As I've shared in previous blogs, I retired from the fire service in June of 2001 after serving for several years in paid, paid-on-call, and volunteer capacities. It gave me the opportunity to meet many wonderful and devoted folks, and yesterday I attended the funeral of one of these folks, a man named Joe Drewry. Joe lost his life after a brief struggle with cancer. He was 72.
His son Tony asked me if I could participate in the funeral by presiding over the Last Alarm-Bell Ceremony - a part of the liturgy of a firefighter funeral in which we honor the life of the deceased and honor his last call to Eternal Life. I couldn't say no. The good news was that my Class A uniform that I retired in still fit. The bad news was the occasion in which to wear it.
I knew Joe by reputation before I ever met him personally. He was the father of a college classmate, and I was not disappointed when I met him in person. He lived up to what I had heard about him, and more. I've seen men who loved their community, but never one quite like Joe.
Joe was a twin, and he and his brother Jerry began their lives with a rough start; their mother died a day after giving them birth from delivery complications. Their father raised them on his own. More tragedy in his life: he buried his wife 24 years ago, and buried his older son Burt last year. All of those things could have created a very angry and bitter man.
That wasn't Joe. He was one of the most affable men I ever knew.
Joe was a Boy Scout leader. He taught hunter safety classes to children and youth. And he served the Greenfield Fire Department for 52 years, in capacities ranging from firefighter to training officer to deputy chief. He went on a fire call as late as 2009. He also wrote several grants for their fire department, one of them allowing their town to achieve a Class Four insurance rating. That is quite a feat for most municipalities, but an incredible feat for an all-volunteer department in a town of 2000 folks.
At graveside, when he was paged over the department radio and we heard the silence of him not responding, I began to weep. Not just because he wasn't answering, but because I know fewer and fewer people answer such a call to service anymore. Not just to volunteer firefighting, but to service to their communities. After the radio dispatcher gave a period of silence after calling his unit number, she responded that Deputy Chief Joe Lane Drewry was released from answering any more alarms. Her last words were overcome with emotion. It seemed to me not just the end of Joe's life and service, but a death knell to all the Joe Drewrys in the world: those who love their community and give back more than they were given. Those who loved children besides their own to pass on legacy and experience and love. Those who believe it takes sacrifice and investment for their communities to thrive and grow.
The body of Christ, the Church, is far from just an institution - it is a family. The Greek word is oikos, which means household, but even that definition doesn't do the word justice. "Family-like community" might be more accurate. It describes what the family of God should be like. It is part of God's design. It allows us to be disciples and to make disciples. We practice being the Kingdom of God so we can proclaim the Kingdom to all.
Communities are living entities, and like living entities they require nurture and care. Joe, and people like him, are the lifeblood of communities. It is so very similar to the way Christ modeled community life and sacrifice to us. It doesn't have to be drudgery - I cannot recall Joe doing much in his life that he hated. It was certainly hard work, but Joe was in the middle doing it.
I am reminded of a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Life Together:
The...service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness... Nobody is too good for the meanest (i.e., most menial) service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God... [I]t is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. - from Life Together, reprinted 1954, p. 99An investment in our community is an investment in the family of God. It is an extension of our discipleship. And it is a practice of our love for brother and sister. I hope folks like Joe aren't the exception, and that they become the rule. We are created to live in community, and not as individuals.
Such is the family of God. So give. Nurture. Encourage.