For instance, a few weeks ago I confirmed about 40 students in our congregation many of whom I remember from their Day School years here at the church. The students from my first confirmation class 8 years ago are now in the midst of choosing their careers and have since blossomed into adults. One of those first confirmands is joining me this weekend for the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
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 this week.
On Sunday I was privileged to spend several hours at the deathbed of someone in my congregation, a man whom just a few years ago I would’ve ended any mention with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless his heart.’
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.
He was a thorn in my side and, to my chagrin, I could not avoid being so in his. He was for me the personification of what pastors and non-churchgoers lament as ‘church politics.’ He was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of his church…”bless his heart.”
My- less than pastoral- thoughts generally ran ditto but in the likewise direction.
He has the distinction of being the only parishioner ever to challenge me to a fist fight.
And an arm-wrestling contest.
And the softie in me hopes no one ever takes that distinction from him.
Yet with all that ‘history’ between us, something in the past couple of years changed between us. He first made peace, I think, that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and decided to make the best of it.
He 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.
Later, he one day filled up my voicemail box not with complaints but with a thoughtful history of his faith walk.
The barbs I’d once received in the receiving line after worship became playful ‘young fella’ banter and I’d chide him that ‘if I had my own 12 disciples then he’d be….the guy who replaced Judas.’
Last spring he sincerely thanked me for being involved with his granddaughters’ experience at church and this winter he made a substantial gift to our mission work in Guatemala; however, he requested that I carry said gift down to Guatemala myself in cash.
When I asked if this was to insure 100% of his gift went where it was needed or if he was merely trying to get me cavity-searched at the airport, he responded with a cryptic chuckle and a ‘we’ll just see.’
Thus was the down then up path of our relationship that found me visiting him in the hospital this week last. Weak, emaciated and slightly disoriented, he smiled when he saw me. He grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.
Pulling me close, with dehydrated lips he asked me ‘to forgive him for any ugliness he showed in the past- I reckon I was in the wrong…’
I smiled and said: ‘Ditto.’
‘I still could’ve taken you in a fight,’ he said mouthed hoarsely.
‘Try it old man’ I replied loudly into his ear. His smile quickly became another cough.
And then I prayed for/with him.(* 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.)
On Sunday I spent several hours at his bedside, holding his hand while his son rubbed his head and shoulders and reassured him of both our and God’s love.
I sat there quietly amazed that 5 years ago I was about the last person he would’ve wanted next to him in those moments yet all the more amazed that just a few years since there was absolutely nowhere else I’d rather have been on Sunday.
I left him Sunday afternoon not realizing he had only a few hours left.
I got in the elevator of the assisted living facility behind an elderly lady toting a walker. She acted as though she knew me.
I pushed ‘1’ for her and then, to my surprise, I started crying.
‘It’s all right John’ she said.
I’ve no idea who she thought I was but I appreciated the solace nonetheless.
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 him 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 he (or our relationship) was a genuine, identifiable proof of grace, that tempers can ease and relationships can heal?
Is it that with him 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:
‘_____ was like family to me’ with all the complexity and joy the word ‘family’ entails.
And though the me from 5 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought, I can now honestly say I will miss him like family.