Homily preached at the funeral of Cooper Olson, by Jean Hansen
Holy spirit, use these words and speak to each of us according to our need. Amen.
I am both honored and humbled to be asked by the Olson family to share with you today. I’ve been at St. John’s almost 13 years, and the Olson family was one of the first families to welcome me. I learned quickly that this Olson family is an extraordinary family. You have to know that the faith formation of their children was a top priority for Rick and Wendy. They rarely miss a Sunday, and I quickly learned that this extraordinary family would do whatever they could to help and support others – including me! In fact, I remember having asked Rick, more than once, if he would be my vestry representative. His response was always “no, I won’t do that, but I will do anything else.” And so began my requests. They became my “go to family”. If I needed someone to help flip pancakes for the Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner, or grill food for the Gathering Sunday picnic, or get to the church early on the first Sunday of June to make sure the parking lot was empty so we could sell spots for Grand Old Day, or, even more recently, meet me at church to help cut greens for the Advent wreath event, and then haul away the leftover twigs, an Olson would show up, and that made all the difference to me and the ministry I share with others.
From watching Rick and Wendy, it didn’t take me long to see that children really do watch, and follow the model of their parents. For the past 13 years I have had the privilege to experience the transformative love that the Olson family so freely shares with everyone. I’m sure Cooper shared that transformative love with all of you, just like he did with me and the youth of St. John’s. He was the kid who would show up ready to participate and to help. He never complained, in fact he was happy to do whatever was needed. After hearing about Cooper’s death, Emma, one of Cooper’s youth group friends, shared this with me: “What a good dude. He didn’t have to keep showing up, but he did. Not the loudest or the most type A or the first to offer his thoughts but he showed up to every youth group and lock in and confirmation class and mission trip. It’s hard to think about youth group without thinking of Cooper because he was such a constant presence.”
Cooper didn’t do “what everyone else was doing”. He didn’t let the actions of others influence what he would or wouldn’t do. He was an autonomous person who acted based on his own values – he was his own person. Or, as Wendy would say “Cooper was just Cooper”. In the summer of 2012 youth from St. John’s and Holy Apostles participated in a mission trip to White Earth Reservation. My own three children, and my sister Mary accompanied us on that trip. Before we even left St. John’s, my car was having mechanical issues. I remember thinking – “shoot – now what do I do? – this is going to hold everyone up.” We managed to get almost all of the youth from my van into the other vans – except one. Guess who offered to be the one youth who didn’t go with the fun group? Yep – it was Cooper – he offered to stay back and travel with me, my sister and my three kids, which ultimately meant it likely wouldn’t be much fun! Cooper was just Cooper, and he managed to make it a great trip – he was in charge of the music and helped me navigate. He never complained, he just continued to be present throughout the drive.
Cooper modeled the kind of character we heard about today in Micah: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Cooper got it right, in everything he did. As Emma said – he showed up. He didn’t show up in a grand way – he didn’t show up to show off. He showed up to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly.
We heard more about who Cooper was in the reading from John: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. Abide in me as I abide in you – abide in my love and my love will abide in you.”
What is this fruit bearing Jesus was talking about? I think the fruit he is talking about is love. Jesus said in order to bear love, we must abide in love. Cooper chose to abide in love, something his extraordinary family modeled for him. Cooper showed up to show love and bear the fruit of that love. He was so good at bearing that fruit, yet somehow we didn’t see or know – or maybe he didn’t see or know – that that love doesn’t go away. That love is a part of you – you abide in that love and that love abides in you. There may be some days when it’s hard to see that love, and even to share that love. That love is still there.
Unfortunately, mental illness can sometimes make it difficult to abide in that love – especially when we need it most.
I recently came across a quote by Rollo May, who was an existential psychologist. He said: “depression is the inability to construct a future.” When a person feels hopeless, when a person doesn’t see a future, it’s possible they may contemplate suicide. Suicide is a major public health concern, and among the leading causes of death in the United States. According to the 2016 CDC Leading Causes of Death Report, suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people. All of you young people here – please, please, please reach out for support. Rick, Cooper’s dad, said tell people to “shake their kids and make them talk”.
It is impossible to know the kind of darkness Cooper lived with. Because we look for explanations for his death to make sense, we grab at any reasonable logic to figure it all out. There is a big problem with that. This sometimes fatal mental illness changes how we think and turns rational logical problem solving upside down. That means that there are going to be no real answers to our biggest questions about Cooper’s death. We either have to live with that, or we can make things up. Someone recently said to me “think of suicide as a massive heart attack of the brain.” It’s sudden, and there’s often no warning. It’s when you make things up that you begin to feel guilty, questioning what you could have done. Know this – you did the best you could – we all do the best we can. Cooper didn’t die because you missed something. Cooper died because of this sometimes fatal mental illness.
We know that Cooper had an extraordinary ability to touch the lives of people just by showing up. And, by the way it looks here today, he may have modeled that for you.
You’ve no doubt been telling and hearing some of these stories over the past several days. As much as anything, that is why so many people came to the funeral home yesterday, and so many people are here today. Cooper had the ability to let you know that you mattered.
But, as important as this is, it is only a piece of who Cooper has been to you. I’m not going to even attempt to summarize who Cooper has been to you. That is your job. In the coming days and weeks and months, share those stories. Those are the stories that begin with, “Remember when …” and lead to huge smiles, amazement, sadness, nostalgia, and sometimes crazy laughter. I dare say, you will discover something about yourself and something about Cooper as you tell these stories. When you tell these stories, it is natural to be grateful, especially grateful to God for placing Cooper in your life. This is a good day to give thanks to God for placing Cooper in your life.
We know that, because Cooper played an important part in our lives, and his death last week leaves a hole that is huge. It hurts. It leaves us reeling. It leaves some of us feeling overwhelmed. This is a good day to acknowledge that hurt and pain.
We know that just like God gave Cooper the gift of bearing love, God gives gifts to people so that the work of God might be accomplished. When we care for one another we are doing God’s work. This is a good day to allow people to comfort us.
We know that God made some irrevocable promises to Cooper. On Christmas Eve 1994, Cooper was baptized here at St. John’s and became a child of God. That was a relationship that God promised never to abandon. On a day like this it is so important to remember that promise.
We know that God made a promise to Cooper to love him, to be with him in thick and thin. That brings me peace today.
We know that God promised Cooper everlasting life. Jesus goes ahead to prepare a place for Cooper. That brings me hope.
Today is a jumbled up day with all of this mixed together. It is as it should be. Ultimately, we know that God is the source of healing; bringing promise, love, and hope.
As the author of Romans said “I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Thank you for showing up today. Please, continue showing up – just as Cooper always did.