“How are you feeling?” The hardest question.

It’s been over a month now since the hospital called saying simply, “Sir, you need to come to the emergency room. Now.”  Nothing more.

The lady said it twice. I got the message.

We had had no warning that my wife Margaret’s death was imminent.  We had welcomed family in over the Christmas holidays and Margaret had been doing pool therapy at the rehab hospital.  She wanted to be more independent and was driving herself from time to time. Twice recently she had said, “It’s time for you to buy another car and give me this one.”

“This one” was the Honda CR-V which, because it’s built a little higher off the ground than the Camrys we’ve driven for years, was easier for her to maneuver.  A year or more ago, we had given our other car to our local granddaughters. Margaret was putting 5 miles a month, at most, on it and Abby and Erin needed transportation.  When we began looking for cars, Margaret picked out this Honda with the understanding it was her car.  I smile at that. “Her car.”  To date, at 2 years 4 months old, the odometer shows over 72,000 miles, almost all put there by her preacher husband going hither and yon in the Lord’s work.  Still, she knew it was hers.

Life changes abruptly.  Your “other half”–boy, is that ever right!–is suddenly taken from you.  From the moment she coughed a couple of times and collapsed in the nail salon, then was whisked to the hospital a couple of miles away, until all life-support apparatus was removed and she took her last breath, was six days.  The death certificate lists January 29, 2015 as “the” day.

One I will never ever forget, I’ll tell you that.  If that is not the worst day of my life, then the previous Friday–January 23–when this happened, was.

“So, how are you feeling?”  Or, “How are you doing?”

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About my wife’s death: So much I’m thankful for

“A woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.  Give her of the fruit of her own hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:30-31).

(My wife Margaret collapsed around 11 am on Friday, January 23, 2015.  After six days and nights of intensive hospital care during which she was completely unresonsive, she took her last breath of earthly air on Thursday, January 29.  Her memorial service was held at our church on Monday, February 2.)

A longtime friend who saw on Facebook a photo of my wife of over half a century, said, “I don’t think Margaret ever knew how beautiful she was.”

I agree.  Margaret Henderson McKeever was a victim of perfectionism, her own–which rarely let her feel satisfied with anything she was or had done–and that of a few significant others in her upbringing.  I will not be dumping on them here; for the most part, they themselves were the victims of someone else’s poor child-rearing.  Margaret overcame signifcant obstacles to become a wonderful Christian woman, a terrific pastor’s wife, a loving mother, a college graduate “with honors,” and in short, “somebody.”

Nothing in these writings should give the impression she was perfect.  Margaret was an imperfect woman married to a flawed husband, but the redeemed child of a Savior who does all things well. “Christ receiveth sinful men, even me with all my sin…..”

“Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Okay, now.  Through my tears, which show no sign of abating, I give thanks….

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Today my wife told me she loved me

“Herein is love, not that we loved God–but that God loved us and sent His Son…”  (I John 4:10)

I found the note today–five days after Margaret’s funeral–where she had listed in her handwriting some of the reasons she loved me.

Here’s what happened.

Just before Christmas, our pastor, Dr. Mike Miller, told the church how one year his wife Terri filled a jar with 100 notes, each one telling why she loved him. Each day he drew out one and read it and basked in the glow. He was reluctant to draw out the last one, he said, and has left it there ever since.

Margaret and I teased about that afterwards, as to whether we could do it. I told her I could list a hundred reasons she loved me.  She laughed that she might have trouble getting to a dozen.  Then, over the next few days, if one of us did something the other didn’t care for, we would tease, “Okay. One less reason” or “You’re now down to 5.”

It turned out she actually was making such a list.

And today, I ran across it.

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Margaret Ann Henderson McKeever (June 9, 1942 – January 29, 2015)

“Beauty is deceitful and popularity is vain. But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her own hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:30-31).

Margaret would be embarrassed to know I used Proverb 31 on her.

But she was in many respects every ounce that strong woman to whom someone is paying tribute.  She had to be, considering all the hurdles she cleared, the obstacles she overcame, the setbacks and hardships and difficulties life handed her, all of which she met head-on and surmounted.

I wish you could have known her in her prime.

She could be fierce in her faith and soft in her sweetness, and focused like a laser when she set her mind to do a thing.  Only in her later years did the burdens begin to outnumber and overwhelm her.  Even then, she was a fighter.  Her calendar is filled with appointments I am having to cancel–meetings with therapists, nutritionists, pain management clinic, physical therapy, a psychiatrist, and a few other things. She was not giving up, she was not going down without a fight.

Joe married a fighter.  April 13, 1962.  A Friday night in Birmingham, Alabama.

