Tribute to Finis

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” — C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Finis Cavender was not ordinary. His spiritual life, his commitment to his family, his intellect, his sense of humor, his passions for woodworking, clocks, the outdoors, baking, athletics, science, and writing — his driven personality — all of these are some of his “immortal splendors.” They are what drew the Townsend children to him for all of our lives. And it was Lewis’s words that came to mind when I learned yesterday that Finis crossed over from this temporary, physical life to one of immortality.

C.S. Lewis writes that the “merriest kind” of merriment “exists between people who have… taken each other seriously.” I think this is what all of us sensed about Finis: he took words seriously, and that translated into his perpetual punning and wordplay; he took the church seriously, and that translated into both building meaningful church community as well as writing about church unity; he took his family and friends seriously, and that meant cooking for us, camping with us, long talks with us, and a lifetime of all-in laughter, deep study, and adventure. These memories are invaluable to me, all the more so now.

I remember Finis coaching my running form at Myrtle Beach. I remember sitting at a state park eating Jeannie’s peach cobbler with Finis, as he explained the “chemistry of cobbler” to me. I remember visiting their house in Decatur, Illinois and painting their front porch. I remember Finis carrying in boxes of his homemade cakes at the start of the Cornell reunions. I remember thinking my entire life that Finis was the funniest person I had ever known. I remember Finis sitting with Tinker the poodle on his lap. I remember reading an early draft of his novel about church unity, in which he seamlessly integrated science, religion, epigraphs by Tertullian, and his famous puns into a story about the beloved community. I remember how Finis would play-bite at Jeannie’s finger when she would point at something. I remember how Finis seemed to be an expert on absolutely everything. I remember his toxicology coasters: “Name your poison.” I remember Finis’s outrageous suggestions of the things I could teach my cockatiel, Malcolm, to say. I remember riding bikes through Santa Fe with Finis in 2016, as he confidently guided the Townsend children and grandchildren (30+ years younger than him) back to the bike rental shop, without a map.

Over the coming weeks, I will be baking the walnut-date cake that Finis perfected and baking homemade bread (Finis’s recipe: with an added egg). I will be looking at old pictures from decades of vacations and visits. I will be reflecting on the joy, energy, and depth that Finis brought to every encounter. I will be grieving. I will be praying for Jeannie, Carey, Kelly, and Kendall and all their families, and also for my mom and dad. But mixed with my grief will be immeasurable gratitude that I knew Finis, and I will seek to be less ordinary.

— “Sarah Babe” (what Finis and Jeannie called me, because I was the youngest of the Townsend children) April 6, 2020