A few hours ago I received word that an old friend died unexpectedly in the night. The shock of the news of a 52-year old man in apparent good health leaving so suddenly is real, and it took my breath away. An autopsy is planned, so family and friends can hopefully have some of their questions answered. But in any case, there is that big hole in the world that is left when someone departs it.
When I think of Gene Perry, he is always smiling, and his shoulders are shaking with a good chuckle. He was a geek’s geek, spending his entire career developing systems for automated tolls on Michigan’s many bridges. He was a family man, devoted to his wife and two daughters. He was a rock-steady member of the church I served. He loved where he lived (a stark place by most standards), yet he was also diligent about taking regular vacations. He was a serious musician, with a solo studio album to his credit as well as a side career as a regional touring musician. He was a faithful friend, invariably gathering with college friends multiple times a year to sustain and expand those relationships. And he was a the kind of person who made social media sing, offering daily posts with wise, thoughtful, and humorous observations about events of his days, which even included insights into politics and religion that always landed just right, no matter your perspective. The posts also invariably included a reference to a song that was apropos, and I know I’ll miss this daily, multivalent insight into Gene’s mind.
I have a lot of fragments of memories… like the way he carefully handled his gear, and took care of his trucks. I remember how he patiently taught me to play the guitar, and especially the way he affirmed me for enjoying the pure pleasure of playing a single chord again and again, just to hear the notes ring out: ”Yep, you’ve got the bug for sure,” he said, and my heart swelled to feel like I was his comrade. I remember his sharp insights into my sermons, and especially the way he would so kindly disagree with me. And I remember when I returned to Michigan years later for a friend’s wedding, and Gene let me know that he had recently recorded an album. I reached for my cash so fast that I spilled it on the floor, but he was so shy about the CD and so retiring that he could only apologize that I needed to pay for it. It was his blood, sweat, and tears (and it was really good!), but he was reticent nonetheless.
My most enduring memory, though, was of a time that I called him into my Pastor’s office. I was hoping that he would consider being a member of the Elder Board in our church. There was a vacancy, and I coveted his gravitas mixed with adventurousness. He patiently listened as moved through my rehearsed speech, laying out his credentials and mentioning the many people who hoped he would consider this and adding a personal appeal of how much I enjoyed working with him.
His response was typically rational, two straightforward points he wanted to make. First of all, when he went on his occassional fishing trips he sometimes liked to smoke a cigar, and he knew some of the church members would be bothered by that. And second, he was at that time hoping to start playing music in area clubs and bars. Which would likewise be off-putting to many of the folks in our church.
I remember wanting to object to his objections, to counter his moves. My mind raced, wanting to make the impassioned case that folks shouldn’t be bothered by a person’s occasional use of tobacco. And– for crying out loud!– people shouldn’t resist a person who wanted to play some music in the only venues open year-round in Northern Michigan– restaurants and bars. I would hope that folks in the church would cheer him on as he used his God-given gifts to bring people joy and pure entertainment, and to continue to grow in his skills. I wanted to remind him of how much we needed him, of how I needed to fill this vacancy. I didn’t want to let him get away.
…but somewhere in that rapid silence, as my imaginary counter-argument scaled up and then back down again, I knew Gene was right. His wisdom trumped my own. If folks would be bothered by his yearly cigar, then Gene wasn’t their Elder. And if being an Elder would hinder his pursuit of a goal that suited him perfectly, then Gene likewise shouldn’t be an Elder. It was yet another case when a Pastor wants to bring someone into the church in order to suit the purposes of the pastor, when what’s really happening is that God is launching the person out of the church, to be a missionary and an emissary of God’s goodness. I’m glad Gene was wise enough to keep me from forcing him into the wrong place. I’m glad Gene had a wide enough vision of God’s Kingdom to move out into it. Most of all, I’m glad that Gene knew not to pretend, or put on airs, or fit into anyone’s mold. There was no false piety with Gene Perry– only honesty.
The way I see it, Gene knew better than to take on the formal role of Elder. But ironically that is also the day that he became my personal elder. He widened my vision, and stopped me short of building the Kingdom of the Church in place of the Kingdom of God. Many years later, I’d hear the term ‘Missional’ to describe churches that don’t assume that God only operates inside the church, but instead work diligently to launch people into places of ministry outside the church. When I heard that term, I knew it was a good idea, and I knew my friend Gene was already an adherent (whether he knew the term or not). Thank you, Gene, and thanks be to God.
Also: I’m raising a glass to you, my friend. It’s a glass that contains whiskey.