On February 26, 2015, I had the honor of delivering the homily for Henry Outlaw’s memorial service. We celebrated his life at First United Methodist Church in Cleveland, Mississippi, with an Episcopal service. The Scripture readings chosen were Isaiah 61:1-3, Psalm 139:1-11, and John 14:1-6. I am very grateful to Henry’s wife, Brenda, for permission to publish the homily in this space.
The first time I heard the name, Henry Outlaw, I doubted his existence.
It was March of 2010. I was in charge of gathering a task force of clergy and laypeople from different denominations to discuss evangelism. I asked an Episcopal friend if she knew of anyone.
“Yeah,” she said. “I know the perfect person. He’s a retired Chemistry professor from Delta State. He goes on rafting, canoeing, hiking, and ski trips. He’s studied theology at Sewanee. He loves to write poetry and talk theology. He’s an active Episcopalian.”
“Wow,” I said. “What’s his name?”
She laughed. “Henry Outlaw.”
“Seriously?” I finally said. “That’s his real name?”
She kept on laughing.
“And he does all that stuff? Poetry and rafting and science research and church?”
I knew that my friend wasn’t lying, but I had trouble believing that such a person with an awesome name existed. I pulled out my iPhone and typed the name “Henry Outlaw” on the notepad. With time and changes, the plans for that ecumenical committee fizzled. I never followed up with the “outlaw” on my phone.
Two and half years later, I was standing in the narthex of St. Luke United Methodist Church where I’d just been appointed as pastor. A tall man in a summer suit, carrying a hat, walked towards me. As he firmly shook my hand, he said, “Hi Darian. I am Henry Outlaw.”
I laughed. I laughed some more. Then I declared….
And “real” he was.
If you are in this room today, Henry Outlaw was real to you.
You are the students who signed up for a class in biochemistry but received an education on William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.
You are fellow natives of that big ol’ city of Baldwyn, Mississippi, where Henry’s first adventures were those of his imagination—playing hide and seek underneath his elevated house, roaming the hills during recess, catching rides to the even bigger city of Tupelo.
You rode in the vans that he drove down Colorado mountains during snow storms.
You prayed in those vans and canoes, “Lord, help Henry Outlaw get me off of this mountain or this river or this middle-of-nowhere hiking trail!”
You stood shoulder to shoulder with him and shared a Book of Common Prayer during worship services in Sewanee, Tennessee.
You were his co-cheerleaders for Delta State University, recruiting people to come and mine the delta’s treasures with him.
Your lab station was next to his as he researched countless cells and pondered their intricacies.
You rode a Harley Davidson into town together.
You traced the footsteps of Emmett Till with him.
You sat next to him in a juke joint just north of town on a Thursday night.
You drank coffee or tea with him everyday.
You are the grandsons whose sporting events were front-page news in his circles.
You are the son-in-law whom he loved and trusted as his own.
You are the son who celebrated delta sunsets with him –and chose the one we hold in our hands on the bulletins’ cover today.
You are the daughter he would call to say, “Take your family outside and make sure you learn how fabulous creation truly is.”
You are the wife he called by her first and last name—who knew the real Henry better than anyone.
Friends, we are here today to celebrate the life of a real man who lived really large and loved really well.
But alongside our celebration of life is grief in the death. It is okay to laugh in one breath and cry in the next. The church father, St. Iraneaus, wrote, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” Henry believed that statement, and we gather to glorify God as we celebrate with all our emotions.
In those most vulnerable moments of grief God tends to us. The reading from Isaiah reminds us of God’s love for those who mourn –how God longs to comfort and provide for all of us who mourn by exchanging our sorrow for joy.
Joy. What a word to describe Henry Outlaw.
The Scripture from Isaiah says that God will give us who mourn a garland instead of ashes. Back in 1982 on a hiking trip, Henry found a branch with small buds that he twisted into a crown and wore on his balding head. From the ashes of the earth, he picked up a garland -- and laughter followed.
The Lord said he would give us a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. Henry may not have owned a literal mantle, but he had enough scarves that he could have made one! His unique style and the genuine interest he had in people’s uniqueness lifted many faint spirits—sometimes simply by his walking in a room.
God used Henry to bring the oil of gladness into many of our lives.
How might we also share joy, laughter, and love genuinely in our relationships with one another?
How might God use us to take up that mantle of joy and ski, hike, paddle, and swim headlong into the world?
He loved being in creation. He loved exploring creation. And oh how he longed to understand creation and its Creator! In these last few months, he studied the book of Genesis with his friends at Calvary Episcopal Church. He read about recent scientific discoveries of the cosmos on the internet. With the psalmist, he scratched his green-capped head and said, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it.” But he kept trying to attain that knowledge. There was a deep curiosity in Henry that drove his interest in you, his love for this world, and his relationship with God.
He asked a lot of questions about God. He had a lot of doubts. In fact, doubt was one of the things that he and I talked about a lot. Some of us may think of doubt as the enemy, as the opposite of faith. But for Henry, the questions didn’t push him further from God. They pulled him closer to the heart of his Heavenly Father.
In the reading from John’s gospel, we have the comforting words of Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” No greater reassurance is there—that Jesus Christ is all we need in this life and in the life to come.
Have you ever noticed that we would not have that beautiful, eloquent statement if doubting Thomas had not asked a question?
“How can we know the way?”
Jesus responded in the same love that is available to each and every one of us today. It’s a love that is stronger than death and the grave. It’s a love from which nothing can separate us. Not angels or demons. Not questions or doubts. Not suffering or hardship. Not pain or despair. Not death or the grave.
Last Friday evening, on this same phone where I had typed the name, “Henry Outlaw,” five years ago, I received an email from Henry. It was a reply to a photo I’d sent him of my dog, to lift his spirits after surgery. The reply he sent was simple, powerful, and oh-so-Henry.
Love this picture. Doing well. Henry.
On February 20, 2015, Henry Outlaw walked into St. Dominic Hospital with a hole in his heart.
Early the next morning, he walked out with a whole heart.
How he must have loved the picture he saw—a picture greater than anything we have on any electronic device.
All was indeed well.
The darkness of a cold winter night was no longer dark to him.
The night became bright as day.
He took the wings of the morning.
Over the uttermost parts of the sea, he flew.
And a hand was there to lead him.
It was the same hand extended to Thomas, the questioner and doubter.
A curious little boy from Baldywn, Mississippi, took that pierced and calloused hand, in the firm grip of his handshake.
Holding fast, they ran headlong into the sense of wonder.
all good things to each you, my fellow wonderers and wanderers,
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