Wisdom 3:1-5, 9, Psalm 121 (BCP 473), II Corinthians 4:16-5:9, Psalm 23 (BCP 476—King James Version), John 14:1-6
There is no way, in the time we have today, that we will be able to sound all the notes of this man. Maynard John Higby, born 76 years ago today in Utica, New York. He served in U.S. Army Intelligence—a season of his life of which he was extremely proud. Professor Emeritus of English at Appalachian State University where he served with distinction throughout his long tenure. A scholar of seventeenth and eighteenth-century British literature, with a special place in his heart for the Russians. John was an inspired teacher, and he was a lover of books, especially old ones. A few years ago, at the close of summer, John invited St. Luke’s parishioners up to the Rhinehart Rare Books and Special Collections Room on the 4th floor of the Belk Library. There was a special collection of prayer books and other 16th and 17th century British texts. He was like a kid in a candy shop, and I caught a glimpse of what his students must have experienced in his classroom. He made that text, and the history surrounding it, live, and it is the exceptional teacher who can bring a text to life like that.
John was a published author, including The Adventures of Francelia Whitefoot and The Rhinehart Collection: An Annotated Bibliography. I spent some time with Francelia yesterday, and the back cover is simply priceless. “About the Book: Francelia’s story came to the author one day several summers ago as he was painting the trim on his house. Once he thought of Francelia and how to get Alfonso into the Sweetgrass Meadow, the rest came easy. The story was written to give amusement to children and the parents who would presumably do the reading. There are certain droll moments that young people will not get without explanation, but experience has shown that children are often amused by the amusement of their elders. There are no compromises with vocabulary or sentence structure in this story. Children become literate when they are given the opportunity to do so.” That is quintessential John.
John was an accomplished jazz pianist. Having heard the stories, I would have loved to have been around in the clubs when he played. I remember one Sunday when our organist Ted played a jazz piece he had composed for the postlude. He was accompanied by percussionist, Rob Falvo, and I was standing right over there. John was sitting right there in my line of sight. He had his eyes closed, and he was keeping the beat, completely transported to another realm. Great classical music could also do that to John, but nothing did it like jazz.
John had many other passions. He loved the woods; he was an avid fisherman and a keen birder. He loved fine things—good music, good company, good bourbon. John was a master storyteller—nothing delighted John more than to hold court and share a story. Devoted churchman, devoted friend, devoted father, devoted grandfather, devoted husband. John was a renaissance man. John was a man of a different time, a different era, who at times sat uncomfortably in this time, in this era. A gentleman’s gentleman. They just don’t make them like him anymore.
Renowned trombonist J.J. Johnson once said, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will. Jazz is forever seeking and reaching out and exploring.” That was John. Like the music he loved, he was complex. On one level, he was a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, but he was our curmudgeon. He prized trust, and he was fiercely loyal, but you had to earn both. John valued excellence. He expected it of the people around him; he demanded it of himself. He had no qualms about telling me when my sermon had missed the mark, and on occasion, he would tell me when he thought I had hit it right on. Those sermons always possessed a quality in preaching that he deeply appreciated—brevity. John had come up through the academy and had witnessed the tumult of the 60’s and 70’s. Fiercely independent, he had lived long enough to see the shortcomings of strongly held positions. He valued people, and he saw how people sometimes got hurt at the hands of positions. John did not suffer fools gladly, and suffered foolish thinking even less. But he also lived long enough for his fierce independence to give way to a gracious, generous, open-hearted space, a space of genuine acceptance. Some people hit the last stage of their life and coast. That was not in John Higby’s nature. He did some of his best transformative soul work in the last years of his life, and it was a privilege to watch that unfold.
John would drop by my office every now and again. “Just a few minutes of your time,” he would say. An hour or so later we would emerge, always invigorated by the conversation. He didn’t come to do small talk, but to engage the big questions of life, most of which I had no answers for, and he appreciated my honest admission of that obvious truth. He would reminisce about his boyhood in Utica, New York, especially singing in the Men and Boy’s Choir of his parish church. That experience was absolutely foundational in his faith formation. He loved the Anglican Choral tradition, and he loved the discipline that choir demanded, though he was also fond of telling stories of mischief that he and his peers were prone to find. He loved the beauty and poetry and language of the Book of Common Prayer Book, especially the cadence of the Elizabethan english. Whenever John and I would share communion, we would always recite the formal Rite I prayers—I from my Prayer Book, John from his memory.
We would talk of family and friends. There wasn’t a time that went by that he would not speak of his gratitude for his friends, his friends here at St. Luke’s, his friends in the ASU Community, his friends in the wider community of Boone and Blowing Rock. And he loved his family. He loved being a grandfather—that was a source of particular joy for him. He loved being a father. He loved you, Suzannah. He loved you, Mark. And he loved being a husband. Connie, without fail, in every conversation I had with him, he would close by saying, “I have a good wife.” He loved you deeply, and never was that more apparent than in these last months of his life.
Seven months ago, John and Connie made the decision that it was time for Hospice Care. That was a huge decision of great courage. John had struggled with his lung disease for years, and the last year, he had cycled in and out of the hospital with greater frequency. He knew things were changing. Sometimes, people pull back in the final months of their life. And while John had many, many friends, he was also a very private and reserved man. I thought he might really limit the number of visitors, but John and Connie did quite the opposite; they threw open the doors and said, “Come.” And come you did. And what a gift John gave us in his willingness to let us walk this final journey with him! There was time, all the time in the world, to say all that needed to be said. Stories told and retold. Wishes made known. Feelings expressed. Simple presence enjoyed. In the yielding that was demanded of him, John found deep and abiding peace these last months, and deep, deep acceptance. He did his work, all the way to the end.
John was not afraid to die. He had worked his theology through to his satisfaction. He was not afraid to die, but he was worried about the journey getting there. He wanted to do that journey well. If John could have watched himself in his final hours, he would have been most pleased with how he left this world. Our reading from Wisdom speaks of the souls of the righteous who are in the hand of God. In the eyes of the foolish, in our eyes, they seem to have died, and their departure is painful. What John had to endure in his body seemed so hard, but Wisdom reminds us that they are at peace, that their hope is full of immortality, that though the dying process seems to be a hard discipline, it is but the prelude to something glorious.
II Corinthians hones this even further, “We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling…For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” These last seven months, John was living this transformation. You could see his countenance changing. You could see that curmudgeonliness softening. You could see his heart opening toward the glory that was moving to enfold him. That last couple of days was hard work for John. It always is. It is labor. He was struggling to be born into the next life, but bit by bit he let go. He relinquished his hold on this life. He yielded to the greater glory. His outer nature may have been wasting away, but make no mistake, his inner nature was being renewed, and the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure now is his. Just after John took his last breath, the sun illuminated the whole room. It went golden. It was bathed in golden light. That was no accident; that was a soul taking flight; John melted into the arms of his Creator. It was beautiful. All I could hear was Jesus saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
John is okay. John is better than okay. John’s mortal flesh has been swallowed up by life. It is we who struggle. We are left with a hole in our lives. We will miss that mortal flesh, and all that came with it. But there is a space that he occupies in each of our hearts, a place that he lives that not even death can touch, a presence that is ours to enjoy all the days of our lives. You will catch an echo of his voice, or that knowing look in his eye, when you relish a fine book, or enjoy a piece of jazz, or sight a beautiful bird, or tell a great story, or cherish a friend. So, do not lose heart.
They don’t make them like John anymore, but because he lives on in each one of you, the legacy he leaves is exquisitely timeless. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 30, 2012