When I first moved to Wisconsin, there was a small group of women whom I lovingly called “the peanut gallery.” In their 70s and early 80s at the time, they were the ones who were at every event. They were the widows. Margaret, Dorothy, Jeannette, Trudy, perhaps a couple others whose names escape me. And Arbulah, or Arby for short. They always sat on the right side of the room for Bible class. They were the peanut gallery.
Somehow they respected me as their pastor, even though I was 45–60 years younger than them. When I came to them, I was a young pastor of 29 years old. Despite my youthful enthusiasm (and failures), somehow they listened to me. I honestly don’t understand why. Probably a sign of God’s grace to a new pastor, still wet behind the ears.
Over my dozen years or so at Messiah, I ended up burying most of them. One moved away, and the last one (Arby) just died in Christ this past week. My new friend, Pastor Jim Roemke at Messiah, will do her funeral on Saturday, while I’m teaching a seminar on funerals here in California. How I wish I could be with them.
Each one had their own characteristics that they brought to the gallery. Margaret brought the questions. Dorothy was always proper. Jeannette was, uh, unfiltered. Arby had the grip. There are many stories that could be told, some of them even in public! But each one of them taught me what it means to deliver God’s mercy to His flock.
Slowly but surely they stopped coming to church. Illness and old age got the best of them. Some died from cancer, others really just from getting old. Often there was some kind of dementia, but the stories never stopped. Sometimes they made sense, often they were the same stories, but I listened, and gave them Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
And slowly but surely, they taught me how to be a pastor.
It is very easy for pastors (and others for that matter) to extol their professors and teachers at college and seminary. Usually it is deserved. But there is no replacing the learning that happens from delivering the gifts, day after week after month after year after decade. And God in His mercy brings people into the pastor’s life, sheep who teach him how to be a shepherd.
For me, it was these women, the peanut gallery.
Today I met with a grieving family who had lost their loved one. We were preparing the funeral for a long time veteran, a man who loved his country, his church, his brother, and his girlfriend. He led an unfiltered life, now rests with the saints, and awaits the resurrection of the dead. I learned how to minister to him and to his family from those women, the peanut gallery.
I pray every pastor has a flock like Messiah, who teach him how to be a receiver and giver of care. Today there is a new peanut gallery. Today the names are Esther and Hattie, Ray and George and Kate and many others. My Dorothy now reminds me of my Dorothy from ten years ago. They are all God’s flock, the sheep of His pasture. May they ever be fed by His Body and Blood.
I’ll miss you, Arby. I wish I could be there tomorrow. I will try to sing EXTRA LOUD, though, so you can hear me. And say hi to the gang! I look forward to a joyous reunion in heaven.