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Riding with Gilbert

April 24, 2020

I took my bike to the park this week for an 8-mile ride. I haven’t been doing that as often these days, due to my own pandemical laziness and the insistence of the dogs that I should walk them instead.


But every time I do it, I feel the presence of my old friend, Gilbert Ehler. Pastors are not supposed to have favorites in the congregation, but sometimes, deeper connections are made. That was the case with Gilbert, a short-time member of the last church I pastored who made a long-term impact.


Once I told Gilbert about my regular ride, he began to recite landmarks along the route, reminiscing about how he enjoyed biking the same trail in younger days. Sometimes, he would phone me out there, and I would pull over and talk, out of breath.


And so, I still feel his presence beneath the shade trees and along the creek. Sometimes he rides alongside me. Sometimes he is pushing me, his firm hands on my shoulders. His faith and optimism continue to push me in other ways and at other times, as well, strengthening me in my weakness, encouraging me to be strong. That is the legacy of the lives of the saints.


It is hard for me to believe, but I only knew Gilbert about four months. In that time we had many meaningful conversations, and I grew closer to him than with others I have known for years. He reminded me in many ways of a favorite uncle who was quite a character. Like him, Gilbert also carried with him a sense of mischief and fun. Like my uncle, he had experienced a hard life, but had developed a soft heart.


Despite his health problems and advancing age, Gilbert and I looked forward to more years together. One night, in a hospital room, he told me he expected to recover from his ailments because he did not believe that God would separate us just at a time we found each other. I felt the same way.


Not many days later, Gilbert died.


I gave this eulogy for him on July 28, 2018. A large group of tearful grandchildren, filled with love for Gilbert, surrounded me in the parking lot afterward to share their memories and ask me questions. Then I went to the park and rode 8 miles.





Gilbert Ehler walked into Central Presbyterian Church for worship on March 18 of this year.

He sat toward the back.

As I recall, I had finished shaking hands outside the front door when I was told that someone was still inside.

That was how I met Gilbert.

He did not feel well, he was having shortness of breath that day. He explained that he had had some medical issues recently. And so he remained in his pew. He insisted he would be fine, did not need to go to the hospital or anything like that. He just needed to rest a spell.

And so I prayed for Gilbert there that day and sat with him a few minutes.

I asked how he had found the church and he said, “Oh, I always knew you were here.”

So we sat a little longer, and finally I said, “How do you feel?”

He slowly raised his head, turned toward me and said, “With my fingers.”

I was like, WHAT?

That was my first encounter with what I have since come to call Gilbertisms, the corny jokes that could catch you a little off guard. Once I told Gilbert he could call me anytime, he said, “OK, I’ll call at 2 in the morning.” When I wore a Texas A&M cap one day, and explained it was a favorite because I had received it for Father’s Day, Gilbert said, “Can I have it?” He told the nurses in the hospital that he wanted to fall just one more time. This exasperated them. Why, Gilbert, would you want to fall one more time? “I want to fall in love just one more time,” he said.

His family can tell you about a kind of rock called a leverite, as in leave it right there. They can enlighten you about watching your step, which is of course, just stopping and staring at the curb.

Ask Patty or Kathy or Jose if you want to hear some more of these, I understand from them that he has been inflicting this humor on the defenseless public for many years. Gilbert made people smile. He made them feel better about themselves. He made them feel happy. And that made him happy – you could see the mischievous grin break out across his face. Come to think of it, that is not a bad way to live, is it? It is a very good way to live – joyfully, abundantly. And Gilbert managed to do that, even when he did not feel physically up to it.

That Sunday afternoon, when Gilbert felt better, some elders from our church took Gilbert home and let Jose know what had happened and that he was all right. By the next day, if not before, Gilbert had decided he would join the church. He had found a spiritual home. We often talked about what it meant to truly be part of a church family, loved and accepted. And I believe Gilbert knew he was loved and accepted.


That first worship service that he attended, we had recited our Brief Statement of Faith, which begins, “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.”

And I remember Gilbert telling me that our saying together that our trust and worship and service was due to the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, was deeply meaningful to him. And I said, “Gilbert, you just might be a Presbyterian. Perhaps God has been leading you here all this time! And you made it home!”

