I was early to Fred Craddock’s funeral. Cherry Log Christian Church is less than two hours from Atlanta, but a trip to Appalachia seems farther so I gave myself way too much time. I had been told to eat at the Pink Pig barbecue restaurant, but it’s only open Thursday to Sunday. I had, however, brought an autographed book to read as we waited for the service to begin. Craddock Stories is a collection of Fred’s greatest hits. Preaching aficionados identify the stories with a phrase, “the church voted 234-2,” “playing hide and seek,” “the lady in the grocery store who thinks he’s hitting on her,” “poor as Job’s turkey” and “Jesus winning the Georgia football game.”
Fred Craddock changed preaching. He grew up with preachers who filled sanctuaries with three points, multiple subpoints and a poem to encapsulate the boredom. These preachers told us what they were going to tell us, told us, and then recapped what they had told us without noticing that we stopped listening after the first summary. Fred realized that what keeps most of us from living for Jesus is not a lack of information. He invited preachers to stop teaching the lessons of Scripture and start telling the stories of faith. These stories, he argued, do not illustrate the point, because they are the point.
When he was 20 Craddock went to hear Albert Schweitzer. His plan was to criticize Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus, but before he had a chance Schweitzer invited him to go with him to help the dying in Africa. Fred said, “I learned, again, what it means to be Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.”
Craddock’s first pastorate was near Oak Ridge, Tenn. When the little town boomed the church voted not to follow Fred’s recommendation that they reach out to the new residents. Years later, after telling his wife that painful story, they went to see the little church. They were surprised to find the parking lot full. A great big sign said, “Barbecue, all you can eat.” Fred said to Nettie, “It’s a good thing this is not still a church, otherwise these people couldn’t be here.”
When Craddock was a young pastor, one church told him he had an emergency fund with $100 in it. He could give the money to anybody who is in need that is not the result of “laziness, drunkenness or poor management.” Fred asked, “What else is there?” He figured they still have the money.
Fred told some stories you wish you had not heard. He was teaching at Phillips Theological Seminary when a woman brought her dying brother to be healed. Craddock said, “I can pray for him, but I do not have the gift of healing.” She responded, “Then what in the world do you do?” Fred said, “What I did that afternoon was study, stare at my books and try to forget what she said.”
A woman a few pews in front of me had come to the funeral with the same book of stories and the same idea. It is easier to cry before the service begins, because no one is paying attention.
We sang “Soon we’ll reach the shining river.” Fred’s daughter Laura spoke with deep affection of waiting with dread for her father to mention her in a sermon. “O God, what is he going to say?” His son John, who is much bigger than Fred, said he liked it when his father called him “a block off the old chip.”
We heard Paul’s promise that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Tom Long preached, imagining Loyd Bentsen saying, “I served with Fred Craddock. I knew Fred Craddock. Fred Craddock was a friend of mine. You are no Fred Craddock.” But Tom made us think about Fred and the God who holds us all. We closed the beautiful, modest service with an Appalachian folk hymn, “And when from death I’m free I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.”
Fred Craddock wrote, “When I was in my late teens, I wanted to be a preacher. When I was in my late twenties, I wanted to be a good preacher. Now that I am older, I want more than anything else to be a Christian. To live simply, to love generously, to speak truthfully, to serve faithfully, and to leave everything else to God.”
I left Fred Craddock’s funeral wanting to be a Christian.
Photo: Vimeo/Peachtree Christian Church