Memorial Lecture for W. Douglas Rae, July, 1968

August 24, 2013

Thank you again for your indulgence of my trip down memory lane.  This was the memorial lecture for the services for Dr. Rae, the minister I grew up with who, with great compassion, fiercely defended the ethics of honesty, justice, and fairness for all, and who shaped my life.  This retrospective was inspired by the convergence of Mom’s handing me these 1968 memorial documents this summer, at a time when the world as a whole, and this country in particular, are again wrestling with the same social justice issues as we did in the summers of the late 1960’s.

For any of you who are interested in how this unique church has evolved over the past 50 years, you can see its current web site and principles at http://firstuc.org/are-we-right-for-you/

Celebration of Life

Dr. Joseph R. Walker, Thursday, July 18 1968

This is a memorial service to Douglas Rae.  My great concern is that it shall be a celebration of faith and a cheering remembrance of greatness, not a further descent into sorrow, for our sorrow is deep enough and to spare, God knows.

If I may speak personally for a moment, having stood in this pulpit at other times, I feel strangely cheated as I stand here now, for it was already settled in our family that he was to do this for me.  I wanted him to be the one to say whatever would be said at that time, for I knew he would say it with dignity, grace and genuine friendship and without pious cant.  But that was not to be, for, as usual, he is ahead of the rest of us.

When I think of what I want to try to say, the thing that comes first to mind is Dietrich Bonheoffer’s now famous declaration that, to be a Christian, a man must first and simply be a man; a genuinely fully human being.  Next I remember his description of Jesus as the world’s superlative example and symbol of the Man for Others.  This, Bonhoeffer said, is what we must seek to be if we want to be followers of His.

Douglas Rae was a truly great minister of the gospel and an outstanding churchman.  He could have gone as high up the ecclesiastical ladder as he wished in his denomination.  His standing in his own community is indicated by the peculiarly delicate and important task to which he had been called when he left here.

He believed in the Church.  He loved the Church.  He understood what the Church is and what it is supposed to be, and he had a patient confidence in it in spite of the gap between those two.  But first of all he was a truly genuine, thoroughly human person.  He understood what it means to be a human creature and not God.  He was content to be such and to be that unique human creature he himself was and not someone else.  Being without pious illusions about himself, he was open to his fellow human beings whom he viewed with a quizzical, disillusioned, humorous, usually hopeful, and always generous and tender eye.  His foibles, his tensions, his gusts of anger, his reactions to opposition and disappointment, all of these were truly human.  I think this was one reason why the barriers between him and the rest of us came down so easily.  He accepted himself as he was, and so he accepted us as we are.  He did not have to posture and pose, and that made it easier for us not to posture and pose with him.  He spoke his mind, he said his piece when it was necessary, with that quick little decisive way of his that made it easier for others to drop the mask and do the same.  Also, if he decided he was wrong, he said so with the same unimpassioned candor.  It was this willingness just to be himself that gave him the habit of positiveness and decisiveness which made him a natural leader without the arrogance which so often accompanies leadership.

I had a professor in seminary who had some of this same kind of unadorned manliness that draws people to such men.  Once, in class, he said this: “Young gentlemen, only the grace of God can make a Christian minister.”  But, he added,The primordial manhood in him will determine what kind of minister he is.”

This was Douglas Rae.  He was pre-eminently a man in his own right and in his own way.  Just because he wasn’t “hung-up” on himself, because fundamentally he liked being himself and not someone else, he was free to be a man for others.  Except for a few strict disciplines that he laid upon himself, he did not have himself on his hands; so his interest was always going out to everything and everybody around him.  I do not believe I have ever known a man who, within the limits of human frailty, was more of a man for others than he.  He was for people.  He was for you.  Even if he did not agree with you, he was for you.  Individuals of all sorts and kinds and descriptions were interesting to him, and he was for them.  Terence’s classic aphorism describes him well.  “I am human.  I count nothing human foreign to me.”

I would like to say a word about the quality of his mine–its breadth, its range, its vigor–which always fascinated me when I was with him.  Three words come to me as I think about this side of him.  First, tough-minded.  Second, sophisticated.  Third, prophetic.

