Don Cherry is a friend. Of all the friends I’ve had over the years, he has been the most faithful about keeping in touch. Until earlier this month, we hadn’t seen other in 26 years. Yet every few weeks, it seems, I get a text from him that often begins, “Brother Scott…” He is the only person I know who greets me that way! We have shared together all the joys and trials of all of those years of our lives, even though neither of us had known before this month if we would ever see other again this side of heaven.
I’m not sure if he or I was more excited when we met in Coffeeville, Mississippi on June 4, compliments of Mike Shields’ willingness to land his plane for an extended lunch break as we were on route to the General Assembly in Texas. The sweetness of friendship was with us both as we talked so freely and comfortably. Don has loved the Lord ever since I first met him, and our conversations always center on a shared awareness of God’s mercy in our lives. He is always interested in what I am doing and the well-being of my family. He is so thankful that I am here, in Mount Airy, fruitful and content in the ministry which the Lord has given me. He prays for me and for our church regularly.
Don has a simple life, quite solitary at this point. He is close to my age, and still lives in his hometown. Both his parents died in years past, and he hasn’t seen his brother in quite some time. He walks with a cane and a limp and he is blind in one eye, but none of that ever really seems to get him down. He walks with the Lord. He loves his church, and most especially, he loves to sing in church.
I met Don in 1985, when I was an ministerial intern preparing to be ordained. I was a Chaplain at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Don was an inmate at Unit 30 where I was assigned. We hit it off from the first day we met. He loved coming to Bible studies. He loved coming to worship in the gymnasium. And he loved every opportunity I had to come visit him in his prison barracks. He served a total of 9 years and was released shortly after I last visited him in 1993. I don’t even remember why he was incarcerated—it just never seemed to matter. His gentle spirit and soft heart were always a consistent complement to his earnest profession of faith. The Lord saw him through that trial and has been with him ever since.
One significantly positive consequence of the painful turmoil which my family and I endured in recent years is my renewed awareness and appreciation for true friendship. I have few friends left from those earlier years of my life—just a couple friends from high school still keep in touch, and none from my college years. Thankfully, our years in Staunton have given me and my whole family lasting friendships that now date up to twenty years, but the breach of other more recent friendships has surely been one of life’s most painful experiences. Don Cherry has been one constant in all of that, a faithful reminder that “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)
Friendship is also one of the encouragements of attending General Assembly most every year, as I have done for 15 years. There are a number of men whom I see only once a year, but whose friendship I nonetheless value. There are men who know me quite well despite that limited personal interaction, many who have grieved with me through the trials of years past and have rejoiced with me through the settled happiness of the recent years here. There were a handful of friends especially faithful during the painful ordeal that brought about the end of my ministry in Atlanta and eventually brought me to Mount Airy. There are also men I had known initially as a mentor who are now colleagues, others I had mentored as students also becoming colleagues. Men older and younger, others of similar age. There are men who respect me and respect my thoughts and convictions, who honor me even as I honor them. Though I had never really doubted it, I have learned by experience the inestimable value of such friendship.
I continue to seek out men in our own presbytery upon whose friendship I can faithfully trust, as I have consistently done throughout the now 32 years of my ministry. I have sought to express my appreciation for that friendship much more explicitly than I might have in the past, not wanting to take for granted those relationships that are so beneficial and encouraging. I only wish there could be more, but at least there are a few.
I once read that a pastor shouldn’t build friendships within his congregation, and though I understand the dangers of the potential for the harm of broken relationships, I don’t agree with that advice. I crave the friendship of other believers, and while there are benefits to include in that circle of friends some who are outside the local congregation, still there is no substitute for genuine, day-to-day relationships within the congregation with those deserving of the name “friend.”
At this stage of my life and ministry here, I am enjoying the opportunity to see such friendships beginning to grow and develop. Because of the nature of shared responsibilities, friendship would most naturally begin with the Elders. In that context, I am very thankful for the relationship that exists between Mike, Mark and myself. We are all imperfect men, each different in personality, but I am glad to call them both friend, thankful for the opportunity to labor as elders together with them with a growing and maturing friendship as a foundation for all that we do together. There is the mutual honor of friendship among us, and I don’t take that for granted!
More broadly, the job of a pastor includes, in many ways, the role of friend, and as I come to know you all the more, and you me, I would hope that those bonds of friendship would have every opportunity to ripen and mature for our mutual edification. Thus, even as I offer to you the ministry of the gospel to which God has entrusted me, even as I offer to you ministry of pastoral care which the Lord has placed as a happy burden upon my heart, I also offer to you the role of a friend. I do so as a man who has learned the value of such friendship and the benefit of expressing it.
The genius of the church as God brings together a body of his people is its variations—we are all individual and separately identifiable parts of the body. (1 Corinthians 12:12ff) But we are all one body, and that body is well served when true friendship abounds in our midst.
Yours with a pastor’s love,