What a morning!
Nothing had gone well and by lunchtime I was pretty frustrated. I had spent a good part of the morning on the phone with Diane. About a month after John had visited our home group she had come over to talk to Laurie and me about her continuing struggle over the affair she’d had with our former pastor. She’d been getting some help sorting out her emotions and felt she was ready to confront him. She wanted to know if I’d go with her.
My first reaction was to try to help her, no matter how awkward it would be for me. Initially I had no idea how to do it, or even if I could get an appointment with Jim. But the more I thought about it the more uneasy I felt. Something just didn’t seem right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I told her of my hesitation and she had given me some time to sort through it. But now two months later she was downright angry at what she thought was my procrastination and accused me of not caring for her.
No amount of assurance otherwise could dissuade her and she ended the call by hanging up on me. I understood, but it still hurt. As I was trying to decide what to do, two other phone calls interrupted my thoughts. The first notified me that an important house sale had fallen out of escrow. The purchasing couple had decided to split up and pulled out of the deal one week before closing. I was set to net about $5,000.00 from the sale, which was money we desperately needed by the end of the month. With no other deals even close to closing, I had no idea what I was going to do.
Then a few moments later my lunch appointment had cancelled. I was about to list a strip mall that was going up for sale, but at the last minute another realtor caught wind of the potential sale and had swooped in to take the listing. The client apologized, said he felt more comfortable with this other realtor and was sorry to disappoint me. I wished him well, though we both knew it was less than sincere.
I sat for a few moments at my desk with my head in my hands. The morning had been overwhelming and I now felt suspended over an uncertain precipice. I had no idea how all of this would play out, but I remember thinking at the time that I was surprised I wasn’t angry. I even wondered if I should have been.
I decided to drive home and see what Laurie was doing for lunch. As I walked out of my office, I was surprised to see John walking down the sidewalk toward me. He was looking down and hadn’t noticed me before I called out, “And what are you doing here?”
He looked up with a smile. “Oh, Hi Jake.” We met partway down the sidewalk with a hug. “I thought I’d see what you were doing for lunch.”
“I suppose you just happen to be in the neighborhood…” I winked as if we had some kind of inside joke.
“No, I actually came to see you. You’ve been on my heart for the last week or so, and I thought it might be a good time to come up.”
“Don’t you ever warn anyone when you're coming? What if I hadn’t been here?”
“But you are, so that’s not a question we need to answer.”
“But I had a lunch appointment just cancel, so you took a chance.” My excitement at seeing him quickly overwhelmed the morning’s disappointments.
“Is that place okay?” John asked nodding to a diner across the road.
“Not really. It’s a bit of a dive. The food is not great. But there’s an Applebee’s around the corner about a quarter of a mile. We could walk there or I could take my car.”
“It’s an incredible day, let’s walk,” John said as he motioned up the sidewalk.
“How are you doing, John?” I asked before he could ask me.
John looked a bit surprised at the question. “I’m doing well these days, Jake. I’ve done a bit more traveling than I’d like but I’ve met some wonderful people that are sorting out what it means to live this journey.”
“Is that all you do?”
“No,” he laughed, “But it's what I enjoy most. I’m a bit of a handyman, so I often do remodeling work, but mostly I do it just to be with the people involved. What about you, Jake? How are you doing?”
“I don’t know. I’m at a strange time. Things don't seem to be fitting together too well and this morning has been devastating.”
“Diane came to see Laurie and me after you brought her to our home group that night. She wants me to go with her and confront Jim about their affair.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Initially I said I would because I wanted to help her, but I needed to sort out how that might happen. It’s been three months, John, and every time I get ready to call Jim I get this overwhelming feeling that I shouldn’t. I really can’t put my finger on it. She was pretty angry today. She thinks I’m just too afraid to go through with it.”
“I really don’t think that’s it, John. Certainly it will be uncomfortable and I don’t look forward to it, but I keep thinking the timing isn’t right, or something else I don’t see yet.”
“That’s often how God works, Jake. If you’re willing to do something but don’t sense it’s right when you move ahead, you are better off waiting until it’s clear why.”
“Even if someone else thinks you’re a chicken?”
