Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How the mighty have fallen

I was saddened to learn of the death of a dear friend and mentor this past week, the Rev. Daniel K. Sullivan, who succumbed to a rather sudden illness at the good age of 81. He was a man full of vigor, physically, spiritually and in his personality. So this is a case of being somewhat surprised to hear a friend has died, even though he was not a young man -- thus the title of this post reflects David's lament for Saul and Jonathan who died in battle (2 Sam 1).

Dan was a faithful minister of the Gospel, who was utterly committed to the people under his pastoral care. He was the Rector of my home church until I was 24 years old, then a friend and informal adviser in subsequent years. I sought him out at junctions in life, both personally and professionally. His advice followed probing questions and careful attention listening to my answers, telling me his opinion but also expressing the freedom to choose one way or the other.

There were many advantages Dan had for parish ministry, such as a quick laugh and a most extraordinary ability to recall names. He kept a punishing schedule but was able to pay attention in meetings even when dozing! Yet natural gifts aside, Dan showed a level of dedication and discipline that is rare today. I lack it in my ministry, certainly. On a mission trip to the Oglala Lakota tribe, we said the Daily Office as a mission team without fail. There were teenage (and some adult) chuckles as we circled up to read evening prayer in the pitch dark after a long day's travel and recited together with flashlights illumining our prayer books, "Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light...". Dan was gentle and strong, and radiated the joy of knowing Jesus Christ.

He had many habits of Anglo-Catholic Christianity as a priest, but prudishness was not among them. He made a helpful distinction between blasphemy and vulgarity, surprising my friend (and future brother-in-law) as we walked around a fifteen passenger van on the South Dakota prairie. Dan was standing there in his shorts only, Arnold Schwarzenegger muscled up in miniature, and shaving using the side view mirror. Without really taking his eyes off the mirror, Dan spoke out of the side of his mouth: "watch out for the s--t, boys." We gasped, but he merely grinned, impishly, and said, "that is a proper name for what you almost stepped in." He also spoke of the joy of reuniting with his wife after two weeks away in a way that was somehow both modest yet scandalizing to us!

Dan and his wife Adele were kind with their time in retirement, visiting my family in England twice, including when Dan preached at my ordination. I regard him warmly as a "father in the Lord" who was faithful in prayer and constant in his encouragement of my own ministry. In fact, when I asked to meet with him while home during Christmas vacation in my last year of college, he surprised me once again by replying to my query about what he thought about my pursuing ordained ministry: "I have been praying that you would realize a call to ordination since you were fourteen." He was faithful in preparing me for seminary and patiently understanding when my own ministry in the Church of England took on some distinctives from our Episcopal setting.

There were many endearing qualities and things about Dan I recall: calling the jam we brought from Canada by the French name (confiture) instead of just jam; patiently telling children to turn their attention to him as he taught the Bible ("listen to me, I'm telling the story"); assuming the best of leaders in the Episcopal church but writing them sincerely to correct them and truly praying for them (but letting his people know clearly that "the bishop has been naughty, and what he taught was wrong"); reacting with joy at the simplest gift or gesture, swinging his arms and exclaiming with delight at the thoughtfulness; jumping up and down singing "this little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine" with children. Many, many more.

I know that Dan wasn't perfect, and he told me of instances when he had wronged people and sought their forgiveness, even kneeling before priests who were his subordinates to be absolved by them. I'm thankful that though he was not perfect, he will be perfected in glory with Jesus Christ; and I'm thankful that he was a good man.

He lived out his vows made to his wife Adele faithfully, and he lived out his vows made at ordination faithfully, too. I am thankful for Dan Sullivan, for his loving leadership, friendship and faith in the Lord. A mighty one has fallen!

From a recollection by my dad about Dan in a recent email:
"He was marvelous as a Shepherd creating and guiding
largely independent lay groups. What a blessing for our family that our
children grew up attending Good Sam and participating in the Youth Group
and the trips while we adults received lots of beneficial encouragement
in our roles as Christian parents and people."


Anne said...

I wanted to offer you and Katie my condolences about Father Dan's recent unexpected death. I didn't want to leave it in a voice mail and, regretfully, letter writing eludes me at present.

I was saddened to hear the news of his passing, though I had a much less involved relationship with him than you did, he definitely touched my life. He indulged my desire for a First Communion that Mom only requested after I pestered she and Dad for days about it. His broad grin and infectious spirit became my standard for "people outside the family," meaning anyone not a relative. I was disappointed to discover that all people weren't like him once I got out into the world beyond the borders of our childhood home.

I will call you. I am thinking of you.
Love, Anne

Mary said...

Cliff, thank-you for eloquently wording what I have been feeling all week. We are deeply grieving our loss. He was our spiritual father in so many, rich ways.

Anonymous said...

When I heard about Fr. Dan, my first thought was, No it can't be! He's so..full of life! My next thought was of Dan rejoicing in Heaven because he didn't just preach about our Lord, he knew him well. I wonder if Dan knew how much we truly loved him. He always took the time for me and in the last few years although we have keep in touch only by Christmas card updates, we were reconnected by the visit to England for your ordination when we all stayed at the Berrys. I have a letter in progress with questions I wanted him to answer for us. How I wish I had sent it.
love to you,jean

Clifford Swartz said...

Anne, Mary and Jean,
Thanks for your remarks, and I do expect the funeral on Saturday to be a good occasion to honor Dan's life and give thanks. With love, Cliff