I came up here to get away from it all, but I ended up bringing it all with me. I don’t think any full minute during my waking hours had been free of thoughts about what was going on back home. My emotions seethed with frustration and anger that even this pristine setting could not soothe.
Nellie Lake is one of my favorite spots on earth. It lies in the high Sierras at the end of a five-mile trail that snakes almost straight up hill. They say in California if you hike 20 minutes from the road you lose 90% of the fisherman. This is a two-and-a-half hour hike and I rarely see anyone else here even in the middle of summer. This was early September and I had the whole lake to myself on this crisp afternoon.
It’s a small lake, but I’ve always caught plenty of good-sized rainbow trout here.
What’s more it’s the only place I’ve caught fish where they act like the fish on the cover of those outdoor magazines. When you hook them they leap straight out of the water in a desperate attempt to throw your hook and swim free. Of course, I’m certain I love that action far more than the fish do.
Laurie had gone out of town to visit her parents for a week. On a whim and in a fit of frustration I decided to pull our tent trailer up to Huntington Lake for a few days of personal retreat. I had already typed up my resignation, but hid it in my desk until I could think things through.
I had taken to heart my last conversations with John and in the six months since I’d seen him, my relationship with God had really begun to grow. I was more aware of his presence throughout the day. I was just beginning to learn how to trust him more than my own efforts when the church at home erupted in conflict. Somehow I had lost sight of God in it all and found myself once again looking for John’s familiar face in every crowd of people I passed. I had finally given up and decided to run away, if only for a few days.
For the past two hours I had perched myself at my favorite fishing spot on the south side of Nellie Lake and had fished with a vengeance. Even though I had caught almost 20 fish and enjoyed reeling them to shore, such moments provided only a momentary distraction to the greater pain that seethed in my gut. As soon as I released them and re-baited my hook I was right back fuming inside. I had seen some horrible conflicts in my years of real estate, but I’d never seen a group of people treat each other with such hostility and deceit, while working so hard to appear sweet and innocent.
"Idiots!" I exclaimed across the lake, exhaling some anger while my fishing line sat idle in the lake.
"I hope you’re not talking about me." The familiar voice spilled off the hill behind me. Startled, I jumped and whipped around. John, with a backpack over his shoulders was making his way down the hillside to the lakeshore.
I almost tripped over my pole when I tried to lay it down and turn to greet him in one motion. "What are you doing up here?"
"I come up here every year about this time for about two weeks just to hike in the high country and enjoy some peace and quiet. I don’t often find people here, especially those I know. "
"Neither do I. That’s what I like about it."
"You want me to go?"
"Are you kidding?" He unclasped his backpack and slid it off his shoulders placing it against an old tree stump. Stretching his back he asked, "Do you come up here often?"
"Not really. Once a year at most." Suddenly my fishing pole started to quiver and fell off the log where I had propped it. I grabbed it and started to reel in the line. What looked like an 18-inch rainbow broke through the water leaping toward me. My line suddenly went limp as the hook popped out of his mouth. John and I chuckled as I brought the line into shore and put the pole down. Fishing was the farthest thing from my mind.
"Another one goes free." John said. Then sitting down on the log he asked, "So who are the idiots? The fish?"
My face flushed as I recalled my outburst a few seconds ago. "No, the fishing has been incredible. It’s the people in the church back home. You wouldn’t believe it, John. Everything has blown up in the past couple of weeks. It’s brought out the worst in everyone?"
John interrupted me just as I started to get wound up. "Let’s start further back than that. How have you been since our last conversation?"
It took me a moment to let go of all I wanted to tell him and focus back to our last meeting. "Actually, things were going really well. I was starting to enjoy my relationship with God again, like I did when I first came to know him. I stopped trying so hard to make something happen and he made himself visible to me in so many ways. I began to see things about myself I’d never seen before, like how demanding I can be, and how little I trust Jesus with the details of my life. But you know what? That didn’t seem to matter to him. He just kept showing me how real he wanted to be in the way I live my life."
"That’s great! I know it is hard to believe, but enjoying that simple relationship will accomplish everything God wants to do through you."
"Well it doesn’t seem to be working so well right now. Everything is crashing in on me and I’m so angry all the time that I scare my own wife."
"Are you angry at her too?" John picked up my fishing rod as we talked.
"I don’t think so, but it sure comes out there."
"Are you mad at the pastor?"
"I try not to be, but he makes it impossible. I was actually doing pretty well with him since I stopped trying to change him or force him into a relationship he no longer desires. But then this stupid concert blew up in our face."
