Monday, February 16, 2015

A Tear for Gary; A Kiss for Janie

When I wrote about black church names last time up, I didn't realize I'd be worshipping with black folks within the week. It turned out to be a bad, good thing. No maybe a good, bad thing? I don't know. Let me 'splain...if I can.

I got a text from Otis, my good friend from high school. Otis now coaches the Mighty Milford Bulldogs, the school we played for a thousand years ago. His text was to tell me that a classmate\teammate of ours, Gary, had passed away. This was sad with several layers of sadness. Gary had just turned 60, too young the way I look at it. He apparently had diabetes which affected his heart and died from these ailments. With better medical care he probably could have had many more years. Sad again. Gary died in prison, no way around that. He killed a man in a fight twenty or more years ago. That is what he wrote to me about 18 years ago. I never knew where Gary was after graduation and one day a letter finds me in west Texas at my church. It was from Gary in prison. He writes with great detail his side of the story. I have no way to measure, but the state measured out 20 years to life. I don't even know how accurate that is, but I do know that 20 years in prison turned out to be life for Gary. Sad again. We had corresponded off and on for a few years. I sent him some money for the commissary in prison now and then. He needed some basketball shoes once. Some money for ice cream and candy ( I didn't know about the diabetes). He hoped I could get him a good lawyer. Well, I could afford ice cream. I moved and we lost touch. My fault. Another layer of sadness.

Gary swore to me in those letters that he was a Christian. Maybe he wrote that because I was a pastor and thought I'd like to hear it. Maybe he wrote all those Bible verses and talked so glowingly about Jesus because he wanted ice cream money. Maybe he wrote it because it was true. His family was and is full of believers. It was his nephew or cousin that preached his funeral. Gary put thoughts and scriptures together in a way that seemed real, like he really knew Christ. I want to believe he did. I'm not sure if the family and friends of the man he killed feel that way. I hope they forgave him. Gary swore that God had. I decided on my part to believe him.

So I went to the funeral last Saturday in Waxahachie. The brothers and sisters were resplendent in their expressions of life and hope. I felt like I was back home in high school a minute. I was the only white guy there. The music man played the organ in a wonderfully blues-ee and jazzy way. He sang Tamela Mann's "Take Me to the King." It is a beautiful spiritual, sharing a longing from a broken life and where to find hope.
             Take me to the King, I don't have much to bring,
               My heart is torn to pieces, it is my offering.
                 Lay me at the throne, leave me there alone,
                  To gaze upon you Jesus, and sing to you this song.
                   Please take me to the King.........

The bishop was telling us that "It Aint' Over" and making heaven sound so good but I got to coughing and excused myself with a few minutes left in the service and drove over to Target. In a few more minutes my phone rang. It was Otis...."where are you, man? A bunch of folks want to see you and the family want to say something." So, we drove to Milford for the interment. The pastor read scripture. The family thanked everyone and invited all to the repast. Then several of us pitched in to lower the casket in the grave. They didn't have a "lift" for the job; two straps and four of us slowly letting down the casket into the ground. I thought of the irony of the picture. One of my jobs on the basketball team was to pass to Gary. I recorded several assists each game to him and Otis. This would be my last one.

Now it was time to visit and reminisce. I paid respects to the family and caught up a little with a few old friends I knew long, long ago. I actually remembered nearly all the faces, but not all the names. But then there was Janie. Janie and I were in class together with Otis and Gary and about a dozen others since Milford integrated the schools in 1967. For the first four years of junior high and high school, Janie and I were oddballs. She was the only black girl in our class and I was the only white guy. She got a soul mate about the junior year when Regina moved to Milford. Somehow we made forced integration work and forged good memories and friendships with few regrets and many good memories. I tried to fix one regret I had at the cemetery Saturday. Otis was talking with JoAnn, Gary's sister about being King and Queen at the homecoming in 1972. She wasn't remembering it but Otis was refreshing her memory. It brought my regret to mind. Janie was nominated to that same homecoming court. I was her escort. I remember standing there in my football uniform and she on my right arm. All the girls got flowers and the escorts presented them and gave them a kiss--all but one. I froze. Should\could a white guy kiss a black girl, even just on the cheek, in 1972 in Ellis county? Thoughts and ideas flooded my brain. I should have decided beforehand but it didn't even dawn on me. I started thinking about why it was a good idea, then a bad idea, and then the moment had passed. I didn't kiss Janie, my friend and classmate for six years, at homecoming. At the cemetery Saturday with Otis, JoAnn and others standing there listening, I put Janie on my right arm and stood beside her. I told the story of not kissing her 42 years ago and apologized. Then I kissed her right on the cheek. Someone said that was sweet. Several of us spent the next 45 minutes standing in the graveyard talking and laughing. There was life in that cemetery that day, in living color, and black and white.

