This Sunday at eleven o’clock I will step into the First Baptist pulpit as Senior Pastor for the last time. Our family has promised to sing once more and I will preach my farewell message. I have preached about six hundred messages from the First Baptist pulpit. I hope I did some good. I like to think some homes are happier, some marriages are stronger, and some hearts are lighter. I know there are some who understood the Gospel and embraced the faith during our time here. I am sure there has been some eternal fruit, too. Only God knows how much. He has promised to keep a careful record of that. We are not qualified to evaluate that this side of eternity.
I am enthused about our new family ministry at the Riverfront Character Inn but it will be sad to say goodbye to our church and the little town our family has grown to love.
Andy had Mayberry. Jan Karon has Mitford. Philip Gulley has Harmony, Indiana. Garrison Keillor has Lake Wobegon, Minnesota and for a few sweet years we had Fremont to call home. The difference is Fremont is real and Mayberry, Mitford, Harmony and Lake Wobegon are all products of an author’s fancy, composites part memory and part fantasy.
We enjoyed good neighbors around the Pine Street Parsonage where we lived for the last six years. At church a few of the pews were occupied by thorns-in-the-flesh but most of the people were salt-of-the-earth. Our friends far outnumbered or foes and all around town people opened their hearts to our family.
The first Sunday I sat on the platform at First Baptist there were vast empty areas all over the auditorium. As my eyes swept over the empty pews I wondered how we would ever fill them. But God sent people steadily and over the past six years the auditorium gradually filled to capacity every Sunday.
Soon we say good-bye. Saying goodbye is a little like grieving.
Once we had a family beagle tragically die. I picked up the little dog and we all walked slowly in what became a sort of mourner’s procession back to the banks of a little creek where the dog loved to play. We would bury him there near the mint where he loved to romp. The children wept as they walked. They were in full mourning and I wanted to comfort them. It occurred to me to introduce the idea of getting another dog. I chose to wait to give them time to grieve their loss.
I was remembering times we had spent with our little dog when Chuck, who was about six at the time said, “Dad, don’t you think you should take his collar off?”
“Well, in case we get another dog.”
People have been stopping by saying tearful good-byes. But I am convinced those who know how to give their heart to a pastor will do it again. It may take a little time to adjust but if they are wise they won’t throw the collar away just yet. Their next pastor may be the best one they ever had.
We will hold Fremont, Michigan in our hearts forever. Sunday afternoon we will say good-bye and drive away from Fremont. Bending toward the east on 82 I will be thinking about a line by Robert Frost; “Knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I shall ever come back.”
We have promised to return for the Santa Parade and this summer for Holly to crown the 2003 National Baby Food Festival Queen. We are also slated to speak at a Home Educators Convention here in April. And I will still contribute to the local newspaper every week. The locals can fill me in on all the news by sending me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org It is sort of an electronic version of Floyd’s Village Barbershop in Mayberry.