I didn’t have a clue what to do with the information I’d just been handed.  I finally had the goods on my former pastor but now I had no idea what to do with them.  If I had known a year ago what I knew now, I wouldn’t have had any question. 

It all came out in a chance encounter at the mall.  I had rushed in to pick up an anniversary present for my wife and grab a quick lunch before a 1:30 appointment.  My face was buried in a week-old news magazine as I downed my cheeseburger at a table in the middle of the food court.  When I looked up to turn the page, I noticed a bright red dress in front of my table.  Looking up I saw a familiar face, one I hadn’t seen in awhile.

“Can I talk to you for a moment?” Diane asked almost hyperventilating while she looked around as if the police were about to close in on her.

“Sure, sit down.” I mumbled through a full mouth as I pushed my things aside to make room for her at the tiny table.  She sat down warily and I couldn’t help but notice what a beautiful young woman she was, her long, dark hair spilled over her shoulders framing out her vivid blue eyes.  But her furrowed brow, pursed lips and sad eyes told me all wasn’t well.   I had first known her as an exuberant, spunky young woman who came to Kingston to attend the local state college.  Immediately after she graduated she married a man who began to abuse her as soon as they got married.  She’d finally divorced him and our fellowship had stood by her through the ugly process.  That was almost three years ago.   I had not seen her since.

“Are you OK?” I asked

“I’m making it a day at a time, but it isn’t easy.  But I came over here to check on you.  How are you doing?  I heard what Jim did to you and I’ve been so concerned for you and Laura.  Are you two doing alright?”

“Diane, thanks for asking.  That means more to me than you know. It hasn’t been easy at all.  I’ve had a hard time getting back into real estate and there are lots of people we miss.  Some of them still avoid us in public, others are passing along horrible rumors about us.”

Diane scanned the mall again and fidgeted with her hair. After an awkward silence she leaned forward and spoke almost in a whisper.  “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.  I am so embarrassed by it and I swore I’d never tell anyone.”  She bit her lip and stared beyond me looking for the right words.  “About Pastor Jim…” She fought to hold back the sob that had already crested in her throat.  “There’s something you don’t know…” her voice trailed off.

I reached across to pat her hand that was resting on the table.  “It’s OK, Diane.  You don’t have to tell me if you’re not comfortable.”

 “He took advantage of me,” she blurted out suddenly while choking back a sob.  I had no idea what she meant and as I tried to figure out what question to ask she’d gathered herself enough to continue.  “I’ve really fought the urge to tell you this, but when I saw you here alone today, I just knew I had to.”

In measured words she told me that she’d had a three-month affair with Jim. During the divorce and for almost a year afterwards she stayed in a spare room of their home.  Toward the end of her time there they had gotten involved and he told her he was willing to give up his wife for her.  She was still deeply conflicted about what had happened and alternated from blaming him to blaming herself.   “I should not have stayed there.  I was just too much temptation for him, especially with the problems he was having with his wife.  They fought all the time.  One morning I woke up, knowing this wasn’t the person I wanted to be and moved out.”  Tears streamed down her cheeks.

I slumped back in my chair, uncertain what to say next.  I thought of a conversation I’d had with Jim when Diane stopped coming to our congregation after she moved out of his home.  I asked him if something had happened and he waved me off cavalierly.  “She just felt her needs would be met in a younger congregation.”  I was surprised to hear that given their close friendship. 

She started to get up from the table.  “I haven’t told anyone about this and I’ll deny it if you do, but I thought you needed to know.”

She stood up and I quickly joined her.  “Wait,” I pleaded as she backed away.  “I am so sorry for you.  Is there anything…?”

“Please, don’t even try,” she said putting both hands up defensively, her voice breaking.  “I’ve got to go.  I’m so sorry.”

She rushed away as I called again to her.  I felt the eyes of a dozen folks nearby staring at me.  I smiled awkwardly and sat back down deep in thought.   I’d always wondered how my relationship with Jim could have changed so abruptly.  But this news brought me no joy.  I didn’t feel like eating the rest of my burger and the longer I sat there the angrier I got.  So the one who lied about me was living a lie himself. I had no idea how to play this out.

As I got up to leave I found myself for the first time in recent memory scanning the mall for John’s familiar figure. I hadn’t seen him since the football game almost four months ago, and only thought about him with great appreciation for the things he’d helped me see.  This news made me want to talk to him again.  I remembered John asking me once what I thought Jim might be hiding.  I’d had no idea. 

I didn’t see him on my first sweep and grew frustrated that he had never given me a way to get in touch with him.  I had no phone number or email address for him.  I started to walk back through the mall, to reach my car in the far parking lot.  As I passed the fountain in the center of the mall, I saw him.  He was sitting on a bench with an infant playing in his lap and talking to a young man.  I shook my head and smiled.  John always seemed to fit so naturally into his environment. 