It was a good, bad day.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Name That Church

Church names can be intriguing, compelling, funny, unfortunate, and tell a story or at least hint of a story behind the name. Some church names that come with the area or town make for an interesting name. In the community of Half Way in an unnamed state is Half Way Baptist Church. If you are in Maryland, you may want to join the Boring United Methodist Church. So much for intentional ministry at the Accident Baptist Church. At times it is not the place that puts a twist on the the church name but the play on words or intent to convey a message in the name. So there is the Lover's Lane Methodist Church, don't ask their teens about the submarine races. In one church, they either don't need faith or there's no charge for it at the Faith Free Lutheran Church. What's the story of the First Church of the Last Chance? I would like the visit the Original Church of God but will not go to the Perfect Church in Atlanta, as soon as I walk in they would have to change their name. Another interesting church name, not so thirty years ago, because of the way language use changes over time, jumps out at you---how would you like to attend the Flippin Church of God?

My favorites are the black Church names. They are descriptive, Biblical, hopeful, aspiring, and downright beautiful in many cases. The African American church in America, because of slavery, racism, and oppressive poverty issues, had much to overcome and deal with in the larger culture. They met many of the challenges with hope, faith, and love born out of their relationship with Christ as they looked forward to better days. This is seen in their church names which point toward Jesus and the Heavenly home He has promised. They picked Biblical names to reflect or identify with a story of inspiration, overcoming faith, and meaningful life. So an Antioch Baptist church reminds us that the disciples were first called "Christians" in Antioch-a place where there was opposition but where faith took root and grew deeply. A Mt. Zion Church in the community remembers the biblical Mt. Zion and the history of commandments, tabernacles, temples, and where Jesus, some believe, will return for His church. There are "Mt." churches in nearly every black community: Hebron, Moriah, Olives, Calvary and Pisgah. A church with Pisgah in its name remembers the original redeemer from slavery, Moses, and all he saw before his death as he looked from its heights onto the promised land. Can't you hear and see the images of freedom and promise in that church name?

Black communities often have "Macedonian" church names derived from the vision the apostle Paul had to go into Macedonia and take the gospel to a new people in a new land. The hope of the gospel and mission activity are caught up in the Macedonian name.  There are Jubilee churches from the old testament jubilee when all debt was forgiven, all land went back to original owners, and slaves were freed- the whole gospel testimony in one name. I also like their use of a few superlatives. To point toward higher, greater, better days, put the word "Greater" in front of an old name. Mt Zion church becomes "The Greater Mt. Zion" church and Greater Macedonian church is, well, greater than the plain old Macedonian church. I would suppose some politics and splits show up in names now and then, also. But from the grand CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal) to the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) to the Black Baptists to the independent black churches their names meant something, said something, pointed to something or better, Someone. Lord bless 'em for that.

I always felt "out-named" by black churches. "First Church" usually just meant early arrival or "Something Ave." just meant Mr and Mrs. $o and $o"  gave land to put a church there. Not that great ministry and missions didn't take place, but not much imagination, inspiration, hope, or aspiration was expressed in the name. I once proposed calling one of the mission churches I pastored, "The Glad River," church. It was the name of a popular novel by Will Campbell and came right out of scripture from Psalm 46:4 which says, "There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the Holy place where the Most High dwells. " We would stream out into the community making people's lives glad with the gospel. The church voted for "West Oaks," it was on the west side and there were lots of oaks around. One detractor to my proposal said it sounded like a black church. I took it as a compliment.

I suppose white folks could learn something from our black brothers and sisters in naming churches. But given history, culture, time, and paid consultants,  probably not much will happen. Maybe the best thing any church can do, even if they are "out-named," is live in such a way that the people and culture around them know who owns them, directs them, redeems and loves them. May all churches be known by That Name.


*actual church names