Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Minister's Glass House

It's been said that a minister and his family live in a glass house. And to a certain extent that's true. There's not much that happens in a minister's home that isn't on display for all the world to see. Everyone knows whether you practice what you preach. Which is why, for the most part, I tend to be rather transparent and self-depracating. I try to practice what I preach, but I freely admit my failures and weaknesses.

However, there are things that occur in the midst of ministry that most people are never aware of. Most ministers carry around a burden of concern for others that would cause the average person to collapse under the weight. And then there are the stories. Stories about ordinary people, living ordinary lives, but experiencing extraordinary moments when God intervenes. Many ministers can't tell the stories that they heard or were a part of for fear of divulging secrets that would embarrass or harm. But many of them are such wonderful stories of God's amazing power it's a shame not to tell them.

So here's what I've decided to do. I'm going to tell you the stories about God's amazing power in the lives of ordinary people. Fictional people. With fictional names. All of these stories are fictional stories. Okay, some of them need a disclaimer like the movies that say, "Based on a true story." But if you think you recognize someone, you will be mistaken. All of these stories are fictional. The events that are described are my own imagination, blended with  memories of events that have happened during 30 years of ministry.

But in these stories you will get a glimpse of some of the events that ministers witness on a regular basis. The minister in these stories is Josh Campbell. He, like everyone else, is fictional. You will get better acquainted with Josh as each story is told. we go. I'm pulling back the curtain on the glass house so you can see the amazing way God works in our lives. Just remember, the windows are tinted. ;)

Welcome to The Minister's Glass House.

Sexual Harrassment at Church

(One thing is certain, churches are made up of people, and people will always act like...well, like people. Some of the stories that I tell concern good people who made bad choices. This is one of those stories. As much as we would like to believe that things like this don't happen, they do. As much as we would like to believe that Christians are perfect, they're not. So these stories reveal the uglier side of people, but the beautiful side of God. For we could not fully comprehend the magnanimity of God's grace, if we didn't recognize how much we need grace.)

“Why does the phone always ring when I'm in the middle of studying?” Josh fussed to no one but himself. It was Thursday and Josh had been busy working on his sermon when the phone interrupted the quietness.

When he answered the phone and heard Leanne's voice on the other end he quietly fumed some more. “Leanne knows this is my study time. Why is she calling me?,” he thought to himself. But Josh could tell that something was not right. He could hear it in her voice. After testing Josh with a few trivial questions about work, etc., Leanne finally revealed why she was calling.

“I talked to Margaret this morning,” she began.

Josh's mind quickly retreated to the previous night's events. There was always a dinner on Wednesday nights for everyone who wanted to eat together before the mid-week study. The dinner always seemed to help those who didn't have time to prepare a meal before coming to the study. Margaret and her 15 year old son Jesse were at the dinner last night, and Jesse stayed for the study, but Margaret had strangely disappeared after the meal. Even Jesse didn't know what had happened to his mom and Josh ended up taking him home afterward. Maybe Leanne had some news about Margaret.
“Is Margaret okay?” he asked.
“Actually, she's not. She's really upset.”
“She seemed okay at the dinner. What happened?”
“You're not going to believe this, Josh.”
And Leanne began to retell Margaret's story.

After dinner people were carrying leftovers to their cars before going into the sanctuary for the Bible study. Margaret had several items to carry and Roger had offered to help her. Roger was in his mid-50's and had retired from the Army and now spent most of his time reading dime-store Western novels. Roger and his wife, Jennie, were a couple with chronic marriage problems.

By the time Margaret and Roger had reached her car everyone else had entered the building and they were the only ones left in the parking lot. That's when it happened.
“Roger tried to kiss her,” Leanne said.
“He did WHAT?” Josh shouted.
“Margaret said he tried to kiss her. After she put her dishes in the trunk he leaned in real close and puckered up like he was going to kiss her. She said she had to push him away just to get away from him.”