Gilbert joined the church the following week, March 25, which was Palm Sunday. I did not want him to have to walk to the front, so I told him I would be glad to come down and introduce him to the congregation, and he could stay in his pew and would not need to stand. He was having none of that. He would stand before the Church. And so I went down and offered my hand and he grabbed it and held on – and I told the church how this man had come among us just a week before, and how he had been looking for a home and when he arrived among us he had found a home. I knew then that God sent Gilbert Ehler into my life, and into the life of our church.


And so, Gilbert came to church every time the doors were open. He found a Sunday school class, he came to my weekly Bible study and the fellowship meals beforehand. He came to worship. I think it was the first time or two that we sat down to eat that I realized how well this man knew his Bible. To be honest, that is a bit intimidating for a pastor. But I knew I could learn from Gilbert, whether we were eating together or in my class. Gilbert knew his Bible. But he did not just know it in here (head), he knew it in here! (Heart) Some of you remember those old EF Hutton television commercials, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” You wanted to listen closely when Gilbert was talking about the Bible because usually he was offering an insight or perspective on the grace of God.

He saw beauty all around him and often quoted Romans 1:20, that since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. Gilbert believed we are surrounded with the glory and majesty of God.

Gilbert believed that God has more love than we’ve got sin.

He believed in the mercy and forgiveness of God, and that it was for everyone – and that all means all.

He spoke of the difference God had made in his own life. He shared an experience of deepening faith in which he once felt the presence of God as hands resting on his shoulders supporting him. He asked if I believed it. You bet I do, and I believe with every fiber of my being that the arms of Jesus embraced him and welcomed him as a beloved child of God last Saturday night, for to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. And if anybody is, Gilbert Ehler is.

Gilbert grew up in Wisconsin. He was deeply thoughtful and loved good conversation. He was not a large man physically but he was strong. His handshake could hurt! He was a union pipefitter and a lifelong learner. He could make figures out of steel which he showed off to visitors at his home in Palmer. He created an elephant, a giraffe, a bear by a tree trunk and a man chopping up a tree trunk. He crafted these over many hours, through a process of welding and grinding and cutting to shape them. He went back to school. He was proud of certificates on the wall that testified to his biblical proficiency. He loved his family, and his late wife, and his walls were covered with pictures of them. He was not a big fan of our current president. He loved horses and had a cat named Lucky. He spoke with pride about his grandchildren and the things they were doing. His children tell me that when they were young, he was a strict disciplinarian. Hard for me to imagine. Like all of us, Gilbert had some difficulties in life. He told me once of an incident many years ago that involved losing his temper. He regretted it. I said Gilbert, you are not an angry man. What happened to all this anger? God took it away, he said.

Gilbert was hopeful and optimistic about the future, despite his health.


He really believed that the pacemaker he received recently would give him a new quality of life and some additional years. We prayed together that we would get to have many more conversations, and that he would have more time with his new church family.

He called me after the procedure and said, “I feel like a new man!” And we praised God.

When he was moved to rehab in DeSoto, I went out and visited and a physical therapist came in the room while I was there, and she was talking with him, getting him up to walk.

And, innocently, “How do you feel?”

And I looked over at him, and I may have said out loud, “uh oh.”

“With my fingers,” he said.

She gave him a look, and said, “You are a mess, aren’t you?” And she laughed.

And there was the Gilbert grin. Making people happy again.

No one knows what heaven is like but I will stand on this: It’s beautiful, and it will not contain the things that make life hard or painful or sad. When I think of Gilbert in his eternal home, I picture him wandering around with childlike glee, cracking jokes, making the saints laugh, testing his biblical knowledge against some of the apostles and the prophets.

I was with Gilbert just a few hours before he died. I can tell you that in his final days he was happy, he was filled with love for everyone. He trusted in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel – and today he truly is a new man, for all regrets, infirmities, difficulties, challenges are all behind him now.

Gilbert Ehler’s life was a gift from God.

I only knew him for four months, but have memories that will last a lifetime.

I am so thankful that God sent him my way. Like you, I just wish he could have stayed a little longer.











2 Comments leave one →
  1. susie sambell permalink
    April 24, 2020 9:11 pm


    Hi Matt,

    I thought you might like this picture 🙂 Hope you are all doing well during this covid craziness. I am sad for Emma that she could not finish her track season.

    We are all doing ok, and grateful every day that we are healthy and have food in the pantry.

    Peace to you!


    • April 25, 2020 3:18 pm

      Hi Susie, unfortunately I cannot see the picture! Thanks for commenting, glad that you are all doing well. Major cabin fever here, otherwise we are great. Emma was ready for her best season yet, but now she is preparing for the next one.

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