Recently, I attended the funeral of the Rev. Russ Ames. I first met Russ when I was asked to serve on his ordination council – almost exactly a year ago. He was in very bad health at the time, as he had been for several years. As a matter of fact, he lived his last three years as a LVAD (artificial heart) patient.
I was fascinated with Russ’ life story and testimony. With a Ph.D., he was a professor of education and psychology at Purdue University, the Graduate School of University College at the University of Maryland and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was nationally known for his research and writing on motivation and especially for his publication series on Research on Motivation in Education. Russ established Moment to Moment Enterprises which included individual and group counseling as well as CDs and a blog known as “Moment-to-Moment Optimism” with the goal of bringing positive thinking to life’s challenges and everyday living.
In 2012, at age 66, he was called into ministry and entered the graduate program in divinity at Duke University. He was graduated with a Master of Theological Studies degree in 2015. In April 2016, he achieved his spiritual dream and was ordained as a Baptist minister at the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham. Russ never served on a church staff, never wrote a textbook or commentary, never got on a speaker’s circuit. Russ ministered by his constant and encouraging presence at Watts Street. To imagine what he endured to be able to make it to the worship service each week was humbling to those who might let lesser excuses prevent their attendance.
I only had a few encounters with Russ. One was at the council meeting, then at the ordination service, then I saw him at one of our meetings – a General Assembly, I believe. He was in a wheelchair in the corner of the room, alone except for his constant companion dog, Sophie. I re-introduced myself to him and we chatted a few minutes before I ran off to take care of some responsibility. But the people of Watts Street got to know him well, so there were wonderful stories from friends, ministers, and also from his wife and son.
Here is what was most moving to me. One of Russ’ friends stood to read scriptures which I assume were selected by Russ: the Beatitudes and selections from Romans 8. She introduced what she would be reading. Then, at “blessed are those who mourn” she paused and broke into tears. It was the most amazing thing to see. I’ve heard those words read with confidence and polish. But to hear someone read the words about mourning AS they are mourning – to me it was very moving. She apologized, took a deep breath, and picked up the reading. As she read Romans 8, though, it happened again. “What can separate us…” then tears and quickly caught breaths and another apology. “What can separate us from the love of God?” she read. And then with a surprising confidence, she ticked off the litany of things that want to separate us, but cannot, from God’s love: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, nor anything else.
It was breathtaking. Russ had experienced much in that list. But he was in God’s care now.
What impressed me was the honesty. Russ, a dear friend, was dead. Friends and family mourned. Yes, there was much to celebrate about his life – and there was a sincere celebration of his amazing knowledge, keen humor, and deep love of life. But hearing those scriptures read through tears reminded me that the Word can speak for us in all circumstances of life – and death.