Lessons Learned the Hard Way

pulpit, lessonsAs a young man, shortly after having given my life to Jesus, I was worshiping at a church pastored by a dynamic young man. He was probably in his late 30’s or early 40’s: older than I was but he seemed young to me – for a pastor — because the pastors I’d known before were in their 60’s or 70’s. He was also the first pastor I’d encountered as an adult who was formally educated: he could research and relate the meaning of words and phrases in their original Hebrew or Greek. He knew the context behind the words and the social settings and customs that gave deeper meaning to the thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots. These details really got me fired up and thirsting to know more.

I began attending Sunday School, Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening worship, Wednesday evening worship and a Thursday morning Young Men’s Prayer Breakfast. I learned so much that I began looking forward to those times when the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses canvassed the neighborhood: I was eager to discuss the Bible with them. I can’t claim to have converted any, but a one or two did leave questioning their rote presentation. I began the process of enrolling in a nearby Seminary College. I knew I could not be a preacher: I don’t have the personality for that, but thought I might make an effective missionary.

One Sunday morning we assembled for worship. The deacons were in their places, but Pastor Dennis was missing. As the service began, a Deacon took the lectern and announced that Pastor Dennis – the man who had so often stood in that pulpit denouncing sin and encouraging righteous behavior, a married man with children, had been discovered having an affair with the church secretary. Both had been fired and were gone.

I was crushed.

There was a good deal of indignation and anger expressed over the hypocrisy of the situation and the betrayal of the trust we’d placed in the Pastor. At first I was just numb; bewildered. Then their anger began to seep in. But my anger was not directed just at Pastor Dennis. I resolved that if this is how the people of God work, I don’t need them. I withdrew my application to Columbia, I stopped going to church, and I stopped talking to God. For years I lived in what I now call my Prodigal Son phase.

During that time I began my first business and it prospered beyond my dreams. I had more money than I knew what to do with, a big home, my first (last and only) brand new car. I was powerful socially and politically: a pillar of the community. I believed I had it made… and I’d done it all on my own.

Then something happened.

There was a scandal and I was in the middle of it. The media had a heyday vilifying me. For just over a year I was put through hell. When it was over, I was cleared and walked away, but I’d lost everything. I was now jobless, homeless, and very nearly broke. The media that delighted in tearing me down had no interest in printing the end result. I’d lost my property, my self-respect, my sanity and very nearly; my life.

They say that life must be lived looking forward, but can be understood only by looking back. As I look back on that time, I like to think I can see the hand of God reaching down to grab me by the scruff of the neck to shake off the worldly fluff I’d collected and say, “Enough fooling around. Get back to work.”

But it doesn’t work that way. God does not force us into compliance with his will. He created us with the freedom to choose: to choose whether we believe in Him or not, to choose whether we will follow Him or not, to choose His way or some other way at every decision we make. He offers guidance if we seek it but does not coerce us. What happened there was complicated. It involved some bad decisions on my part, trusting some I shouldn’t have. Perhaps in some way I don’t fully understand I undermined myself in an unconscious desire to get back to where I knew I should be.

Recovery was slow. During the recovery period I had ample time to reflect on what had happened and the decisions I’d made. Stepping away from God was the biggest mistake. Pastor Dennis figured prominently in those thoughts, but not in the way you might think.

It occurred to me that I had been pursuing a career in ministry not because I had wanted to be just like Jesus, but because I had wanted to be just like Dennis. When Pastor Dennis fell, it crushed my belief system because I had placed Dennis at the center of it, not Jesus. It was not Dennis who led me to Christ, but it was Dennis who made The Word of God fascinating. Yet, Dennis was a man: susceptible to the same temptations that entice all men. He failed, but we all fail on occasion. The congregation reacted in anger. The Deacons sent him packing and none of us ever had an opportunity to extend forgiveness to him or accept his repentance.

A broken trust is like a broken glass vase: it can be glued back together, but it will never be the same because there will be scars. But it can be made functional again. We never gave him the chance. We never gave ourselves the chance. We were wrong in that. I was wrong: in so many ways. Lessons learned.

My desire to go into ministry was misdirected. Knowledge without a proper foundation of faith can be dangerous in that this can be twisted and used to mislead others.

I also learned that Satan can prosper us to keep us on the wrong track.

Once I realized my mistakes, resolved not to make them again, and opened my heart up to Jesus again, life began to move forward – but in a different direction.

I have never achieved the level of worldly prosperity or prominence that I had as a prodigal, but I am much more content now. I feel closeness to my Lord and have a confidence that He will see me through whatever comes my way. I am confident of a home in heaven, so I don’t fear death. And I share with others a humble faith, rather than spouting book-learned knowledge. Oh, I still crave knowledge of The Word, but not for the sake of knowing. Now I crave knowledge for the sake of understanding God. And there is a world of difference.

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