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Sermon from the Service of Witness to the Resurrection
in Celebration of the Life of John H. Boyle
June 12, 2013
Pastor Emeritus, Fourth Presbyterian Church
To be in the congregation Sunday morning when John Boyle prayed was a unique experience. John apparently knew who he was talking to when he prayed and asked us not simply to listen into the conversation, but to join him as he approached and engaged God.
The Fourth Church online devotions have been given over this week to some of John’s prayers delivered during worship. I have been beginning each day with them. Yesterday . . .
God of all people everywhere, we give thanks for the beauty and wonder of this world, for the wonder of our bodies and minds, and for the wonder of your love. We are grateful for your grace and mercy in our lives, especially as we seek to come to terms with the tragic sense of life with which we are confronted day after day. We give thanks that in the face of the mysteries of both life and death you are with us, suffering our sorrow, tasting our joy.
What’s it all about, Lord, this interlude between life and death? Is it little more, as has been said, than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Is someone’s life in the end little more than a box or two of personal effects? Is that what it all comes down to, God? We hope not, Lord. In Jesus Christ you have shown us that life lived to the fullest is life lived with compassion toward those who suffer. In Jesus Christ you have shown us that life lived to the fullest is life lived in service to those in need. In Jesus Christ you have shown that such compassion and service are ultimately the only personal effects worth salvaging.
I’m sure I’m not the only minister who, listening to John’s prayer, praying with John, wondered why I had bothered with a sermon. John had just gathered up the whole gospel and the whole of Christian theology and social ethics in a few beautifully crafted paragraphs. How he gathered us all into those prayers. How he brought us to God.
He obviously had thought a lot about the responsibility of presuming to pray on behalf of all of us. His prayers were works of art, eloquent, literate, wide-eyed in wonder at creation, but also absolutely honest in naming the complex, sometimes confusing, sometimes embarrassing contents of the human spirit, our spirits.
Darkness found its way into those prayers: grief, despair, human sinfulness, and human silliness. Guilt, remorse, anxiety: John brought it all to God and gathered us all in. “How does he know what’s on my mind and in my heart this morning?” I found myself regularly asking, sitting behind him on the chancel. Joy, laughter, and love were there as well and always, always, forgiveness, grace, redemption, hope. If you wanted to know the meaning of Christian faith, the gospel of Jesus Christ in the context of the world, the here-and-now world, you could do worse than read the prayers of Dr. John H. Boyle.
He was so eloquent. At a time when language seems to be deteriorating to the least common denominator, John reminded us of how powerful and helpful and healing carefully chosen words and thoughtfully crafted sentences could be. And he not only prayed and preached like that, he talked like that. Even near the end, when it was difficult and things were not going well, when I visited, he mustered himself and spoke to me in grammatically correct sentences, with no slang, no short cuts. We Presbyterians like to think of ourselves as people of the Word, the Word God spoke, the Word that brought creation out of nothing, the Word that became flesh in Jesus, the Word that lives and comes alive in the words of scripture. I shall never forget, and shall be forever grateful for, John Boyle’s careful choice of words, his eloquent, honest use of language, and for those unforgettable prayers.
John’s faith was forged in fire and heat. He grew up in Brooklyn. His father took him on Sunday morning to hear Norman Vincent Peale preach at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Peale was old-school eloquent, but he was also one of the first to bring the insights of psychology into his sermons. Nobody had heard anything like it before. Conventional Protestant sermons were heavily theological, full of doctrine and biblical exposition and moral instruction. Peale’s sermons drew people in by acknowledging the human condition with all its complexity, a characteristic reflected in John Boyle’s prayers. Peale took note of John, befriended him, called him into his study once and told him he ought to go to seminary and become a minister. John was baptized as a young man by Norman Vincent Peale.
