It was February of 2014. I was on sick leave. The previous September, I had announced to my congregation that I was going to be retiring the next year, but had to give a cover story as to why. By early 2014, I wondered how I was going to make it to retirement in one piece. I was being torn in half by gender dysphoria.
By the end of January, I finally found myself emotionally unable to hang in there. I requested time off. I asked for a month. At that time, only four members of the congregation knew about my gender dysphoria. Despite not knowing the full story, the church leadership graciously granted me a month off, and more if I needed it.
I spent the time in Indianapolis, at the home of my daughter. The only contact I had with the congregation was some emailing with the church secretary. I still was not a regular with a cell phone, so almost no one had my cell number.
My phone rang one evening, a couple of weeks into my leave. The area code told me the call was coming from eastern Michigan, and the local exchange that it was Port Hope. I couldn’t imagine who was calling.
It was Alan Pankow.
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When I met Ponch in 2001, I didn’t know what to make of him. As for his lovely wife, Darla, she was immediately everything she appeared to be—friendly, kind, generous, hard-working, sweet. And, apparently, patient, because, surely, married to Ponch, she had to be.
Ponch seemed like a stinker. A wise guy. As if you couldn’t tell him anything, because he knew everything, and he was always right.
I could not have been more wrong.
I don’t recall what it was in particular, when I knew the man to be far deeper than my surface assessment, but I know the generalities because the theme would arise again and again.
Ponch was not shy to make comments to get a rise out of me (I believe I hear a chorus of his Port Hope pals chiming in on that one), or to ask me compelling questions. I began to know that he was more than a smart aleck by how he reacted to an answer I provided.
He took it seriously. He pondered it. His face and his silence spoke volumes.
When he finally, gently asked, “Do you think so?” we were able to take a casual crack and get serious with it. And that’s when I knew I was going to like him.
It wasn’t long before I noticed his eyes. With almost everyone, when we smile or frown our eyes get in on the act. With Ponch, his eyes worked overtime.
The occasions that my comeback to his comment was different than he expected, his eyes grew large. When he thought he had stumped me, they twinkled. And when he told me of, say, the death of a friend, his eyes demonstrated how much that person meant to him.
Ponch was tall. Darla is tall. They both rode their bikes around the village. You always knew it was them coming. They never rode fast. Their pedaling was a metaphor for their lives.
Take your time. Enjoy yourself. Isn’t it a lovely day? Soak it in.
About that name, Ponch. Maybe a decade into our years in Port Hope, I asked Julie, “What’s Ponch’s name? For the life of me, I can’t think of it, because I never use it.”
His name, of course, was Alan. No one called him Alan. Never.
He was Ponch.
Was he ever.
Ponch’s obituary— http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/michigansthumb/obituary.aspx?n=alan-pankow&pid=188892902 —says that he served the St. John congregation as an usher and trustee. He ushered all of my thirteen years there. He was a trustee when I left, so he held that job for a number of years. He was one of the regulars who freely gave his time keeping the large church lawn mowed.
As a trustee, he was not slow to ask me how things were at the parsonage. I often felt that I needed to come up with something for him, so eager he was to make sure our house was in good shape. And when there was something to fix, he was right on it.
Ponch also served the village of Port Hope and the greater community in important ways. He was one of those ever-present guys. Always pitching in. Always making others glad that he was around. The kind of person that every community needs; the kind you miss profoundly when they have gone.
I am glad that he and Darla had forty years of marriage, even as I am sad for her loss. If I were privileged to preach Ponch’s funeral sermon, I would look at Darla, and then the family, and then the church-full of friends, and, after I said much of what I’ve written here, I would speak about our ultimate hope in the Lord Jesus, that just as Christ rose from the grave after His death so shall we be raised from our graves after our deaths, that we might live forever.
And I would point my right hand at his casket, as I did more than one hundred times from that pulpit during funeral sermons, and I would say something like, “This is not the last we have seen of Ponch. With Job we proclaim, ‘I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been destroyed yet in my flesh I will see God—I, myself, with my own eyes,’ and in our resurrection we will see Jesus as He is, our victorious Lord, and Ponch will be there to see Him, and you will be there to see Him, and we all will rejoice together. And when we ride our bikes, we will take our time, and enjoy ourselves, and every day will be a lovely day for us to soak in.”
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Standing in my daughter’s living room, next to her fireplace, I answered my phone. Who, from Port Hope, could be calling, when the only Port Hope number to ring had been from Julie?
“Pastor! It’s Ponch!”
“Ponch! What’s going on?”
“I wanted to see how you’re doing.” His voice cracked. “We miss you. We want you to get healthy and get back soon.”
“Bless your heart, Ponch. Gosh, I appreciate you calling.” We proceeded to chat as we always did, and my heart was filled with joy because of his lovely show of concern.
I’ll see you again, my friend. One day soon, I’ll be there with you, around the throne of the Lamb who was slain for us, our Lord Jesus, and we will sing His praises forever, and your eyes will twinkle with joy.
And my own eyes, which have welled up with tears at the writing of this, will also delight every day in Paradise.