Defining a Life and a Love – A Funeral Sermon for my Brother

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Friends and family, I want to thank all of you for joining us today for a celebration of Kenny’s life. None of us want to be here today, but here we are. In the midst of death, we are, against all odds and all forces that might suggest otherwise … we are here to proclaim life. I have presided at hundreds of funerals and prepared hundreds of sermons for occasions like today, but I have to confess to you that this week was different and what I want to say today is a bit different. First, I need to name something that most of us brought into the room but most of us also tend to sidestep, deflect, or temporarily put out of our minds. Everyone copes with tragedy differently. I get that. But Kenny was a straight shooter and did not have much time for pretension, phoniness, or fake platitudes. I was often inspired by his passionate denunciation of the fake and superficial, so in that spirit, let me be direct and honest a moment.

Mental illness is a real thing, as is the diagnosis known as bipolar disorder. A friend, medical doctor, and well-known author named Matthew Sleeth called me this week and shared with me an analogy that had stayed with him since medical school. He said Type 1 diabetes, where a person’s body does not produce insulin, can often be managed and treated so that a person can live a long and productive life. In some cases, however, it can be progressive and even fatal – which is precisely why it has to be taken seriously. Dr. Sleeth then said he was taught years ago that bi-polar disorder is very similar in the way it presents. In most cases, it can be managed and treated so that a person can live a long and productive life. In some cases, and I believe this to be true for Kenny, the disease can be progressive and eventually fatal.

So why do I begin there this afternoon? Kenny devoted his life and his profession to teaching and to what might be called the “healing arts,” using cognitive behavioral therapy to address those suffering from addiction, alcohol and drug abuse, impulsive and self-destructive behaviors, anger management, and the toxic relational conditions that can lead to domestic violence and abuse. As someone put it to me this week, Kenny devoted his life to teaching – and perhaps he still has one more lesson to teach us in his death. What is he teaching? I believe he is teaching us that mental illness, and clinical depression in particular, is not to be treated lightly.

There is a fascinating story in Mark’s Gospel (chapter 5) about a “man possessed by an evil spirit” living in a cemetery. This may well be a first century way of describing mental illness, but that is not what I find most important. What is illustrative about the story for me is that the man was alone. He had been isolated outside the city. In other words, folks didn’t know what to do with him. Amazingly enough, Jesus casts out the spirits and they went into a herd of around 2000 pigs who then jumped into the sea and died – something that was not an insignificant disturbance in the local economy. For whatever reason, the local townspeople see the man clothed in his right mind and they don’t react with rejoicing, but fear and even anger. They plead with Jesus to leave. Why do I share that story? In part, because I believe there are forces at work in our mental health system that react the same way.

Just as the #METOO movement has empowered women to speak out boldly and courageously against sexual harassment and abuse, we need a new #METOO movement that is just as fearless and honest about the state of mental health in our nation. I am not going to ask for all of you to raise your hands today, but my guess is that if I did, every single one of us could raise them and acknowledge that we have at least one family member or close friend living with mental illness. If you are here, we already know Kenny was one of them.

It is time to quit whispering about such things in hushed embarrassment and complicity or implicitly participating in the culture of shame and silence. It is also high time that all of us quit demonizing those suffering from mental illness by only focusing on the presenting words and behavior we SEE and EXEPERIENCE – in other words, the SYMPTOMS – rather than the disease itself and the broken state of mental health care that often maintains the status quo rather than moving us creatively toward greater mental health that is integrative and communal in its approach. If you want to honor Kenny’s memory, I believe this may be a place to start.

Having said that, I want to share with you for a few moments how we “define a life and a love.” As a pastor, I often sit with people in the midst of their brokenness. Not long ago, I sat down with a friend who had made some bad decisions and was dealing with the consequences. I told him that despite how much of a mess his problems and life had become, that he was NOT DEFINED by his worst decision or even his most recent decision. That is what I said then and that is part of what I want to say to all of us today. Remember who you are. You are not who others tell you you are. You are not what our culture or society tries to put on you. You are NOT DEFINED by your worst decisions, though we often do suffer their consequences. I will go a step further. We are NOT DEFINED by the way we die either. I feel compelled to say that here, to us, to all of Kenny’s friends, colleagues, family and neighbors.

So, if we know how NOT to define a life, what can we say about how TO DEFINE one? One way is to discern and live into your life’s passion and calling. The prophet Jeremiah had a God-given passion for sharing God’s truth so much so that he could not contain it: “My heart, my heart! I writhe in pain! My heart pounds within me! I cannot be still. God’s word burns within my heart like an intense fire, trapped in my bones. I cannot contain it!” (Jeremiah 20:8-10). Most of you here know Kenny had a passion for helping others. As many have told me over the past week, their lives were forever changed for the good for having known him and encountered him – either as a friend or in his work with (BTP) Behavioral Treatment Providers, the company he founded and directed.

What you may not know is where that “burning bush” in Kenny’s life started. It started on a night about 24 years ago by the deathbed of our father, Jerry Baker. Our dad struggled with addiction and brokenness in the latter years of his life.  Near the end, he was dying from AIDS here in Nashville and Kenny was responsible for a lot of his care and personal needs in the last months of his life. On the night our father died, while some of the rest of us were trying to make our way here to Nashville, Kenny was at the home where our Dad was being cared for and sleeping on the couch down the hall. Ed, one of the caretakers, came and woke Kenny up in the middle of the night and told him it wouldn’t be long. Kenny got up and went into my Dad’s room and started reading the book of Psalms to him.

