September 2009


My youngest brother Steven Clay Kellam died on Sunday. A week earlier, when we knew that his long illness was moving toward the end, one of his sons asked if I would be willing to speak at Steve’s memorial service. I wasn’t sure if that was an invitation to lead the whole service, or to “say a few words.” Several thoughts occurred in the two or three seconds it took for me to respond.

First, I had no idea at that point where the funeral would take place. A funeral home? If I declined my nephew’s invitation, would the funeral home call some fundamentalist preacher “on their list” to “handle the service” and add some fire and brimstone in the process? I’d better say yes to keep that from happening.  Yet, isn’t this a time when the minister in the family might better be ministered unto, that is, receive the pastoral care and comfort that comes from ancient Word and present Spirit? So, no; I’d best decline so that I can sit with my family and worship the God who put me there as a son, brother, and uncle.

Then again, there is a fragile theological weaving to be knit together that day. Steve was an active church member at one time, but circumstance and illness had no doubt put him on the so-called “inactive roll” of some church. I am a retired pastor. As far as “church” goes, that’s about it for my family. I hesitate to use this public place to discuss the religious beliefs (or unbelief) of the family from which I have come. It is enough to say that no one liturgy from any prayer book will speak to the spiritual needs of my family at this time of celebration of Steve’s life or sorrow for his loss. So…I think I can do this. I think I can communicate from my own faith something of value to those for whom faith is foreign as well as to those who practice in the heart what they do not enact through the Church. Does that make sense?

Then again. Through my decades of ministry I have witnessed many family members try to speak at the funerals of loved ones, moving to the lectern or pulpit with confidence that they “can get through this.”  Then they look up from their notes and see their teary families and beloved friends… and their voices catch, they swallow hard, they break down. “Excuse me; I’m sorry…” And they sob into the microphone, their deep grief unraveling the words of hope and resurrection that the pastor had just preached. What makes me think that I can be the church pro that day as I look beyond the pulpit to my surviving siblings, my Dad, Steve’s sons, and other family members? So, no; I’d better say to my nephew, “Thank you for asking, but…”

Still. I want this to be exactly right, this service of remembrance and thanksgiving. I have always been a control freak when it came to worship being “in spirit and truth,” solidly Reformed, liturgically correct, and offered to God (as opposed to merely charging the worshippers’ “spiritual batteries”). Yes, I know; we control freaks have a way of blocking the movement of the Spirit and the spontaneity of the heart. We would do better to enter worship leadership with far more humility and far less ego. With that confession, I nonetheless decide to finally say, Yes, I’d like to speak at the service, when the time comes.

The time has come. Or will at week’s end. It helps to know now that the church Steve once attended will be the setting for the service, and that the pastor there is open to whatever role I want to have. He’ll be calling today. And I’ll have to decide. Again.

(Some more thoughts on memorial services in my next entry.)

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I was slightly suspicious that the church service I went to yesterday was going to be more “concert” than worship. My friend the Rev. Bill Carter invited me to his church for what is billed as the “annual jazz communion service.” It happens every year on Labor Day weekend. Now, I like jazz, as you may have surmised, and Holy Communion is a meal I’d welcome every Sunday if local Presbyterians would go to the trouble of offering it every week.

But I wondered how this jazz communion thing would play out (no pun intended). The theme of the service this year was “Kind of Blue,” reflections on the classic album by trumpeter Miles Davis. Bill Carter wanted to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the recording of “Kind of Blue,” and he would do that by having his Presbybop Sextet play tunes from the album throughout the worship service.

I value Reformed worship, and that would be my priority for any Sunday morning. As much as I would enjoy hearing “All Blues” and “So What” played live by Bill’s talented jazz men, I didn’t want to find that the theme of the service would compromise my desire to worship God “in spirit and truth.” I trusted Bill, though, admiring his theology as well as his musicianship, and drove the hour and twenty minutes to his church.

