Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ben Bullington Memorial

This post is the manuscript of a sermon from the memorial service for Ben Bullington that was held at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Roanoke, VA this morning, the church where Ben grew up.  He was an amazing man, according to his obituary and eulogies done by two of his siblings.  It was a lovely service and I was honored to be a part of it.  My husband was on the bulletin to preach but I felt moved to tell the story of my unlikely encounter with Ben, five days after he died.  It is a brief sermon and worth the time to dig through to the story of this encounter and what I learned from it, about Ben and about myself.  Peace.
Ben Bullington

December 28, 2013
Memorial Service for Benjamin Parrott Bullington
St. John’s, Roanoke
Psalm 121
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Rev. Kathy Dunagan

I am not The Rev. Dr. Joe Dunagan.  I am, in fact, The Rev. Mrs. Rev. Dr. Joe Dunagan, a.k.a. Kathy.  Joe and I have both written homilies for today and we decided to use mine because I have a story I want to share with you.  Though this is a homily, not a eulogy and I did not know Ben, I feel that I know him now.
The scriptures chosen for this service are poems.  The psalmist (Psalm 121) compares faith to a reliance of safety found in the experience of gazing at the mountains that stand in ancient poses of strength all around us.  This is easy to imagine from the vantage point of this lovely Roanoke Valley and I imagine also in places like Big Timber, Missoula or Helena, MT.  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians speaks of love, but there is a context to consider for his poetic description of love, and that is community.  Paul is in the middle of a letter reminding a struggling church that the most important and basic element of our faith is that we love each other.  The line in his poetic letter that takes this message home is in verse 12.  “To know just as I have been known.”  Indeed, what a fantastic vision to imagine life lived as a journey in which the experience of Christian community should be a perfect reflection of the love which God has first shown us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  (James Boyce)
I have somehow always known this in my journey but today I have found a new way to understand it.  So, here is my story:
I have always wanted to live in Roanoke.  I grew up in Bristol, listening to my mother’s stories of her summers spent here as a youth when she would ride the train up from Winston-Salem in the late 30’s and early 40’s.  She brought us here as children to visit those relatives and visit places like the old Lakeside amusement park.  It seems all my friends from Emory and Henry were either from here and returned here or chose to settle here after college.  I enjoyed visiting them and wanted to live here too, but I spent most of my life in Georgia longing for Virginia, the Blue Ridge and bluegrass.
I started playing guitar when I was 13 and I was pretty good.  I could sing too and sometimes got to sit in with my older brother’s bluegrass band and sing those high harmonies in songs like “I’ll Fly Away.”  So I decided early on to try my hand at song writing.  I wrote a few songs in my teens that I hid and wouldn’t sing for anyone.  I carried a fantasy that I would one day be discovered.  I finally shared a song I wrote at the age of 21 and it went over O.K. but I realized I needed to work on it a bit more.  At 25 I was invited by a musician friend in Atlanta to write a song with him over a long weekend and we really worked on it.  By Sunday he gently told me I should give up songwriting.  I just don’t have that gift.  I was relieved.  So I followed other passions and other calls and have lived a wonderful life in ministry and counseling.
But my life long dream of living in Roanoke finally came true through a strange course of events about six months ago.  After settling in, I reconnected with an old college roommate I had not spent much time with over the past 20 years.  She said one night, “Hey. There’s a concert at the Jefferson Center next weekend.  Want to go?” and of course I did.
I had never been to the Jefferson Center.  I had never heard of Tim O’Brien or Darrell Scott.  I had never heard of Ben Bullington either.  I regretted all of those facts and simultaneously was pleased to meet each of them.  At the end of the first set Darrell told us the story of Ben who had died earlier that same week.  He pointed out that Ben had used his gifts well to pursue his passions, to enjoy his journey, to provide for his family.  Darrell also poignantly pointed out that Ben’s song writing came from a gifted place.  That Ben could be, and was, very honest and straightforward in his songs in a way that those who feel pressured to write songs for a living don’t enjoy.  Ben had the freedom to do this because he was also gifted as a physician.
And then Tim and Darrell sang Ben’s song.  (I’ve Got To Leave You Now)  They asked for no applause for themselves and the stage went black at the end and we sat in the darkness of that beautiful old concert hall and honored Ben in silence.
I was forever changed by that moment. I was moved, of course, by the song and by the performance.  I was moved by the poetry of words like “Too many men are worse than rodents” – that’s good stuff!  Or the idea that lost souls see God only as “a fabled God whose hands are full of time.”  I was moved mostly by the image of “four friends smoking on a midnight porch,” an image of that instantly connected me to that same feeling I get when I consider the strength of the mountains when I lift my eyes to them.  I realized at that moment that in some way I did know Ben, in some way I have always known, him and Tim and Darrell and every other person there.  I realized that in some way I have always lived in Roanoke.  Maybe too, it is even possible that it’s not too late to become a songwriter. (Ben didn’t until after the age of 50!)
But it was another line from Ben’s song that has haunted me.  I went home and downloaded Ben’s version from iTunes and I can’t stop listening to it.  “Our Souls might mingle in the after torch.”
I think that if I could smoke with Ben on a midnight porch I would relish in the chance to talk this one over with him.  From what I have heard about him from you, I think he would invite such a conversation.  And I think he wouldn’t mind me challenging his theology.
We were born to die.  We all face the end of our journey some day, as Ben has his.  We can only hope to face our end with as much grace and wisdom and style as Ben did.  But I believe that we don’t have to wait until the “after torch.”  I believe that our souls mingle now.  I believe, because of the strength of the mountains and the love of the community, that we are forever mingled in love now, and always will be.  And I will always appreciate Ben for bringing this to my attention.  In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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