"Have you told him how angry you are?" John said as he cast the baitless hook out into the lake.
"Not yet! He’d fire me for sure and then where would I be? I’ve thought about resigning. I even have the resignation letter typed up, but I want to line up another job before I do. I gave up so much to work for this guy and now look at the fix I’m in!" I blew out a deep sigh and shook my head. I could feel my blood pressure pounding in my ears. "Now he wants me to lie for him."
"Our youth director had planned a beginning-of-school concert two weeks ago as an outreach to high school students. He’d lined up a group with a real gospel message who had done an anti-drug assembly the day before at a local high school. He and the kids had pasted up flyers and passed them out all over the neighborhood. It drew quite a crowd but created an even larger crisis. Some of our older members meeting elsewhere in the facility overheard the music and thought it sounded far too worldly. When they came to check out what was going on, they saw some of the girls wearing skimpy tops and guys dressed like gang members. I think it scared them, but they’ve accused the youth pastor of defiling the sanctuary.
"Later we found some of the newly upholstered seats had been slashed with a knife and initials were carved in some of the seat backs. Also some of our sound equipment is missing and there was graffiti in the men’s restroom. We had about $3500 in damage and they want someone’s head on a platter. Some parents heard that some had alcohol and were smoking outside in the parking lot after the concert."
"Outreach can get messy," John offered still looking at the line laying motionless on the surface.
"They are even messier afterward. Some people really got angry when they heard what happened. You should hear the battle cries down there: ‘We have enough of this on TV; we don’t need to bring it into the church.’ ‘Why are we trying to save everyone else’s kids when we’re losing our own.’ ‘The whole place was filled with hoodlums.’"
"Which would be a real plus if the goal was outreach."
"I guess that’s what is becoming clear to me. It’s amazing how people on both sides of this issue have turned on each other with such anger."
"If I remember right, doesn’t your marquee out front promise Where Love is a Way of Life!"
It took me a moment to even remember what he was talking about. "It’s been up there so long, I don’t think anyone even pays attention to it anymore."
"Obviously." John let out a chuckle.
"You find it funny?" I snapped not seeing the humor in any of this.
"I’d say more ironic than funny, but that's the problem with institutions isn’t it? It provides something more important than simply loving each other in the same way we’ve been loved. Once you build an institution together you have to protect it and its assets to be good stewards. It confuses everything. Even love gets redefined as that which protects the institution and unloving as that which does not. It will turn some of the nicest people in the world into raging maniacs and they never stop to think that all the name-calling and accusations are the opposite of love."
Then as John reeled in the empty hook he held it up, "It’s love with a hook. If you do what we want, we reward you. If not we punish you. It doesn’t turn out to be about love at all. We give our affection only to those who serve our interests and withhold it from those who do not."
"What a mess!"
"Do you see how painful it is? That’s why institutions can only reflect God’s love as long as they agree on what they’re doing. Every difference of opinion becomes a contest for power."
"That’s for sure. And it seems to hold on longer than the conflict itself deserves. People are angry at each other. I’ve been called names I’d never heard in real estate. People are still complaining about the costs, even though one family has promised to cover the costs to repair the damage and replace any missing equipment. It doesn’t make sense."
"Unless it has only given voice to a deeper conflict."
I hadn’t thought of that before, but thinking back those voicing the strongest opinions were divided on other things as well. "You might be right, John. We’ve had this underlying tension between people who think our fellowship is too ingrown and those who worry that bringing in a lot of new people will spoil what we have."
"That’s not uncommon. I’ve been with groups who’ve fought over what kind of songs to sing or who can use the new gymnasium. Some think of what might attract new followers. Others want to keep it the way they can enjoy it. These things are never easy."
"I’m just sick of the whole mess and dread going back. We’re having a special congregational meeting tomorrow night to sort out the differences. Everyone’s pretty angry. It’s not going to be pretty. Some of our board members are demanding the youth pastor’s resignation and are angry with the pastor for letting this whole thing get out of hand."
"How do you think it will turn out?"
"If the pastor is good at anything it is saving his own skin. He’ll probably have to let the youth guy go. He’s already told him that if he will resign he will give him a good recommendation down the road. But that’s where he wants me to lie for him."
"What does he want you to say?"
"He is trying to distance himself from this whole thing by telling others he had no idea what kind of group this was. But he did. He’d heard one of their CDs beforehand, and had been warned their music was on the edgy side. The pastor heard it and told Ben and me how excited he was about reaching out to the hurting youth of our community."