I got there just after the prelude: “So What.” I heard the last measures as I hurried into the sanctuary. The place was packed. An usher pointed me to what was evidently the last empty seat, a folding chair placed at the end of a pew along a side aisle. Labor Day weekend…and the church is Christmas Eve/Easter Morn full.

Bill’s welcome to the faithful included a warning: there just might be some smiling and even dancing during parts of the service, so beware of the puddles—signs of Presbyterians melting! Bill and the other five musicians played from the “stage” while prayers, readings, and sermon came from the pulpit as usual. The baptism font had been moved off to the side (but was still visible as a reminder of our identity in Christ), and the Communion table was in its place on the floor between the band and the congregation, a clear symbol of all of us gathered ’round for the meal we would eventually share.

This Sabbath Day experience was to be no “concert.” The bulletin (printed guide to worship) showed the usual elements of the Presbyterians’ “Service for the Lord’s Day.” There were the standard three hymns, prayers (including the one often first to be omitted in special services, the Confession) scripture readings, sermon, and even the “time with the children.” There in its usual place, following the reading and preaching of the Word was the outline for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

And where did Miles Davis fit in? Right where Bach, Fanny Crosby, and spirituals go… throughout the whole service. The Prelude was “So What.” After the confession ritual came “Freddie Freeloader,” just where it belonged theologically! Between Bible readings the sextet played “Blue in Green.” During the offering, “All Blues.” And the music during Communion was the longer Davis piece “Flamenco Sketches.” (Lest anyone quibble about the use of this so-called “secular” music in the service, just ask a church musician whether every organ prelude, interlude, or postlude is a “sacred” piece. The word “Voluntary” so often used as a title is one clue that the composition has a secular origin.)

The hymns were accompanied (and swung) by the Presbybop Sextet, with the church’s choral director helping the congregation sing and swing the lyrics, with some jazz improvisation offered between some verses. Even that Prayer of Confession had a jazz motif, with congregational responses led by a bluesy cantor.

Bill’s message for the children was based on the way the late pianist Bill Evans (who had played in the “Kind of Blue” session in 1959) had described jazz, likening it to a form of Japanese art where the brush (or crayon in this case) draws a picture without being lifted from the paper. When the pen is lifted…that’s all there is. The drawing is finished. The key to that art and to jazz, according to Evans, is spontaneity. The children drew their pictures and offered them to God, giving thanks for gifts of creativity and “heart.”

The sermon that Bill preached was entitled “All Blues — Blues for All,” based on part of the Passion story recorded in Mark 15:25-39. I won’t do Bill Carter the injustice of trying to summarize his sermon here. I will testify that it was remarkable fusion of text and heart, stories of defining moments in the lives of Miles Davis, Jesus, and that nameless centurion who, at the foot of the cross, proclaimed, “Surely this was the Son of God.”

And then the Sacrament of Holy Communion. I suppose the main thing I can offer here is that as the bread and cup are shared among friends and strangers, there is indeed a sweet communion, a unity, oneness, with one another and with the Christ whose presence we affirm in that mysterious meal. As a visitor, I knew almost no one in the sanctuary when I rushed to my seat. But a brother in Christ passed me the bread, and then the wine (OK, it was juice), and somewhere in the intersection of jazz and Jesus, we became family around a table. Yes, sweet communion.

And you see where all this leads? We need never suffer the blues alone again. The blues will come. But we will not be alone. As we had sung in the opening hymn, “Let us break bread together…” We did and we are. So when things get kind of blue, they’ll know we’re Christians by our love (to a bossa nova beat!).

[I’ve been writing recently about my time as youth director at the Spanish Castle Youth Center in the Bon Air area of Richmond, Va. I was hired there 40 years ago this summer, just out of seminary. If many of the teenagers who frequented the Castle were not truly “counter-culture” kids, some were counter my straight-laced, “churchy” background. But I was beginning to fit in. In, not of, as the saying goes.]

