Pastor’s Blog: All Things Must Pass
It’s a sobering thing to see your name on a tombstone even when you aren’t buried there. Dad used to say often: “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.” But when it was certain that he was in the last weeks of his life, some of his stock phrases, his living samplers as it were, took on an, as yet, unimaginable probability. A stage four, large cell lung cancer diagnosis was, in 1975, pretty much the kiss of death as when Michael Corleone branded his brother on the cheek and said, “Fredo, you broke my heart.” So, Dad took his last bubbling breath in an emaciated fifty-pound body on August 8, forty-three years ago. When they set his U.S. Army tombstone a few weeks later, there was his name and mine.
Dad was never a tall man. With a Sicilian mother who stood maybe 4’11” before she began to shrink in old age and a biological father who was the shortest in his family, Dad stood about 5’6” in the flesh but about 10’ in spirit and bearing. He was the kindest, gentlest man in the world, but “Katie bar the door” (another of his sayings) if you crossed him. It only took me three times to learn that when Dad said, “We’re about to go round and round,” you best close your smart mouth on the spot. There was a line in the sand. Do not cross it, or God help you.
Coach Harold May, our seventh-grade science teacher for boys, had us write our obituaries when we were thirteen. Dr. Paul Bauermeister, our seminary’s resident pastoral psychologist, had us write them again when most of us were in our early twenties. At thirteen, I wrote I was going to be a pastor. At twenty-two, there I was in my first year of seminary. So far, so good. I had not gone to the Lutheran colleges I had assumed I would attend. I wasn’t on the seminary campus where I had assumed I would be. I had always had so many interests and some modest gifts that, frankly, I was not sure whether I wanted this calling. Just ask most pastors about their unhappiest days. These are never the big crises but rather the tawdry, petty Chinese-water-torture, drip-drip-drip of emotional five-year-olds in large bodies whining about a neighbor, another staff member, or someone who sat in “my” pew. Oy vey, Maria (which Joseph was rumored to have said). More than a few didn’t grow up with Robert Fulghum, the author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” But I digress.
Fast forward seventeen years, and my life had taken another surprising turn. Everything important I have ever learned I didn’t learn in kindergarten. I learned through pain. It was the summer of 1998, and I was beginning a professional doctoral program in preaching, because I no longer had someone telling me all the reasons why I didn’t need another degree. Six seminaries (the Association of Chicago Theological Schools) admitted five students from each seminary for a total of (you guessed it) thirty students to a three-year program with an annual three-week summer residency in Chicago. Our classes were taught in the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, located on 55th Street in Hyde Park across from the University of Chicago. My seminary in St. Louis had gone belly up two years after I graduated, and I was now considered an alumnus of LSTC simply because more of my former professors had been “deployed” there. So, in 1998, I stepped on this campus for the first time. The first day of residency with more students from the far, far theological left clashing with a few from the far right had three of us in the middle figuring out we were birds of a feather – Dave from Colorado, Harry from Minneapolis, and me from the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Austin, where a homeless, bikini-wearing transvestite in heels named Leslie was the perennial mayoral candidate.
Almost every night after a day of classes and some study time, Dave, Harry, and I would go out for supper, take a long walk, and eventually end up at Blue Chicago, a blues bar with, then, two locations on North Clark Street in downtown. We would ride the Metra train in and, on the best nights, share cab fare back to Hyde Park very late. By the second week of our first summer residency, we had “discovered” Willie Kent and the Gents and their usual singer, Patricia Scott. Before his death in 2006, Willie was a ten-time winner of the W.C. Handy award for blues instrumentalists. Pat Scott, who departed this life in December 2013, was such a masterful proclaimer that Dave even wrote about her in his major paper at the end of the program. We became such regulars over the course of four summers (the last when we graduated in 2001) that Willie and Pat recognized us whenever we walked in the door early to get a booth by the band. Pat made Harry, a Roman priest with 11 thousand parishioners (I kid you not), blush when she sang to him, “Something You Got, Baby.” She could work up a call and response singing, “Mustang Sally,” holding the mike out to the room as we joined in, “Ride, Sally, ride.” It was a joy to be alive even when singing the blues.
Willie was known all the world over, but he never made a lot of money. I read an article from 1999 that said Pat would have been the lead singer for the band that made Chaka Khan famous but for a jealous, controlling husband. She had all the chops to have been really big, but she died singing the blues at Blue Chicago and at a club on the southside. I listen to Pat on a CD entitled “Red Hot Mamas,” and I think you couldn’t possibly know how incredible Patricia Scott was if you never heard her live. The woman could work a crowd. Willie was this large quiet presence on stage playing the bass and occasionally singing classics like “Feed My Monkey.” One night, I arrived at the club before the other guys, Willie looked at me and said, “You gonna sing tonight…finally.” He had noticed the joy I have when singing. He had heard me singing in the crowd. My great regret is I didn’t take Willie up on the offer. Oh, I get to sing in public all the time and in front of bigger crowds than Willie’s room at Blue Chicago, but to have sung the blues with Willie Kent playing behind me. Now, that would have been memorable!
The happiest people I know get paid to do what they love in life. Frederick Buechner once wrote that our vocation, our calling, is where our great passion intersects with the world’s great need. My Dad was an excellent telegrapher and an effective agent-yardmaster for the Texas and Pacific Railroad in our small hometown. When he died at age 62, he had touched more lives by the force of his personality than by how he made a living for his family. With more education, he might have been a writer, a pastor, or even a public servant like Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith. The woods were lovely, dark and deep, but he had promises to keep…always to God and neighbor. He was a flawed man like all of us men and women, too. Despite those imperfections, the marks of sin, he made his little corner of the world a better place and left large shoes behind.
I have outlived my Dad by two years and Norman, my older brother, by eighteen and counting. When my wife, daughter, dog, and I make our semi-annual trek to Texas to see a few loved ones, we stop by the cemetery in Bonham where Dad and Mom and older brother are buried. Little blocks of gray granite don’t begin to capture who they are to me, just like a digital studio recording won’t ever be able to describe hearing Willie, Pat, and the Gents live. I can hear them now, “Come on. Baby, don’t you want to go…back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago?”
Yes, it’s sobering to see a tombstone with your name on it. Most of us “juniors” get that jolt of reality eventually. The psalmist says, “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (90:12). The psalmist asks: Yes, who and Whose are you? Are you joyfully serving God and neighbor with your gifts? Rest in peace, Papa, Mama, Brother man, Willie, and Pat. Some glad morning, I’ll fly away, too.
Pat Scott at Blue Chicago 2006 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekP5XOfh6pY
Willie Kent and the Gents in Japan 2004 (with Guy King on lead) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWagyF3BJug