“Even if. You can’t blame her for not seeing what you see. Be true to his work in you and love others even through their misunderstanding of that. That’s how to live with grace.”
We had arrived at Applebee’s and I opened the door to motion John in ahead of me. We were shown to our table and, as we looked over the menu, John asked how the people were doing he'd met with last time.
As I looked up to answer, my eye caught sight over John’s right shoulder of someone who made my heart skip a beat. It was Jim, my former boss and the pastor at City Center. He was all smiles as he greeted the hostess and signaled for a table for two, but as soon as she turned to take him to his booth I watched his shoulder sag as he blew out a deep sigh. He looked like someone who had pulled an all-nighter. He went to a booth in the far corner and pulled out a book to read without even looking at the menu.
Distracted by his presence, I still tried to answer John’s question. “Everyone seems to be doing well, but the group as a whole has really broken down since you were there.”
“Why is that?”
“Part of it had to do with summer vacations, but I also think people took to heart what you said and have not been as committed to the meeting. People have lots of excuses and no one seems to miss getting together. I am beginning to wonder if we misunderstood you. Without commitment we can’t seem to find a way to get together.”
“Which might be a good reason not to,” John said putting down the menu.
“So you think there’s no value in people getting together if they don’t really want to?”
“Who said anything about wanting to, Jake. It’s valuable for the body of Christ to find each other and share his life together. Where people are doing that they don’t need commitment. They’ll bend over backwards to be with each other. Where they aren't doing that, it does little good just to be committed to a meeting. I’m convinced that most Christian meetings give people enough of God’s things to inoculate them against the reality of his presence.”
It was a good thing our waitress walked up then to take our order, because I needed to sort out what he'd just said. After we ordered, I turned back to John with half an eye on Jim who still sat alone. “So you think our meetings could become a substitute for God himself?”
“I don’t mean it that way. I mean they can become iconic. Because people get together, sit in a room, sing some songs and share Scripture they think they’ve experienced the life of the church. If that’s all been real, then they have. More times than not, however, it’s just a routine they feel good about having accomplished, but in the end they haven’t really shared his life at all. That’s why I like pulling commitment off of people. You find out where they really are on the inside, and that’s good for you and for them.“
“It sure doesn’t feel that way, though. It feels like they’re a bunch of flakes.”
“Maybe they are, maybe they’re just worn out with obligations. Let them detox from that for a while and then you’ll all know better. Besides, just because they don’t come to a meeting, doesn’t mean you can’t pursue fellowship with them individually.”
“So discipline isn’t important, John?”
“Discipline holds great value when your eye is on the treasure. But as a substitute for that treasure, obligation can be a real detriment when it gives you satisfaction just for completing a task.”
“Yes, but I feel like such a failure now.”
“Why do you feel like a failure?”
“I don’t know. I guess I want to discover real body life, but how can we if we don’t find a way to get together?”
“How could they stay away, if they had found it?”
I hate it when he reverses my playing field like that. I looked at him in a mock scowl and he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “What can I say?”
“You know what’s really strange, John?”
“I feel like I have more to teach now than I ever have, and that I have far fewer people to share it with.”
John laughed heartily. “If I had a dollar for every time I heard that…” Then he put his hand over mine. “It’s not about teaching, Jake. It’s about living. Learn to live this life and you’ll have no end of folks to share it with. Teach it first, however, and that will be your substitute for living it.”
Our food finally came and with it a shift in conversation.
“How are the finances sorting out for you, Jake?”
“It’s tough, that’s for sure. We’ve always managed to get by at the end of each month, but this one looks really tough. I lost two huge deals this morning. I was counting on one of them to get us into next month. I don’t know how I’ll make it now. I was really trusting God to close those deals.”
“Does trusting God to do what you think is best really sound like trusting God to you?”
It took me a bit to figure out what he was talking about since it was language I’d use without thinking. “I guess I’d never thought that through.”
“It would seem to me that trusting God allows him to do whatever he desires. If I focus that trust on a specific outcome, then I am only trying to manipulate him. Besides, you’ve still got a week, Jake. I wouldn’t worry about it. God’s care for you wasn’t dependent on those two deals.”
