(This is a rare and thoughtful post from me, so if you’re looking for ranting, then just skip to the UPDATE near the bottom)
I was planning on doing a Happy New Year post upon my return from Richmond last week, and I’ll still do that because there is some funny stuff to share about Christmas light displays and my fear of flying, but approximately ten seconds after being picked up from the airport I found out that my uncle (my mom’s sister’s husband) had died at his home last weekend.
I hadn’t spent much time with him over the last couple of years, but he was a big part of most of my life. He was a Fire Captain and a genuinely funny guy. I’d have to say the biggest things he inspired in me are my loves of argumentation and music. Like me, he was someone who would debate just for the sake of it even if he didn’t feel that strongly about the topic, and the angle of playing devil’s advocate was just a bonus. He was a truly smart guy and was one of the best conversationalists I’ve ever known…..and if you know me, you know what a premium I put on good conversation. That is one thing about the guy that will be missed by everyone who knew him.
So needless to say, last week was a rollercoaster. I spent a lot of time with my cousin and his wife, who are expecting their first child in June, as well as my aunt. I’m no stranger to performing funerals or dealing with the business aspects of them, and I was asked to do the service. I know it had to cause some heartburn with my uncle’s side of the family, I’m sure they wanted their pastor to do it, but one of his son’s many responsibilities last week was to make that call and he asked me. I don’t know why people think you have to have an active member of the clergy do a service to make it legit, maybe because they are better at keeping it together than family members during these times. I knew the man very well and have a strong track record of keeping it together, so it was an honor to be able to deliver the eulogy.
Overall, considering what a terrible time it was for my family, I don’t think the service could have gone any better. Since he was a captain in the fire department, that was a huge part of what went on. There was an honor guard, bagpipes, the last alarm, the bell service…..pretty heavy stuff, and it put a lot of pressure on me not to screw up. Not that last week was about me, it wasn’t….it was about supporting his immediate family and getting them through the week…which added to the pressure. There was a wealth of material to draw from as far as sharing hilarious stories as well as very serious memories, so the eulogy really wrote itself. I don’t have any fear of public speaking, and while it’s probably not the most appropriate description of how it went down, I’d have to say “I killed”. I’m very happy with the way things came together, and I really don’t know where my ability to completely detach in order to get the job done stems from. I guess a lot of it comes from the experience of performing my own brother’s funeral, because when you live through something like that there is just this inner sense that tells you “if you live to be a hundred, you’ll be able to count the days in your life that were that dark on one hand”.
Don’t get me wrong, I grieve. I just have the tendency to do that on my own in my own way….at the times when you are surrounded by people who are visibly going through the stages of the worst human anguish, it is sobering. It kills me to see members of my family go through that, I would have done anything to take the pain my cousin was going through to spare him. He’s a good kid, a soft and kind kid, and nobody in their twenties should have to handle everything he did last week. Sometimes I get worried that I’m missing something that most people possess…..kind of like if you watch Dexter and he talks about feeling alien watching people who feel emotions that he just doesn’t have. I can be an emotional person, I have VERY strong feelings, passions, etc., but the weird thing is that I can be stoic and strong during times of tragedy and get totally pissed and frustrated over tiny things like locking my keys in my car or spilling a drink on the kitchen counter.
So I guess the biggest point to make here is that it was strange to be back in “pastor mode”…. a period in my life that I know added to my ability to detach and keep my emotions in check so that other people can deal with loss the way that they need to. I can’t say that I MISS being a pastor, or that I’d ever be one again, but there was something strangely comfortable and familiar about not only performing the service, but also playing liaison between my family and the funeral home in order to make things go off without a hitch.
Pastors, in general, are attention whores. There is a weird combination of ego and the need to justify self image that makes the most renowned ones “successful”. And the job is not rocket science….the hardest thing about it is the amount of time it can take, it can be a real juggling act. If you have a decent personality, some people skills, can speak in front of people and have ANY grasp of the New Testament…..you can deliver a good sermon. So if we’re being completely honest, that’s part of what allows them to take the reigns during tough times. Plus, for some reason there is this instant respect and admiration that they get from parishioner’s……despite just being another man, whatever they say has credibility along the lines of when some celebrity waxes poetically about politics….. “well, Charlie Sheen has a hit tv show, so he obviously knows how we should handle Darfur”. Fortunately in most cases, and unfortunately in a few, there is enough distance between me and my ministry days for any of that stuff to still be hanging over my head. As everyone knows, weddings and funerals bring people from your past out of the woodwork, and I can’t count the number of people I ran into at the funeral home who were a huge part of my life since childhood at my church. Most of my interactions were some real “blast from the past” moments….totally great to see them again and chat about the old days and what we’re doing now. In the midst of so much sadness it was comforting. On the OTHER end of the spectrum were the folks I knew from back in the day who either gave me a look like I was the biggest piece of shit on the planet, or COMPLETELY blew me off when I would smile and say hi to them. Now, I realize that quitting a full time ministry position to attend college, and then later ending up managing an adult bookstore was a shock to many who knew me, even though it’s not like I set out to piss them off or destroy my relationship with the Creator. But seriously, #1- that was all a long time ago, and #2- if I really am as “lost” as they think I am, then as upstanding Christian people it’s their responsibility to really kiss my ass and make me feel all welcome. It was more funny than annoying to see grown people go out of their way to ignore me in a way where they made sure I SAW THEM ignoring me. Screw them, I was there for my family and I promise you none of the local celebrity pastors who showed up to pay their respects could have done the eulogy that I did because they didn’t really know my uncle, it’s just a funny detail to share. Every congregation has them….people who do enough volunteer work around the church to guarantee everyone has to put up with what true douchebags they are.
