One of the greatest privileges of being a pastor is shepherding people to the threshold of death — to read to them, to pray for them, and sing to them as they come toe-to-toe with the last enemy. Of course, that privilege is beset by heartache, and as a pastor you acutely feel in those moments your inability. You can shepherd to the doorstep but you can only go so far. Inevitably, the time comes when in faith you must give them up for it is the singular honor of the Great Shepherd who alone can pass through that gate with his sheep. Today, Jesus has tended another one of his sheep through the pasture of this life and into eternity.
This morning I mourn the death of my good friend Pastor John Tweed. I know many who might read this would be unfamiliar with his name. That’s because John didn’t pastor on a worldwide platform or in the spotlight of notoriety. He didn’t write any books, speak at sold-out conferences, or stand behind the lectern in theological schools. John’s field of ministry was better than all of that. He pastored in the best of all fields — the local church. His ministry was carried out from the pulpit, in hospital and living rooms, with a birthday or anniversary call, at the bedside of those in hospice care, and with constant petitions to the Throne of Grace. It was there, in the everyday routines of people’s lives, that John wept with those who wept and rejoiced with those who rejoiced.
I remember hearing someone liken the ministry to the nighttime sky. Occasionally, a bright comet passes through our field of vision leaving a tail that appears for a moment and then vanishes. And in that moment all the eyes of earth are turned to see. But the dark canopy is also spotted with countless stars — each differing in their luminary glory — that constantly shine against the darkness. They may not catch the eye of those below but night after night with unending faithfulness there they are. Of course, the point was that we don’t need comet-like pastors, we need men who will faithfully stand against the darkness in the normal humdrum of everyday ministry. That was John. He was an ordinary pastor.
Earlier today as I sat with John's widow I was shown a letter that his father had written him in 1940 when he was eleven years old. It read: "My dear little son: My prayer for you is that you may grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and some day you may become a faithful minister of Christ." Fourteen years later that prayer was realized. John began his ministry in 1954 shortly after being married to his wife and life-long support Alta. Throughout the years he pastored churches in Ohio, California, Kansas, and Pennsylvania. He retired from the pastorate in 1996 and moved to Winchester, Kansas. However, his retirement wasn’t wasted. Over a span of seventeen years John ministered on thirty-one separate assignments in eighteen different Reformed Presbyterian congregations. During this time he encouraged the discouraged and strengthened the weak, and did so much to bring healing and help to those who needed it. His last interim pastorate ended when I was called to be the pastor in Winchester in 2013.
John’s ordinary ministry had a tremendous effect. Five years ago John was recognized by our denominational seminary, the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, for his decades of service in the church. Compiled at that time was a book with eighty-one letters written by family, friends, and churches from around the world. Reading over some of those personal letters (being John’s pastor has its benefits!) they testify to his life-long commitment of shepherding well. As one letter stated: “Few portions of the RPCNA have not known his tender care or kind touch.” Another said: “[You were] one of the brightest spots in my life.” Still another wrote: “[You were] a patient listener and a wise counselor.” And to capture it all in a few words: “[Your] whole being is a reflection of [your] love for God and His people.”
Personally, John has meant a lot to me. Though I was officially his pastor for the last seven years of his life, the truth is he was my pastor. I think that makes me the last person John got to pastor! His prayers, counsel, encouragement, and last whispered “I love you,” have held me up. His words of appreciation for every sermon (even the botched up ones!) have kept me going. His concern for the unsaved and his love for the simple gospel have been contagious. And his example of what a pastor is and does has taught me more than any book or class ever could. I guess this is a small way to pen my own letter of deep appreciation for this man whom Jesus has seen safely home.
But far more than letters written on paper are those written on the tablets of human hearts. As Paul once wrote: “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Corinthians 3:2). When at last we no longer see through this glass dimly, and we perceive more of the ways of God than we are now fitted to see, then we will gaze at the eternal impact of one ordinary pastor with an ordinary ministry.
The church of Jesus Christ is in need of those kinds of pastors. Men who forego the desire for power, the grabbing of influence, and building of platforms — men who don’t need the applause and approbation of this world. The church needs men of a different conviction. Men who understand that God works most through ordinary means, ordinary ministries, and ordinary pastors. As the Great Shepherd welcomes one of these men into the presence of his glory with great joy, may He be pleased to give His church pastors after His own heart.
“O then what raptured greetings, On Canaan’s happy shore;
What knitting severed friendships up, Where partings are no more!
Then eyes with joy shall sparkle, That brimmed with tears of late;
Orphans no longer fatherless, Nor widows desolate.”