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Honor of Christen
November 6, 2002
[Note: Christen White Cranford was diagnosed with Primary Pulmonary Hypertension during her last semester at the University of Tennessee in 2000. She died of heart failure in Nashville on November 3, 2002. This is the eulogy preached at her funeral in Macon, Georgia by her father.]
Over the past few days several people have asked me and Christenís mother how she came to be named and why her name is spelled the way it is. Yesterday I had an opportunity to hear Jodiís version and was so pleased to hear that it squared exactly with my own. We named her Christen — with a “Ch” and not a “K” — so that every time she saw her name or wrote it or said it or heard it, she would be reminded of Jesus Christ — her friend and brother. We told Christen this from the time she was a little girl and I believe it was imprinted upon her mind and heart. She knew Jesus as a friend and not as a stranger.
The main thing I want to do today is to tell you a story about something that happened to Christen in my presence in December 1994 when she was 15. This event was a powerfully mysterious one and we talked about it many times over the years. I believe that Christen eventually came to believe that her initial conclusion about what happened was correct.
Christen went up to New Jersey to visit me just after Christmas and, as we always did, we spent a day in New York City shopping, having dinner, and going to a Broadway show. This day was bitterly cold and windy and Chris was wearing her favorite winter coat — a dressy black and white checkered one. While we were shopping I bought her a parka at the Eddie Bauer store and she put her long woolen coat in a large shopping bag.
As we walked we came to an intersection where on the corner pavement sat a young woman with a cup asking for money. She was very thin and was only wearing jeans and a light cotton sweater that hung down over one shoulder revealing that her brown skin was nearly gray from the cold. I reached into my pocket and pulled out some folding money and some coins and dropped them into her cup and proceeded to cross the street with Christen. But when we reached the other side, Christen stopped me and said, “Dad, we have to do something for her.”
“What would you like to do,” I asked.
“I want to give her my coat.”
“Your favorite coat?”
“Dad! She needs it more than I do and, anyway, Iíve got two coats!” She said this with all of the “I canít believe youíre so stupid” tone that some teenage girls reserve only for their fathers.
“Okay, letís go,” I said, and we crossed back to the other corner where Christen helped the young woman put her coat on. Thinking we were finished, I turned to cross the street again but Christen stopped me and said, “Dad, sheís hungry too.”
“Right! Okay, Iíll go in that deli and get something. You stay here and keep an eye on her in case she moves off and Iíll be right back.”
I managed to find some hot soup and some bread in the deli and I returned to the corner in less than five minutes to find that the woman was no longer there.
“Christen, where is she?”
“Sheís gone — disappeared!”
“What do you mean disappeared? Didnít you watch her?”
“Yes! I only looked over my shoulder for a split second to see if you were coming and when I turned back she was gone. I went to the corner and looked up and down the street and across the street, but I couldnít see her anywhere. She just disappeared!”
So we walked on and as we did I asked Christen “Who do you think that was?”
“How would I know?” she answered.
“Do you remember in the gospel where Jesus says ĎWhatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me?í”
“So, youíre telling me I just gave my coat to Jesus?” I shrugged my shoulders and walked on carrying the hot soup and bread. Christen just walked on looking at the ground pensively without saying anything more. Before long we came upon another homeless person sitting against a building. Christen took the bag of food from me, flashed the guy one of her million-dollar smiles, and gave him the soup and bread.
As we went on our way Christen turned her head to me and matter of factly said without a trace of irony, “There he is again!”
As we talked about this over the years, I think Christen came to believe that she really had given her coat to Jesus and then, ten minutes later, had given food to Jesus. Many times she tried to puzzle out where the woman had gone and to explain why she could not see her when she had only turned her head away for half a second, but she was unable. She became convinced that something extraordinary had happened to her which she could not explain in human terms.
Like her friend Jesus, Christen heard the news that she would die early on a Friday morning and for a while it seemed that she would die that same day. It was November 1 — All Saintsí Day — and I thought to myself that if it had to happen, that would be a fine day to die. When the next day came, All Soulsí Day, she was weaker and in great pain and death seemed imminent, especially as the afternoon wore into the evening. And again I thought, All Soulsí Day would be a fine day to die. But, as always, Christen didnít do things the way I thought would be fine. And, as often was the case, her way was better than mine. She died just after midnight on Sunday morning, the day every week when we remember the Resurrection of Jesus and the promise that holds for each of us for our own resurrection and everlasting life. Sunday, indeed, is the finest day to die.
So, I have a notion — a fantasy, if you like — that when Christen came face to face with her friend and brother Jesus, he said to her “Welcome home, my sweet child! Enjoy all the good things I have prepared for you. Have something to eat. Take a swim. Enjoy it all.”
And then, so it pleases me to believe, Jesus said, “And, hey! Christen! Thanks for the nice coat!