Meditation for Warren Spannaus

December 4, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan

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Memorial Service Meditation for Warren Spannaus

December 4, 2017

Rev. Melanie Homan

We are gathered here this afternoon to celebrate the life of Warren Spannaus. And there is much to celebrate.  But we also come here to collectively grieve our loss.  Many of us were surprised to learn that Warren was in the hospital and that he wasn’t doing well.  And news of his death came as a shock.  I think I understand why Warren chose not to share much about his health.  Because if he had, that would have been the topic of conversation and he had no interest in that.  He wanted to talk about what he deemed to be more important matters.  Politics.  Hymns.  The most recent film he had watched or newspaper article he had read.  Warren got his wish.  He had news articles on his hospital bedside table from Mondale, and when I visited him, he immediately began reciting hymns.

I have heard many, many stories this week about Warren and how he has impacted your lives. And I have a few of my own. Warren was here every Sunday morning, sitting in the same spot with Marge at the traditional service.  A pattern developed in our relationship.  Warren would wait for me to greet everyone at the end of the service

and then he would make his way towards me. And in my head, I would say to myself,

“O God. Here comes Warren.  What’s it going to be this time.”  Because unless you are a pastor or musician who has served here, you cannot fully appreciate how opinionated Warren was about hymns!

Sometimes Warren would come up and put an article in my hands and say, “Read this. Let’s discuss next week.” Or he would say, “Have you seen this movie?  It should be required viewing for every American.  Watch it so we can talk about it.”  I could never find the time to watch his movie recommendations and he would ask each week – “Have you seen it yet?”

Which is why I managed to spend my 10th wedding anniversary with my husband watching “Twelve Angry Men”.  I was so excited to come the following Sunday to let Warren know I had watched the movie.  He was pleased because we could then jump right into a conversation about how it related to our current culture, black lives matter, and politics.

Sometimes he would come up to me and say, “Beautiful hymn selection this morning.” And then he would go on to tell me about the composer and the story of what led up to the creation of that particular hymn.  But more often than not, he would say, “Great hymn this morning.  I love that hymn.  And you took out the best verse.  You should never take out a verse.  It’s poetry and you’re ruining it!!!!”  And I would say something like, “But Warren, the verse we took out was all blood and guts and violence and we’re not singing hymns where very other word is a masculine term for God.  You’re a feminist!  Come on!”  And our debate was off and running.  We would banter back and forth and then Marge would walk up and say, “Warren!  You and your hymns!  Leave her alone!  Melanie – ignore him.”  And I would say, “Good talking with you, Warren.  See you next week.”  So went our weekly ritual.

Here’s the thing about our weekly ritual. I loved it.  I loved talking with Warren and what he really wanted, were conversation partners about the things he cared about the most.  So every discussion about hymns would eventually turn to politics.  And every discussion of politics would eventually turn to hymns.

Why?  Because Warren was one of the few people I knew who had integrated faith so fully into his life’s work.  The reason Warren was the Attorney General that he was, the lawyer that he was, the spouse, the father, the grandfather that he was, was because of his faith.  Hymns just happened to speak of that faith in a way that touched him deeply.  So of course a discussion of the news out of DC requires quoting hymns and vice versa.

Warren was very clear about his favorite hymn – Once to every Man and Nation.

He vented about this hymn all the time. It was removed from the United Methodist Hymnal 28 years ago and he said it was the worst decision the United Methodist Church had ever made.  He wasn’t sure he could ever forgive them removing it from the hymnal.

When I walked into his hospital room last week, he immediately began reciting this hymn. He said, “Our country needs this hymn now, more than ever.”

He understood the language was not inclusive and the verses were rather dark and the tune is in a minor key, which makes it sound like a dirge, but he still loved it. When Marge and I were discussing today’s service, we both agreed that Warren would haunt the two of us for the rest of our lives if we did not include it today.  He loved this hymn because it embodied his foundational beliefs about Christian faith and public service.

