Ethan M. Engleby
October 25. 2008
His nickname was plucked from banjo strings. Around a campfire one night, an impromptu adaptation of a country / bluegrass tune gave us Uncle Eth. The words went something like: “Uncle Eth took the coon and gone on, gone on, gone on - left us looking up the tree.” It became a refrain, the melody that that filled the gaps as we waited for dinner or looked for sticks to roast marshmallows.
It became the refrain for much of his life for the name stayed with him and most of us knew him that way, if not by name, by spirit. For we always seemed to be looking in places after he had gone on. Like children flocking to an easter egg sighting, we ran to his joy but he had gone on and we were left looking where only echoes of his laughter remained.
He moved quickly - not impatiently, mind you, - but quickly from one phone call to the next, from one text message to the next. You know you are talking to a serious multitasker when you hear the toilet flush on the other end of the phone. Ethan was hard to pin down. You almost felt at times, if you were in a room with him, that he was tugging at his reins, looking for expression, a direction for his energy.
What he wanted, the direction that he sought, what he long for, were his people, all of you. He was the mayor, not just of Canton, where he lived, but he entertained the streets just about everywhere. From Houston, New Orleans, Baltimore, Charlottesville, Ethan knew politicians, authors, service technicians. Ethan knew DEA agents in Columbia, not South Carolina, but South America. He was friends with all sorts and types. He was friends with the parking lot attendant in Houston International Airport, who to this day is watching over Ethanʼs car with the promise to let that car out of that airport parking lot with just a small payment on the side. I am not sure, but that man may have been a groomsman in Ethanʼs wedding. He would sit down at a restaurant with his wife - whom he adored above all things - and before the meal was over, four, six more chairs would be crowded around them. “Sit down,” heʼd say to friend and stranger alike.
And we sat down because of his joy. His wit was quick and fast. We would still be laughing from some irreverent thought, or politically incorrect reflection and he would be gone again, down the road to another film, another story, laughing about his dog, nicknamed Fifi, taking hostages at the safeway. That was the light that he brought to us wasnʼt it? Joy and laughter.
If humor disarms the world, then Ethan was one of Godʼs saints for a unilateral reconciliation. He brought us to our knees. He disarmed us. His laughter that came from deep inside dissipated all anger or pretension. He may not have been one to attend church on a regular basis, but he and God were close. And I know that because Ethan called out to God frequently. At the end of every good joke, funny scene in film, he gave God the credit.
For he so wanted the world be be as God would have it. His gentleness was known to everyone. He was generous, even when he could not afford to be. He was trusting, even when his own pocket was being picked. If he had two coats, he would give you one. If you asked him to walk a mile, he would walk two. If he knew he had caused you pain, it would haunt him to no end. He would apologize, and apologize and then he would apologize for apologizing too much.
Ethan had godʼs world down, what he struggled with was our world. The bright children of light are often frustrated by our world that abides in the grayscale of dusk. That is what kept him up at night, what kept him pacing, and anxious, and fearful: how to live in our world. It weighed heavy on his heart. Our world did not engage him the same way he engaged it. Where he brought light, laughter, and honesty he was often met with duplicity, corruption and selfishness. He laid his cards on the table always believing that the other would do the same. And he took more than his fair share of lumps as a result. Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness sake for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
I have seen a proliferation of those “life is good” bumper stickers recently. And as I have seen them I have been frustrated because life is not always good. God is good. That I am sure of. God is good, all the time. But life is not good all the time. And right now is one of those times. The convenient platitudes of grief and death are too wobbly to support us right now.
We always want some sort “take away” from gatherings like this, a goal, direction, plan, a support for our grief. It was suggested that maybe in Ethanʼs honor we all should vote for McCain ten days from now. I would be remiss if I didnʼt at least acknowledge that Ethan is now a resident of the big blue state in the sky and might now encourage you differently.
But there are no easy “take aways” this afternoon. Only hard truths. Uncle Eth has gone on, and we are left looking once again. Looking for his laughter, his generosity, and his kindness - what God bestowed upon us in this gentle man was unique, and God grieves as much as we do today. For a most faithful servant now rests. Finally rests.
Isaiah invites us to go out in joy and be led back in peace. Ethan has lead us through joy and he will lead us to peace. In due time, he will lead us to peace.