I came home from a conference and my son met me at the door. He was upset because the kids at his school had laughed at him. I asked him what happened. He said that the teacher caught him scribbling on a sheet of paper and asked him what he was doing. He told her that he had planned on writing letters to send to our family for Thanksgiving and he realized that he couldn’t send one to my father because he was dead. Then he thought if he wrote a letter my father would see it in heaven because people see everything in heaven He said that in the letter that he wished my father a happy thanksgiving. Then I asked him whether he had been thinking about my father a lot. He said that he had. I said that I had too and I get sad sometimes. Then he told me that he keeps thinking about the Eulogy that I gave for my father. Luke said that it is sad at the beginning, but the ending is happy. That makes him feel better. The Eulogy is below.
The Villain, the Victim, and the Victor,
The Gospel of John records a conversation that Jesus had with Pilate in the days leading up to his death. During this conversation, Jesus tells Pilate that “I have come into the world to testify to the truth.” Pilate responds by asking what is truth? Stated differently, Pilate says that it is fine to speak about truth and falsehood, good and evil, but what does it matter in the face of your impending death? Does not the reality of death, then, render all truth meaningless leaving only the question of who has power? Pilate’s question, raises the question of the meaning of all our lives. Does it matter who and what we were if death can simply wash it away? Does my black father matter if his story ended on the side of some road in California far from those who knew and loved him?
The question of who Jesus Christ is, then, cannot be separated from the question of who we are. My father is dead. Who was he? What does his life mean? Tolstoy the russian novelist, (can I quote a russian novelist at a black funeral) put it this way:
My question –was the simplest of questions, It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”
Has death destroyed my father such that all that remains of him are the bits and pieces of a man that we can cobble together to keep out the darkness?
This is why the empty tomb matters. Not because that one man by some miracle defeated death. No, we believe that this particular man defeated death. His life and loves and actions mattered. The kingdom he spoke about was vindicated by the resurrection. If Jesus’s life matters than all lives matter, even my father’s black life that ended some two weeks ago. Therefore, it matters who my father was, how he lived and how he died and what hope we have for him in the future. It is of vital importance for all of us who come to remember him that we tell the truth.
Apart from Jesus, I have probably spoken more about my father in sermons than any other human being. My whole life I have been trying to come to grips with who he was. So, I am going walk you through the three stages of preaching about my father over the last twenty years of my preaching. I would like to use the framing device of the biblical story of the tax collector and the Pharisee. I am going I am going to speak about my father as villian, then as victim, and finally my father as victorious. The first two parts may be a bit difficult, but like the story of the tax collector we end with hope.
Part I: The Villian
In my early preaching I spoke about my father as a good man who slowly became something else. I have two happy memories of my father that stick out from my childhood. The first was when I started playing football. My father took me to one of my first practices for the Lakewood rams. I remember the moms and dads lining up on the fence to watch their children. I recall glancing back to see my father smiling proudly at me. Then I remember tossing the football around in the backyard. My second happy memories comes from when me moved into one of our houses. We would move every few years growing up, so I am not sure which one. I think it was the time when we moved out of the trailer into our first real home. But we did not have the furniture or dishes yet and my father went to the store and bought us some McDonalds. We ate it their as a family in our new place and I felt safe and happy and joyous. So when I used to preach about my father, I would begin there with my limited happy moments, but then I would move on to what dominated my early years: fear and disappoinment.
I would usually be vague about the drugs because how can you talk about it? How can you make someone understand what it is like to live with two men as once? The father I knew and loved and the addict? I remember both men the good man and the villain. I remember standing in front of my father as a budding teenage with a frying pan in my hand saying that you will not harm another member of this house if you want to live. I also remember how his jokes could light up a room. So, my father in my early years was the villain. He was a testimony in the sense that I used to say to people that we are not defined by where you come from. We can be anything with the help of God. I survived so can you
The tax collector in our bible story was a villain too. The Israelites were an oppressed people ruled over by a government that did not love them. The government needed its taxes, but rather than collect the money themselves they hired members of the conquered peoples to collect it for them. So the tax collectors were hated because they thrived off the misery of their people. They were easy to hate.
Part II: The Victim
As a child it was easy to hate my father, but the older I got the more I realized that people are complicated. We are more than one thing. My father was not just a villain; he was a victim. He hurt, in part, because others hurt him.
Esau McCaulley was born to Gus & Wavon McCaulley in the years after a fire took the lives of two of his brothers: Robert and Leonard. Gus tried to rescue them and got burns to over 60% of his body for his efforts. He eventually recovered, but was never the same. Gus would be in and out of my father’s life, much like my father was in and out of mine.
Gus abandoned my dad and his sisters and brothers. He returned home broken only to die a few years later. His last words to Wavon was that their two boys (Steven and Esau) would be the death of her. Imagine watching your father die and hearing condemnation. Not I love you, but you will cause pain.
There my father was at the age of 15 a black man in Alabama with no one to teach him what it meant to be a man. He was a victim. But there is more. Now I understand what Alabama can do to black men, especially under educated black men. It can close in around us and suffocate us. Some self-medicate with drugs and acohol because they do not have the skills to cope. This was the decision that my father made and when he did the demons took him.
The tax collector was not just a villain either. He was a victim. He grew up in a broken system. From his perspective, there was no justice. God had not come to rescue his people. Israel fought Rome and lost, so either God was not all powerful or irrelevant. Therefore, he pushed down the knowledge of God that he grew up with and he did what he had to do to make money. The game was the game and he was going to win and he got good at it. But he couldn’t quite shake the images of the kids who starved because he took all that the family had to live on in order to satisfy his masters. He couldn’t quite shake the defeat in the eyes of the husband who was emasculated in front of his wife and kids so the tax collector could buy a new car or a piece of jewelry. He acted like his conscience was clear, but when he was alone with himself, the tax collector could not shake what he was doing to his people.
Part III: Victory
The tax collector went to church. He went and he spoke to the God he knew was there. The tax collector had seen his handiwork written all over the mountains and streams of Israel. He saw the power of God in the sunset and the remember Scriptures that his mom taught him as a child. The victim went to church and became victorious.
My father went to church too. He did not die a rich man, but my father succeeded where his failed. My father’s last words were not about his disappointment in me or any of us, but rather how proud he was of us. In the last years of his life he reconciled and apologized to all of us. He tried as best as he could to be a father to us.
More than that my father was victorious because he was a Christian. We like to believe that the Christian faith is about people who are converted and then immediately change their lives to become these perfect people with well mowed lawns and perfectly behaved children, but for some life is hard. Life was hard for my dad and he made a lot of mistakes, but in the midst of it he held on to God (or God held on to him). What was his words to you mom? All I can do now is pray.
During my last face to face conversation with him he told me how he hand found this church in Dallas, Oak Cliff Bible fellowship. He told me about how the pastor had such an impact on him. He was taking these bible classes and they kept asking him to write an essay but he didn’t know how to do it. He could not type so he was handwriting these essays. So I sat down with him at the rehearsal for my sister’s wedding and explained to him how to write a five paragraph essay.
My Dad was, in the last years of his life, taking bible classes. He was trying to break free of the demons that held him. He saw Jesus as a path forward. And you know what? His journey now is complete. Sometimes our victory does not come through the glory of the lives that we live, but in the victory of Christ himself over death. God’s ability to redeem broken things gives his life meaning
The tax collector went to church and could not bring himself to look up to heaven, but only said: Lord have mercy upon me a sinner. God forgave him and welcomed him into his family. My father said at the end, “All I can do is pray.” He prayed and I trust that God heard him.