She would have to be a fighter. She was tying herself to a young preacher who hardly knew how to be a husband, breadwinner, pastor, or a father, and much less a caretaker, lover, best friend.  I would have to learn all of this, and some lessons came harder than others.

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A few notes about my wife Margaret

Margaret is still with us as I write, so this is not an obit.

I just wanted to express more fully the appreciation of our family for the faithful prayers of countless friends far and wide who have lifted her and us to the Father since Margaret’s massive heart attack last Friday around noon.

WHAT HAPPENED...

Friday morning perhaps around 11 am, Margaret had driven herself to the nail salon for a pedicure.The ladies there say she had just seated herself on the chair when she began coughing. Then, she passed out.

They ran next door to the laundromat and asked for help. Someone called 911. The Harahan police station is a block away, and they responded immediately, followed by the firefighters.  They started CPR, and rushed her to Ochsner’s Hospital, some three miles or so to the east.

The hospital called my house. “Sir, you need to come to the emergency immediately.”  Daughter-in-law Julie had to drive me since we have only the one car.(I was afraid Margaret might have been in an accident. She’s driving very little these days and has been getting around with a walker or cane. But this drive was short and the parking was easy. Still, I was concerned.)

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The day you started to die

I was reading the short wikipedia bio of a British entertainer whom you might know (but who will remain anonymous here simply because his name does not matter).

The writer told how the celebrity was a regular on British television for over three decades.  Finally, the network decided his work was declining along with his audience and so canceled him.  Within three years, the man was dead, even though he was still in his 60s.  This sentence remains with me: “The day they canceled his contract is the day he began to die.”

We’ve all known of individuals who died shortly after retiring from their life work.  Whether retirement caused the death, hastened the death, or was completely irrelevant is something no one can know. But we each have our own suspicions.

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When is a pastor to defend himself?

Mostly, the pastor should let others defend him.  But sometimes, he is the only one able to tell the whole story. His staunchest supporters can do only so much, and he has to take it the rest of the way. Here is an instance when I did this…

In cleaning out some files the other day, I ran across a letter I’d written to our congregation almost exactly half-way through my 14 year ministry at the last church in which I was answering some critics.

Following is the letter in its entirety….

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Five more words to those new in the ministry

(Recently, we wrote an earlier article for “those just starting out in ministry” in which we made some suggestions on matters they should learn, skills they should have, and such.  Here is that article http://joemckeever.com/wp/5-starting-ministry/ for which this one is the companion.)

I began pastoring churches when John F. Kennedy was president.  That was a long time ago.  Then, 42 years later I moved from pastoring to become associational director of missions. After five years in that (DOM) work, I’m now in my 6th year of retirement, mostly an itinerant ministry, speaking in scores of churches every year.

I love preaching and serving churches, encouraging ministers and counseling church leaders.  It’s the greatest work in the world.

Do I wish I’d done some things differently at the start? You bet. And, I imagine most ministers feel that way for reasons unique to themselves. Here are a few of my “wishes” that come to mind, for whatever it’s worth to you who are at the front end of your call into the Lord’s service….

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Some things, pastor, you do not want to know

“He leadeth me in paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3).

Pastor, you do not want to know why that committee turned you down for that position you wanted so badly.

I’m rereading my daily journals for the decade of the 1990s.  Much of it I’d long since forgotten, so in many respects, it’s fun.  One thing struck me, however, about the year 1992.

I was looking for a way out of this church!

By “this church” I mean the one where I remained as pastor for nearly 14 years and to which I still belong.  It had come through a crisis 18 months before I arrived that almost resulted in its self-destruction.  The Lord sent me to half a congregation, millions of dollars in debt, a sanctuary that had had major problems from the beginning and needed considerable work, and a dysfunctional leadership team made up of some of the greatest souls in the kingdom as well as some of the strangest birds ever.

We were hurting financially and it appeared to be getting worse.  My wife and I were living in rented quarters and were cutting into the small savings we kept from selling our house in North Carolina.

Some of the leaders were unhappy with us from the first and looked for ways to undercut everything we tried.

Nothing about this was fun.

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There’s one of these in (almost) every church

Young pastors enter the ministry expecting the people of the Lord to be healthy, sane, balanced, spiritual, biblically informed, and Holy Spirit guided.

And then they run into reality.

The image of “running into a buzz-saw” comes to mind.

Some of them do not survive the experience, bless their hearts. But we remind them–when we have the opportunity–that our Lord said those who are whole do not need a physician (Matthew 9:12).  If they were all healthy, sane, balanced, etc etc., they would not need a pastor.

You are there for those who are the unhealthy, unbalanced, spiritually immature, and so forth.

Sometimes, it’s a leader in the church who blindsides you.

Here’s my story (see my two notes at the end)….

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