Funeral For A Friend
This past Saturday was my 55th birthday. My day of celebration found me walking into a big sanctuary behind a line of twelve other pastors. There were huge worship banners on the walls of the very ornate gathering room. Some four to five hundred folks were in the pews watching a procession of clergy. I was next to last in the line of pomp and circumstance. Someone grabbed Sherry and kept her from melting into the nameless crowd. She was escorted to her special place in the second row with the other “first ladies.” From her unfamiliar perch, Sherry sent me a wink and smile of comfort to aid me in my uncomfortable chair on the large stage behind the podium. I was wondering what the mass choir behind me was thinking about this strange, light-gray suited fish literally out of water.
And then the place got rockin’. The audience was beyond responsive. They were locked and loaded to stand, sing, clap, and raise hands in victorious worship. And that’s what we did for about two and a half hours.
All of this unfolding at a funeral for a Black friend.
Just prior to the pastoral march to the platform, all thirteen pastors gathered in the host pastor’s office. It was a room full of black suits, purple shirts, and white collars — with the exception of me. We introduced ourselves and shook hands. One older, slower moving pastor gave me a bear hug. Pastor Crenshaw cautioned our group of bishops, chief elders, high reverends, and pastors to keep their comments brief. He suggested we each take two to three minutes to speak. With those rather firm directives, we proceeded to join hands and pray for Pastor Walker who would deliver the eulogy.
I suppose I’ve done hundreds of funerals. In my thirty years of ministry, I equate the eulogy to a mere reading of the obituary. Why would we single Pastor Walker out for prayer given his minimalistic assignment of the eulogy?
I am so glad they didn’t assign the eulogy to this very naïve pastor.
During the service, I took a few minutes to express my heart and thoughts. I managed to eke some laughter out of the crowd by pointing to the obvious. “As you may notice, I’m a little different from the rest of the pastors on the platform.” (hearty laughter) “I’m the one with a green tie!” (even more hearty laughter) The other African American pastors behind me were laughing, too (whew).
At the one and a half hour mark, it was finally time for the eulogy. Good thing we prayed for Pastor Walker. He would need to read through the obituary quickly and fluidly so we could land the plane and wrap up this whole blessed event. I was sure we had gone over our time allotment.
And then Pastor Walker, a pastor from Chicago, began to Preeeeech. Four spectacular points with great scripture. Each point would stir the crowd to its feet. The organist and Pastor Walker worked a holy cadence, enlivening the Spirit in a large crowd of people mourning the loss of a great friend. An hour later, a sweaty Pastor Walker (who never actually used the black handkerchief he held) sat down. The crowd was deeply stirred to live lives victoriously because we already have victory in Jesus. It was a sight to behold. It was awesome. We were havin’ church.
Now I understand the meaning of an eulogy. The funeral was a wonderful event celebrating the life of my deceased friend, Dr. Charles Jackson. It was quite an eye-opening education for this sheltered, trying-to-break-out-of-the-bubble pastor.
I remember sitting in my special, honored, platform chair listening to the mass choir and Pastor Walker do his thing. I thought to myself, “How on earth did I get here? How did I get to this place?”
I grew up in Waynesville, Ohio where we laid claim to one lonely Black family. The Cochrans moved into our quaint village my sophomore year of high school. We thought Billy Cochran would be the savior of our basketball, football, and track team. We quickly discovered Billy was not the trophied athlete we had hoped, but he was a great guy. His sister, Dana, actually did bring a much needed spark to our track team. That was pretty much the extent of my cultural diversity training as a kid growing up in the Midwest.
There were other Black friends I gained at Eastern Kentucky University. Brayton Simmons also became a good friend when I led a church in southern Indiana. He told stories of not being able to go into the White Steamer as a kid because he was Black. Brayton was Steve Alford’s boyhood basketball coach. That was cool. But that was the width and breadth and totality of my cultural diversity training.
But there I sat on the stage of Shaw Temple A.M.E. Zion Church in Smyrna, Georgia with twelve other pastors, mass choir, an organ-laced sermon, and lots of fancy dressed ladies with big hats.
God, in His miraculous grace and probable sense of humor has seen fit to give me cultural diversity training. Our Lord has connected me with great friends and Kingdom co-laborers who are African American, Hispanic, and Asian. I am a better husband, dad, friend, person, and pastor because of it.
The church I lead is being infused with people not like me. What a wonderful, glorious mess. Is it sometimes uncomfortable? Just ask Sherry what I looked like sitting between two huge Black pastors in dark suits, purple shirts, and white collars. My gray skinny suit, mint green tie… and small frame… HAD to be just as I was imagining in my mind. Uncomfortable? Heck yeah, but I absolutely loved it. As I pondered how I found myself in such a predicament, I also had a deep gratitude and amazement for the current reality of my own church.
There were folks from the church I lead who attended this same funeral. Some of my friends there were white, and some were Black. I noticed my Black friends really enjoying themselves. You CAN do this at a Black funeral of a Jesus following friend! When the music, Pastor Walker’s smokin’ sermon, or the organist accompanying his deliberate pace caused praise and applause, my black friends seemed quick to join in. Although I was painfully aware of how hard I was trying to fit in, my Black friends were having no problem just being.
It caused this thought: “Am I willing to be uncomfortable to deepen the roots of diversity in my life?” What my African American friends were reveling in, caused, to some level, discomfort within me. Will I, then, welcome things and experiences into my life to grab onto even deeper, diverse relationships in my church and spheres of living?
My answer is a resounding yes.
On Sunday morning I was back at the church I pastor. I noticed all the singers and musicians were white. I saw some of my Black friends who were also at the funeral. I wondered what they thought of the shreddin’ guitar solo and worship songs I love and which I find extremely comfortable? Were my Black friends willing to give up, compromise, and maybe get a little uncomfortable for greater gains of gospel diversity? I was Holy Spirit convinced of a need to give up and compromise more with the things I like if greater gains of diversity are to be realized.
I’m going to push and lead conversations that may be uncomfortable to gain even more. I’m going to risk not being politically correct so the prospect of being gospel correct has a greater chance of happening.
We have a Diversity Conversation this Saturday night. We’ll have a panel of six white and Black leaders. It may be uncomfortable, but I’m OK with that. It may be risky, but the potential gains are so worth it. I hope many gospel saturated folks will participate.
And maybe… just maybe… the choir at the church I lead will learn to sway. Maybe… just maybe… my Black friends will not mourn the lack of an organist during my sermons. Maybe we’ll all learn to give and give up and compromise, and swim in the glorious mess that is the extremely diverse body and Bride of our Lord, Jesus. Now THAT would be rockin’. THAT would be Church.
With cultural diversity wars blowing up outside the church walls, we need a church like this. We must have a church like this. And when outside the church walls is impacted by what’s inside, THAT would be Church. May it be so.