Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Odd how the world works. Sunday was the Super Bowl. They tell me it was a good game. I missed it, choosing instead to eat pizza with 5 teenagers. Their exuberance was contagious… as it always is. Monday was nothing. Today was the State of the Union Address by the President. On a national scale we are off to quite a week. If the pattern holds, tomorrow will be a zero. Thursday worries me. I suppose we'll have to wait and see.

On a personal level the entire week has been… off beat. The doctor that prescribes my "brain candy," a leftover from a touch of exhaustion a year or so ago, tells me that I live life in never-ending "crises mode." I don't remember asking his opinion. He told me I need to get over it. I told him he needs to tell me how. We don't get along very well. Usually he just gives me whatever pill he wants me to take and I go home happy. Well, not really happy. Not until I find a crises anyway. You see… if I don't feel needed I'm not sure why I'm breathing. Silly? Probably. Yet true.

So this morning I entered my office to face ridicule. I knew it was coming. You see, I was wearing a black, double-breasted, suit. Nice tie too. 100% silk. I even got the knot right. But all I have to do to get abused is to show up on a weekday dressed like a "real pastor." No biggie. It gives me an adrenaline rush. That makes me happy. I told them that I was going to be doing a funeral. A potentially interesting funeral. I explained and they looked at me like… like I had 3 ears and one was in the middle of my forehead. I love it when they do that. It energizes me.

After telling my story, Byron, one of the maintenance guys flipped me a quarter and told me to give it to the corpse. (See yesterday's funeral song for details.) I absorbed his teasing smirk and slid the quarter into my pocket. It was only 10:30am and I was already up twenty-five cents profit on the day! That gave me a rush! I gathered up my materials and drove to the funeral home.

Upon arriving I spoke briefly to the funeral director and the family of the deceased. I planned out the order of service for the big event and notified the main players. There weren't many of those.

Quickly enough the funeral began. I strode to the podium and thanked them for the honor of sharing such a holy time with them. I read a scripture and I prayed. Then I returned to my seat while a young lady, a lovely 13-year-old granddaughter of the man in the box, read a poem written especially for the occasion. She did well, even though the theme of the writing centered on the moment he stopped breathing for the last time. As she sat down the music began. Yes… "THE music." The family smiled, grinned, laughed, and began singing with Joe Diffie as he sang "Prop me up beside the jukebox if I die." I reached over and clicked on a mini-cassette recorder I had hidden behind flowers near my seat. This moment just MUST be documented! Joe really gets going in his little ditty. I was amazed that it would even enter anybody's thought patterns to put sand in their boots so that they could stand near the jukebox for time eternal. I looked at the sons of this soldier. One wore a coat and tie. The rest wore their very best work boots. Their feet tapped and their heads swayed as they sang. Even mama got in on the big number. Her gray streaked hair and brown streaked teeth flashed to the rhythm of the line "remember I prefer blondes…" I felt a rush of energy course through my bloodstream. It was that "put me in coach!" feeling. I was so ready to get up and tell these people… uh… tell these people… um… how was I going to tell these people that because of Jesus they'd be able to see their loved one again. Did I really believe that in this case? The only reason I was doing this ceremony at all was because "Gary" had "Baptist" embossed into his army issued dog tags. I could just as easily have been a bartender or a bouncer. Actually, that would have been more appropriate. I suddenly found myself reaching for my shirt pocket and felt the little bump of insurance called "Xanax." I remember thinking… "You and me, buddy. We'll get through this." And then the song ended and I was up. I glided purposefully toward the podium and read Psalm 23. "The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want…." I finished the scripture; looked at the mini-sermon I had prepared, folded it and tucked it into the back of my bible. Desperate times calls for desperate measures. It was time to launch out into the world of the unknown. I now had no notes. I did not have President Bush's speechwriters or his teleprompter. I had the Holy Spirit in my fleshly temple, a Xanax trying it's best to synthesize itself through a layer of cotton and into my flesh, and suddenly… adrenaline. Energy. I pointed out that the author of the Psalm had much in common with "Gary." Both were servants. Both fought enemies for the good of others. Both loved their families and their countries. I found the groove. I hit the stride. The family sat somberly, occasionally nodding, never looking away from my gaze. Having no notes, I also had no reason to take my eyes off of them. I was one with my Macoupin County, Jerseyville, boot-clad buddies. I told them that Gary missed some Christmas dinners at their table because he was off defending their right to celebrate. I told them that Jesus missed some family occasions too because He was off serving the sick and seeking to set free the captives. They squinted, trying to not miss my meaning. I appreciated it. I had not seen any tears. Nobody had hunched over in grief. They were listening. They hung on my words. I pointed out that Gary had a very special beret resting near his hands. It was awarded to him, along with several obtuse, unexplained medals, for service performed that he could never talk about. Rumor has it that the service was on the wrong side of the Vietnam/Thailand border during the war in the late 1960's. Oh how easy it was to explain how Jesus, too, found Himself on the wrong side of borders. He often sat in taverns and bars with the rebels and the down and outers. He was there because He wanted them to know that, no matter who they are or what others thought of them… He loved them.