He looked cooly and skeptically on a number of beliefs and ideas which many people like to have their preachers speak about in sweetly pious and pretentiously assured tones.  On the other hand, his convictions were usually so rational, so informed, so powerful, that if you disagreed with him you were forced to stand and deliver.  He had the knack of striking directly at the intellect and at the conscience of cutting through verbiage to the core.

Then, as I have said, he was interested in everything, literally almost everything.  To me, one striking facet of this was his sensitive, artistic imagination.  He really felt and understood what our contemporary artists are trying for, and appreciated it.  In this he was just way beyond me.  One got the feeling that he could have been an artist or an architect of high creative talent if he had set his life that way.  But most of all he was interested in everybody, in individuals, in his community, in his society.  Whenever I wanted to know about something that was going on underneath the surface in Bloomington, I went to him.

I wonder if we in Bloomington will ever fully grasp the extent of his impact on our town!  For thirty-three years we have had a minister of high calibre who was far ahead of his time in his understanding or the problems and crises of our society, those things which are now disturbing the country at large.  This is what I mean by saying he had the prophetic mind.  Of course, he did not pose as a prophet.  He did not sit in an ivory tower and toss out oracles.  He did something much more important and effective.  When he saw something that he thought was wrong in our town, or something that needed to be done, he simply moved in on it.  He began to talk about it.  He began to pull strings, and he began to push.  He kept on pushing.  When the chips didn’t fall his way, he would say, “Well, let’s try again some other way.”  His concern for the poor or disadvantaged, for the young, for the old, for the down and out, for racial equality and justice came straight out of the Old Testament and the New Testament prophetic voice.  It was a restless flame in him, and he lit fires all over this town.

He also knew the relation of these concerns to politics.  One thing he did for us, I think, we cannot measure or trace. Laying aside the partisan aspects of politics and disagreements on particular policies, I am rather confident that he, more than any single man, changed the moral climate in which politics operates in our town.  He anticipated by more than thirty years the prophetic spirit which is now stirring and disturbing the church at large and the nation at large.  He taught us ahead of time.  For thirty years he exhibited to us the preacher-citizen at his sensible best.  At first he generated a lot of shock waves in doing so but they have long since subsided.  Now the issues which are causing such upheavals in other towns and other churches cause only ripples here.  In this he literally dragged us into the future, sometimes kicking and screaming.

But I do not think he could have done half as much for the community if he had been merely a reformer or a prophetic voice.  Though the quality of his mind and his impact upon our consciences demanded our respect, it was his constant, quizzical, intensely hopeful concern for individual people that won our affection.  He was a good minister and pastor to this congregation and to a lot of other people in this town.  Somehow committee meetings and projects seldom seemed to keep him from being on the spot when someone needed him.  I wonder how many people there are in this town to whom he has been a pillar of strength in weakness and a strong support in sorrow.  He was too much the modern sophisticate to be shocked by any of the sins and follies that people confessed to him.  Yet he was too committed in his trust in the goodness of life and the possibilities of life to be overwhelmed by people’s woes or follies.  He simply listened, and counseled, and helped, and stood by.

Some years ago I underwent a serious operation.  Someone told him about it downtown on the Square.  He went to a phone, called his secretary, cancelled his engagements, got into his car, and came to Indianapolis.  He was there with y wife until they brought e back, four hours after the expected time.  I wonder how many of us here recall such instances as this?

Underneath all of this there was a rugged courage in the man, sustained by simple faith.  I think he learned much of this in the hard school of pain.  He endured a lot of it off and on through the years.  I once stood by his bed in a hospital when he was suffering a great deal.  “You’re a tough bird, aren’t you?” I said. “You’re darned right I am,” he wrenched out.  And so he was.  And good for him!

Intellectually, I think he stripped the Christian faith down to its simple essentials and possibilities in our modern intellectual milieu.  Then he just tried to live by it.  And that is all I want to say about that.

This is a memorial service to Douglas Rae, a celebration of the past.  But one thing I must say and I will say.  He was a great humanist, but he was also a truly Christian man, a man of Christian faith.  He made the ultimate Christian commitment.  It follows that we must make some assessment of the future of a person such as this in the light of the great affirmations of the Christian faith.

