by Brian G. Bettes
I would not normally use this space for personal thoughts, but on this occasion I will ask you to indulge me as I honor the passing of a true Christian. Having just performed the memorial service for him this past Sabbath, my thoughts are weighing heavy on my mind. On that day we put to rest one of the truest, most precious Christians I have ever known. His name was Jess Rodney (known to all as just “J.R.”) Hamilton.
Husband to one for 63 years, father to six, grandfather to seven, great-grandfather to eight, and great-great grandfather to one, J.R. was a man loved and respected by all who knew him. He left his fingerprint on every life he touched.
Called into the truth in the early 1960s, J.R. drove a beer truck for a large brewery to support his family. Upon learning about the Sabbath, J.R. promptly quit his 13-year run with the brewery and found another job as a mechanic, not easy for a man with children and no high school education. But he didn’t question God; he simply trusted Him. He and his wife Norma quickly became a foundational support in the local church where they attended and selflessly served.
There were widows and those without means in the congregation, so J.R. got hold of an old school bus, fixed it up so it would run, loaded everyone in the bus, and headed to Big Sandy for the Feast. His reasoning? “They would not have been able to go to God’s festival, so I had to do something.” Mind you, J.R. didn’t have a lot of money either, but what he and Norma had, they shared with all. That school bus ended up hauling teens thousands of miles all over the country for basketball games, volleyball games, and track meets with J.R. behind the wheel for every mile.
It was well known to all the ministry and brethren around the country back then; if you were traveling through Albuquerque, NM, you had a place to stay—at J.R. and Norma’s!
My wife and I met J.R. Hamilton for the first time on the Sabbath following the Feast of Tabernacles in 2007. He and Norma had heard about the small flock in Denver that was my privilege to shepherd while at the Feast. Having just moved to Colorado from New Mexico, they were looking for a place to fellowship, so they decided to drop in for a visit. They had just come to visit, but to our great joy they decided to stay. A strong bond of friendship developed almost instantly but grew to become a deep, loving, familial relationship. J.R. and Norma became two of Kristin and my favorite people. My friendship with J.R. would end up as one of the defining relationships of my life.
J.R was tall, standing nearly 6’5” with pure white hair and an equally striking mustache on his upper lip that nearly always had a smile on it. Already in his 70s when I met him, you would never know it. He was strong as an ox and active, cutting wood for the fireplace and working around his son’s property where he lived up in the mountains. Yet what struck most people who knew him was not his rugged toughness; rather it was his gentle, sensitive, and humble nature. J.R. was truly a man of steel and velvet!
Arriving at church, I would be met with J.R.’s great big smile and a bear hug. His greeting quickly became one of the highlights of my week. We spent many hours talking. He loved to talk about God, and he loved to talk about his family. He and Norma had extremely talented children, and long before we physically met any of them, Kristin and I “met” each and every one of them through the stories he and Norma told us. We saw pictures of them all; we saw the art work of one, the sketch book of another, heard about the musical talent and the band of yet another, the success of a granddaughter and her husband as they travelled the world with their business, and the heartbreak of losing a daughter when she was killed prematurely. Week in and week out we would hear about the successes and struggles as their children and grandchildren went through the ups and downs of life. J.R. loved to share his family with everyone he could.
Mostly his faced beamed with the right kind of pride over the joys of a family he deeply loved, but the big man knew how to cry too. He was actually quite easily moved to tears when his Texas-sized heart was touched with joy or sadness.
I was the pastor and, by his own words, a spiritual teacher to him; yet week after week he took me to school in how to really live what we believe. I always felt so inadequate in front of his love for others, his love for animals (a stray cat never had a chance around him once he decided to feed it and take care of it), his gentle spirit, his willingness to help and serve, and most of all, his deep humility.
On the note of humility, we fellowshipped with J.R. for a year and half before Norma accidently let it slip that he was a deacon (and had been since the mid 1970s) and she was a deaconess. Go back and read through 1 Timothy 3:8-13 sometime where it talks about what God looks for in a deacon. You will be reading J.R.’s life and conduct right out of the pages of the Bible. He was a faithful, albeit very quiet and humble deacon.
As those who know me will attest, I tend to read the Bible for what it says and just lay it out there for those listening to do what they will with it. If you take the Bible for what it says it tends to cut to the quick and hurt sometimes. One week after a particularly tough sermon when I was dealing with some problems in the congregation, I had pointed out some scriptures for all of us (including myself) to evaluate ourselves against. I must have been feeling guilty because a few days afterward I went to J.R. and asked him for an honest evaluation as to whether I was being too hard on the congregation or not. In typical J.R. fashion, he said in his southern drawl, “Son, the way I figure it, if you ain’t peenchin’ my toes, you ain’t doin’ your job!” It was a testament to his deep humility toward God and His Word.
J.R. would come to church every week and, nearly without fail, pull me off to the side to tell me that he needed to apologize to me for something that he said the week before in conversation. He would say it was his hope that he had not offended me. You see, he would go home after our weekly talks on the Sabbath and think through every aspect of our conversation. Something would strike him that he thought maybe he shouldn’t have said, or shouldn’t have said in a particular way. He was so careful and concerned about not wanting to hurt my feelings. Of course, he hadn’t even come close to doing so, but that was just the man he was, a deeply humble man.
Yes, as I said, I may have been the pastor but he continually schooled me in how to really live it.
J.R. graduated into the Family of God at the head of his class on August 24, 2016. His next waking moment will be the joy of rising in the air to meet our Elder Brother at His coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). I am certain after looking around to see Norma there too, he will be looking around to find other loved ones, among whom I hope to be one. It will be wonderful to see that beaming smile again and get a great big bear hug from him. J.R. Hamilton, you were a beautiful man and you will be deeply missed. Farewell, J.R.—’til we meet again.