Reposted from 2015, edited, updated, and revised
Six years ago, Polly and I drove to Southeast Ohio to pay our respects to a man who was once a vital part of the church I pastored in Somerset. The family asked me to conduct the funeral and I was delighted to do so. Surprisingly, they asked for a non-religious service. It had been twenty years since I had seen this family face to face. In recent years, I have reconnected with some of the children via Facebook. It was good to see them, the children now in their 30s and 40s, with children of their own.
As I pondered what to say, I couldn’t help but think about the eleven years I spent as their pastor. They knew me when I was a fire-breathing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher and school administrator, and they were at the church when I became a Calvinist. They remembered my preaching, the rules, and the standards. They remembered my commitment to the God and the Bible. I hope they also remembered my goodness and kindness. While those things certainly provided the backdrop for our reconnection, they were not the substance of what I said at the service. Why? Because the past, with all its religious and Biblical trappings, would obscure the man we were honoring. I most wanted to talk about him.
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 failures. After all, they are supposed to be shining examples of spiritual maturity and holiness. No one wants a preacher who is just like everyone else. 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 pews.
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 another, 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 drew the stories I shared with his family. Great stories. Crazy stories. Funny stories. Stories that testified to the kind of man he was. Yes, I could have shared the “other” stories too, but to what end? As I told Polly at the time, if we live long enough, we all will have moments in our lives that are less than stellar. We all 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 that Saturday I mourned the loss of a man I once knew, but I also rejoiced with his family as we shared stories about the good man that he was. This was my first time doing a funeral where there were no religious expectations. No preaching, no need to get a word in for Jesus; no evangelizing or making everything about the church. On that spring day, in the hills of Southeast Ohio, we celebrated the life of a man whom others loved dearly. While his body will molder in the ground, Greg will live on in the memories we have of him. In the end, this is all the living have.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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