Polly Keller Winter

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September 20, 2015

Note: Today is September 20. One year ago today my sister called to say our mother was dying. It was a Saturday. It seemed there was a little time, so I stayed in Little Rock to officiate at a wedding that night and to preach here the the next morning, before driving Sunday afternoon to Inglewood, our farm in Louisiana. Mother died two hours after I reached the farm, with all her children, her sister, and her nephew gathered at her bedside. This is the homily I preached at her funeral.

First Dance.

She wrote: That crisp late September evening I walked up the steps past Ham and Jam [the two dogs] who in college lore were supposed to bark every time a virgin passed by . . . I remember exactly what I had on . . . I had chosen a midnight blue velvet dress with a lace collar, princess style with a flared skirt that revealed just a bit of the knee. It had silver buttons down the front and I knew it was becoming . . . I turned to meet the others, to find the blue eyes of a tall, brown haired dead attractive young man looking intently at me. My date was nice enough and a fair dancer, but we finally began switching partners, and I turned to find Chris looking at me with that intent gaze and quizzical smile, hand outstretched and saying in the most pleasant of voices, ‘Polly will you dance with me?” Indeed I would. [1]

 “From There to Here,” is the title of her memoir. Writing it, she found herself frustrated that she wasn’t a better writer, she said. I’d guess she measured herself against her friend Eudora Welty. Polly was a woman of exacting standards.

She was not a doting mother, but she was attentive. Parenting from her came with clear directions, and a feedback loop—which as you may have heard once arrived for me as a plate of spaghetti and green peas turned over on my head. At the dinner table she had some tolerance for back talk, but there were limits.

True to form, she left clear instructions for this funeral. “Homily by Chris. Homily, not eulogy,” she stipulated, underlined. I’m supposed to save the stories and wisecracks for the after-party. Obviously, I’m on thin ice already.  I guess you’re thinking: “Poor Polly, one plateful of green peas and spaghetti was not enough to make him mind.”

Or maybe you’re wondering: “Eulogy—homily: What’s the difference?”

With mother’s help, I am going to try to answer that this morning. With respect to her instructions, I’ll still stick to my belief that funeral homilies leave room for some jokes and reminiscing. How could they not? Karl Barth, a very serious theologian, believed that a tell tale sign a preacher doesn’t understand his subject—God—is if the preacher doesn’t have a sense of humor.

In so many ways, mother’s life was charmed. She was born lucky in her parents: Charles and Bertie Murphy. She was lucky or smart in her selection of husbands--both Yankee gentlemen from Washington and Lee.

Let’s finish that story of her first dance with Dad.

Yankee dancing was quite different from the El Dorado hop. . . . Never had I danced with anyone so smooth, so perfectly in time with the music, letting me get used to a simple two step, leading me lightly but firmly, then adding subtle variations, dips and pauses. Ah I thought, This is dancing! When the music ended, Chris said, “Polly, you are some dancer” and returned me to my uninspiring date. [2]

The poor stiff; as I mentioned, mother was a woman of exacting standards. Only Christoph Keller, Jr. and Clark B. Winter measured up.

She was fortunate, knew it, and was grateful. But she had a lot of children; and she lived for more than ninety years; and by the laws of probability, biology, and physics, that adds up to long and broad exposure to life’s vicissitudes and heartbreaks. Trouble came early in adulthood. In the winter of 1940, she went into labor prematurely. She writes of losing her first baby.

The tiny baby girl was born the next morning and she never breathed. . . . I was stunned and devastated. I had never experienced any real grief or loss in my young life . . . . Chris, trying to comfort me, seemed able to put it in a perspective not available to me. Faced with the classic problem of pain and evil, my gut feeling was that God must be crazy.

She would lose two more, both girls.

Embedded in that painful moment in her memoir, mother puts her finger on the difference between eulogy and homily: “Chris,” she remembered “seemed able to put it in a perspective not available to me.” That is an astute, insightful comment. Something was clearly helping Dad—she saw that—but this something, elle ne sait quoi, was opaque to her. It wasn’t the words of Christian faith. She knew the words and they weren’t helping.  But something in, above, around those words had given her young husband a different footing in his grief. That something is what a homily should try to bring to light. When he became a priest, Dad used poetry to crack the nut.

He died in 1995. Not long after, I received a letter from mother, just a brief note, together with a longer page in Dad’s handwriting. She’d found it going through his papers. It was a poem by the kind of priestly poet no one much has heard of. He had copied the poem in his own hand and kept it for a long time. The paper was old and cracked.