Whatever your calling in life. Whatever your job – it is so easy to get sidetracked.  To forget why you started what you’re doing in the first place.  Or – the other thing that can happen is we just fall into a career, one thing leads to another and we start making our way up the ladder, and we never had the chance or took the time to get clear about our values and core beliefs.

The words to “Once to every man and nation” – they embody Warren’s beliefs and values. He held these words close his entire life and it kept him from straying from the things that mattered most.  He recited them while in the Navy serving during the Korean conflict.  He carried them with him into public office.  He taught his children these very same values.  Marge and Warren were perfect partners for one another, in part, because Marge embraces the values of this hymn as much as Warren did.

In the Book of Proverbs, we are admonished to call wisdom our sister and insight our intimate friend. We are to keep God’s teachings – bind them on our fingers and write them on the tablet of our hearts.  Warren wrote the words of this hymn on the tablet of his heart.  They were guideposts for him, and he did not waiver from them.  What do you have written on your heart?  If you have forgotten, or were never really clear about it, there is no time like the present to work on figuring it out. Perhaps it is a scripture, a teaching of Jesus, a hymn, a poem, your own personal mission statement – figure out what matters most and write it on your heart.

Money? Power? Prestige? Those weren’t the things that Warren had written on his heart.

Truth. Justice. Compassion. That’s what mattered.  And like his favorite hymn says, the choice is always before us to walk in shadows or in light. Truth alone is strong, even when the cause of evil prospers.

What is written on your heart? It’s not a hypothetical question.  Carry on Warren’s legacy of serving the common good by figuring it out!  Warren was a mentor to many of us and he can continue to be a mentor, even in death.  I already know that Warren would tell you to watch Twelve Angry Men and sing his favorite hymn, which we will do shortly.  But he’d also tell you to write down what matters most.  Write it on your heart.

But also on paper. It was just a few years ago that he put his own words down on paper, under the title, “This I believe”.  These words arose from a small group class led by Joe Green that he took here at church.

Hear these words from Warren:

This I believe. In a world filled with daily news of terrorism and other violence,

I am more than ever convinced of the transformative power of a kind deed, committed intentionally or even by accident. A simple act of kindness can transform a life, and can inspire and motivate others to do likewise. 

Methodist theologian John Wesley wrote, ‘Do all the good you can. By all the means you can.  In all the ways you can.  In all the places you can.  At all the times you can.  As long as ever you can.’ 

I believe cultivating a state of awareness to ways in which we can make a difference in the lives of others has the power to transform not only those who receive the benefit of an act of kindness, but also the benefactor and those around them. It truly has the power to make the world the kind of place we want it to be.” 

Each of us here has reaped the benefits of having Warren in our life. Through Warren, we have caught glimpses of what the present (but still coming) kingdom of God is like.

As Warren rests in God’s eternal care, it is not yet time for us to rest.  We can’t rest and we won’t give up.  No. Matter. What.  There is a whole lot of work before us “to make the world the kind of place we want it to be.”  The good news is something that Warren deeply knew – in life, and in death, the God of grace abides with us always. Thanks be to God, Amen.

And now, please rise in body or spirit as we sing together.

Once To Every Man and Nation by James Russell Lowell

1 Once to ev’ry man and nation Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth and falsehood, For the good or evil side; Some great cause, some great decision, Off’ring each the bloom or blight, And the choice goes by forever ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

2 Then to side with truth is noble, When we share her wretched crust, Ere her cause bring fame and profit, And ’tis prosperous to be just; Then it is the brave man chooses While the coward stands aside. Till the multitude make virtue Of the faith they had denied.

3 By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track, Toiling up new Calv’ries ever With the cross that turns not back; New occasions teach new duties, Ancient values test our youth; They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth.

4 Tho’ the cause of evil prosper, Yet the truth alone is strong; Tho’ her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong; Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above His own.