World War II intervened. John gave up his deferment and volunteered, was in the United States Army as a nineteen-year-old sergeant, and was part of the great crusade, including the Battle of the Bulge, to rid the world of the evil of the Third Reich. It was there that he saw evil firsthand: suffering, violence, death, and despair, but also bravery, selflessness, self-sacrifice, and the amazing and inspiring human propensity to lay down life itself for a greater good, to lay down life for a friend, Jesus put it. It was all seared into his soul and mind, particularly that day when John’s unit was the first to force open the gates of Dachau and to see the indescribable human capacity for cruelty and inhumanity. It was there that John’s decision was confirmed: his life, in some way, would contribute to the opposite of what he saw in that concentration camp; he would give his life to goodness and truth and healing and peace and love.
Happily, John’s intellect, as well as his spirit, was energized and stimulated by the gospel, and he read and studied the best of Christian scholarship, pursuing his own deepening sense of call in a master’s degree and then a doctorate in theology. John studied under the distinguished scholar Wayne Oates. Oates and others, in the early and mid-twentieth century, brought classic Christian thought into conversation with the discipline of psychology, with groundbreaking theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the new discipline of psychotherapy. It is hard to describe how important that development was in the way ministers are trained and the way ministry is practiced. A whole new concept emerged—pastoral care and pastoral counseling—in which ministers were encouraged to listen rather than quickly and superficially offer advice, to listen deeply to what people were saying, to accept and understand and help clarify, and to enable hurting people to see that they had it within them to grow and to deal creatively and healthily with life’s challenges, whatever they are.
John Boyle was a pioneer, a chaplain in a mental hospital, a professor, a superb practitioner of pastoral counseling when Elam Davies, my predecessor, invited him to come to Chicago to begin a brand-new and innovative ministry: a counseling center related to and sponsored by the church but designed to be available to church members and nonmembers alike, offering a full range of psychological and therapeutic services, not to proselytize but as an expression of the healing love of God in Jesus Christ.
John organized it, recruited the staff, directed the program, and the counseling center quickly earned a national reputation as a model community resource and a compelling part of Fourth Church’s growing outreach ministries. At the same time, John also served as an associate pastor on the church staff, put on a clerical collar and Geneva tabs. It must have been quite a stretch for a Southern Baptist, but whenever he appeared in that classic Reformed worship garb, he was so handsome. That picture in the Tribune this morning is like a minister from central casting. I always thought to myself, regardless of where he came from, John Boyle was born to be a Presbyterian minister.
The Counseling Center, because of his intelligent leadership, is widely respected by the Chicago therapeutic community. The Loyola University Pastoral Studies program began to place interns in the Counseling Center under John’s supervision. So did the School of Social Work at Loyola, the Illinois School of Professional Psychology, the Psychology Department at Northwestern, and the School of Social Work at the University of Chicago. He sent the interns out into the world as clinical psychologists, psychotherapists, pastoral counselors, and through them John’s ministry touched the lives of literally thousands and thousands of people, some overseas. Two favorites were Irish nuns he visited. After John’s retirement as director of the Counseling Center, he continued on the staff of the Center and as an associate pastor for the church, responsibilities he was still conscientiously and faithfully fulfilling until just a few weeks ago.
It is not the easiest thing in the world to arrive and assume responsibility for the life and ministry of a church as large and complex as Fourth Church, particularly after a long and distinguished ministry like Elam Davies’. John Boyle and Kathye, whom John met here and happily married in 1981, reached out to Sue and me immediately, when we arrived in 1985, reached out without reservation or condition. With his wisdom and reputation and love for both the church’s distinguished past and also its promising future, John made the transition possible. He and Kathye became dear and trusted and generous friends to Sue and me, and we will be forever grateful. I had the privilege of serving alongside John Boyle for twenty-six-and-a-half years, longer than I have ever served with anyone. He was my colleague, my mentor, my hero, and my friend. No colleague was ever more reliable, responsible—always engaged, always open to new ideas, always wise and faithful, always a “friend in ministry” to all of us, particularly his younger colleagues.
