It had been almost two months since I’d last seen John by the shores of Nellie Lake, but it seemed a lifetime ago. The congregational meeting that followed our encounter had proved to be my Waterloo. I had hoped my friend, pastor and boss would have come to his senses and tell the truth before the meeting, or even shortly thereafter. But he did not. He valued the comfort of a lie over whatever friendship we’d had. I was shocked!
He’d given me an ultimatum before the meeting to support his story or look for employment elsewhere. I came close to caving in but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to lie for him. I did skirt the edges of the truth as far as I could, telling the people that I had understood him to support the concert, though maybe I had misunderstood him. His piercing look told me my ploy had not worked. The next morning he chewed me out, accused me of betraying the friendship and demanding my resignation by the end of the day. I gave it to him by the end of his next breath, slipping it out of the notebook I carried into our meeting.
I am so disappointed in you. He said refusing to make eye contact. You had such promise and now you’ve thrown it all away! For what purpose? He told me he would see that I got paid until the end of the month and warned me that he would destroy me in that town if I gossiped about him. As I started to leave he seemed to soften a bit In spite of this, we’ll never forget the contributions you made during your time here and I hope you will keep coming to this church to get the healing you need.?
I nodded as I left, shocked at his audacity. Who gets healed the scene of the accident? For that you need a hospital, or a doctor at least. When Laurie and I and our children did not attend the next Sunday, Jim read our resignation letter and, as we heard it later, launched into a twenty-minute tirade about the high character required of people in ministry. He told the people I had been dishonest in an attempt to discredit him and take over his position. Character flaws in ministry will always surface in times of crisis, he added. I was shocked to learn that he had turned his sin into my indictment.
A few friends called to support us and say they were leaving too, but most shunned us. In the days that followed I was mortified each time people turned away from me in a store, pretending they didn’t see me. I could only imagine what they thought of me. Laurie and I attended a few different congregations on Sundays because we felt like we should, but our heart wasn't in it now that we knew what was behind the smoke and mirrors. I was lost. Some who had left the church when we did hoped I'd start another one, but I didn't have the heart to do it. The longer I delayed the more their friendships drifted away as well.
Finding my way back into real estate was not any easier. The market was down and people were overstaffed everywhere. I started to put together a business of my own, but my old contacts had already found others to represent them and it didn't look promising.
With few friends, no measurable income and a hopeless future ahead, I finally hit what I thought was rock bottom. That was until Laurie called me on my cell phone that morning to tell me our daughter had an asthma attack at school and had to be rushed to the hospital. As I rushed to meet her there my anger exploded. After all I’d done for God, it seemed like he could take care of my family better than this. I seethed inside, not even sure how I would pay the hospital bill since I was no longer insured.
So now do you understand why I wanted to run when John came into the cafeteria that night? Yes, she was better for the moment, but I seethed with anger and wanted no part of God in the middle of this. What had I done so wrong that my daughter must suffer like this? Why does God ignore my desperate prayers for her healing? Other parents gripe about playing taxicab for all their children's activities. I don't even know if Andrea will survive her next asthma attack and I fear that the steroids she's on will stunt her growth.
I’d sought a brief refuge in the cafeteria to grab a cup of coffee, read a news magazine and try not to think about everything that overwhelmed me. That’s when John poked his head into my private sanctuary. Now he was walking over to my table and I honestly thought about punching him in the mouth if he dared to open it. I knew I wouldn't. I'm only violent inside, not on the outside where anyone else can see it. I hoped he could read my body language and just go away, but he kept coming. He finally stopped behind the chair across from me and started to pull it out. Do you mind if I join you?
Of course I mind! Get out of here! You’ve been nothing but trouble since the day I met you! But my ‘nice’ filter edited all of that out before it got to my mouth. What came out was, I think I’d just as soon be alone,
He seemed surprised. He gently nudged the chair back under the table and in his gentle voice said, "That’s fine with me, Jake. We can talk another time." I looked up and let out an angry sigh as he walked around the table toward me and put his hand on my shoulder. Squeezing it affectionately he said, "I just want you to know how sorry I am for all you’re going through. I really care about you." One more pat and then he headed for the door.
I glared at his back as he walked away. A battle raged inside. Most of me was angry enough to strangle him before he said another word, but a small and compelling part of me wanted to know what he’d have to say about the mess I was in. If he got to that door I didn’t know when I’d ever see him again. As he pressed the crash bar on the door I heard myself yell out, "John, wait!"
