The largest demographic in the final church I served was retirees. One of the delightful couples in the church, Bob and Marge, were relatively new to the Christian Reformed Church. They had lived their entire married life in Queens NY, eventually retiring in the St. Pete Florida area. As I came to know them it became very obvious that their lives revolved around their family and their faith.
They were members of a thriving RCA congregation in Queens. As I got to know them I quickly sensed they had been as invested in their church as they were with their family—Church Council, Sunday School, youth group, church rec league teams. Tragedy struck when they lost their daughter Cathy to leukemia at the age of 8. They and their three sons soldiered on, never denying their loss, but resolving that the loss of Cathy was not going to destroy them. Instead, in the grace of God, it drew them closer to one another.
As providence would have it, when they retired to Florida they were looking for a new church home and met a member of the church I would eventually pastor. They came, liked it, and joined about five years before our arrival there. And the church quickly came to love them. They were a study in contrasts. Marge brought elegance into everything she did. Bob brought enthusiasm into whatever he did. Marge was linear, logical. Bob was intuitive, highly relational. Both were people of warmth, kindness, and faith.
Three years prior to our arrival Bob became seriously ill with cancer. Nothing seemed to be effective against his cancer; with nothing to lose he opted for an experimental therapy, which was successful. His cancer remained in remission for the next six years. But three years into my pastorate there it returned. In the ensuing months, as I would call on Bob and Marge I could see the inevitable signs of decline as the cancer did its deadly work.
In those remaining months Bob and Marge expressed the hope that Bob could die at home, under hospice care. However, that was not meant to be. I could see that his needs would exceed what hospice could do in their home and he would need to be admitted to our local hospice center soon. We agreed I would keep calling on them at their home as long as possible and then minister to them at the hospice center until Bob’s passing.
The inevitable day arrived for that final visit at their home, which was very real in its content. No pious platitudes, no trite phrases, but deep and genuine faith expressed by them both. I could sense that Bob was tiring and I suggested we share a final prayer together, knowing I would be seeing them again at the hospice center soon. They agreed but Bob said he was tired and wanted to go to their bedroom. Marge wheeled him to their room, Bob sat on the edge of the bed and Marge and I were standing on either side of him.
He said, “Let’s join hands and then we can pray.” Knowing this would be the last time I would be praying with them in their home, I had asked God to give me the words to pray as I pulled up to their home. It never happened. Instead Bob started to pray. He thanked God for the ministry of my predecessor, Larry Howerzyl, who had been so faithful in calling on them when Bob first contracted cancer. And then he poured out a prayer of thanks and blessing upon me, and upon our church, and all that we had come to mean to the two of them—of how we all had stood by them with words of comfort, and faith, and hope. He thanked God for his rich life with Marge, his love for their sons, his excitement about seeing Cathy again, and above all, meeting Jesus. I didn’t need to say a thing. God had already said it, through Bob.
I pulled away from their home with tears in my eyes, as I have right now as I recall that moment. I thanked God for them, of all that they had come to mean to us, of how ministry gets done not by us but by God when we wait and allow ourselves to get out of the way. We are only vessels. God brings the treasure. The spotlight is on him, not us.