Moreover it is required of servants that they be found faithful. (1 Corinthians 4:2)
“The days of our lives are threescore years and ten, and if they be fourscore, yet there is strength, labor, and sorrow.” These words, attributed to the great Hebrew leader, Moses, have been familiar to me since childhood. I never expected to experience the seventy, let alone the eighty, but it has come to pass. And, in my own fifty years of ministry, I have always had a special place in my heart for the aged.
I have noticed the various attitudes of people as their years advanced. Some became sweeter, milder in their ways and their treatment of others, no matter how old they were. Others, sadly, chose the bitter road to round out their years, complaining and showing a lack of appreciation for the gift of life itself.
I also observed something about commitment and perseverance, especially when family was involved. Naturally, I conducted many funerals for the elderly. Looking back over my record of memorial services which I have officiated, I noted that there was a strong will to live that seemed to keep many alive up to and through the warm, joyous Christmas season. After having been with loved ones during that season, they seemed more willing to pass on in early January. That kind of ending was not always the case, which bring to mind Arnold and Ethel Tucker.
I remember how warmly Arnold had clutched my hand exiting the church that first Sunday, assuring me that my sermon was “right on” and that he knew he would be blessed through my ministry. Ethel sort of smiled at me—I think—but hardly made an impression. . .and most likely was not impressed at all.
I can’t recall how soon after we were settled in that the first call came. One of them, it doesn’t really matter which one, made the call to inform me they had a problem in communication. It went something like this: “Will you please tell my husband to stop pestering me?” They rarely used the name of their spouse. The next call would be, “Can you come over here and tell her to fix up this place and not be so messy?” There were days when it would be a series of six or eight calls requesting my assistance on one domestic matter or another. It was chronic!
It may also sound ludicrous to state that within three or four months, during one of our deacons’ meetings, I asked for help by announcing my plight in this manner. “We all know that the three grown children are too damaged to be of any help, nor would they be able to assist in any solution to this situation. They have thoroughly distanced themselves from the family. Men, the choice is yours, , ,and mine. Either some of you begin to help me and accept some responsibility for their constant needs, or I must cut back severely on my church activities and open up a twenty-four hour, round-the-clock Tucker Clinic for those two people!
One retired gentleman, who was truly a gentleman in the full meaning of that word, said he would coordinate some plan for dealing with the Ethel and Arnold crisis and personally follow up on their calls.
With that as background, we move ahead several months until the day I happened to drive by the Tucker house, feeling ready enough to make a visit when—Oh, no! What is that ambulance doing in their driveway? I immediately pulled over and noticed two things:
1. Ethel was standing in the front doorway, hands on hips, in a fullback position. 2. The ambulance driver was leaning against the open passenger door of his vehicle, resting his left arm on the roof. “Hi there, sir” I opened. “Pardon me, I’m this family’s pastor. Can you tell me exactly what’s going on here?”
The paramedic quickly answered, “Her husband’s had a heart attack or stroke!”
It appeared to me that the most intelligent follow-up to that clear statement ought to be, “Then why are we standing out here?”
I was not prepared for his immediate reply. “She won’t let me in the house.”
“Then what will happen?”
His quick response was, “He’s lying on the floor in there and will probably die!”
“Come on,” I shouted. “Let’s go in and get him in the ambulance!” With that, the paramedic immediately joined me in our common effort to rescue Arnold.
I must pause here and share a bit more pertinent background information that had brought the drama to its climax.
Arnold was seventy-five years old at the time while Ethel was only sixty-three. Arnold had been working as the landscaping caretaker on the plantation-style property of the wealthy Reynolds family estate for nearly four decades. He had worked long and hard and had been cared for by three generations of the Reynolds, whose parents and grandparents had originally founded the farm equipment manufacturing company that bears their name. Arnold had almost taken on the role of a foster son of the family. In addition, upon retirement three years earlier, he had been promised a comfortable income and a residence for life.