I will never forget what happened next. Sometime in those next moments, my Dad died. Kenny called me on the phone and said something like: “Kevin, Dad is gone … but IT’S OK! It’s OK! I responded, “What do you mean it is OK?” He said, “Kevin, you’re the preacher, so I don’t know, you are going to have to explain it and you are going to think I am crazy, but when he died a light filled the room and I know he was at peace. Also, Kevin … I know you are going to think I am crazy … I heard a voice. I responded, “You did? What did it say?” Kenny said rather emphatically, “It was a voice that told me what to do with the rest of my life. It told me to spend the rest of my life trying to help people with addictions and self-destructive behaviors.” That was Kenny’s burning bush. That was where he received his calling. That is the point where he made a life change and a vocational turn. Here is another way to honor Kenny today. Discover your God-given and God-inspired passion and pursue it in a way that seeks to bless others around you.

Another way to define a life is by one’s generosity. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus preaches from the plain saying: “Don’t judge, and you won’t’ be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion – packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing – will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” (Luke 6:37-38) One thing I can say about Kenny was that he was truly an open, forgiving, and generous soul. He had his problems – we all do – but at his best and at the very center of his spirit was this deeply, God-inspired generosity. Kenny wanted to give it all away – his resources to help others – his time to invest in everyone he met and tried to assist – his friendships – his family. Another way to honor his memory is for all of us here today to try and do the same. Heed these words of Jesus. Be quick to listen and slow to speak or judge. And give – give it away – all of it. You can’t take it with you. Discover the amazing, limitless grace of God, the great giver, and then become a channel of grace, mercy, and service to your neighbor with God being your helper.

Finally, let me say this – we are defined by how we love and by those who love us. Mom, I know you know this deep in your heart – but I need to say it to you aloud – Kenny loved you deeply. In these last months, you spoke with him daily. You kept vigil with him for 2-3 months this last fall as he was being treated. If he were here today, he would say it to you again. He loved Keith, who is not only our brother, but Kenny’s best friend. He loved his family, his second father and mother – Bob and Barbara Morrison – his nephews (Zachary and Kai) and nieces (Sarah and Rachel) – his uncle Randy and all of the Richards family – we cousins have always been close. He loved all of you.

Kenny loved his friends, his neighbors, and the many other helpers, counselors, judges, lawyers and professionals here in Nashville who also work to bring healing, wholeness, and justice to this city’s broken and hurting people. Most of all, he loved “IPB” – Isaac Parsons Baker, his son, and was devoted to walking alongside Sarah Parsons on their shared adventure of being parents to this incredibly joyful gift of life that they share.

Love. It is fitting to leave that word here in the room. I saw love in the eyes of all who came out on a cold, rainy Nashville night last evening to the funeral home. I want to thank you all for that – and for your words of kindness and your stories of how Kenny touched your lives. I see love in the eyes of those who are gathered with us here today in this place as well. Love. It is more than a word. It is more than an idea. It is the thing I have devoted my life to serve. I am a pastor, but the reason I do this – preside at funerals, baptize babies and adults, gather around altar, font, and table to worship and praise – the reason for all of it is LOVE. 1 John puts it this way: Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. … God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.

Who or what has the power to DEFINE a life? I will tell you what I believe. Not our worst decision … not the manner of our death … not even our darkest secret or our most devastating shame. No. Who has the power to define a life and a love? God alone. The One who created us in love, who created us through love, and who created us for love. Period. End of sentence. Today, we commend Kenneth Paul Baker to the One who loves him best – who is the very definition of love – a triune community of love that is in this room, present in this world, and that will ultimately be the power that triumphs over sin, sickness, mental illness, relational brokenness, grief, and death. Thanks be to God, the One who perfectly loves me and loves you and who deeply desires us to spend the rest of our lives – each and every precious moment of them – Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength – and loving our neighbor – all of our neighbors – at their best and at their worst – loving our neighbors as ourselves.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We believe in the Reign of God – the day of the Great Fiesta when all the colors of creation will form a harmonious rainbow, when all peoples will join in joyful banquet, when all tongues of the universe will sing the same song.

And because we believe, we commit ourselves: to believe for those who do not believe, to love for those who do not love, to dream for those who do not dream,until the day when hope becomes a reality.

  • Excerpt from “Mil Voces,” The Hispanic Creed by Justo Gonzalez

NOTE: Later this spring or early summer, when the site is fully open, we will gather again in Nashville to take a day trip to inter Kenny’s ashes at Larkspur Conservation. Because I love this idea and new way of approaching burial, I wanted to share this video with Becca Stevens, whom Kenny worked with for many years (Magdalene House and Thistle Farms), that explains this way to leave a living memorial. Until then, Kenny’s remains will lay in rest under the altar with other departed loved ones at St. Augustine’s Chapel in Nashville.

6 comments

  1. Just “wow”, Kevin. I wasn’t there for Kenny’s funeral but Preston has tried to express how much of an impact your sermon was. Thank you for sharing this for others to read, and for sharing this video to those of us that needed to learn more about this conservation project. Continued prayers for your family, and for Sarah and IPB as you continue to mourn the loss of someone so loved and so loving as your brother.

  2. Kevin, your words here are both inspired and inspiring. Thank you for your courage and strength in dealing with this tragic loss in such a way that reveals your love and purpose that we all should emulate. May God be especially near all of your family now.

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