All too soon I ran out of words. (I might point out that it was "all too soon" for me. The family was probably quite ready to move on to poor Gary's resting place.) But I had a dilemma. How do I wrap this thing up? The only words that sprung to mind concerning the decease was "hell-in-a-hand-basket." Somehow… that just didn't seem productive. It was too late for poor old Gary. There is absolutely no evidence that He ever even knew that Jesus was the Son of God or that He had died for anybody's sins. But there is no pleasure and no point in making it obvious or rubbing it in. What to do?

I turned to face the casket, which stood about 10 feet to my left. The lid was open. The soldier lay inside. I remembered the quarter. I reached into my pocket and pulled it out. Did I dare? How could I not? More adrenaline… more energy. Gary… it's too late for you, my man… but I'm going to take this hill. I moved slowly toward the casket, finding my voice again.

"Gary, I'm so sorry I never got the chance to know you. It sounds like you were a man Jesus really would have gotten along with. And I never got to serve in the same Army that you served in. But I do know what it means to be a servant like you were. You served in your countries army and I serve in the Army of the Lord. When I got to my office today, Gary, they laughed because I was wearing a coat and tie. And then I told them that I was coming here, to pay my respects to a soldier that gave years of his life to protect me. One of them stopped laughing. He is an old soldier too, Gary. And I told him about the song we were going to sing. The one about propping you up next to the jukebox and putting a quarter in when we come by to pay our respects. I told him that it was an odd song but that it reflected the way you lived your life. Gary, that old soldier reached into his pocket and he handed me this quarter. He told me to give it to you Gary. So here it is, my friend. Your first quarter for the jukebox up there. Thanks for taking care of us, Gary. We'll miss you."

And I heard a wail. It was a mournful sound. It reminded me of the sound an injured animal might make when wounded or dying. I turned away from the casket to face the family of the soldier. I looked up and found that the wail originated from the son that told me that he wanted to lay his father out in the woods, a buffet for our animal friends. The one that insisted on the odd musical selection. His brother collapsed on him. And then the entire front pew began to moan. The wailing swept its way through the family filling the front seats and spilling over into the friends sitting in the back. I stood at the head of the casket looking at the scene before me. The rear doors of the chapel opened and the funeral director entered. He whispered to the occupants of the back seats. They stood and made their way down the middle aisle toward Gary's body. As the first couple stopped to say their final goodbye, the man of the family took a quarter and placed it on the soldier's chest. The next person approached and another quarter was produced. I watched in fascination as the quarters found their way from trembling hands into the casket. Not everybody gave but then, that never surprises a minister. My best estimate is that we buried somewhere in the neighborhood of five dollars with the soldier today.

About an hour later I walked into my office and sat at my desk. I looked at the paperwork sitting, waiting for my attention. I quickly checked my email. I thought about the youth calendar that I needed to work on. But it just wasn't happening. The adrenaline was gone. The energy burned. I was done. I got up, told the secretaries I'd be back later, and made my way to TR's CafĂ© where I ordered up a bottle of Fitz's Root beer… cold but no ice. And keep another bottle handy. This one's for you, Gary. I'm hoping you found your jukebox.

The man is most certainly dead. Like a stone. He is layed out in a rather inexpensive casket with an American flag on a pole embroidered into the fabric of the inner lid. He is wearing the dress uniform of a Master Sergeant in the United States Army. Good thing... he's going to be facing that flag for a very long time. Let's call him... Gary. Gary died too young. He was 64. I hope to be driving a Mustang at 64 and letting the air blow over my hairless scalp. I'll probably still be a youth pastor. I hope so anyway. But Gary died of Alzheimers. 64 is definately too young to forget your life. I never met Gary when he was alive, which turns out to be just as well because he would have forgotten me anyway. Nobody introduced us until he was dead. All of a sudden, Sunday afternoon, a local funeral home is calling me up trying to ruin my Tuesday. They pulled it off. It seems that not only was Gary dead, he was dead without a pastor, a church, or anything but a totally clueless family. They wanted to know if I would say some nice things about him... over him... and then give the signal to drop him into the ground. I said, "Sure." What are you suppose to say? "No thanks. I'd rather sit around and hope a tele-marketer calls?" So tomorrow at 11am I'm going to bury Gary. So today I thought I should go by the funeral home and meet with the family as they go in to view his body for the first time. Nobody should have to go in and see their husband or father or grandfather or uncle dead without having a representative of the Almight present. Some guys sell used cars. Some guys make pipes fit together. Some guys write newspapers. I go in with families to see dead guys. What can I say? It isn't particularly fun but God told me to do it.

