"Teach Your Children"

On Friday, October 28, 2016, I delivered the eulogy for the Home Going service of my Great-Uncle, Johnnie U. Brown. My uncle was born on October 17, 1937, in Roe, Arkansas (the youngest brother of my late maternal grandmother, Willie Mae Mitchell). He died on his 79th birthday in Dover, Deleware, leaving to cherish his memory his wife of 47 years, Vertie Brown, three incredible sisters, and a host of nieces, nephews, adopted nieces and nephews, and friends. Below is the eulogy I delivered. We love you, Uncle Johnnie! We are so grateful for the years we shared with you. 

The Eulogy "Teach Your Children"

          First, giving honor to God, the Creator of every living thing, truly, I tell you that I humbled to stand behind this sacred desk in the presence of God and each of you to remember the late, Johnnie Brown, my great-uncle. I thank you, Aunt Vertie, for entrusting this task to me and I pray that Uncle Johnnie would be well-pleased by the spirit of this Homegoing service.

Earlier in this service, we heard these words from the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.” Our Old Testament reading this morning implored us to teach our children. Write God’s words on the doorposts!

In my Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Vertie’s house, the food was always fresh, everyone always spoke a little bit too loudly, there was constant laughter, every member of the family was valued, and stories were shared generously. In moments like those, in a home filled with warmth and compassion, we truly see glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven. Any of you who had the pleasure of knowing, or even meeting, my great-uncle probably will remember his gregarious laughter, his generous spirit, and his talkative nature. His zest for life and his genuine kindness rubbed off a bit on everyone who knew him and if you met him even once, it is unlikely that you could ever forget him.

          Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Vertie’s hospitality reached far beyond the walls of their home. When I was growing up, my great uncle and aunt considered it to be their duty to show me our nation. I have seen Roanoke, North Carolina and even the Grand Canyon because they thought it was important for me to learn the history of distinct parts of the United States. I remember learning about the Wright Brothers and their historic flight and dressing in colonial garb in North Carolina. I remember experiencing hole in the wall restaurants that served flap jacks and seeing unbelievable landscapes in Arizona. Using child and senior citizen discounts, there was nowhere we could not go. We as people learn so much by going places and having new experiences and I will forever be grateful for the richness these trips have added to my life.

          By now, you have probably read Uncle Johnnie’s obituary. You know that he honorably served our nation in the Vietnam War. You know that he was a proud graduate of Rutgers University. And, just to underscore that, he was very proud to be a graduate of Rutgers University. You know that he was a dedicated father, uncle, and brother. You know that he was the loving husband of his wife, whom he often fondly referred to as “Ms. V.” But, as we gather to celebrate his life today, I want to take just a few minutes to share with you just a bit about the man I knew who is now at rest in the arms of his Creator.

          My Uncle Johnnie used to call me “soul baby.” I know, it sounds sweet and all but, it was, in actuality, a gentle reference to the fact that I was a bit of a pig. As a child, eating was one of my favorite pastimes. I became kind of well-known for it. People who have met me as an adult often comment on my small appetite but as I was preparing to stand before you today to remember Uncle Johnnie, I realized that I probably don’t eat much now because I have so much food still stored up from the ages of 0-17.

My parents tried their hardest to curb my appetite but, my metabolism was fast. I was underweight for years despite all my eating. In retrospect, I feel sorry for them but at the time, I was hungry . . . EVERY. THREE. HOURS. So, friends, I have to tell you, any trip to Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Vertie’s house was truly a joy because Aunt Vertie loved to cook, Uncle Johnnie loved to grill, and they both loved sharing meals with the people they loved. They delighted in watching me eat collard greens and cornbread and ribs and my favorite, macaroni and cheese. In their house, the underweight little piggy was always welcome at the table, she was soul baby.

          And, as I stuffed my small stomach with delicious meat, right off the grill, I had the distinct pleasure of being able to sit near Uncle Johnnie and to learn from him. He was one of my greatest encouragers and teachers both because of his loud speaking volume and because of the depth of what he had to say to me.

As I began to reflect on how to tie together this life that was at as boisterous as it was fragile, my theological imagination constantly brought me back to the children of Israel, preparing to cross over into the new land that God was giving to them. Earlier, we heard this beautiful story from Deuteronomy in which the children of Israel were finally about to enter the Promised Land. You might remember from your own study of Scripture that the Children of Israel had been through a lot prior to this point. They had literally spent forty years walking in circles and now, here they were, on the precipice of something new.

