Last week I lost a good friend. His name was John Montgomery. He was about ten years older and six inches shorter than me. He had iron gray hair, a gravelly voice, a ready smile, and a great laugh. He was a Southern Baptist preacher from the Northeast. He’d been a chaplain in the Federal prison system in the Washington DC area, pastored three churches, and worked as a chaplain in a retirement complex. And he was a left-handed guitar player with arthritis, who still loved to hear the guitar. And he could make a lamp out of anything…even old guitars.
I first met him at the weekly Pastors’ coffee and donut thing at the Baptist Collegiate Mission house in Terre Haute. It didn’t take long for his gentle, genial laughter to draw my attention. Somebody told him I played guitar, and his face lit up. “Hey, I’m a guitar player, too!” After that, John and I didn’t really hear much of what the brethren discussed. We had our heads together, talking about guitars and guitar playing and bands we’ve been in and places we’d played. It was great! He did played left-handed, though.
I was fascinated, and frankly intimidated by the time he spent as chaplain in the Federal penitentiary system. I asked him, “What was that like?” I thought it must be so hard to try to minister in prisons like that. To my surprise he spoke of it with great fondness. He told me that most of the guys he talked to or who came to the prison chapel were pretty humbled and open to the Gospel. They knew they’d messed up and they knew they needed Jesus. And John ministered to them for fifteen years.
Then he told me something that just blew me away. He said, “Dave, I ministered in federal prisons, and I thought I seen things, you know? Then I pastored three churches…” At this point his voice broke and his eyes teared up, and he said, “THAT was hard!” He went on to speak tearfully of a difficult situation in one of the churches he’d pastored, how badly he’d been treated, and how the church tore itself apart. He looked at me and said, “That was YEARS ago! Why does it still affect me so much?” I told him, “Because you have a pastor’s heart and you loved that church.” It was true. You could see it in his face. Well, most of ‘em…), and the speakers were passionate and enthusiastic about reaching others with the Gospel.
John is one of the people who persuaded me to buy a guitar. After my Dad died, to the surprise of my brothers and I, Dad actually left the three of us something. We’d all assumed that whatever he had would probably be used up in his nursing home and end-of-life expenses. After I received my part of Dad’s bequest, I thought long and hard how best to steward his gift. A thought kept coming to me. My Dad is the one who first taught me to play guitar, and I kept thinking maybe I should take some of his gift to me and buy a guitar to remember him by.
But I thought that was probably selfish, too. I have several guitars, and I really didn’t need another one. So I thought I’d ask my wife about it. When she gave me a look and asked me if I really needed another guitar, then I’d say, “Yeah, you’re right,” and that’d be the end of it. But she didn’t say that. Instead she said, “If that’s what you want to do, I think you should do that.”
Then I decided to ask Claudia Hensley what she thought. Claudia has told me repeatedly over the years that, when it comes to her husband, I’ve ruined a good man. She says that since Dave Hensley has known me, he’s bought too many guitars. (I look at Dave’s guitars and think, “That’s a good start!”) I thought if anybody would throw cold water on my buying another guitar, it’d be Claudia. To my astonishment she looked at me soberly and said, “You should do that. I did that, too: a relative left me something, and I bought a piece of furniture to remember her by.”
Then one Wednesday morning at our Pastors’ coffee, I asked John Montgomery what he thought about it. He became quite enthusiastic and animated, and in that gravelly voice of his, he said, “Dave, that’s EXACTLY what you should do! That’s a GREAT idea!” I was stunned. I told him, “I’ll buy the guitar, then bring it up and play it for you.” He said, “I’d love that!”
Then John was diagnosed with ALS disease.
It hit us all hard. We all loved John, and his wife Colleen. My wife’s mother died from ALS five years ago. We knew what was coming for him. John had told us for months that he was having trouble with his voice and his throat. But his diagnosis was like a punch in the gut. It hung like a pall over our coffee gatherings.
