A RICH MAN
It was a tragic story, to begin with. He was a young father, in construction. A high school jock who hadn’t lost his physical peak with age. In his home were his young wife and three small children; girls. He loved his family, his life was full of simple pleasures. I didn’t exactly know him, but his parents were members of my congregation.
He lived each day following a pattern that wasn’t a rut, to him. He rose early, went to work and came home. But there was one feature about him that seemed incongruous to the rest of him. He loved Broadway musicals, especially FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. And so, each day, he would return from a long day of hard labor, greet his kids, kiss his wife, put on the recording of “IF I WERE A RICH MAN” (his favorite of favorites), lay down on the couch and fall asleep till dinner.
One day he did all that, laid down, and never got back up.
Like I said, it was tragic. But even in this case…well.
The church organist and I were the same age, young. We lacked the maturity of experience to let inappropriate moments of humor pass through our minds to be nibbled on later. If the plate was put in front of us, we ate it…or worked hard to not let it tempt us (usually without success). We were the musicians at the church and therefore were asked to be the musicians at the funeral. The service was not at our church, but at a small, older, funeral home out-of-town. This was the type of place where the organ and singer were behind a screen at the back of the platform. We could see out, but no one could see in and see us.
Most of the service requested was standard fare. However, the family insisted on my singing his favorite song. You guessed it: IF I WERE A RICH MAN.
Picture the cast: a minister prone to appreciate the off-kilter humor of human nature, two twenty-somethings who had a difficult time taking anything seriously, a grieving family, an old funeral home…it’s a gold mine.
It was more difficult than I imagined when we practiced. First off, the mood alone was wrong. This was a funeral, not a cabaret. We had to find that musical performance balance between appropriate while still being true to a song THAT WASN’T WRITTEN FOR A FUNERAL. So, the organist and I KNEW we couldn’t perform it “full-boar”, as if at the Schubert Theatre. The logistics alone were impossible. We were tucked in a room large enough for a Hammond B3 and a singer. There wasn’t enough room there (as my dear Aunt Eva would say) to “cuss a cat without getting fur in your mouth”. So my friend, the organist, had to play the familiar, “boom-chuck-chuck, boom-chuck” accompaniment (on a Hammond B3, better known for blues, rock and gospel, than show tunes), and I had to read over her shoulder because there wasn’t room for a music stand. The microphone was fixed to the wall, NOT the wall the organ was on. The organ was to my left, the mic was to my right. The melody I knew, the words…not so much. So I had to look to my left, get as many words in my mind as possible while directing my voice to the mic on my right. All the while, actually looking at (through the screen) the congregation.
The time came. Just on the other side of the screen, a mere two feet in front of us, were the chairs for the minister and anyone else speaking at the service, backs to us. Our Pastor had just finished his remarks, telling the story and meaning of this song to the departed. He sat down. She started playing. I started singing.
It was all going well. And then the surreal moment hit my friend playing the organ. By the movement of her back, I could tell she was beginning to chuckle to herself. Her past history indicated she wouldn’t be able to stop. It got worse. This may not be true for you, but for me (and obviously her) if you have to laugh silently, laugh-tears start up. I was doing fine, but suddenly she was silently laughing and tearing up. She couldn’t see the music, she turned a page too early, I lost the words. Then I started. I couldn’t control it. This was perhaps the most ridiculous thing (at that point in my life) that had ever happened to me. I started to sing and couldn’t. I didn’t know what the words were so I just sang (when I could) “dai-dai-dai…”. My inner Tevye had left the building. In a frantic effort to stop the madness I reached over to point to the END OF THE SONG, and ended up 1) accidentally hitting her in the jaw, and 2) falling over a stack of music.
Our Pastor, true to his nature, had his head bowed the whole time. When we finished in glorious fashion, he rose and gave the longed-for benediction. It was over.
Well, not quite.
In an effort to sneak out as quickly as possible, we entered the side room where the family had gathered, before getting into the coach and ride to the cemetery. In horror, I saw the departed’s mother and wife approach us. They hugged me. They said how moved they both were at my rendition of RICH MAN, and so touched that I “broke down during the last verse”…it meant so much to them that I was moved as well.
Well, of course. They couldn’t SEE what was going on, they could only hear it.
I don’t know what you can get out of this story, but to me the lesson has always been this one. “all things work together for those, and with those, who love God and are called according to his purposes” or even “the Lord works in mysterious ways”…
…or perhaps, “in our weakness, He is our strength.”