A Funeral For A Friend, Part I
17 David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. 18 (He ordered that The Song of the Bow[A] be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said:19 Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!How the mighty have fallen!20 Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. 21 You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields![B]For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. 22 From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. 23 Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. 24 O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. 25 How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.26 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. 27 How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!– 2 Samuel 1:17-27, NRSV I apologize in advance for this unusually long blog-post. However, I am compelled to share this entry fully and openly, which I hope is as therapeutic, instructive, and encouraging for you to read as it was for me to write. If not, extend your boy and brother some grace and mercy (lol)! I am at an age when I’m beginning to lose some of my friends. I’m losing them not to irreconcilable differences, but rather to the inescapable reality of death. In my late 20’s, I lost a childhood friend, Donnie Herman, who lived around the corner from me and helped me to negotiate a new set of relationships when I moved to San Francisco, CA from St. Paul, MN. We lost touch when I started pastoring in Brooklyn, although we had managed to stay connected through Junior, High School, College, and graduate school. He went one way, and I another. We yet loved each other, but I was devastated when I learned of his death. And, I did my best to compose myself to say a few coherent words at his funeral. After that when I was in my 30’s, I lost a frat brother and friend Christoper Richardson, who was from Huntsville, Alabama, and the oldest of the Richardson boys, who were well-known and well-liked throughout their hometown and at Morehouse College, which is where we met. Chris had done well at Morehouse and had gone on to John Hopkins Med school, after which he finished his residency. Established in his field, he found the love of his life, married her shortly thereafter, but died of a brain aneurysm while they were out at dinner with mutual friends. He and his wife had been married only a three or four months. In fact, I participated in the wedding, and may have even performed the ceremony. His, too, was a very hard funeral. I, who speaks as an eulogist at funerals all the time, was tongue-tied, confused, and grief-stricken. For the most part, God spared me from suffering significant personal loss in my 40’s. I’m sure that I attended and participated in many funerals, but I do not recall losing any personal friends. God, to be sure, was merciful to me in my 40’s. Now in my 50’s, however, I have experienced two significant losses within the last 12 months, both of which have shaken me, one far more and differently than the other. It appears my fifties are indication that the rest of the road will be a very bumpy ride. For example, I lost one of my best friends Jason Barr in July 2016. His loss was one which I dreaded yet anticipated. Several years earlier, Barr had suffered a severe brain aneurysm, as he was completing a marital arts class and was rushed to the hospital, where the surgeon informed his wife, son, and other intimates, inclusive of friends like me and members of his inner circle at the church where he pastored, that Jason might not make it, and even if he did, he would likely never be the same–only a shell of who he had once been. Because Jason was one of the most prayed-for persons I had ever known, he pulled through surgery. What’s more, he exceeded the doctor’s prediction: He was able to function rather well, thinking deeply and speaking clearly. Yet, he had difficulty with his short-term memory, which he himself claimed was shot. Truthfully, he was never the same after that. He was Barr, but he was not Barr, at the same time. The aneurysm altered irrevocably his personality. Still, he persevered, recovered from the aneurysm, and returned to his church. However, his heart was never fully in the work. And, if that was not enough, he experienced a car accident in which he was rear-ended by another driver and through which the center of the brain, where he experienced the initial aneurysm, was re-injured. Consequently, he suffered physical and cognitive setbacks which drained him and stressed out his wife and son, resulting in him retiring from the pastorate and from seemingly from life altogether. To be accurate, he did retain an acute interest in spirituality and community which characterized the balance of his days and was the basis of his simple daily and weekly routines. When I received news of his passing, I concluded, nevertheless, he had grieved himself to death because he was living a greatly diminished life–partly by circumstance and partly choice. Either way, he never envisioned his life unfolding in the manner it did—nor did I. I was asked to speak at his funeral. I was given a prescribed amount of time, which was in keeping with wishes of his widow and that of Jason’s, who shared his desires with me long before he died. I found, however, it was impossible for me to remain within the given time-frame, as I tried to summarize what my friend meant to me, his family, his church, and the broader community– a task which his other best friend Cliff Jones of Charolette, NC, did exceptionally well as he managed his own emotions while delivering the eulogy. I must admit that my mind was a bit clouded with anger as well. Anger at Barr for not taking better care of himself and not doing more to extend the length of his life and improve the quality of his life. Also, I was angry because there were people present at the funeral, who had not been good friends to Barr, yet presented themselves to others as if they were yet close at the time of his day– a fact which they, Barr, and I knew not to be true. Anyway, Cliff and I still miss Barr. Cliff and I, however, have been able to bear Barr’s conspicuous absence by virtue of the fact that God, though Barr, linked us, allowing a friendship to form. That friendship has enabled the two of us to lean upon and listen to each other as we come to terms with the fact of Barr’s death and the meaning of his life for us, individually and jointly. Barr was a dear friend, brilliant mind, and avid debater of all things church. While in Nigeria in May of 2017 fulfilling a doctoral residency requirement, I received news that Charles Rice, a classmate of mine at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, had died suddenly and tragically. As I write, I’m not clear about the details surrounding his death. I’m not sure who is, except his wife and mother. However, I’m clear that news of his death rocked me to my core, sadden me greatly, and left me guilt-ridden because I knew I would be unable to return to US in time to make it to his funeral. Mutual friends and CRDS classmates who attend the funeral were kind enough to share with me video clips and oral reports of the celebration of Rice’s life, which was a record-breaking four hours. All of this loss has made me both more thoughtful and thankful. I’m thankful that I was blessed to know and love all four brothers, and through them, to meet many others. I’m thankful for what we shared during the multiple seasons of our interaction, conversation, and intimacy. I’m thankful for their families who welcomed me, about whom I still think of fondly and who still, I hope, think fondly of me. All of their deaths have made me think differently, too. When summoned to speak at the funeral of other friends, if life warrants it, I’ll take a page from David’s eulogy of Saul and Jonathan (see 2 Samuel 1:17-27). I’ll focus on the positive, overlook the negative faces in the room, and thank God for the incredible, invaluable gift of friendship. And, I’ll do all of that in the allotted time (lol). Meanwhile, I enjoy each moment with my remaining friends and family. I’m spending more time with them doing everything I enjoy and nothing in particular. Also, I’m staying in contact with greater consistency. After all, these are the people who know me best and yet still love and like me (lol). These are the people for whom I pray daily, and because of them, I pray for their family and other friends, co-workers and neighbors, and church communities of which they are a part. Life has a shelf-life, and I want to sample more of it before my expiration date. For whom are you most thankful? Whose name must be called to tell the story that is your life? With whom have you been out of touch that you might need to give a call, text, or email? When will you slow down long enough to spend more time with your closet crew and others who love you? For that matter, when will you spend more time with God, thanking him for all these people who populate your life and who pull for your success and pray for your happiness?