Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

“Mama had to go to heaven by way of Atlanta!”

That was what Jimmy and Mina sang out when I greeted them at the funeral home. Of course, we’ve all heard that old airline joke, but in Sarah McClanahan’s case, it was the only way her earthly tabernacle could be brought home from Henderson, Nevada where she had passed away.

Sarah (Sar-ra, to us) had lived all her life in Covington, Tennessee — in the house where she was born, in fact — and that is where we gathered to give thanks to God for her life and to affirm our hope as people of faith in the life that is beyond this life.

I sometimes write about those you don’t know in the hope that — like the old Reader’s Digest articles — an unforgettable personality will transcend barriers of kinship and acquaintance and speak more broadly to us all — for each of us has encountered what the psychologist Jung called “archtypical personalities” — and though Sarah McClanahan would laugh at my application of such a high-flown word to her — she would have known all about Jung and would have just twinkled at me out of the corner of her eye, tossed her head, and uttered her lilting, sarcastic, self-depreciating “uh-huh!”

How many preachers were brought back to earth by Sarah’s utter unwillingness to acknowledge pretense and flattery. (And preachers are understandably and almost inevitably given to such flights of fancy — especially when they construe it as necessary to the Lord’s work.) So, my friend Hugh Hamilton, having conducted his first funeral in Sarah’s church, was quite rightly chastened when Sarah whispered in his ear on leaving at the end of the service, that “I’m glad I went up and looked in that casket, or else I wouldn’t have recognized who you were burying.”

Sarah’s “whispers” could be heard for blocks! Thereafter, I trust poor Hugh was more circumspect in his eulogies, and Sarah had given a strong hint about the length and brevity of hers. So I press on somewhat gingerly!

For Sarah, fluff and “fru-fru” were unnecessary when life was lived under the gracious eye of God. What you saw was what she was. And this was, perhaps, the reason why teen-agers loved her so, for more than anything else in all the world, the young hate hypocrisy, and with sharp antennae they can detect, expose, mock, and condemn it with the highest ethical fervor. Not to be hypocritical is the first and most enduring adolescent resolve.

I never asked Jimmy or Mina if they found it uncomfortable to have popular parents to whom other kids gravitated, for the second great adolescent resolve is to get away from one’s parents and find a support group of fellow-adolescents who will chant agreement like a Greek chorus that yes, indeed, their parents are just awful — totally ignorant, and malevolent in all things. It is a great cross to bear when all your friends flock to your house, acting as if your parents are far wiser, more interesting, understanding, and fun than theirs.

This is why when we were in college (a whole nest of Covington people were at my college), Sarah would arrive — and though she had no daughter there — she would take up residence in the girls’ dorm. Though no other parents ever thought of such a thing, everybody at Belhaven thought it perfectly natural and delightful that Sarah had come to visit and was staying in the girls’ dorm. She would sit in on classes, ride on the choir bus, do all the things she had done earlier as a band mom and a den mother, and the entire student body thought of her as their mother, and they loved her for it.

This is why saying good-bye was so hard. Because not only was it the last tie to an old town, and a church where I have been for so many wonderful occasions, but the family home place, and so many memories. My friend Jimmy is the first of my set to have laid away both his parents and his spouse. So it made me realize that I know an equal number on both sides of the river now, and I guess that is one reason why they call it “middle age.”

One more thing about Sarah and her husband Sam. Now that I am a minister, I know how to appreciate how much folks like them. For they were backers of their church and its ministers.

Every preacher knows that mistakes are going to be made and petty criticisms made, but Sam and Sarah always resolved that when unkind and unhelpful words were said in the church, it would not be by them. Charles Kennon, a former pastor, said at the funeral that if he had announced it was necessary to organize the Covington Presbyterian Church and send a rocket to the moon, Sarah’s first words would have been, “Where do I buy my ticket?”

It is so easy to point out faults in the church, for the church presents a fat target — and my branch of the church believes mightily in self-criticism — but Sarah knew that the harder work is to go forward, and so, unlike me, she was neither a sentimentalist or a critic. In life, her great cause was the plight of the mentally ill. And a great deal of the reason that there are local services for such needs in West Tennessee is due to her interest and activity. While other people complained, Sarah got busy, and for a pastor, that just about sums up two classic types of church members.

Sarah and Sam were not related to me (although my step-great-great-great grandmother was a Polly McClanahan). No matter. When my own parents were both sick with cancer and I was to receive my ministerial degree in Virginia, we were all standing around in our caps and gowns preening our academic feathers, and Sam and Sarah came over to say they would always be there if I needed extra parents, as I certainly did on that day, and have so often ever since.

Saying good-bye is terribly hard, but what kind of preacher would I be if I had not known such people as this? We would never think about it if they were not taken from us. And this is why I believe that even death serves its own good purpose.

Too bad, Sarah couldn’t have laughed with us over that bit about her coming home from Nevada by way of Atlanta. Pausing momentarily from her Scrabble game the ever-present cross-word puzzle or game of solitaire, she would have winked at me and reduced us all to laughter with some wry retort about how that was just like the airline, trying to squeeze out one last dime!


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