Summary: Funeral message for Mrs. Athelstein Coleman, whose hobby was working crossword puzzles: a play on "crossword" to say that the "word of the cross" means wisdom and strength.
It's not only what people do that interests me; it's also why they do it. When I see someone doing something over and over again, I want to know what that behavior means. If there is a pattern in someone's behavior, what does that pattern mean?
Often you find that people do what they do, even when it seems very unusual, for the most profound of reasons. People do what they do, however unusual, for a reason, and sometimes a very good one.
Years ago I asked my brother why he practiced the piano so long and so hard every day. After all, other young men were out running around. Why was he spending hours at that keyboard? You see, I had thought of piano playing as a lot of hard work, especially if you were trying, as he was, to get it perfect. Was it worth all that? I asked him, "What does it mean to you to invest hour after hour, day after day, in this one thing, piano practice?"
My brother answered that for him to make music was to deliver one of God's gifts to humanity, and therefore he had to be worthy. For him, the discipline of hours of piano practice, while it seemed to me too much, too overwhelming, too demanding, for him was nothing less than preparing his talent for the use of the Lord.
So you see, often you find that people do what they do, even when it seems very unusual, for the most profound of reasons. People do what they do, however unusual it may seem, for a reason, and sometimes a very good one.
It's not only what people do that should interest us; it is also why they do it.
I first met Athelstein Coleman several years ago, right out here in the hallway immediately behind our sanctuary. She was seated at a rickety old card table, wearing a sweater and shivering in the coldest, draftiest spot in this entire building. Spread out on the table in front of her were several items: some plastic name tags; a legal pad and a pencil; and a crossword puzzle book, over which she was poring as if it were the assembly instructions for a Titan missile! When I greeted her, she looked up for a moment; she smiled and explained that she was here to register the guests for our Wednesday Club ministry. And then she went right back to her crossword puzzle.
Over the months that followed I soon learned that working crossword puzzles was Athelstein Coleman's trademark. It was her signature. Whenever she had otherwise idle time, she would go back to her old friends, the crossword puzzles, chipping away on seven-letter words for this and ten-letter words for that. Every Wednesday she would come and, while waiting for the guests to arrive, would quietly set up shop in that same drafty spot, and back she would go to those crossword puzzles.
Crossword puzzles were so much Athelstein's signature that when Mrs. Rabun and I visited her in the hospital some months ago, we took a little gift. Guess what? Crossword puzzle books, of course. Nothing else would do for her.
But why? Why this love of crossword puzzles? One day I got up the courage to ask her. Why crosswords? Why this form of recreation? Why so much investment in word games? Remember, it's not only what people do that interests me; it is also why they do it. And when you ask, often you find that people do what they do, even when it seems very unusual, for the most profound of reasons.
Athelstein’s reply was, "Crossword puzzles do two things for me. First, I learn things I wouldn't know otherwise. I learn words and definitions, names and places; I learn about all kinds of things." And she went on, "Also crossword puzzles keep me alert. They keep me mentally nimble. They exercise my mind. Crossword puzzles are a great way to use time when the only other thing you can do is to sit and wait."
And so I found that in something which I had thought of as just recreation, maybe just a time-killer, Athelstein Coleman had found two great gifts: wisdom and strength. Wisdom and strength. She learned and she kept her mind alert. Wisdom and strength.
Today we also are here to look for wisdom and strength. Today we need to know from what source we can find wisdom and strength for our needs as we say farewell. Wisdom to understand the meaning of life and death; strength to handle our loss. We too need wisdom and strength.
And so, if you will permit me a twist on Mrs. Coleman's favorite recreation, today we will find wisdom and strength in the crossword. Or, to turn it around, in the word of the cross. Not in the crossword puzzle but in the mystery of the word of the cross.