It is not uncommon to get that call on a regular basis. A friend from a previous church calls to let us know that a member has died. Usually, it is someone that was directly connected to our ministry, or maybe a prominent church leader who has suddenly taken ill and passed away. Each call is cause for prayer, remembrance, and sadness. Some seem to hit harder than others.
That was the case a couple of weeks ago when we received word that Betty had died. It was only about 2 months ago that we heard that she had a received a serious diagnosis and had chosen not to take treatments, opting for quality of life, rather than quantity. Her choice did not surprise us. She was a person for whom life was a joy that should be lived to the fullest. The news of her death caused me to stop what I was doing and just reflect for a while.
Betty and Julian (he died a few years ago) were two of the most gracious people I have ever known. They had the gift of hospitality at a level rarely seen. Our introduction to them was on our very first visit to the church to be interviewed. Nancy and I were having dinner with the search committee after which a formal interview was to be held. During dinner, we had the usual “get to know one another” conversations, with us learning about the people and the church and them getting to know more about us. Several times during dinner, the names Betty and Julian came up. Most of the time it was in the telling of a Julian story. He was a prolific practical jokester whose exploits could fill volumes. When it was time for the interview to start, Nancy was to visit with some church members while I stayed for the formal discussion. She asked about the family she would be visiting and discovered it was Betty and Julian. After hearing the Julian stories, she was more than a bit apprehensive about the coming hours. It was an unnecessary worry, because she found them to be just what I described earlier: open, hospitable, caring. A special relationship was birthed.
One of the first things we learned after moving to the area was that Betty and Julian had a beautiful rose garden. And they were generous in sharing blooms with the staff. Every week for the first years there, each staff member had a rose bud pinned on them for worship. Because of the warmer winter weather, there was only a brief break in this tradition for the colder months. This tradition continued until, unfortunately, deer discovered their flower bed. It had survived for years in town, in the middle of their subdivision, but the deer population exploded in the area and few plants were safe. No obstacle seemed to deter the deer, so finally, Betty and Julian let the rose garden go. My initial thought about those roses each week was that I felt pretentious. It just did not fit my personality, but I came to appreciate them and the love they represented.
Throughout our ministry there, we, and the entire staff, were frequent guests for meals with Betty and Julian. The food was always wonderful, the company entertaining, and the fellowship genuine. The thing that impressed me most was the intuition they had about staff. None of the ministerial staff lived near family, and because of ministry responsibilities, we were rarely able to drive to be with our families on special days; Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, and most any other time that staff could not be with family. It was on these occasions that Betty and Julian would welcome us into their home as part of their family, even when their immediate family was in town. If some of our family was able to be with us for a special occasion, they were welcome as well. We would come for a Sunday lunch or an evening meal. Sometimes, Betty and Julian provided all the food, other times, we all brought dishes to share. My favorites were the Easter Sunday meals shared with our extended family of staff and Betty and Julian. Having an extended family for celebrating on those occasions was comforting.
We are fortunate to have served in some wonderful churches and to have made some very good friends. The ones who are most special, however, are the ones who became extended family to us. Word that Betty died hit me hard. First because of the loss of a great friend, but also because of the loss of a spirit of hospitality. People like Betty and Julian are rare. Their gift of hospitality has encouraged and inspired many. I am certainly one of them.
Addendum: In the several days it took to write, and rewrite, this article, we received word that another close friend died. Another special person in our lives. Another person who accepted us as family. Another spirit of hospitality that affected our lives.