“For Tom Fisher, On the Day of his Funeral” The sermon by Sam Laurent

The community gathered in the Advocate Chapel on Sunday, July 15, 2018,for the Burial Office for Tom Fisher.
Sam Laurent offered this sermon for Tom.

It’s there in the pictures. Looking at the photographs he took, the ones he exhibited, the ones he hung on his walls or that others of us have hung on our walls, you can see a bit of how Tom tried to see the world. It was a vision that didn’t come by accident. He cultivated it. Studied it. It ran deep in who he was, why we grieve him, and how we will know his presence again.

Street photography would be the name for the genre, and like many who were inspired by the french photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Tom’s most creative work spurned grandeur and poses in favor of finding something beautiful in the mundane. A picture of someone doing their job. A picture of two people meeting on the street. Almost always, there were people.

So I asked him. Why these candid shots of people? In that way we had of giving his sophisticated wisdom a veneer of folksiness, Tom said “well, they’re a hell of a lot more interesting to take pictures of than rocks.”

And then he stared into the middle distance, lined up an imaginary shot in his mind and said “so there are two people coming together on the street. My job is to have my camera set up so that with minimal fussing with it, I can capture that moment. Just the encounter of two people is so fascinating. Maybe they know each other. Maybe they’re strangers. There is so much between them that I don’t know. I just want to capture the moment.”

The art in his images, then, was his reflexive attraction to wonder. Capture the moment, and you can return to it. You can imagine what was going on with the people in the picture and the space between them. But they remain mysteries. The photograph holds you in your unknowing, inviting you into a space of wonder.

And, well, so did Tom. As a financial planner, he made it his business to help people handle the uncertainty of life. His work helped people be able to turn their eyes from the nagging worries of the future and be attentive to the present.

Tom loved books. Specifically, he loved novels with the kind of characters you think about months later, characters that open up a space within you that you hadn’t known about before. Tom’s favorite characters felt compassion in their bones. They spoke to the beautiful experience of the unknowability of human life.

Tom loved live music. He and Candy travelled for concerts. He helped produce God only knows how many shows with the Forty Acres organization he cofounded. Those performances gathered people together to exalt in the creative potential of the moment.

Maybe all of this is why he was so captivated by this building. Probably he took more pictures of it than anything else that’s not a person. This chapel stood somewhere else for 120 years before we moved it here to Chapel Hill. It is a space consecrated over and over again by the gathering of generations of people we can’t know. These walls heard prayers and laments and hymns for decades before ours echoed through. This wood is seasoned like one of Tom’s old guitars, richer and warmer for the history that rippled through it, and drawing us into a present moment where the mystery of the past opens us to the mystery of the present, where our reality meets God’s.

God’s reality. That reality is particularly mysterious—acutely mysterious—to us today, and it was something that fascinated Tom throughout his life. The man who was known for being a terrific listener to his friends and family grounded himself in listening for God’s movement in the world. That mysterious depth that lies behind each person is a reflection of the primal mystery of the divine.

Divine mystery is an antagonist today. We always want to understand God. We want to say that everything that happens, even cancer, somehow has divine purpose behind it. But what we see, what we hear in the readings Tom chose for today, is that God’s power is manifest as love. Nothing, Romans says, including death, can separate us from the love of God.

A God of mystery who is insistently present with us in the form of love. I spent a lot of hours and drank more than a few pints of beer talking about this God with Tom. The conviction that divinity flows through each person and calls us to defend the dignity of each person… the conviction that the divine mystery calls us to listen steadfastly for God in our midst… this is the spirituality of Tom Fisher.

This was no accident. It was no affect that he put on. This was Tom. The man who worked for Civil Rights knew something of the sacred mystery of each person. The father of Morgan and Jess knew something of the beauty of possibility, the unfolding mystery of each child, and the love that allows them to thrive. The man who went to seminary before becoming a financial advisor knew something of the importance of letting each person decide who they are, of being prepared to act. The man who helped lead this church into existence knew something of patient listening and of the transfixing mystery that guides people of God. The photographs reflect the man who took them.

And so we are gutted today, because we have lost Tom. His steadiness, wisdom, and love were never more evident than in the months since his diagnosis, when Tom’s choices were guided by the value of the present, by his ability to find depth and love in a time freighted with the grim prospects of a dire disease.

More than anyone I’ve known, Tom led those he loved through the end of his life. He took care of us. He sat and talked frankly about the end of life. He told me stories of gratitude for time with Morgan and Jess and their families, of his delight in the people his children had become and the people they had married, stories of the magic of his grandchildren, of his sheer awe at the compassionate force of Candy’s love. Life, he knew, had been good.

So this hurts. And it will hurt. It is love’s dark insult to us. To love is to eventually be heartbroken. And Tom knew that love is simply the most important thing. He was right. So this hurts.

But those pictures…

The moments that Tom sought to capture are sacred, but they are not rare. Our days are infused with the potential for something new to happen, something more than we would imagine. This is the movement of the insistently loving God of mystery, the God who now bears Tom in the glory of divine memory and presence, working through the miracle of relationship to ensure that when we notice the depth of mystery in a seemingly ordinary moment, Tom will be with us. And we will feel gratitude, and we will feel pain. At the same time. There is no prescribed ratio of the two.

Those ordinary moments, when refracted through the prism of clear presence to the moment, are the kingdom of God. To be fully present in God’s creation, in this precise moment which is the only moment that is actually happening, is to see that the boundaries between us are not so clear. We will miss Tom, but we will feel Tom’s presence when we allow ourselves to be present, because Tom is, in a very real way, a part of us. All of this.. this life… is space held open by God so that we might intertwine in relationship, so that we might, acting from love, create beauty from the very possibilities that lie before us. I understand this better than I did before because I was given the tremendous gift of being Tom Fisher’s friend.

It is all a wildly improbable miracle, one in which we are now rightly grieving the loss of this man who was woven deeply into so many lives. Even in this painful moment, the beauty and mystery of Tom’s life draws us in like one of his pictures. We want to know more. We want another conversation. Another dinner.

This is the mark of a life well lived. Of a man who was deeply loved and who loved deeply. It is grace that intersected our lives with his, and it is grace that will allow us to know his presence in those future moments when the mysterious unknown of life speaks to us of something more. Something we can’t touch but can marvel at.

There is so much in those pictures. So much behind them. God knows we will miss Tom, and God knows we will feel him with us yet. It’s in the pictures.

AMEN