Gladys Hinson was a member of the search committee that called me to my first full-time ministry position. She was a retired elementary school teacher who had a little trouble keeping her thoughts to herself. When I was having lunch with the committee after preaching my trial sermon she blurted out, “Well, the rest of you can look all you want, but I’ve found my pastor!”
I loved her for that.
I also loved her for what she did when I got settled in my new job; she asked me to set aside some time when I could go with her to visit “her people.”
Her people turned out to be members of the church who were now living in nursing homes in the area. She took me to three different places, and at each one she introduced me to elderly men and women who had once been actively involved in the life of the church.
The way my perception changed about each one was almost miraculous.
For example: when I walked into one room I saw an old woman sitting in a wheelchair, but as Gladys began to tell me about the way this woman had worked with the preschool choir, and how she had led our Vacation Bible School each year, and how she had once showed up at a costume party dressed as a sunflower (!), she became younger and stronger in my eyes. And maybe it wasn’t only my perception. As Gladys talked about her this woman sat up straighter in her wheelchair and began to beam until it was easy to see her as the “sunflower” she had once been.
And here’s what happened to me:
I stayed at that church nine years, and in those years some of the people who had been active and involved when I arrived moved on to the nursing home. When I went to see them I didn’t need anyone to tell me about them—I knew! And when Gladys herself moved into the nursing home I tried to be as faithful to her as she had been to “her people,” and tell anyone who would listen what a wonderful person she was.
This is what can happen when you stay at a church long enough: you can see vital, active members transition into a different stage of life. And here’s another thing that can happen: you can stop burying church members and start burying friends.
I’ve been here more than eleven years now, and that’s how I feel after some of the recent deaths in our congregation, after having to say goodbye to friends like Alice, and Ruth, and Buddy, and Liz, and Bernard, and June, and Lee, and Anne, and John, and Bill.
It makes me sad.
The good news is that if you stay at a church long enough you get to baptize some of the children you dedicated as infants (I’ve done that). You get to marry some of the children you’ve baptized (I’ve done that, too). In other words, you get to be part of the full circle of life in the church.
You get to be part of the family.
Thank you for letting me into some of the most intimate spaces of your lives—birth, death, aging, and adolescence. And thank God for those people like Gladys who “knew us when,” and who see us the way God sees us when nobody else can.