John and I both loved to read, both of us afflicted with that peculiar malady that makes one feel incomplete, useless, unless one has a book in one’s hand. He was an avid reader. We often talked about what we were reading. When Kathye brought him home from the hospital and hospice, which he wanted desperately to do, she brought him home not only to her cooking, which he missed and longed for and happily enjoyed; she brought him home to his books, placed his bed in the library of their condominium, and when I visited I found John lying in bed surrounded by his books. I told him I liked that picture, and he said, “I’m where I need to be now.”
When I received the call Saturday evening that John had died, after his valiant fight, I went to my study and retrieved two books—books that John and I talked about just weeks before he died. The first was The Return of the Prodigal Son, a meditation on fathers, brothers, and sons, by the late Henri Nouwen. We talked about coming home as a major motif in the Bible, maybe the major motif. He was still in the hospital, and we talked about how eager he was to be home with Kathye in their condo, but we both knew that we were talking about another, final homecoming, to a home that is ultimately safe and secure and healthy and whole again. Nouwen traveled to St. Petersburg and the Hermitage and somehow got permission to sit for days in front of Rembrandt’s masterpiece “The Return of the Prodigal,” depicting the moment of return and reunion with the father, the kneeling, penitent young man, his clothes torn, his shoes worn, his purse empty, his spirit devastated, turning to the only place left to turn: to his father’s love. And that father: strong, broad-shouldered, his hands resting gently on his son’s back, one hand muscular, masculine, the other hand with tapered fingers, a feminine hand—he has already forgiven his son; he never stopped watching, down the road, every day, and when finally he saw that familiar figure off in the distance, he ran—literally ran—to welcome his son home. John and I agreed that it is what the gospel is about, our homecoming to the one who loves us with an everlasting love, who opens arms and, at the last, gathers us in—home. We knew, both of us, what we were talking about.
John and I remembered how Nouwen had taught us that the essence of the Gospel, the heart of Christianity, is that in Jesus Christ God comes to us—doesn’t wait, but comes down the road, comes to wherever we are, to find us, embrace us. Nouwen wrote, “I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. . . . The question is not, ‘How am I to find God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be found by God?’”
That same day, in that same conversation, on one of his last days in the hospital, we talked about another of Henri Nouwen’s helpful books, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, which John himself had given to people facing final mystery. In that book Nouwen describes his fascination with a trapeze artist troupe called The Flying Rodleighs. He returned to see their act several times, introduced himself, and they became friends. He asked Rodleigh, the leader, the flyer, the acrobat who lets go of the trapeze and flies unsupported in the air until he is caught by the catcher—he asked, “How does that happen? What is it like?”
Rodleigh explained, “As a flyer I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me and grab me out of the air.”
“How does it work?” Nouwen asked.
“The secret,” Rodleigh answered, “is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely (in) . . . a flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”
Nouwen said the words of Jesus flashed through his mind: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
“Dying is trusting in the catcher. Don’t be afraid. Remember that you are a beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don’t try to grab him: he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and trust, trust, trust.”
“Where can I go from your spirit?” Or “Where can I flee from your presence?” the psalmist asked. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in hell, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.” That is the promise. And in Jesus Christ, God has made good on it, has come all the way down into our lives, to follow us wherever we go, even when we stray; to love us, even when we have forgotten how to love; to run down the winding roads of our lives, to embrace us, to gather us into the kindness and mystery and freedom and safety of God’s love.
Marilynne Robinson, a novelist both John and I admired, thinking about our mortality, wrote: “I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for, and then has to close them again. This is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that.”
John Boyle lived his life in this world with humility and courage and faithfulness and with great love. He lived with love for this world, great love for the women and men and children who turned to him when they had nowhere else to turn. He loved his life, he loved his family, he loved Kathye, he loved his work life, loved this church. John Boyle lived his life with strength, integrity, and, I concluded long ago, with the same grace and unconditional love he had found or, better said, had found him, in Jesus Christ his Lord.
And now, at last, he is home.
Thanks be to God.