There’s a reason that news outlets archive footage of famous people — because when they pass on, no one will have the right words or any sort of a brain to say what that person meant. I’m writing this on February 9, 2016 because, should Gordon pass to the next life, I don’t expect I will have anything creative or decent to say at all. Words will not come. And yet, if there’s was anyone who deserves accolades in the course of my life, Gordon is that person.
Gordon Sherman is, without a doubt in my mind or my heart or my experience, the best human being I have ever known. There will be none to replace him. My friend Todd has as much of a connection to God as Gordon. Peter Wells will be as compassionate, warm and caring as Gordon. Bob Kyte, my Youth Minister and mentor as I was growing up, is as stable as Gordon. Rev. Charlie Hartman, the last member of that great trilogy, is probably as funny and caring as Gordon at times, but … no, not Gordon either. Harry Chapin probably did more with his life than Gordon, but in the old self-help terms, there were “human beings” and “human doings“. Harry was probably the greatest human doing I’ve ever actually met, which made his “being” extraordinary, but Harry and I weren’t friends like Gordon and I were.
Gordon on the other hand, was the greatest human “being” I have ever known and he was my friend, which made all of the things he did incredible. For my part, I’d like to be as human as Gordon was. Anything beyond that, if I leave a legacy, will be all God.
Gordon is (or was) in one person Todd and Peter and Charlie and Bob and Dave and Harry. All he had to was just stand there and be him. The closest words I can get to describe the Gordon I knew are “warm wisdom”. Gordon was as human and yet as spiritual as anyone I have ever met. One can catch a glimpse of how Jesus might have been thought of as both human and divine in one person, without any contradiction at all, if you have experienced Gordon. I don’t mean that in some heretical way. I just mean that’s my experience.
I first met Gordon in 1975, at the Deering Conference Center, at the end of my freshman year of high school. In all the incredible comings and goings of the week, I don’t know that I would have seen his individual worth, but it was definitely part of the experience and everyone there would have loved working with Gordon. By the next year, my heart would have melted enough that I would be able to see Gordon as Gordon, aka “Pa” or “Pa Kettle” as camp staff called him — a father figure to hundreds who gave out hugs without needing to be asked, shared advice and stories if you had time or need, a man with a flannel shirt and jeans who carried a plastic orange-juice can for his coffee and coughed when he laughed.
When I graduated from college and moved back East to attend seminary, Gordon was one of those who kept me in seminary — not with money, but with advice and a clear head, and an appearance out of nowhere, when I was overwhelmed with working three jobs and trying to keep my head above water. This happened two or three times in seminary and Gordon would just “appear” because he had a conference or something at the seminary. I was always clear that he was there because God sent him. To this day, in planning and when overwhelmed, I do what Gordon taught me — do one thing at a time, finish it, then move on to the next part and do that, then the next part, and so on. It still works to this day.
When any of my Youth Groups in seminary met him, they “got” him immediately, after getting over the initial shock that he put his cigarette ashes in his palms when he talked. He left the room and my Lynnfield kids went, “Did you see that guy? He put his ashes in his hand and it didn’t seem to hurt him!” I had long since stopped noticing the little magical things that made him who he was, having seen all the large magical ones, but it was great to re-notice as a new generation came to see him and the place.
After graduation, and before my ordination, I took my worldly belongings and took Gordon up on an old offer: “If there’s anything I can do, let me know”, he said. I needed a place to live and so I asked him (and Cy, his wife). Without begrudging me anything, they gave me a place to sleep and to stay. To this day, I can find myself in similar situations — with clients, parishioners, colleagues, and friends and (hopefully without too much grumbling) following through with that same promise. It makes me a better person.
Gordon had two great passions that the world will know about — PFlag and Spiritual groups that he belonged to or welcomed. Gordon has a son that is gay, now happily married and a minister in Canada. Instead of reviling in horror, or giggling about the whole thing, as most people would have done at the time, Gordon and Cy prayed and thought and loved their son. Because they did, they also spent years loving anyone who was like him. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays gave support even when it was controversial, because they thought it was the Christian thing to do. Gordon and Cy knew and cared for “trans” people before the rest of the world believed they had a right to be themselves. That’s the measuring stick of Christ and Christianity that I use today, even if I don’t always get there as quickly as the Shermans do. Gordon and Cy were prophetic without even trying — something my seminary peers were working up to as an intellectual pursuit they had read about. Gordon and Cy just did it was because they thought it was right. Years later, I think my children first met them at a UCC Synod when Gordon and Cy were working on something regarding gay and/or trans rights. Their name had come up in California when members of a church I was attending, John and Janet Sage, asked if I knew them. Again, no matter how far I traveled, Gordon came into my life.
Gordon, Cy, Patty Kennedy (“PK”) and others who lived at Deering before it closed were into all sorts of spiritual things brought on by books Gordon had read and recommended, including “astral projection” after Gordon read a third or fourth book by Richard Bach. Gordon read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, then Illusions, then an0ther book about Bach and his wife’s experience of spiritual projection. Gordon also recommended a little known book of very few pages written by a fairly unknown mystic — Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection’s Practice of the Presence of God and it changed the way Camp Family set tables for years. The idea that all life is prayer (or could be) including the way you set forks on the table was another example of the wisdom Gordon passed on to the people under him.
I never got the astral projection thing, but I know others who do and it seems to make spiritual sense of quantum mechanics. Gordon has, it seems to me, always been light-years away from anyone else I know, (except maybe Todd, who also “gets” the astral projection thing). Recently (a few years ago), Gordon and I got talking about something that was bothering parishioners, but I didn’t have an answer to — salvation, heaven, hell, and why God does anything along those lines. Gordon didn’t answer until I realized that he thought I was asking the wrong questions — he had long ago realized that these questions ran into a dead end, and the only answer is “love”. God loves. God is love. We should love. We should try to become loving through practice and prayer. Once we realize that, the rest of things seem to fall into place. There’s some sort of Eastern mindfulness that psychology and religion is starting to “get” that Gordon’s already “got”. I can’t quite conceive of it yet, but I can see signs of it here and there. I just stand in awe of it.
Years ago, there was a Deering reunion at his place (the complex, not his apartment) in New Hampshire and it was a treasure to see all the incredible things we had become (see my blog post “Five and Ten and a Hundred Fold” to get a sense of it). Two years ago, at another reunion, I got to work with Gordon in worship and it was a real “bucket list” moment — so many of which have had Gordon there. I still dream of/feel called to create a camp like Deering which celebrates all of who Gordon was, with Cy) I have been blessed and I want the rest of the world to be so blessed.
Two final points about Gordon: Don’t be thinking he was “all spiritual”. He was more human than most, because he was more alive than nearly anyone I have ever met. When I told him I’d be on camp family in 1988, he was joyous and said things that cannot be repeated here in his joy. I still remember pictures of him roofing cabins with nothing on but an apron to hold nails with — showing his little butt and the twinkling smile that only he could pull off. More fun, alive, and wise all at the same time! That was Gordon.
The other: You know that scene in the original Star Wars, where Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “It’s like a million screaming people” when the Death Star blows up Datooine? I finally got a sense of that today, when I thought about Gordon’s heart attack and potential death and funeral. First off, I can’t imagine a church in New Hampshire big enough to hold all the people who will come to celebrate his life and his meaning to them. Secondly, New Hampshire will be thirsty before the service and flood after it, with all the tears that will be shed. There will be a big hole left behind in the Universe when Gordon leaves.
It will take all of us who knew him to fill it. He would tell us we’re up to the challenge. We know it’ll be hard.