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The Rev. Dr. Christoph Keller, III, is an Episcopal priest and theologian who, through his ministry and life, has blended scholarly pursuits with innovative leadership. In early years, Dr. Keller was Student Body President of Little Rock Central High School. As president, Dr. Keller initiated organized soccer in central Arkansas. Following high school, Dr. Keller attended Amherst College. At Amherst, he was an American Studies major, with a focus on southern history, and an emphasis on ethnicity and race. His honors thesis titled, “Busing,” included a chapter on his experience at Central, when the era of true racial diversity in the Little Rock public schools began through court-ordered busing. Dr. Keller was awarded the top prize for an American Studies thesis.
Dr. Keller was a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University in a program called, “The History of American Civilization.” It was as a first-year student at Harvard that he began to discern a calling to become a priest. Acting on the call, Dr. Keller left Harvard and enrolled in the Episcopal Divinity School, located across Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard, where he earned a Masters of Divinity. In 1990, Dr. Keller and his family moved to Little Rock where, in 1991, he founded what became St. Margaret’s Church. From its first Sunday in a bargain movie theatre, Dr. Keller led St. Margaret’s through growth to more than 500 members, and the construction of the church campus on Chenal Parkway in west Little Rock.
In 1999, he moved with his family to New York to pursue advanced study in theology. Dr. Keller holds a Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) in Anglican Studies, focusing on theology and science. His dissertation, “Darwin’s Science in Chalcedonian Imagination: Barth, Double Agency and Theistic Evolution,” explores and affirms compatibility between Christian faith and evolution. He has recently retired as Dean and Rector of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Church in Little Rock.
Dr. Keller met his wife, Julie Honeycutt, in the seventh grade in the Trinity Cathedral Sunday School. They were married in the sanctuary of the Cathedral on April 15, 1978. Julie and Chris Keller have two grown children. Mary Olive and son Christoph.
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[00:00:09] GM: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Through storytelling and conversational interviews, this weekly radio show and podcast offers listeners an insider’s view into the commonalities of successful people and the ups and downs of risk taking. Connect with Kerry through her candid, funny, informative and always encouraging weekly blog. And now it’s time for Kerry McCoy to get all up in your business.
[00:00:33] KM: My guest today is the Reverend, Dr. Christoph Keller III, an episcopal priest and theologian who, through his ministry in life, has blended scholarly pursuits with pop culture knowledge in an innovative leadership style. As a young man, Chris Keller could do anything. Having grown up the son of two well-read parents, he has their intelligence and eagerness to learn. His father, the late Chris Keller, was the episcopal bishop of Arkansas from 1967 to ‘81 and a desegregation leader in the Deep South. His late mother, never wanted for love or money, having been born Carolyn Murphy of Murphy Oil. So what makes a man like Dr. Chris Keller work hard and strive? He doesn't have to. He has family stability, above average intelligence and the love of many doting sisters.
But strife he did and still does. At an early age Chris showed promise and becomes the class president of Little Rock's famed Central High School where he organized the first soccer league in Central Arkansas. Following high school, he attended Amherst College and majored in American Studies, where his thesis titled Bussing awarded him the top prize for an American Studies.
For a master's degree, young Chris was Harvard-bound, when a persistent calling to become a priest began to creep into his subconscious. Acting on the call, he enrolled across the street in the Episcopal Divinity School. Upon returning to Little Rock some got to know the now Father Keller as the founding priest of Saint Margaret's Episcopal Church on Chenal Parkway in Little Rock, Arkansas. But the ever learning Dr. Keller was once again restless for more education.
In 1999, he would move his family to New York City to begin his advanced study in theology. Dr. Keller holds a doctor of theology, a ThD in Anglican studies with a focus on theology and science. Listen to the name of his dissertation, Darwin's Science in Calcedonian Imagination. Barth Double Agency and Theistic Evolution. This paper explores and affirms the compatibility between Christian faith and evolution. Talk about a tough topic.
I got to know Dr. Keller when he was called to be the dean of Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Little Rock. Since his retirement from that job, in true Chris Keller mania if you will, he has written an important book titled Getting on Toward Home: A collection of 12 of his, I suppose, favorite funeral sermons. This book, with its meaning of life and celebration of death, will be our main topic of conversation today.
It is an honor to welcome to the table one of the smartest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. My friend, and like EF Hutton, when Chris speaks, people listen, the Reverend Dr. Chris Keller III. What? All true.
[00:03:47] CK: No. I’ve never been introduced quite so exuberantly before. The accuracy is not 100%.
[00:03:55] KM: Oh, what’s not right?
[00:03:57] CK: My sisters never once doted on me.
[00:04:00] KM: Oh my gosh!
[00:04:04] CK: And there are a few other things, but it's close enough for rock and roll.
[00:04:07] KM: Is your mother Polly?
[00:04:09] CK: Hmm?
[00:04:09] KM: Was your mother called Polly?
[00:04:11] CK: Her name was Caroline, legally, but she was always called Polly.
[00:04:15] KM: I am glad you chose a simpler title for your book, Getting on Toward Home than your earlier writings, Darwin’s Science and Calcedoni Imagination Barth Double Agency and Theistic Evolution. Remind me to never read that paper.
