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A Funeral for a Friend

I found this sermon for a friend from my last church and enjoyed remembering my friend – one of the most joyful fellows I have ever known.  Just had to share it.  Hope it is a bit of an inspiration.

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Burleigh Tatum once told me that if a person lives long enough, something would kill them.

Well, 89 is a very long time, but I am sure I speak for all of you in saying that it does not seem like Burleigh lived long enough.  He was such a joy to know.  He is already missed.

I am a little disappointed to be conducting his funeral.  He told me once that his hope was to live long enough for my son (who is ten years old) to one day conduct his funeral.  I wish he had lived that long as well.

That said the responsibility falls to me to conduct this service, and I consider it a great honor to stand before you today as Burleigh pastor to eulogize my dear friend.

I first met Burleigh when I came to visit Red Bank Baptist Church as a prospective pastor.  The Pastor Search Committee of this church had arranged for me to have a sit down chat with the body of deacons.  As we gathered, several of the deacons asked me some serious questions about my background, by education, my theology, my devotional life, and so forth.  It was friendly time – but times like this can still be a bit intense.

When it came time for Burleigh to ask a question, he looked at me with a big grin on his face and said, “How long do you preach?”  Before I could answer, he said, “The way I see it, if a service starts at 11:00AM, it ought to be finished by 12:00 o’clock!”

If I keep looking at my watch this morning, I trust you will forgive me.

If it had not been for the grin on his face, I am not sure what I would have made of Burleigh Tatum on that day.  But his grin and the laughter from the other deacons communicated to me that Burleigh one of the joy merchants at Red Bank Baptist Church.  He was one who kept the mood upbeat and joyful.  One of the women at Red Bank this past Sunday called him our “darling.”  What a wonderful description!

Burleigh always greeted folks with a steady smile, a quick wit, and warm handshake.  That is unless you were a woman.  Then he expected a hug.  Burleigh could light up a room by his presence.  He always seemed ready to laugh – even if there was nothing particularly funny happening at that given moment.  His eyes always had a bit of a twinkle to them.  The spring in his step reflected a genuine joyfulness for life.

Burleigh could relay a good story and he could tell a good joke, but his humor was best when it was unplanned.  If something would strike Burleigh as funny – it usually was.  I can tell you that he was one of the last person people you’d want to come up against in a verbal sparing match.

Several years ago my wife visited China on a mission awareness tour.  When she returned, the church invited her to share what she had learned and experienced on her trip.  Jeana brought a wonderful message about how God’s Kingdom was advancing in China.

That evening we had a business meeting.  Near the end of the meeting, Burleigh stood up and asked to speak.  He said, “Mrs. Nieporte did a wonderful job this morning.  I think she would be a right good preacher.  I move that we fire you and ask her to become our new pastor.”  As he was seated, I replied, “Mr. Tatum, you can certainly do that if you wish.  You’ll just need to make sure you are paying her the same salary you are paying me!”  He stood right up again and said, “No, we’re not going to pay her the same we are paying you.  She’s good and we’ll need to give her a big pay raise!”

On another occasion, I had just finished preaching a sermon about Abraham and Sarah.  I spoke about how good had allowed Sarah to give birth to a child when both she and her husband were 100 years old.  My point was that when God is involved, nothing is impossible.  When God is involved, even a church as old as Red Bank Baptist, filled with many older people, can still give birth to a new ministry that might change the world.

At the end of that service, Burleigh and Jewell approached me.  Burleigh said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said in the service about old people giving birth to new life.”  Then he smiled and put his arm around Jewell.  “I’d love to say and talk further, but Jewel and I are going to head right home and get to work on that right away.”

Just a few months ago, we were in another business meeting.  As the meeting was ending, Burleigh asked to speak.  He tone was a bit somber as he began.  “I want you to know that I have all my affairs in order and when I die, I have left some money to the Red Bank Baptist Church.”  Then he got a great big smile across his face as he said, “Just in case this gives any of you any ideas, I want you to know that I do carry a gun with me in my truck and I am prepared to protect myself!”

Burleigh felt blessed to live on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  For him, next to heaven, this was the best place in the world to live.  He was very intent on preserving our way of living.  One day, when in engaged in a conversation with some folks about lowering the toll for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, Burleigh argued that they should not lower the toll – they should double it.  Not only that, he also said he’d like to see additional toll booths at the Maryland state line for all those traveling from the north.

Burleigh had a great sense of humor.  It came from a place of great joy in his heart.

That joy produced some other fruits in his life.  He was a tender, caring, and compassionate man – sweet, gentle, and loving.  He was never pretentious, never pompous, and never conceited.

Burleigh was extremely grateful toward any kindness shown him.