"Yes. Now he’s changed the story. A couple of days ago one of our elders tore into him and he defended himself by saying he’d been blindsided by the whole affair. He said I was the one who approved it. Now the pastor and Ben are telling opposing stories and calling each other liars. When I reminded the pastor of our earlier conversation, he said he had felt trapped and in the heat of the moment had forgotten that he heard the CD. When I told him he needed to clarify his story, he told me that while it wasn’t technically true, it at least represented the truth. If he had any idea what would have happened that night he would never have given his consent. He wants me to back up his story and hang Ben out to dry. He told me that after all he’s done for me, I owe him this."
"It seems to me that if he says you owe him then he never really did anything for you."
His words hung in the air while I tried to figure out what he meant. "You mean he didn’t do those things for me? Who then? For himself?"
"That’s what I would think. Do you see how our definitions of love get twisted when institutional priorities take over? He probably cares about you. I don’t mean to discount that but he is still at the center of it. Now he wants to call in a debt you shouldn’t owe.
"The problem with church as you know it, Jake, is that it has become nothing more than mutual accommodation of self-need. Everybody needs something out of it. Some need to lead. Some need to be led. Some want to teach, others are happy to be the audience. Rather than become an authentic demonstration of God’s life and love in the world, it ends up being a group of people who have to protect their turf. What you’re seeing is less of God’s life than people’s insecurities that cling to those things they think will best serve their needs."
"Is that why people can suddenly become so vicious when they are threatened? They act like angry dogs when someone’s trying to take their bone away."
"Exactly! And they do it thinking God is on their side. At times like this the group often splinters into new arrangements that will better serve each other’s insecurities. After their bitterness recedes the cycle will begin all over again."
"So no matter what I do, it’s just going to get worse."
"Have you got a choice to make?"
"I’ve got to back one or the other."
"Or just tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. It seems to me you’re not being asked to choose between Jim or Ben but between truth and a lie."
I didn’t know what to say or what I would do. Though John made the choice clearer, he didn’t make it any easier. There was so much at stake and I hated being put in this position. The silence grew awkward.
Finally John stood up. "I don’t know what you’re going to do, Jake, but one thing I’ve learned over the years. Any friendship that demands that you lie to save it probably isn’t a friendship at all."
I hated to think my friendship with Jim wasn’t real. "It’s just a weak moment, I’m sure. He’s in trouble with some important people and is only trying to do what’s in the best interest of the church."
"Is that what he told you, or did you come up with that whopper on your own?"
I stared at him realizing that this conversation wasn’t helping ease my frustration. If anything my anxiety was growing. I let out a deep sigh as my head fell into my hands.
"I wish it were that easy. We’ve been friends a long time."
"Friendship is a great thing, Jake, but not when it gets twisted like this. As I recall you told me that friendship was already diminishing."
He was right. Somehow I had lost sight of that when Jim came asking for my help. He’d acted so concerned about me and apologized for getting so busy he had let our friendship slide. I had been sucked back in. "You’re right, John. I’d forgotten. He has been very distant for a long time and rarely opens his heart during our staff sharing or prayer times."
"What do you think he’s hiding from?"
"How should I know? I’m not even sure he is hiding."
"You’re not?" he asked with a raised eyebrow, making it clear that he was going to await a response.
"I don’t know. He’s definitely less accessible to the staff and the body."
"It’s been my experience that when people grow distant from friendships they’ve had for a while, they’re usually hiding something. I could be wrong here, but what are you going to do?"
"I don’t know. I have everything to gain by backing him and everything to lose if I don’t."
"So you’re at the center of your world, then, as much as Jim is of his."
That didn’t sound good.
John continued, "I know how powerful that looks to you, Jake, but don’t be fooled. If you want to live this journey, you have to put honesty above personal expedience. It’s easy to try to cover things for the good of the institution, but that’s a step down a path where God does not reside."
"But I need this job at least until I can sort out something else."
"There are worse things that could happen, Jake, than losing a job. And it won’t change God’s responsibility to take care of you."
"What are you saying? I should just walk away? I can’t imagine I’d survive without this church. It has been my home for more than twenty years and I’d die without it!"
"That’s what they want you to think, but it isn’t so. It also explains why everyone is fighting so viciously. They don’t think they can give it up either, so they have to win. It just isn’t so. This trap has captured many a child of God. When we’re so afraid we can’t make it without the institution then right and wrong go out the window. The only thing that concerns us is our own survival. That kind of reasoning has led to incredible pain over years of church history."
"I don’t mean it the way you’re saying it, John."
"Probably not, but that’s the reality whether or not you mean it. That’s the problem with building church life on the basis of need. It confuses the real work of God through his church."
"What do you mean?"
