Friend December 15, 2007

He could tell that I was green, green, green, and profoundly unsure of what I was doing that day, the Wednesday of my first week ever as a pastor.

I could tell he was wondering what parallel universe he had entered to find himself sitting across the table from his new pastor-a woman fully 50 years younger than he was.

He was guarded. And dubious. It was clear that anything approximating friendly interaction with the pastor was an unfamiliar state of affairs for him. He wanted to know what my agenda was for meeting with him.

I was scared and lonely. This job I’d longed for for so long seemed so much bigger than I could get myfriend mind around. And while I liked all the people I’d met so far, they didn’t feel like “church” to me at all-I missed my congregation in New Orleans.

And thus it began: my first ever meeting as pastor with Calvary’s Chair of Deacons. Cutting to the chase, he asked me why I wanted to meet with him and what it was I wanted from him. I looked across the little table at somebody who reminded me so much of my grandpa, but the two feet between us seemed like a yawning chasm we’d never be able to cross. I could feel the tears in my eyes and my throat began to close up as I choked out what it was I most desperately wanted in that moment: “You know, right now I could really use a friend.”

The moment hung there, suspended. Then his face softened. His eyes filled with tears that began to leak down his face. He reached across the table and grabbed my hands. He said: “I’ll be your friend. I’ll be your friend.”

That was almost five years ago and life has changed for everybody. I’m a slightly paler shade of green, with a little more experience under my belt. He’s approaching 90 and can’t make it down to church anymore. Yesterday I got the news that he was in the hospital again . . . another in a long series on increasingly debilitating medical challenges. So I went to see him. I came into his hospital room and sat down across the little rolling hospital table between us.

He could tell I was stopping by on my day off and he managed a comment about knowing you’re really sick when the pastor shows up on her day off.

I could tell he felt terrible . . . he was pale and shaky, dressed in a flimsy hospital gown and taped up with all kinds of tubes.

He tried. He tried to be his normal, jovial self, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t even manage a full sentence without breaking into tears. His shoulders shook and he fumbled for tissue. Finally he said, “Looks like you’d better do the talking this time.”

I didn’t know what to do. Usually I can’t get in a word edgewise with him . . . I wondered what parallel universe I had entered to find myself sitting across the table from someone I had known as so vital and opinionated, now weak and scared.

“What do you need?,” I asked him, feeling desperate to provide some comfort. But he just looked at me and shook his head, tears keeping the words in.

A memory surfaced: the memory of sitting across the table from this same person five years ago. I had the sudden memory of how wide and impassable the distance between us seemed then.  The distance felt just as overwhelming as I looked across the hospital table.  

But then I suddenly remembered: why, he’s the very one who taught me how to bridge a yawning distance like that!

I reached out across the table and took his hands.  I managed to choke out, “I guess now I get a chance to be your friend.”

A twinkle of recognition flashed in his eyes and we sat there together, our tears pooling on the table, filling the distance between us one more time.

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