Not too long ago his friends Frank and Diane Mapp entertained him at dinner.  Diane had made fresh biscuits and he was overjoyed to discover that she not only intended to feed those biscuits for dinner, but she was going to allow him to take the leftover biscuits home to eat for breakfast the following morning.  He was extremely grateful – like somebody had just cut him a check for a million dollars.  He appreciated and called out from others acts of kindness and love.

Burleigh was a generous man.

Like many of you, my family was blessed to get a box of sweet potatoes from Burleigh every year.  I am not a big sweet potato fan, but my wife is.  The only thing Burleigh looked for in return for those potatoes was for Jeana to use some of them to bake him a sweet potato casserole.

Burleigh loved to eat.  If he were invited to a meal, you could be certain he would attend.  It might have been a fellowship luncheon, or a meeting of the Red Bank Men’s Club, or a meeting of the Accomac Baptist Association.  If there was a plate of food, Burleigh was there – ready to eat.

When I first arrived at Red Bank Baptist, I was invited to join and attend meetings of the Eastern Shore Christians Businessman’s Association.  For me it was a great joy to pile into a car with Carl Dunn, Frank Bell, Burleigh Tatum, and George Roff, to drive up to Onley for a meeting and a meal.  Those guys were all twice my age – but when they got together, you would think they were a bunch of teenagers.

He also loved a hot cup of coffee.  If you couldn’t find Burleigh anyplace else, you could usually find him at the Exmore McDonald’s at 8:30AM with several of his friends, drinking coffee, telling stories, and sharing jokes.  My last conversations with Burleigh took place over the few days before his passing.  That’s where I found him – sitting and drinking coffee at McDonald’s.

Of course, it wasn’t about the food or the coffee.  It was about the relationships that were forged a plate of food or a cup of coffee.  Burleigh was wired by God to be a “people-person.”

Burleigh appreciated the site of a pretty woman.  He once told me old but not dead.  Just a few weeks ago, I was standing with Burleigh in the education building at Red Bank Baptist.  It was a cold morning, and ice was on the ground.  We stood and looked out the window and commented about how cold it was.  Suddenly a young pulled up and got out of her car.  He smiled and said, “It’s cold out there, but looking at her can sure warm a guy up.”

Burleigh was a faithful husband.  He loved his wife.  I was with him when Jewel was in surgery.  I was with him when the doctor came and told him that Jewel had inoperable cancer.  It broke his heart – but it did not break his spirit.  For the next year or so Burleigh tenderly took care of Jewel right up to the very end.

I suppose the question that many might ask at this point is “Why?”  “What was it that made Burleigh Tatum one of the nicest, kindest, friendliest, and most considerate people you’d ever want to know?”  “What made him so joyful?”

I think I know why.  It was because Burleigh had a keen awareness of God’s grace.

Religious people believe that heaven and salvation are all a reward for hard work and personal effort.  What a terrible burden under which to live your life.  You stress and strain to do all the right things in the hope that when you die you might be one of the select that did enough to be saved.

Burleigh knew better.  He wasn’t a religious person – he was a Christian.  He knew that salvation was by a gift of God by grace through faith.  Burleigh did not give, or serve, or love to be accepted by God.  He did those things because he knew that God already accepted him.  He good works were not a tactic to get into heaven, they were an overflow from the reality that by God’s grace he would be accepted into heaven.

In Christ, Burleigh discovered something of the friendship of God.  I know that is it hard for many to believe in a concept such as God’s friendship.  Most religions paint a picture of God that is so staunch, solemn, and distant.  Burleigh did not see God that way.

Shortly after I because pastor of this church, I preached a series of sermons about God’s grace and friendship.  One Sunday after worship, Burleigh came to me with a smile on his face.  Instead of a twinkle in his eye, there was a tear.  It was a tear of joy.  “I’ve always known that God loved me,” he said.  “Today you reminded me of something else I know is true.  God no only loves me – God also likes me.”

That morning the sermon was not what I said from the pulpit, its what Burleigh share with me after the benediction.  “God not only loves me – God likes me.”

He was right.  God likes Burleigh Tatum.  It case you have not heard it before, God wants to share that same type of relationship with you.  God wants you to stop being religious and to instead simply enter into a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Moments ago I shared with you the verse of scripture that prompted the sermon.  It was a verse from Zephaniah 3:17.  Listen to this verse and think about how God feels toward you.  “For the Lord your God has arrived to live among you.  He is a mighty savor.  He will rejoice over you with great gladness.  With his love, he will calm all your fears.  He will exalt over you by singing a happy song.”

That phrase “exalt over you” means to dance and twirl about.  The scripture says that God dances over us with a happy song.  Wow!  What a message of joy.  What a God!

Burleigh life was a celebration of God’s joy.

Our lives can be the same.

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