When I was young, I knew a man called Father Reed. He was the priest who baptised my brother into the church. He had been a pilot in World War 2 and then Korea. He flew bombers, pressing the button to release their fatal cargo. He married a woman who had been in movies, who had legs that went on for miles and could dance her around the stage in the lightest step of a flitting fairy. He became a priest late in life, but once he did he was faithful to the calling. He was one of the lions of our church tradition, not because he was a fiery preacher, a social justice warrior, or a theologian published in hundreds of works. He was a lion because he was faithful to the truth, was humble in his accomplishments, was cheerful in his many trials, and kind to all.
As far as I know, he wrote only one book in his lifetime. It was his biography and I read it when it was published with the same enjoyment I read works of fiction. This was a man I had known, but never really understood. His biography was an account of his life in full. I learned that he had never been deeply spiritual until he became a priest. That was perhaps the most radical change to his life other than marrying Lorraine. I learned something that has only recently become clear to me. Father Reed’s religion was one based on kindness – the type of kindness that led Christ to die for us.
I knew Father Reed for my entire life, right up until the day he died. In my mind, he is inextricably bound to the idea of baptism. I do not recall whether it was his intention, but being a priest and baptising children seems a fitting atonement for killing men with bombs. As a child, he was a kindly presence with a bright if somewhat blind eye and a ready wit. He lost his sight in his 80s and, along with it, his pilot’s license. Until his sight had deteriorated thus, he had flown whenever he could.
I vividly remember him standing in the hall of the church, tall, but stooped over his cane, smiling at everyone. Whenever anyone asked how he was doing, he would reply, “Whelmed.” If you knew him, you knew what that meant. The few newcomers who received that answer also received this explanation. “If overwhelmed is bad and underwhelmed is bad, too, and I’m doing alright, then I figure I’m just whelmed.” These were words of wisdom from a cheerful man, the kind of man who even in old age earned the nickname, “Boom Boom” when he was made a Canon of the church.
Father Reed was a character I deeply loved. He taught me so much with his little bits of wisdom, his jokes, and his unfailing kindness. But it is only recently that I’ve come to know just how much he taught me. Being ‘whelmed’ is only one of those lessons.
Kindness was the other. Father Reed’s religion was unflinchingly Anglican, but the way he put it into practice was through radical kindness. To love your neighbor, be kind to him. Oftentimes kindness meant putting your money where your religion was. Buying someone a meal, buying an ethical product, or contributing to charity. More importantly, kindness meant treating human beings with love. Love meant laying down your life for your friends, not just in death, but in living. How you lived your life mattered more than anything. If you weren’t making life better for someone, then you weren’t doing it right.
I’ve begun to think about these things a lot. I have the power to make my life into something good, to dedicate it to something important, a value, an ethic to take throughout the course of my life. Father Reed is one example I’ve been considering. The Atheist Wife and I want to have children. I want to leave them something. Not money, but something of far more value than that. I would like to leave them with what Father Reed left me. It’s a lifetime’s project, but I have no doubt that it’s worth it. It’s a big undertaking, but I am whelmed by it and that seems like a good place to be.