As some of you know, in addition to being a novelist, a historian, a schoolteacher, and all the sundry other hats I wear, I am also a pastor. I've mainly worked in small churches throughout my career: congregations of less than fifty, where I have often served as pastor, Sunday School teacher, youth director, and even church janitor! I enjoy small churches: you know everyone, they know you, there is a close fellowship that binds the group together, and a joy that comes from loving and serving God and each other.
In such a group, though, when death comes calling, it leaves an enormous void in its wake. Small churches can be like families, and despite the hope we share in Christ, loss leaves us all hurting. I thoroughly enjoy doing weddings - I've tied about forty or fifty knots in my time, and I've loved every nuptial service I've been a part of. Funerals, though - that is another matter altogether. No matter how early or late in life they were taken from us, presiding over the memorial service of a dear friend and church co-worker is very hard, not just for the family members, or the church family, but also for the pastor.
About two and a half years ago, a short, stocky man with a crooked grin and a deep bass voice showed up at our church one Sunday. He came one time and that was it: from then until two weeks ago, he was in our church every time the doors were open. He was joyful, friendly, deeply compassionate, and involved in every aspect of the church's life from teaching Sunday School to working the Fall Carnival to going out on visitation nights and inviting folks to church. His name was Matt Gurley, and he became a very close friend of mine. His passion was bringing folks to church, making them feel welcome, and inviting them back. His former pastor, when he heard that Matt had started coming to our church, made a point of letting me know what a great asset Mr. Gurley would be to us, and he was certainly right!
A little over two weeks ago, Matt came to church on Wednesday, happy and laughing as usual, thrilled to see how much our youth program was growing. He was so excited he went home and called one of our church members who hadn't been there and told them all about the service that night. An hour later Matt began to suffer respiratory distress, and then his heart stopped. Even though paramedics were able to resuscitate him, he never regained consciousness, and an EEG showed that he had severe and irreversible brain damage. With that sad news, the family made the decision to turn off life support, and Matt's earthly vessel shut down. Personally, I think his soul had already moved on the night he collapsed.
He was a tireless encourager, not just for the church, but for me personally. I will miss his deep bass voice on the choruses of our hymns, and his positive comments every Sunday after my sermon. I will miss his simple but profound wisdom as a Sunday School teacher, and his gentle way of reminding me that we need to get out into the community more often and invite people to come worship with us.
Some people make your life better just by being a part of it. Matt Gurley was one of those people. Rest in peace, my friend. I'll see you again.