Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Sweet Sorrow

2 Corinthians 13:11 (King James Version)

11 “Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.”

Dr. Mac said it best Sunday night as the rendering of some of the history of some close friends was beginning. Parting is, indeed, sweet sorrow.

Kent and Pat Austin, two of Victory Fellowship’s charter members are moving to Colorado within a month. They’ve lived in Emporia, and served the church faithfully for twenty years. At a time when many people have found the habit of flitting from church to church, shopping for the “best programs” or the “most entertaining” preaching, their tenure here was a remarkable example of faithfulness. They came to lead in the foundation of a Christian school here in Emporia and stayed on as the school, and the church, grew.

Their contribution has been remarkable, especially in terms of the number of children and young people their work of service touched.

There was a reception held to honor them for that service, and about fifty members, including Nancy and I, attended.

I didn’t get to know Kent and Pat as well as I would have liked to, so the reception provided me a great opportunity to do just that.

After the obligatory snacks and punch, we all settled in while some of the members who had more in-depth history with Kent and Pat told some humorous “stories” about them.

Now, I thought I’d had real barrel of laughs at the men’s retreat, but that was nothing compared to Sunday night’s affair. I laughed until my sides hurt.

I’m going to relay a bit of what I heard, partly to give you a glimpse of these wonderful folks, and partly to show that evangelical Christianity isn’t the dry, boring life its detractors have made it out to be.

First, I’m going to spend some time describing Kent and Pat. Just pretend that you’re listening to a forties radio show and come along with me. You’ll understand why I’m using the imagery of radio shortly.

Kent is a burly-chested man with what appears to be a perpetual tan. I’ve never asked him, but I’ve always been curious about how he could stay so tanned here in the Flint Hills. I understand how it could happen in the summer, but the tan seems to even stay for the winter. Now he doesn’t appear to be the type of guy who would sit in a tanning bed, but since I’ve never asked I can’t say. His face is round with an ever-present smile etched on it. His hair his thinning on the top, I believe at about the same pace as mine. Since he has a few years on me I feel comfortable in saying that I might have a strand or two more than him. But, it’s a close race.

Pat is a petite woman, and, like Kent, she has a smile etched wonderfully on her face. The most prominent thing I’ve noticed about her, though, is that her eyes are quite expressive. It’s almost as if she has listening eyes, if that makes sense. I think what I’m trying to say is that, in conversation, folks speaking to her have her undivided attention. She’s an apt listener. I can see that because her eyes don’t wander off. This ability to focus on others also shows in her remarkable ability to recall the minutest details of events and conversations. And then there’s her laugh. When something hits her funny bone, the laughter comes in short bursts, like it was shot out of a machine gun. It is simply one of the most infectious laughs I have ever heard.

Kent seems to be the more outgoing of the two, at least at first glance. But, after attending the reception I got to see things much more clearly. The best way I can describe the relationship is that Pat appears to me to be Gracie Allen and Kent appears to be George Burns. Now I’m not sure, but I think that Kent has believed that he’s had the best punch lines for years, but Pat has found those wonderful, delicate ways to upstage him at almost every turn.

There’s a Burns and Allen routine that I found that does much more than I could ever say to describe Kent and Pat. In the routine, George is playing the straight man and Gracie is getting all the zingers. George tries, and does get a good line or two in, but the show is really Gracie’s. The discussion is about the list of the greatest men of the twentieth century. It begins with Gracie asking a question:

GRACIE - Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill. How can they pick men like that to head the list?
GEORGE - I'm intrested to know, Gracie, who is your choice?
GRACIE - Need you ask, George? I'm thinking of a man whose glorious romantic voice has thrilled millions.
GEORGE - “The birds are sweetly singing and perfumed flowers are bringing in the wind”
GRACIE - No, a man whose charm and talent are world-famous.
GEORGE - Gracie, this is getting embarrassing.
GRACIE - Only one man should top this list--Charles Boyer.
GEORGE - Charles Boyer?
GRACIE - Uh-huh.
GEORGE - You put him ahead of Edison?
GEORGE - Edison invented the electric lights.
GRACIE - With Boyer, who needs them?
GEORGE - Gracie, there are some pretty great men on this list.
GRACIE - Not as great as Boyer. Well, look at these names. Arturo Toscanini, conductor. How do you like that? A man who punches transfers.
GEORGE - He happens to be a musical conductor.
GRACIE - All right, so he hums while he punches transfers. And here's another one, Einstein. Now what did he do?
GEORGE - Einstein?
GEORGE - What did he do?
GRACIE - Uh-huh.
GEORGE - He's the father of relativity.
GRACIE - Oh, what does she do?
GEORGE - Relativity Einstein?
GRACIE - Yeah.
GEORGE - She's at Warner Bros.
GEORGE - You know, Gracie, for a minute there, instead of Boyer, I thought that you thought that I belonged on that list of great men.
GRACIE - Oh. Oh, well, you see, George, you're my husband and I don't think of you as a man.
GEORGE - Well, thanks.
GRACIE - I mean, I don't think of you as a man who does anything.
GEORGE - Thanks again.
GRACIE - I mean, I don't think of you as a man that does anything romantic.
GEORGE - A triple thanks, and stop thinking about me.
GRACIE - Aw, now I've hurt your feelings, and I didn't mean to, George. You know, I'd rather be married to you than any man on this list: Churchill, Edison, Stalin, Hitler.
GEORGE - You have just earned me fourth “Thank you.”

That’s exactly how things work with Kent and Pat.

One after another, folks recounted some of the funny tales they remembered from their times with Kent and Pat. There’s one that will show you why I believe the resemblance to Burns and Allen is right on target. I’m not sure if I’ll get every detail correct, but it’ll be close enough. There was a time some years ago when Kent was having problems with his sinuses. It got bad enough to require professional attention. Upon seeing a doctor, he found out that he had a deviated septum that would require surgery. At some point in the process, at a church service, parishioners were asked if there was anything that the church should pray for. Pat, knowing that the surgery would be painful, requested prayer for Kent. I won’t be able to quote verbatim, but I think I can get the way Pat offered her request. “Please pray for my husband, he’s having surgery for a deviated scrotum!”

What a classic case of misplaced biology! I think only Gracie Allen or Pat Austin could have pulled it off.

I can only imagine the response of the congregation. If I had been there I’d have been working with the same competing interests everyone else was. One part of me would be aware of the need for “decorum” in the house of the Lord and the other part would be absolutely dying to howl.

How could one not laugh at a time like that? I think that in heaven that even the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost must have been doing a bit of knee slapping upon hearing this wonderful little malaprop. I can almost see it now in my mind’s eye as I think about it.

And so the evening went, one wonderful story after another. As I listened and laughed, I understood why these two wonderful folks will be missed. Their unswerving dedication to Christian service, coupled with their self-effacing ways, have endeared them to everyone.

In less than a month they’ll be on their way to Colorado. We wish them well.

There will, I’m sure, be a grand reunion with them one day, a time when we can reminisce, a time when Kent and Pat, like George and Gracie, will fill us in on all the details of the years from when they left Emporia till they, like we, made their way to Glory. While I’m sure, that in Heaven’s just way, they’ll each have their zingers, I am just as certain that Pat will find a way, gracefully, to upstage Kent. It just seems to me that that’s the way it should always be.

Godspeed, Kent and Pat. We will miss you!

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