I have been thinking a lot lately about a pastor friend of ours. He died early this year, after a battle with brain cancer.
He worked with my husband as the Executive Pastor of a large church in suburban Twin Cities. He was the pastor who worked most, and appreciated most, the contemporary worship service. Mostly I knew John because I often came to worship on Monday evenings. It was a small, informal service, a great contrast from all of the other services at this church.
Once I suggested that he take prayer concerns on Monday evenings. As long as he had a small service with a very different DNA from all of the others, why not make use of that distinctiveness? Of course, he took my suggestion, and tried it a few times.
After leaving my husband's church, John went on to become the Lead Pastor at one of the largest congregations in the Twin Cities. After that, he became the Senior Pastor at (I believe) the largest Lutheran church in the United States.
John didn't fit my stereotype of what a Senior Pastors of a large congregation looked like. First of all, he was humble. Second, he admitted to being dyslexic. Also, he wore his piety on his sleeve. I don't know why it is that I thought a senior pastor of a large congregation wouldn't have these qualities, but there you go. He was also interested in leadership: both pastoral and lay. He was a leader who invested in empowering other leaders.
A year after he began his last pastorate, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. It was just about the time I was getting ready to leave Minnesota and journey down to Texas. I got on his Caring Bridge site and read about his progress.
I've kept track of people on Caring Bridge before, but John's updates were unlike any others. Updates on his progress were slight. What he shared, day after day, was encouragement. From his hospital bed, from where-ever he was, when he couldn't speak or preach, he shared his faith and encouragement with everyone who read his words. He shared the importance of joy. He shared his conviction that all of our lives make a difference. He shares his love of God, and God's grace.
John did some impressive things in his years in ministry. Because of his passion for the least and the lost, he was instrumental in developing both local and global outreach ministries. He wanted to make the world more like the Kingdom Jesus envisioned. But in the last years of his life, when he couldn't do the impressive things any longer, I saw so clearly the spiritual foundation of his ministry, his call.
It was Grace. He had this profound experience of God's grace, the love of God given freely to him. It broke his heart to know how many people did not believe that God loved them, did not believe they were worthy of God's love. He wanted everyone to experience that.
And he wanted to build bridges, not walls. Underneath all of the ministries and foundations, what he wanted was to reflect the love of God in Christ, and that this love was for ALL people. So he loved people who disagreed with him, and disagreed with him passionately, and he showed that. And he said, you might consider him naive and a Pollyanna, but he had been called the worst of names because he dared to reflect Christ's love, and build bridges.
It is not often that we get to see someone's calling, distilled to its most basic form, and then reflected so clearly. But that is what I give thanks for in the life of my friend John. I give thanks for his clear reflection of the grace of God, which is love.
I give thanks for John. And for the love of Christ, which filled him, and fills him still.
A colleague at his last church said of him, "He taught us how to live, and he taught us how to die."
Whatever else you say, this is what it means to be a leader.
And today, and at such a time as this, when divisions and hatred are so high, somehow, his calling, and his life, give me hope.