We attended the retirement party of a good friend, a godly man, last week. It was a crowded affair, some 150 odd people crammed into a small gathering place to recognize and celebrate the thirty-six years of his life that he devoted to the ministry. To be clear: when I say “the ministry”, I don’t mean it in some generic sense, as is often the case when we speak of pastors and missionaries and those who work for charities. No. Here, “the ministry” is a very specific place, an eighty-six acre ranch, home to a residential program for troubled teens and young adults hoping to change their lives for the better. He and his family spent thirty-six faithful years in this place, guiding and leading and helping and hoping and praying, and it (and indeed, the world) are much the better for it.
The party ran a good two and a half hours, and this was before food was brought out, before general conversation really began. From mid-afternoon until early evening we sat (or those of us for whom there were chairs did – some, coming late, stood in the back), and we listened as person after person took the microphone at the front of the room and told us about Mike.
There’s much I could say here about him, about what was said. I could talk about how he stood, after two plus hours of people singing his praise, and directed our attention to Jesus (afterward, Jonathan reflected on how rare it is to find the kind of person who has the humility to respond in such a way after so much honor, and I replied that perhaps it was precisely because Mike was that kind of person that the preceding two hours had happened). I could talk about the vast number of people there, from all age groups and ethnic backgrounds and walks of life, about how they represented a mere fraction of the people who might have come. I could talk about what it takes to show up, day after day, month after month for thirty-six years, about the faith and gentleness and kindness of this man whose nickname (mentioned more than once throughout the day) is “Mr. Mercy-pants”. I could write about each of those things.
But instead, one statement grabbed my attention, stuck out to me among all the wonderful things that were said. It was a simple statement, but one that was really the theme behind nearly everything else. A few words which summarized an entire day, an entire life. A former student held the microphone, looked into his eyes, spoke with emotion in her voice.
“You loved my family well,” she said, “and that forever changed us. We will never be the same.”
And this, this is what brought so many people there to honor him, this is what resulted in so many changed lives, so many rewritten stories: he loved people well. He loves people well. And that, that changes things. It makes all the difference.
He loves people well. I can think of no higher praise. I have a long way to go until I am like Mike (who is high on the list of people I know who are most like Jesus), but this is worthy of my effort and my prayer. May I be someone of whom it is said: she loves people well.
(Of course, he would say that he himself does nothing, that it is Jesus in him loving others, and I don’t dispute this fact. Still, I think “He loves people well” is really shorthand, among Christians, for “He loves God and allows Him to work through him to great effect.”)