Thursday, October 18, 2007
“Resurrection is verified where rebellion against the demonic thrives."
I've been meaning to post something on Harmon Wray for a long time. He died in July, and the notes I took during the memorial service have been sitting around awaiting blog treatment ever since. An amazing, inspiring man I'd like to emulate. The lively, self-deprecating seriousness with which he took the teachings of Jesus (specifically in his friendships with and advocacy of individuals living within the prison system) was an inspiration (and maybe a bit of a scandal) to the people who knew him and knew of him. A deeply irreverent man, Harmon studied, practiced, and embodied a determined (and often amused) irreverence toward any notion, idea, or system which failed to practice appropriate reverence toward human beings. But he had a strong sense of APPROPRIATE reverence. You could feel it when you were around him.
Harmon's way of seeing things was narrated and celebrated during the memorial service in a creed my friend Ray Waddle once heard him intone: “I don’t believe God gives up on anyone, and neither should we.” Throughout the service, in story after story, Harmon’s friendship and hospitality to those considered beyond the pale (grounded in his faith in a God whose redeeming love is, unrelenting, indiscriminate, and without end) was recounted. Richard Goode, a history professor at Lipscomb (and another good friend), spoke of Harmon’s articulation of the possibilities of Restorative Justice and his work at the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison where, since 2003, he led a project whereby faculty, from Vanderbilt and elsewhere, conducted classes comprised of divinity school students and inmates. By Richard’s account, Harmon’s ministry with and to the inmates was a commitment to “the socially exiled and disinherited.” And as Richard shared what Harmon’s friends from Riverbend had to say about him, the shape of his life began to fit almost seamlessly within a vision of the eschaton that overturns many a reigning hierarchy, what Miroslav Volf has called, “the final social reconciliation." In view of and in faithful testimony concerning such visions, Harmon often observed aloud to the inmates that they were his church.
The week before Harmon’s death, Dean Shoemaker, a Riverbend inmate, told Richard that, upon arriving there, his cellmate had advised him to become acquainted with Harmon at the first available opportunity. While Shoemaker hadn’t been especially interested in furthering his education, he attended Harmon’s class anyway and ended up engaging him in a one-on-one conversation. As Harmon asked him questions, Shoemaker made mention of the fact that both of his parents had died and casually noted that, from here on out, there was no one left who loved him.
At this point in the story, Richard looked at the congregation and said, “We all know what Harmon said in response.” Without hesitation, Harmon said, “Well I love you.” And for the first time since he’d been incarcerated, Dean Shoemaker broke down in tears.
Richard remarked that exchanges like these, as everyone knew, characterize Harmon’s life, and, in the retelling, I believe the exchange was made to serve as a call to witnessing practice, to enact and facilitate such redeeming occasions, to remain alive to them even beyond the redeeming and witnessing occasion that was the service itself. As it was between Shoemaker and Wray, it could and must be for everyone assembled at the service. An opening has occurred, and, within it, the faithful will locate themselves. Or as Jurgen Moltmann puts it: "What was impossible before will then become possible. Energies will awaken which before were constricted. A future will be opened which was hitherto closed and inaccessible. Over against the reality of the visible world awaken the possibilities of change for that world, and its transformation into the kingdom of God."
In some sense, the service questioned, as Harmon often did, the audience’s sense of decorum. And it problematized the ways of revering (perhaps the false reverence) that characterize much ceremony. Harmon held everything up to a kind of redemptive (and redeeming) skepticism, and his seeming irreverence was, paradoxically, a deeper valuing of the human (all humans), a deeper sense of the tragic, than I’ve received from almost anyone I’ve ever known. He was even skeptical of his own sense of reverence (lest it mistake itself for practice). In light of his eschatology, he wouldn’t credit much. It all remained tentative. It made him a lot of fun to talk to (or a pain in the neck.
When Rev. Ken Carder returned to the podium, he spoke in a more self-consciously bemused fashion about the tension involved in taking seriously, as a witness, a person like Harmon. He spoke of the present world and the coming world and the fact that the world to come is forever impinging upon this one. Carder noted that we’ve all made compromises with this present world, and he said that, when it comes to the compromises he’s made with this world, nobody reminded him of them more than Harmon did. He noted the difficulties Harmon had in finding funding for his work in restorative justice and how his lack of certain credentials only added to the difficulties. And he emphasized that these issues were not Harmon’s fault, but merely further instances of the resistance Harmon met when he tried, as a faithful witness, to bring God’s world into this one. Carder’s words were met with deafening applause when he proclaimed that the world Harmon sought to represent will prevail. And the congregation was led in a prayer of thanksgiving for Harmon as a sign of the astonishing grace of God, followed by a prayer that God would disturb our despair even now that we might better follow, with renewed invigoration, Harmon’s example.
The service was not without an occasional sense of otherworldly consolation. There was talk of Harmon hearing, at the moment of the memorial, a voice saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” But in a fashion a-typical for many memorial services, even this was powerfully grounded in the hope of Harmon’s practice, a practice compelled by the notion of life lived before death on earth as it is in heaven. In keeping with the evangelical revolution he brought to his relationships, the service left its attendees with the sense that the world is more full of redemptive possibility than we have yet imagined.