In reading your book, your father's eulogy and your mother's homily were both included, and there's a difference. Tell us what the difference between a eulogy and a homily is.
[00:04:43] CK: So neither of them is a eulogy.
[00:04:45] KM: No. They’re both homilies.
[00:04:47] CK: They're both homilies. A eulogy, the Greek root is – Essentially, it means it's praise. And so a eulogy, which is a good thing, is kind of a parting message of praise for the person who's deceased. And the homily is a sermon. It's a short sermon, where the point is to draw the person's life into the understanding of that person's life that we have through our faith. So you're seeing the person in light of the larger truth about the world and God. And so the homily is supposed to preach.
[00:05:29] KM: I gotcha. That's why we call sermons homilies. And a eulogy is about celebrating praising just that person pretty much. You're not trying to teach them something about the bible while you're giving them a eulogy.
[00:05:40] CK: Right. And kind of a brief history of speaking at funerals on the Episcopal Church. When I was born, the practice was nothing was said about the person who had died. The basis for it in a way is beautiful, which is that we're all equal in the eyes of God and none of us really can accurately summarize another person that's for God to know and for us to find out. And so whether you're the Queen of England or the person that sweeps the floor in the pub down the street, you're treated the same at a funeral. Now, theoretically that was the way it was.
And so a parish priest generally just didn't preach. It served funeral services. And neither did any member of their family. That was kind of hard for people to bear. So just about the time that I became a priest, there was a new prayer book and it actually offered an opportunity for the first time for there to be a homily at a funeral service. So people kind of had to figure out how to use that time. A lot of times I’ve noticed they tended to be almost impersonal. I mean, the preacher would preach the resurrection. It seemed to me that you always needed to bring the person's life into that.
[00:06:51] KM: Yeah. I don't like funerals like that. They did that from my grandmother's funeral and I was like, “Well, we didn't even talk about grandma.”
[00:06:57] CK: Yeah. And I think that pastorally, even when I was young, I recognized that it needs to be more personal than that. I think probably as a reaction to that people more and more started, in addition to having sermons, would have tributes from family members at services to make it personal. And I think that's – And I’ve heard some really good ones. More often in my experience, I’ve not – If somebody asks when we have a member of our family do a tribute, the answer has always been yes, just one please. So the service isn't too long. But more often they don't. And I get people that even if I don't know the person that I’m about to talk about, I’ll get to know them in three days before the service.
[00:07:41] KM: Oh, is that how long it takes? Three days of interviewing the family?
[00:07:44] CK: Yeah. Well, it takes three days to actually have the service. And so I’ll get the people and the family to talk to me about their loved one and then I’ll give their loved one back to them and wrapped up in the gospel. But then there are other people that I’ve known all my life. And so I don't have to ask.
[00:08:02] KM: Well, and now you got the Internet. You can just go online and Google up the person and go, “Hey, look at what all they did.”
[00:08:07] CK: You sure can. Yeah, you could.
[00:08:09] KM: Your father was a second generation preacher?
[00:08:11] CK: Third.
[00:08:13] KM: You are the fourth preacher in your family? No pressure to your son.
[00:08:20] CK: Well, there was no pressure on me. Seriously, there’s one. And my son who's a practicing attorney, would say there was no pressure on him.
[00:08:30] KM: Except for you know he's got to feel it back in the back of his brain.
[00:08:34] CK: Well, that's between him and God.
[00:08:36] KM: Spoken like a true preacher. All right, before we get into the nuts and bolts of your book and why it was important for you to write it, I want to tell our listeners, I interviewed you the first time in January of 2018 when you were sitting dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. And in that interview, we talked about your family, in which we just talked about. We talked about your opinion on gay marriage, and your aforementioned thesis paper of how science and Christianity are compatible. And I don't want to belabor those topics again. But I do want to tell everybody, it's a great interview. Fact I've had people tell me it's their favorite interview of all the 200 I've done. It was really – Obviously, you're well-spoken and you have deep thoughts. But I do want to very briefly give our new listeners some insight into the depth of your thinking. You and your father have always been champions of Civil Rights Movement. Why was that social issue been important to your family?
[00:09:26] CK: Well, just happened that my father was the Dean of St. Andrew's Cathedral in Jackson, Mississippi from 1961 to 1967, which was when the Civil Rights movement gathered enough steam to make the changes needed that were difficult to make that had to be made in the South. So there was no way not to take a stand where he was. And something as basic as are doors of our church open to all people of any color was a controversial stand to take in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961.
And there was a church. It's called a Church Visit Movement that was organized in the way that Freedom Rides were in Jackson. And it was right after Medgar Evers, who was I think the President of the Mississippi NAACP was murdered in Jackson. That for women who had tried at other churches in Jackson to go to church on Sunday morning and been turned away, they came to St. Andrews, and they were welcomed. And so just by doing, essentially, Christian thing of recognizing that red and yellow, black and white, all were precious in His sight that got my father in the New York Times.
[00:10:55] KM: Oh, wow! Front page of the New York Times, I bet.
[00:10:57] CK: Yeah. I think it was the front page. So he was just standing there doing the right thing and attracted some attention.