I’ll read it:

I open my mouth to speak
And the word is there,
Formed by the lips, the tongue,
The organ of voice. Formed by
The brain, transmitted [as] the word
By breath.

I open my mouth to speak
And the word is there,
Travelling between us—caught
By the organ of hearing, the ear,
Transmitting the thought to the brain
Through the word.

But let me speak to my very small son
And the words mean nothing
For he does not know my language
And so I must show him. “This is your foot,,”
I say, “and it is meant for walking.”
I help him up. “Here is the way to walk.”
And one day, walking shapes in his brain with the word.

God had something to say to Man.
But the words meant nothing.
For we did not know his language.
And so we were shown: “Behold, the Man.”

He said: “This is the image, the thought.
In my mind—Man as I mean him, loving and serving.
I have put Him in flesh. Now the Word
Has shape and form and substance
To travel between us, let Him show forth love
Till one day loving shapes in your brain
With the Word. [3]

What sense do we make of life when it turns painful?

Religion aside, we have several standard attitudes available to choose from. Infamously, Lady Macbeth lashed out:  “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Shakespeare also gave us fatalists who maintained the opposite: the arc of life is written in our stars. Every moment is a portent, a sign of some sort, from stubbed toes to stillborn babies. Stoics, like Brutus, offered a third choice: we can learn to patiently appreciate the smallness of our place within the grander scheme.

Those three outlooks are ever with us. The first abandons hope; down the second road lies madness; for genteel southerners, the third has been an attractive option. Polly suffered early from those lost children; later she endured her faithful, blue-eyed husband’s slow descent into dementia. By the age of ninety-two, she had lost many dear ones. She never lost hope. She did not go mad; and, genteel she was—but never stoic.

A Christian homily is the offer of an outlook in which an almost-truth from each of those three alien philosophies is drawn up into a larger pattern, who is the Word.

The gospel is a story about God, who—Barth says it so beautifully—“is never absent, passive, non responsible, or impotent but always present, active, responsible and omnipotent. . . never dead, but always living; never sleeping, but always awake; never uninterested, but always concerned; [and] even where He seems to wait, always holding the initiative” [4]  The fatalists were right that life comes towards us full of purpose.

The gospel encompasses a world wherein physics, biology, and economics all unfold according to their own logic, generating motion, money, music, sound and fury often signifying nothing special.  

Our lives unfold within the union of those two opposite realities. The yield is a world, Barth mused, where “people think and speak and act according to the manifest desire of their own hearts . . .and the desert is dreary, and the night dark . . . and the sea roars, and honey is sweet and bread sustains and wine makes glad the heart of man . . . [a world] where there is a place for prosperity and adversity, victory and defeat, angels and demons, even human sin and human liberation. God is Lord in all these things . . . [but] in very different ways.”

Yes, our part is small within this grand scheme, but it is important. We play it in trust that, while we are daily at risk, we are eternally secure.

This is not a simple outlook.  It doesn’t answer every question. But it is rich in meaning, reasonable and holy. In it, Polly found her footing.

At the top of Dad’s poem there was a filing note. It said simply “Incarnation.” Its what celebrate at Christmas, God’s journey into history, from there to here, to help us, to secure our footing and broaden our perspective, to strengthen us in love and faith and hope, to lift all of us with Polly heavenward through Christ—from here to there.

Mother: I hope that’s homily enough to suit you.

“The postman rings twice,” they say. When Jim Theus said last rites for mother Saturday, it was her second time to hear them in the last twelve months. Last winter she’d cracked her hip, and had an operation. Things went south; they called us in. At Inglewood, we gathered round her bed, I said last rites, but held back the final prayer—the one that begins “Depart . . .” I said “Mother, I’m saving the last one until I know for sure you need it.” Thinking that time could come at any moment, we waited for the end.

Meanwhile, down the road at Hard Times, grandson Sam Bonsey was entertaining guests: Harvard classmates who’d come south for a sample of the redneck highlife, shooting cans and snakes and hunting hogs. The trip had been planned for months, and of course Polly was all for it. We sat with her through the night. Come morning, she was still here. She started breathing better. Her vital signs improved. Finally she cracked an eyelid, looked around at all her children standing at her bedside. “Well,” she said, “Did Sam get a pig?”

He did.

So now its time for me to finish what I started:

        Depart O Christian Soul.
        In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
        In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you.
        In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
        May your rest be this day in peace,
                     And your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.


[1] Polly Keller Winter, “From There to Here,” 97.

[2] “From There to Here,” 98.

[3] “For Heaven’s Sake,” Bakers Ploys, Boston, Mass 100 Summer Street, Boston

[4] Karl Barth, CD III. 3, 13.