As I approached the young man stood up, shook John’s hand, scooped up his child from John’s lap and put him in a stroller.  The little boy turned to wave a clumsy goodbye to John and as John returned it with a smile, I slid in next to him.  He turned surprised to me, broke into a bigger smile and put his arm around my shoulder.  “Jake, it’s good to see you.”

 “I can’t believe you’re here.”  I said.  “I was just thinking about you.”  Then motioning to the couple moving off, I asked, “Are they friends of yours?”

“They might be now.  I just met him on the bench while he was waiting for his wife.  We had a delightful conversation as we played with Jason.  He doesn’t think he knows God yet, but that’s just because he hasn’t recognized his hand on his life.  But that’s another story.   How are you doing, Jake?”

“You won’t believe what I just heard.” 

“About what?”

“Do you remember asking me what my former pastor had to hide when he grew distant from me?  Well, I just found out he had an affair a couple of years ago with a woman who was staying in his home while she was going through a divorce.”

John’s smile quickly faded into pain as sorrow crept across his countenance.  As tears pooled in his eyes, I heard him sigh almost in a whisper, “Oh, God, forgive us.” Why was I so excited at that which brought him such obvious pain?

“Do you know this for sure?” John asked.

“The woman involved just walked up to me a few minutes ago and told me.  She said she thought I needed to know.” 

“How was she?” 

“She didn’t look well, but she didn’t stay around to talk.  She ran off as soon as she told me.”

I could see the pain in his eyes as he just stared out across the mall.  After an awkward silence, he finally spoke.  “What are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know.  That’s why I wanted to talk with you.  I’m sure he needs to be confronted.  It will at least vindicate me.”

“How does it do that?”

“It proves he’s a fraud.  Now everyone will know.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?”  I could see his eyes had filled with tears.

“No, I don’t want to,” I said with less sincerity than I’d hoped to muster.  “But shouldn’t someone?”

“That’s not yours to answer, really.  You only answer for what you’re asked to do.”

“But no one else knows, John, except the woman.  And I don’t think she’ll do anything.”  John was silent again for some time.

“What do you think I should do?” I finally asked him.

“I can’t tell you what to do, Jake.  But I don’t think you should assume what’s best but ask Father what he would have you do.  But this is certainly not something to triumph in.”

“I hope it didn’t sound that way.”  I added.

John shrugged his shoulders.   “Who cares how it sounded?  It only matters what is.”

“But I want that failed system to be seen for what it is, John.  He defrauded me, that woman and those people who go there and he’s getting away with it.”

“No one gets away with it, Jake. He’s paying for his failures in ways you can never imagine.  Don’t forget sin itself is always its own punishment.  It makes him less the man God wants him to be and it destroys others around him, even if they don’t know why.  Already people sense his emptiness and his struggle.”

“But doesn’t he need to be exposed for what he’s done?  I want people to see the truth.”

 “Can’t they already see it, Jake?  After all, he is who he is, not who he pretends to be.”

“But it doesn’t look that way.  People think he’s this godly man.”

“There’s the rub isn’t it.  When you’re not content with reality you will always worry about the way things appear.” 

“I don’t think so, John.” The anger in my words surprised even me. He was trying to take out of my hands the best weapon I’d had in a year.  “He just needs to be seen for what he is.”

“Hasn’t that already happened?  He’s already betrayed a friendship to protect himself, and lied to a congregation to discredit you.  Doesn’t arrogance already exude from his life?   Why is it worse for you evangelicals when it is sexual?”

I’ve got to admit he surprised me there.  I thought sexual failure was worse than anything else.  After a stunned silence I replied through gritted teeth, “Well, it at least makes it obvious.”

“Don’t get angry with me.  I didn’t do it.”

“I’m sorry, John, I’m just frustrated at the way you’re responding to this.  I thought this would help win people to our side.”

“What side is that?”

“You know!  Those who oppose the false system of organized religion and are committed to following the New Testament model of house churches.”

“That doesn’t sound like a side I want to be on.   Have you ever heard me talk like that?” 

I was almost frantic now with where John had taken this conversation.  “You’re the one who helped me see the failures of organized religion.  Don’t you champion intimate expressions of fellowship between believers?”

“It’s one thing to see through things and quite another to be against them.  I’m all for believers learning how to walk together in real fellowship, but we haven’t even begun yet to talk about how that might happen.”

“Doesn’t it always produce this very thing—men like Jim, pretending to be leaders when they lie and devour others?  I’m sick of it, John.”

