Being new in ministry, other pastors felt the need to give me advice and lots of it. Standing in the Danville Mall, my family had bumped into another pastor and his family. Talking shop, my brother pastor related the story of how a church member, who he claimed was a friend, "stabbed him in the back" (I'm not very fond of that phrase.)
He then offered this piece of advice: "You can be friendly; but don't be friends."
That piece of advice I have not followed. Yesterday, as I stood behind the pulpit preaching yet another funeral service, I understood how atrocious that piece of advice was.
Brother Billy and his family have grown very special to my family in our tenure at our church. They have nearly adopted us as part of their own family, something (unfortunately) unheard of in many churches. There seems to be a presupposed distance between church member and pastor, as well as his family. I understand this distance, but it just does not mesh with my personality and who I am in Christ. I am a very relational person, and I think that is vital for being a successful minister.
The distance breeds an artificiality that is simply impossible to overcome. How can you minister to a flock of God's people and not get close to them? Relationship implies nearness.
Billy's wife regularly kept nursery and my wife and I, as has been said of us, "are determined to keep the nursery full." Billy had progressed to the point where the pulmonary fibrosis he was diagnosed with several years ago needed constant care. Billy's wife had been unable to come to church since our new baby was born, so my baby boy and I made a trip over about six weeks ago. He was passed around like a sack of taters and Billy was thrilled to get to hold him for a short time. There is something about the "babyness" of a baby that just makes elderly people feel good.
About two weeks ago, I made another visit to see Billy, his situation having gotten worse. He felt like the end was near, but still seemed like he had not digressed; there was no noticeable difference in his health. However, this past Monday evening, Billy's son called and said that his daddy had gone on to be with the Lord. I quickly got dressed and spent the next four and a half hours with the family.
As Billy's wife and I stood at Billy's bedside, awaiting the funeral home to come pick up the body, I remembered a promise I had made. I had told Billy the last time I visited that I would bring my boy back over to visit. He was elated and said he couldn't wait to see the "little feller".
As I was preaching yesterday, I related the story to the assembled family and friends. I made a public apology to Billy and his family for failing to keep my promise, and then it happened. The tears began to flow. Perhaps it was because I had failed to keep that promise; perhaps it was because I had sinned, fallible as I am. However, I think I know why. Death is unexpected. We cannot predict it. And Billy's death also caught me off guard.
The shortest verse of the Bible has profound and deep meaning. Jesus wept. He was not afraid to show His emotion. He was not afraid to be transparent. He was not afraid to get close. At the grave of a close friend, Jesus' eyes dripped water, an indication of His humanness, His identification with frail humanity, His love for those to whom He was close. Why should the pastor be any different?