What I Didn’t Learn In Seminary: How To Eulogize Elmer

I was packing up my apartment in Atlanta when the package arrived.

My predecessor at Grace United Methodist Church had kindly mailed me a photo directory of the congregation. I was thrilled to receive the directory for two reasons. Obviously, I could start learning names of my future parishioners. I could also procrastinate packing by trying to memorize those names and faces.

One name that was hard to forget was Elmer Carby. On my first Sunday, I recognized him as soon as he walked into the sanctuary. He looked just like his photo-- only shorter than I expected. As he came forward for Holy Communion, I said to him, “Elmer, the body of Christ given for you.”

Stunned, he said, “You know my name.”

I nodded and smiled. After the service, he asked how I knew and remembered his name. I told him about the photo directory, and said, “Elmer, you just seem like a memorable guy.”

Seven years ago, little did I know just how memorable a person could be. Elmer Carby loved and enjoyed life, and being 90 years old did not slow him down. He would sometimes come to see me on Tuesdays in the church office—but never before 10AM. He had a men’s prayer breakfast at 7, coffee “across the [Mississippi] river” with friends at 8, and coffee with church friends at 9. I had the privilege of being his last stop before he returned home to watch The Young and the Restless while riding his stationary bicycle.

His status as a social butterfly was not confined to the mornings. I probably saw Elmer at more parties than church services, and he was faithfully in church every Sunday. When I would run into him at a social gathering, he would greet me with a question that this preacher was thrilled to hear:

“Can I get you a glass of wine?”

I loved Elmer Carby not only because a pastor loves her church members. I loved him because he was real. I loved him because he was Elmer.

Two years after I told Elmer goodbye as his pastor, an early-morning call told me that he had bid this earth farewell. At the request of Elmer’s family, I sat down to write a reflection for his funeral.

I sat in front of the computer screen and opened my Bible to the book of 1 Corinthians. I didn’t want to read Paul the theologian. I didn’t seek advice from the guy whose words I’d dissected around tables with other seminary students for three years.

I needed the comfort of another itinerant pastor who had learned to love from afar.

I thought of how Paul traveled from one region to another, one congregation to another. I thought of how hard it must have been to say goodbye to people for whom he deeply cared. I thought about the seeds of love he carried in his heart, planted by friends along the way.

The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. *

Seminary taught me a definition of pastoral care. But seminary didn’t teach me how to care for Elmer. Elmer taught me how to love him.

Seminary taught me how to write sermons and eulogies for funerals. But seminary didn’t teach me how to write Elmer’s eulogy. Elmer’s life wrote his funeral. He gave bountifully, loved abundantly, and lived joyfully. Perhaps when Paul wrote these words, there was an “Elmer” on his mind.

On my last Sunday at Grace United Methodist Church, Elmer came forward for Holy Communion. Five years after we met at the Lord’s Table, we said goodbye at the Lord’s Table.

“Elmer, the body of Christ given for you.”

Thanks be to the God who calls us by name.

all good things to each of you,
Pastor Darian

* 1 Corinthians 9:6-8 (Common English Translation)

Dearly Beloved Readers, It’s good to be back with you after a month-long “blog-cation.” This morning, I opened The Upper Room devotional to discover that my dad wrote today’s meditation. Check it out here.