Hebrews 12: 1-3 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Today, Oct 27th, 2011 at around 1:30pm I received a phone call from my friend John Odams that my friend Charlie Crook had died. I’m 51 and I think Charlie was my age or younger. This was not supposed to happen. 50 year old men don’t die, or they’re not supposed to, anyway. My age cohort has got a long way to go before they’re all dead — something like 20 or 30 years or more, but Charlie is the third of my pastor friends to die young deaths, and his is the hardest so far, because it hits so close to home. Charlie was, without a doubt my best friend at seminary. Charlie “got” me in a way that no one else did — he was from a tough mill town in Massachusetts — New Bedford, while I was grew up in another mill town in Massachusetts (Chicopee). Charlie was good, but shy kid, as was I. Charlie was poor growing up. So was I. Charlie was sort of a nerd who knew criminals as an accepted part of life. So was I. Charlie and I both felt at home in the “dive” bars in Boston when we had a night on the town — not because either of us frequented bars at home, but because The Punter’s Pub looked just like every bar back home, and the prices were the same, so we could afford it. Both of us were the first generation in our families to go to college, and the first to go to Graduate School — seminary. We were in the same field-education group in seminary. When I could no longer run the Prayer Group I had started 3 years before on a whim, Charlie was the man I wanted running it when I knew what I was doing.
Of course, we were different in many ways, as well — he a Baptist, me in the UCC, He was “conservative” and I was “liberal”. He saw Jesus first as “Savior”, but had trouble with the “Lord” part. I had no trouble with the “Lord” part, but couldn’t understand what I needed to be “saved” from while in seminary. We had different views on homosexuality, but I think he would have liked to have held my opinion. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the concept biblically. Charlie, being a Baptist and all, knew the Bible really well before seminary. I, being in the UCC, had heard it was a great book before seminary.
Virginia Satir said, “We bond in our differences, and grow in our differences”. With Charile as a best friend, I both bonded and grew in seminary. Without Charlie, I wouldn’t have survived seminary, I’m pretty sure.
This is what comes to mind today about Charlie. There are so many experiences that I haven’t talked about because I’m still in shock, and have so much grieving to do that it’ll take years to get over this.
But, as I said, Charlie is the third pastoral friend to die, and his death brought back memories of my other two friends — Benny Claytor of Bridgeport and Newton Perrins of the Albany-area in New York. As I knew I’d write to process tonight, I thought about what they had in common and the answer is… very little. Oddly, they were all good at … math. Benny was an engineer for years in his day job. Newt was an environmental scientist prior to seminary, and Charlie had studied to be an accountant. Other than that and a call to professional ministry, they couldn’t be more different.
God’s love of diversity — and recognition of His (that’s the “Charlie” in me coming through) need for it to get the message across — is represented by the three of them. The grieving for them reaches across three different groups of Christians and three loving families.
Benny died first, of a heart attack, I think. Benny was slick, shiny in style and loud in the pulpit. When he got on a roll on a Sunday morning, there was no stopping him. He was everything you’d expect from an inner-city African-American pastor in the pulpit, and so much more out of it. First off, Benny had a whole other life — as an Engineer at Perkin-Elmer. Benny was a loving family man who adored both of his daughters — one who worked with him at Perkin-Elmer, and one who lived with him in the parsonage while I knew him. Both girls went to college and he gushed about them both, while laughing and grinning in love at his wife, Gerry. He had a great sense of humor and he was brave in ways that no one saw. When this new White guy showed up at meeting of the Black clergy group twenty years ago, Benny had no reason to trust me. Others in the clergy group were distrustful, but warmed up over time. I don’t know if Benny was mistrustful or if he thought I was out of my mind, but we became great friends quickly. Over the course of time, he probably thought I was out more and more out of my mind, but he was always game for anything I came up with. He was a friendly, humorous, loving family man who always had a glint in his eye and a smile, no matter how exhausted he must have been. I could never have been him, as I just don’t have that kind of physical stamina, or the ability to always smile while the world is horrible around me. Benny grieved and loved and still managed to take it all in stride. He ran the good race, fought the good fight, and never looked the worse for wear. I miss him to this day and manage to keep in touch with his wife, Prophetess Gerry Claytor, who I also think the world of.
Newt Perrins died next, probably five or ten years ago. As stylish and aware of fashion as Benny was, Newt wasn’t. Actually, Newt was aware of fashion and style, he just didn’t care for it. He was intentionally out of fashion. He liked the kind of clothes that were always appropriate — LLBean-type things that lasted forever. Where Benny was at home in the city and loved being with people, Newt was at home in the woods, fixing the remnants of a Saab, watching Monty Python with his family or listening to Garrison Keillor in the middle of nowhere. He liked the small church. He liked the quiet of the snow. He liked people with really deep problems and he loved being an EMT. He probably worked as hard as Benny did, but in very , very different way. He left behind a good woman and social worker, Val, and two great, funny sons who got me a bound comic book for my wedding gift. It was perfect and they knew it. Val was as good a wife for Newt as Gerry was for Benny.
Charlie never, as far as I knew, never found a love in his life that would last forever. He was a man who liked his own space — unless you were a parishioner or a close, close friend. In that case, you probably knew more and more of him. He was a great, friendly, caring person — as long as he could go home at the end of it.
His folk guitar pulled him into the spotlight and allowed him to show his creative feelings — and he had quite a creative side. A great story-teller and a voracious reader, he was as humble — and as humorous — as a nerdy guy could be. His family owned the warmest place in his heart. His parishioners ran a close second.
A trifecta is a the first three winners in a horse race. Someone who knows all three in advance is very, very lucky and their lives end up much richer. The horses, each different than the other, run the race long and harder than others and get to the winner’s circle first. I can think of no better metaphor for the three pastors that God called and I was lucky enough to know before the end of their race to the ultimate finish line.