I knelt beside the open coffin to pray. Bob wore his firefighter's dress blues, which was no surprise -- he loved the firehouse, which was right down the street from his house, and had been with the company for decades. He was chief in the early eighties, and so his uniform bore his chief's ribbons, and the hat next to him bore that title: "Chief." A firefighter stood at silent attention nearby, keeping watch.
There really isn't a figure in our society -- or, perhaps, any other -- more symbolic of altruism than a volunteer firefighter. No less vulnerable to sudden tragedy than any other citizen, they choose to handle their vulnerability differently: face into it, sacrifice it, if need be, to the well-being of their fellow citizens. Someone has to do this, if the community is to go on. But most people don't. Only a few.
His grandchildren were inconsolable -- he was a loving grandfather, demonstrative, open to their emotions and to his own. I remember when his kids were young -- they took up a whole pew in those days, scrubbed and combed for Sunday morning. They are middle-aged, now, incredibly -- it's one of the consistent amazements of ministry in churches, the way children become adults, while you don't feel any older yourself. Now, with their mother and their own children, it was more like four pews of Hallbauers.
The lesson was the one about Thomas asking Jesus about the way to heaven -- We don't even know where you're going, he said plaintively, how can we know the way? Bob could have helped him, I think. Tom, just be there for those less fortunate than you are. And be there for the presence of God in the quiet parts of your life, too, without thinking you have to wait until you have all the answers before you can have faith -- just show up. Just spend your life on earth living as if you were already in heaven, in fellowship and love with your fellow human beings as if you knew each one of them, the way you will when you get there.
Bob could never understand how a person could live in the world and just decide not to help other people. How a person could live a self-absorbed life. I just don't see how they can do that, he said over and over, as he lay there so ill, not completely in his right mind. Part of that refrain was code: he was saying that he couldn't understand what was happening to his body, why he could not longer seem to be himself. But part of it really was a reflection on how he had lived his life, a cry of mourning for a world in which too few people elect to live theirs that way.
But a person can change that overnight. We can decide to be another way, and it is never too late to make that choice. What will the world lose when it loses you? What will you leave it? The grandchildren wept in their seats, and wept again at the burial, when the honor guard form the United States Army folded the flag and presented it to their grandma, when "Taps" was played. But they have each been left a gift: they had a chance to know a man whose example was a sterling one. They have seen firsthand what a father can be, and a citizen.
Don't ever forget who he was, I told them in the sermon, and tell the little ones who won't remember today. Make sure they know. And they looked at me through their tears, a little surprise that I was talking right to them. But of course I was: they were the most important people there. They are the ones who own the future -- we all belong to the past. If Bob's example lives on, it will because they have carried it with them. Don't ever forget, I told them again.