“That may be easy for you to say. I’ve got almost $5,000 worth of expenses coming due in the next couple of weeks and nothing on the horizon.”
“So what does that tell you?”
“That somehow God missed something, or I did.”
“If we don’t learn to trust, Jake, we will only interpret every event from our own self-centered vantage point, which is invariably negative and undermines our relationship with God. Look at it this way. On your way home one evening you have car trouble on the freeway and a dead battery in your cell phone, so you get home two hours later than you said you would. If Laurie trusts you, there’s no problem. If not, as your supper grows cold, she starts to worry, begins to feel threatened and even wrestles with the possibility that you might be involved with someone else. When you finally get home, she’s already angry at you and you have no idea why.
“Mistrust will only make us feel threatened or afraid so that we’ll either lash out at others in hostility, or turn it inward into depression. Growing in trust allows us to walk with God through our concerns and disappointments, knowing he has something else in mind than we might have thought.”
“Well I don’t see any way I can come up with that kind of money in so short a time.”
“You’re thinking with your head, Jake. There’s a thousand ways God can provide for you.”
“I guess he could turn my orange tree into a money tree if he wanted, but I’m not sure I should count on that.”
“I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t. But you have enough for today already, don’t you?” I nodded through a frustrated grimace. “That’s all we’re promised, Jake. He hasn’t promised to resolve our problems two weeks in advance, just one day at a time as we walk freely in him. And he told us we could be content with what he provides.”
“So if I just do what I want, he will provide all the money I need.”
John broke out in laughter. “Is that really what you heard me say?”
“Not exactly, but you make it sound as if I can just live in God without any thought of money. I’ve known a lot of people who followed that road straight into financial ruin.”
“Really?” John asked leaning over the table. “Can you name one?” I tried to think of a name but couldn’t. “You know, lots of people try to live by faith and just end up begging off of others.”
“So you’re saying that your experience has taught you that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said about seeking the kingdom first? Just because someone says they are following God doesn’t mean they are. People often put God’s name to their own agenda. But don’t let that rob you of the reality of living in his.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I sat back and just looked at John.
“What I’m saying is that following him, as he makes himself clear to you, is your responsibility. Providing for you is his. You’ll be better off if you don’t get the two mixed up.”
“Well that flies in the face of my puritan work-ethic.”
“As well it should…”
“But doesn’t Paul say if you won't work, you shouldn't eat?”
“I didn’t say anything about not working. I’m talking about doing the work God gives you to do and watching him provide for you as you do it. Paul was dealing with laziness and presumption, which is not you, Jake. If he has called you to real estate, do it with all your heart and he will provide for you. If he hasn’t, don’t do it just because you’re anxious to find a way to provide for yourself. You might consider that he might not be as interested in your doing real estate as you are. There are others to be helped on this journey. Maybe he has that as an assignment for you.“
“I’d love to be free financially to help others grow like that. I have some folks asking for my help already, but I was trying to get the real estate business going again so I could finance my other desires. You think that’s backwards?”
“No principle answers that, Jake. It depends on what he is asking of you.”
“But it seems so irresponsible.”
“In the mind of the world, it is. But if God’s asking you to do it, it would be irresponsible not to.”
“I guess I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. I want to trust God like that, but John, I’ve been taught to provide for myself all my life. I don’t know how to do it any differently. How does he provide for you, John?”
“In lots of ways, Jake. Some of it comes through work I do. Occasionally people I’ve helped in the past send me some gifts at Father’s leading, which allow me to spend time with people like you. It’s different all the time.”
“How freeing it would be to live with that kind of trust!”
“That’s the trust he’s building in you right now and those deals falling through are part of it. Through moments like this he wins our trust. And it’s obviously working.”
“What? Why would you say that?” I asked, not at all feeling like it was.
“Because you’re not as angry as you were when we first met. You’re in a desperate situation now; you’re concerned, but you’re not angry. That shows some incredible growth.”
And for the first time I realized that God had changed something enduring inside of me. I wasn’t resisting my anger. It just wasn’t there even in my disappointments. “Thanks, John. I hadn’t really seen that before now.”
