“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The words spoken at the imposition of ashes took on new meaning for students, their families, faculty, and staff of Nashotah House. One of our own, Deacon Terry Star, a middler from the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota, died unexpectedly on March 4. As the preacher for Ash Wednesday reminded us, Lent’s true purpose is what Saint Benedict gave his monks as one of their “Tools for Good Works” (chapter 4), to keep death daily before their eyes. Lent calls us to acknowledge our creaturely nature, and the death of our brother and friend brings it home in no uncertain terms.
Senior student, Benjamin Jefferies, speaks for all of us when he writes:
“Truly, Nomen est Omen—the name determines the man: The brightness in Terry’s gentle eyesreally did shine like a Star in the night sky. And what image is more apt to describe our peaceful, giant friend than his Lakota name :“White Mountain”. The impression of his calm, thoughtful, big, guileless, and playful presence is permanently etched into my memory. Although this memory-mark is indelible, how much fresher and warmer was the man himself, how much I would prefer to have him, and not just the memories.
We, here at the House, are missing him sorely. And we will miss him, indefinitely. Although cliché, and although it seems like a small thing to say, “missing him” is the best way to put it. His faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord was manifestly evident in his life, carriage, and vocation as deacon. We thus have every available assurance that he is with the blessed souls in paradise, being drawn ever nearer to our God. We miss him like one who has gone away for a little while, but who we will see again before too long, when our time comes. After the shock, this was my second thought upon hearing the news of his death: Lucky him – who now gets to see Jesus face to face.
In his life and ministry, Death was no stranger to Terry. Although from our vantage there is a horrible, horrible, horrible suddenness to his own departure from this earth, Terry himself had no pretenses about the End that comes to us all. Three weeks ago, Terry and I were pall-bearers at a funeral of an old Son of the House. The celebrant remarked that he had buried nearly a thousand people in his time. Terry whispered to me that he had buried about that many in his time as a deacon. “Really?” I exclaimed, to which he replied that it was probably more like several hundred. Terry had mentioned to me before (We lived in Kemper hall together for a year and a half) that he had buried more of his “kids” – the teenagers he ministered to back home – than he would ever have liked. These, coupled with his parochial ministry generally, as well as recent passings in his family, brought death frequently before his eyes. I had no idea of the numbers though. But it made sense – of the light in his eyes. Only someone who has looked Death so squarely in the face could be that peaceful in Life. The next day, after he had told me about his hundreds, I told him as much, “Hey Terry, now I understand where that light in your eyes comes from – from having done all those funerals.” He smiled in that Terry way and nodded in agreement.
I don’t know all the details of Terry’s life, but I have a few strong pictures from what he told me: There’s Terry as kid in his very tight-knit family. Upon showing me a piece of bead-work he was given as a gift, he told me that as a child he remembered sorting tens of thousands of these tiny beads with a pin at his grandparents house. As a Christian in the Native American community, Terry’s life was often one of living on borders, of liminality. In his travels throughout a predominantly White country, Terry was very frequently met with the full spectrum of racism – ranging from ignorant language-use, to stereotyping, to flat-out animosity and disrespect. In his Native community, he was sometimes eyed with a little suspicion for being a disciple of a religion not ancient to Native people. Sometimes these two worlds would get mixed-up in odd ways: Terry once told me that at a ceremonial Native gathering, a White person who had “gotten into Native religion” approached Terry—who was wearing his alb and deacon’s stole—and started yelling at him that he was a ‘sell-out’. Upon telling me this story, before I could be empathetically appalled, he just started chuckling. It was a soft but unstoppable chuckle that revealed the outlook which Terry always had, as long as I got to be witness to his life: An outlook which was abounding in patience. In both senses of the word: A quiet suffering, which he shared with our Lord, and an understanding of the ignorance and folly of his fellow human beings, which he did not quickly hold against them.
Death. Liminality. Staples in Terry’s life which he had accepted. Lesser souls would have become depressed by such things, but Terry used them like the proverbial oyster uses the irritating sand, and it blessed us: The calm comportment he gained was a welcome blessing in a dorm hall where we young men were often losing our composure under the stress of life and school-work. He was a ballast to us – helping to keep us emotionally upright in times of trial. This ministry of presence was far from passive. About once a week Terry would make one of his marvelous stews or soups for we Kemper guys, and anyone else who happened to be passing through at dinner time. He brought his TV out to the common area, so we could all watch movies together (on weekends only, of course) – an activity that, no matter how mundane, did much to build community on the floor.
Beyond domestic life, the experiences Terry had engendered a profound intellectual life. Although classroom work was sometimes a struggle for Terry, compounded by how often he was called-for off-campus (for funerals back home, to Executive Council on the East Coast,etc.), Terry had profound perspicuity into the relationship between Christianity and Culture, arising from his reflections on ministering within a Native context. Many things he shared with us about his vision for ministry were paradigm molding. In the spirit of Justin Martyr, he wrote a paper outlining how the pre-incarnate Logos had directed the religious thought of the Dakota people to be congruous in form to the Christian message. He spoke of using Sage – an herb used by the Dakota in religious ceremonies – in a thurible, to connect Christian worship with the senses of the people-group from whence he came. And many other things like this. Terry was a paragon of keeping the difficult balance between recognizing Christian identity as first and trump, but not neglecting the riches that culture affords, nor overlooking the oppressive facts of history.
We will miss Terry. We will miss his calm. His ministry. His keen intellect. More than these we will miss his smile, that warm, generous smile, with those bright eyes. But more than all of this, we just miss him. I keep thinking of these lines from John Updike:
And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop…
…The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.
— from “Perfection Wasted”
Now, I know Terry wasn’t perfect, but by earthly lights, it still sure seems to be a waste—that his life and ministry are so soon over. But we trust God, nevertheless. Trust that this whole thing – Terry’s whole life, and death, are subject to Him, even though it doesn’t appear to be in subjection sometimes. And we trust that our loss is Terry’s gain, as he looks on the master, whose service he imitated, face to shining face.”
Terry succumbed to complications of heart disease. He will forever be a Son of the House, a Child of the King. We are poorer at his loss, as is the Church.
“Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant the Deacon Terry. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thing own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen”
Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord. And let Light perpetual shine upon him!