Strong in Grace

Runners to your mark. Get Set. BOOM!

My mind flashes back to the thrill of the race as my own son trains for his first track meet and my nephew experiences his first today. Somehow, my sister and I have been ushered from our place on the starting line to the place our parents once held in the stands, and we can now understand the excitement they felt and their drive to witness every race.

I cannot help but recognize the parallels, as I am currently witness to (and participant in) a much more significant race happening now, and two of the most influential men in my life are nearing the home stretch. My mind can barely process the speed with which this race of life takes place, and my heart is both broken and at peace about it all.

The two men I speak of have held similar roles in my life. Bro. Collins was my pastor from birth until I left home for college at the age of eighteen. That is when Pastor Lingo became not only my pastor, but friend and father-figure as I learned to navigate the waters of independence.  Now these men are both “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” and they are laying aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and running with endurance the race that is set before them (Hebrews 12:1). Their earthly vessels may not seem strong in this moment, but they ARE still running with endurance and there is NO DOUBT they are both “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2) My eyes fill with tears and a smile tickles my face as I think about the memories I cherish with each of them.

I don’t recall my first meeting with Bro. Collins (though I suspect it was probably on the OB floor at the hospital the day I was born). He was just always there – always a part of my life. He was a larger than life (and much larger than me) person, and all I have to do is close my eyes to hear his booming voice once again. Everything about Bro. Collins is BIG in my memory: his stature, his voice, and his influence. It was under his preaching that the Lord opened my eyes to my need for a Savior. It was his HUGE, gentle hands that covered my face as he announced, “I baptize ye, therefore, my little sister…in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Buried in the likeness of His death. RAISED in the likeness of His resurrection, “ and his “Amen” was the loudest of all. He worked hard throughout our childhood to keep my sister and I straight, and we tried to walk together out the church doors so he could tell which one was “Sayrah” (as he pronounced it) and which was Julie when he shook our hands. I still chuckle at the thought. I remember service after service, he would make us laugh with his stories, and bring us to humility under the heavy truth of the Gospel, as his giant fist pounded the pulpit with the truth of his words. I remember how he was ALWAYS ready. He was ready to go at a moment’s notice to the hospital bed of a church member or the home of a loved one. To him, this meant being dressed in his trademark suit and tie. He was ready – just like that – on the morning that stands out most in my memory. It was the day after my birthday, the summer before my senior year of high school, and Mom had awakened me with the tragic news of my friend’s passing. In my still-shocked state, I joined other friends at Joby’s house where his family was still reeling from the reality of his devastating accident. I was standing near the front door when I spotted Bro. Collins approaching the porch. It felt like my family was there – like a piece of home in the midst of the foreign territory of grief. Seeing his familiar frame, my composure crumbled, and I greeted him on the porch with no words – only tears. He is a big man, but he is a gentle man, and he lovingly held me as I cried. I don’t recall what happened next, but I will never forget the relief I felt when he arrived in that place.

The years have stolen some of the strength and size in Bro. Collins’ stature, but he is still a larger-than-life pillar of faith to those around him. The roles have changed for him, much like they’ve changed for Sarah and I with track meets. He’s no longer visiting others in the hospital, but they are visiting him. Some things don’t change, though. He always has a witty remark or a playful response, he always has his beautiful, sweet wife by his side, and he always has the admiration of those privileged to watch him live out the Gospel he loves so well.They may force him into a hospital gown for now, but he is still spiritually dressed and ready as always. He has fought the good fight, he is finishing his race, and he is keeping the faith (2Tim 4:7). When the time comes for him to enter the presence of the Lord, I suspect he’ll hear another gentle, but booming voice declare “Well done, my good and faithful servant!” (Matt 25:21)

Interestingly, Bro. Collins and Pastor Lingo were connected before I ever knew it. The Lingos served faithfully on the mission field in South America for many years. Our church (under Bro. Collins) had been one of their supporting churches, and he had visited with them on multiple occasions. He even visited them in the hospital when their second daughter was born. I can’t even imagine how many people he has welcomed into the word in this way. 🙂  When it came time for me to leave home and go to college, Bro. Collins suggested that I go to Pastor Lingo’s church in my college town. I took his advice and gave it a try at my first opportunity. I immediately fell in love with this warm and cheerful body of believers and the Lingo family.

Pastor Lingo has played many roles in my life over the years. He has been not only my pastor and teacher, but also my alarm clock. He was very supportive of me using my vocal abilities in church. He invited me to sing solos and encouraged my participation in the church choir. Sometimes, however, in my disorganized college brain, I would forget about choir practice. This is where Pastor, the alarm clock, came in. 🙂  He would call me in my dorm room to remind me to come to choir. Pastor was very fatherly, often checking up on me and showing a genuine concern for my well-being. I had the privilege of going on my first mission trip to Mexico under his leadership.  He provided guidance and council when I met the love of my life, and he led us through pre-marital counseling and had a huge part of sharing our story on our wedding day. Sometimes on our anniversary, we bring out the videos and re-watch that cherished day.  Tears fill our eyes as we listen to Pastor so sweetly describe his observation of our relationship and the ways that the occasion of our wedding renewed his appreciation for his own cherished wife. Pastor is a romantic, tender-hearted man and life with three daughters definitely made him more sensitive than most. His passion and compassion for people came through in his delivery of the Gospel and his interactions with people. I cannot even describe all that I have learned from him over the years. Pastor Lingo challenged me, not only with his teaching, but also with a couple of comical details. He’s the first person I have known with a glass eye. It took me a while to learn about this detail. I could not figure how why I struggled so much to look him in the eye. Once I finally learned which eye was real, the problem was resolved. 🙂 In college, I pursued a minor in Spanish. As a lifelong Spanish speaker, the language was woven through Pastor Lingo’s mind and heart…so much so that it would frequently come out during his sermons. He would give a confused look and call out to his wife to provide him with the proper English equivalent. I personally enjoyed the challenge of figuring out what he was trying to say before the translation was given.

Pastor has been a spiritual leader to us and a part of our family since he first welcomed us in 1996. He has trained and encouraged us to lead and teach and has celebrated the births of our children. He baptized two of them after they came to Christ, counseled with us, cried with us, laughed with us, and lived life with us. Though Alzheimer’s has robbed him of the ministry he once adored, our respect and love for him and his family is unwavering. He has showered our youngest children with smiles and laughter, and even if he does not understand that they’re “ours” through adoption, he still shares a part in that. The Lord used his teaching on this very topic, years ago, to prick our hearts and prepare us for where we are today. His impact in our lives and countless others is immeasurable and by God’s grace and with the help of his family, he is running the homestretch of his race, bound for Glory.

I am eternally grateful to have been touched by the spiritual athleticism of both of these remarkable men, and I am overwhelmed to be among the cloud of witnesses watching them finish strong. Only God can see the finish line, but we trust Him with these servants of His and we rest in the assurance that this world is not their home.

As we seek to foster grace in our family and the lives of those we touch, it is godly examples like these that spur us on to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). Thank you, Jesus, for these faithful men who have not only served You, but have been able to teach others also (2Tim 2:2). We are blessed to know them.

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