He turned with his back bracing the open door and looked back. "I’m sorry to be so rude. We can talk a bit if you’d like."
"Are you sure, Jake" Sometimes being by yourself at a time like this can be the best thing."
"I’m tired of being alone." My words were swallowed up in an uncontrollable sob that raced up my throat and convulsed me with pain. I couldn’t say another word as the tears and sobs flowed from an untapped well. As John walked over I remembered feeling embarrassed and stupid all at once since I’d never been one to cry even at my worst moments. I tried to stop but couldn’t and John came around behind me and put his hands on my shoulders.
"It’s OK," he said massaging my shoulders. "You’ll be OK." I thought I could hear him praying under his breath, but I was so wracked with sobs I couldn’t understand him. Where had all this come from? It was probably only five minutes or so before I could gain my composure, but it felt like twenty. I managed to choke out an occasional, ?I’m sorry,? but he kept assuring me he was in no hurry for me to get through it. I’ve never been comfortable around people exhibiting as much emotion as I was, but John seemed at peace in the midst of it. He waited with words of reassurance as the pain exhausted itself.
When it did, he finally sat down beside me. I didn’t even pretend to hide my anger from him. How could God let all these horrible things happen to me when I was trying to stand up for him? And to let my little girl go through all this and I don’t even have a way to pay for it. I had begged God to heal her, provide for my family and destroy my former friend for all he did to hurt me. The last prayer I knew was a bit suspicious, but David had often prayed that way in the Psalms. "And most of all, I’m mad at you! Ever since you came waltzing into my life everything has exploded in my face. I’ve never been more frustrated with my spiritual life or more isolated from the church. And now I don’t even have an income to show for it! Some great life in Christ this turned out to be!"
John didn’t take the bait as he sat back and just looked at me with those piercing eyes I’d first seen on the street in San Luis. I wanted him to be as angry as I was and defend himself; but he didn’t. He cupped his head in his hand and sighed. "I know it isn’t easy right now, Jake! These times never are. Just try to remember you’re in the middle of a story, not at the end of it."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"God is doing something in you, answering the deepest prayers you’ve ever prayed. Yes, that process has brought some incredible pain in your life, but he has not abandoned you, Jake. Far from it! He’s holding on to you today as tightly as he ever has."
"It sure doesn’t feel like it. It feels like he’s turned every weapon he has against me." Then after a brief pause my cynical side raised its ugly head, "I know, feelings don’t matter."
"On the contrary they matter a lot! But the fact that you don’t feel him holding you doesn’t change the fact that he still is. It just means your feelings are set to the wrong frequency. I’m not sure this is the best time to get into this, but God wants to help you see through some things that keep tripping you up."
"Well then I guess I’m not angriest at you, I’m angry at him! I don’t want him using my life as a football that other people can kick around."
"He doesn’t want that either. I know it feels like you’ve lost everything you value the most and in many ways you have. Don’t think he’s orchestrated these events for some higher purpose, because he isn’t like that. But you’ve been asking to know him as he really is and that will always bring consequences. It is always easier to play the culture’s game, even its religious game, than to discover who God really is and how he wants to walk with you.
"But at least I knew how I was going to pay the bills." I shot back.
"Or at least thought you did."
With a deep sigh I glared at John. This is what I really hated about our conversations. He could drop in a comment like that and I’d be left wondering what it meant. He didn’t seem to explain himself unless I asked and I’m not really sure I wanted to know anymore. I wrestled with whether to ask him or simply to excuse myself to go back to check on Andrea.
The silence hung between us for a long time. I was determined not to ask nor to give him another opening. Finally John cocked his head with the slightest smile, "But you were always frustrated, weren’t you?"
"When? Frustrated with what?"
"Playing the religious game. It never satisfied you, did it? Didn’t you go to bed frustrated every night that God didn’t do what you expected of him."
"Not always," I responded as I thought back over the last few years. "I remember some pretty incredible times of God revealing himself to me and inviting me to know him better."
"I’m sure that’s true, but did any of them ever last?"
"No, and that is what's so maddening. Just when I think things are going to get really good, they unravel in a mess. I have yet to find the reality of Christianity like I read about in Scripture. I don’t get it. Even getting to know you started with such promise and now it is just as frustrating as everything else that has God’s name on it."
"And why do you think that is?"
"Listen, John, if you have something to tell me, just let me have it. I don’t have the strength or energy to play word games with you."
"I’m sorry, Jake." John said as he reached out to grab my forearm that was lying under me on the table. "I’d never play that kind of game with you."