You see, the children of Israel were not biologically children. They were responsible and well-worn adults. Many of them had travelled with God for all forty of those wandering years. They had either experienced bondage in Israel or they had older relatives who had faithfully recounted the stories of bondage to them. They knew what it was to live lives of captivity. In the passage from Deuteronomy that was read in our hearing this morning, they were about to taste freedom in the land that was to be their home. They were going to be free for the first time.

          Finding spaces where we can be free is exciting. And there are all sorts of freedom. There is the freedom to vote safely, which is a privilege that I am sure Uncle Johnnie would want every adult here to exercise next Tuesday. There is the freedom to go to a school that is invested in your learning and success. There is the freedom that we are exercising right now to gather to worship God without fear of persecution. There is the freedom to sing a favorite song or the freedom to play a sport. There is the freedom to feel confident and comfortable in your own skin. There is the freedom to sit around the kitchen table playing games or telling stories or just being together. Like the children of Israel did so long ago, we all want to find spaces of freedom. And, aren’t we blessed that God offers us those spaces. God offers us spaces to be ourselves and to simply enjoy being alive. And God had finally, after years of slavery and wandering, brought the children of Israel to the border of their promised land. Can you feel their enthusiasm? Can you feel their joy? God had made a promise to them, and several generations later, they were not forgotten.

          God had kept God’s promise to them. Now, they had a promise to keep to God and to one another. It was a two-part promise. First, because of God’s radical love toward them, they had a responsibility to keep God’s commandments. What does God command them to do? There are lots of laws throughout Deuteronomy but it is all summed up in a commandment to love God and to love every living thing. Second, because of God’s love toward them, they had to teach future generations of the goodness of God. Why? Because all the generations to come had missed the awesome signs and wonders God had done before their ancestors and they needed to understand just how faithful God had been.

          And, when I think of my Uncle Johnnie, the man who was well-loved by so many of us, I have to say, he kept this promise to God. Uncle Johnnie was a servant. He was a servant to our family, a servant to his community, and a servant to our nation. In these roles, he showed integrity. In our family, he had a strong sense of fairness. A good deed never went unnoticed, no matter how big or small it was. I remember going to visit Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Vertie on many occasions and seeing thank you notes that I had written to them several years before on display in their home. He saw the good in people, and he rewarded it. In his community, he was active in the NAACP, Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, and the National Order of Trench Rats. He loved being a trench rat! But, even more valuable than his membership in these civic organizations, he cared about the young people he met. He always spoke a word of encouragement, he was willing to help perfect strangers financially, because he wanted the best for people. In his nation, Uncle Johnnie was a soldier, and he loved it. I never knew Uncle Johnnie during his years of military service, so I most clearly saw his passion for our nation in his insistence on calling it to task each time it fell short of what it promised to be, each time we weren’t the nation he, and so many others, had fought to keep free.

          My Uncle Johnnie also carried out the second part of the promise the children of Israel. Uncle Johnnie taught the future generations that had not seen everything he had seen. He was the embodiment of the idea that one can be both strong and vulnerable. In my travels with Uncle Johnnie, there was never a topic he refused to discuss with me and we all know that children can sometimes be almost inappropriately inquisitive. And, I think, he was such an open book because he knew how much I had not seen. Unless he told me, I could not know how far he had come. Unless he told me, I could not know how far our family had come. Unless he told me, I could not know just how faithful God had been to us and, he needed me to know. And, even though I didn’t know it yet, I needed to know. I needed to know so that I could cultivate my own faith life but also so that I could sow the seeds of faith in future generations. So, he told me stories of God’s faithfulness, over and over. And he told me loudly; I don’t think he had an “inside voice.” He told me the stories at home, and away from home, and when we were awake, and late into the night, because I needed to know, and because it is what God demands of each of us.  

          Friends, I would submit to you today that we can all learn from Uncle Johnnie’s life. Perhaps he is still teaching us, even in death. Maybe he is teaching someone here that family is everything. Perhaps he is teaching another to practice integrity. And still, he might teach another to encourage someone. Yet, I think the courageous lesson that he teaches each of us on this day as we celebrate his life is to tell our stories. God has been so faithful to us, individually and collectively. So, teach the things of God to your children, write them on your doorposts and gates, because right now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are free. You are free! Thank you, Uncle Johnnie for teaching us. May you rest easy in the arms of your Creator.