Audio version: 11-6-11 Second Annual Day of Remembrance
I have never attended a funeral or memorial service where the eulogy was autobiographical. Nobody writes their own postscript. Your eulogy, memorializing every breath you’ve ever taken, and every step you’ve ever trod, will be put in the hands of a bumbling wordsmith clergy-person who will do his or her best to give a verbal montage that is true to you, and helpful to your family. If you are lucky the final reader of your story will at least have known you. If you are unlucky the one singing your praises as if you were an old golf buddy will be number three on the funeral home’s clergy-for-hire list (number one was on sabbatical, and number two had a recent tonsillectomy).
This is life (and death) on a planet with seven billion living humans, several more billion dead ones, and a clock that mercilessly marches on to the steady beat of the tick and the tock (regardless of day light savings time). The reality is humbling.
Our final obituary will also not be ours to edit or publish. It will last but a moment. For those of us so remembered, the one inch column and gray-scale portrait photo will come and go. Soon the newsprint bearing our name will tumble down a back alley in a stiff wind, or help catch fire to kindling, or line the bottom of the kitty litter box.
Nowadays online editions of newspapers are keeping obits available for longer periods of time. The online obit is interactive and there are places where people can leave comments about the deceased. But even online obits have a shelf life. The faltering newspaper industry has seized the opportunity to generate a bit of revenue and now offer the online obit free for thirty days, and then the virtual memorial costs the next-of-kin ten dollars a month to buy space on an online server. People are eager to pay up, nobody wants their loved one spiraling into unknown regions of cyberspace (it’s the new limbo). But what happens when the payment arrives late, or the newspaper goes under, or the server goes down?
Nobody wants to be forgotten. Each of us hungers for immortality (perhaps it is the eternal imago dei stretching its arms inside of us), but nevertheless it is appointed once for a human to be born, and once for a human to die. So we settle for remembrance. Remember me—please don’t forget. But we do not decide what is said of us. What things should be remembered?
When we remember, as a church, what do we say? There are the common phrases: She lit up a room; I never saw him without a smile; she always had a kind word; he kept us in stitches. These things are generally true, but if we are honest they are caricatures at best. They tell a small truth, and at the same time pronounce a kind lie. We are these things, we are less than these things, and we are more than these things. They also tell us what is safe to say. These are words of comfort. These are things we value–cheery smiles, kind words, humor–they are indicators of the ‘good life.’ Rarely, if ever, do we hear more sordid final remembrances: he was mired in depression; she had seasons of melancholy; he worked his knuckles to the bone and never made ends meet; she was the recipient of endless ridicule.
As a church community we remember, but how do we remember? As witnesses to the unfolding story of God’s eternal reign it is our sacred task to remember different. Ours is a theological remembering—what we remember is the reflection of the kingdom of God in the eyes of those who came before us. It was not always smiles, kind words, and humor. In church we tell the truth, or as close an approximation as we can muster. So we can say that not all lives are replete with indicators of the ‘good life.’ Some lives are more limited, cautious, troubled, and lonely. Some gave up opportunity and comfort and honor for things despised by the world–things that don’t find their way into cheery eulogies or the lasting memory of a community. Some life stories go as unnoticed in death as their humble service did in life. But when the church remembers, it remembers different.
The West Islip Church of Christ (WICOC) has a nice new brick walk way leading into a memorial garden out of the east sanctuary door. Walt and Bill were our landscapers–and the best amateurs I know . Paula was our community organizer. Carolyn was the woman with the green thumb. Together they created sacred space. Some of the bricks comprising that walkway are just bricks. Others are engraved with the names of those who sat in the pews of our church long before I saw sight of the pulpit. Some of the names I recognize and remember. Others are more obscure. None of them were ever given the chance to write their own eulogy or obituary. None of them ever saw their name engraved on a memorial brick.
Thousands of people drive by our memorial garden every day, up and down Tahlulah Lane, and back and forth along Montauk Highway. The kids in the neighborhood play football and soccer just a few yards away from our pretty new walk way. Perhaps on occasion an errant ball will land in the bushes, and a freckled fourteen year old will wander over in search. She will pause a moment and read:
‘Lamar Baker—I don’t know him from Adam,’ she will say.
How could she know Lamar? She was born in 1997. Lamar Baker left Long Island in 1973. They missed each other by decades. She did not know that Lamar was born with osteogenesis imperfecta. The rare genetic disease gave him brittle bones, and over the course of his life he suffered greatly. He spent a good portion of his child hood healing from fractures and breaks. Swimming was the only sport he could engage in safely, a welcome relief from the stifling Texas weather. Despite his frailty, he was a brilliant man. He held a Master’s of Science in Electrical Engineering. His creativity and expertise were in high demand, and he was often propositioned by head hunters to transfer employment. He worked three years for Brookhaven National Lab in Upton, New York, then for many years at General Instrument Corporation in Hicksville, New York, and finally ended his career at the Xerox corporation in California. He was sought after by Xerox to set up their new micro electronics department. He holds countless patents, which you can find by googleing “Lamar T Baker, Xerox Corporation”.
