Repost from May 2014
On Saturday, Polly and I will drive to SE Ohio to pay our respects to a man who was once a vital part of the church I pastored in Somerset. The family has asked me to conduct the funeral and I am delighted that they asked me to do so. (They asked for a non-religious service.) It’s been 20 years since I have seen this family face to face. In recent years, I have reconnected with some of the children via Facebook. It will be good to see them, the children now in their 30s with children of their own.
As I ponder what to say on Saturday, I can’t help but think about the 11 years I spent as their pastor. They knew me when I was a fire-breathing Baptist fundamentalist preacher and school administrator and they also knew me when I was a fundamentalist Calvinistic Baptist. They remember my preaching, the rules, and the standards. They remember my commitment to the God and the Bible. I hope they also remember my goodness and kindness. While these things will certainly provide the backdrop for our reconnection on Saturday, they will not be the substance of what I will say at the service. Why? Because the past, with all its religious and Biblical trappings, will obscure the man we will be honoring.
You see, he was a good man. He was a friend who would do anything for me, any time, day or night. When I needed help, he always made himself available. While he could be temperamental at times, most of the time he was a kind, compassionate man. But these traits were obscured and mattered little years ago. Instead of seeing the man, I tended to see the sin. Isn’t that what we were taught to do? Holiness and purity were the objective, without which no man shall see the Lord.
He and I were different in many ways. When it came to sin, I could always hide my sin better than he could. Over time, preachers get good at hiding their sin, their failures. After all, they are supposed to be shining examples of spiritual maturity and holiness. No one wants a preacher who is like himself. People want a Moses, a Paul, or a Jesus, someone to inspire them and show them the way. So preachers lie, giving the appearance that they, if need be, could walk on water. Deep down they know, that like everyone else, if they walked on water they would drown. Strip away the clerical façade and what you see is a man no different from those sitting in the pew.
I remember the first time Greg came to church. He was wearing a shirt that said Zig-Zag; and no he didn’t roll his own cigarettes. This is a perfect picture of the kind of man he was. He had little pretense; what you saw was what you got. So when he sinned he didn’t hide it well. I remember one Sunday afternoon he went to the movies with his wife. They saw Born on the Fourth of July. Now, this was a big sin at our church. No movies, especially R-rated movies. I could tell that he was a little antsy at evening service, but he said nothing about the movie. The next day at school one of his children mentioned that Mom and Dad had gone to see a movie. I asked them, WHAT movie? They confessed, with nary a thought that they had just gotten their Dad in trouble. Of course, the good pastor that I was, watching out for his soul, I called him and asked him to come to my office so we could talk. Nothing like getting called to the principal’s office, right?
Before he started coming to the church he had been an avid listener of rock and roll music. Well, at Somerset Baptist Church, we didn’t listen to THAT kind of music! One day he came to church all excited. He had found out that there was music called Christian rock. He had bought a cassette tape of a group by the name of Stryper. (he loved the song To Hell with the Devil) I took one look at the pictures on the cassette box and I knew that Stryper was nothing more than a tool used by Satan to deceive Christians. I told him it was a bad idea for him to listen to such worldly music. I think he was deeply discouraged by my “Godly” opinion. He thought he had finally found something that was not only Christ-honoring but that also met his desire to listen to rock music. I, the arbiter of what was Christ-honoring, knew better.
There were a lot of these sinful moments, and as I look back on it, I can see how discouraging it must have been for him. Most of the things I called sin were not sin at all. But, because I thought they were, they kept me from seeing the man for who and what he really was. My religion obscured this man’s humanity, as all religions do to some degree or the other, Instead of seeing the man, I saw him through the lens of the Bible and my interpretation of it. My sin list and my dogma got in the way of me seeing this man as a flawed and frail good man. Like his preacher, he wasn’t perfect.
We spent a lot of non-religious time together, and it is from those times I will draw the stories I plan to share with his family. Great stories. Crazy stories. Funny stories. Stories that will testify of the kind of man he was. Yes, I could share the “other” stories too, but to what end? As I told Polly today, if we live long enough, we all will have moments that are less than stellar. We will have those times where we went the wrong way or made a bad choice, where we hurt others and hurt ourselves. But these stories are not who we really are. They are the exceptions to the rule, the reminder that no one is perfect, including Jesus.
So on Saturday I will mourn the loss of a man I once knew, but I will also rejoice with his family as we share stories about the good man that he was. This will be my first time doing a funeral where there are no religious expectations. No preaching, no need to get a word in for Jesus; no evangelizing or making everything about the church. On this spring day, in the hills of SE Ohio, we will celebrate the life of a man whom others loved dearly. While his body will be put into the ground, he will live on in the memories we have of him. In the end, this is all the living have.