Romans 8:14-19, 34-35, 37-39
The Rev. Leyla King, Thankful Memorial, Chattanooga
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning, we come together to celebrate the life of our brother Gene. It is my honor and privilege to help us celebrate that life since Gene has been a friend of my heart for many years – as I know he was for all of you. But, I only knew the Gene of the last decade of his life. And, worried that I might miss something important about him, I called Suzanne and Matthew and Caroline and Eleanor a few nights ago and asked them to tell me what they remember most and best about their husband and father. And, the first thing they said sort of surprised me. “He was a complicated man,” Caroline told me and the others agreed. He was complicated, they said, in the sense that he was multi-faceted. He had multiple and differing passions – from his love of music to his obsession with air- and space-travel. And he was always capable of reinventing himself on the spur of the moment, like when he up and quit his well-paying job as a lawyer to become – of all things – an Episcopal priest.
So, yes, in a way, Gene was a complicated human being. But I was surprised by Caroline’s comment because to those of us outside the family, Gene Smitherman was simply described by two words: Gene Smitherman. That is to say, what was so lovely about him was the fact that he was always and only just himself. There was nothing ever hidden, nothing held back, nothing even remotely deceptive about him. When you got to know Gene – which was so easy to do – you got to know the whole of him.
And there was something wonderfully almost child-like about Gene in that way. Because children are like that, too, aren’t they? A young kid never really thinks to be deceptive about who he is. And he certainly never holds back. He just is. And I can’t help but think that such child-like transparency must have been due in large part to Gene’s faith.
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” says Paul in his letter to the Romans. I think, in his very bones, Gene knew that we are all always children, children of a living and loving God. And such knowledge gave him the confidence to be transparent, to be, simply, Gene Smitherman. It meant that, whatever happened, Gene could remain wonderfully unfazed by it all. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” says Paul to the Romans. And, you know what, even at the end, even when the “sufferings of this present time” must have felt very real indeed to Gene, when his muscles stopped working and his body broke down, when he couldn’t eat and he was losing his most-prized ability to talk, even then, he was still the same Gene Smitherman, cracking jokes and delighting in the abundant love he had for others and others had for him.
Indeed, I think that’s the place where Gene maybe would differ from St. Paul. Paul says the sufferings of the present age are lesser than the glory of the age to come, but I think Gene would have said – even at the end – that the sufferings he experienced were manageable because of the glory he experienced right now in this time, the glory that comes with knowing oneself to be loved, the glory that comes with sharing love with others. And Gene knew how to do that so very well.
Gene excelled at sharing love because he was so empathic – someone who could come alongside you right where you were and relate to you right there – and often move you on to a new place, a new, unexpected joy. For example, Suzanne said he once took on a pro bono case for a convicted murderer and his colleagues told her that when Gene went into the prison to meet with his client, you would never know that Gene knew he was talking with a murderer. Gene had such comfort around the guy. And, his children shared that when he met with some of his palliative care staff recently, there was one nurse in particular who to start with was just a little too straight, but it didn’t take long for Gene to get her to relax, open up and laugh with him.
And then, there’s my favorite story about Gene from years ago when his first grandchild Norah was a baby, maybe 18 mos. old. She was having a true toddler melt-down and nothing could calm her when Papaw, out of nowhere, got up in her face and chanted, “Yoga, yoga, yoga, TAI CHI!” It worked like a charm. And, random as it was, that seems unsurprising to me. Of course Gene would be able to meet a child right in the midst of her chaos and find some way to speak to her and move her forward. And what a legacy! My own kids still say it regularly to one another, “Yoga, yoga, yoga, TAI CHI!”
A few minutes ago, we heard a portion of Revelation that is often read at funerals and I usually reflect on it in funeral sermons because I can so easily imagine that our loved one is in that communion of saints, that “great multitude” that stands before the throne of God. But I have to tell you, that I can’t picture Gene there as I usually do. Because when you read on from that “great multitude,” there’s another figure that shows up. The Seer of the Revelation puts it like this: “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’” And, if we’re going to place Gene anywhere in this scene before God’s throne, that’s where he is, right there addressing the Seer. He’s that elder; he’s the one soul who, even in heaven, breaks away from the eternal party to find the newcomer, the observer on the edges, the one looking confused or intimidated or overawed; Gene – in all his child-like transparency – is also one of the wise ones who will meet you right where you are and help you find the joy before you and invite you in to the abundant feast. And, you know what, he’ll so delight in doing that. His great joy was always in helping you find great joy, too.
And, we believe, as he believed, that Gene is, even now, delighting among that great multitude to be found at the throne of God. And it is we who must strive to meet him there, in the true and eternal life we are all promised, with wonder and with great joy, in praise of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Leyla King, Thankful Memorial