I have been holding off writing this post because there is so much I want to say and it is imperative I leave nothing out.
I have been very lucky in life to not have had to deal with much pain. I look at some people and wonder How do they even remember to breath after everything they have been through? How can they even stand on two feet without the burden of their situation knocking them to their knees? I know there will be times in my future where I will be directing these same questions at myself, that the pain I will be enduring will be so great that I will not know how to take a step forward. This past year, I have battled with a bitterness I have never felt before- an enmity I didn't think I could possess. It seemed as though one foundation after another was crumbling before me and I couldn't grasp at anything for a stronghold. The shift off balance was so great that I began to lose myself and who I was, my walls and supports falling all around me. Weeds and thorns started growing through cracks, making healing and repair impossible. But, through all the pain and suffering, depression and despair, beauty and peace can be found. Let me tell you about my Rose Among Thorns.
When I first met Harry Vanderford, he scared the poop out of me. The best way to describe him is a grumpy Santa. Tall and looming, white beard (always properly trimmed- long enough though for him to toy with it in his mouth when in deep thought, but never scraggly), glasses that slid down his nose, and a grand presence about him that exemplified a learned man. This was a man who knew everything. And this tree-of-a-man would stand in front of my locker for hall duty at school. My little hundred pound self would meekly approach: "Excuse me, sir. I need to get to my locker." He would tilt downwards, looking down over his glasses, looming over me, frowning. Then, slowly and slightly he would take a step away to make room. Gulp. "Thanks." I would go home and beg my mom to please let me change schools. I CANNOT have that man for my Bible teacher next year! He is so mean! He is so scary! Please mom! Please!
Sophomore year I walked into that classroom with my bravest wits about me. There were three girls in an entire sea of boys. Mr. Vanderford sat at the front of the room, one leg on the floor, one propped on the desk, Bible in hand. He said nothing. He looked slowly over the rim of his glasses, perusing the face of each and every student, biting his lip slightly, scanning...scanning. "Well, I see we have three roses among a bushel of thorns." Sold. He had me. This was going to be an amazing class. And it was. The things I learned, the notes I took. Page after page of pure Biblical wisdom. The amount of knowledge one man could contain within the confines of his brain was unbelievable. In addition, he was fair and stood his ground. He knew what he believed and why he believed it, and he never backed down. A teacher first. A preacher second. I knew after that year was over, I needed more. There was so much more this man could teach me.
Unfortunately, he was unable to continue teaching at my school. The Lord led him elsewhere. But, God wasn't ready for our paths to end there. A few times I went to visit him at church. On one visit, he was at the pulpit and had started to preach when, as he scanned the crowd, he came across my face. He stopped preaching. Right there in the middle, he was caught off guard. With a huge smile, he apologized to the congregation and said that one of his former students was in the crowd, and he actually waved to me. Ha ha. I have to pause to chuckle here as I envision the pastor that day, waving from the pulpit. "Hey Pastor Harry."
Time passed and regrettably, we lost touch. He left that church and I didn't know how to contact him. I don't believe in serendipity. I believe in God's plan. I was at work and "happened" across one of my former classmates. We chatted a bit and I asked if he knew anything about Mr. Vanderford. He said, "Interestingly enough, I ran into him a few weeks ago at the gas station. He said that he had started up a new church." He gave me the name of the church- Calvary Road Baptist- and well, let's just say the rest is history. For the past five years, my family and I have attended church under his pastor-ship.
We had a very close relationship. Ever since he was my teacher, I didn't care who my pastor was. I always knew that when I got married, Mr. Vanderford would be the one to do the service (sorry future husband... whoever you are, you weren't getting a choice on the matter). My parents and I became very active in the church. I began leading the congregation in music at his side. (My favorite moments were when he forgot to turn his mic off while singing to the music. He was a better preacher than singer, folks.) I would always begin whether the people were in their seats or not. "They will settle down when they hear the music," he would say. I knew the tunes that would get his feet tapping, his head nodding. Victory in Jesus, Because He Lives, Rock of Ages, Are You Washed in the Blood?, and (good Lord) anything by the Gaithers. He would give his sermon, pray, and I would come up to sing the invitation. He always knew where to put my music stand and he knew to give a little nod when it was time to stop the music.
I miss that little unspoken nod the most. I miss the one-armed hugs, and the jokes about LSU, and iced tea and fried chicken, and poor grammar on the church bulletins, and the time I was too scared to throw a pie in his face because I respected him too much so he ran into my pie, and the time he called me a terrorist in the middle of the Easter Cantata, and the time he had to preach without his notes because I accidentally stole his Bible for two weeks. Oh the fun times we had and how we would laugh and tease.
But this man could preach like none other. He had sermons that tied into other sermons that tied into other sermons. He could preach for months on one verse if we let him. So knowledgeable because he had been on the other side. He used to be an atheist. He knew what it was like to be an unbeliever, turned only by the grace of God. Such beautiful, eloquent sermons that taught lessons, not just preached them "from on high."
And then there came a time when he was too weak to take the pulpit. He had a terrible heart condition that made him eligible for a heart transplant. But that transplant never came. In the last weeks, God gave him the strength to give his final sermons. These sermons were preached by a man who knew his end was near. He wanted God to use every last bit of him. No one dared move. No one dared leave their seats. These were the final words from a man who was ready to see God's face. On Friday, September 28, 2012, Harry Vanderford saw God's face and received His blessing.
The hardest thing I have ever had to do was stand in front of the congregation on the day after his passing and lead them in song. I stood there and crumbled before them, unable to lead. Eventually, it was too hard to stand there and uplift a crowd when I myself was still grieving. These songs of comfort, about seeing Jesus one day, about being tired and weary, were no longer a comfort. They were a burden. I was standing there waiting for his nod, for his sermons, for his instruction. I had to step down from leading the music.
Now, months later, our church is ready to put into place a new pastor. How to find someone to fill such an enormous position? My heart told me over and over it cannot be done. My heart became hardened to it. For months, I sat in church, knowing I could not find the strength to stay there, to watch Harry be replaced. I debated for so long about how easy it would be to go to another church. I would miss the people dearly, but moving on was the easiest way. I would not be surrounded by reminders, by thoughts of what would Harry do? But this church was his dream, his vision. Letting it crumble would do no justice.
I am not one to take change easily. It has taken me quite some time to take my first step forward. The success of Calvary Road was Harry's life goal. All his paths led to that church, to that congregation, to me being a part of his life there. No one can fill his shoes, but it's time we let someone else take on his vision. God's vision. The road ahead will be rocky to say the least. It will be difficult and overgrown. But it will be filled with the sweet fragrance of roses intertwining along the pathway.