They talked for a few more minutes then said goodbye. Josh was stunned. He sat quietly for several minutes trying to decide what he needed to do next. Something had to be done, that much he knew. He just wanted to be sure he did everything appropriately.

His first step was to call Margaret and get her story directly from her. When he called, however, Jesse answered the phone. Jesse had found out from his mother why she had left him at the church, and now he was ready to defend his mother's honor. Josh could sympathize with Jesse, and admired his desire to stand up for his mother, but he tried to keep Jesse calm.

Margaret was also still upset. And why shouldn't she be? A man she had trusted had tried to force himself on her. Josh also heard Margaret say what he had feared: they would not be coming back to Northside Christian.

The next step was going to be the hardest: he would have to confront Roger.

Sexual Harrasment at Church, Part 2

Roger and Jennie had two children. Michael was a college sophomore and Riley was a junior in high school. Jennie had a part-time job to supplement Roger's retirement. Josh believed she wanted the job so she could get away from Roger as much as for the money it provided. Because of the family's busy schedule Josh knew he would have difficulty catching Roger home alone.

But it was Thursday and Michael had classes until noon and work until six, Riley didn't come home until about four, and Jennie works until five on Thursday. When Josh called Roger to ask if he could come by and visit, Roger seemed nervous. “Well, that's fine...I guess. There's no one here, but me.”

“That' s okay, Roger. I have something I need to talk to you about.”

Reluctantly Roger agreed, and the appointment was set for 1:30.

Josh arrived at Roger and Jennie's home and was in no mood for pleasantries. He immediately began the conversation by telling Roger about Margaret's accusation. Roger began to stutter a denial, but Josh immediately cut him off.

“Roger, don't lie to me! Margaret wouldn't make up a story like this. What reason would she have to do that?” Josh said.

Roger squirmed in his recliner, tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair, and finally hung his head in shame as an admission of guilt. Josh almost felt sorry for him, until he recalled Margaret's voice and Jesse's anger.

The next step was for Roger to confess and ask forgiveness. This was going to be hard for Roger, but Josh knew it had to be done. When Josh left, Roger was sobbing in his chair.

Back in his office, Josh began calling a select group of men to come and meet with Roger tonight to hear his confession. Because there were no official church leaders Josh had to pick and choose the right men to be seated for this special meeting.

As the men gathered that night none of them had any idea what the meeting was about. Josh began the meeting and immediately launched into Margaret's story. Some of the men just couldn't believe Roger would have done what Margaret was accusing him of and wanted to defend Roger. To his credit Roger stood up and admitted that what she said was true. He did try to kiss her. The air was suddenly sucked out of the room as the men sat quiet and still, not sure what had just happened.

Josh had already decided what steps Roger needed to take next. As he outlined it for the group, everyone agreed about the wisdom of Josh's recommendations. Roger agreed to do everything he was asked to do.

As he drove home that night Josh knew this was not the end of it. For Margaret and Jesse it would be the beginning of learning how to forgive someone who had genuinely and sincerely wanted their forgiveness. For Roger it was the beginning of overcoming some lustful addictions.

For Josh it was the beginning of watching first-hand the blessings of God's grace at work.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Mother's Love

It was a Wednesday night and Josh, Leanne and the three kids had already changed into their pj's and were in bed when the phone rang. After leading the Bible study at church, the mini-counseling sessions afterward with a couple of people, and a spontaneous “planning” meeting with one of the elders, Josh was actually hoping it was a telemarketer on the phone.

Since the phone was on his side of the bed Josh had no choice but to answer it. It wasn't a telemarketer; it was Joey Smithers.

Joey and his wife, Pam, were first-time parents, and Joey had told Josh just a few hours ago at church how stressed Pam had been since Lori was born 2 months ago. Joey was 22 years old and Pam was 21. Josh had noted that Joey was at church by himself tonight and wondered why he hadn't stayed home with Pam if she was having a hard time with the baby. Josh had practiced the art of not exposing his inward thoughts with his body language, but he almost instinctively shook his head when he realized Joey had left Pam alone with the baby. “Some guys just don't get it,” Josh thought to himself, “the needs of your wife are more important than coming to Bible study.” Josh sent up a quick prayer of forgiveness for that thought.