"Why do people go to your church, Jake?"
"Because we’re supposed to have fellowship. We need it to be fed, to stay accountable to others and to grow in God’s life together. Are you saying that’s not right?"
"So if someone doesn’t attend any more, what happens to them?"
"They should find another local church and get involved, or they will whither spiritually or fall into error."
"Listen to yourself, Jake. You’re using words like ‘need,’ ‘should’ and ‘supposed to.’ Is that the body life God’s called you to?"
"I thought so."
"Scripture doesn’t use the language of need when talking about the vital connection God establishes between believers. Our dependency is in Jesus alone! He’s the one we need. He’s the one we follow. He’s the one God wants us to trust and rely on for everything. When we put the body of Christ in that place, we make an idol of it, and you end up wrapped up in knots over the situation you’re in. Religion survives by telling us we need to fall in line or some horrible fate will befall us. That thinking so distorts God’s working.
"We share body life together, not because we have to, but because we get to. Anyone who belongs to God will embrace the life he wants his children to share together. And that life isn’t fighting over control of the institution, but simply helping each other learn to live deeply in him. Whenever we let other factors get in the way of that we only use love to get our hooks into people. We reward them with affection and punish them by withholding it."
Lights went on deep inside me. I knew he was right. "How could I have not seen this before, John? The whole system has a hook in it. We even use things like ‘doctrinal unity’ to control people by stifling any disagreement. Since most people only tend to feel good about themselves when they are pleasing others, it’s natural that they would want to conform to our teaching and our programs. John, this is horrible."
John just sat quietly, letting the personal discovery continue.
I couldn’t believe how blind I’d been to all the ways we’d manipulated each other. No wonder I’m exhausted all the time! I’m trying to meet other’s expectations at the same time I’m trying to manipulate them to meet mine. I had done to others exactly what the pastor was now doing to me. I was even doing it to Laurie, bringing the stress home to my own marriage. "This underscores almost everything I do, John."
"I know it does, but just remember you’re not alone. Remember how Jesus’ own disciples schemed to get first place in his kingdom, and to use God’s power to punish the Samaritans? Until you discover how to trust God for everything in your life you will constantly seek to control others for the things you think you need."
"What am I supposed to do then, John? Just give up my job?"
"I don’t think that is the choice right now, is it? If I were you I’d lean in a little closer to Jesus and ask him to show you what he wants you to do. He’ll make it clear to you if you don’t complicate it with any attempts to protect yourselfnot to keep your job, not to be liked by others, not even to save your reputation."
"He who saves his life loses it, eh?"
"Those words are at the heart of learning to live in the reality of Jesus’ kingdom. And don’t forget the rest of it: ‘He who loses his life for my sake will find it.' This road is rarely easy, but you will find the joy of living in his life will far outweigh any pain in the process."
"But what if I’m wrong?"
"Wrong about what? Would you think Father would want you to betray the truth just to hold onto a paycheck?"
"No, I get that. What if I’m wrong about this whole situation and I’m just being selfish?"
"Selfishness will protect yourself at someone else’s expense. Risking job, reputation and friendships to be true to your conscience doesn’t sound selfish to me."
"But how can I be certain I won’t make a mess of things?"
"Whether or not you make a mess of things really isn’t the issue, is it? Neither is being certain. You can only be responsible to do what you think is best. If you make a mistake you will see it in time and learn from it. At least you’ll learn to be more dependent on him than on this thing you call church. No one is perfect, Jake, and when you give up trying to look like you are, then you’ll be free to follow him."
John put his arm on my shoulder and assured me that he would be praying for me. "It’s time for me to be moving on," he said turning and hoisting his backpack up on his shoulders. At that I glanced at my watch and couldn’t believe the time. My wife is always nervous when I hike into the wilderness alone and I promised to be back to civilization to give her a call by 3:30. With a good hour-long hike to go I was already going to be late, and I was afraid she’d send out the whole Forest Service to find me.
"Oh my goodness! I’m almost an hour late," I said scurrying to gather up my things. "Are you heading back down to Huntington Lake?"
"No. I’m going to hike west from here and stay up a few more days."
"I suppose it won’t help to ask you if we can meet again someday soon?"
"Neither one of us are in control of that, Jake and we really don’t need to be. Look what happened today. I think God’s big enough to bring us across each other’s paths whenever he needs to."
I didn’t have time to argue with him so we embraced to say our good byes and I set out for the trailhead. The last I saw of John he was climbing up the rocky hillside to the west of Nellie Lake. If I’d known then what lay ahead, I think I would have just stayed at the lake.