I have just remembered Lamar Baker to you. But I have not remembered him to you the way the church remembers. Lamar came to our church as one of the original members of a daring mission movement entitled Exodus/Bay Shore. He piled everything he owned into a station wagon and traveled the highways from Texas to New York in order to help plant a church (along with 80 other families). The church he and others planted came to be known as the West Islip Church of Christ, the church I love and at times take for granted. When he arrived, with no place to lay his head, he slept in his car for weeks. In the early years he worked at Brookhaven during the day, and after long hours taught personal Bible classes. At one point he was teaching eight classes a week. It wasn’t enough. He branched out from West Islip to Freeport, Long Island where a small house church met led by a man named Brother Sailor. Lamar helped Brother Sailor canvas the neighborhoods and spread the word about the tiny group of Christians. In doing so Lamar met Walter Maxwell. Walter Maxwell took to the church like a fish to water, and soon desired to become a minister within the Churches of Christ. The WICOC helped make that happen, by funding a portion of Walter Maxwell’s education. Lamar also personally contributed to this effort. One of Walter’s first sermons, if not the first, was preached at the WICOC. David Gauntlett, a member of WICOC, remembers the sermon, and candidly remarks:
I was there on a Sunday when Walter Maxwell delivered the lesson, his first sermon to the church. He had just returned or was between semesters in his studies at the Sunset School of Preaching. I was quite disappointed in his halting delivery, and thought at the time that he would need to show dramatic improvement to succeed as a preacher. Lamar & I were standing at the back of the auditorium near the door and Walter had to pass almost between us to get to the hallway. I did not know what to say, and so said nothing. Lamar, on the other hand, put his hand on Walter’s arm, stopped him, and proceeded to compliment him. Lamar told Walter he had made a good effort, that Lamar was proud of him, that he should keep up the good work. That gesture of grace has stuck with me all these years. As our friendship with the Baker’s grew, I came to realize this was typical of this quiet man who everyone grew to respect.
Walter Maxwell has now ministered to the Roosevelt-Freeport Church of Christ for over forty years. He has preached across the nation and internationally. He has been featured at many lectureships. He and his wife of fifty years have two biological children and nine adopted children. He is on the board of directors at the Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch. He is the spiritual parent of hundreds upon hundreds. Isn’t it amazing what a little bit of wise encouragement can have a hand in doing!
Lamar wasn’t done. He and his wife Freda joined the early efforts of the WICOC to do urban ministry in East Brooklyn. In 1966 Lamar and Freda moved into an apartment on Williams Avenue in Brooklyn, along with several others from the WICOC. The apartments chosen were infested with cockroaches, mice, and rats. The night the group moved in street riots erupted between different ethnic populations. The men of the group put on white shirts, and went out into the streets to help the police quell the violence. Lamar stayed behind, because of his frail bones. Faith Corps (as the urban ministry was known) was responsible for mentoring hundreds of neighborhood children, and improving the housing conditions of local residents.
In 1973 after ten years in New York, Lamar and Freda Baker moved to California where Lamar took employment at the Xerox Corporation. In his spare time he earned a Master in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. True to form, he began a lunch time Bible study that later became an official club within the Xerox Corporation. In the evenings Lamar tutored at the Juvenile Hall in downtown Los Angeles. In 2006 he had his first stroke. In 2007 a subsequent stroke took away his voice–he never recovered it. Freda tenderly managed Lamar’s health from home during his years of decline. He died in May of this year.
Lamar Baker–I don’t know him from Adam.
I never knew Lamar either. How could I? I came to the WICOC with my family in 2005. Lamar left Long Island in 1973. We missed each other by decades. But I know of him, because the WICOC has chosen to remember. But not in the way the world remembers–ours is a theological remembering. What we remember is the reflection of the kingdom of God in the eyes of those who came before us. It was not always smiles, kind words, and humor. In church we tell the truth. Lamar is no Robert Moses, or August Heckscher, or William Bayard Cutting. He has no highways or parks in memorial. He just has a pinkish brick in an east facing walkway through a small church garden remembering his brittle and frail bones, and his durable and sturdy service to the Kingdom of God–and so we say these things in his memory. And as we do, we wonder–what will be said of us, when our brick is put in its place?
Jesus is counter-intuitive. All the vain things that charm us most (the good life) he asks us to sacrifice in service to the kingdom, and to receive his blessing. The blessing is ludicrous. It goes out to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. It goes out to all those things that never find their way into the common eulogy, and the passing obituary. But the WICOC holds up that blessing as we remember those that came before us. And as we read their names, to the Glory of God, we pray, “Let it be said of us that we too were like them: poor, mournful, meek, hungry, thirsty, merciful, pure in heart, peaceful, and persecuted for his name’s sake.”
At this time, to the Glory of God, hear the names of those engraved on the WICOC’s memorial walkway.
As a community of God, in love of God’s kingdom, we remember…
Forrest and Kay Wells
Knar Keoteklian Apelian
Judy Ogletree Guden
Emmit and Lilly Gentry
Alfred and Clellie Holman
Ella Ruth Brannon
Herman Van Dyke
Mary Alice Scott
Don “Pete” Johnson
Shirley and Mary Belle Morgan