Jonathan Smith: Grief and a Pastor Go for a Swim

Pastors’ calendars and lives can be an emotional roller coaster, mixing moments of celebration with times of tears.

My family experienced several tearful times in 2016: friends who suffered severe injuries, a dear friend who died, and another who was murdered. Our oldest son got married, and if you’ve ever had a child marry, you understand the joy mixed with “s/he won’t ever live under our roof again.” We put down our sweet dog at the vet and then drove straight to visit a dear family greeting a precious baby girl.

“I’m so ready to turn the calendar to 2017,” I told my wife Heather many times.

But 2017 was more of the same … and then some.

The following sentence is still hard to type. In fact, though I’ve written it by hand, it’s the first time I’ve typed this sentence.

My brother Jody is dead.

The brother who taught me to swim

Jody Raye Smith was a wonderful soul of caring mixed with determination mixed with stubbornness. Jody possessed amazing artistic ability. He played the piano and practiced by teaching me to harmonize while he played. And he wouldn’t accept mediocre pitch, intonation or sloppy breath control.

He pushed me to stand in front of congregations at the age of six and 10, 13 and 16. I grew comfortable onstage at a young age because of my brother. He was the first person who placed me before people to lead them toward Christ.

Jody took me to New Orleans for a few days when I graduated high school and introduced me to a personal passion—Cajun food.

I had my first sip of alcohol as well.

“That’s terrible,” I said. “Does all alcohol taste that terrible?”

“Yes,” he replied.

And so my life “on the sauce” ended all in about two minutes.

We sat at a jazz club on the edge of Bourbon Street three nights in a row listening to jazz. And yes, I’ve been going to that same spot since 1990, enjoying the music and drinking a Coke.

When it came time to choose a place to work on my doctoral degree, there wasn’t any consideration other than New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. They serve killer red beans and rice, by the way.

When Jody lived on the West Coast, during late night drives home when my family would be asleep, I called Jody, who was two hours behind me, and we talked and laughed for hours.

During the summer of 2017, the worst news came: Pneumonia that wouldn’t go away and a spot on his lung they kept trying to drain but couldn’t.

Though we had been honest with each other about many things, Jody finally revealed he had been sick for some time. I started to fear the inevitable.

The inevitable that flooded me

Heather and I were looking forward to the longest vacation of our lives. About four days into our trip to Germany, I received the call.

It’s funny being a pastor and a family member. On most days, you are simply a family member. But every now and then, you throw your pastoral “hat” on for your family.

Jody was back in the hospital and wasn’t doing well. A few days later, even though he had been told he didn’t have cancer in his lung, the diagnosis was Stage 1 lung cancer.

Normally, Jody would ask me to pray for him. This time, he asked me to pray with him. And I did so gladly.

“Do you want me to call our family members?” I asked, pastoral hat firmly in place.

“No,” he replied, “I will call them tomorrow.”

A few hours passed. It was about 2 a.m. in Germany when I received the call.

“Well, it’s actually Stage 4 cancer,” his friend told me over the phone, “and he has it in multiple places in his body.”

I already knew. I’ve been at hospitals enough to know. He wouldn’t survive.

Jody made the request, and wearing half a pastoral hat and half a son hat, I called my parents and my brother to break the news. I shook as I called but not from the cold.

Am I pastor or son? Brother or counselor? I’ve had many difficult conversations in my career, but calling my parents and brother on behalf of their son and brother to tell them, “He is going to die,” was by far the most difficult.

When Heather and I arrived home, Jody was mostly incoherent. Our last meaningful conversations were two prayers.

The text message came in the middle of the night. Jody was gone. And a part of me left with him.

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Source: Baptist Standard