Occasionally, I get things right! When I learned that my long time friend and colleague, Gerry Robinson, was retiring from Hatcher Memorial Baptist in Richmond, I determined to attend the celebrations in his honor. Today, I experienced a wonderful “final” service, led by Gerry, and then an amazing Concert, lovingly prepared and presented by the church family that called him away from us 8 ½ years ago.
Gerry and I worked together for many years at Starling Avenue Baptist Church, he as Minister of Music (+++) and I as organist. During one of the early choir rehearsals with him, I stumbled over a direction, and remarked, “Give me time…I will learn to read your mind!” I did not fully realize then that as musicians, we would both soon be able to sense much of what the other needed, nor did I know what a special friend he would become.
Over the years, Gerry took special care of his parishioners, including me. He was forever surprising me: he often put my music in order before adult choir rehearsal began. When he learned that my back bothered me by the end of most rehearsals, he ordered a special rehearsal chair to replace the piano bench in the choir room. Soon afterwards, I discovered a back rail had also been added to the organ bench in the sanctuary.
He understood the complexities of the pipe organ and did ever so many things to make that job easier like putting together notebooks for special services with all of the dialogue and music in order. He knew how to fix out-of-tune pipes and ciphers (how many times did we rummage through the pipe chambers just before services began?!…)
There was a surprise birthday party at their home on my fortieth birthday (he turned 42 the same day…!). And, there was a wonderful worship service in my honor as I turned 50…a remarkable, much appreciated affirmation of my life in ministry. He was quicker than most in understanding God‘s claim on me as minister…
Gerry also introduced me to the work of music educator Carl Orff, helping me to attend local workshops and even several national conventions. Neither of us had any idea that God was preparing me for a wonderful position as Music Specialist at Leaksville-Spray Elementary School in Eden, NC.
One of the most significant gifts Gerry has given my family was to travel back to Martinsville on a Sunday afternoon to officiate the wedding of our son, Joel, with Maria. It was an emergency intervention; our pastor lost a family member only two days before the wedding so, at the last minute, we had no one to officiate the wedding. Gerry (who was very instrumental in Joel’s musical upbringing) stepped in for us and did a remarkable job. He knew Joel so well that he was able to step in. speaking directly to our son with specifics that only he could know. We could not have planned anything better!
In 2008, I began working on National Board Certification through the school system. I was already aware that my deteriorating handwriting could become a problem that could influence my testing for the Boards. Little did I realize that was just the tip of the proverbial ice burg! I was also experiencing a growing inability to play a hymn “cleanly”. Such things as trills and scalar runs were becoming increasingly difficult. I could not add appropriate weight to fingers to bring out the melody on piano pieces. My right foot seemed to have a mind of its own as pedaling at both the organ and piano became more and more uncoordinated. In August of that year, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Telling my co-ministers at church was only the beginning of the agony of letting go…
I took the first two months of 2009 off from my church position, in order to finish writing for National Boards. The fall had been a zoo as I adjusted to new meds and regimens; unfortunately, I didn’t even begin to suspect that my beloved friend was about to leave. Sometime during those two months “off,” Gerry came to Eden with the news that he was leaving for a church in Richmond. I honestly thought that my world was falling apart and God was growing silent…
It has been 8 ½ years since that day, and I believe I’ve been angry with God for most of that time! How could He call my friend away when we all needed him so much? Many things have changed in the intervening years. I have lost my ability to play the organ, the piano, to sing, to teach, to handwrite a letter. (If I dwell on what is lost, I find myself looking into a dark abyss…) Suffice it to say, life has gone on, just not quite the way I had imagined.
One of the up sides to this disability/retirement existence is that I have freedom to come and go as never before. Hence, the trip to Richmond in support of this special friend. I went for him today… yet I received a rich blessing in return. The obvious deep love of the Hatcher family for Gerry and Betty has helped me finally understand that God knew exactly what He was doing in sending them to that place. Gerry has been their Minister during some very difficult years for the church family. I honestly believe he may have been the “Glue” that held them together as they struggled with their identity and mission in the 21st century. And, that church family embraced both Gerry and Betty, calling out the very best in them during these 8 ½ years.
The fullness of time – that is most certainly how God works. At times when God seems most silent, God is still at work, still loving us, still carrying us until the time is exactly right and we can hear God’s voice again, until we can see God’s larger plan and how we fit into it.
I’ve been at this “Out of work/Disability/Retirement” thing for nearly three years. I never planned to be here, never thought of myself as disabled. I seem to have floundered my way through these first “empty” years, trying to figure out how to structure wide-open days and weeks with “meaningful” activity. Sometimes, I just feel old and gray and invisible. But I have returned to my home this day with a renewed sense of hope that God is not done with me yet. There is still a future for me, for all of us, even if we have to rest more, or move more slowly. Even if we cannot keep up with the latest technology. Even if we have to give up life long identities and activities. Even through the inevitable changes that are part and parcel of growing older.
Grace, mercy, peace, and rest, Gerry and Betty! Thanks, Hatcher Memorial folks, for loving my friends, for calling out the best in them, for sending them off with style and grace.