Sunday, July 26, 2020

Dear Jim

You started telling me years ago that you wanted me to do your funeral. I figured you'd long outlive my tenure at your church, however, and that you would get to know pastors who followed me, too, and one of them would (and should) do your funeral. And truth be told, I fervently hoped I wouldn't have to do your funeral. You were the lay member to annual conference, a Sunday school teacher, a member of the choir, and one of the most faithful members of that church. You were proud of being one of the longest-standing members there. The church needed you (and you needed the church). It's kind of funny: even when you do so many funerals as a pastor, there are some people you think might never die.

So I'm writing you this letter too late, as these things happen. And I'm not doing your funeral...but this fact brings me no joy, and perhaps, I should have been willing to say yes, if circumstances had permitted. Life is full of these decisions we see differently on the back side, isn't it?

There's so much I would say about you, if I were doing your funeral, and so much I probably should have said to you...but that time has passed. I have so many memories of being your pastor for four years. I mean, I have lots of memories of four years at your church, but also, memories just of you.

You called me your "guru." You came to talk to me about everything and anything. It didn't take long to realize you were lonely. I remember you always wore your wedding ring, and very early on, you pointed out that you were not single by choice. You'd talk about your "first wife," Shirley, and it was obvious that you would have given anything for her to be with you still. I always imagined there are some things in your house that were left untouched, just the way Shirley had left them, as a sort of shrine, a way to call up her presence in your loneliest moments. Of course, I don't know that to be true...but from what I know, it seems possible. You loved her so much. And you missed her so painfully. I knew that. It wasn't hard to tell it, and I tried to be present for you in those lonely moments. Sometimes it was too much for me, though. I failed you, so many times.

You see, the thing about being a pastor is that part of your job is to lay bare some of yourself, so that others can feel comfortable doing that, too, and then it's hard to help people understand that the closeness they feel isn't really as personal as they think it is, after all. This doesn't mean pastors are actors or are being disingenuous; it just means we are always balancing how to care for others and share ourselves enough to help foster their spiritual growth in genuine ways, with how to protect ourselves in important ways, too.

But you and I had a different relationship from what I had with many other church members. When you asked questions of me, you wanted a real answer. You respected my opinion on lots of things, though I remember one time I noted I had read something in the Washington Post and you said, "We may have to work on your choice of reading material." You were ready to jump into whatever I suggested as a small group study or a new direction for the church. Few church members have respected my authority and training and knowledge the way you did. We didn't agree on everything, and you liked to parse concepts into so many pieces that it drove me nuts sometimes, but you valued what I had to say.

You brought me newspaper clipping after newspaper clipping, and magazine articles and church bulletins. You wanted to share all the ideas you got from everything you read and every place you went. I kept it all, while I was there. There was a box under my desk that held all the stuff from Jim. And I dutifully packed most of it and moved it with me 3 years ago. It meant something to you, and I felt it important to honor that, though you probably never knew that. Just recently, as I tried to clean the closet in my office, I came across a bunch of that stuff. Some of it I did finally pitch, but a lot of it is still there.

This week, as I prepared to record a sermon for the church I presently attend but do not work at, I had even said to myself, Jim will be happy he can actually see me preach this week. (When I was getting ready to leave your church, I remember you asked where you would be able to watch or listen to my sermons each week, but that isn't usually possible, in the ministry where I serve now.) I was excited that you could watch, this one time, and I made a mental note to be sure to send you the link. But then I got a phone call Wednesday evening, letting me know you had gone. And I can't stop thinking that I wish you were around to see this service, not because it's anything great, but because I know you would have wanted to.

There's so much more to say. There were days you were the last person I wanted to see and times I tried to avoid you. Your attention was sometimes disconcerting and probably inappropriate. You were protective of me, which was unwarranted and unnecessary. But I know all of this came from a good place and was borne out of a deep regard and love. And I wanted to appreciate it and honor it. I wanted to be the pastor you needed. I wanted to have the healthy boundaries I needed for me and my family, too. It is so damn hard to be a pastor and care for people and care for yourself in the midst of dealing with all the mess of your own life and a whole bunch of other people's, too.

I failed you, Jim, because I am a broken human, after all. But I was trying to do my best. And I haven't been your pastor for almost 3 years, but I hope you knew that didn't mean I stopped caring about you and hoping you were still growing in your relationship with God.

Maybe you did understand. If nothing else, I know the last time we talked, I did tell you I loved you. I meant that. And that's all I know to say now. I love you, Jim. May you rest in peace and rise in glory.

-Betz CE

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