Van Cliburn

On this day in 2013 we held the funeral service for a remarkable person, Van Cliburn, at Broadway Baptist Church. Here are my remarks that day.

Opening Sentences

We have gathered this afternoon in this place of beauty to remember, honor, and celebrate the life of Van Cliburn.

As you would expect, Van wanted the beauty of music to be fully expressed in this service. Singing, both from this choir and congregational singing, are an important part of that. Van liked to say that the human voice was the first instrument and that singing to the Lord is how we express our deep thanksgiving.

And so we sing today to express our deep thanksgiving to God for all of God’s blessings and, today, for the life and love and passion and humility and prodigious gifts of Van Cliburn.

Steve Shoemaker, former pastor here at Broadway and good friend of Van reminded me of these words from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: 

Give beauty back,

beauty, beauty, beauty,  

back to God, beauty’s

self and beauty’s giver.

So Van Cliburn did all his life, give beauty back, as an offering to God and to the world. We are profoundly grateful.


Throughout his extraordinary life, faith was always central for Van Cliburn. And not just a generic spirituality but faith as expressed and embodied in Jesus and the local church. This was instilled in him from birth by his parents. Church was always an important part of their lives growing up in Shreveport and Kilgore. Van’s father even hoped at one point that Van would become a medical missionary. Van always carried with him a deep love for God and God’s church.

Van once said this: I always knew I lived in a home where compassion, warmth, understanding, and Christ conscious mind were all important values. My parents carefully taught me that when we go to church we go to praise God and give thanks for all of God’s many blessings as well as to remember Christ’s redemptive love for all humanity, and further to seek guidance from the Holy Spirit  for our future growth experiences in this transitory life.

And so it is no surprise that as soon as they settled in Fort Worth, Van and his mother joined this church, and Van has faithfully attended ever since.

It was always a delight to me to see Van and Tommy slip in the back as the service was beginning. It was never about drawing any attention to himself for Van; it was about worship. So, just as the service was concluding with the organ dismissal following the benediction, Van would quietly slip out. By that time I was standing at the back door, and before leaving he would always come over to me and give me a big hug and say, Beautiful, beautiful!

Van’s humility and warmth as a person and a church member has been such a blessing to me personally and to Broadway. I was always so grateful that he allowed me to really be his pastor. And I would say the same about Tommy. Van was generous financially to our church, enabling us to do so much in our music ministry that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. But he was also generous with his praise, encouragement, and presence, which has meant so much to me and to all of us at Broadway.

Van has been a faithful member of the Broadway family, and for that we are grateful.

Van was able to express as eloquently as anyone I have known the relationship between his two great loves: great music and sincere faith. I have heard Van say on a number of occasions, If Holy Scripture is the Word of God, then surely music must be the Breath of God.

And so Van’s sincere Christian faith, which was so central to his life and his way of thinking about music, sustained him all his life, including these last months of illness. After his diagnosis, Van said to me, One of the most profound truths that has characterized my life is St. Paul’s advice to ‘pray without ceasing.” That’s how I have lived my life. He said he wasn’t afraid of dying. He laughed and said, I’m more afraid of living than dying.

We are, even now, living in the season of anticipating Easter, where we will remember and celebrate that we live in the ongoing life and promise and hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This promise and hope helped Van and helps us to think about death in a whole new way.

In her novel, The Big Wave, Pearl S. Buck gives us a lovely exchange between a little boy and his father. 

What is death? Kino asked. 

Death is the great gateway, Kino’s father said.  His face was not at all sad; instead, it was quiet and happy. 

The gateway—where? Kino asked again. 

Kino’s father smiled, Can you remember when you were born?

Kino shook his head.  I was too small

Kino’s father laughed, I remember very well.  Oh, how hard you thought it was to be born.  You cried and you screamed.

Didn’t I want to be born? Kino asked.  This was very interesting to him. 

You did not, his father told him, smiling.  You wanted to stay just where you were in the warm, dark house of the unborn.  But the time came to be born and the gate of life opened.

Did I know it was the gate of life? Kino asked. 

You did not know anything about it and so you were afraid of it, his father replied.  But see how foolish you were!  Here we were waiting for you, your parents, already loving you and eager to welcome you.  And you have been very happy, haven’t you?

Until the big wave came, Kino replied.  Now I am afraid again because of the death that the big wave brought.

You are only afraid because you do not know anything about death, the father replied.  But some day you will wonder why you were afraid, even as today you wonder why you feared to be born.

The God who loved Van so much and was willing to bring him to life out of birth is the same God who stands on the other side of the experience of death and says, Come on. This is the gate of life. Imagine God, waiting for Van, already and always loving him and eager to welcome him.

I imagine Van walking into a big hug and hearing these words from God about the life he lived: Beautiful, beautiful!

Give beauty back,

beauty, beauty, beauty,  

back to God.

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