Written in 2010
It’s Christmastime again. Last week when I was out to sea on USS New York, my husband Ken (you’d like him) brought down the boxes of decorations from the attic and before I got home, had hung your sleigh bells on the front door. I love how they jingle on our way in or out, and they were especially cheery to hear when I arrived home after ten days away. How is it you have been gone for sixteen years and can still bring joy to others?
I remember when we met. I was standing by the side door greeting parishioners on my first Sunday as pastor of my first church. I felt inadequate and awkward; secretly wishing that the real minister would show up and take charge. You stopped to shake hands with me and asked if you could show me around town the next day. I remember that you told me you had made the same offer to the previous preacher on his first Sunday, too, but he had not taken you up on it. So how could I refuse? You were the patriarch of the congregation–you’d been there longer than anyone else. I didn’t want to turn down your invitation, but I was anxious about it. You were more than fifty years my senior. It seemed silly to imagine I could be your pastor.
The next day you came to pick me up at the parsonage and we headed straight for the cemetery. That this was our first stop surprised me. We drove up the hill near the more recent interments and got out of the car. “Let me tell you about your congregation,” you’d said as you began pointing to various graves. “Let’s start with their parents who are buried here. That will help you understand why they are the way they are,” you said with a grin.
You know, Elmer, the stories you told me that day gave me valuable insight into the dynamics at play in our church. And when later in the day you took me to the other churches and helping agencies in town and introduced me as you pastor, I started to think or at least hope that perhaps I could be. But nothing made me feel as welcome as when we visited your wife Evelyn’s grave and after telling me at length about her, you paused, looked right at me and said, “You know, she’d like you.” It was the best compliment I could imagine.
Although making me welcome was part of your agenda for that day, I know it was not the whole story. You were also getting things settled. At eighty you knew you would not live much longer, and you needed to make plans. So you took me to see the graves of the people you had known and loved throughout your life and then got down to business. “One day you will bring me here and leave me,” you’d said. “And when you do that, I don’t want you to feel bad. I’ve lived a good life and have now outlived most of my closest companions. On the day you bring me here, Pastor, remember that you are really bringing me home.”
So I guess I should not have been surprised when four and a half years later, on my last Sunday as your pastor before I transferred to my next assignment, I got a phone call after lunch. “Elmer was found dead in his recliner” the voice on the other end of the line said.
“But I just saw him a few hours ago,” I remember responding. “He attended the Sunday service and shook hands with me on his way home. How can he be dead?” But you were. After worship you’d gone back to your house, sat down in your favorite chair and gone home to be with Evelyn and all those people to whom you’d introduced me. And the last thing I did before I left that church for good was take you up the hill in Wappingers Rural Cemetery to where the more recent graves were located and leave you, just as you’d said I would. And I didn’t feel bad doing it. It’s not that I didn’t miss you; we all missed you. You were a sweet and caring man. But I didn’t feel bad because I’d been able to do for you exactly what you’d asked me to do — send you home to that place we both know is wonderful.
Now since it is Christmas again, Elmer, I must report to you on how my other assignment is going. You remember, the one about the bells? It was a snowy day when you gave them to me. The church youth group had stopped by your house to sing a few carols, and as you’d done every year, you’d come out on your porch to jingle the bells and join us in singing. They were real sleigh bells, you’d told us. They’d come off a sleigh you’d ridden in as a child, and the sound of them accompanying the carols never ceased to bring a smile to our faces. They were one of your treasures, so I was surprised when, on what turned out to be your last Christmas, you called me back as the teens headed off toward the next house. Placing the bells in my hand, you gave me the assignment: “Make sure you find a way for them to bring someone joy each Christmas,” you’d said.
Well, Elmer, here is this year’s report: Tonight, my husband was invited to play Santa Claus for the children of Sailors who are not yet halfway through a nine month deployment. These Sailors will not be home for Christmas, nor were they there for Thanksgiving. They will miss Easter with their families and even Memorial Day. But tonight, when they heard your sleigh bells, their faces brightened with expectation, for Santa (who is not subject to Navy deployments) was arriving as scheduled, just as you did in heaven.
So thank you, Elmer, not only for helping me to become your pastor, but for your perpetual Christmas gift, which warms our hearts every year — that of finding ways to bring joy to others.
Oh, and my husband Ken, he’d like you, too!
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