[00:11:06] KM: For your PhD thesis, you wrote how science and Christianity can exist together. I know this is a big topic, but very quickly, tell us how you came to that conclusion?
[00:11:17] CK: Well, Christian faith was ready for a science which was able to explain the origin of species in a natural way, because back into ancient times, it’s understood that when we talk about God as creator of the world, we're not talking about God as an agent, one among other creative things in the world, but as the creator of the whole shebang. So God is – Now it's true that God is a doer in the world, but God is the doer of the world.
And so Thomas Aquinas, drawing from Aristotle, referred to God as the primary cause of events in the world, in the same way that the author of a novel is the primary cause of events that happen within the novel. If you're inside the novel and you're living in it, you're not seeing. If you're a Harry Potter novel, you're not you're not seeing JK Rowling anywhere. You're doing stuff because it makes sense to do, or that happens within the context of the book.
Well, Thomas Aquinas didn't know anything about Charles Darwin knew that God is that way in this world. The first part of the Summa Theologiae says, “Does God Exist? Well, Aquinas always started with objections to whatever position he was going to take. So it seems that God does not exist because, number one, there's too much evil in the world. And if God’s worthy of the name that God is good. So the evil in the world, the things that happen that are terrible, those contradicts the idea of God. And it seems like we don't need God for an explanation, because for almost everything, we have a natural explanation. So he starts with those two objections.
And then he goes on to answer the objections. And the answer to the objection, “Well, we don't really need God as an explanation.” He says, “Well, actually we do.” We don't need God as an explanation for this, that or the other thing that happens within the world, but we needed an explanation for the world as a whole and for certain ways in which the world makes sense. That without God, we can't really explain that. So God is like, to this world in which species evolved, is like JK Rowling to the world of Harry Potter. And Christianity knew that before Darwin ever presented the problem.
[00:13:46] KM: Well said. And last before we go to break and come back and talk about you wrote an even tougher subject than race, relations or Christianity in science. It's going to be gay marriage in the church. You at one time – Episcopalians were quick to come to the party, but you were a little slow getting there. Tell us how you decided that it was right and holy.
[00:14:16] CK: Yeah, I probably am instinct like conservative about everything in the sense that if somebody was going to propose a change that I'm going to say, “Well, tell me more about that.” So I've always been a cautious conservative about virtually everything. So I grew up into a world in which marriage was between men and women. And actually, the norm for sexual relations that I was taught was it was right if it was between men and women and it was wrong if it was any other combination.
And so that was kind of the given into the world and the church that I came into. I was always taught to be an open-minded conservative. And I was also always taught that we see change happened within the Bible. The Bible is not is not static itself. And there major controversies in the early church where significant changes to the practices of what it meant to be a faithful person were introduced within Christianity and considered and debated. And you can see that God had empowered the church to take up the question of change and to resolve it. That's part of what it means to be a human being, is to consider new information and to reckon with it, work with it.
So in the early 80s, the Episcopal Church was considering resolutions that the general convention, which meets every three years, pertaining to homosexuality. And early on it was controversial. This is before I got in it. But my father was active that they passed resolutions that said that people that have same sex attraction have an inherent dignity and need to be respected as having that by the church. So that was kind of the first step.
And when I came along, the question was should clergy, in particular, abstain from sexual relations outside of marriage? The first time I was ever asked to take a vote on that. And so that's basically reaffirming that you should be chaste unless you're married. And the only way you could be married was if you're married to a member the opposite sex. So the conservative vote that I took at a convention was to say, “Yeah, we should be that. We should be chaste.” And so that was the conservative vote at the time.
The next convention, which was three years later, which I was again a deputy, the question was, “Should the church be willing to bless same sex unions?” And I was a member of the committee there. And that was going to be the most controversial question that we faced. And there was a weekend within the convention. And I was by then the vicar of St. Margaret's church, and I needed to come back to church, which is brand new, and meet me in a movie theater. And I needed to leave the convention to come back to Little Rock to hold services, because it's really important for me not even to miss a Sunday. And on the plane down and back, I just kind of said my prayers on that question. And I came back and I proposed to the committee that what we should do is call for theological study of that issue to present to the next convention stating how the church saw that. Why it saw that we should be open to the considering that question and what we should do about it? In other words, let’s have – Let the church adopt that we're an open minded. We're an open minded church on this for three more years, and we're going to study it and they're going to reconsider it the next convention. And the resolution that I propose to the committee passed the convention.
And so three years later, I'd read the results of the study. And frankly, the study the church produced was not well done. And so to me it was not persuasive in any way. It was kind of, “Well, there're pros and cons,” and I just kind of threw the thing up in the air. And I thought, “Well, okay, I'm going to take a sabbatical. I'm going to decide myself when I think about this.”
[00:18:26] KM: In true Chris Keller form.
[00:18:28] CK: And so I took a sabbatical three months leading to the convention. And read as much as I could, and didn't do really anything else for those three months. And I studied kind of the science of what we understand about why people are attracted to others of the same sex. I mean, do we have a definitive answer about that?
