A Fictional Story
by Robert L. Cheek Jr.
What a life he has lived for the Lord. Not many could claim to have preached the Gospel for seventy-eight years. He was certainly the greatest living preacher I knew. My Daddy and Momma have always sat under his preaching. Grandpa married Grandma sixty years ago and the preacher was there to pronounce them husband and wife. Naturally, I grew up under his ministry as well and loved to listen as Grandpa spoke of the old days when the power of God would rest upon him as he preached from the oak pulpit in the old building. I never attended a service there. The new building was erected two years before I was born. That was thirty-two years ago.
I often wonder how his voice sounded from the iron-railed platform in the one-room building that now sits empty at the other end of the lane. Some say he could preach so fervently that he could make the congregation forget about the unpadded pews and the fumes from the oil lamps that hung near the windows.
Once, one of them fell from a gust of wind that had removed it from its bracket. The sound of the glass breaking could scarcely be heard over the preacher’s voice. As the story goes, it laid there burning for a moment until grandma Bassett’s dress caught some of the flames. One of the deacons doused it with a hat full of water from the oak barrel sitting at arms length just outside the window. None of the commotion slowed the preacher though. Instead, he called attention to the flames that can never be quenched. As he lingered on the subject, he seemed to be looking at grandma Bassett, but a few moments later there was no confusing the one he was gazing upon. A visitor sitting behind her had just lost his hat to a quick-thinking deacon but he wasn’t about to lose his soul. He came running to the altar and cried out to God for eternal mercy. As the man wept sore in front of the pulpit, the preacher thanked the Lord for the gust of wind He had sent for just that purpose. When the convert rose from the altar, the preacher handed him his own cherished derby and a King James Bible he had kept under the pulpit. A kind grin from the preacher sent the man back to his seat for the rest of the sermon. That’s how uncle Hermon got saved.
My cousin Weldon never appreciated the preacher’s visits to the farm. Once he yelled to the preacher that he would never get saved. The preacher replied, “At least you realize you are lost. That’s more than some will admit. Since you know you are lost, I’m sure you won’t mind if I keep praying for your soul. God just might be merciful and give you another day to consider eternity.” The statement left cousin Weldon in a troubled condition. It wasn’t much longer before he yielded to Holy Ghost conviction and trusted the merits of Christ. I am certain grandma Bassett is thankful he did! No one else could have doused the flames as quickly as cousin Weldon did.
Now you might be wondering how many of my family members attend the church. Actually, our family is one of the smaller clans. The Hayfords occupy the greatest number of pews. God only knows what stories could be told about that family! In the early years of the church, those Hayfords gave the preacher a fit. Once, their patriarch Jeremiah Hayford actually tried to run the preacher off the road because he had just spotted him heading towards the Hayford farm. Racing past and ahead of the preacher, he arrived just in time to let his hunting dogs loose. When the preacher arrived and stepped out of his truck, two of the dogs ran up and began a tug-o-war match with a pair of trousers the preacher was holding. When the dogs finally ripped them from the preachers hand, Jeremiah started laughing. The preacher grinned and said, “Jeremiah, I didn’t know you had that much money that you would let the dogs ruin a perfectly good pair of trousers.” Jeremiah replied, “Whutch you mean, preacher? I ainna gonna pay nuttin for your trousers. This here is my land and I don’t member sending you no invitation to visit.”
“No Jeremiah, you didn’t. But I met your wife Betsy down at the market just now and she begged me to deliver them new trousers you ordered from the Sears catalog last week so I could have another opportunity to ask you to come to church with her.”
I heard tell he got so mad at them dogs for chewing up those trousers that he split the pair he was wearing trying to catch them. Looking up at the preacher from the mud hole he fell into, he said, “You still here preacher? Why don’tcha go bother someone else fore I change my mind ’bout Betsy going off to that there church o’yorn?”
“You know Jeremiah, one day the Lord is going to split more than your trousers. If you can’t afford to replace those, what will you do when that day comes?”
He sat in the mud as though he was actually pondering the question. The preacher then placed some dollar bills on the porch railing and told Jeremiah to order two more pair of trousers. He then stepped back into his old Ford and waved out the window as he drove off. The scene so moved Jeremiah that he eventually came to church in a pair of those new trousers. He was the first male Hayford to step into the building. He won most of his family to Christ before the preacher put him under. That’s where I heard the story.
These are just a few of the many experiences I’ve been told about the preacher’s ministry in these mountains over the last 65 years. But now, he lays helpless in a bed at the county hospital, suffering from a fall he took while helping the men in the church build the addition. Even at 95, he can still swing a hammer. We have over 300 in the church now and he has watched every one come to Christ and join the church. Ours is easily the largest independent Baptist church in the county, but we have never moved from fundamental preaching and fervent beliefs in the old time religion that the preacher grew up under.
I was working to prepare next Sunday’s message when the family called me from the hospital. They said it was serious. I am his assistant pastor. Two days ago, before his fall from the rafters of the addition, he called me and asked me to prepare to preach the Sunday morning service. It was a strange request. He doesn’t usually let anyone preach the Sunday morning service and he didn’t sound like he was sick. What made it more strange is the fact that he rarely ever preaches elsewhere. He has always held the conviction that a preacher should shepherd his own flock instead of running all over the country preaching to others. I wondered then where he might be, come Sunday.
