Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A MESSAGE OF HOPE TO CELEBRATE THE LIFE AND FAITH OF MILTON PITTS CRENCHAW

Mr. Milton Pitts Crenchaw, one of the primary flight instructors for the famed Tuskegee Airman of World War II and the undisputed "father of black aviation in Arkansas" died November 17 at the full age of 96.  I was privileged to deliver the eulogy yesterday during the service that celebrated his life.  The manuscript of that eulogy is reprinted, in full, below.

A MESSAGE OF HOPE TO CELEBRATE THE LIFE AND FAITH OF MILTON PITTS CRENCHAW
©Wendell Griffen, 2015
St. Mark Baptist Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
Tuesday, December 1, 2015, 10 o’clock A.M.

PASTOR POINTER
REV. CLERGY,
CHILDREN, GRANDCHILDREN, GREAT-GRANDCHILDREN, NIECES, NEPHEWS, COUSINS, BELOVED SPECIAL FRIEND, COLLEAGUES, MENTEES, AND NEIGHBORS OF BROTHER MILTON PITTS CRENCHAW,
SISTERS AND BROTHERS

         I come, with you, to this place and moment aware that we have each been touched by the long and wonderful life of Brother Milton Crenchaw.  Together, we have come to comfort and strengthen Brother Crenchaw’s daughters and son, their children, their children’s children, and his other dear ones whose lives are most affected by the passing of this family patriarch, neighbor, follower of Jesus, running buddy, confidante, mentor, and friend.  Together, we have come to celebrate the gift of his fellowship.  Together, we have come to thank God for the way Brother Crenchaw lived,  taught, served God and his neighbors, and inspired us and many others who cannot be here today, in countless ways.    Together, we have come to bear witness that God blessed us, God blessed Little Rock, God blessed Arkansas, God blessed the United States, and God blessed the world through the life and faith of Brother Milton Crenchaw.

Let us acknowledge, with thanks, the children of Brother Crenchaw for allowing us to celebrate their father’s life with them.  And because every team has a captain, let us acknowledge the loving ways that Sister Dolores Crenchaw Singleton led the family effort to care for Brother Crenchaw.  Brother Crenchaw and Sister Marian Torrence were blessed to love and care for one another so well that the Crenchaw and Torrence families share an especially tender bond.  Together, we affirm that Brother Crenchaw, as patriarch, partner, soul mate, running buddy, mentor, teacher, and aviator, has been a wonderful example of what we would like to project about our capital city, our State and Nation, and about the noble and valiant people who serve in the military. 

Brother Crenchaw inspired patriots, preachers, parents, students, politicians, and everyone else who knew him.  He was truly “a man for all people,” at home wherever he went.  He worshiped God as a follower of Jesus with people from every background, creed, and tradition, and he lived an inclusive faith that welcomed others without pretense or fanfare.  Brother Milton Crenchaw was “the Good Samaritan” for any bruised, battered, and oppressed person he encountered on the roadway of life. 

A passage in the fourteenth chapter of John calls, comforts, and challenges us today.  Hear the words of Jesus, the One to whom Brother Crenchaw trusted himself, his life, faith, love, and hope, found at John 14:12.

John 14:12
12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. [New Revised Standard Version]
        I will speak with you today about The Call from Greatness to “Greater Works.”
         Gardner Calvin Taylor, who was ushered into Glory earlier this year on Resurrection Sunday also at the full age of 96 and who is considered by many to have been the greatest African American preacher of the gospel of Jesus, admitted publicly that he had “always fallen back” from these words of Jesus, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”   These words are part of the “good-bye talk” Jesus gave his closest friends.  They were, understandably, distressed by the thought of being separated from the one who had re-directed, re-defined and re-informed their lives. 

         Imagine, then, how they must have felt when Jesus told them, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Remember the people who heard these words?.  Peter, James, John, Andrew, and the other disciples (excepting Judas Iscariot who had left the fellowship by that time), heard those words.  The women who supported the ministry of Jesus heard those words.  Like you and me, these were ordinary people being told by Jesus, the most extraordinary person in history, that they would do “greater works” than he did.

         But Jesus was not engaging in hyperbole.  He was not engaging in rhetorical over-reach in an effort to comfort his distressed loved ones.  Nor was Jesus putting himself down.  Jesus was calling them to look beyond the powerful greatness of his life to the potential—no, the promise!—that they could be agents of “greater works.”

Jesus, who called people from the far country of death back to fellowship among the living, told these anxious souls they could be agents of “greater works.”

Jesus, who spoke with so much authority that raging winds became a gentle breeze and turbulent waves became a calm sea, told these anxious souls they could be agents of “greater works.”

Jesus, whose presence and prayer turned a child’s lunch into an impromptu banquet for thousands, told these anxious souls they could be agents of “greater works.”

These words are part of the “Do not let your hearts be troubled” farewell address of Jesus.  In a sense, the words “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” are part of the last Will and Testament of Jesus.   It is as if Jesus was saying, “Do not be troubled that the greatness of my presence will move from you.  “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

“I have done great work, now I am going to the Father.”  I have restored life, health, and hope, now I am going to the Father.  I have lifted people from sorrow to joy, now I am going to the Father.  I have confronted and defeated demonic forces that oppressed people, now I am going to the Father.”

“I am going to the Father, but the work must continue.  I am going to the Father, but the great work of healing wounded hearts and bodies must go onward.  I am going to the Father, but the great work of liberation from oppression must go on.  The great works that I do can, must, and will continue with you, ‘and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.’”

