When the Pastor Dies

About a week ago the calls and Facebook messages went out: Pastor Andy had died. It was a shock to everyone and yet, it should not have been a surprise. Andy was only 64 but he didn’t watch what he ate, didn’t exercise, and had been dealing with a few health issues for several years. His face often turned beet red during his sermons or when he enthusiastically sang a hymn. He made light of his weight often and admitted frequently that his doctor (and his wife) wanted him to slow down. Yet, he was driven in a way few of us completely understood. I wonder now if he knew he had to make the most of every minute because there weren’t enough minutes left.

I first met Pastor Andy in the mid-1990s. Our church membership had grown and the load was too much for our pastor, so Andy was brought in to help out mostly with the youth. I like my religion on the traditional side and Pastor Andy was anything but ordinary. Life was not black and white to him. It was every color of the rainbow, and he loved it all. He was exuberant no matter the task, always on the go like an Energizer bunny, and always singing, laughing, or telling a joke. Andy was always trying to make a buck, always trying to sell something, always full of more ideas than any of us could keep up with. He thought outside the box many times a day, so it’s not incorrect to say he “flew by the seat of his pants.” And it was all too unconventional for me.

My oldest daughter was around 10 or so when Pastor Andy joined our church. He was too much for her, even though I tried hard not to let my bias show. My second daughter understood Pastor Andy’s humor and she admired his can-do and nonconformist attitude. My other two daughters never really “took” to Andy, but they didn’t dislike him either. Rather, they were indifferent about him. And yet, when I broke the news to my daughters that Pastor Andy had died, each one’s response was the same. “How sad.”

All those years ago, Pastor Andy hadn’t been at the church very long when he did something that stirred my anger. In fact, it was the only time I’ve ever formally complained to the church. It was Easter Sunday and Pastor Andy was giving the sermon. My four young children were listening as Pastor Andy read a children’s book about Easter and when he got to the end of the story he loudly and firmly declared there was no Easter Bunny! I was stunned. I didn’t feel it was his place to break that particular news to my children. I looked around the church to see if other parents were upset, but it didn’t look like it. To this day, I have no idea if I was the only one who complained but I suspect I probably was. It was a moment I never forgot, and it created a wall between Pastor Andy and I. Over the years we grew to respect each other, but there was never a lot of love between us.

As time went on, bits and pieces of Andy’s childhood made their way into his sermons and I came to understand more about the boy who grew to be a man who became a pastor. His childhood wasn’t easy. And he carried an enormous amount of emotional baggage every single day of his life. He spent his lifetime trying to do good, to make everyone around him happy. He always had a smile on the outside, but I suspect many times he was crying on the inside.

On that fateful day last week, Andy was struck down by a massive heart attack. He never regained consciousness, but he lived a couple more days, just long enough for his family to all gather at his side and for the congregation to deal with the shock of his loss.

It is absolutely striking to read the tributes posted to honor him on Facebook. This man, despite his emotional scars and unorthodox ways, touched hundreds, if not thousands, of people. He didn’t just walk in their lives as their pastor, he was involved in their daily struggles, often knocking on the front door unannounced at the moment when these people needed him the most. He brought groceries to young families in need. He gave rides to senior citizens who couldn’t find a way to see the doctor. He helped parents mend relationships with teenagers. He counseled couples struggling with their marriage. He was anywhere and everywhere all at the same time. And all those things he was selling to make a buck, were merely a means to money to give to others or help others in myriad ways.

Despite all the demands on his time, he still made time for his wife and four children and several grandchildren. His devotion to his wife could be the gold standard for all men to follow. His two sons were so influenced by him that they too became ministers. The greatest gift his family gave was in sharing Pastor Andy with the world.

Indeed, Pastor Andy lived life to the fullest. And over the last few days as I’ve read the stories others have shared, I’ve discovered I really didn’t know this man at all. While I preferred traditional religion and planning events ahead of time, Pastor Andy, flying by the seat of his pants, had untold determination and something much more powerful. Faith. He never doubted that God would be there for him, providing whatever was needed in any given moment for any of the countless members of his flock. And he also had not one tiny iota of doubt about whether he would be welcomed in heaven. Andy knew God would be waiting with open arms. And remarkably all members of the congregation, despite the enormous void that has just opened in their lives, are celebrating this man’s passing into eternal life. The only point for discussion they have is what song Pastor Andy was singing as he passed through the pearly gates.

I am blessed for having known Pastor Andy. It is my loss that I didn’t understand him and instead placed a wall between us. Even in death, he is still teaching.

“The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7

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