A Passion for the Right Things

Passionate for the Right Things 

The friend I wrote about last week died on Monday. Last week’s blog became a part of the sermon I preached in the Memorial Service this morning at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, where he was a charter member and served on the first building committee.

As we faced his death, his wife said, “He was always passionate about the things we should all be passionate about.”

In a day when passions often seem to run roughshod over wisdom (i.e., the media-fed panic about Ebola), being passionate about the right things seemed like an important enough word to become the framework for my sermon. I’ve attached it here as a witness of my gratitude for Neil’s friendship and the hope that sustains us in his death.

Grace and peace,


Neil James Memorial Service
October 17, 2014
James A. Harnish

Thirty-five years ago this summer, we moved into a newly-constructed house on Banyan Blvd. to start a new United Methodist congregation. The District Superintendent handed me a pile of cards with the names and addresses of people who had expressed some interest in the new church in a survey that had been done by the United Methodist Men.

As I left the house to start knocking on doors, Marsha suggested that I find a family with daughters for our five and seven year old daughters to play with. She said it would be nice if they had a pool.

Neil and Bonnie’s home was one of my first stops because they were right around the corner on Marlberry Dr., which was one of the few streets I knew how to find. They had been Methodists in Ohio, they were interested in the new church, they had a daughter exactly the same age as our oldest, and they even had a pool.

From that moment on, Neil and Bonnie became some of the best friends we’ve ever had. They were charter members of this church. Neil served on the first building committee. We were charter members of the Dr. Phillips Rotary Club. Bonnie and Marsha helped open the new Dr. Phillips Elementary School. One of my favorite memories is of walking around the neighborhood with our kids on Halloween. Our daughters grew up together. Today Carrie and Holly they live on the same street and their children are growing up together the way they did.

We’re here today because we all have similar stories. We’re here because we are among the fortunate people whose lives intersected with the life of Neil James. And we’re here because people like Neil are hard to find. We’re here because they are even harder to lose.

As we’ve been sharing talking about Neil this week, someone said that he was always passionate the things we should all be passionate about. He was, of course, passionate about golf, but they were referring to other, deeper things.

Neil was passionate about his family: his sister, his brother, and, most of all, the high school sweetheart who became his wife. For 52 ½ years they’ve made this journey together – from house to house, state to state, and country to country: for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in healthy, to love and to cherish, as long as life would last and then some.

Who could ever forget the sound of Neil’s laughter when he would say, “Now, Bonnie…” and the way she would laugh and say, “Oh, Neil…” What a team!

Neil was passionate about being a great father for Holly and Neil. When Carrie posted the message about Neil on Facebook, one of the kids who grew up with them wrote:

Sand Lake Hills was a wonderful place to grow up. I thought all neighborhoods had loving families like the James…Now as an adult, I see how blessed I was to grow up in a neighborhood, where people prayed for each other, and showed up when help was needed.

Another said:
We were lucky to live in a neighborhood with loving, supportive parents like Bonnie & Neil.

He was passionate about being Poppie to Mason and Molly. He showed us all what it looks like to be a great brother, husband, father and grandfather. People who love the way Neil loved are hard to find. They are even harder to lose.

Most of us are here today because Neil was passionate about friendship. Anyone was richly blessed to be able to claim Neil and a friend. And Neil had an unusual gift for taking all kinds of people into the circle of his friendship.

One of Bonnie’s favorite stories to emerge this week came from a high school friend in Ohio, which in and of itself says a lot. How many of us still have friends from high school? Here’s what she wrote:

Tears welled up in my eyes as the memories of him in high school overcame me. Neil, though fabulously famous in our school because of his athletic skills, particularly football, was never an egomaniac “jock” but always humble and so nice to all of us. A memory that does not leave me is of a very heavy, homely, quiet, lonely and unpopular girl named Veronica. Many boys teased, said unkind things about her, to her, “bullying” nowadays. Many times I saw Neil speaking to her, walking with her in the hall to a next class. I will never forget that. What a good and kind human being, in spite of his being just about the coolest guy in our class.

When Bonnie said, “That’s so Neil.” And we would way the same thing.

The writer of the Old Testament Proverbs said: “Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.”

Neil was passionate about friendships, and so, just the way Jesus wept beside the grave of his friend Lazarus, we are unashamed to weep today because friends like that are hard to find. They are even harder to lose.

And then, in his own way, Neil was passionate about faith.

Faith was not easy or simplistic for Neil. He was a ravenous reader with a brilliant and questioning mind. He was, in fact, a lot like Thomas in the gospels, often known as “Doubting Thomas” because every time he appears in the gospel, he is asking questions, searching for truth, until finally, he meets the Risen Christ face to face and falls before him saying, “My Lord, and my God.”

As I thought about Neil, I remembered the words that Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in memory of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who, like Neil, died far too soon. Tennyson wrote:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone…

St. Paul could have been talking about Neil when he wrote: “Now we see through a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now, we understand in part, but then we shall understand fully, even as we have been fully understood.”

By faith, that’s the promise we claim for Neil today. We dare to believe that, like Thomas, Neil has come face to face with the Risen Christ, and now, in the new life of the resurrection, he understands fully even as he has been fully understood by God.

People like Neil are hard to find. They are even harder to lose. But it would be even harder to live this life without them. We gather here, in the church that Neil helped to build, to claim the hope and promise of the new life of the resurrection.

This summer family members from all across the country went back to Pennsylvania for my Uncle Frank’s funeral. He was quite a guy; in many ways the glue that held us all together. When my brother spoke in the service, he quoted Maurice Boyd, who for many years was the preacher at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.

Boyd said that one of the most common questions people ask at funerals is whether they will see and know their loved ones in Heaven. After years of offering biblically-sound, intellectually-responsible and totally unsatisfactory answers, Boyd decided to be like Jesus and answer the question with another question. When people asked, “Will I see my loved ones in heaven?” he replied, “Would it be Heaven if you don’t?”

Then Jack went on to quote Maurice Boyd’s words:

The older I get, the less interest I have in eternal life….if, by eternal life, you mean mere extension. But if, by eternal life, you include the possibility of blessed reunion, then you have offered me something priceless and precious, and I will pray to my death that you are right.

When we were planning the service, one of the hymns that emerged as a favorite is “When We All Get to Heaven.” We gather at the church Neil helped build to give thanks for his life, to face the painful reality of his death, and to claim the promise and hope of the resurrection, and of the blessed reunion in which we will all be gathered together again.

Thanks be to God for the gift of Neil’s life. Thanks be to God for the gift of Neil’s friendship. And thanks be to God for the hope and promise of glad reunion in through the resurrection of Christ our Lord.

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3 thoughts on “A Passion for the Right Things

  1. Very moving tribute to your friend. Well done!

  2. Wow, what a great and moving tribute as well as a wonderful Message about hope and heaven. I am so glad to see that in “retirement” you have not lost your touch.
    God bless.

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