“That’s how God wins your trust. He’s not asking you to do something despite all evidence to the contrary. He’s asking you to follow him as you see him unfolding his will in you. As you do that, you’ll find that his words and his ways will hold more certainty for you than your best plans or wisdom.”
“I’ve never seen it that way, John. I’ve always thought faith was something I had to conjure up to get God to act.”
“That doesn’t sound too healthy, does it? Trust is the fruit of relationship, not its source. The more you know him and his ways the freer you’ll be to live beyond the influences that tie you down to your own flawed wisdom. As you see his faithfulness unfold in your life through the coming days, you will come to know just how deeply you can trust him. That’s where you’ll find real freedom.”
“So there is no trust where there’s no relationship?”
“No, there’s not. Too many people confuse faith with presumption. They are consumed by their own agenda, even quoting Scriptures that prove God will have to do it their way and end up so disappointed when it doesn’t work out the way they’d hoped. But God will even use that disappointment to invite them into a real trust that is based on his unfolding work in them.
“I love the fact that you want to disconnect ministry from income, Jake. That’s a godly desire. There is nothing that distorts ministry more than believing you have to make a living by it. So much of our life in Christ today is corrupted because people want to use ministry to secure their income. We have inherited systems of body life and leadership that result from people trying to find a way to provide for themselves, rather than demonstrating what it is to live in God’s care. Once ministry becomes a source of income you’ll find yourself manipulating people to serve you instead of serving them. Until you are free to trust God to provide for you, Jake, he will not entrust you to his people.
“Just don’t think you’re the one that has to do the providing. Get this lesson, Jake. Living in the freedom of God’s provision is critical to what God has for you. Learn to live by what God puts before you, not by your plans and schemes. On any given day it could be as much helping someone find freedom and life in Jesus as it is to paint a house, or to dig those infamous ditches. He’ll provide all that you need, though he just may not do it the way you want him to. And that’s as true for relationships with fellow-travelers as it is finances.”
As we finished eating I noticed Jim sliding out of his table to leave. Surprisingly he had eaten alone and was now making his way up the aisle that would take him right by our booth. I cringed inside, hoping he wouldn’t see me as I nonchalantly tried to maintain my conversation with John.
“I don’t know all God has for you, Jake. Just keep following one step at a time, doing what you know to do each day. It will become clearer in time.”
As John finished, Jim walked right up to our table and greeted me. It was not the same old jovial Jim. He looked deeply pained. I introduced him to John and we exchanged pleasantries. Then Jim turned serious. “I need to talk to you sometime, Jake, if that would be possible.” His words seemed to catch in his throat.
“Listen, Jake, I need to make a phone call,” John said slipping out of the booth. “Why don’t you take a moment now?” Before I knew it John was gone and Jim sat down awkwardly. He put his head in his hands and started to choke up a bit.
I was pounded by emotions from fourteen different directions. I didn’t know whether to slug him or feel sorry for him. I just knew I didn’t want to be there right then. Finally he caught himself and looked up with eyeballs deeply seared with anguish. “You must hate me, Jake.”
“We’ve had better days.” I answered noncommittally. I had no idea where this was going and my gut was roiling.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time but I just haven’t had the nerve. Initially I was so angry that you wouldn’t back me up and when you left so many people got hurt.”
“Listen, Jim, we don’t need to rehash all of this. It was painful enough the first time.”
“I’m sure it was. I just want to tell you how sorry I am for what I did to you and let you know I’m resigning my pastorate.”
“You’re what?” I couldn’t believe it.
“No one knows yet. I was supposed to meet with the chairman for lunch today to tell him. He got called into emergency surgery, though, and had to reschedule.” He stared across the distance between us. “I’ve had it, Jake. I’ve been spiraling into depression for a long time. My own doctor told me the stress of ministry was killing me.”
“But I thought things were going well, Jim?”
“On the outside, sure! City Center has never looked better. On the inside, not at all!” He shook his head, unable to speak. “Do you know what it takes to keep that thing alive? Do you know how many fires I put out each week, how many people I have to prop up to keep it going? And inside I’m as dead as I’ve ever been. And every time I think of you, it only gets worse. You were one of my closest friends and I stabbed you in the back to save myself.” He looked straight at me through his tear-filled eyes. “I am incredibly sorry, Jake and I want to make this right with you.”