When Pam became pregnant with Lori there had been much joy and excitement in the Smithers house because Pam had miscarried two years before and had gone into a deep depression for several months afterward. As soon as they found out she was expecting they could hardly wait for Lori's birth. But now, two months later, all Lori seemed to do was cry. Every moment she was awake she seemed to be crying, and she rarely slept. Neither Joey nor Pam had much exposure to the care and keeping of a baby before Lori was born, and had no idea what to expect. Consequently they were both a bit nervous about their new role as parents.

The emotional stress of a chronically crying baby, coupled with weeks of sleepless nights, had finally caught up with Pam. That's when Joey called.

“Josh, I don't know what to do. When I got home Pam was sitting in the chair crying. I mean really, really crying. And Lori was in her crib crying too. I asked Pam what was wrong, and she couldn't stop crying long enough to talk to me. I tried to get Lori to stop crying and she won't stop either.” Josh could hear in Joey's voice a plea for help.

“Hang on a second, Joey,” Josh said, and covered the phone so he could explain to Leanne what was happening. “Tell Joey to bring them all over here,” Leanne said. “What? It's already after 10:30, Leanne,” Josh complained.

Leanne grabbed the phone from Josh. “Can you pack up Lori and Pam and bring them over to our house? Just plan on spending the night,” Leanne ordered. “Are you sure about this,” Joey asked. “Of course, I'm sure,” she responded, “The sooner the better. See you in a few.”

Josh took the phone and put it back in its cradle. He instinctively shook his head this time without trying to hide his feelings. “Sometimes I just can't believe you. You are so spontaneous,” he said. “That's why you love me,” she smiled and gave him a quick kiss before she threw on her robe and started for their daughter Kendra's bedroom.

Leanne's mind was already in crisis mode and within a few seconds she had decided what needed to be done. Ten-year-old Kendra would give up her bedroom for Joey and Pam, and would sleep on the floor in the master bedroom. The sheets were quickly changed on the bed, and Kendra was settled in the master bedroom before Joey and Pam rang the doorbell.

Pam was still crying when they walked in the door, but thankfully Lori had fallen asleep in the car and was silent for a change. At Leanne's insistence they laid Lori down on the bed in the master bedroom, where she continued to sleep. Josh knew Lori would end up sleeping in their bed tonight, and he wondered whether or not he would get any sleep. But he knew better than to argue with Leanne.

It was now time to find out what was going on with Pam. She sat down at the dining room table and the floodgates of emotions burst open. She felt like she was a terrible mother because the baby cried all the time; she wanted to breastfeed the baby but ended up having to feed her from a bottle; she got angry when Lori cried in the middle of the night and interrupted her sleep... The list went on and on.

Josh watched with admiration as his wife sat down beside Pam, put Pam's head on her shoulder, stroked her hair and began to calmly explain to her that she was not a bad mother because of what she was feeling. “This will only last a short time,” Leanne said softly, “and as soon as you can get some rest you'll see things differently.”

As if on cue Josh pulled Joey into the living room and began counseling him on how he could help the situation. At this point Joey was ready to do whatever it took to keep this scenario from playing out again. Josh hoped he would.

While Leanne helped Joey and Pam get settled into Kendra's bedroom, Josh slipped back into the master bedroom where Kendra was now asleep since it was after midnight, only to discover the tiny Lori wide awake on the king-size bed contentedly sucking on her fists. He went into the kitchen and found the baby bottle that was already prepared, laid back down on the bed with Lori and began feeding her the bottle.

