“It’s like there is a shadow over their place,” said Mother, looking at the truck and closed house of our neighbors to the north.

“I know what you mean, ” I said to back to her.

I told you about Gene. I had hoped God would ease Gene out of this world quickly and He had indeed, just a few days after the second stroke.

It was the first time Mother had been to the farm since Gene had died and although we didn’t see Gene every time we went out there, we knew he was always there. Except now he wasn’t and never would be again.

If any of you have been to the farm or have read me regularly, you know about Rusty, Gene’s and my neighbor to the east. He runs a horse roping training facility just outside his trailer while his wife works and he homeschools his youngest child.  From day one it became obvious that Rusty was ornery, angry, and unstable. While walking down his trailer steps one day, he screamed to no one in particular that he’d just finished his Bible study and in the next breath began belittling his kids in scorching words. We had to put up security cameras because of his ‘borrowing’ and sanctioned mischief of his children to our chicken pen and surrounding area. He didn’t count us as good neighbors and we felt likewise about him. Gene knew about our issues. Anytime my frustration got the best of me, over the fence Gene would nod his head to let me know he was listening. I knew he’d had trouble with Rusty, but he never did anything but listen to me complain about him. Rusty wasn’t the only thing Gene and I talked about. As many times as I talked to Gene across the fence and we talked about our disparate views on politics and people and places, Gene never once mentioned God. He didn’t say anything negative about Him, he just never said anything at all. Anytime I mentioned Him, he listened. He was a good listener. I am however fairly certain he knew that the testimony of Christ’s sacrifice for my life was what centered my thoughts about everything.

Gene didn’t really have a funeral, he had a memorial service. There were about 130 people packed into the low ceilinged, 1960’s architecture funeral home. It looked old and outdated by Houston standards. It was a typical structure for the street in was built on in Navasota, Texas. Most everyone had on cowboy boots and there were more than a few cowboy hats. I doubt anyone there was wearing either one for show. Gene had been very active in the roping and horse community. There was the obligatory slideshow which showed Gene as the handsome man he was, with that promise in his looks as a very young boy. It showed his wife Debbie and the last several years they’d been together with their ever increasing blended family. And then it was time for the family and friends to ‘remember’.

When the Baptist preacher who was conducting Gene’s service and who had never met him asked if any friends wanted to say anything, Rusty rose from his front row seat and turned to face the crowd.

Rusty’s testimony was revealing, both in what it said about Gene and what it said about him. His words reiterated the same Gene I knew. He was kind, he was smart, he was a hard worker, and he had befriended Rusty without malice, judgement, or criticism. The way Rusty said it, you knew he hadn’t experienced that from many people. He had neither been the kind of man or neighbor Gene was. Rusty sat down, tears on his face and in his throat.

Then Gene’s brother in law spoke. A jittery  man with a sheaf of handwritten papers, the thin dark haired man began with the confession that his sister didn’t want a lot of ‘religiosity’ in his contribution. He explained that he knew that too many preachers used funeral services as opportunities to scare the unrepentant into some admission to faith, whether born of true conviction or not. And then surprisingly, he launched into how he became a believer in the true story of Christ’s saving Grace, replete with a good, but scattered grasp of Christian scripture that apparently covered half of the sheaf of papers in his hand. He then tied this introduction into his relationship with Gene. As I listened I realized that this brother in law had spoken to Gene of his faith and had gotten the same reaction as I had. I also know he spoke what all of us, well most of the people in that old funeral parlor, wanted and hoped – that Gene was in Heaven. And then the brother in law attempted to assure the believers of just that. Debbie’s brother having quoted the fruits of the spirit as listed in Galatians, assured us that logic dictated that Gene was a man who loved God. He followed Christ’s example and Apostle Paul’s interpretation of the Savior’s message too close for that not to be true. He used the same adjectives to describe Gene that everyone else at the funeral had; smart, always with a smile, and kind, very kind, echoing Galatians. A man’s fruit had to be a product of the tree that produced it.

“Do you think Gene was a Christian?” Mother asked me with one long look at the side of the fence where Gene had given us use of his well when ours dried up. In the scraggly post oak was the spinning yard art I had given him two years ago when he said he liked mine.

“I don’t know Mother. I know this, he followed Christ’s example, His plan for man, much more faithfully than I did.”

At the close of Gene’s service, the Baptist preacher unable to resist using Gene as an example for those who believe in Heaven and hoping to convince those that might not, mentioned that Gene had gotten crosswise with the church at a young age and that the truth was, it wasn’t church that made you a Christian anyway.

And then he told the following story: whenever Gene heard Alan Jackson croon “I Want to Stroll Over Heaven With You” he always took Debbie in his arms.

And they danced.

Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV) 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Mr.  L. E. Gene Stringer