Pulling into the hospital parking lot, I noticed several familiar vehicles. Brother Smith left his lights on so I quickly turned them off for him and proceeded into the emergency room entrance. There I was met by a couple of the deacons who pointed me down the hall to room 150. I thought to myself that it would have to be the last room at the end of the hall! That only increased my anxiety as I wondered what I would see when I finally reached the room. Would he be unconscious? I shuttered to think worse. I quickened my step without losing my dignity as I approached the door where a few of the preacher’s children were standing.
“How is he doing?” I asked his older son Bill. “Not too well preacher, but at least he is awake.” The preacher’s son was more than twice my age, but he always had respect for preachers. He never felt called to preach himself so there was no jealousy in his heart when his daddy ordained me a few years ago.
Placing his hand on my shoulder, Bill motioned me towards the bed. My first thought was on the number of machines in the room and the tubes that disappeared behind the side rail. I never did like those rails. They make them so high you can’t see the person right away. I walked methodically towards the bed and nodded to the other family members that smiled at me as if they were thankful I came.
Turning my eyes towards the bed, the preacher came into view. He looked very pale and his eyes were open and fixed upward. As I came close he turned his head to look at me and then gave his all-familiar smile. I was glad that the family was behind me. I felt the corners of my eyes begin to burn and I knew at any moment I might release some tears at the sight of him lying there. I almost could not speak but I managed to ask, “How are you feeling preacher?” “I’m probably feeling better than you are,” he said, which caused me to exhale and smile unexpectedly. I was actually glad he still had a bit of his humor. It helped me cope with the situation. I loved him like a father.
I placed my hand over the railing to meet his. As we exchanged a slow handshake, I glanced him over to get a quick assessment of his condition without trying to look too curious. He had a large bruise on the right side of his head that was partially patched with gauze and tape. His left arm was wrapped as well, but I could not tell how it was injured. It laid as if limp by his side. These were the only two obvious injuries to me. I started to withdraw my hand when I felt his grip tighten. This drew my attention back to his face where I watched his smile fade into an earnest stare. He then began speak those words to me that I will never forget.
“On Sunday you will preach your first message as the pastor of our church. I have left you a letter in my study that I want you to read after I’m gone.”
The seriousness of his voice and his earnest stare brought an uneasy feeling to my heart. I didn’t feel ready for the pastorate and I certainly felt incapable of filling his shoes. He continued, “I know you don’t feel capable of filling my shoes. Don’t worry about that. God does not expect you to be me, He wants you to be yourself. I have watched you and prayed that God would prepare you for this day. Had I known this day would come so quickly, I would not have been so lenient with you.” I could not help but breathe out a small chuckle, but that was immediately followed by the stinging in my eyes which choked me short of a laugh. “You have a tender heart Timothy. Do not be afraid to let the Lord use that tenderness in the pulpit to soften hearts in the pew.”
Just then his hand relaxed and withdrew under the sheet. He looked up at the ceiling a moment and then back to me. “The ministry is sometimes a very lonely thing. There will be times when you think that no one cares. They care, they just don’t know the burdens. Remember that the Lord has made you a shepherd. The shepherd must lean upon Christ, not the sheep. Take your cares to Him and be there for the cares of others. Do not be angry when those you preach to seem unconcerned or not to be listening. Even Paul preached them to sleep every once in a while.”
I nodded but could not speak. He continued, “Always preach the Book! Let God’s Word always be the Final Authority.” I knew he was going to say that. He always said that the Bible was the Final Authority and not the preacher. “The most important thing,” he added, “is to show the folks that you care about them. If they know you care, they will listen to just about anything you have to say. Remember that.” Again I nodded and by this time a knot began to form in my throat. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening.
“You know that I have done things a little different than other preachers, but not without reason. When you bow with one of the men and ask them to pray over the offering, do as I have done and put your arm around him. Tighten your grip on his shoulder every once in a while to let him know that you care and appreciate him. People need more of that today. Churches need ministers more than they need preachers.”
His eyes again turned upward but began to squint. His finger then peeked out of the sheet and pointed to the glass of water that was setting on the tray next to me. I carefully handed it to him and he sipped a little. With an appreciative nod he gave me the cup and I returned it to the tray.
“Do you know why our church has been so successful, Timothy?” I thought the question was almost ridiculous. God’s hand had always rested on the preacher. He was the greatest…
My thoughts were interrupted by his next statement. “You think I’m the reason, but that’s not it. God will use any preacher that will be humble, obedient and faithful. Be those things and you will do much more than I have done.”
He paused and stared at the ceiling for a long moment. Turning his eyes back to me, he gave me that smile again and taking my cold hand from the railing he said, “Well, can I count on you to pick up the mantle?” It took a moment but I managed to squeeze out the words, “You sure can, preacher. I’ll do my best” as a tear finally tumbled down my cheek from where it had been perched in the corner of my eye.
He released my hand and turned his eyes upward again. Closing them slowly, and with a different sort of smile he said, “Then pick it up Timothy. I see Jesus standing yonder and He’s calling me to the place where never a tear shall fall.” With his last breath I heard him say, “Oh, my! What a Friend is He!”
He was gone. I wiped the tear from my cheek and stared down at the body of the greatest preacher I had ever known. As I stood in a gaze, my mind raced to rehearse all he had told me. I then felt a hand rest on my shoulder. It was his son Bill. He tightened his grip on my shoulder and whispered, “It’s going to be alright, preacher. He chose the right man. Pick up the mantle and smite the waters for Jesus and for daddy.” “I’ll do my best,” was all I could say.
Robert L. Cheek Jr.
October 8, 2004