Friday, September 23, 2011

The Gentle Pastor

The voice was unmistakable...that singular soft, Southern lilt like warm honey. That voice was like a security blanket; it provided a comfort of sorts. The words that poured forth from that voice, however, were often measured carefully and of powerful substance. That voice belonged to one Dr. George Harris, a great father, husband, grandfather, friend and minister. George passed away this week at his home in Marietta, Ohio.

They arrived a while back and a few moons ago; when my best friend Kristy and I were still kids. Dr. George Harris would be taking over as the minister at The First Baptist Church in St. Marys; the church my family attended for many years, since the days of its existence as an old, white clapboard building with a classic steeple. George and his beloved wife Barbara arrived quietly; he exuding that soft-spoken Southern charm and she with her quiet grace. Their daughter Lydia, who I wrote about in The Preacher's Kid, debuted a tad more vivaciously; tumbling down the center aisle of the sanctuary, boundless with energy and personality. We became fast friends with Lydia as George settled into his role as the church pastor. He would be front and center for many of the greatest memories of our childhood in church, such as our baptisms. He is pictured, at left, baptizing Kristy.

If you were more of a mind to expect a weekly cavalcade of fire and brimstone from a Virginia-bred Baptist minister, you would probably have been a bit taken aback by hearing one of George's sermons. Rev. Harris was a man of great intellect and had several degrees including his Doctorate of Ministry. His were not always the easiest or simplest of sermons and he didn't intend them to be. This was not a man who invented his message based on some loose interpretation of the Bible; he KNEW the Good Book and could speak to every word and challenged his congregations to do the same. This had a powerful effect on many in his flock and my mother was one of those profoundly affected. I was too young or ignorant to appreciate his true brilliance but my mother treasured his sermons. The soft-spoken manner of his sermons belied a quiet strength that made him a force to be reckoned with...this was a man who served his country in the Korean War, after all, and earned him a Bronze Star to boot.

That strength and brilliance is what made George a masterful teacher as well. My mother has suffered an almost crippling shyness much of her life and at times, that shyness has led her to being almost reclusive. George began teaching The Bethel Series, an in-depth study of the Scriptures and Mom was one of his students. My mother reveled in the class and with George's encouragement, became an instructor in the Bethel Series herself. Mom studied hard and did very well and soon went from being a Sunday School teacher for first graders to a teacher of the Bible to many of the young professionals in town. George shared his gift for teaching with Mom and therefore, had a deep and lasting effect on her. When George left our church, our hearts were broken and Mom had to tearfully leave the sanctuary during his farewell sermon, too upset to bear the goodbye in its entirety. George would go on to continue in his role as teacher and minister; serving as a Professor of Christian Studies at Alderson Broaddus College.

For me, his gift to us was two-fold. He and Barbara brought Lydia into my life and she remains one of my most treasured friends today. George also stands, along with my folks, as one of the greatest examples of Christianity that I will ever know. He was not only a Biblical scholar but a minister in the truest sense of the word: he visited the sick, he comforted those in pain and loved and helped his fellow man. No matter how Christianity is represented or defined for me now or in the future; George Harris will always define for me what it truly means to be a Christian.

When George graciously agreed to officiate my father's funeral, it never occurred to me that we would be losing George himself less than a year later. Sure, George appeared a bit more frail and gray than I'd remembered him, but when he spoke, that voice was as comforting to me as ever. I wrote about the gratitude I carried for him in my post on Dad's funeral Requiem for Rex. As I wrote then, I will never forget George's voice reading my words to honor my father. Having lost George so soon after Dad, that memory has become even more profound. I am heartbroken for not being at Lydia's side during the days of his funeral but will see her soon.

Lydia took the time to tell me of his last days. He wanted to be at home and thankfully got his wish when he passed. He had asked for fresh lemonade and sure enough, fresh lemons were soon juiced. Lydia brought him a chocolate milkshake and when the folks making it learned the shake would be his last, they made it extra thick. He loved it.

Since I couldn't be there in person, I decided to do my best to honor George with words as he had honored my father. I also learned from Lydia that Grandma Honey (who was quite the character herself) used to make him a cake he loved called a Coca-Cola Cake. I found that this is indeed a Southern favorite and made the cake in his honor. It is quite the amazing chocolate cake and now I understand why George has such fond memories of it. I found the deservedly high-rated recipe here.

It seems that if a body leaves the Earth that the planet ought to be lighter, but without George Harris, the world seems much heavier. That is our cross to bear, however, as George has finally been brought home to be with the Lord. As Kristy said, I gain solace knowing not only that he's at rest, but that he's watching out for the rest of us.

Rest in peace, George. You will be greatly missed.


Lydia said...

Thank you so much Greg for these beautiful words. He would be so honored by this post (and you can hear him in that low voice saying "Now Greg...". It's hard to believe he is gone. Can't wait to give you a big hug when you get here. I saw Ethel last night and just burst into tears. It's always been us 3 in these events, and this post is holding me over until I see you face to face next week. Dad would be happy you tried the Coca Cola cake :) Thank you my friend for these touching words. I love you.

Anonymous said...

AMEN. Greg, this is beautiful. Many folks who follow your blog had read it prior to the funeral service and appreciated this tribute so much. In your text this morning you said to me "I hope I did him justice." You have not only done him justice but you have memorialized him in a very special way that will be held dear by many for years to come. Thank you for that. Love you and see you soon my brother.

Kristy (aka Ethel)

Anonymous said...

Beautiful words for a beloved and beautiful man........

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a beautifully written tribute to a beautiful, gentle man.

Anonymous said...

Greg, Lydia shared your blog with the family and I didn't make it through without crying. It is beautifully written. You knew him well. Thank you so much for your thoughts and for sharing. I love your blog and it is now in my bookmarks. I look forward to reading more. Thank you.

Mary Lisa Harris

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