Every Apostle Paul needs a Barnabas...a guy who's willing to give the newcomer a chance and put up with the inconsistency of young people--smiling and encouraging, rather than berating and criticizing--someone who nudges people along and tells them not to give up, because what they are going to accomplish is worth fighting for. My Uncle Henry was a man like that.
This week at his funeral we were privileged to hear the testimony of younger ministers he had encouraged and missionaries he had inspired throughout the years. My husband was one of those ministers; the church his family attended was fortunate to have a pastor who cared for the congregation, even for sometimes rebellious, often awkward, but ultimately kind-hearted teen-agers. He knew my uncle as a pastor. I just knew him as an uncle--my favorite, he'd be quick to assert.
When I was a little girl and answered the phone with "Who's calling, please?", his standard reply was,
"This is your favorite uncle." leaving me to guess, and risk offending, should the caller turn out to be Uncle Tommy or Uncle Floyd or Uncle Dale. One day I turned the tables. I was at my grandparents' house for Thanksgiving when the phone call came: It was Uncle Henry. He said, "Who's this?" "Your favorite niece," I replied. I could tell it threw him a challenge. After all, there were eight or nine of his nieces present that day, all running around near grandma's kitchen phone. He paused, just a second, and said, "Well it must be Lilibeth." and we both laughed, realizing how difficult a test he had just aced.
I guess I'd say Uncle Henry was everybody's favorite because everybody was his. He took people under his care and enjoyed training them and encouraging the down-trodden. I remember a time in my life when I was grumbling. The school where my father taught had moved from a small town in Missouri to Houston, Texas. I pretty much hated everything about that. No longer could I roam around town on my bike or walk to school at an old three-story brick building or live in a large house where I had my own bedroom. The weather was deplorably hot and humid; school was a world of dodging rude and apathetic strangers in the hall. In short, I was miserable and wanted commiseration. Uncle Henry did something better; he told me, "You know you are only going to be as happy as you make up your mind to be. Now decide you are going to enjoy the life you are in, and you will." So I thought about it. And I grudgingly admitted that he was right: I couldn't change my circumstances, but I could do something about my attitude. So I did. The next year, my senior year at high school, was much more rewarding. During that year, I threw myself into tutoring handicapped students and reading books aloud for the blind. I wrote poems and books and got to know some of the strangers at school. Life wasn't intolerable anymore.
Years later, when Turtle and I first decided to become pastors, we moved to a small town in Eastern Oklahoma and stayed in a one-roomed cabin while we tried to find a church that needed us. We had two children, and no full-time job. Turtle was doing "on call" nursing at nearby hospitals. While we tried to make contact with churches, we began attending a church about thirty miles away, because that's where my Uncle Henry and Aunt Jo had moved. Once again, they were our pastors and they pulled us into the church as "helpers" while we sought orientation in our own vocations. We were invited over on Sunday afternoons, played games with the family, ate many a lunch and after church snack. In short, we were encouraged, once again and shown that the ministry, though a difficult profession, was rewarding and worth the effort. We were loved and given a chance.
Years passed. Life got faster, and there were several devastating circumstances for my Uncle Henry and Aunt Jo. They retired to a small house in Arkansas, in my husband's home town and they attended the church they had built there. They lavished affection on their grandchildren and encouraged many young people who still came to them for counsel. Whenever we visited them, we heard all their lively stories and we laughed. How we laughed. Ever encouraging, they showed us what it meant to persevere through the grayest of challenges, to trust God to bring joy in the middle of frustration and sorrow.
After Aunt Jo died early this year, Uncle Henry began to experience serious health problems. He underwent a heart bypass surgery and never really recovered. Too many memories faded, too much to look forward to in the next world, the comforter now comforted by a faithful family...the encourager remembered by many encouraged souls; the faithful now raised to honor. I'll always remember him smiling.
Everyone should have an Uncle Henry... or be one.