Josh was almost asleep by the time Leanne came back in the bedroom and found him holding the sleeping Lori. They placed the baby in between them as they had done with their own three children when they were infants, turned off the light, and hoped to get some sleep before the alarm would wake them in a few short hours. By God's grace, for the first time in her short two-month's of life Lori actually slept like a baby for the rest of the night.
(to be continued)

A Mother's Love, Part 2

The short night of sleep was making it difficult for Josh to open his eyes and start the day. He turned in the bed to see Lori still peacefully sleeping between he and Leanne. He slowly and carefully moved the covers aside, put his feet on the floor, walked carefully over his daughter's sleeping frame, and entered the bathroom to begin his morning routine.

The rest of the house was still quiet when he left for the office about an hour later. He had heard Joey leave about 6:00 to go to work at the warehouse where he drove a forklift. He knew Joey was doing his best to support his young family on the meager wages of a man just getting started with nothing but a high school diploma. Josh had been in his shoes not too many years ago.

Leanne heard Josh leave but didn't want to get out of the comfortable bed just yet. About that time Lori began to stir and Leanne didn't want her to start crying. She knew if Pam heard her baby cry she would feel duty-bound to get up and take care of her, so Leanne cuddled the baby in her arms until she was certain she was asleep once again.

For the rest of the morning the Campbell family talked in quiet tones and did everything possible to not awaken Pam. Leanne knew that if Pam could just get some quality sleep she would see her world with different eyes.

Just before noon Pam appeared from the bedroom looking as if she had actually slept. Leanne sent her children outside to play so she and Pam could talk. Pam was embarrassed at what had happened the night before, but Leanne said, “Pam, every mother goes through days like that. You're not alone,” she counseled, “We all need help every once in awhile.”

Lori was awake but not crying and Pam asked, “Why does she cry at home all the time, but here at your house she acts like an angel?”

“Pam,” Leanne said, “some things just can't be explained, but part of the problem is that Lori sense your tension and anxiety, and she cries. And the more she cries, the more nervous you get, and the cycle just spirals out of control.”

“So what can I do to stop it?”

“This is going to sound too simple, but...just relax. You're trying to do too much. If Lori cries all day and you can't get any housework done, don't worry about it. Joey can help around the house when he comes home.”

“But I don't want Joey to have to do the housework. He works hard all day and it's not fair for him to clean the house after he gets off work.”

“Pam,” Leanne said quietly, “Lori will only be a baby for a short time. She's not going to cry forever. It will only last a few months at the most. Your priority is her. This is just the season of life that you and Joey are in right now.”

Pam sat pondering on those thoughts while Leanne was preparing lunch. Before the kids came bustling through the door asking for lunch Leanne had one more thought to share, “Listen, Pam, there's no manual for parenting. We learn by watching our parents, or other parents we know, and none of them are perfect parents either. The only thing we can do is trust God and love our kids the best way we know how. So just relax and enjoy being Lori's mother. All she really needs is you to love her.”

“Thanks, Leanne,” Pam replied, “I needed to hear that.”

Joey came and picked them up after work and took his little family back to their house. Josh and Leanne sat in bed that night talking about what had transpired over the past 24 hours and praying for Joey and Pam and Lori.

As the months passed by Lori began to sleep more and Joey and Pam began to settle into their new role as parents. Josh and Leanne never told anyone about that night, but were grateful they were able to open their home when others needed help.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Praying for Todd, Part 1

Josh Campbell's hair had begun to show more than a few strands of gray since he had been ordained into the ministry over two decades ago. In fact, after every haircut his wife, Leanna, observed that there was more gray than black. He had always been rather vain about his dark hair, he had to admit, but he rather liked the distinguished look that the gray hair provided.

He had started in the ministry when he was in his early 20's and back then his youthful looks were a hindrance to being taken seriously. He felt that most of the older folks in his congregation had difficulty seeing past his youth. But now that the gray had begun to take over the black in his hair, and he was no longer a “kid” but “fortysomething,” he believed that more folks accepted him as a mature and seasoned minister.

There were some folks, however, who didn't have respect for a minister no matter how much gray was in their hair, or how many candles were on their birthday cake. A new family had been present at Sunday's service, and today Josh had planned to stop by their home for a visit. Cindy had shown up at worship with her two sons: Billy, about 14 or 15, and Jake, about 8 or 9. It no longer surprised Josh when a woman showed up alone for worship. It was becoming more and more the norm, and not just at his church.

