In honor of a dear, departed friend, Sherwood Carthen

This Wednesday I was shocked and saddened to hear of the sudden passing of a good friend, Bishop Sherwood Carthen. Sherwood and I had a unique friendship. Usually you become friends with someone when you hit it off over shared interests. That’s where Sherwood and I started, but it turned out our friendship was destined to form on much more rocky ground.

Sherwood and I enjoyed talking about our common passion for the church. He is the founding pastor of Bayside of South Sacramento (BOSS), and I pastor Sanctuary Covenant Church. We met about once a month to have coffee and talk about pastoring, the gospel, and leadership. I think we both left those conversations mutually encouraged.

Still, at that point Sherwood and I were not what I would call good friends. We were colleagues who enjoyed each other’s company. One fated day we crossed the boundary into friendship not by sharing common interests but by squaring off in intense and heated debate. We fought our way into being friends. Sometimes those are the friendships that stand apart from others.

Our conflict was over racial issues. If you know Sherwood, that won’t surprise you. When it came to race, he was known to say things like, “I’m very passionate about this. If I offend you, I’m sorry. But if I don’t say some things you don’t like, nothing changes.” One day in a small pastors’ group, he and I got into a discussion that grew into an exchange that grew into a conflict. It kept escalating – not so much in ugliness but in intensity.  As I would come to understand the issues better, Sherwood and I didn’t have deeply opposing views. Rather, two things were happening. First, we were talking past one another. When he said one thing, I heard another, and vice versa (not an uncommon thing when people of different races discuss race). Second, I would later find out I had a lot to learn about issues of race. In particular, I discovered that Sherwood was right about most everything he said.

In the moment, I wasn’t able to see all that. I got so frustrated during that discussion that I had to leave the room to get a few minutes alone so I could gather myself. The first place I found was an unoccupied men’s room. I entered and began pacing back and forth in front of the sink, venting and praying. A couple of minutes later, Sherwood opened the door and asked if we could talk. It didn’t take us long to reconcile with one another, and that’s one of the things I love about Sherwood – he didn’t shy away from either conflict or reconciliation. He had a wonderful blend of conviction and humility.

So we patched things up. When I tell this story, I sometimes say that Sherwood and I made up in the men’s room of the BOSS offices. :-)

After we reconciled, Sherwood invited me to be his partner on a four-day racial reconciliation journey sponsored by our Covenant denomination. When I agreed, I knew we were destined to become real friends.

Through that four-day journey, Sherwood and I spent many hours talking. We stayed up late at night working through our miscommunications and establishing deeper mutual understanding about racial issues. We also opened up about our families, our marriages, our histories, and our respective relationships with God. By the time we returned home, I knew this was a unique relationship. Our families celebrated Easter together. He preached at our church. I looked forward to seeing what would happen in the coming years. It turned out all we had left was a handful of months.

Our pastors' group met again last week. We broke out for smaller discussions, and Sherwood and I happened to get paired up. We shared a vulnerable conversation about the areas in life where we struggle the most with fear. When men talk about their fears – their real and greatest fears where they are most desperate to see God work – it is hallowed ground. I admire that Sherwood was not afraid to be honest at the heart level. During our conversation, I remember thinking, “Sherwood has really gotten into my heart. I truly love this man.”

When the pastors’ meeting concluded, we walked to the door together, and he said, “This was good. We need to get together again soon.” I readily agreed. And that’s where we left things – a deeper bond and a commitment to dig deeper still.

It feels like unfinished business. And maybe that’s the way it should be. The unfinished state of our relationship invites me to pray and think about how Sherwood will continue to influence my life. The same goes with others who have known him. His legacy is his influence on our future. We all have unfinished business with him until we allow his influence on us to ripen fully.

Sherwood will be remembered for many things. He was a powerful preacher, a dynamic leader, a community activist, an NBA team’s chaplain, a racial reconciler, and more. But more than that, he was an authentic and faith-filled friend to me and many others. I will lovingly remember him for his ability to be a friend over all his many accomplishments.

One last, unrelated note. Sherwood was a large man – 6’4” and about 350 pounds. I once read that Jesus was probably no more than about 5’4” and 125 pounds. Can you imagine Sherwood embracing Jesus for the first time? 


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