They did not get it at first.  It took some time for them to realize and claim their inheritance.  They knew what Jesus proclaimed and promised in this part of his Will and Testament, but they couldn’t lay hold on it then.  Their sense of grief was too acute.  They were unable to get beyond the pain of anticipated parting to claim the promises of doing the great work Jesus did, let alone “greater works.”

But this bequest of Jesus is true.  Jesus spent his short lifetime and ministry in Palestine.  His followers continued that ministry, not only in Palestine, but elsewhere.  Great works of healing, liberation, and hope nurturing became “greater works” in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and elsewhere.  Wherever else and whenever any person or people build their lives on the radical, extravagant, subversive, and unconquerable divine love and truth Jesus personified, we become agents of not only the “great work” of Jesus, but “greater works,” because Jesus has gone to the Father.

This brings us to Brother Milton Crenchaw.  Brother Crenchaw built his life of faithful service and powerful humility on the radical, extravagant, subversive, unconquerable, divine love and truth that Jesus lived and inspired.  Jesus did great works, but never flew an airplane.  Jesus did great works on earth; Milton Crenchaw continued those great works and then “greater works” by teaching aviation. 

I will share but one example, because there are too many to recount here or at any other gathering, of the “greater works” result of following Jesus that defined the life of Brother Milton Crenchaw.  His obituary reports that Brother Crenchaw “arrived at Tuskegee Institute in 1939 and enrolled in the school’s first Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) class.”  After completing CPT, Brother Crenchaw remained at Tuskegee and eventually became one of the primary instructors to prepare black pilots for aerial warfare. 

One of his colleagues at Tuskegee, and no doubt someone who Brother Crenchaw influenced, was Daniel James, Jr..  Daniel James, Jr. came to Tuskegee after completing high school in Pensacola, Florida, entered CPT, and later served as a flight instructor with Brother Crenchaw.  Daniel James, Jr. became, in time, the first black four-star General in the U.S. Air Force, and commander of North America Air Defense Command (NORAD).  Milton Crenchaw nurtured General Daniel “Chappie” James to become an example of “Greater works!”

“The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Milton Crenchaw claimed his bequest from the Last Will and Testament of Jesus to live for “greater works.”  And we who are beneficiaries of those “greater works” are, in turn, now called by the One who called Brother Crenchaw.  Jesus, who called Milton Crenchaw to do the great works Jesus did, “and greater works than these,” calls us.
 
Jesus and Milton Crenchaw call us to greater works of liberation.  Jesus and Milton Crenchaw call us to “greater works” of service.  Jesus and Milton Crenchaw call us to “greater works” of sacrifice.  Jesus and Milton Crenchaw call us to “greater works” of mentoring.  

Let not your hearts be troubled, beloved family.  The One who called Brother Crenchaw calls you to “greater works” with him.  Let not your hearts be troubled, veterans.  The One who called Brother Crenchaw calls us to “greater works” with him.  Let not your hearts be troubled, people of Little Rock, Arkansas, and the Nation.  The One who called Brother Crenchaw calls us to “greater works” with him.  In the face of separation, we are called beyond the sentiments of “good-bye” to the greatness of Jesus, and beyond that even, to claim our legacy as agents of “greater works,” because the One who has gone to the Father calls us. 

On November 17, the One who called us to “greater works” called our beloved patriarch, mentor, patriot, neighbor, and friend, from “greater works” to the “greatest observation tower.”  I imagine a counsel took place in the celestial realm.  I imagine that the One who called Brother Crenchaw to “greater works” looked over to Gabriel and said, “Gabriel.  Brother Milton has been grounded long enough.  Restore his wings!” And Gabriel moved!  Before quick could get ready, Brother Crenchaw was restored to flight status. Before quick could get suited up, Brother Crenchaw was promoted from aviation history into the celestial astronaut corps. 

Now, from that greatest observation tower, Brother Crenchaw joins the One who called him, in bequeathing us the potential and promise to be agents of “greater works.”  Now, Brother Crenchaw joins Jesus in calling us to “greater works.”  Greater works of faith!  Greater works of love!  Greater works of justice!  Greater works of peace!  Greater works of hope!  Greater works of healing!  Greater works of service!  Greater works of sacrifice!  Greater works of joy! 

Greater works!  Greater works!  Greater works!

I close by borrowing from a ritual cherished by our Navy brothers and sisters.  When a respected shipmate passes away, someone from among the crew recites a poem titled, “The Watch.”  I have amended it to conclude this commentary about our brother’s service. 

The Watch
For 96 years
Airman Milton Crenchaw has stood the watch
While some of us were in our beds at night
Airman Crenchaw stood the watch
While some of us were at school or work
Airman Crenchaw stood the watch
Even before some of us were born into this world
Airman Crenchaw stood the watch
When the storm clouds of war were brewing
Airman Crenchaw stood the watch
Many times Tuskegee Airman Milton Crenchaw would cast a distant eye
To see his family standing there
Needing his guidance and help,
But he still stood the watch
This Tuskegee Airman stood the watch for 40 years,
So that all Americans could sleep safely, each and every night
Secure because this Tuskegee Airman stood the watch
Today, we are here to pay our respects, as it is said, for the final time,
“TUSKEGEE AIRMAN MILTON PITTS CRENCHAW, you stand relieved
Relieved by those You fathered and loved, Relieved by those you trained, Relieved by those You guided, Relieved by those you led.
Sir, you stand relieved of duty, we have the watch.”

Amen.

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