Now it is quite true that good is better than bad in its own right, wisdom is better than folly and love is best of all.  It is indeed “wiser to be god than bad, better to be sane than fierce.”  However, standing alone, such affirmations do not make much ultimate sense out of life, expecially in the light of our remembrance of a life like this.  Just to shrug our shoulders at the end of the memorial service and say, “Well, that is all, and that is that!” does not make sense.

The drive of such persons toward human good and their opposition to human evil give the lie to the ultimate pessimism of any such view of the meaning and destiny of human existence.  The temporal immortality of good deeds done and of fond remembrances left behind is very real, no matter what.  Lives of good men do “remind us we can make our lives sublime.  And departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.”  But the waves wash them away, even the biggest tracks, and eventually all tracks.

Ours is primarily an age of repentance, of re-thinking.  It is an age of criticizing, examining everything; of stripping away old shams, superstitions, hypocrisies, wishful thinking, self-delusion.  Contrariwise, it has not been a great age of faith.  Ours will probably be recorded as one of the revolutionary ages just because of this passion for re-thinking.  This harsh, cleansing, purifying discipline which we have been called to undergo in our day has led many of us to be fearful lest the ultimate supports of courage and hope and love have been stripped away also, and to suspect that all we can do, really, is to huddle together to impart to each other a little warmth of human affection and mutual concern in the brief span allotted us.  Then,we whisper, “The eternal night!”

But now that this stripping of repentance has taken hold and has done much of its work, I believe that the tide of ultimate faith in the goodness of life which has ebbed for a season has now turned.  I think many of you will live to be braced and refreshed by this incoming surge.  I do not believe that this is the post-Christian era.  I think we are just emerging out of the pre-Christian era or, perhaps, the sub-Christian or semi-Christian era.  I think some of those who sit here may live to see the first burgeonings of a new Christian era: the rise of a sturdier, more rational and more passionate faith.  I think the dismal, chilling creed of materialism is on the way out.  Animals are nothing but amazingly intricate machines! Man is nothing but a high-lass animal!  I think this is on the way out.  There are straws in the wind of modern thought blowing the other way.

Let me tell you of just one.  J. Bronowski, in one of his addresses inaugurating a new lecture series on “Nature and Man” for the American Museum of Natural Science, says that the old queston of questions has taken many forms.  In ancient times it was the question of the soul; later the relation of the soul and the body; then determinism and free will.  Now in these latter days it is called the body-mind puzzle.  We are fortunate, he says, that in our time we can ask the question in terms that can be answered.  “Can man be both a machine and a self?” Then he gives us the answer, that the human brain is both machine and self in its workings.  The human person is not just a machine.  He givesus his reasons for saying this so lucidly and so simply that his conclusion is almost unavoidable, not in terms of speculative philosophy but by exploring the simple facts of what we know about ourselves and how our brains work.

Now if this is true, then the Christian affirmation about man’s nature, dignity and destiny becomes viable again.  If this is true, then this earth’s human life may be only the beginning, not the end, of the adventure.  It does not have to end.  If this is true, then someday our sorrows now will be like the dimly remembered sorrows of our childhood n the glad reunions of a different tomorrow.  If this is true, the good that good men do here is eternally important because they not only leave it behind to leaven time but they carry it with them into the eternal world.

Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians, sought to reassure them about God’s intentions for their future.  He did so in the pictorial language of his day, the only language he knew.  He thought of heaven peopled with angels and archangels.  He thought of God as making his presence and his purpose known in stentorian tones and with awesome trumpet blasts.  He hoped to see with his own eyes the return of his Lord, literally, on clouds of glory.  All of this picture language has become outmoded for us except as poetry.  But through these ancient images and smbols the Eternal Voice still speaks to our condition as truly it did to theirs.

I would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that sleep, that you sorrow not as others who have no hope.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, them that sleep with Jesus will God bring with him.  For this I say to you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord will not go before them that sleep.  For the Lord shall come from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the trump of God!  The dead in Christ will rise first, and then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the air.  And so we shall ever be with the Lord.  Wherefore, comfort one another with these words.

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