What Josh had discovered in his brief conversation with Cindy after worship was that she was married, but that her husband, Todd, wasn't much of a “church” person, as she put it. Again, that was not a surprise. What was a surprise was that her husband wasn't only not a “church” person, he wasn't a “preacher” person either.

Josh had unwittingly chosen to visit this family on a day when Todd was home from work. Todd was a construction worker and the rains the past several days had forced all of the workers to take some time off until things dried out. Todd was already unhappy to be off work and when Josh, a preacher, showed up at his door, he was even more unhappy.

Cindy very reluctantly invited Josh into their very modest home. It was a rental house with the usual marks of a low-income rental property. The carpet was thread-bare with the requisite stains where it had been anointed by a toddler bearing a cup with no lid, and a few burn spots where cigarette ashes had fallen on it. The drapes looked as if they had been there since the house was new, and had probably never been washed.

Todd fit in perfectly with his environment. He was a rough-looking sort with long dirty-blonde hair that was pulled back in a ponytail. His eyes were a dark brown that made his unsmiling face look even darker and more sinister.

Cindy introduced Josh. “Todd, this is Josh Campbell. He's the preacher from the church we visited last Sunday.” “Preacher, huh?” Todd said. “Don't know why in the world anyone would want to be a preacher. All that salvation stuff is just a bunch of crap.”

Josh immediately realized that he had walked into a hornet's nest. Rather than getting into an argument over religion and “salvation stuff” he chose to focus the conversation on lighter subjects like work, places lived, raising children, schools, etc. But no matter what the subject of the conversation Todd always had a derogatory comment; one that usually included a cutting remark about Cindy, his boss, or Billy and Jake. By the time Josh left it was very clear that Todd was a man who had experienced the worst life had to offer and as a result had become very bitter and angry. Sadly, his family were the first to feel the sting of his wrath.

A few days later Cindy stopped by the church office to see Josh and offer her apologies for the way that Todd had behaved and the things he had said. It was obvious that she was embarrassed by Todd's behavior, and explained that he is that way with everyone, even strangers. He had been known to insult complete strangers at the grocery store. Josh explained to her that he was not offended and that she didn't need to concern herself with apologizing for Todd. Instead they would pray for him, and hope that he would turn his life over to God. As they prayed together for Todd, Josh silently hoped that the change would come sooner rather than later.
(To be continued)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Praying for Todd, Part 2

Josh Campbell's church was small in comparison to the other churches in the little town of Pine Grove. There was a good balance of old and young, men and women (well, more women than men) and the typical blend of saint and sinner.

Despite this diversity, not everyone in Josh's church was thrilled that Cindy and her two sons had become weekly attenders at Northside Church. Whatever concern folks had about this little family seemed unfounded in Josh's mind, however, and he had done his best to squelch any rumors. Billy and Jake were both well-behaved young men, and as the older brother, Billy would occasionally help his mother keep Jake from getting out of line. Jake was a typical nine year old boy who had difficulty sitting still for long periods, but he wasn't a problem. In fact, Josh actually hoped some of the other boys would take some lessons in manners from Jake.

School had ended and Vacation Bible School was in full swing when Josh became aware that trouble was brewing between Cindy and Todd. In conjunction with VBS there had always been a summer revival at Northside, and this year the children had worked very hard to learn some songs to sing one night during the revival. Billy and Jake had become involved in VBS even though it meant that Josh had to go out to their home and pick them up.

The day of the children's concert Josh received a call from Cindy asking if he had could pick up the boys that night because she had to work late at Wal-Mart. Josh agreed even though he knew they were hosting the visiting preacher for dinner and he would have to leave early from the meal just to pick up Billy and Jake and make it to the service in time.