I studied the theology of it and understanding of what it is about love that makes it holy. What is it about same sex love that would exclude it from consideration of being considered holy and sacramental? And I said my prayers on it. And a very interesting thing happened. About two weeks before the convention, I got a call from a friend of mine who was a priest in Mississippi. His name's Duncan Gray III. He called my office and they said, “Well, he's on sabbatical. Here's his number.” And they call me at home and he said, “Chris, are you okay?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m fine, Duncan. Why do you ask?” He says, “Because I had a dream about you last night that you were sitting at your desk with a stack of books on your desk, and you were intensely thinking about something. And I just want to know if you were okay.”
[00:19:50] KM: You're like, “Well, that's not a dream. That's true.”
[00:19:53] CK: And Duncan Gray and I are now good friends. And I see him from time to time. He’ll affirm that that happened. And so that was my posture going to the convention. And what I decided was, “Yeah, when two people love each other kind of under the terms that we understand for opposite sex marriage, for traditional marriage, where they promise to love each other unconditionally, to engage in that give and take, that that love is holy, and that the church can bless it.” I mean, that was when I changed my mind.
[00:20:32] KM: What did you say to Duncan when he called and said that to you?
[00:20:35] CK: Well, I told him what I was up to.
[00:20:36] KM: What did he say about that?
[00:20:37] CK: Well, he was glad that I was thinking about it, because he'd been worried about it too. I mean, some other people from the same part of the world. And we've been raised the same way. And we're both going to have to vote on that question.
[00:20:50] KM: I bet nobody has studied as much as you have.
[00:20:52] CK: Well, no. There are plenty of people that have studied more. But I bet there weren’t anybody at that convention that had studied as much as I had.
[00:20:58] KM: I wish our representative in Congress with study stuff that hard.
[00:21:03] CK: Well, you know what? You're right. If you're talking about things that matter, and if you're in the Congress of the United States, or the legislature of the state of Arkansas, then you have an obligation to do the best you can, to understand it as well you can. Say your prayers on it and to offer it up.
[00:21:21] KM: Because your decision is going to affect a lot of people. And that's good story. All right. This is a great place to take a break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with the Reverend Dr. Christoph Keller III. We will talk about his recently published book titled Getting on Toward Home, a collection of 12 of his funeral sermons. We'll be right back.
[00:21:40] GM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. In 2020, Kerry McCoy Enterprises acquired ourcornermarket.com, an online company specializing in American made plaques, signage and memorials for over 20 years, and more recently, opened a satellite office in Miami, Florida. Telling American made stories, selling American made flags, the flagandbanner.com. Back to Kerry.
[00:22:06] KM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with the Reverend Dr. Christoph Keller III who recently published his book, Getting on Toward Home, a collection of some of his favorite funeral harmonies in eulogies. Your book is called Getting on Toward Home. Why that title? And why was this book important for you to write?
[00:22:28] CK: Well, I just retired. And so all my life I had thought that at some point, as a scholar, I should write a book and publish. That's kind of part of the job. And I just had never gotten around to it. So book writing was on my agenda for retirement, and kind of intuitively started getting drawn to the idea of bringing together some funeral sermons. One of my favorite books that I've read in the last 10 years by Reinhold Niebuhr, it's about the progressive view of history, gotten the title of the book, but he says that there are three things that the progressive movement will never be able to make go away. And one of them is that sex is important to human beings. And another is that race is important to human beings. And the others that death is important to human beings. So death is important human beings. And it's important in Christian faith. But Christianity has to say about death is important.
And I said a lot about it, because I've done a lot of sermons when people have died. And I got drawn with that. And I decided I didn't want it to be a big book. I wanted it to be a small one, because there're only so many sermons at funerals that I think anybody ought ever have to consider reading. So let's make it small. And these aren't necessarily the ones that I think are my best or my favorite.
[00:23:54] KM: I wondered.
[00:23:55] CK: It was sort of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, where one thing would lead to another and I would say, “Oh, I thought this kind of connects with something I said about that and another.” And I just started piecing them together. Ultimately, I just kind of looked at it one day I arrived. Yeah, but these are the 12. And it's one thing to kind of hold a room in the moment. And it's another thing to hold a room in the pages of a book. And so it's got to be sharper. It's got to be better written. So I had to rewrite them all. I rewrote them as many times for the book as I had rewritten them and drafts did the sermon. So it's usually five drafts for a sermon. And so it's probably 10 or 15 for the book.
[00:24:39] KM: If I asked you to read something on that exact subject, will you read it?
[00:24:44] CK: Okay.
[00:24:45] KM: All right. It's the first paragraph in your author's note.
[00:24:49] CK: This is the little book of sermons with one big thing in common. Someone's death was their occasion. This could go without saying the difference between preaching a funeral and publishing a book is enormous. And these pages, I am not speaking to a roomful of mourners that includes a family in the front whose hearts are in their throat.
At a funeral or memorial service, there is power in the room and it reaches to the pulpit. Sometimes I fill a big cup of ice. No water, just ice, and have it in easy rage. So if emotion wells up, I can stop and crunch some ice. Somehow that helps me keep composure. And I don't need ice to write a book. That's true.
[00:25:35] KM: That's good. Isn't that good?
[00:25:37] GM: It's really good. I feel like I've seen you with a cup of ice before too. That sounds familiar.
[00:25:41] CK: Yeah, like my last sermon at Trinity, I needed ice.