I had no idea how to respond to him. I felt sorry for him and I felt no small amount of joy that his mistakes had finally caught up to him. I didn’t like the latter feelings, but they were there.
“You probably don’t know that my dad passed away. I’m going to move back East to take care of his business for a while. And I’m going to get some help for myself. I’m also going to recommend that the church ask you to be their pastor.”
“I’m sure that will go over big,” I said with a nervous laugh.
“I don’t think you have any idea how well-respected you are there. You’d do a great job and I don’t know anyone else that would. Would it interest you at all?”
“Not in the least, Jim.” I was surprised at my own answer. Being in ministry again sounded good, and so did a steady paycheck, but not that kind of ministry, and not that kind of paycheck.
“Don’t give me an answer now, Jake. Just think about it. But I want you to know how sorry I am for what I did to you. It wasn’t fair. Of all people you didn’t deserve it. If I could take it back, I would in an instant. My life was such a mess in ways you don’t even know and I was just trying to survive. That was my mistake. I should have given up a long time ago.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wrestled with forgiving him, but wasn’t sure I wanted to so quickly. No one had hurt me more and I wasn’t ready to wash it all away with a simple, ‘I forgive you.’
“I don’t want to keep you now, Jake, and I know we have a lot more to talk about before we will have sorted it all out. But I want to do that, if you will.” Then he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an envelope and handed it to me. My name was typed out on the front of it with City Center’s logo and address in the corner.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s a gift, if you like. Truthfully, it is your severance pay. Our board spent some time last month talking about how we parted ways and most felt like we had treated you unfairly. It’s $10,000 Jake. It probably isn’t as much as it should be, but maybe it will help ease the pain some. There’s a letter of apology in there from the board, too. I was going to bring it by your office after my lunch, but when I saw you here…”
Part of me wanted to give it back and be above all of this. Part of me knew how much I needed the money. “I’m not sure I can accept this, Jim.”
“Take it. You earned it! Maybe this will open a door to healing.”
I nodded at him and let the envelope rest under my hands. Then I knew I had to press on. “Jim, I’ve been meaning to call you.”
“I’m in touch with Diane and she wanted me to set up a meeting of the three of us.”
His eyes popped open and the fear in his eyes was obvious. “Do you know what this is about?” he asked, his eyes probing mine to figure out how much I knew. I nodded and inexplicably tears formed in my eyes.
His head dropped. The silence hung between us for some time. Neither of us knew what to say. Finally after a couple of attempts, Jim spoke. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done, Jake, and I was hoping it wouldn’t have to come out.” He blew out a deep sigh and just stared at the table for a moment, fidgeting with John’s fork. “But I’m not going to run from it. I need to deal with this.” He pulled out his cell phone and scrolled through his calendar. “How about tomorrow afternoon at 4:30. Do you think that would work?”
“I’ll check with her, Jim, and get back to you.”
“Please do. I really do have to run, Jake, but I do want things resolved between us. And use the money,” he said, nodding at the envelope. “We wouldn’t put it to any better use anyway.”
I nodded as Jim slid out of John’s seat. He leaned over to the side of my head and whispered, “And think about coming back as pastor. I get the sense you’re a very different person from the one I knew and they could sure use your help.” And with that he was gone.
I sat and stared out the window for a while, completely at a loss to form a coherent thought. At some point John returned and put his hand on my shoulder. “Listen, Jake, I need to get going.”
We counted out money for the check and I gathered my things and headed for the door.
“How did it go with Jim?” he asked.
“I’m still in shock. He apologized, we scheduled an appointment with Diane and he gave me $10,000 from the board as severance pay.”
“Wow! How long was I gone?” John laughed.
“I’m just in awe at all the things that have converged in the last hour or so. How could God schedule all of this?”
“And without our help.” John slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t always expect so many things to sort out that quickly, Jake, but it sure sounds like God has answered some of your concerns.
“He’s also leaving the pastorate, John, and he asked if I would take his place.”
“Are you going to do it?”
“I don’t see how…” I shrugged as John laughed and we walked out into the bright afternoon sunlight.