Until John walked in. He was his old cheerful self, and he spoke to us with incredible frankness about his condition. “Guys, we all gotta die of SOMETHIN’! And I’ve got a wonderful wife who loves me, and I’ve had a great life. God’s been good to me!” Then he told us that medication could possibly slow the disease and prolong his good days. He told us it might even give him ten more years.
That was not to be. I saw John three more times after that.
I started carrying my new guitar in the truck when I went to the Pastor’s coffee gathering, just in case John was there. One Wednesday he was there, and there were about ten or twelve of us gathered that day. I happened to be sitting on a stool right by John. I said, “Hey…I brought that guitar you told me to get. Wanna hear it?” He said, “Go get it! YES, I want to hear it!”
So I went out to the truck and brought it in. I sat right beside him and strummed a chord. His face lit up as only another guitar player’s can, and he said, “Oh, that sounds GREAT!” Then with the kind indulgence of the others present, I played and sang a song for John. I didn’t mind if the others listened in, but it was really just for John.
I knew the song I wanted to sing to him. I can’t believe I made it all the way through without breaking down. That was an answer to prayer. Over and over I sang to him, “God’s sovereign will is a soft place to lay your head.” He sat there, just to my right, with his head down the whole time. Afterwards he smiled and said, “I knew if I’d look at you, I’d lose it!” I would have, too.
Several months after that, he came another time to our coffee gathering. There were only about four of us there that day, and we were all blown away when he walked in. He had to speak to us through his smart phone, in typed or pre-programmed phrases, with a voice that sounded like Stephen Hawking’s. And HE encouraged US. It was unbelievable. We all agreed that John’s presence made it worth the trip that day. It was a real God appointment.
I saw him once more in the hospital a couple of weeks before he died. Colleen talked with Rae Anne out in the hall while I went into his intensive care room. John was intubated and hooked up to every kind of monitor and IV you could imagine. I wasn’t at all sure he was even conscious.
Then his right arm shot up in greeting. He’d seen me walk in the room, and believe it or not, he smiled with that tube in his mouth. He couldn’t speak at all, but he managed with hand signs to talk to me. He patted my arm. He stroked his growth of beard, as if to ask, ”How do you like this?” I told him, “It makes you look more like Jesus.” And the man laughed, silently laughed as he lay there in that hospital bed all hooked up to everything. Then he kept making a gesture with his right hand: index and little finger up, in the sign language for “I love you.” I played dumb. “Is that ‘hook ‘em, horns’?” He looked reprovingly at me. I mimicked the gesture with both hands. “Is it ‘Van Halen’?” More silent laughter. Then I got serious. “I know what it means. I love you, too.” Then he made the sign again and pointed out in the hall. “You love Rae Anne, too. I’ll tell her.”
Then I told him about a time I’d really struggled with fear, and how God gave me the verse Isaiah 41:10 on a vanity license plate on the front of a Ford pickup truck. Tears started to flow from his eyes as I quoted him that verse. We prayed together. Then I found some Kleenex and wiped away his tears. I told him, “Pretty soon, Jesus will do this for you for the last time.” I gripped his hand and told him I loved him again. I told him we were praying for him and Colleen. Walking out of John’s hospital room was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I’m so glad I got to know John Montgomery. I’m so glad he got to preach at our church a few times. I’m so glad he got to meet our daughter, Amy. She would lead the singing while my wife and I were gone on vacation. John told me later, “Dave, Amy’s a doll! I LOVE her!” In the surprising providence of God, my daughter and her family ended up at First Southern Baptist Church in Terre Haute, where John and Colleen are members. She’d tell me she talked to John and Colleen every Sunday. It killed Amy, too, to see John go through that awful disease.
But John Montgomery doesn’t have ALS now. I said to him in that hospital room, “John, it’s not a fairy tale. Peter said we haven’t followed cunningly devised fables. It’s gonna be okay, because Jesus said so.”
I’m so glad I got to know John Montgomery. I love and miss him. But we’re going to see John again. It’s gonna be okay. Jesus said so.