Monday, September 23, 2013

remembering buddy.

He killed Osama bin Laden. He was a five-star general in World War 1. He was the self-appointed grounds keeper of Zion. He was a life-long Lutheran and I'd been his pastor for 37 years. He lived to keep the streets of Lyndale safe. "People out there call me Vietnam Rambo. You can call me Buddy."

Brian "Buddy" Arland Lemke had a rough life. He grew up surrounded by mental illness and drugs, dysfunctional relationships and instability. By the time I met him in February of 2012, he was a roller coaster of mood swings and personalities. He had been in and out of treatment several years earlier and now he claimed Jesus and recovery as his healers. But he usually smelled like booze. His shame and secrecy and defensiveness about drinking was tangible. And that only added to the unpredictable nature of his relationships.

But several weeks into my call at Zion, I had a neighborhood bully in my face, ready to punch me during the Wednesday meal. He was spitting and swearing and my heart pounded until I got him seated again. Twenty minutes later, Buddy approached me and said George wanted to talk to me. "I'm not talking to George right now. He needs to finish his dinner, use kind words, and leave quietly when he's finished." But Buddy had been lecturing him about respect and authority since the confrontation. And George was ready to apologize. I have rarely seen George make eye contact and offer genuine confession since that evening. Buddy had my back and he made perfect sense in ways I could not.

I learned a lot about myself and human nature from Buddy. He embodied our insatiable need for love and affection, for praise and community. He danced on the edges of both harmless and harmful behavior. He was Christ. And then sometimes it was really, really hard to be Christ to him.

There is a banner that hangs on the wall in Zion's sanctuary. It reads, "We welcome diverse individuals and build community in the Lyndale neighborhood." Everyone interpreted these words differently when it came to Buddy and his occasional and exhaustive boundary crossing. Were we being gracious? Were we being doormats? 

And then too many lines were crossed all at once. A few had very good reason to feel unsafe at Zion because of his behavior. So there was a holistic intervention involving church members, property owners, social workers and police officers. And new rules. And opportunities for health and support. And love and prayer and tears. And for a few days, there was hope.

And then, for a year, there was nothing.

Buddy disappeared into the neighborhood as quickly as he'd come. One day of vulnerable honesty and acceptance was real but unbearable - his comfortable layers of stories and personas soon returned and we existed apart for some time.

I still wrote him letters and we still prayed for him regularly.
Maybe he'd be back someday.

But we learned this weekend that he's gone. Buddy died last week of a drug overdose in his rent-a-room. The neighborhood mascot, the cyclone of mania and sadness is now at peace. He now knows -really knows - how fiercely he is loved and can be himself without shame or illness in tow.

There is one sign of Buddy during this year of absence that I will miss. He wore lipstick on his manic days and we have often found pink kiss marks on the sanctuary doors. The sun would bake them into the windows and I hated the idea of scrubbing his shadowy presence away. These sweet signs will be missed by quite a few.

Teenagers and widows are grieving for Buddy. God bless Zion, where sweet Joan says prayers for him and tears up at the loss. Where lovely LuAnn buys flowers in remembrance of Buddy. Where members of the choir dig up copies of his favorite anthem to sing later this fall. This is the feast. This is community and being known.

I will speak of him this Wednesday at Recovery Worship when we remember and commend him. And I will speak of him on All Saints Sunday when I remind folks about the wideness of the Meal. We are still feasting with the ones who are gone. And they are feasting in preparation for our arrival.

And thank God for the feast. Amen.

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