"What is going on, then, John? After all I’ve done in the last few months to make things right with God you’d think he could do better by me. I haven’t got a job. My reputation has been destroyed with people I’ve known for over two decades. Laurie and I are at each other’s throat and my daughter almost died today."
"So you think God owes you better?"
"Doesn’t he? Why should I try so hard to follow him if he can’t watch out for me?"
"So that’s it," John replied leaning back on his chair. "You grew up with the idea that your goodness could actually control the way God treats you. If you do your part, he has to do his."
"That’s not true?"
"Jake, God’s doing his part all the time. He loves you more than anyone else ever will and will not keep his hands out of your life. Sometimes we cooperate and sometimes we don’t and that can affect how things sort out. But don’t think you can control God by your actions because it isn’t like that. If we controlled God, he’d turn out like us. It’s much better to let him have his way and turn out like him."
"But look at the mess I’m in, John. I’ve just tried to do what was right and it hasn’t helped me at all."
"But it has in ways you don’t know yet. God is setting you free from the things that have brought you security in the past. They were in the way of God being the Father to you that he knew you wanted and they were false hopes anyway. Losing them is always painful and I know you’re dealing with more than most right now, but I’m most concerned that you think God has turned against you, or is at least ignoring you."
"What else can I think? I thought God was making some things clearer to me and I thought that would bring some added joy and peace to my life. I thought others would love it as much as I did. But I find out that they do not and I’m wondering myself if I’ve not been duped. If this was God don’t you think things would be getting better?"
"I would, and, I think they are."
I could barely contain myself. "How can you say that? Are you some kind of idiot? Look at what I’m going through here!"
"I’ll admit your circumstances seem much worse now. But that’s not the only place to look. You’re on a new road but you’ve got your eye on the old road signs. I think what God wants you to know is that those old road signs are nothing but myths to prop up a dying system. They don’t really work, as you’re finding out."
"What kind of myths?"
"For one, you think suffering is a sign of God’s displeasure. Didn’t Job make that mistake? Often suffering indicates that God is setting us free from something so that we can follow him with greater freedom. Walking in his life will always mean you are going against the grain. Don’t expect your circumstances to conform easily to this journey. They will resist it at every turn. God wants to teach you how to walk with him through these things so that you can know a joy and peace that transcends events in your life."
"But doesn’t God promise to bless those who follow his ways?"
"Certainly that is the fruit of doing so, but he doesn’t define those blessings in your terms. He’s leading you on a greater journey than you can yet fathom. Keep following him and you’ll be absolutely astounded by what he will do in you. The hardest thing you’ll learn in this journey is to give up the illusion of controlling your life or that you can manipulate God to bless you."
"That’s what you meant about paying my bills, didn’t you?"
"Yes. God will provide for you. He always has, except you don’t know that. The fact that you don’t have insurance or a job to lean on doesn’t mean he will forsake you. The fact that others are destroying your reputation doesn’t mean they’ll have the final say. God is not a fairy godmother who waves his magic wand to keep you happy. You won’t get far in this life if you question his love for you whenever he doesn’t meet your expectation. He’s your Father. He knows far better what you need than you know yourself. He is a far better provider for you and your family than you yet know. He is bringing you into his life and rather than saving you out of these things he has chosen to use them to show you what true freedom and life are really like."
"So he likes me to suffer?"
"I hope you know better than that. He agonizes right along with you. How can he not? He loves you. He is not doing this to you, he is working through the brokenness of this world to accomplish something greater in you. Once you know that, even the sting of difficult circumstances will be blunted. You’ll find him in the midst of them and watch him accomplish his purpose without your control. This is where his life truly begins to take hold in you."
"I think I’d rather just be happy." I said chuckling. It was the first shot at humor I’d taken in the last few days and it felt good.
"But happiness is a pretty cheap substitute for being transformed into his image, wouldn’t you say?"
"I know! But this isn’t easy."
"Yes it is, my friend. But maybe you make it even harder when you think God is against you! What if you knew he was right in this with you, leading you to the fullness of life in him that you’ve begged him for?"
I had to think about that a minute. "Then I certainly wouldn’t be so overwhelmed."
"No, you wouldn’t. And you’d still be able to enjoy his presence while he’s working this out. You’re missing what every writer of the New Testament knew, even though God does not orchestrate our sufferings, he uses them to bring freedom at the deepest core of our being. If you walk with him through it instead of pushing him away with blame or accusation, you’ll be surprised at what he will do."
"But I still don’t know how I’ll pay this hospital bill."
