The sky was a deep blue, the sun shining brightly as we gathered in the Zion Memorial Gardens to bury the ashes of a beloved family friend, my brother-in-law Frank R. Keller, in the community of our birth—Souderton, Pennsylvania. We all knew him as “Butch.”
Somehow the familiar words of Psalm 90 read by Pastor Mim Book took on new meaning in this setting, my favourite psalm and what Walter Bruggemann calls “one of the most magisterial of the psalms.” This ancient text always puts life into perspective for me. End-of-life rituals have a way of reminding us of how short life is, that our true home is with God, that his love follows us from “generation to generation.”
The truth of this psalm, this inheritance of “joy in all our days,” was embodied in Butch. He was much more than a brother-in-law. He was my soul brother, my example, often my inspiration, a ready counsellor, always a reliable friend, a shoulder to lean on. Part of what made him so special, not only to me, but to members of this small family group gathered to honour his life, was his ability to listen with empathy, to counsel without judging, to take into account the uniqueness of one’s personality and struggle.
Paying public tribute to him, I said he was really our Protestant rabbi, our shaman, one with whom we could share family secrets, our innermost thoughts; one to whom we admitted our frailties and disappointments but also our triumphs and high aspirations.
It was out of his own pain that he was able to enter into ours. Struggling with his own identity early on because of growing up in the shadow of an accomplished older brother, he lacked self-confidence and what he thought was the lesser approval of his father. So he always tried harder, which made him an achiever above his peers.
This experience also formed his character which became evident in later years, when, after entering the U.S. Navy, he found himself at cross-purposes with the military establishment and checked himself out as a conscientious objector—a bold move in that era. Then, taking over the family meat business, he soon sensed a call to ministry and tackled seminary training amid doubts he could master the scholarship required.
After some 12 years as a pastor of a large General Conference Mennonite Church in central Kansas, he was asked to be conference minister, overseeing and advising many congregations in what was known as the Western District. In this role he encountered several church conflicts, testing his mediating skills. Recognizing his limitations in reconciling differences, he employed a professional mediator in an attempt to bring unity to these various scenes. His openness allowed him to let the group dynamics play out so that reconciliation would stand a chance.
Standing there under the bright sun, surrounded by family, these scenes flashed through my consciousness. Butch, now resting “in the favor of the Lord his God,” had taught us to “number our days,” so that we can “gain a wise heart.” In modern parlance, he had given us a blueprint for living so that the “favor of the Lord our God is upon us, to prosper the work of our hands.”
I was struck, too, at this moment, with the frailty of life and the so-called spiritual issues which consume so much of our time and talents, all seen in the arc of a lifetime—in Butch’s case 88 years—as many times frivolous. How can we, in the church, spend so much time and passion on such issues as our sexuality and how it manifests itself when we tend to neglect the bigger issues of God’s dwelling place?
In the sweep of history, these issues which now so preoccupy us are, in the words of Moses, “like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” (Psalm 90:5,6)
In the context of “a thousand years as a day in God’s sight,” these issues that loom so large in this present age are “soon gone and we fly away.”
Butch Keller left a large imprint in his life span. His example, his love, his wisdom, his companionship are far more enduring and are “manifest of God’s power in his servant and God’s glorious power to his children.“