Just as a point of introduction…
In the course of our lives, especially among followers of Christ, I believe God places certain ones around us who pour into our lives, who teach us by example, who build a platform of success under us. These people usually do so without any recognition or thanks (often because in our immaturity, we don’t realize what an effect they had on us until after their season with us is over). They are usually older and wiser, and give to us selflessly, sometimes at great personal expense, because they love us and see the value and potential in our lives. I am referring to these people as “lifetime heroes”, and I believe God gives us these people as an extension of His love and care for us. Their contribution to our lives can usually never be repaid, nor is it supposed to be. What we do instead is try and “pay it forward” as we get older, to pour into the next generation the same way these precious people poured into us. Recently I’ve been thinking about some of my own “lifetime heroes”, and so once in awhile I’d like to share their stories with you and how they affected my life.
Pastor Hugh was a sweet older man who had been my wife’s pastor during her high school years in Cincinnati. His church was one of the larger Assembly of God churches in town, had a campus of several buildings (including a Christian school where my wife had attended). He’d been through a lot already by the time I met him; he’d been involved in a successful campaign against strip joints in town, survived a scandal with one of his staff members that seriously hurt church attendance, and survived a heart attack shortly afterward. He talked too often about money from the pulpit.
He was also one of the kindest, gentlest people I’d ever known.
Our young family had already been living in Cincinnati for nearly three years when we came to Pastor Hugh–I for the first time, The Wild One for the second time. We’d been through a rough patch ourselves–a young married couple in our early 20s with an infant, tough financial times, some burnout issues with our previous church and a church plant, and some very rocky moments in our marriage. After a few months of detox, not attending regularly anywhere…we came (back) to Pastor Hugh’s church, not because it was moving and shaking, but because it was mature and stable…a safe place to heal, which we desperately needed.
Pastor Hugh remembered my wife, and welcomed me gladly. We sat in his office and told a bit of our story. I remember actually appreciating that he was not desperate to get me involved in the music program, although I offered. (My musical talents were usually my ticket to the “inner circle” in churches, because they always needed players. My last church had even paid me to play.) The youth pastor needed some help, so he invited me to volunteer on the youth worship band assisting the youth pastor–and that was quite enough for me. He was warm and gracious, but not hungry to bring us aboard. I remembered feeling valued as a person after that meeting, not coveted as a pew-warmer. That was important to me.
A few months passed, and because he knew we needed the money, Pastor Hugh offered me some work doing odd jobs around the church on days off from my regular job. I mowed acres of lawn. I played janitor in the youth building. I spent a couple of weekends cleaning out a storage area of stuff that had accumulated over probably 20 years. And when I got done, Pastor Hugh would pay me cash for the hours I worked, often out of his own wallet. I think maybe he figured it would only last a few weeks, but I kept coming and asking if he had anything for me to do. So when there wasn’t anything to do at the church…he’d have me come mow the yard at his home.
One day he told me to come to another house, his previous residence which I think he was fixing up to sell or something. When I got there, I found a bucket of white paint and a brush. Pastor Hugh asked me if I had any experience painting walls–he wanted the garage painted. I told him I had some experience–but left out the part where I didn’t have good experience. (Paint and I have never gotten along; still don’t.)
It was a job; I needed money. So I got started.
An hour or so into it, Pastor Hugh came out into the garage to check my gloppy, drippy-spot-here, missed-a-spot-there work. (Deep inside, I knew my work sucked; I just hoped he wouldn’t notice.)
Apparently, he did notice. But never once did he complain about it. All he did was take a fresh brush, dip it into the paint, and show me how to paint the walls more evenly.
Then he stayed in the garage and painted with me until we were through. And still paid me full price for the hours I worked.
I don’t really remember what he taught me about painting the walls. You still don’t want me to paint your house. What I do remember is that Pastor Hugh didn’t really need me to mow the grass, and he didn’t really need me to help with the youth band. And he could have painted his own garage for free, and done a better job of it. (And probably he re-did it after I left.) But he made room for me in his church, and let me keep my dignity by earning my pay instead of just handing over some cash. He had no illusions about my brokenness, but neither was he put off by it. It would have been a lot more convenient for him to keep me warming the pew until I “got healed”, but he willingly and patiently chose the inconvenient road. It sent a clear message to me for future ministry that people are more important than the jobs they do. It was a lesson I forgot in my early years of full-time ministry, but one that I eventually remembered, thanks to him.
We were only there a year before it was time to move on. And Pastor Hugh and I never had any deep, serious discussions, or counseling sessions. But his simple, quiet acts of kindness and grace have stayed with me all my life. More fathering took place painting those walls than any lecture he could have given me. I think what I needed most at that point of my life was to spend time being quietly accepted in the presence of a calm and wise man–a father in the faith. And that’s exactly what being around Pastor Hugh gave me–the affirming sense that although I still had a lot of growing to do…I was okay. I don’t think Pastor Hugh will ever know in this lifetime how deeply he impacted me.