Sorrow like a sea.
Lordy, let yo' mercy
Come driftin' down on me.
At the feet o' Jesus
At yo' feet I stand.
O, ma little Jesus,
Please reach out yo' hand."
-Langston Hughes, Feet o' Jesus
(My cousin and good friend took his life last week. He left me a note asking me to say some words at his funeral. The service was held at The Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham where I had once served.
These are the words that came straight from my heart.)
Ray and I talked a lot. And he told me about his temptations with suicide. And I would always say: “Ray would you promise to call me if its get real bad and you are thinking seriously about doing this? And if you don’t I am going to say terrible things about you at your funeral. I lied. I could not possibly say anything bad about Ray Kelley.
There is a Spanish philosopher named Unamuno who said that the chief purpose of a temple is a place where people come to grieve together. We make proper use of this temple this afternoon because we all bring our griefs here and hopefully draw strength from one another and from God, too.
“Surely,” Isaiah said, “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
So, you see we are all alike. We are all wounded in one way or the other. And we all carry some sorrow or deep disappointment with us wherever we go. We learned this week that Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in his fifties. He made such a contribution to our age. But you know I look at suicide as something like cancer—sometimes life presses down on some of us and it just gets to be too much.
Someone has said we shouldn’t judge someone by their death but by their life. You might find it strange for me to say that this day. For Ray was deeply, deeply troubled and many of us in this room tried very hard to help. And some of us feel guilty that we didn’t do more or say more—but I don’t think Ray would want us to do that—and I particularly don’t think that God would have us do that. For some reason Ray didn’t know deep inside how much we loved him because if he had been able to receive these very great gifts we might not be here today. But I talked to several of you about Ray. I have read I don’t know how many Facebook comments by a great number of people that have expressed in all kinds of ways how they loved Ray deeply. Here are some of the things that some of you have said:
“One of my favorite memories of Ray. We were visiting while my Dad was on leave, and I was maybe five. Ray took me to the barn and climbed into the rafters to get a pigeon egg for me. I remember being so thrilled! Ray always made time for me whenever we got a chance to visit, and exchanged letters with me on a regular basis. He always made me feel important. He was kind and caring and loving, and a beautiful person, and I will miss him greatly.”
“So long my friend, until we meet again...”
“You brought so much joy to other people’s lives. We shared so many fun times together at Auburn and beyond. I will cherish these memories and always think of you and smile.”
“Ray...from the first day I met you at an Auburn homecoming when Ed introduced us I have been one of your biggest fans. Remembering our special day at the Georgia Aquarium when we blasphemously ate at the Fish Market after our tour! Be at peace my Best Man.”
“Oh, my precious friend, I could hardly watch Dancing with the Stars tonight without your texted comments. I think you would have had a LOT to say about the outcome! I miss you!”
“ I am missing you so my precious Ray Ray!”
“My Gone With the Wind” friend. Will miss you.”
“To all our sweet memories. Peace be with you. I love you Ray Ray.”
“To a guy whose wit surpassed any other that I have met. You are truly missed and my heart is broken. Never to be forgotten, rest in peace my friend.”
So we judge him by his life and not his death. And you might find this strange because he was so troubled and had such a hard time. Judge him by his life? Yes.
He left his job at Am South bank to move back home to take care of his mother. She was beginning to experience some of the early stages of dementia and perhaps Alzheimer’s. How many sons would do that—interrupt their lives, their careers to take care of someone as Ray did. He was wonderful to Annie Jean and kept her at home until the last days when he could not care for her anymore. But anyone who has had experiences with Alzheimer’s knows what an enormously difficult work this is. Someone has called it The 36 Hour Day. If you want to judge Ray Kelley never forget the attentiveness and the love he gave dear Annie Jean.
As I thought about Ray leaving us much too soon—I remember that wonderful story that Jesus told of the Prodigal Son. The boy left home and did terrible things. He lost all he had. And when it got so bad he didn’t even have anything to eat he began to fantasize. I wonder if my Father would take me back maybe as a hired hand. Little did he know his old father—burned a candle in the window every single night—and day after day he would look down that long dusty road and hope, just hope his boy would one day come home. And the miracle happened. Was it only a mirage? Or a dream? Finally as that speck of a person moved closer the Father knew that walk and the shape of that head. And the old man ran out and ran down the road to meet his son. “My son, my son...” Tears streamed down the old man’s face. Look at the picture as Rembrandt has painted it. One sandal is missing; the other has holes in it. The boy’s robe is tattered and he’s lost a lot of his hair. His face was lined for the too-muchness of it all. And the boy looks like he is weeping and the father wraps his arms around him and looks at him with wonder and joy. No hired hand, that boy. He was taken back to the house where he was given a robe and new sandals and a ring for his hand. And they threw this magnificent party.
What does that have to do with this occasion? Everything. Ray is in the Father’s arms. It is a joyous reunion. And all the pain and heartbreak is gone. And looking around there he sees his Mama and Daddy and his brother and friend after friend. Ray Kelley is in the hands of the Father. The boy has come home.
Dostoevsky, the Russian writer wrote once, “What keeps me going is that I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that in the world’s finale something so great will come to pass that it’s going to suffice for all our hearts, for the comforting of all our sorrows, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity. And I want to be there when suddenly everyone understands what it has all been for.”
So Ray I lied when I said I would say terrible things about you if you did this. No—I cannot do that. I will remember the joy he gave us and the way he looked out after his mother. And even in our grief let us all remember that those strong arms hold him and us all in God’s great love and his care and his keeping.
I close with the Roman Catholic Prayer for the Dead: I used them at Annie Jean’s funeral and today I give them to my cousin and my friend: “Into paradise may the angels lead him; at his coming may the martyrs take him up into eternal rest, and may the chorus of angels lead him to that holy city, and the place of perpetual light.”
And to those gathered and for those that come not come I pray: “Now may the peace that passes all understanding and the love that will not let us go rest and abide with us today and forever. Amen.”