Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Powerful Remembrance

The Reverend Morgan Allen, rector of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Lafayette, remembered Father Ken Cooper during his Sunday sermon. Ken preceded Morgan as the priest at St. Barnabas. Here is an exceprt from Fr. Allen's powerful message:
The first time Ken and Martha Cooper visited Saint Barnabas after I came here, I told the story of the common paths he and I had taken in the ministry of The Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana. It had come to pass in those days that I went to be married at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, and wound up serving as a Lay Chaplain to the Cathedral School and a Lay Assistant to the Dean. On my first Sunday there my heart sank when I realized that I did not have any vestments to wear. Embarrassed, I thumbed through clergy sacristy closet before first daylight, coming across an alb with the initials “R.K.C.” written in a distinctive hand across the tag. The alb fit.

Five years later, after seminary and after ordination, I started service at Saint Matthias in Shreveport. I was proud, then, to have received brand spanking new vestments from the Cathedral as a graduation gift, a gift that Missy had neatly pressed the night before and that I promptly left hanging on the doorframe of our bedroom on the morning of my first Sunday. So again thumbing through a sacristy closet in the dark before dawn, I came across an alb with the now familiar “R.K.C.” initials scrawled across its tag. Fr. Cooper, who had served as a Canon to the Ordinary and kept office at Saint Mark’s, and who had served as Curate and Rector at Saint Matthias, again had rescued me. Naturally, when I came to Saint Barnabas I didn’t even bother bringing my vestments in, trusting that he had left an alb behind for me to wear. But oh, gracious, he left behind so much more.

Within hours of my e-mail to the parish (alerting members to Fr. Cooper's illness), I received replies from as far away as Raleigh, North Carolina; Tappahannock, Virginia; and Gainesville, Florida; all reassurances of prayer and concern for Ken and for the Cooper family. As I visited on the phone with members of this parish family, again and again and again I would hear a gasp as someone caught their breath, or in a trembling voice shared with their husband or bride or child the terrible news of Ken’s condition. This was not simply a passing acquaintance who had taken ill, this was family: a treasured father and brother and friend, and the grief was immediately heavy.

After word of Fr. Cooper’s death was shared yesterday, the emails continued to come through the morning. Some messages were short: “I loved him and I will miss him,” reading as though they had spilled out of someone’s heart and into their keyboard because there was simply nowhere else for the urgent grief to go. Some messages were written with the description and vitality of novellas, telling favorite stories about Ken and Martha, about their girls, or their grandkids, or their dogs, or his trees.

One story, from a member of the Search Committee who would call Fr. Cooper to Saint Barnabas, remembered that during their interview with him, he more interviewed the Committee than did they question him. One poignant question in particular was recalled, when Ken asked the Committee, “If Saint Barnabas blew away tomorrow, would anyone other than its members notice?”

It is difficult to lose a person who loves us, and because Robert Kenwood Cooper loved so many and loved them so thoroughly, there are many among us who are hurting and hurting deeply. He was always proud of us, a patron saint of the parish who continued to celebrate our successes as though they were his own – which in no small measure they were and will continue to be. And when I say “us,” I mean everyone who knew him and all those who did not – after he visited Saint Barnabas in 2005 following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, he told me over his cane, “Morgan, there were more people in church than I could count that I couldn’t recognize. That is so wonderful. I just love ‘em for being there.” Rather than grieve a sense of disconnection, he celebrated the ongoing life of the community he had served, and served so faithfully.

The ministry Fr. Cooper shared with the people of this parish and this community of Acadiana was never about the next bigger church that would call him, or the bigger paycheck he would soon enjoy, or the local prestige he would acquire – the ministry he shared here was about the love of Jesus Christ he had come to know powerfully in his own life, and that he was excited to share with every child of God the Lord set in his path. I’m here to tell you, people of God, he loved you. He loved everyone here, whether he knew you well or did not know you at all, because he understood that as the Body of Christ we are all made one in the same family.

I believe the rhythm of Jesus’ wilderness experience testifies to the rhythm this parish family has kept this week. Just last Wednesday ashes were pressed into our foreheads, and we acknowledged our brokenness to ourselves, to one another, and to our God. That Ash Wednesday experience humbles us. And then on Thursday evening, during our regular service of anointing, perfumed oil was pressed into our foreheads where the ashen cross had been only a day before. Those prayers for healing comfort us. I pray and I trust that the hearts grieving Father Cooper’s death will find anointing and healing in the days ahead. I pray that the angels who came and waited on Jesus after his temptations will come and wait on Martha and Ken’s many friends and family. I pray during this Lenten journey we might even be angels for one another, holding up our brothers and sisters in Christ through the hurt and weakness we all bear.

As difficult as it is for us to accept the fundamental truth of our human nature, a truth which Ken’s death now embosses for us, let us not sink our hearts beneath the sod of any graveyard. Instead, let us set our hopes on the grander truth that Ken now knows fully: that Jesus Christ has trampled death, and calls us not simply to this life, but to abundant life, everlasting life in the near company of God and all the saints in light. Ken, Morgan, and Martha are pictured together, on the right side of the frame, in this group photo from St. Barnabas.

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