“The future is as bright as the promises of God.”—Pastor Bob Hilderman.
Pastor Hilderman was our pastor for a brief two years in ‘68 and ‘69 in Tucson, Arizona. Now, it’s not uncommon for Baptist ministers to flit from one church to another after just a few years of ministry. I don’t know; I guess they all have dreams of driving big congregations. So it was not really a big deal when he announced that he was leaving our little church. He took his family to the Navajo Indian Reservation in Northern Arizona where he became a missionary, a radio announcer and the pastor of the community Christian church there.
Pastor Hilderman’s voice was deep and rich; musical and charming. Who could ask for a better radio announcer? His little station, KHAC, in Window Rock broadcast out about 75 miles. The programs were all Christian-based and many were presented in the Navajo language. How he loved that station! He also preached in the little church and played hymns on his saxophone. And, of course, he did all the things that preachers do in the community. He had a lot of fans and friends, and he introduced many of them to Jesus.
His name is Bob, by the way. And back in 1950 BC (before church), he used to be wild and wacky. He played his saxophone in whatever bar or tavern would give him a gig. Smoked Camel cigarettes, too—as fast as he could, as often as he could. Then one day Jesus called his name. “Huh?” he answered. He saw the light and followed Jesus. Before long he was the wonderful and wacky Pastor Hilderman. Had three kids by the time we met him and his wife JoAnn—and more friends than a lottery winner.
He’s gonna shoot me for telling this story, but it’s worth it. When he was a Bible Seminary student, he worked his way through school at Safeway. He didn’t get paid much, not even as much as a good weekend saxophone gig. He couldn’t afford his Camel cigarettes then, so he stole them from the store. Then went home to his Bible studies. Well, one day while he was nervously fidgeting, trying to find a moment to steal another pack of smokes, his heart thundered at him: “It’s either Christ or a Camel!” He chose Christ.
When the Hilderman family left Tucson, we were all left empty. But an amazing thing happened. Without fail we contacted each other every single month for 38 years. We used the mail, the phone and a few vacations. One time he drove 500 miles to officiate at our son’s wedding. Ours was a long-distance friendship that only Jesus could build. Even from far away, Pastor Hilderman was my pastor. He was my mentor and my friend. On the back of every envelop he mailed us he wrote, “The Future is as Bright as the Promises of God!”
I know there were times that I disappointed him one way or another, but he rarely let on that I did. I know there were a lot of times that he spent a lot of time in prayer for me and my family. He was on his knees on our behalf during some dark and stormy nights of ours. I am convinced that my life would have turned out unpretty had it not been for the prayers of my pastor, my mentor, my friend.
I also know that we shared a lot of laughs and jokes and hi-jinks.
Wouldn’t you know it? One day something went wrong with his back. Something really bad. For nearly 20 years, he struggled from sunrise to sunset. His pain was frequent. And intense. Beds. Hospitals. Morphine. Shunts.
But he never complained. Can you believe that? He never complained. He went about his business as a loving, helpful, cheerful ambassador for Jesus. I remember the day when he said, “I guess I’m going to have to give up my sax. It’s getting harder to breathe.” And then his throat and his beautiful, magical voice crumbled. He sounded an awful lot like a bad transmission.
Another day came when he knew that his days were numbered. But he never complained. “Come quickly, Lord Jesus” was his daily prayer. His eyes were always on Jesus who called him so many years ago. His affairs were in order by then; his ministry almost complete. His wife—strong, strong JoAnn—became the keeper of his gate. There in his last residence, the hospital in Albuquerque, Pastor Hilderman—his Bible always in his arms—was a minister, an encourager and a comfort to the staff around him. He wanted to go; but he wanted to stay. How they loved that man. Neither Pastor Hilderman nor JoAnn waivered in their love or faith during those last long days and nights.
“I’m ready to go home,” he kept saying. JoAnn understood. We all knew that Jesus would call him one more time. And soon. Call him to heaven. “Come quickly, Lord Jesus,” he prayed.
It happened a couple of years ago. My wife and I were eating at a Chinese restaurant; a buffet. During dinner, I suddenly noticed that the piped-in music was playing Christian hymns.
Hymns in a Chinese restaurant? That’s something that doesn’t happen. Not in this country.
“Hey, Honey,” I said to My Wife. “Listen to that music!” We cocked our ears to the speaker. “Am I hearing things?” Sure enough, it was Christian hymns in a Chinese restaurant. Hymns on a saxophone, too. On a saxophone!
We listened hard. They were some of Pastor Hilderman’s favorites. “I wonder if this is the Lord’s way of letting us know that Pastor Hilderman has passed away,” I suggested. We could only smile. Was Pastor Hilderman finally free from all that pain and playing his sax again? Having a jam session in heaven with Jesus—and us in a Chinese restaurant?
As soon as we got home, we called JoAnn. “I’m so sorry,” she said. She sounded strong, like she was breathing new air. “I haven’t had a chance to call you yet. I just got back from the hospital. The Lord took Bob just a few hours ago. He just went to sleep. There’s a lot of people here right now.”
“We knew,” we told her cheerfully.
“Oh? How?” she asked. We explained what we heard in the Chinese Restaurant. “He missed his saxophone,” she said. “I guess he’s playing it again.”
We never cried. My pastor, my mentor, my friend was pain free and enjoying his new bright future.
And we think it was a delightfully wacky way for Jesus to tell us that Pastor Hilderman was finally at home with Him.