Celebration of Life and Ministry of James Robert Poole III
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 139:1-17; II Corinthians 4:16-5:9; John 14:1-6
James Robert Poole III, known lovingly by us just as “Jim.” Husband, father, stepfather, father-in-law, grandfather, brother, brother-in-law, uncle, beloved friend. He was woven into all of our lives.
Born in 1942, he served his country for twelve years in the United States Air Force. Anyone who talked with Jim knew that this service was hugely significant in his life. He loved his time in the Air Force. He loved to fly. I don’t share that love; I generally white knuckle take-off and landing, and fully expect the plane to drop out of the sky in-between, but for Jim, it was sheer delight. There was something up there that set his soul free, and that passion would remain with him long after he could no longer fly.
After his term in the military, he served for 30 years as a US Postal Service City Mail Carrier here in Boone. Now for Jim, being a postal carrier wasn’t just about delivering the mail, but it was a ministry of friendship. And the people on his route still talk about how they loved to see him coming up the walk. There is a great picture out in the Great Hall that captures his joy in this work perfectly.
I always ask the family for any remembrances they might have. I knew Jim through this community, but there is always something I learn from those who knew him in ways that I didn’t.
Cathy and Laura shared this story with me: “Our father was a man who loved to learn things. He was always interested. He liked to share his curiosity with us, and he taught us a lot. He took the time to explain things, even if we didn’t understand. He let us explain things to him. He encouraged our learning and reading in many ways. When our family TV broke, instead of fixing it, he spent the next few months reading us The Hobbit in the evenings. He took us camping several times, made an orange Julius on our birthdays, and told wonderful stories of his own adventures. Probably the most memorable event we connect with him happened in 1981. The Space Shuttle Columbia had lifted into space that year for the first time. Dad always loved to fly, and he was fascinated with space travel and exploration (both real and fictional). He knew the Space Shuttle program was a new era, and he pulled us out of school and drove down to Florida so we could see it lift off for ourselves. We were crammed into a little two-door Honda Civic, trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic with all the other people who wanted to see it. The engine overheated, and in 90°F weather, Dad had to turn on the heater full blast; he was miserable and dripping with sweat. But we made it, pulled off the highway, and watched the Columbia lift off. He even let us take the pictures, which were mostly just of the smoke column. Unforgettable.”
When I asked Cinda, she simply said, “He was a wonderful brother.” She went on to tell of a time when she was in Jr. High School and had done something that was just humiliating for her. Jim was in his first year of college. He told his sister, “If I didn’t make a fool of myself at least once a day, I’d think I was sick.” He hit the mark just right with what a Jr. High School girl needed to hear.
And Marye told me of Jim’s joys: his time in the Air Force, flying, bird watching, and travel. He loved geologic formations and the glaciers and lava flows (again, check out the pictures!). He had a passion for reading military history and telling “the postman and the apple pie” joke—I don’t know that one, but I have a feeling that someone can fill me in at the reception. And Jim was a fine, fine woodworker, a gift he shared with his brother Tom. Jim was a perfectionist when it came to his woodworking; he was precise, and he made beautiful, beautiful things. One of the last pieces he made was this smaller altar that now holds his body. Somehow, it makes sense that a life that was poured out in so many ways now rests on an altar—maybe this is what it means to make our lives a living sacrifice, an offering to God, whether in service to one’s country or in the daily rhythm of the mail route, or in relishing the beauty of birds, or the wonders and magnificence of God’s handiwork in creating geologic formations. All of it is an offering.
I will remember Jim for the twinkle in his eye, his kind smile, his sense of humor, his wonderful laugh, his encouragement and support, and his love of this community. He told me more than once about how St. Luke’s had prayed him through some hard times, most especially after his airplane accident. You, dear people of God, meant so much to him.
Jim also had his hard times. Jim was no stranger to loss, painful loss, in a multitude of ways. It would have been easy to lose heart altogether, but Jim didn’t. In our passage from II Corinthians, Paul says this: 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.
Paul understands so well how hard the journey in this life could be. The reality is the last several years of Jim’s life were hard. This was an active, vibrant, fiercely independent man. You don’t fly missions in Vietnam if you don’t have a good strong dose of fierce independence. And the disease he had was robbing him of that vitality, robbing him of the things in life that he loved doing—I remember when he could no longer work with wood and when travel became difficult and how hard that was. Over the last few years, he and I would talk about the spiritual challenges that had been thrust upon him—we talked about the challenge of letting go, of what it might mean to relinquish control, of how hard it is to yield; we talked about making peace with limitations. Truth be told, these are spiritual tasks that will come to all of us, and usually they don’t come to us on our terms or on our time table. I watched Jim struggle with all these. His fierce independence fought the limitations that were increasingly a part of his daily life. But it’s hard for a man who has touched the sky to be grounded so firmly to the earth.
This disease was costly, to Jim, and to all those who loved him. And these losses aren’t just from the last two weeks stemming from his most immediate injury and death, but it is a grief that has been building for years. As the disease progressed, Marye lost her husband, bit by bit by bit. Having lost one brother to this disease, Cinda watched it rob another brother of his vitality. Cathy and Laura watched their father’s world that knew no limits become a very small orbit. Had Jim lived, I think the next leg of this journey would have been so hard for him. I think the progression of his disease would have been so very hard for him. I know you all had to make some really tough decisions these past two weeks, but at least, he now has been spared what would certainly have been an even more devastating decline.
There has been nothing about this journey that has been easy for anyone, and my prayer for all of you is that God’s infinite mercy and compassion can surround you and hold you and console your aching hearts. Please, open your hearts to the love that is pouring toward you, from God and from this community. You are all in need of it—please drink it in.
But just as we can’t ignore the struggle of these last several years, so also, we cannot ignore the promises of our faith articulated so well by Paul. Even while Jim’s outer nature was wasting away, his inner nature was being renewed, maybe even at a level of which he himself was not aware. His affliction was real, but so too is the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure that now is his. His earthly tent has been destroyed, but he has a building from God, a house not made with human hands, eternal in the heavens—and can’t you see Jim checking out that handiwork right now! He has been groaning in his earthly tent, longing to be clothed anew. He has been groaning under his burden, but now his mortal body has been swallowed up by LIFE.
Whatever was in his way, whatever brokenness he had in his body, in his heart, in his mind, in his spirit—it is all done away with now. He lives now in the communion of saints in absolute wholeness; he is free to live in a way that he hasn’t been able to in a long, long time. Back straight, tremor gone, fully engaged, heart and soul wide-open, enjoying the feast of all feasts, catching up with Tom and Jamie and a whole host of others. And don’t you just know that Jim is just loving all those dwelling places in the Father’s house that Jesus speaks of? Just think, all those places where Jim can deliver mail. Since that first taste of flying, Jim has been trying to touch heaven—now, he has broken through to the other side. And though we grieve and miss him mightily, when we go out and look at the vastness of that great and glorious sky that he loved, he will be very, very near.
So, as we gather today, may we remember Jim in the fullness of his life, and not just the latter days of his disease, may we look forward to experiencing him in the wholeness that now is his, and may we know that we are held close by God even as we grieve.
The psalmist says, “Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there you hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.” Jim has taken the wings of the morning and climbed up to heaven, and though we will miss him, he is God’s—always has been, and will be forevermore. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 16, 2013