Saturday, November 24, 2007

Memorial Service for Marvin Olson

Marvin Olson
(April 27, 1933-Nov. 21, 2007)
West Funeral Home
West Fargo, ND
Nov. 24, 2007

Isaiah 40.3-5; Psalm 121

None of us, of course, want to be here today. We don’t want to be here, saying good bye to this man who, to those of us who knew him, was more than just any man. He was a father, he was a brother, for me he was an uncle—a wonderful uncle—for others he was a good friend, a companion, a buddy.

And yet, we all know, this is just the way it must be sometimes. This is the gamble we take in life. If we are going to live, if we are going to allow ourselves to love, we must also know that to live, to love, we must also experience loss. We must face the fact that, when we love, we also will some day lose those whom we love.

Marvin understood that in his life. Marvin lived his life to the fullest. He enjoyed his life. And he loved many people and knew much loss in his life. But through it all, he kept on. He kept on moving. He kept on his way.

In our Old Testament reading for today, we get an image that Marvin no doubt would have appreciated.

“…make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

And later in that same reading, we hear,

“The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.”

It is an image of movement, of the open road. It is an image of smooth roads. It is an ideal place—a place where someone who loved cars and motorcycles—who loved simply driving—would truly appreciate. If Marvin was able to tell us his idea of what heaven would be like, it would be place like this reading.

Probably even more appropriate is the psalm we just heard Marv’s grandson, David, read—Psalm 121. We shared this Psalm together on Tuesday night as we were saying our goodbyes to Marvin at the hospital. Psalm 121 is Marvin’s Psalm if there ever was one. It’s one of those “muscular” psalms. By that I mean, it’s a psalm of strength—a psalm of fortitude.
In it, we find the psalmist wandering in the wilderness. The journey—the pilgrimage—is full of hardships. There is the possibility of disaster on the road: he might hurt his foot and not be able to go on. During the day, the hot sun will sap his energy. At night, the moon, cold and distant, has the potential to do equal harm to him. At the time this Psalm was written, there was a belief that the moon caused sickness (it’s from this idea that we get the word “lunacy”). But in spite of all these dangers along the way, he looks to the cool green hills rising above him, knowing that despite being in this wasteland, despite the heat and the illnesses, despite being exhausted and weary from the journey, there is hope, there is a reward awaiting him at the end of the journey. He only needs strength to get there and he knows that that strength comes from only one place: from the God in whom he not only trusts, but longs for. For God will preserve him from all evil, and will keep him safe. The Lord will watch over his going out—his journey into the wilderness—and his coming in—his arriving at his destination—from this time forth forevermore.

See, it really is Marv’s Psalm.

In both scriptures, we find images of movement. And the main image we get from Marvin’s life is an image of movement. It is an image of a highway that is often uneven and rough. Let’s face it, the road of Marvin’s life wasn’t easy. But uneven and rough, he was always on the move—in one way or the other.

My mother—Marvin’s sister—was talking the other day that she has very few memories of Marvin when she was young. It wasn’t that she blocked them out. It was simply because Marvin wasn’t always there. From her first memories of him, he seemed to always be out working—even as a young boy. He started out working for places like Western Union, as a delivery boy. It’s not hard for us to picture him, riding around on that bike of his, delivering telegrams. He was on the move as a teenager, working on cars and other modes of transportation. Out of high school, he was on the move again—this time to places more exotic than North Dakota, like Japan; and to places not by any means exotic, such as Korea. In the aftermath of Korea—an event in his life he kept for the most part to himself, an event I think that haunted him and changed him and transformed him—he came back and was on the move again. There was a restlessness to his movement.

The road throughout his life was often rough and uneven. And he himself was reflected that road. He wasn’t perfect, not did he ever claim to be perfect. He had his faults, just as we all do. But Marvin was a man who, despite whatever failings he had, despite, how rough and uneven the road of his life got at times, he was always capable of love.

On Tuesday night, as I gathered with the children for their final goodbye with Marv, I was struck by something very wonderful and incredible. In those last moments of his life here, Marv was surrounded by love. He was surrounded by a love that continued to move him and a love that went with him as he moved on.

It’s a difficult time right now for those of us who loved Marv. Although he wasn’t saint—he would be the first to admit that he wasn’t a saint—he would have laughed that wonderful laugh of his if he ever heard anyone call him a saint no doubt—he was a genuinely good man.

I was shocked, the last time I was able to speak with him, how much he reminded me of his father, my grandfather, Ted Olson. My grandfather wasn’t a saint either. My grandfather had also traveled a long, rough and often uneven road in his life. But in the end he too emerged as a genuinely good man. Marvin and his father had a lot in common in their lives. That day in the hospital room, it was almost like Déjà vu, sitting there with Marv. Because it felt for me like I was also sitting there with my grandfather at times. The last time I saw my grandfather, I was six years old. And yet, sitting there with my uncle that afternoon, it was almost like everything had come together in some strange way. It struck me that there was a kind of continuity. There was a connection between all of us with those who have gone on before us.

To use a biblical image, there is truly a cloud of witnesses about us. And I do believe that. I believe that what separates those of us—here and alive in this world—from that next world—that world in which the cloud of witnesses lives—is a thin one. Marvin is now a part of that cloud of witnesses. He has gained a place for himself in that place we cannot fully fathom or appreciate today.

For those of us who love Marvin, this is not a happy day for us. Yes, we take consolation in the fact that it is a good day for him—he is out of his suffering, he has shed that body that caused him such pain. He is freed. It is not happy for us because, for a little while at least, we will not see him. But, with faith, we take consolation in the fact that we know this is only temporary.

For Marvin, the rough and uneven road of his life has now become level. He is traveling that straight highway. The destination is in sight. And it is a marvelous and beautiful place. It is the place he has been headed for all of his life. He no longer knows weariness or pain or frustration. All of that has passed away like some bad dream. He is there in those cool, green hills, in that place of rest and beauty—a place we are headed toward as well in our lives.

So, yes, we can be sad today, but we can also know that sadness is not the same thing as despair. Despair is a sadness without hope. We can be sad, and yet we know that we are able to hope in the fact that what awaited Marvin—and what he has gained now for himself—awaits us also.

In a few moments, I will say the words of Commendation for Marvin from the Book of Common Prayer. I will say the words, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

That is where our hopes lies. Our faith tells us that, in the end, death does not win. Sickness does not win. The grave does not win. God is more powerful than all of that. God is a God life. God is a God of the living. God is a God of life that does not end. And because of our faith, we almost audaciously are able to say, “alleluia” in the face of death. We are able to say that “alleluia” in defiance of death and all that it stands for.

So let us look, with Marvin, at the journey ahead. Let us, in this sad moment, look forward down the road to those cool, green hills ahead of us. And, knowing that Marvin and all our loved ones—that whole cloud of witnesses—are there waiting for us with our God—we can go on. We can move forward without despairing. And we can follow a road that now at times might seems rough and uneven but that will even out and be straight as we journey toward our living God.


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