If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, May 14, 2012

In memory of Martin Bal

*This meditaion was presented for my best friend from my pastorate at Houston Mennonite Church (1987-1996) at Pace-Stancil Funeral Home, Coldspring, Texas. I drew the portrait for Martin's wife Joan.

I call you friend

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. John 15:15

I once read a statistic that said 70% of pastors don’t have close friends. How sad! If that were true, I wonder why it would be so. Could it be that many pastors have been taught in seminary that you should not make close friendships in their congregations? There are some good reasons for pastors not becoming too close with members of their congregations. Some would say that a pastor is not supposed to “play favorites” with members, but treat everyone equally. Be friend to all. But, I take Aristotle’s words seriously; “A friend to all is a friend to none.”

Others warn that by making close friendships with members a pastor may have personal information used against them if the friendship sours. The pastor may also need to maintain a “necessary distance” with members for counseling purposes. I myself have struggled to get leaders In the congregation where I am now an interim pastor to understand the difficulty of maintaining friendships with a former pastor who remains in the community because there is often a difficulty in distinguishing between their friendship and the pastor’s role, which get mixed up in the relationship of a former pastor and their congregation.

Well, I guess I threw all that kind of advice out the window like old laundry water when we came to know Martin and Joan. Martin and Joan became our closest of friends when I was pastor of Houston Mennonite Church from 1987 to 1996 and we remained in contact with them after we moved on to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Portland, Oregon. My first encounter with Martin and Joan was during their initial visits to our congregation. They visited our congregation because we had a not-so-early sunrise service at 8 am. You might say we were Latter-in-the-Day Saints. Martin was from a more formal Dutch Reformed church background and Joan was from a spirited charismatic church background. They were looking for a compromise, a church somewhere in the middle between those two divergent traditions. I wasn’t sure if the Mennonite church was going to be middle ground for Martin and Joan. There were things in our church tradition that resonated with Martin, but Joan initially had a rougher time adjusting to this new tradition, which was new to me also. We often talked about their struggles to adjust to a new church tradition that was neither Martin’s nor Joan’s.

But, over some time Martin and Joan did not simply adjust to Houston Mennonite Church, they came to love it and become deeply involved in its spiritual life and its people. And, in spite of what some might advise pastors, my wife Iris and I developed a close relationship with Martin and Joan. We would often do things together. Looking at half-priced books. Visiting in each others homes. Sitting around a dining table. A Saturday or Sunday afternoon might find us with a Goodies mesquite grilled bacon burger with Guacamole (Lord, have mercy!) in hand or eating General Tso’s chicken at Hunan Chef, mmmmmmm, where we were well known. As a matter of fact, it was at the Hunan Chef where I started a practice, which I continue to this day. I call it the Unfortunate Cookie. After eating our meal with Martin and Joan I would spontaneously add in a more twisted phrase to the fortune cookie fortunes, which I found to be way too positive and unrealistic. For example, the fortune might say: “Today is a good day for being with a companion” and I would write in “Your psychiatrist” or “Where there is a will, there is a way/ to get your name on the will” or Just because you put tap shoes on an elephant does not mean it can dance/ Unless he is Harry Elephante. I have hundreds of these! Being around good friends and good food nourishes creativity!

Let me share this with you, Joan. On Tuesday, right before leaving for Texas, I was praying about making it through this service and my meditation on friendship, which I had finished. I asked for a sign that God would be with me, something I don’t often do out of skepticism about signs. I stopped for lunch at a Chinese restaurant. At the end of the meal I cracked open my fortune cookie and read this fortune: “The best mirror is often a good friend.” What more can I add to that?

Many hours were spent with Martin and Joan discussing our children and their struggles and triumphs or delving deeply into some theological subject. These conversations were nourished by attending lectures together presented by the likes of well-known liberal Christian scholars like Jesus Seminar’s Marcus Borg or Bishop John Shelby Spong. And both Iris and I recognized Joan’s gifts and were privileged to be able encourage her to pursue work in spiritual direction. Martin and Joan were more than just servants of the church where I happened to be the pastor. We shared a close relationship. Iris and I have been blessed to have called Martin and Joan friends.

Jesus said to his disciples:

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.

Jesus developed friendships with his followers. Some were closer friendships than others. In the Gospels we note that even among his inner circle of 12 disciples there were a few, like Peter and John, with whom Jesus shared a close, intimate relationship. Jesus seems to have given up on calling his followers “servants.” Their relationship was far more than a business connection, even if it was kingdom business. Jesus had spent lots of time sharing with his disciples his most intimate thoughts, hopes, dreams, wisdom and knowledge of God. “Servants,” even “servants of God” was inadequate to describe their relationship with one another and with God. So, Jesus says that he will no longer call them servants, but friends. For they had become friends with Jesus and with God.

Martin was a friend of God. Sure, he was a husband, a father, a grandfather, great-grandfather, a brother, a fellow worker, a chemist, a thinker, a traveler, and even a conniseur of cheese (Loved Martin and Joans Holland House. Whenever I buy smoked Gouda, I think of Martin). But, above all else, Martin was a friend of God. And friends, that is what matters most in his life and in this life. So, I ask you, “Are you a friend of God?” Not just as some distant name or an old acquaintance from childhood days in Sunday School. Not just as someone with whom you have had a relationship because of family tradition, visits to church at Christmas and Easter or at funerals, like this one. Not even as one with a formal relationship with God as a servant of the church, like being a pastor. But, can you call God your friend? Do you share an intimate relationship with God; dining with God at a table of bread and wine, listening to God’s voice in Word and life, sharing your struggles and your triumphs, laughing and crying over life’s unfortunate cookies? Let me share with you, my friends, from the wisdom of the book of Proverbs:

there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (18:24).

I close with words that speak for my heart today from Dion, an early Rock and Roll singer/songwriter who himself became a friend of God. I only slightly changed one line of Dion’s lyrics.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He’s a friend to God and people
but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he’s gone.

Afscheid mijn vriend.

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