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A prophet and a priest

January 16, 2016

By the measure of a lifetime, I only knew Keith Wright for a moment.

On Nov. 14, 1992, Keith married Kerry and me on a warm afternoon at Faith Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. He was to retire in a matter of months and said then that he expected ours would be the final wedding he would perform.

It was years before I realized his gentle manner and firm convictions served as my introduction to Presbyterianism and the beginning of my own path to ministry of Word and Sacrament.

As time passed, I wondered about him. Finally, in March 2014, I did a Google search and found that he was serving as the parish associate at University Presbyterian in Austin. I could not believe it. I shouted to Kerry, “Keith Wright is still doing ministry!” I decided I should let no more time pass before telling him that things he had done years earlier had made a difference in my life. I sent him this email, with the subject line, “Thank you for your ministry”:

Dear Rev. Wright,

You won’t remember me, but I believe my wife Kerry and I were the last couple you married at Faith Presbyterian Church. The date was Nov. 14, 1992. 

Many times over the years I have contemplated writing you. The main thing I have always wanted to say is we are still very happily married, and your ministry has made a big difference in our lives. Thank you!

Kerry (Haglund) was a member at Faith at the time of our wedding. I met you at a counseling session. That day, you asked Kerry to name something about me that she loved, and she said that I cooked breakfasts for her. You told me not to stop doing that once we were married! Great advice! You also described the possibility that marriage could be continually life-giving for the two of us – that we could really thrive together. This, you said, was your wish for us. I was 28 when we were married, I’m 50 now and more cognizant every day of the great gift of our union and the joy it continually brings to our lives.

I remember  being nervous during the wedding rehearsal , asking you where I should stand, and your reminding me whose day it was. You said, “It doesn’t matter where you stand. It’s not about you!” Ha! Of course, you were right. 

I did not know then that pastors also went to wedding receptions but there you were. I believe it was there that you suggested to me that we start our marriage off right by attending worship the next morning. We did, and I think you were quite astounded! I say  that because at the end of the service, you asked us to stand with you in the Narthex and allow the congregation to congratulate us. As the last handshake was given, you leaned over and told me that you had always asked couples to start their marriage by coming to worship – but that we were the first ones to do it! 

I remember those loving people filing by who so graciously grasped our hands, asking us about our plans for the future and wishing us well. You must have many wonderful memories of the significant times you spent in the lives of those folks. 

Kerry had a UCC background when she first found Faith Presbyterian. I was a lapsed Baptist. When we moved to Amarillo shortly after our wedding, we looked for and found a PC(USA) church, St. Luke, which became our family. Eventually, we moved to Grapevine, where our faith was nurtured at First Presbyterian and continued to grow. 

More than a few times, I have thought back about the day Kerry and I sat in your office and thought we had a chance to make it together. We now have a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter to keep us on our toes, and we still grow closer as a couple and a family. Of course, we have had some difficult times along the way, but in the long view those times have been overwhelmed by joy.

You were my introduction to the Presbyterian Church. Several years ago, I began making my exit from my first career in journalism and entered the Presbyterian Studies Program at Brite Divinity School. Kerry and I both felt my calling, and it was confirmed by our faith community. So we moved forward together. I was ordained as a teaching elder in 2012 and called as the pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Waxahachie. Kerry, who had a very successful journalism career, is now a free-lance writer and a pastor’s wife. 

In many ways, you started me on the road to returning to church, and ultimately to becoming a teaching elder. We are thankful to God for your ministry. As a pastor now myself, I realize that it is rare to get to hear about a positive impact made on a life. Your faithfulness has made a big difference to the two of us, and I thought it was time I told you so. Kerry and I hope and pray that your retirement years are blessed, filled with joyful moments.

In Christ,

Matt Curry

Two days later, I heard from Keith:

Matt,

You were very kind to send me this email and let me know that I played a significant part in your marriage to Kerry back in 1992. I am so glad to hear that you and Kerry are still happily married and the proud parents of two wonderful children. I am also pleased to hear that you not only made your way back to active membership in the church but that you became a pastor as well. That is great news! 

My hope for you and Kerry is that you will steadily learn to love each other more and that you serve each other faithfully. I would warn you, Matt, that ministry can demand a lot of your time and energy and I hope that you will always conserve some of that time and energy for Kerry and your children. I would love to have a picture of your family if you could send one. 

My wife, Mona, and I celebrated our 59th wedding anniversary on Jan. 21 of this year. Unfortunately, she has Alzheimer’s and is now living in an assisted living facility. I get to see her frequently but Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease that makes it difficult to remember the many events of the past. So, I would wish you not only a close relationship for many years but also good health. God bless you in the years to come.

Keith

I was struck with sadness over the illness of Keith’s wife. And I noted that he was still providing pastoral care to me, counseling me two decades later to keep paying attention to my wife and family and not to become overwhelmed by the demands of being a pastor. And he gave us a blessing for the future.

I responded:

Dear Keith, 

We were overjoyed to hear from you but saddened to hear about Mona’s Alzheimer’s, an illness that has also taken a toll in my family. You both are in our continued thoughts and prayers. 

I deeply appreciate the wisdom of your advice concerning how the demands of ministry can affect my marriage and family life. 

Here are two pictures: one with you, from our wedding album, and the other  from our spring break vacation in Arkansas this last week. 

Kerry is as beautiful as ever. You may or may not notice that my appearance has changed – a little. 

Blessings to you and yours, 

Matt

Keith wrote back:

Matt, 

Thanks for refreshing my memory by sending the pictures of yourself and Kerry and the children. I must say that the picture taken in Arkansas does reveal a considerable change in your appearance. Actually the preacher standing between you and Kerry does not have black hair anymore – he now has white hair. Guess we all change as time goes by. 

Keith

This week, I enjoyed  spending time with other pastors attending a conference at Mo Ranch. One evening, I was talking with our worship leader, Judy, and discovered that she was from Austin. I took the opportunity to ask if she knew Keith. She replied, “Yes, he was a friend of mine, do you know that he died a year ago?”

I did not know. Keith had died at the age of 83, about 10 months after I first wrote him, following a brief illness. Survivors include his beloved Mona and their children.

Judy enjoyed hearing the story of our showing up for church the day after our wedding, and she shared that Keith had continued to his dying day to be enthused and invigorated by ministry, taking up a new cause in advocating for the Charter for Compassion, encouraging people to work for a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. Judy said that while ministers are rarely able to be both priests AND prophets, Keith managed to do it.

The next day, as we finished our week of meetings and gathered for communion, Judy gave the message: a story of joy and uplift from a book written by Robert Fulghum. As we prepared to share the bread of life and the cup of salvation with one another, she turned to me and said the book from which she read had been a gift to her from Keith. He was ministering to me still.

 

 

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