As Christmas Day, a time of giving, approaches, my family faces one of the greatest losses we’ll ever know. Our beloved senior pastor, Mike Reed, died one week ago.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised; after all, he’s suffered severe health conditions for the majority of his life, and these last few several months he’d grown especially ill. In fact, he’d never been out of commission as long as he had the last 6 months he’d been taking to recuperate. We’d had guest speakers and assistant pastors teach for a few months, and then, to our delight, Pastor Mike gladly rallied the strength to preach two sermons. Then, the board of elders had decided to grant him another reprieve for a few weeks, just until December. He was so looking forward to giving the Christmas message. He felt tired, the board had explained, but was simply resting and happily preparing to give the Christmas sermons.
Thus, when a dear friend texted me the news, I felt incredulous at first. Surely it was a different Mike Reed. But no. My friend told me the news was on Facebook, and so, with pounding heart, I went to check the website myself. It was true. The post began, “It is with heavy hearts that we share with you that our senior pastor, Mike Reed, has gone home to be with Jesus. He finished well!” and afterwards came the Scripture passage that says we do not mourn as those who have no hope. Yet in that moment, I confess my heart could take no comfort even in God’s word, so smothered, stunned with grief as I was. No prayers sprang to my lips; I could only trust that God would understand the throbbing in my soul, though no words of mine could describe it. All I could do was weep. For I knew that although I would always respect Pastor Mike as my senior pastor and as I ought to respect a Godly adult, in many ways, I saw Pastor Mike more as one of my best friends than as just the pastor.
In melodramatic books, the heroine always cries for days and days without ceasing, but in the real world, grief doesn’t work that way. I’m no heroine, and as time tarries for no one, I found a strength born of desperation enabled me to press on with my classes and with chores. Outwardly I could smile, even joke around, but inside, my very soul felt numb—insensate save for a strong, searing pain deep within.
I know that until I at last join my beloved pastor in our home country, the steady throb of longing will ever remain in my heart. I can’t believe he’s gone. It all seems so surreal. Sometimes I still check the Facebook page, again and again and again, hoping that perhaps I had just imagined everything, that there was some mistake, that this is just a nightmare from which I’ll awaken, and then I remember it’s true: Pastor Mike is gone. I almost wish I could turn back the pages of this chapter in my life, to change the ending and save Pastor Mike. We attended church last week, and somehow, I just kept hoping, kept wishing that he was still here. Maybe I’d see him sitting in his usual place, to the far right of the stage, about two or three rows back from the front, one arm around his wife as he leaned forward to talk with one of the elders. Or maybe he’d be standing near the sound booth, cracking jokes and making sure the media team had his slides ready—it was always a pet peeve of his when the media crew missed his cue for showing a particular slide. My whole family was heartbroken by the news of his passing as well, as is our entire church family, and it pained me to see everyone hurting, to see them so somber at church. All I wanted was for it all to have been a big mistake, for Pastor Mike to come striding in and say, “Hi guys! Hey, why so sad? Don’t cry; I’m okay!” And then he’d give us a big hug and say something funny so we’d laugh instead, and everything would be like it used to be.
But that’s my own grief and self-centeredness speaking. It’s true I’d give anything to have been able to say goodbye to Pastor Mike, to tell him how much he meant to me and what a great pastor and a wonderful friend he’d been, but I would not bring him back, even if I could. I wouldn’t behave so selfishly, since I know in my heart of hearts that Pastor Mike is where he’s truly always yearned to be. He did, indeed, finish well, and having run the race with endurance, he’s now enjoying the culmination of his reward.
It’s not Biblical or right to pray for the dead, at least, to pray that their eternal welfares and destinies change. Those who have failed to accept Christ will tragically but justly suffer eternal punishment, and no prayer can change that. Those who trusted Him are already enjoying the best life possible. No prayer we could say for them would ever alter that, and no deceased person can answer pleas to them or grant favors. That power belongs to God alone. I have, however, corny as it may seem, found comfort in asking God to speak to Pastor Mike for me. Usually my prayers run along the lines of, “Please tell Pastor Mike we miss him very much,” or, “Tell him we played all his favorite songs in church.” Really, those prayers help assuage the grief I feel, rather than bring Pastor Mike any real benefit. Are they truly that unusual though? Pastor Mike has, after all, travelled to the homeland of all Christians, and although he’s arrived before I have, one day I will join him. In the meantime, it seems only natural I talk to the One Person who is constantly with both of us. Right now, the Lord is the only link between us. It was Pastor Mike who held the rank of senior pastor at our Calvary Chapel, and yet it was and still is the Lord who holds preeminence as the head of the church. My confidence rests in Christ.
My heart is sad, very sad, and yet my joy in the Lord remains unquenched. Although I know the correct platitudes to say, the right Bible verses to recite for a time of grief, nonetheless, I fear I have no words of wisdom to utter. I can only cling now to the Lord, trusting He’ll understand my heart’s deepest cry and knowing that He’ll care for Pastor Mike. At times I wonder, “Did you know you were dying, Pastor Mike? What was it like? I know you once told us you felt you weren’t suffering well, weren’t a picture of how a Godly person should face trials, and while I know everyone has their times of weakness, I want you to know how inspired I am by your example. Did you know that you finished well? Did I ever tell you how much you meant to my family? To me?” It’s funny how you remember random facts about someone, after he’s gone. Like how Pastor Mike hated raisins in his oatmeal cookies, how only the original Star Wars trilogy was worth his time, how he hated Fantasyland at Disneyland but loved Soaring Over the World in California Adventure Park. My sorrow comes welling up and a throbbing pang goes through my chest. “Why now,” I ask the Lord. “He was only 53. Why now? I so wanted him to do the ceremony at my wedding.” Then, despite the deafening noise of grief, I suddenly imagine Pastor Mike in Heaven. He’s not in pain anymore, his glorified body is healthy and muscular—he loved to joke that he had a six-pack—and he even has all his teeth. Funny that I should think of that. I envision him roaming the golden streets, high-fiving and hugging and chatting with all his friends, just like he would before service at church, or I envision him talking for hours upon hours (though God’s kingdom is timeless) with great heroes of the faith: Daniel, Caleb, Joshua, Rahab, the apostle Paul. I bet he’s learning so much. I wonder if they celebrate Christmas in Heaven. I’m sure they do, and maybe Pastor Mike will preach the Christmas sermon, just as he’d wanted to do here on earth. Finally, I imagine him in the one place I know he loves most: kneeling at the feet of Jesus. Through my tears, I can’t help but smile at the thought.
As the holiday season approaches, I miss Pastor Mike even more. He truly was a great man, a faithful pastor, and a precious friend. The pain I feel, however, does not dampen my excitement for the coming celebration of Christmas. If anything, it increases my gladness. Because the everlasting God stepped into time, because the King of Kings became a vulnerable, tiny baby, I have hope. As the apostle Paul once said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.” His sacrifice brings me new hope. One day, I know, I will see Pastor Mike again, and we’ll have all eternity to spend with our beloved Savior.
The ancient Jews, when they bid one another goodbye, would say, “Next time in Jerusalem,” in acknowledgement of the expectation they’d one day return to the Promised Land. We who are Christians, on the other hand, can say, “Next time in the New Jerusalem,” as we anticipate the Lord returning. And thus I say, “Next time in the New Jerusalem, Pastor Mike. Until we meet again, farewell.”