“They are not all frauds, Jake. Not all groups become as destructive as yours.  Those that treat leaders as if they have some special anointing are the most susceptible to being deceived by them.  It seems people who assume or who are given the most human authority forget how to say no to their own appetites and desires.  It is so easy for any of us to end up serving ourselves when we think we’re serving others by keeping an institution functioning.  But not all of those who do it end up so broken.  Many are real servants who only want to help others and they’ve been led to believe this is the best way to do it.  Always separate the failure of the system from the hearts of the people in it.

“Any human system will eventually dehumanize the very people it seeks to serve and those it dehumanizes the most are those who think they lead it.  But not everyone in a system is given over to the priorities of that system.  Many walk inside it without being given over to it.  They live in Father’s life and graciously help others as he gives them opportunity. “

“I don’t care about all that, John.  I just want Jim’s failure exposed to the world.” I could feel my face flush with anger and my hands ball up into angry fists. 

“Why are you so angry, Jake?  I haven’t seen you like this before.”

I finally leaned back on the bench, let out a deep sigh and managed to release some of my anxiety with it.  I didn’t really want to fight John. I wanted to hear what he had to say.  My words came out less defensive and far more probing.  “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I don’t know.  Your response to me seems disproportionate to what we’re talking about.  It makes me wonder what else is frustrating you.”

I thought for a moment.  “The only thing I thought I was getting right was not being tyrannized by other people’s opinions.  For the last few weeks I haven’t felt that nagging shame when I crossed paths with people from my old fellowship.  That has blessed me.”

“As well it should,” John said with a smile.

“But now you’ve turned all this against me.  You just think I want vengeance against Jim.”

He reached out and put his arm around my shoulder.  “Jake, nothing could be further from the truth.  Believe me, I know how rough this is.  I think you’re doing incredibly well getting through this transition.  I just don’t want you to make it any harder on yourself."

 “I guess I’m struggling in a lot of areas, John.  Getting back into real estate has really been hit and miss.  I had a huge deal fall apart last week at the last minute.  It would have set me up for years to come.  I barely make it through each month and am never sure how to get through the next one. I hoped my life would be much more stable by now.”

“Maybe you’re looking for stability in the wrong places, Jake?”

I almost hated to ask, “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Jake you’ve learned to measure stability by your circumstances and by your ability to see how things will work out months in advance.”

“And that’s wrong?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s wrong.  I’d just say it’s not going to help you walk in this kingdom.  When we’re looking to the future, we’re not listening to Father.  Anything we do to try and guarantee stability on our own terms will actually rob us of the freedom to simply follow him today.  We’ll resort to our own wisdom instead of following his.  The greatest freedom God can give you is to trust his ability to take care of you each day.

“That’s where it always gets confusing for me, John.  I do have enough for today—enough money to take care of our needs, enough fellowship to encourage me onward, and enough grace to endure the rumors of others.  It’s when I look further down the road that I get worried.  I don’t see how this will work out over time.”

“We’ve all been there, Jake, and I certainly understand that.  But that’s because we can’t see yet what God will do.  We can only see what we can do.   You think exposing Jim’s affair will fix everything when in fact it will fix nothing.  People who can’t see his arrogance won’t be convinced of his moral failure.  If he has already been unfaithful, he’ll think nothing of lying about it.”

“I never thought of it that way.  But I hate it that people think he’s so righteous.”

“But they only think he is.  It’s an illusion and while illusions can be powerful, they are still illusions.”

“But most people live by those illusions.”

“Only because they want to, Jake.  I don’t want you to.  You appear to be the bad guy when you know it isn’t true.  You appear to be on the verge of financial ruin, but you’re not.  Never let mere appearances become your reality.”

“But I want others to know the truth, John.  Why should they get to live in their illusions?”

“Believing a lie isn’t something someone gets to do.  It’s something they are trapped in.  You have some information that may help you know better what is really going on.  Let God show you what to do with it.  Don’t just assume broadcasting it is what he wants, especially when you’re the one who will benefit most from it.”

“But shouldn’t people know?”

“If Father wants them to, they will.”

“But I’m the only one that knows, except for the two who have every reason to hide it.”

“Yes, that’s how it appears, Jake.”

“But if we won’t, God can’t, at least that’s what I’ve always been told.” 

John chuckled in amusement.  “And that’s the biggest lie I’ve heard today,”

“Really?”

“Really!  God has so many ways to do what he wants to do.”

“But aren’t we part of that, John?”

“We’re part of it, but not the biggest part.  We only need to do what God puts on our hearts to do, and doubting his ability to work in us is not the best way to listen to him.  The great lie of this broken universe is that God cannot be trusted and that we have to take care of ourselves.

