I’m closing in on my 11th year of serving this particular congregation and more so every day I’m convinced there is fruit in ministry that only becomes possible with a longer measure of time.
For instance, a few weeks ago I confirmed about 30 students in our congregation many of whom I remember from their baptisms and from their Day School years here at the church. The students from my first confirmation class 11 years ago are now in the midst of starting their careers and have since blossomed into adults.
These are all blessings only made possible by the patience and passage of time, blessings our Methodist system of itinerancy rarely affords pastors.
Yet of all those, one such example is at the fore of my thoughts tonight.
Last week I was privileged to spend several hours at the deathbed of someone in my congregation, a woman whom, for several years several years ago, I would’ve ended any mention with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless her heart.’
Today Shirley died.
And like Jesus, I wept.
I don’t cry over most deaths. When you’re a pastor, you get used to death, coming home so often as you do with blood on your clothes. I cried over.
I can be honest about the rough edges of our relationship because to pretend otherwise would be to dishonor the grace-filled trajectory of our relationship ultimately took.
She was a thorn in my side and, to my chagrin, I could not avoid being so in hers. She was for me the personification of what pastors and non-churchgoers lament as ‘church politics.’ She was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, was insufficiently enamored with John Wesley (true), couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of her church…”bless her heart.”
My- less than pastoral- thoughts generally ran ditto but in the likewise direction.
She has the distinction of being the first parishioner in this particular parish to point a shaky finger at me in frustration and then storm out of my office, slamming the door so hard it knocked my Karl Barth portrait off the bookcase.
And the softie in me hopes no one ever takes that distinction from her.
Yet with all that ‘history’ between us, something after the first few years changed between us. She first made peace, I think, that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and decided to make the best of it.
She then started earnestly to listen and read my sermons, stealing them from the pulpit lectern (sometimes before I’d preached…teaching me to have a spare copy handy) and concluded that even I’m not Billy Graham I’m not without some gospel IQ. Comments on my blog followed after.
When we adopted our first child, she was the first person to articulate that adoption is the first form of Christian life, and thus natural, making her one of the only people not to ask us when we were going to have kids of our ‘own.’
She was the first person in the congregation to call me when I was in the hospital last year to tell me she loved me. And when I went to see her this week last in the nursing home in Richmond, she said it to me again. Weak, emaciated and slightly agitated, she smiled when she saw me. She grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.
Pulling me close, with her only eye that would open on me, she asked said the same thing to me: ‘I love you.’(* If I was in a different temper I’d insert a diatribe here about how our United Methodist system of itinerancy actively prevents moments like this, moving pastors before relationships can come full circle, but that’s a grouse for another day.)
I sat there quietly amazed that 10 1/2 years ago I was about the last person she would’ve wanted next to her in those moments yet all the more amazed that just a few years since there was absolutely nowhere else I’d rather have been.
It would take me a while to track back through all the deaths and burials I’ve been a part of since I started out in my little parish back in Princeton. Whatever the number, it’s a lot. Children, parents, men no older than me. They cover the gamut from tragic to the welcome blessed rest, with some well-loved congregants sprinkled in along the way.
Seldom, if ever, has a death hit me the way as has this one.
I’m not quite sure what’s behind this effect.
Is it that I saw in her someone much like myself, someone who as Martin Luther described was ‘at once sinner and justified?’
Is it that, in both the good and the bad, there was absolutely no pretense about our relationship- something that can be rare in congregations?
Is it that she (or our relationship) was a genuine, identifiable proof of grace, that tempers can ease and relationships can heal?
Is it that with her I’d experienced both how petty church politics can be but also how easily such pettiness pass into irrelevance if we let it?
Probably, I suspect, it’s a little of all the above which is but another way of saying:
‘Shirley was like family to me’ with all the complexity and joy the word ‘family’ entails.
And though the me from 11 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought, I can now honestly say I will miss her like family. I used to joke, derisively, that she was like my mother. Now that she’s gone though I think that’s exactly right. With whom but your mother can you have a complicated, sometimes difficult, but ultimately life-giving relationship?