Meet Tony. Tony was the previous pastor of Grace Church where I now minister. He faithfully served in the Richmond area for almost 40 years – 18 of those as the chaplain for Nelson’s only hospice, which gave him opportunity to reach into literally thousands of lives in our region. He walked in the steps of John Wesley – the world was his parish. It seemed everyone in town knew Tony, and he knew them.
I was rather hoping that Tony was stick around. I would have loved to have him on our staff. There’s so much he could teach me, about ministering to the sick and dying and caring for the hurting and comforting those who grieve – no matter what religion or belief they held to. I remember talking to him about a very large funeral he took for a family who weren’t religious in any way. “What do you do in situations like that Tony?” I asked him. “You are a light in the darkness,” he said. “You just get up there, open your mouth and God does the rest.” I could really learn from this guy, I thought.
But it wasn’t to be.
Eight years ago his wife Norma began showing signs that something wasn’t quite right. After a number of visits with specialists the diagnosis was clear: she had developed early Alzheimer’s. It was a crushing blow for Tony and his family. But he soldiered bravely on. His sensitive and caring spirit which was a blessing to so many in our community was now lavished wholly and unreservedly on his wife.
As Norma deteriorated it became more and more difficult for Tony to care for her on his own. He needed help. So late last year he made the move to Auckland where he could be closer to family who could help care for her. It was a very difficult decision for him. It meant leaving all that he was familiar with – his ministry, his church family, his colleagues at the Hospice and the many close friends he made over the years.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit Tony and Norma with our elders. It was a precious time – seeing Tony there in the room, loving and caring for his wife, speaking to her gently and calming her whenever she became startled or alarmed (five strange faces in the room probably didn’t help!). She didn’t recognize us, but she recognized him. She knew his voice. She sensed his presence. And it made her smile.
We gathered around Tony and Norma and prayed for them both. We asked the Lord Jesus to strengthen Tony and supply him with the grace he needed for each day. We prayed also for Norma, that the Lord would not prolong her suffering and bring her safely to her heavenly home, where there will be no more pain or tears or debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s. Such is our gospel hope. Thanks to Jesus, all things will be made knew.
As we drove down the road nobody said anything. But we all knew what the other was thinking. We could see how difficult this was to Tony. Life had taken a drastic turn for him. God has taken him from a position of great influence – of being a pastor to hundreds and has said, “Be a pastor to this one woman. Shepherd her, care for her, love her and look after her like I look after you.”
And he has done just that. Faithfully.
What has all this taught me? It has taught me what it means to love someone – unselfishly and unreservedly, without asking anything in return. It has taught me what it means to serve and wash another’s feet, just as Jesus did. It has also taught me that is it is not your public ministry that counts but your private ministry – to those who are closest to you; your wife and your husband and your children and your family.
“No one has greater love than this,” Jesus said, “that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus willingly laid down his life for us, and you Tony have laid your life down for your life for your wife. May God richly reward you, when he receives you into your heavenly home.