Later that week the church member passed away. I remember her face. I remember everything about her. I remember that she wanted to see me. She probably waited on me for a while before deciding I wasn't going to make it. Her last experience with me was probably one of frustration. But I'll never be able to find out. I'll never be able to apologize. Because whatever business it was that diverted my attention became more important than the people I serve. That was a mistake.
In the years since, I have made it a point to keep my focus on people rather than ministry, which sounds like a paradox, but it really isn't. There are so many details and widgets and gizmos that need attention. It's easy to get lost in the minutia of ministry and lose track of the very reason we exist in ministry in the first place: people. People who need people. [Editor's Note: If you just sang that song out loud or in your head, you lose 100 points.]
Time and space have dulled my regret over that mistake. New relationships. Deeper relationships. New people and new faces began to crowd out her face until one day ministry again got the upper hand, and I once again find myself regretting that ministry stole my focus with similarly tragic result.
Bob Fleming, long-time choir member and ardent lover of all things choral, retired from our Chancel Choir some time ago. He and I shared an eclectic taste in choral music, and we shared the joy that comes from making music together. After he retired, he moved a short distance away. Short enough that I could go visit, which I did once or twice, but not as much as I should have. I found out a number of weeks ago he was sick, and I reached out to him to set up a visit.
The next week was a busy one for this reason or that. Minutia of ministry. And I never showed up. Never followed up. Radio silence. And then, just yesterday, my friend Bob passed away. I had still not been to see him.
How many of the things I've done in the last eight weeks would I trade for just five minutes with Bob? Five minutes to tell him how much I enjoyed making music with him? How much I enjoyed his joking? How much I enjoyed his encouragement (because he always encouraged me and was never critical of my work)? There are so many things I can look at and say, "John, you really could have done without that..." So many things I would trade if only I could. But I can't. And Bob will never know.
I will never be able to ask for his forgiveness, never be able to say that I am sorry. This has become a part of me that I will have to carry. When I think on these two, I will forever feel the ache of regret and a longing for the impossible do-over. In my mind's eye, his face is something of a collage with the church member of yesteryear, both of them reminding me of the importance of people, calling me away from the minutia of ministry.
When my children say "I'm sorry," I remind them that saying you are sorry is the easy part. Saying, "I'm sorry," actually means, "I will do better next time," and it's the doing better next time that is really the more important part. If I really believe that, then perhaps all hope is not lost. I will never be able to look Bob in the eye and say, "I'm sorry." But I can do better next time. I can answer his call to ignore the minutia of ministry when people need me. I can remember why I do music ministry in the first place: to care for people like Bob. And when push comes to shove, when something has to give, I can make sure that it is not the people who give, but the minutia.
For what it's worth, I am sorry Bob. I will do better next time.