So that was the closest to being a pastor that I’ve experienced since….being a pastor. And there really couldn’t be a better cause, whatever you can do to take some of the burden off of your family is what it’s all about. I’m lucky to have the family that I do, everyone pulled together to help out in any way they could.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that a local church made their facilities available to the family and firefighters for lunch after the service. It was a generous gesture, but the main reason I bring it up is because it has been a LONG time since I stepped foot into what most would call a “mega” evangelical church. It’s not one of those gazillion seat arenas, it probably seats a couple thousand, but it’s in an area of town where the core demographic allows it to be one of those ultra-modern and expensive non-denominational family fun centers. I know that most people who have never really attended church would be weirded out by a good old fashioned pentecostal tent revival……but it couldn’t be as weird as what it’s like to walk into one of these neo-evangelical entertainment arenas. You walk in and it’s like you’re walking into the huge reception area of a indoor stadium, complete with a bookstore/gift shop and snack bar, both fully equipped to take your Visa or Mastercard. There is a commercial grade professional kitchen, special rooms where you can take your crying baby and still watch the service on a flat screen monitor, and lighting and rigging in the sanctuary that resembles a Broadway theatre. There are all sorts of glossy posters announcing upcoming events like “Principles of Christian Finance Management with Dr. So and So”. As I was leaving, some big Christian group was doing a sound check in the sanctuary, and their merch tables (complete with…jeans?) were being set up. Evangelical Christianity is quite a racket, big business to be sure.
I do enjoy taking the piss out of an industry that I consider the death of modern Christianity, because other than the Christian “branding” it is indistinguishable from any other segment of big business in America. It’s all about customer service and core demographics, and an MBA would better serve their pastors than a Master in Divinity. But as much as I love to hammer on it, what are they really hurting? In the big picture, I do think it dumbs down modern Christianity to a point where it’s no longer about reaching the lost as much as it is entertaining its customers and creating celebrities. However…..what are churchgoers choosing to do with their spare time? They’re going to church and doing church stuff, and as annoying as the shiny happy people can be, they truly are focused on something positive. While they are out doing all this pop culture Christian stuff and promoting the church, I’m probably sitting at home watching Howard Stern. I talk a lot of shit, but I don’t go and coordinate volunteers to host a luncheon for a grieving family on a Saturday afternoon. The level of business professionalism, overall revenues and polished personas weird me out to my core, but if I’m being as open minded as I wish OTHER people were, I have to swallow my pride and admit that they aren’t the devils I pretend they are when I get on one of my rants. Boisterous Evangelical Christian politicians? A different story altogether….they never, ever get a pass and they have no place on this earth.
Anyway, not my usual type of witty reporting this week, but I’d be wrong not to include such a huge event in my life on my blog. As I stated at the beginning, even though it will be very late, I do have some things to write about from my holidays in Richmond. Going from the best possible vacation to family tragedy so quickly it gave me whiplash just took a lot out of me, but I’ll be back on my game at some point very soon. I hope everyone had a great Christmas and New Year.
UPDATE……. Man, I can’t believe I forgot to add THIS….
When I got home last Tuesday, found out about my uncle on the ride home from the airport, got home then went out to pick up my dog, went back home to take a shower……..then I went over to my grandparent’s house which is kind of like Mission Control for any major family events. My aunt lives in St. Louis (she’s the one who gets me into events like the Nashville wine auction), and my cousin lives in Springfield where he goes to school….so there was some waiting around for them to get into town.
I know I’ve gone on and on about my ex-girlfriend before, but I probably did not mention that she is the queen of psychic bad timing. Seriously….you have never met someone who can do or say the worst thing at the worst time in your life….without even knowing what they are doing. So I’m sitting at my grandparents, waiting to deal with some bad stuff, and my phone rings. If you know me, you know that unless I know who is calling me when I look at the caller ID, I do not pick up. Ever. It just does not happen. But this was a unique circumstance, so when I saw an 816 area code I went ahead and answered it. And sure as shit…..it was my crazy goddamn ex-girlfriend…who I have not spoken to in months. She hasn’t even left me a crazy distress message in at least six months, so I figured I’m done with that for good. But oh no. I’m sitting at my grandparents with my grieving family, waiting for my uncle’s immediate family to show up, and this psycho calls me……. for what reason, you may ask? “HI, this is *****, one of your ex-fiances, and I know you quit taking my calls a long time ago, but I just moved because I lost my job and my apartment, and I went by your house to drop off a box of stuff….there were some cards you gave me at some point, and some things for your bathroom that I had before you made me move out…..”. And she threw in the usual question about whether I’m still living in the same house…because apparently I’m so fucked by karma that I deserve to lose my house and my job after tossing her out like the fucking match girl….in her insane mind. So this went on for all of thirty seconds, and I’m sitting there going “yep”, “nope”, “okay”, “thanks” as she rambles on incoherently and very uncomfortably. And of course, this was all done under the premise of “I’m calling you with things that I promised to do because I keep promises, unlike YOU who promised to MARRY ME, and then you DIDN’T because you don’t believe in being a TEAM with a total PSYCHO!” Okay, the psycho addition was just me, the rest is her. A note to any bipolar psycho ex-girlfriends out there….. just THROW. SHIT. AWAY. Especially when it’s old Valentine or Christmas cards that your boyfriend gave to you, or little stupid knick-knacks to put in a bathroom. And if you can’t bring yourself to throw it away or NOT call on the worst of all possible days…..then just kill yourself. And I say that in the kindest way possible. Simply cease to exist. Also, don’t stop by your ex’s grandparent’s house unannounced to say hi or call his parents late at night when they are on vacation. Just a friendly tip, do with it what you will. Anyway, I’m getting my edge back and wanted to share some good shit with you……