“That’s the lie that snagged Eve.  The serpent convinced her that because God had ulterior motives she couldn’t trust what he said about it to be true.  By not trusting him she did what she thought best for herself.  But it backfired, didn’t it?  It always does, Jake.  Our worst moments result from grabbing for ourselves that which Father has not given us.”

“We are to live on his ability not our own.  Remember what Scripture says about his ability:  ‘And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.’  ‘Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us...’ ‘I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him on that day. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.’  ‘Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.’  And, ‘(he) is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.’

“That seems like an awful lot of ability going to waste if we think we have to do those things for ourselves. Our biggest messes come when we try to do something for God that we’re convinced he can’t do for himself. ”

“Then what do I do, just sit around and wait for God?”

“Who said anything about sitting around?  Learning to live in trusting Father is the most difficult part of this journey.  So much of what we do is driven by our anxiety that God is not working on our behalf, that we have no idea of the actions that trust produces.  Trusting doesn’t make you a couch potato. As you follow him, Jake, you’ll find yourself doing more than you’ve ever done, but it won’t be the frantic activity of a desperate person, it will be the simple obedience of a loved child.  That’s all Father desires. ”

“Does the same go for fellowship, John?”

“It’s even worse.  The groupthink that results from believers who act together out of their fears rather than their trust in Father, will lead to even more disastrous results.  They’ll mistake their own agenda for God’s wisdom.  Because they draw their affirmation from others they’ll never stop to question it, even when the hurtful consequences of their actions become obvious.”

“That’s scary, John.” 

“I’ve watched it for many, many years.  I’ve seen God’s name attached to the most incredible absurdities.”

“Doesn’t it make you mad?”

“It used to, I’ll admit that.  But I’ve come to realize that he is bigger than anything we can do to smear his name.  His purpose will win out over humanity’s greatest failures on his behalf.”

“What does that say about fellowship?  Do you remember I talked to you about this house church we were starting last time I saw you?”

“I do, how is it going?” 

“It started off with a bang, but it’s trailed off since then.  People only come when it’s convenient, and when they do they wait for someone else to do everything for them.  We spend a lot of time just staring at each other trying to think what we should do next.  People just aren’t committed enough to make it work.”

“If it needs commitment, maybe you’re missing something?”

“For instance?” I prompted him.

“I don’t know.  Hunger… reality… God’s presence, perhaps.  It could be a lot of things, but if you don’t sort that out then anything you do together will not celebrate God’s reality, but try to be a substitute for it.  And no substitute for God ever suffices.  That’s why we try to obligate people to a meeting rather than equip them to live in Someone.  I’ve found that when people are discovering what it means to live in Father, they won’t need commitment to keep them linked.  He will be enough to do that.”

“But don’t we learn how to trust him through the body?”

“Actually, it works the other way around.  Trust doesn’t flow out of body life, it flows into it!”

“But what if people don’t know how to trust?”

“Certainly we can help each other learn to grow in trust, but that growth is the prerequisite for sharing life together, not the fruit of it.  Remember when you were back at City Center?  How many decisions and policies were made because you were afraid—of people not coming, not growing, not giving money, or falling through the cracks and getting lost?

“Probably 90%,” I responded.  “Most of our discussions had to do with our concerns that someone would make a mistake—hurting themselves or embarrassing the congregation.

“Then 90% of what you did was based on fear not trust.  And you passed that same insecurity on to others as a way to keep them involved.  You have yet to see what body life can be when people are growing to trust God, instead of living in fear.”

I had forgotten about my 1:30 appointment until I happened to glance at the clock above the fountain.  It was already 1:40.

“I’ve got to run, John.  I was supposed to meet a client at the office ten minutes ago.  But I want to pursue this more.  Can I get a number where I can reach you?”

“I don’t have a number to give you, Jake.  I move around too much to have a phone.”

“Email?”

“No, sorry!” He shrugged his shoulders.

“You want me to trust Father with that too?”

“He’s been pretty good about it so far, hasn’t he?” John said with a wink.  I chuckled in confirmation.  “Then why don’t we just leave it there?”

“But I’d love for you to come and share with our house church sometime.  I’ve told them about some of our conversations, and they would love to meet you.”

“I’d love to come sometime.   When do you meet?”

“Sunday nights usually.  Could you come this week?”

“No, I won’t be in town through the weekend.  Let me decide on a time and give you a call,” John answered.

I handed him one of my business cards.  “I’m sorry I’ve got to run.  But please call me.” I heard him say he would as I turned away toward the parking lot. 

As I did a flash of red caught my eye.  It was Diane walking out of Sears holding the arm of a man pushing a stroller. He was the same man I’d seen with John earlier.  She smiled into his eyes as she hugged his arm and I was left wondering what that was all about.