One of the things that frightened me as a newly ordained minister was death. Helping someone through the death of a loved one was a challenge I had worried about since the day I first thought about entering the ministry. Unlike many of my peers growing up, I hadn’t lost a friend or family member to death, until my elderly grandfather died of cancer in my senior year of high school. Moving toward non-pastoral ministry (Christian media production primarily), and then finding a very part-time call to youth work through the Spanish Castle — well, I thought that was a good plan to avoid the very difficult (for me) task (for me) of dealing with death.

Not only had I not encountered the tragedy of death personally, I had not taken the course of study now required of all Presbyterian seminary students: clinical pastoral education, or CPE. Since, back then, it was an elective course, I reasoned that it would not be particularly relevant to my forthcoming ministry of radio/TV production. When I found myself working at the Castle in the role of “adult advisor” (or very  low-key youth pastor to that adolescent drop-in community), it never occurred to me that a teenager there would soon die. And I wouldn’t have a clue how to help anyone through it.

It was the summer of 1970. I had been at the Castle for little over a year. I was on the seminary staff as Director of what was then called the Audio-Visual Center. The seminary receptionist summoned me to the phone. It was the mother of one of the Castle regulars calling from the hospital. Her voice shook with emotion. “Jeff, Mary Ellen has fallen from a roof in the Fan District. My pastor is on vacation, and I wonder if you could come down here and…(she paused to find the words) Jeff, they don’t think she’s going to make it.”

I remember driving quickly from Richmond’s north-side to the downtown hospital, only a ten or fifteen minute trip. Most people driving on those busy downtown streets…if they were praying, it was for a parking space. I prayed over and over, “Oh God, let Mary Ellen be OK.” Over and over. I also remember praying that I would have, find, or be given the “right words”  to say.

I found my way to the emergency room waiting area and I asked where I might find Mary Ellen’s family. They are in the meditation room, a nurse explained. That wasn’t a good sign.  I entered the room, and Mary Ellen’s mother was there with two or three adult family members. When she saw me she rushed to me, we embraced, and she said something through her sobs. I didn’t understand what she had said. I didn’t know whether she was saying that she was afraid Mary Ellen would die, or whether she was telling me that her daughter was gone.

Everyone was bereft. I just held Mary Ellen’s mother, and all the words I had prayed for weren’t necessary. It was in that room, amid the shock and sorrow, that I learned what seminary couldn’t teach me. It was enough to simply be there. For no words would calm or heal. Especially when I still didn’t know exactly what was happening. Until a doctor knocked gently on the door.

When he asked if Mary Ellen’s mother would donate her daughter’s eyes… that is when I learned that this teenager had died from her injuries. “I’m sorry to ask this so soon, but time is of the essence,” he explained.

A few days later, with their pastor some distance away still on vacation, I led my first funeral as a minister. The church was filled with family, neighbors, and Mary Ellen’s many friends, most of whom I knew from the Castle.  It was a difficult service to plan and lead, and not only because it was for a young person for whom time had not yet been “of the essence.” The circumstances of her death were a mystery. All we had been told by the kids who were with her “down in the Fan” (the Fan District is home to historic row houses and now mostly Virginia Commonwealth University), was that she had fallen from the roof of an old row house there.

What the teens were doing in the apartment, why she had bolted from the room through a third story window, how she had lost her balance and fallen into the alley below… I suspect that those who were with her knew the whole story, but I got the impression that the story would never be told. [I want to add that I am confident that the accident was investigated by the police, and apparently their report held no one accountable for any wrongdoing.]

This tragedy brought home in new ways the belief that ministries of presence are powerful signs of the work of the Spirit in our midst. Comfort, healing, and grace are gifts from God for every moment of confusion, sorrow, and pain. As the psalm says, Tears may linger in the night but joy will come in the morning. And hope in our mourning.