I can’t remember exactly the first time I met the man; but I remember liking him almost immediately. He liked Duke Basketball, and as a teenager I thought it was pretty cool that a preacher could talk about college basketball, even if it was in praise of Duke.
Despite growing up Methodist and living with their annual reshuffling of the church deck, this was the first change in pastors I had experienced. I remember though, that even as a teenager, I listened to what he had to say – at least most of the time.
That’s because church led by Jim Bailes was different. It was Church with a capital C. It wasn’t that church wasn’t important or that it didn’t matter before, because it did. But even as an oblivious teenager who hadn’t yet discovered coffee, I was awake enough to notice that when Jim came to town, church was more intense and had more of a purpose. It was almost as if learning to follow Jesus Christ with all you had mattered more than anything else possibly could.
I’ve been lucky to know a lot of preachers and was cared for well by all of them who were sent to my home church. Looking back, however, it is obvious that Jim’s ministry was the first one to point me to the power and the fullness of Jesus and his Gospel. I knew that others pastors who served that church loved me and cared about my family. Jim, however, showed me that the preacher was more than someone you saw on Sunday mornings. He (or she) could be someone who could know about your school life, could care about your home life, and could be interested in the life you shared with your friends at school and on the baseball field.
The most lasting thing he taught me was that the Gospel was about more than having a nice and comfortable Sunday morning experience. He taught me that we weren’t being faithful to Jesus if our Gospel didn’t bring good news to the poor, didn’t move us beyond ourselves and didn’t make us a little uncomfortable. He was the pastor who first taught me that embracing the full Gospel was about embracing everybody – even and especially if they didn’t talk like you, didn’t think like you, didn’t dress like you or didn’t grow up in the same kind of neighborhood that you did. Those are hard truths to live sometimes, but just because they are hard doesn’t mean they aren’t true.
Our relationship has changed over the years. Because now we’re more than pastor and church member, we’re more than friends. We are colleagues. And most of that is his fault. Because when I was trying to nail down just what it was God was asking me to do with the gift of a life I had been given, it surprised no one that one of the first places I ended up was at his house – talking and sharing, listening and praying.
In no small part because of the way I had seen him take seriously following Jesus no matter the cost, I found myself in seminary, exploring and living into a call to ministry that I was determined would reflect the love of God and love of people I had seen in him. Jim was one of the two pastors who officiated my wedding and he has become an invaluable guide as we have navigated the joys and challenges of leading two very different churches in the city that we both love.
Last Friday, a few hundred of Knoxville’s most committed people, heard a small amount of his legacy at the Emerald Youth Foundation breakfast. Despite his protests, a mutual friend called him to the stage and shared some of the highlights of his ministry – his love and commitment to all of God’s children, his faithfulness in a variety of churches across East Tennessee, his involvement in helping launch the Volunteer Ministry Center, and his assistance and work for many more non-profit agencies during more than 30 years of ministry. Implied in the recognition were the hundreds and thousands of lives, including mine and those of my family, who have been touched by his grace, his wit and his passion for the church, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.
It was a well-deserved moment. Dr. Bailes will be retiring at Annual Conference in June, and I haven’t fully processed what doing ministry without his partnership will be like. He will no doubt still be involved in making our city look more like the way God envisions it, but things will be different. Our conversations about Gospel and culture and family and Christ will likely feature even more talk about his granddaughter and his fruitless efforts of convincing his wife to allow him to bring a dog into the house.
Different or not, on my end they will still be full of gratitude – for the man who has probably done more than anyone to show me what Jesus looks like and where and how I can find him – in my life, in the life of the church, and in the heart of our city.
That, of course, is his fault. But I’m much better for it.