Harry Parker delivered his last sermon on Reformation Sunday, Nov. 3, at First Baptist Church of Oak Park, where he served as pastor for 27 years. I think he knew it was his last sermon. The doctor told him six months ago he probably wouldn’t make it to the holidays this year, though he held out hope that, with his family’s help and our prayers, he might “prove the doctor wrong.”
So pale, so frail, so mortal, he was no longer the reliable regular the Oak Park Runners Club knew — or the pastor who organized tours of the Holy Land. On this Sunday, he didn’t have a lot left in his tank, but what he lacked in energy, he made up for in courage.
I was the only non-Baptist in the bunch in 2006 when Harry took us on a remarkable spiritual journey through a troubled land. We visited locations mentioned in the Bible and took turns reading passages aloud that pertained to those sites. It was like walking through a biblical hologram. We experienced the power of a windstorm sweeping in off the Mediterranean, the stillness on the Sea of Galilee, the salt-caked sterility of the Dead Sea, the fertile source of the Jordan River in the Golan Heights gushing out of the rocks following the winter rains. We made the pilgrimage to Bethlehem and stood in a cave that served as a stable for the shepherds who still tend flocks there. We walked among the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane — or a reasonable likeness of it — overlooking Jerusalem, and we recreated the walk down to the old city that Jesus entered on Palm Sunday to face his Via Dolorosa. Approximate locations in some cases, but fodder for faith. The Bible never seemed more alive, much more than a roller-coaster ride through a religious theme park. I am beholden to him for that journey.
What kind of sermon would you deliver if you knew it was likely your last? Pastor Parker titled it, “My Confession.”
Quoting Winston Churchill, by way of Samuel Johnson, he said he was staring down the barrel of a .30-06 Springfield rifle, a metaphor for his impending demise. Johnson had put it more succinctly: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Harry said he felt that increased concentration, and staring down the barrel of a cancer diagnosis “woke me up.”
Woke to the fact that, in spite of the “Great Commandment” (“love God with everything you have and your neighbor as yourself”), he loved some things more than God. “I’m guilty of loving myself too much,” he said, “which is the heart of all other sins.”
The sin of pride, for instance. He was thankful for his wonderful partner, Linda, and their three children, for leading this congregation for 27 years, for teaching in the seminary for 20, but the pride he felt sometimes led to “putting myself above others,” sometimes without even being aware of it. “Pride is universal,” he said. “All are guilty. The things we’re most grateful for have a shadow side.”
The third sin was idolatry, loving the good things of this world with “a disordered affection. What I long for are the things of God: extended life, health, freedom from pain. I’ve been seeking the blessings of God instead of God himself.”
Someday soon, he said, he would stand before God and be tempted to say, “But didn’t I preach? Didn’t I teach Sunday School? Didn’t I attend all those meetings?” He had a pretty good idea what the answer would be.
Despite our sinfulness, he said, “This is where grace comes in. By grace we are saved. When I stand before God, I don’t know that I have a leg to stand on. What I want is never to have sinned at all and that everything sad will become untrue. I want to remember that if God is for us, who can be against us? That nothing will separate us from the love of God.”
He was letting go — of ego, pride and desire. Dissolving the bonds that tie us to the physical world, including his own weakened body, and standing on the precipice of a great mystery. Facing it, ready to let go, a man of faith to the end. Faith, of course, doesn’t prove anything, but it surely comes in handy when the time comes to let go.
And let go he did on Nov. 22, following a nine-year struggle with cancer.
But before that, Harry put his affairs in order. He published a book titled, Journey to Wholeness – The Path to God and Your True Self, a summation of his own journey.
Speaking of the illness that claimed him, he wrote: “This disease set me out on a pilgrimage to deepen my spiritual life. I began a quest to sift through a small mountain of books from the second to the 21st century. I drank deeply from the wells of wisdom dug by spiritual giants of the past, both ancient and modern. I have not ‘wasted my cancer’.”
As he finished his sermon that Sunday, I almost envied him his imminent transition. If there is an afterlife, now he knows. It might not be exactly what he expected, but whatever form it takes, surely love is central.
Harry’s son helped him down from the pulpit so he could preside over communion as the congregation sang, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” Afterward, congregants lined up to wish him well. If only they could.
In my few moments, I reminded Harry that the only other time I received communion from him was in Jerusalem, in a garden on a sunny, spring-like Sunday morning that closely resembled my own imaginings of what that open-tomb first Easter looked like — minus the gift shop, of course.
Atul Gawande, in his book Being Mortal, writes, “The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life — to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be.” That never happened to Harry Parker. “Whatever the limits and travails we face, we want to retain the autonomy — the freedom — to be the authors of our lives,” Gawande says. “This is the very marrow of being human.”
Harry lived that way to the end.
I hope he found his New Jerusalem.