Pastors are people that are around death quite often. We visit hospitals when people are on their deathbeds. We’re there many times when church members take their last breath and we are at the funeral home and mourn with the families.
I have experienced a lot of death, but last week was the first time I experienced a death so close to me and so sudden.
Last week, one of my best friends suddenly took his last breath while he was doing what he loved. Myself and another pastor went looking for him when he didn’t return home from hunting. We found him beside his duck blind, gone. My friend Sterling died at age 47 while he was duck hunting. He died suddenly of a massive heart attack of some sort. He died living life to the fullest and impacting so many people. He lived life so well.
Sterling and I have been friends since 2005 when I moved to Georgia to be the Middle School Pastor at then Blackshear Place Baptist Church. Sterling was the High School Pastor and for the next 5 years we were inseparable.
We fished and hunted together.
We worked together.
We visited people together.
We preached together.
We made stupid videos together.
We prayed together.
We went on mission trips and conferences together.
We laughed together…a lot. Man, did we laugh together.
We even baptized our boys on the same day.
At the end of those 5 years, I went to a different ministry to pastor a church in Greensboro, Georgia. We stayed close. We talked on the phone often, hunted together and he even came and preached for me a few times. After 4 years in Greensboro, it was clear that God was calling me back to Blackshear Place, which would later be renamed to Christ Place Church.
Sterling had changed roles and at the time I came back, he was the Pastor of Men and Evangelism. This transition was a little awkward at first because I came back as his supervisor. I always looked up to Sterling and his leadership ability and to come back and have the roles reversed was different for him and for me. In this weird transition he taught me so much about humility. I know it was tough on him that he was not in the role that I now filled.
I know it must have been hard on him…but he never acted like it.
He never treated me like he was resentful. Since returning, Sterling was my biggest fan and greatest cheerleader. He wanted me to do well. Like he really wanted me to do well. I felt it! I believe one of the greatest signs of spiritual maturity is the ability to be happy for others. I have met very few individuals who have the humility to see others succeed and to cheer them on.
Over the last few years, there are a few times that Sterling and I had to have hard conversations. I had to say something to him that hurt or vice versa. We understood that as iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another. There is no sharpening without friction. It was in these hard moments and hard conversations that the “sterling” character of my friend shined brightest. Not only did he receive hard conversations well, he had the wisdom to see that a hard conversation was a teachable moment. It takes a real friend to tell you the truth about your blind spots. He was that for me and I was that for him. He ALWAYS took any criticism I had for him with a smile and a deep desire to grow to be a better man because of it.
He wanted to be better! He was always growing.
Sterling really believed that the mission was more important than the individual. He really believed that no matter what role he was in, he could make a difference. At his funeral this was evident. The church was packed. It was full of hundreds of men and women who had been personally impacted by Sterling. Friends came from Alaska, Portland and all over the country to honor this great man who had made a difference in their life.
Sterling knew that the impact of a person’s life did not come from their position, but from their influence. As my Pastor said at the funeral, “It is not the duration of one’s life, but the donation of one’s life.” There are many people that get old and never help anyone. There are others, like Sterling, that seem to be gone too early but the impact of their life literally ripples throughout eternity.
You know, there is something in a name. Many times our names tell us much about our character. I always thought that Sterling had an interesting name. I looked up the word “sterling” and here is one definition that I felt like fit well.
Sterling: conforming to the highest standard.
This is a great way to describe my friend. He lived all out and he conformed to the highest standard. He wanted to be like Christ.
In the days ahead, those of us that loved Sterling have a big void. Many times this week I have experienced “phantom Sterling.” I have heard something that sounded like his laugh. I have, in my mind’s eye, seen his head peeking in my office door as he often did. Even yesterday at his funeral as our team of pastors stood in a line to usher out his body, I could almost feel him standing there beside me as he had done so many times before.
As I move forward I want to be a humble and teachable man who is always getting better. When I die I one day, I want others to be able to see a glimmer of Jesus in me. Sterling’s sister is in the band Casting Crowns. They have a new song out called “Only Jesus.” There are a few lines in that song that ring true of Sterling that I pray would one day ring true of my life.
“I don’t want to leave a legacy
I don’t care if they remember me
I’ve only got one life to live
I’ll let every second point to Him