It was late spring, 1998. I had been preaching for a few months and teaching a middle school youth class for over a year. That is when I met Mike Murphree.
Mike was the pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in east Knoxville, where my grandmother was a long-term member and one of the churches I had visited at times during my childhood. I had heard his name at this point, but had never met him.
He was 47 years old, short, and standing just outside of the house I lived in with my parents. I was 20, tall, and wondering why he wanted to talk to me. I figured it was to invite me to preach for a special youth service. This was happening quite frequently as I was one of the few young preachers around.
Instead, Mike talked to me about possibly becoming the youth pastor at his church.
I didn’t know him well then; I just knew what little my grandmother had told me and what little I could see. I knew he was well-learned with a Master’s of Divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. I knew my grandmother believed him to be a good pastor, which meant he was a good pastor (she had excellent discernment about such things). I knew he was from Alabama. And that was about it.
I know a lot more about him now.
I know he has a fantastic, somewhat mischievous sense of humor. I know he is unafraid of confrontation, but controls that side of himself until it becomes necessary. I know he loves God deeply and his family with great tenderness. I know he enjoys learning, thinking, and sharing his thoughts with others and wants others to do the same with him.
I also know what it’s like to watch him slowly die.
I know all of this because a little while after I became the youth pastor of his church, his younger daughter and I got married. I have been his son-in-law for almost 23 years and for the past few years he and my mother-in-law have lived with me and my family.
One of the reasons they moved in with us was because of his gradually declining health. The decline is close to nearing its end. He is not far from seeing his Savior.
Through the years, I’ve enjoyed stimulating conversations with him about serious Biblical topics and silly conversations about the taste of dog food and the possibility of time travel. I thought I was going to have to get in a fight with someone at a Salvation Army drop-off site after Mike pointed out to a couple of guys who were taking some of the donated items the sign that said they weren’t supposed to be doing so. He has offered sage advice to me about pastoring, fathering, marriage, and more. He’s been one of my best friends.
Recently, I’ve become adept at walking backwards down the hall because that’s how I’ve been helping him to the bathroom, living room and kitchen. With his hands in mine, I’ve done my best to make sure he feels steady and secure, step by step. I have helped him out of bed and back to bed, onto the toilet and off. I still try to engage him in conversations like we used to have, but it has become more difficult both for him to think and to communicate what he is thinking.
He was feeling particularly bad today and nothing was providing him any relief. Running out of suggestions, I finally asked him if he wanted me to read to him. He did and I ended up reading 5 chapters of a book I’m reading to this man who I care for so much.
I know he’s tired. I know he’s weak. I know he’s close to being Home. Until he goes There, I count it a privilege to be present with him for the journey here, to help him as much as I can.
Some might say that Mike isn’t the same man he the first day I met him. He looks different, gotten weaker, struggles to walk. But he’s still the same to me.
A man I truly love.