On the other hand, Ethel had done little but complain and antagonize him about his humble status, never lifting a finger to assist in any endeavor. She considered herself a “proper” lady, not stooping to make much of an effort toward making their home a pleasant refuge from Arnold’s long labors. Ethel knew about the generous provision of the Reynolds family. I’m sure she was fully aware that absolutely no benefits—housing, income, or health care—would accrue to her upon Arnold’s death because she also knew how much the family despised her attitude and lack of cooperation.
And so it was that as I passed Ethel on my way into the house to help pick up Arnold, a quick glance at her countenance caused me to stop in my tracks and stare. For there, clearly written in her pained face and terrified eyes, I would see the horrible dilemma that caused her reticence about permitting the paramedic to enter the house.
Here is what her demeanor revealed about her thoughts at that defining moment: “What shall I do? What do I really want? What choice should I make? If I permit the driver and pastor to get Arnold to the hospital ER, he’ll probably live to return home for more care—from me—and we’ll continue to have money indefinitely. On the other hand, if I let him lie there, uncared for a while longer, he might just pass away, and I’ll be free! But the moment he dies, the well runs dry—I’ll be penniless, miserable, dependant, alone, and friendless. Then what will I do?
And it wasn’t until I wrote those last words that I realized that merely by showing up at that moment, I might have shamed her into allowing Arnold to be rescued. She did have a degree of respect, or awe, for the clergy. As the paramedic and I got Arnold to the ambulance, we took that decision out of her hands. Ethel then agreed to accompany the driver to the hospital. Arnold quickly recovered and was home in less than a week.
His recovery was quite satisfactory with only a little numbness and a slight change in speech, but the incident was not enough to stop the phone calls. The irony in all of this is that, in spite of a heart attack and God’s gracious healing, thanking God and pledging to adopt a new, more Christ-like life and marriage were never contemplated by either of them.
The first call was from Arnold, less than a month after his return from the hospital. He had two specific complaints, and I am embarrassed to admit that both were a source of subdued amusement to me. I simply cannot picture how these situations occurred.
1. Arnold was very upset over his suspicion that the young paramedic made advances on Ethel en route to the hospital. The mere possibility of that thought was more than I could imagine. 2. On a more personal issue, since returning home, Ethel had refused to provide Arnold his “conjugal right.” Don’t go there, Al! His introduction of this new subject took me quite by surprise. (Now, you have to realize that the word “conjugal” was one I could both clearly define and appreciate! However, as a theological student dealing with words and striving for grammatical preciseness, I also knew that was what you did with verbs—you conjugated them!)
It was probably two years later that Arnold finally passed away. I conducted a military memorial service at the veterans’ cemetery for him. Ethel was there, thankful for my services. She introduced me to her brother, with whom she would spend her many remaining years. Ethel’s Christmas cards came to me faithfully every year for nearly a dozen years after I had left that church. No personal message or note was ever included. I always wondered how she was handling widowhood. All indications were that she was happier. At least he cards seemed to communicate a sense of contentment.
Questions I asked myself in retrospect include:
1. What did they see in each other when their relationship blossomed into courtship and marriage? Could there possibly have been any pre-marital counseling? 2. When and why did they each make a vow to be miserable and despise each other? Was it their traumatic relationship that had so hurt and alienated their children? 3. How did their mindsets become so firmly entrenched that reason could no longer squeeze a positive thought into their minds? 4. What lessons can we gain from looking at this sad example? · We should not expect the result of our labors to always work out the way we envision or hope. God’s ways and thoughts are not ours. Consider yourself truly blessed when they do coincide. Be careful not to label yourself a failure when they don’t, and gain wisdom in the process. · Remember that in the scope of God’s sovereign will and purposes it is not required that we bring about our own successful conclusions. It is required of a steward that he be found faithful. · Therefore, faithfulness to God’s calling is and always will be the issue.
“Any and all good things in which we happen to be participants have been ordained by God for us to do, and we are only doing what He has prepared for us before hand” (Ephesians 2:10; author’s paraphrase).