Last Friday, I said goodbye to Marty Hager for the last time. Julie and I sat on the front row of the church along with the rest of our family to let the reality of his death squeeze through the denial everyone faces at times like these.
I straightened my tie, wiped my glasses and began to look around. Marty had not only served this beautiful church as pastor, but had been with this congregation through thick and thin, disappointment and success, loss and gain. He did very well. As a musician, he made sure that every worship service blended the Word of God with the finest music written by the best composers, played on a powerful organ by a skilled conductor and sung by a choir that took a back seat to none. When Marty walked to the pulpit, he was not just prepared. He took the challenge to take the printed word and bring it to life through his gifts of interpretation and the ability to paint vocal pictures so stunning that it was as though we were walking the back roads of old Israel, eating fish from the sea of Galilee or sitting with the crowd and listening to Jesus as He taught.
I wondered if this memorial service could do justice to my memories of Marty. It began with a prayer. Very nice. Then, there were three preludes that he would have chosen. The last was a favorite, Handel's, "Thanks Be to God." The liturgy would have been and was true Presbyterian. Now it was time for the anthem and I couldn't hold back the tears. Julie and I, Lois Hager, Paige, Ted, Dave and Linda could have put on robes and sung with the choir because we knew this piece, Rutter's, "The Lord is My Shepherd," from Requiem.
For me, the service was almost over and I felt, "The peace that passes all understanding." I could have left the sanctuary and walked out into that rainy and overcast Florida sky knowing that Marty had heard the voice of God, "Welcome, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy that has been prepared for you!"
Please don't think that I am in any way placing the eulogy or family words as a secondary and less important part of the service. I laughed and wept along with everyone else when one of those famous, "Marty Stories" was told. It was sort of like the times when all of us have sat on the front porch with our families and we begin to tell funny, crazy, sad and usually familiar but always repeatable stories about someone in our long line of kinfolk we just can't help loving. It was the ice cream and cake time we share late in a summer evening that we take with us to bed for a good night of sleeping and dreaming.
There was the celebration of the Lord's Supper, the Prayer of Thanksgiving and the final hymn; only one symbolic element to go.
In this old historic First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin, Florida, is a bell tower. To reach that antique bell, a fearless individual is chosen to climb up a 20-foot ladder. In this case, it was an older Elder who confessed his knees weren't what they used to be. He rang those 12 tolls as clear and as crisp as could be. We'll never enter or leave that church again without remembering what we shared on this special day.
I have said my goodbyes to brother-in-law, Marty, who was like the brother I would have wanted to beat up — if I could — but most likely would have punched my lights out in the process. We would have made up, of course, because that's what brothers do, and gone back to sitting around and arguing theology, placing our wives on their rightful pedestals and talking about our kids and when they will start sending checks home.
Remember when I wrote last week, "Whatever was is now, and whatever is now will be?" Well, Marty lived a life that made him who he was and prepared him for what is to come.
I guess that's the way we write our memorial service.