When he pulled into their driveway that evening he had expected to see the boys waiting on the porch, but the porch was empty. Frustrated at the delay, Josh jumped out of the van and headed to the front door. The rental home had no air conditioning so the only thing that separated the porch from the living room was a screen door, and before he reached the door he heard Todd yell, “Boys, the preacher is here. I told you he would pick you up.” Billy came running to the door and opened the screen to allow Josh to come in. “I'm sorry, Mr. Josh, but I didn't think you would come and pick us up tonight.”

“I told them boys you'd be here. Ever' preacher'll do anything to add a few more souls to his church,” Todd said.

Josh had become accustomed to Todd's gruff demeanor and didn't find any offense in what he said. And told him so. Todd was also holding a beer in his hand and was obviously happy that he was going to have the house to himself for a few hours.

Within just a few minutes the boys were ready and they were all out the door and into the van. As they were rolling down the road trying to make up lost time, Billy began to share some revelations that made Josh realize things were not as they seemed with Cindy and Todd.

“Dad lost his job yesterday,” Billy spoke in a dead-pan voice. “Really? What happened?” Josh asked. Billy went on to explain that Todd had been fired for insulting his boss. Josh made a mental note that he needed to offer to help them during Todd's unemployment. He knew it would be impossible for the family to live on what Cindy made working at Wal-Mart.

From that moment things began going downhill at breakneck speed for the young family. Todd couldn't find another job and he began drinking more to drown his disappointment and misery, and in his continual drunken condition his obnoxious behavior only got worse. After several weeks Cindy couldn't take the emotional abuse any longer and moved into another house with her boys in tow. The move was only a temporary fix, however, and Cindy decided a different house wasn't far enough from Todd and she packed up her car and moved 150 miles away to start “a new life” she said. Josh was disappointed that he had been unable to reunite this family, but he knew in his heart that unless Todd's behavior changed dramatically there was little hope. So he continued to pray for a transformation in Todd's heart.

One night while Josh and Leanna were cleaning up after dinner the phone rang. It had only been a couple of days since Cindy had moved out of town, and Josh had accepted the fact that they would probably never hear from any of them again. Leanna answered the phone and immediately handed the phone to Josh. “It's a man, but I don't know who it is,” Leanna said, “He said he wants to talk to 'the preacher'.”

When Josh answered the phone he was surprised to hear Todd's voice on the other end. The normally loud and gruff voice had become unusually subdued, but was still recognizable. “Can you come by? I really need to talk,” Todd asked. Josh agreed, and said he would be there in just a few minutes.

When Josh arrived at Todd's house Todd was sitting on the front porch with a beer in his hand. He climbed the steps and sat down in the chair he was offered. They sat in silence for awhile, Josh not really wanting to disturb Todd's thoughts. When he finally began to talk he shared with Josh about how badly he had treated Cindy over the years, and wondered outloud if she would come back if Todd promised to change. Josh didn't want to discourage him, but he explained that it would take a long time for her to begin trusting him again. The conversation evolved from one subject to the next followed by long pauses of silence. For another hour or so Josh listened to Todd and offered counsel until the silence lengthened longer than usual. Josh took that as his cue that it was time to leave.

During their talk Josh had attempted to show Todd how the Lord could help him. Uncharacteristically Todd didn't make any sarcastic comments when he mentioned God. Josh took that as a step in the right direction. Todd never made any movement toward God that night on the front porch, but neither did he push it away as nothing more than that “salvation stuff.”

It wasn't but a few days later that Todd also left Pine Grove. Josh never heard where he went, but he keeps believing he went to find Cindy and Billy and Jake and attempt to reunite his family, and restore his marriage. He also hopes that Todd also found God and learned that all that “salvation stuff” really can change a person's life.

Josh often wonders what happened to that young family, but he also understands that it's the nature of ministry. No matter how much time he spends on people it will always be worthwhile, even if he never sees the results of his efforts.

What Josh found interesting was that in a moment of personal crisis, it was "the preacher" that this religion-hating, beer-drinking, boss-insulting pagan called on. People always seem to know where they can turn to find someone who will accept them as they are and love them despite their failures.