Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"Living in Victory," Chapter 18

Copyright 2006 Terry F. Phillips Sr.
All rights reserved

Chapter 18
“What a day for a funeral,” I told Betty at breakfast.
I decided to go for a walk after breakfast.
I was into running. Had gotten up to three miles a day, if I jogged real slow. But I didn’t want to work up a sweat, so I decided a walk would be good.
Then I thought of an old joke.
“Did you hear about the woman who walked five miles a day?”
“No. What happened?”
“She ended up 35 miles from home after just a week.”
Bah-rumm-pum! Tchhhh!
I was still struggling with the words. It was always a problem with the words. I thought about speaking from the heart, as one of the deacons had called it.
I took what he said as a criticism of my preaching from a manuscript. But the words were so important, I just didn’t trust myself to say the right ones that weren’t well thought out and put on paper.
After all, I mused, if God created the heavens and the Earth by speaking them into existence, I had better be careful of my own words.
Then I thought of how reticent Mark had been to say anything.
“He was right. We should speak less and think more before we speak.”
I read somewhere the Jews believed words had lives of their own. They might as well have lives, when you think how the right word can bring comfort, cheer, even laughter. But the wrong words bring shame, guilt, even war.
No, I thought I would never preach without a manuscript.
But Mark’s reticence to speak: That might fit into the funeral sermon.
I started walking left and east from Betty’s front door. I walked to the end of town and turned right, keeping Victory on my right side. I decided to walk around the town, not a great feat.
By the time I got back to Betty’s house, I felt better, more assured things would be all right, that I would honor the Lord and somehow be a vessel of blessing to Mark’s family and friends.
At the funeral home, the number of high school students gathered there astounded me.
Mark did not seem to be popular, but so many people were there. Teachers, coaches, even members of the basketball team. In Indiana, basketball is the premiere high school sports event. If you made the team, your social life was platinum-plated.
Mark just enjoyed the outdoors too much to be concerned about team sports, I reasoned. He talked about friends, but I had the idea his “friends” weren’t real friends at all. I remember the guys who scared Miss Cory half to death at church Saturday night.
“Losers!” I thought with disgust. “Mark was better. He should have settled for more. He should have never settled for less.”
There were high school girls crying on each other. Cute girls. Probably some were cheerleaders. They wouldn’t have noticed a guy like Mark. But now they were mourning him with gusto.
I thought of his pimply face.
“I wonder if Jesus had pimples when He was a teenager. Maybe the Apostle Paul had pimples. History said he was nothing to look at.”
I was stopped at the door by the funeral director. He escorted me away from the mourners. At the T we turned left. He showed me where the rest rooms were and escorted me into a room that appeared to double as office and snack bar. I guessed, rightly, that families could enjoy a meal together before or after visitation and they could rest and snack in there during the visitation, if they chose.
I opened my Bible and nearly panicked.
Where was my sermon?
Then, I found it in the back of my Thompson Chain Reference Bible. I had folded the 8 ½-by-11 sheets neatly and had placed them in a part of the Bible that listed scriptures dealing with death.
Shortly before the funeral service, I was joined by a group of guys who were Mark’s pallbearers.
Some appeared to be Mark’s age, though they didn’t go to our church. As we were introduced, I found they were classmates cousins, and other family members. All of them attended Southmont High School, or had graduated a year or two earlier.
Eventually, the time came that I hated. The undertaker came and escorted us into the sanctuary where Mark’s body lay in a beautiful casket.
I took time to look at the casket and realized it was probably a much better piece of woodcraft than any furniture in Mark’s home. I remembered the makeshift boat we had paddled and carried down Sugar Creek not long ago and how incongruous Mark looked laying in the casket, wearing a suit, tie and his face’s blemishes neatly covered with makeup.
I decided I liked him a lot better with blemishes.
We got through the funeral without too many stumbles. My mouth was dry and my words sounded dead as soon as they left my mouth.
I finished, sat down in the folding chair provided for me behind the lectern and glanced at my watch.
Ten minutes. I had only spoken 10 minutes! Not long enough! What would Mark’s parents say? Only 10 minutes! Would they think I lacked respect for their son? The son who was taken from them so early in life? Their only son?
I began to panic. I felt the blood pound in my body and a black mist began to form over my eyes. I fought for control.
The next thing I knew, the mourners had filed out and Mark’s family was standing around the casket.
His dad was crying in deep, loud sobs. His mother was weeping quietly, but rubbing his dad on the back. The cousins stood around, soberly looking at the dead one laying there before us.
I knew instinctively I had not made a difference.
Then, the undertaker was guiding them away from me and away from Mark’s body. I would be among the last to see him before he was buried.
One of the cousins broke away long enough to come to me and shake hands.
“I want you to know how much I appreciated what you said. It was very good.”
I began breathing again and decided I wasn’t a total failure, anyway.
The funeral dinner was held in the church basement. Mark’s family from out of town was our special guests.
It was amazing how the spirit of the crowd changed as they ate together.
It started out very low and slow, like one of those drums that beat show and deep. Slowly, the spirits were picked up and by the time the last of the sugar cream pie and the Bob Andy pie were cleaned up, people were ready to get on with their lives and pick up the pieces.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed has become one of my favorite Christmas movies. The story is true: the life of each person touches every other life and what a deep void is left when one of those lives is taken away.
That is what happened with Mark’s death. He touched everyone so deeply, myself included.
When ministers get together, they tend to speak lightly of their mutual calling. You just cannot afford to be less than reverential about life.
I was just finishing my pie when Nancy Taylor and her husband, Jack, came into the church basement.
It was obvious they were looking for me.
“Preacher, you’ve got to help us,” Jack said. “Nancy’s father is acting crazy.”