[00:25:44] KM: Listen, we were all crying. I won't cry just talking about it. But I'm a crier. I'm just going to keep a cup of ice around me all the time.
I read this quote on the back of your book and it’s the favorite quote – You know how the authors are. You know how they always put a quote on the back of a book. And this one's by Eliza Borné. And I really liked it. It said, “Christophe Keller III has a literary sensibility, an appreciation for pop culture, and the theologian’s intellectual heft.” I'm using that word sometime. Joy and grief coexist in these pages, along with faith and hope, light and sacred meaning.
[00:26:22] CK: Yeah, when Eliza me that blurb, which I appreciated a lot, I was kind of taken aback by the pop culture thing. And then I thought, “Yeah, I'm busted.”
[00:26:31] KM: You talk about the grateful dead. You talk about Tom Jones. You talk about, yeah, all these sermons. Every sermon has got some sort of pop culture, something in it, I realized after I started reading it. And then to go on, before we get into each of your chapters, a little bit more about that. In the introduction, you referenced your best friend, and for whom the book is in memory of, the late Richard Franklin Milwee. You call him a feisty gentleman and splendid friend.
[00:27:03] CK: That's a pop culture reference. It's an Easter egg, and they're from people that are fans of Lonesome Dove. When I call them a feisty gentlemen, I’ve already said that almost his last words to me, where he was quoting Augustus McCrae's last words in Lonesome Dove to Woodrow Call’s. So Richard was a great fan of Lonesome Dove. So by calling him a feisty gentlemen, I'm identifying with Gus. And so I just put that in there.
[00:27:29] KM: So I like this. And you do not put his funeral in here. Even though you presided, y'all made a promise to each other that whoever went first would do the – The other would do the funeral. But he went first. So you did his. But you didn't put it in here.
[00:27:43] CK: I mean, I thought I would. But it's just kind of that editing process just kind of – I'm was going to keep it to 12. I also did his daughter's, died of cancer before she was 40 years old. And I was going to do that one. And then that one also just kind of the sifting process just ended me not using it.
[00:28:08] KM: So you did put Milwee in the introduction. And I thought this was really cute, little quote you put in here about him. You said about him having to go in. And I didn't know this. But before you become a priest, you have to go through all these psychological –
[00:28:21] CK: Evaluation of a psychiatrist.
[00:28:23] KM: Yes. And so you put in here when he's doing his, “After a polite, warm tosses, the psychiatrist wound up and threw a curveball. “Now, Richard, tell me about your sexual experience.” Richard's still single in his early 20s pondered that and let it hang on answered. Well, the doctor insisted. “Richard, I'm not going to tell you about my sexual experience.” “And why not?” said the psychiatrist, as I imagined him leaning forward on his knees wanting to know, “Because I haven't had enough of it to satisfy a Freudian psychiatrist. And I've had too much to soothe the church.”
[00:29:12] CK: Don't you wish that one time in your life that you had ever said something that perfect?
[00:29:17] KM: That was perfect. How long does it take to write a sermon you think? Three days you mentioned.
[00:29:24] CK: Well, that year I went to Harvard, the rule they told us is if you're going to stand up in front of people and talk, it's one hour of preparation for one minute of delivery.
[00:29:35] KM: What?
[00:29:37] CK: And I I've always thought that that was the role that I should follow in preaching and I stuck to it through the years. And actually the older I got, the more time I'd spend. And so I'd say Sunday sermon for me on Trinity Cathedral was usually 15 hours. And at funeral sermons you have less time. Because, I mean, these customers have changed some in recent years. But often, you would have three days to write a funeral sermon. So they your – Yeah, I didn't have as much time. So I would probably have eight hours.
[00:30:19] KM: You said the Holy Spirit works through you to do this. So how you stay humble? Or are you humble? How about that?
[00:30:27] CK: The older I get, the easier it is to be humble.
[00:30:30] KM: That's called forgetful, Chris. That's not humble. Talk about that process of painting these pictures. You really, really paint beautiful pictures of people. I had so many to read, I couldn't decide on any of them. This one you read about your father. And this is the only time I cried in the book. And I'm a crier. And this is the only time I cried in the book. It's you writing about your dad and for his – And this paints a beautiful picture to me that I thought I wish my kids would do that.
[00:31:04] CK: They will.
[00:31:06] GM: Dully noted.
[00:31:07] CK: This is going to happen for you, Kerry.
[00:31:09] GM: I’m opening my ears right now.
[00:31:10] KM: I'll probably outlive everybody. What are you talking about?
[00:31:13] CK: Yeah, that’s the truth right there. So my father had Alzheimer's disease. And so for eight years, really, he’d been disabled by it. And so it’d been a real long time that he could even join us at the table. And so now he's at the point of death. So he's in another room in the house, but we're all gathered because we know the end is there and we're in a big room and we're able to kind of remember him as he was instead of just dealing with the stress of the day to day.
