic carpet and bringing me gold, frankincense, and myrrh!

I know that Cecil was in large part responsible for my love of good music. That was also part of the glamour or magic that I attributed to him when I was a small child. He not only taught music at a seminary; he conducted choirs and even orchestras. However, we did not have exactly the same taste in music. Cecil seemed to have an endless appetite for clavichords and crumhorns; give me a modern piano and orchestra any day!

I have strayed a bit from my topic, in our last conversation Cecil asked me to talk about kinship and blessing and was very specific: “Please talk for five minutes,” he said. “Wear your collar but not your robe. Only the Broadway clergy will be wearing robes…” I know that Cecil would want me to do more than reminisce about him; he would want me to proclaim the gospel or at least speak a word informed by scripture.

God declared everything he had created to be very good, but the creation stories in Genesis tell us that God only declared one thing to be NOT good: “It is not good that humans should be alone.” So God created families. Every day for the last 2000 years the Jewish people have prayed “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, for you set the solitary in families.” As I have said, families are never unmixed blessings, but they ARE good. Jews and Christians do well to bless God for families because they are where we learn to love. We learn to love in families NOT because they are always warm and nurturing places. Thankfully, they often are. But I believe we learn to love in families because it can be so difficult to love the people we live with, and it is always difficult to love someone with whom you share a bathroom! Families also teach us how to love because that is where people love US in spite of how unpleasant and mean all of us can be at times.

But for me, at least, Cecil was an unmixed blessing, and a source of unconditional blessing for my life. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, for giving us Cecil Roper as kin and friend on our earthly pilgrimage. May the journey he began on earth continue forever in your heavenly kingdom, and may the heavenly choirs be patient as he teaches them to sing the Psalms of Strasbourg and Geneva. Amen.