"But he does, Jake! He’s already working that out. The fact that you can’t see it yet doesn’t alter that reality."
"That would be OK for me if I didn’t have to see my daughter go through all of this. I can’t imagine that he’d make her sick to deal with me."
"And you’d be right about that. Andrea has her own journey with God and he’ll walk her through this as well. You can’t keep her from suffering and her struggle is not something God did to get through to you. But I don’t think you’ll ever see her with asthma again."
"Really? Why would you say that?"
"I actually came to the hospital this evening to see another friend of mine whose life is approaching its end. That’s how I knew you were here. I saw you and your wife having a bit of a discussion outside Andrea’s room earlier."
Immediately I flashed back to that harsh exchange. Both of us were under the same pressures and had begun to take it out on each other. I cringed thinking John had seen us. "It wasn’t pretty was it?"
"Don’t worry about that, Jake. You’re both in a difficult place and I’m certainly not going to judge how you’re handling it. I just thought it was not the best time to interrupt. I went back a bit later to see if I could catch either of you and found Andrea alone struggling to breathe. Her eyes were alive with fear. I walked over to her and asked if I could pray for her. She nodded, so I did. Time will tell I guess, but I think her asthma is gone."
"You healed her?"
"As if I could! No, but I’m pretty sure God did."
"You’re serious? I've prayed a thousand times for that and he didn’t do it for me."
"Who said he didn’t? I simply added my prayers to yours."
"But why didn’t he do it the other thousand times I asked him to?"
"That’s because it isn’t in your control, Jake, or mine! It’s in his. Healing isn’t magic. As we learn to live in him we get to cooperate with that which he is doing. I was just praying for her to breathe easier and have God’s peace, but I’m convinced God did something more than that."
"I don’t know how to describe it other than to say I felt her asthma left her. I think she knows it too. Her next breath came as easily as yours. The fear in her eyes was gone, a smile creased her lips and she sunk into the pillow with a deep sigh."
"That’s why I found her sleeping a while ago. We thought the medications had finally started working."
"I’m sure they helped, but God decided to do something more."
"That would be great if it’s true. I hate watching her suffer. But what you’re saying to me is that I should just be happy no matter what God does or how he does it."
"That’s not what I’ve said at all, Jake. I’m merely helping you see what God might be up to in the circumstances you’re in. He doesn’t need you to pretend. In fact, I think it’s fabulous that you’re not trying to hide your anger. You’ve got some honest questions and deep struggles to sort out here. God’s big enough to handle them. Don’t run from your pain, or try to hide it from him. It won’t impress him and it won’t help you. Take your anger to God. He knows how to bring you through this and see his glory in ways you never dreamed."
At that the door to the cafeteria popped open again. A nurse swept the room with her eyes. Is that you, John?"
"Yes," he called back to her.
"You said you wanted to know if Mr. Phillips took a turn. I think it’s getting close."
"Thank you. I’ll be right up." Then he turned back to Jake. "I’ve got to go now. Why don’t you check on Andrea and get some sleep yourself."
"But I’m not sure I’ve worked it all out."
"Nor will you in the next few minutes or hours. This is a lifetime journey, Jake, learning to give up your illusion of control and letting God have his way is not easy for any of us. This isn’t the last lesson."
"But I still don’t know what to do about my job or church or anything else," I said as my laundry list of unresolved questions started to scroll across my mind. I wanted John to give me direction.
"Let me ask you one question, Jake. Is there anything you lack to get through this day?"
"I need a job. I need a way to pay this bill." I motioned at the hospital that surrounded us.
"Or you need the confidence that your Father already knows those things and loves you enough to sort them out with you. You have all that you need today, you just don’t have all you need yet to get to the end of the month. But that’s still a long ways off."
"Well, you're right there," I had to agree.
"That’s all we’re promised, Jake. When you can trust his love in each moment, you’ll really know how to live free." John started to get up from the table and I stood to embrace him before he left.
"But where do I find that kind of faith?"
"You won’t find it. It’s something he creates in you, even in the very circumstances you despise. Just keep coming to him and watch what he will do. He’s the Father that knows you better than you know yourself and even loves you more than you love yourself. Ask him to help you see how much he loves you. That will make all the difference." Then he motioned toward the door, "I have to go."
We embraced and he headed for the door. I gathered up a few things and followed behind him. I couldn’t wait to check on Andrea. As I headed her direction I decided I would live the rest of my days assuming that my Father’s love was with me in every circumstance, rather than questioning it. Little did I know at the time how much I would need that.