Thirty minutes before the funeral of Ben Haden was to begin, the closest parking space to Chattanooga's First Presbyterian Church may have been the Aquarium. Some had driven for hours to honor the memory of Ben Haden, the icon of an evangelist whose clear view of a living Christ had spread the world over.
The massive sanctuary, the chapel, the fellowship hall, and all points in between of the venerable old church on McCallie Avenue were packed with an adoring crowd befitting a rock star, not a simplistic and plain-speaking disciple whose one request of one and all was to call him "Ben," not Doctor or Reverend or Pastor . "No, just Ben."
Curiously, his Heavenly Homecoming was in itself a brilliant homecoming for the generations he has nurtured since the early 1970s when he came to follow James L. Fowle, another icon in Chattanooga history. People who have moved away, helped seed churches elsewhere and even some who have "drifted" all came back home to be with Ben Haden one last time late Tuesday morning.
It was the biggest funeral seen in Chattanooga in years-- and even in East Tennessee where his commitment to Jesus Christ first began as a newspaper publisher -- and the fact his widely-accepted Changed Lives ministry achieved lofty status and a healthy national following only heightened the warm moment that his unparalleled life would be celebrated.
Tim Tinsley, the church's current pastor and a close admirer who became a dear friend, promised the crowd in his welcome that it wouldn't be a sad day but one of celebration and, oh, was it ever. Stacy Caraway sang his late wife Charlene's favorite song, "Jesus Loves Me" and a church favorite, "Blessed Assurance."
But it was his daughter Dallas Gibbons who set the spell, rejoicing in the fact the four years she had cared for her father since her mother's death "were the most special in my life." She told how away from the studio lights, the clamor of the crowds, the demanding schedule, the constant telephone and the weekly sermons she had finally gotten to love and adore Ben Haden in a way she hadn't been able to recognize in the first 50-plus years.
After his wife passed away, Ben's void was filled when his granddaughter came to live with him while attending GPS. Haden, as she is called, was his joy and, now a senior at GPS, it is impossible to determine which of the two was more blessed. "I think my dad's greatest gift was his one-on-one conversations with so many people," said Dallas. "My father loved so many people and so many of you loved him."
John Domonick, he of a smooth yet dynamic voice, sang "Amazing Grace" is a spell-binding way but prefaced it with a powerful verse of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," and then came John Queen, a former assistant under Haden, to deliver the impossible. You need to understand this, during the Haden years there was the most powerful parade of hard-driven assistants who not only preached but pastored the congregation as no other church in history.
"Ben was a dictator," one church Elder who shall remain anonymous would reveal. "He was a benevolent dictator, you need to understand, but a dictator still the same."
So on the first pew sat his all-stars: David Bryan, Lee Clower, Pete Deison, Joe Hyshma, and others while one -- John Queen, the man who at Charlene's funeral had informed the group he was her "favorite" -- took the pulpit. John, today a prominent businessman and active on the "Changed Lives" board, looked at first as though he had "partaken of the grape" but as it became apparent recent back surgery caused his tender nerves to spasm repeatedly as he delivered his message, he never once felt the pain he had feared.
No, in a message of warmth and love and candid truth, he injected humor and compassion into his signature funeral, his masterpiece. "We had Monday Morning Quarterbacking where Ben would dissect your sermon. One day he asked me quite pointedly, "'Who were you praying to yesterday?' I told him the prayer was to God the Father. He looked at me and said, 'Then how come no one knew it?'"
After the service and a huge reception, the fun-loving Queen spirited all of Ben's assistants to "a nearby tavern" where the real goodbye began. "We started telling Ben stories over the hamburgers," John said late last night, "and I laughed so hard I cried. We all did. The thing I'll remember is that this was probably the greatest day of my life. Ben Haden will live within us -- those who were closest to him -- until we see him again. And we will."
Glenn Draper, his "Music Man" for over a half-century, had called in every favor he could and assembled a world-class choir between the ages of 20 and 95. Believe this, every soul that squeezed into the choir loft had earned the right and, when the service closed with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" yesterday at precisely one hour and ten minutes after the service had begun, the most perfect funeral befitting a most wonderful pastor, mentor, friend, husband, father and grandfather had been delivered.
To God be the glory.
Click here to watch the video of the service.