Saying Goodbye to Saints

So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.  –Psalm 90:12 (NRSV)

I don’t even remember the greatest moment of my life, but I know it happened. When I was only a few months old, my parents took me to worship at First United Methodist Church of White Pine, TN and handed me to a really tall man in a really dark robe who took me in his arms and poured water on my head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From what observers tell me of the event, I had never seen a man that tall before and as soon as he picked me up I stopped squirming and gazed silently into his face. From then till now, my life has been nothing more than the process of sometimes celebrating, sometimes running from, and always trying to come to grips with the astounding promises and claims of God’s all surpassing love made at my baptism.

A few years ago that same tall man called me on the phone to tell me how glad he was the boy he baptized decades before was going to become one of the pastors at his church. He was the first person to welcome me to the church long before anyone was supposed to know I would be moving there. Even after having been retired for several decades, he still kept his ear close enough to the ground to know most of what was going to happen in the church long before it came to be. In recent years, I would visit him for hours long conversations in which he would tell me everything he saw happening in the church, everything he thought should be done, and then he would always be sure to say how much he admired me and that he had confidence in my opinions about what should be done as well even if they sometimes differed from his ideas.

That tall man as the Rev. Dick Timberlake. His funeral was last Saturday. During and after the service, person after person shared about the difference Dick made in their lives. I marveled at what could be done by someone who day after day for over 70 years of ministry committed himself to intentionally seeking God and seeking to bless and lift up others. Dick counted his days. He did not waste them or take them for granted. His spent his life’s energy and resources gaining a wise heart and passing on the wisdom he acquired. I’m so thankful Dick was my pastor at the most important moment of my life and I’ll be forever humbled to have been one of his pastors during his final years of this life.

This week as Dick acquaints himself with the heavenly city and wanders the golden streets he may bump into a man more than a foot shorter than him. If they stop and talk for a while they will discover they have a mutual friend. Not much was given to John Robinson in this life outside of the faith he acquired growing up in the Methodist Church and the education he received at Hiawassee College, a Methodist school. While John had to work hard for almost everything else, he never took the gifts of education and faith for granted and his gratitude and loyalty to his church and his college only increased as time went by.

A few years back I rode with John as his wife was being airlifted from one hospital to another. As a trained EMT, John knew enough to know the odds were stacked against her. I can still see the anguish on his face and hear the question he asked as we sped down the highway: “What am I going to do?” The answer turned out to be that John was going to bury his wife and then he was going to trust God to give him the strength to do everything humanly possible to provide for and raise his daughter and son.

After preaching the funeral service for John’s wife, Karen, I jumped back into my car and sped down that same highway to preach another funeral service a few hours later: this time for my wife’s grandfather. I’ll never forget standing in the pulpit wondering how I would find the words to comfort my own family and seeing John and his daughter, Kimberly, slip into the crowded sanctuary and settle into a seat on the back row. I could not and still cannot believe they came.

Embracing John following the service, he said to me, “You were there for us, so we are here for you. It’s just what we do.” Often when the demands of caring for others become difficult and fatigue sets in I remember John’s words to me: “It’s just what we do.” And suddenly there’s a little more strength and little more joy within me because I remember what loyalty and compassion look like.

About a month ago, while vacationing nearby, John took the time to visit the church where I now pastor for Sunday worship. He shared with me his need for a heart transplant and his hope that it would arrive in time. When I found out last week that time had run out for John, I couldn’t help smile through the sorrow as I remembered his final words to me: “Hey, do you think there is anything we can do to help out Hiawassee College? I really want to see it get back on track.” Loyal to the end. That was John.

No one helped John in his quest for a new heart more than our mutual friend, Dr. Hughes Melton, who for a time served as the primary care physician for each of us. Last Thursday, I met my father for lunch. The sun was shining, the food was good, the company was better. All seemed right with the world until I received a text during the meal informing me of Hughes’ tragic car accident which would ultimately claim his life and the life of another young innocent driver. Suddenly everything seemed wrong. Like many of you who knew him, I’ve woken up every day since thinking, “Not Hughes. Not now. Not like this. It must have been a dream.” Once the realization sets in that I am fully awake and not dreaming, I recall a Bible verse of which Hughes used to remind me, If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are all of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:19 NRSV). Then I give thanks that God is the God of life, death, and life beyond death and I pray Psalm 90: Teach me to count my days, O Lord, that I may gain a wise heart.

I’m not sure anyone got more out of each day or put more into each day than Hughes. He’s the one who taught me that once the sun comes up most of a man’s time is rightfully claimed by others so you better take care of your body and your spirit before the sky starts glowing. This commitment led us to many runs together through dark streets in the early morning hours.

It’s easy to admire Hughes for his achievements and commitment to self-improvement. He once asked me where I saw myself in ten years. When I didn’t have a good answer, he shared with me that he had a twenty-year plan for himself with major 5 year goals and 1 year benchmarks. I asked him where he found the time to create such a plan. He said he did it at home in his spare time. When he asked me what I did with my spare time, I’m not sure he was real impressed with my answer: “I watch ESPN.” After he stopped laughing, he told me this, “I’ve found you rarely get where you are trying to go, but if you aren’t going somewhere you won’t get anywhere.”

While I will hold on to the many lessons I learned about personal development and faith from my time with Hughes, I will most cherish what I learned about friendship. As I have read tribute after tribute written about Hughes over past week from people of all walks of life from Governors to high school students, I initially wondered if I had any words to contribute which could say anything about him any more eloquently or insightfully than has already been done by so many. So I shied away from writing anything for public consumption until it suddenly struck that it was exactly by adding my voice to the many who have already spoken so well that I could honor the greatest gift I received from him: a vision of what it means to be a close friend.

I haven’t met many people who knew Hughes for any length of time and still considered him an acquaintance. No, when I meet people who have known Hughes for a while they all consider him a close friend. As assiduously as Hughes planned out how to apply his energies within his professional life, I don’t think he spent much time deciding who was worthy of his friendship. I think he generally felt that if God put someone in his life God did so in order to give him the chance to befriend them. The reason so many voices are paying tribute to Hughes is not just that he touched so many lives through his medical practice. It’s because he also touched so many lives through his friendship.

When we would run together on those dark mornings, Hughes always insisted when run at a conversational pace. “It’s a waste to run any faster when you are running with someone else,” he would say. “I need you more than I need to go fast.” Spoken like a man who had counted his days and gained a wise heart.