As a minister my outreach was two fold; to watch out of the young and to take care of the old. Those in between were busy with their life and I felt they could basically take care of themselves. The young had no option so my teaching and my life would be to watch and protect them. The old were past their time and often frail and brittle, so my feelings were they should come before others.
When I was just a boy, I would be running my engine at full speed around the church house and an old white headed elder would reach out his arm, save me from breaking some old lady’s hip and say, “Whoa Jack, shake hands with me boy.” Then he would cheerfully admonish me, “Slow down son, your feet are going to run out from under you.”
Is that the reason that I always took the time to shake hands with the kids as they came out of the auditorium? “Shake hands with me boy,” I would say, and often to the total surprise of the adults. “Take care of your kids” was my message.
There were times when the young ones would disturb the service and I would see adults shifting in their seat uncomfortably. “We have visitors in our gathering”, they were thinking. I would interrupt their reverie with the simple words, “We love our visitors but they are leaving – our kids are staying.” Things quieted and I continued.
King Solomon writes, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;” (Ecclesiastes 12: 1). In my first few years of ministering I began paying special attention to the elderly. They shared with me their wisdom and experience as did numerous others that I called upon. All I had to do was just say “Hello, sit and listen”. The answer to life’s problems seemed simple to them and gave me more understanding.
When our ministry took us to a small town in Texas, I followed the routine of making a list of the “old folks at home”. I would knock their door at least twice a month. A time to visit, a reading of the scriptures and a prayer and I would be off. Widows were a special group. James says “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
One widow in particular was taken by my visits. She sat at the back of the building and was the first to greet me at the door. She was about the size of my mother and fit squarely on my chest and bear hugged me. At first I just smiled and greeted the others passing by – she held on. It became somewhat of a joke with the congregation for it occurred each Sunday morning. I felt like an Indian with a papoose on the wrong side. This old sister just fell in love with me and made special preparation on the day of my visits. Her lips could not hold up under the weight of the lipstick and would tend to melt and fall into the wrinkles of her lips. She didn’t know and I didn’t care.
One Sunday things just didn’t go right. When all the audience had gone and we were left just standing still hugging, she looked at me with a love in her old eyes that I can never forget. She wanted me to bend over and kiss her cheek just one time. She reached up and grabbed me by my jaws and began tugging at me. She wasn’t rude but I was. I pushed her aside, not with any force, then turned and moved quickly toward the rear door of the church building. As I walked I looked back and saw the hurt in those eyes I left behind. I could have gone back, right then – but I didn’t.
Her face still haunts me to this day. I didn’t have time to apologize or help wipe away the rejection of just a simple hug and kiss.
Her name was Lillie and she died that night alone. The relatives ask me to lead the service and give the eulogy. Before the funeral, I asked the director if I could have a brief moment alone with Lillie? When the audience had passed by and the auditorium was emptied, I closed the double doors and moved to the open casket with tears streaming down my cheeks. I touched her hand. Her eyes were closed. I opened my mouth and said “Lillie, you can’t hear me now but I want to say something to you. For the rest of my life I will never hesitate to hug or kiss the cheek of anyone who needs and desires it. This is the promise I make and a vow I will keep all my days.”
Maybe that’s why when we taught Bible classes for two hours on each Monday night at the local prison, Ann and I would stand at the door and hug each member of the class.
It was just a salute to Lillie and the keeping of a promise.