Published in The Tidewater News on Tuesday, May 7, 2019 By: Charles Qualls
Normally when I am choosing a necktie on a Saturday, it’s for a happy occasion. You want it to match of course. This time, though, I was also taking into consideration respectfulness and the somber feel of an untimely death. This week we lost our friend, Bill.
Bill and I were within a year of being the same age. He was a fellow pastor and a friend. Once, almost 25 years ago, we were in the same class of the North Carolina Baptist Young Leaders program. It was a whole year of study with likewise younger ministers who had been nominated to learn and train together.
We’d laughed not too long ago that no one seemed to consider us “young” anymore. From 2004 until 2008, we had been in the inaugural cohort of the brand new Doctor of Ministry program at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. Bill was a gifted student. His papers always seemed to set the bar for how the professors graded our group.
We always met up at Baptist gatherings and were sure to visit over the intervening years. Lately, we saw what each other was doing via Facebook.
All the while, we were serving churches in North Carolina, Georgia and lately back up this way with me in Virginia and him down in Durham. Bill and Leigh’s kids were grown up and educated. They were both married and a couple of grandchildren had arrived.
The news that he had a brain tumor had just fluttered across social media a few weeks ago. Bill had undergone a surgery that portended a chance to treat the remaining tumor with various strategies. He and Leigh, supported by their church, appeared ready to battle this. The tumor had other ideas, though, and grew back with a vengeance. He died last week.
So it was that Elizabeth and I took off for Durham. The visitation was on a Saturday before his Sunday memorial service. This was our one chance to do the hard thing and express our heartfelt condolences to his beautiful family. As we drove the 2.5 hours, I thought about my own mortality. You do, I think, when one of your peers dies too early.
Every bit of the training and experience I have says that a pastor is supposed to be a steady and reassuring presence when around a bereaved family. I have done hundreds of funerals during my career. I always go to that emotionally neutral “place” inside me, so I can offer a solid, professional self to a hurting family.
Yet this time, I was there in the role of friend and not pastor. Elizabeth and I were at the very front of a growing line of greeters as the reception opened. Mine was the first chance to offer words of presence, support and love. To lend quick thoughts that impart strength. Instead, I felt a tear roll down my cheek as I simply took Leigh in my arms. As I moved on in front of Matthew and Kaylee, Bill’s now quite grown children, I felt a tear or two roll down the other side as well.
OK, I wasn’t openly weeping. But, I hadn’t fought off the tears either. My friend is gone.
All the faith in the world, and all the hope in a bright eternity, doesn’t blunt the immediacy of loss. The palpable tragedy of 56 being far too young to say goodbye simply hung in the air. The height of sadness was that he was just embracing being a grandfather, and now these kids will mostly have to know of him through the stories they’ll hear.
On the way back, we listened to a station that was doing a countdown of the 100 greatest Beatles songs. I love The Beatles. We stopped off at a BBQ place for a comforting dinner. There are two ways you can eat when you are fighting your emotions. One is to roll the food around with your fork without taking much in. The other is to inhale the whole plate of familiar flavors almost mindlessly. Let’s say that an unfortunate pig was sacrificed for my comfort that day.
Life challenges our strength, and it tests what we believe. Still, I hold strong to the notion that Bill now knows in ways we do not yet. He sees through eyes of clarity, face to face with a Creator who has embraced him. The rest of us will limp on, far the better for having had him all too short a time.
THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church.