And so we're in the dining room. And now I'm reading, “Tableside, we sipped or slurped good wine, and gorged on the bayou sofa he adored. He would clean his plate of pork chops fried, peeled peas, cornbread and okra fried. He would beg for seconds by evoking Oliver, “Please ma'am, I'd like some more.” He would hope for dessert, “Might there be a tiny scoop of low fat sherbet?” And if that, we would fall as he gave a wink and mother rolled her eyes because by sherbet, everybody knew he meant high fat pie, pecan, Honeycutt slice with a scoop or three of ice cream. It had been years since he could join us at the table. Now, at the end, we began to laugh again and raise our glass to that good man we finally felt permission to remember.” Do you want me to explain Honeycutt slice?
[00:32:40] KM: Yeah, what is that?
[00:32:42] CK: My wife is Julie Honeycutt Keller. And actually have a footnote of this in the book. But in our family now, if you want a thin and healthy slice of cake, that's called a Keller slice. If you want a big, fat slice of cake, that's a honey cut slice, because we were young marrieds. And Julie, we were down on the farm and it was somebody's birthday. I don't remember whose. And there was a caramel cake that was cooking all afternoon. And Julie loves cake, and she particularly loves caramel cake. And at dinnertime she'd been waiting for that cake all day. Now radio listeners, they know that my wife Julie is about the most beautiful woman you ever saw.
[00:33:26] KM: Absolutely.
[00:33:27] CK: But she loves cake. And she's – So this cake comes out that she's been smelling all afternoon. And my mother carves our little slice, and you can see through it. And Julie goes, “That's a Keller slice.” I'd like to Honeycutt slice.” That's three or four of those. And so ever since in our family, Honeycutt slice is big. Keller slice is healthy and good for your figure. And we’re not interested in that. I’m a Honeycutt side.
[00:33:59] KM: That's good.
[00:33:59] GM: That sounds so perfect.
[00:34:01] KM: I know. Well, I figured that's what it meant when you said Honeycutt slice, that it was something big. I didn't know it was in reference to your beautiful wife's portion sizes.
Alright, it's time to go on to your book, more so. And there are 12 chapters. I don't know if we want to get into each one of them because, look, he goes, “No.” But the titles are the name of the person, or the chapters are the name of the person. Like the first one is Charles Irwin. And then you gave it a title, Getting on Toward Home. When you're doing their homily or their eulogy, do you title your papers at that time? Or did you just do it for the book?
[00:34:44] CK: I did it for the book. It's to find something to kind of hang your hat on about what this one is about. Harry Charles Irwin, the first sermon. I start by talking about Donald Harrington, the author who has it town of Stainmore, Arkansas. That’s a fictional town. And it comes from the practice in the Ozarks. Walk down the road and eat dinner. And when you stand up and it's time to go home, the custom is you’ll say, It’s time for me to get on down home.” And they go, “No, no, no, no. Stay more.” And I was in that sermon, just kind of the way that it worked. I worked towards the conclusion of the sermon of that we want it when somebody we love dies, it's our nature to hate that. And that nature is actually a good thing. That's a healthy part of being a human. It’s to not want somebody. I don't want ourselves to die.
Thomas Aquinas taught us that. We struggle against death. And that's because we value life. And so we want to stay more. But it's also true that through all our lives, whether we know it or not, whether we remember it or not, we're actually on a journey to go back to where we started, which we started in God and we go back to God. And so it was time to getting on toward at home. That was kind of the natural title for that sermon. And I decided I wanted to make that the title of the book. And then for each chapter, for each sermon, I came up with another title that picked up something in that sermon and crystallized it.
[00:36:31] KM: The theme for Porter Brown, Catherine Fuller Porter Brown. I love this when you've referenced, Old South spice, as if it was a flavor.
[00:36:40] CK: I was talking about the flavor where we come from adds to our soul. Our soul is not something that floats above who we are. It is who we are. It's what we are. Catherine Porter Brown grew up in the south, Deep South, but her daughter had moved and made her life out in Seattle. And so when Dr. Brown and Mrs. Brown got old, they went out to live out there. But they took the South with them when they lived out there. She wanted her ashes brought back to Arkansas, and her husband the same. But they died a few years apart. They wanted to be buried not in Seattle. They wanted to be buried in Arkansas. They wanted to be buried at the river. So we had the family service at the Arkansas River.
[00:37:24] KM: I'm not sure we want to do all of them. But this one broke my heart. And you said it's Marilyn Elizabeth Mitchell, hers for the taking. And it talks about her mental illness and her struggle with schizophrenia.
[00:37:37] CK: Yeah. In our spirituality, kind of our engagement with God, our mind is such an important part of that. It's not the whole of it by a longshot, but it's important to it. And mental illness disables. And so Alzheimer's disease is a form of mental illness. And I mean, like the whole mental illness has an organic route to it. So they're all alike in that way. I mean, Marilyn Mitchell, who I'd gone to high school with, and she struggled with mental illness even then. And so now, in her mid-60s, finally died from a brain tumor.
For me, one among many ways in which our affirmation of life beyond death is important to Christian faith is that it’s how we see that, for her, the potential of who she is – I mean, believe me, she lived a brave and valuable life as it was as a person with mental illness. I mean, her life was not a waste even with our mental illness. But there's a potential in Maryland that she wasn't able to realize in this life, and that's hers for the taking. Now, that's the title of – That sermon is hers for the taking.
