I was appointed to be the part-time pastor in the UMC of Tampico, IL—20 miles from where we lived in Sterling--in 2003. As befitted a part-time pastor, the church had a part-time secretary. Before I had even preached a sermon there, I drove out to check in with Tracy.
She told me of Archie. He was then about the age I am now. He was depressed. A life-long faithful member of the congregation who no longer came to church. His wife had died. The previous part-time pastor had done a truly awful job in conducting her funeral. Everyone agreed that he was a nice man but a terrible preacher. Archie had been devastated. They had been married for sixty years, and the funeral led him not to good grief but to despair. Tracy did not tell me to go see him, but the message was clear.
Tampico’s main claim to fame is being the birth place of Ronald Reagan. But it is not a large place. Archie’s house was easy to find. We sat in his living room and talked. That was easy; Archie was a good conversationalist. Before I left, he told me the same story Tracy had, about his wife’s funeral. “Now, though,” he said, “I’m okay.”
He was one of my main supporters through my time there, always in his usual place in worship, often with his twin adult daughters. He liked to take Helen and me to lunch at the country club in the next town. A pleasant, thoughtful, “good old boy.”
Probably the least important thing in the total scheme of the pending court fights and break-up of The United Methodist Church over homophobia is what it will do to my funeral, but I feel like I’m an Archie in the making.
I have felt good about my funeral. I don’t much worry about it for myself, but I’d like for it to be a decent and healing experience for my wife and children and grandchildren. It won’t be a big funeral. My long-time friends won’t be there—either because they are dead or live too far away—but there will be a few new, local friends who might come. Not a big funeral, which is a comfort in itself for a family, to know their loved one was appreciated, but even so, I have felt good about what my family will get from my funeral, however small, because of the image of our current pastors conducting it. They’ll do a good job. Except…
…they may not even be there. What if they get disbarred for doing a wedding for a gay couple? What if the denomination divides and St. Mark’s is in the wrong half…or third? What if Jimmy and Mary Beth are sent some place else? What if St. Mark’s church doesn’t even exist anymore? Will my loved ones be led into good grief or into despair through my funeral?
All the possibilities for the church’s future have implications far beyond my funeral, but it is wise for us to remember, as we debate the grand schemes, that each of those broad, theoretical decisions affects real people in ways that are highly significant to their lives, even if not to the wide sweep.
Archie was okay after we talked just because I listened to his pain and his story—the simplest thing we can do for one another. It would be nice if church decision makers now would just listen to the pains and the worries and the stories of the people in the pews.
John Robert McFarland
Both sides in great contests claim that God is on their side. Both may be, and one must be, wrong.” Abraham Lincoln