So I went. Sure enough, he is dead. The funny thing is... nobody seemed very upset. You see, Gary's wife was present. Actually she was his double wife... he married her. He divorced her. He married her. He died on her. She went by the casket but didn't seem to upset. He had three sons and a daughter there as well. I didn't see anybody cry. There were some grandkids. They were more interested in the flowers. I don't get it. So I gathered them around what's left of Gary and I prayed for them. I had been scoping out the family, trying to figure out who is in charge now that dad/grandpa/hubby is gone. It seemed to be Randy, his oldest son. So I asked Randy to sit and talk to me for a few minutes about his dad. I asked him for some memories. It seems that his dad was a 20 year army vet that majored on tanks. He drove 'em. He fixed 'em. He shot their guns. And then he taught others to do the same. When he retired from active duty he kept on doing the same thing as a civilian employee. He moved all of the way to Kansas so that he could drive 'em, fix 'em, and shoot 'em at Fort Riley. Then he got sick and he came home. He remarried his former wife. And the family hunted, camped, and fished with him for a few years until he died. And now we are pretty much up to speed.

That's when Randy said it. He just came out and said it. He said, "If it weren't for going to prison there wouldn't be no funeral attal." He stared across the room toward the windows. It became obvious he wasn't going to say anything else and there was no way I could let that go. So I asked him what he meant. Randy said, "If it weren't for getting sent to prison I'd do what daddy wanted me to do. I'd take him out and lay him in the woods and let the animals eat off him." Selah. Pause and reflect. This was new. This was interesting. I had never heard this one before. I'd like to go on record at this point as saying that I had no reply. If Randy and I were still sitting in those chairs I still would not have said anything. I still haven't figured out what an appropriate response is to that statement.

After a few quiet moments Randy broke the silence. He told me there would only be one song at the service. He said they have it on CD but that the family would be singing alone with it. I admit that the theme song for "Deliverence" began playing in my head. But no, I could not be that fortunate. Randy again needed prompting and so I asked him the name of the song. He said that he suspected that I, as a man of the cloth, would not appreciate the song but that they were going to sing it for daddy anyway. He said, "The song is called, 'Prop me up beside the jukebox when I die.'" We sat in silence. He said it was his daddy's favorite song. I thanked Randy for his help and told him I would see him in the morning. I went into Jason's office. Jason is the funeral director. I asked him if he knew what we were singing at the funeral tomorrow. He looked down at his desk and mumbled. I asked him if he had a copy of the song. He handed me a CD. It was by a country gentleman by the name of Joe Diffy. He personally penned these words...

Well I ain't afraid of dying, its the thought of being dead
I wanna go on being me once my eulogy's been read
Don't spread my ashes out to sea, don't lay me down to rest
You can put my mind at ease if you fill my last request

Prop me up beside the jukebox if I die
Lord I wanna go to heaven, but I don't wanna go tonight
Fill my boot up with sand, put a stiff drink in my hand
Prop me up beside the jukebox if I die

Verse 2
Just let my headstone be a neon sign
Just let it burn in memory of all of my good times
Fix me up with a mannequin, just remember I like blondes
I'll be the life of the party even when I'm dead and gone

Repeat Chorus

Just make your next selection and while you're still in line
You can pay your last respects one quarter at a time

When I was young I wanted to be a policeman. I went to school to study criminology. Then I changed my major to photography. Then I studied journalism. Finally, I gave up and became the pastor God was telling me to be. I went to school for 9 years. 9 years. I graduated with enough credits for you and I both to have a degree. But never... never... did ANYBODY tell me that I would get to minister to people that wanted to feed their daddy's body to squirrels and possums. NOBODY told me what to do when they want to sing drinken songs about propping their daddy's cold stiff body up against the juke box right after I tell 'em about Jesus. And you know what scares me? There was this look in Randy's eyes. It tonight it occurs to me... there just might be a juke box at the funeral home when I get there tomorrow...