[00:38:50] KM: That's lovely. Was writing your father's hard? We read a little bit from that, but was it hard to put it together and do it?
[00:38:57] CK: Well, that's 1995 that he died. So that's the oldest sermon in the book, I think. And his struggle with Alzheimer's disease was awful for me. I mean, it's like my hero was disintegrating. painfully in front of my eyes. So everything about that was agonizing for me. But his death felt like release to me. And I actually wrote his sermon, literally, at St. Timothy's Church in Alexandria, Louisiana. I went down there. After we all got there and gathered, he died. And they had a vigil for him overnight. And two people could take turns. His body was in a casket in the church, in the sanctuary of the church, and people could sign up, do it from eight to nine and another one from 9 to 10.
[00:39:50] KM: That’s an interesting thing to do.
[00:39:51] CK: Yeah, might have been my suggestion. But anyway, I signed up for the whole graveyard shift from like midnight to six in the morning. Some big chunk in there. And I said – And there were this casket closed because we’re Episcopalians. That’s what we do. This casket was sitting there in front of me and I had a note paper that I wrote that sermon sitting there with his body and they're in the middle of the night in that church.
[00:40:14] KM: That sounds awesome. You just don't – I like that so much. All right. Your next one was your mother, an exacting woman of standards. She knows what she wants. And she wrote a memoir. Did you use any of it?
[00:40:31] CK: Yeah, I started out with her description of meeting my father at a dance at Mary Baldwin College. He came up from Washington and Lane. They both had dates with other people and kind of caught each other's eye and they had a dance. And that was the beginning.
[00:40:48] KM: Did your mother remarry after your father died?
[00:40:51] CK: Yeah.
[00:40:51] KM: Oh, she did?
[00:40:52] CK: She married Clark Winter. He was a wonderful man, who mother and dad had been married for more than 50 years. And Clark and his wife, Marjorie, had been married for more than 50 years. And they were both widowed. And they met. Clark had gone to Washington too. And they met and had known him there. But they met at an alumni event. He called her up and they had 10 very, very happy years of marriage until he died.
[00:41:17] KM: So James, how did you pick James Schreiber in the power of the Spirit to be the last one?
[00:41:24] CK: Well, I had baptized JJ as a child, and he died as a young man in his 20s. I think I wanted to end with baptism. And what it means for making our way through life and into death with faith. And so I was able to start with his baptism and end with it. JJ’s service at St. Margaret's and Little Rock was the last church service in person that I went to. And as far as I know, anybody else on Little Rock did before the shutdown.
[00:42:07] KM: From Covid? The Covid shutdown?
[00:42:08] CK: Yeah. There were no services in churches in Arkansas the Sunday following that service. I think it was the day before the service the first actual case of COVID in Arkansas had happened. When I was doing the book, that service was really fresh on my mind.
[00:42:25] KM: Felt like a good ending. I think everybody should read your book that has suffered any kind of a loss because it really helps you think about the afterlife and the continuation. I don’t know. It makes you really at peace at the way things are. Let's take a quick break. More to come after the break.
[00:42:48] ANNOUNCER: The book that Dr. Keller and Kerry McCoy have been talking about on today's program, Getting on Toward Home: And Other Sermons by the River, is going to be featured as part of the 2021 Six Bridges Book Festival, which is going on now. This coming Tuesday, October 26th, Dr. Keller is going to give a reading, a discussion about the book moderated by Dr. Neil Wyatt, hospice and palliative medicine specialist with CHI St. Vincent. And he'll also take questions and sign books. The event is free and all are welcome. The Six Bridges Book Festival event featuring Chris Keller discussing his book, Getting on Toward Home: And Other Sermons by the River, will be this coming Tuesday from noon till 1:00 at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Little Rock. Now back to Up in Your business with Kerry McCoy.
[00:43:36] KM: You’re listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. And I'm speaking today with the Reverend Dr. Christoph Keller III, author of the book Getting on Toward Home, a collection of some of his funerals and homilies. 12 of them to be exact. Chris, you quote Thomas Aquinas a lot. Who is Thomas Aquinas?
[00:43:54] CK: Well, he was a Christian theologian in the 13th century, and who synthesized biblical faith with philosophy, particularly the philosophy of Aristotle, which is exemplary for we should incorporate our capacity to reason with our trust and belief in God.
[00:44:20] KM: According to him, people are in most respects the same as other creatures. What sets us apart is our power to think.
[00:44:28] CK: We're like other creatures and that we have – He called them the vegetative aspects and the animal aspects of being a creature. Vegetative, meaning like plants, like cactuses and stuff. We have capacities to reproduce and defend ourselves and grow. And like other animals, we have all these passions. I think identifies 11 different passions. And so even before Darwin knew that we were descended with other species from common origins, Aquinas recognized that human beings are part of the creation and made of the same stuff for the most part. But what's distinctive about being human is our capacity to think. And then beyond that, also the fact that we were made in the image of God, but that part of it is known by faith. But just by reason and observation, we can know that we have the power to think. Life as an organism, there’s a lot of work. And we have to get out there and earn it every day, to get food in our bellies and all of that stuff. And it's rough. And love is hard work is hard work.
[00:45:46] KM: It is hard work.
