Jacob A.O. Preus III was my friend. My friend’s spirit went to be with the Lord on August 4, 2022. I miss my friend. Many people knew Jack as a pastor, professor, or university president. I knew Jack as a mentor. And I got an opportunity to be his pastor.
I did nothing to earn the honor of being Jack’s pastor. It just so happened that our church is located in the warm Arizona climate where his son lives. Jack Preus IV chose Christ Greenfield. The father followed his son and called us his church home, too.
I preached at my friend’s funeral. It was an amazing privilege and blessing. I will never forget the experience. But it was also hard for two reasons. One, I have never in my life preached to so many LCMS leaders at one time. Pastors, presidents, and professors gathered from around the country to remember and celebrate our friend. I was a bit more focused and precise with my words than on a normal Sunday. I asked them not to judge. Perhaps some did anyway. Oh well.
Two, death sucks. Death is the enemy. Death is rarely, if ever, a welcome guest. Jesus came to destroy our last enemy. He will one day conquer it forever. I long for that Day. I look forward to once again enjoying Jack’s words, works, and wit.
Jack’s words did not come easily during his last days. A debilitating stroke (not his first) stole speech and mobility. While the stroke may have muted some of Jack’s words, it could not erase his wit.
The day before Jesus called Jack home, I was blessed to visit him during some final lucid moments this side of eternity. Jack’s son, also my dear friend, was beside his dad. Daughters Emily and Rebecca were gathered around the bed, offering comfort and support to their mom, Sherry. In these situations, Pastors are called to bring the family words of comfort and hope. I offered my favorite message of comfort. “Jack,” I said. “Jesus and your family love you very much.”
Jack leaned over to his son and said, “He doesn’t need to tell me that.” His dry wit made us all laugh. Christians like Jack can make the sorrowful and somber suddenly overflow with joy and hope. Only the Spirit of the risen Jesus can do that. Death and the devil are the things on life support, grasping at empty agony and darkness.
Before his health failed, Jack was disheartened by the current state of the LCMS. He saw its impending decline. He perceived the power plays and divisive, passive-aggressive behavior. This saddened his heart. He wished we could disagree agreeably. He lamented that many of our leaders had lost this ability. Six years ago, Jack and I traveled to St. Louis to meet with a group of pastors who consented to cross the narrow LCMS “missional” and “confessional” continuum. They came because Jack called the meeting. His systematic theology class had changed the trajectory of many of their ministries. Some of them wore T-shirts and jeans. Others dressed in khakis and clerics collars. A spirit of love and understanding collegiality saturated our time together.
Jack hoped to use his influence to help unite pastors and churches. At that gathering, the meetings did not result in many tangible actions. Change takes time. Nonetheless, I got to know my friend better. We had a great time dreaming of a future where pastors and churches could disagree agreeably and remain united in confessing our mission to make Christ known.
Jack was a leader. He realized that true leadership meant honestly evaluating the present and relying on the Spirit to give viable options to change a declining trajectory. I want to be a leader like Jack.
Pastoral leadership was not Jack’s primary vocation. First, he lived as a blood-bought and baptized child of God. Second, Jack was a doting husband, father, and grandfather. The grandkids called him “Bump-Bump.” His wife, Sherry, journeyed as his best friend for 47 years. Apart from her love, honesty, and support, Jack would not have acquired his incredible gift to influence. Sherry loved Jack completely, all the way to the end. Jack certainly married up.
J. A. O. Preus III was not my pastor, professor, or president. He was, and is, my friend. In this life, I got to be his pastor. I await our joyful reunion.