[00:45:49] CK: I mean, we don't we don't appreciate the complexity of love. I mean, I think when we hear the word, we tend to think of a sentiment for somebody that we care about. And love is more than that. I mean, it’s like faith. Faith is tripartite. It's a belief in the mind. A belief that something is true, can't know that it is true, might have reasons for believing it's true. I will have reasons for believing it's true. So it's not like I'm totally in the dark, but I can't see all the way to certainty. Faith is that. But it's also a desire. It's an emotional attachment and it's a commitment. It's a choice. Well, all of that's true for love, too. So I love you a person, when I believe that you're good is as important as my own, when I desire it for you, and when I committed to act on it. So that's what love is. And it's not just a sentiment. There’s sentiment in it. It's in that desire. But it's more than that. And it's really hard work. And it's hard to separate it from faith, because love becomes easier or more compelling, anyway, when it's part of a faith that has those things directed towards God and where God is kind of brought into our life to help us with it.
[00:47:33] KM: Mm-hmm. Karl Barth, another serious theologian you quote a lot. He describes his craft as – I thought this was interesting, the most beautiful of all sciences.
[00:47:46] CK: He said about how people come to faith. He says, “God doesn't convince us to believe in Himself by arguments. He persuades us by giving us joy, and gives us joy by being beautiful.” So faith is drawn to the beauty of God. That's kind of the emotional – To make it concrete, I mean, just in the New Testament, when Jesus just walking through a crowd, a woman is healed because she touches His cloak. She'd been painfully ill for 20 years, and the Bible pictures moments like that as instances of the Kingdom of God becoming visible on earth.
And the reaction is heartbreaking joy on the part of the people who's been healed, or forgiven, or something like that. So there's a piece in us that is ready emotionally to respond to that when we see it. I mean, and a lot of times in church, it happens through music.
[00:48:52] KM: On that note, let's take our last break. We'll be back.
[00:48:55] ANNOUNCER: The book that Dr. Keller and Kerry McCoy have been talking about on today's program, Getting on Toward Home: And Other Sermons by the River, is going to be featured as part of the 2021 Six Bridges Book Festival, which is going on now. This coming Tuesday, October 26th, Dr. Keller is going to give a reading, a discussion about the book moderated by Dr. Neil Wyatt, hospice and palliative medicine specialist with CHI St. Vincent. And he'll also take questions and sign books. The event is free and all are welcome. The Six Bridges Book Festival event featuring Chris Keller discussing his book, Getting on Toward Home: And Other Sermons by the River, will be this coming Tuesday from noon till 1:00 at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Little Rock.
[00:49:41] KM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy, and I'm speaking today with the Reverend Dr. Christoph Keller III. So how much time do you give to prayer meditation a day because you have to deal with a lot of grief? I know you get to deal with births, and I know you get to deal with celebrations, but there's a lot of grief you have to deal with. Do you have to meditate every day?
[00:50:02] CK: Early in my ministry, I did do that. But my practice changed. I'm more now just kind of an old fashioned prayer book Episcopalian. I say the daily morning prayer every day from the prayer book. I actually pray more now that I'm retired, because I have more time to pray. And then I’d come back to it when I exercise, either in the swimming pool or on a walk. I kind of do it all over again. So yeah, I mean, that's got to be a bigger part of my life.
[00:50:31] KM: Anyone who has lost a loved one would enjoy your book. So where do we get your book?
[00:50:37] CK: You will be able to get it at Wordsworth.
[00:50:39] KM: On our street in Little Rock.
[00:50:40] CK: And there's going to be an event at the Trinity Cathedral. It’s part of the Six Bridges Literary Festival. I'm going to be interviewed by Dr. Neil Wyatt, who works with Arkansas Hospice. He's going to be the moderator of our panel. And we'll talk about the book, and you can buy the book there, and I'll be delighted to sign it for you. And that is on Tuesday at noon.
[00:51:07] KM: Do we have a gift for –
[00:51:09] GM: It's in the other room then.
[00:51:10] KM: Oh! Thank you, Jonathan. Chris, have I ever given you one of these before?
[00:51:18] CK: Well, you've given me one before, but I think it only had the Arkansas and the American flag.
[00:51:22] KM: Well, this one’s got New York. So this is a desk set with New York, the Christian flag, the Arkansas flag. Where were you born? Were you born in Arkansas? But you went to school in Mississippi?
[00:51:37] CK: Well, I was born in El Dorado. I moved to Harrison, and then to Jackson Mississippi, and then back to Little Rock. I love having these flags.
[00:51:44] KM: Christian – I know. Don’t you though? Desk set. Thanks for coming on. You know, I love visiting with us so much. This has been an absolute joy. In closing, I'd like to say to our listeners, thank you for spending time with us. We hope you've heard or learned something that's been inspiring or enlightening. And that whatever it is will help you up your business, your independence or your life. I'm Kerry McCoy and I'll see you next time on Up in Your Business. Until then, be brave and keep it up.
[00:52:14] GM: You've been listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. For links to resources you heard discussed on today's show, go to flagand banner.com, select radio and choose today's guest. All interviews are recorded and posted the following week. Subscribe to podcasts wherever you'd like to listen. Kerry's goal is simple, to help you live the American dream.