It was a pleasant Autumn Sunday morning, in North Central Kentucky; cloudy, a light breeze, but warm, as the Elders of the Church called me forward to lay hands on me and set me apart for Christian Ministry. It was somewhere around 11a.m.when I rose from my knees and took the pulpit to preach my first sermon as a fully ordained minister of Christ.
The day plays out in front of me like a series of photo albums. Thousands of snapshots bound together to tell the story of one of the most important days of my life. This month marks the 35th anniversary of that event and I’ve spent a great deal of time recently reflecting on that October Sunday, and the three and a half decades of adventure, excitement and heartache that have followed.
Please indulge me in a brief trip down memory lane and a couple hints at what lies yet ahead.
I couldn’t help noticing how much larger the audience was than on a normal Sunday, as I looked over the congregation in the moments before launching into a message on the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, simply called, “Paid in Full.” Besides the normal members and attendees, the pews were crowded with family and friends who had traveled from all over to witness my big day.
I can’t ever remember a time in my life when I wanted to do anything other than Preach the Gospel. Some encouraged it, some shrugged at the notion and one particular High School counselor had tried her best to mock it and talk me out of it, but a passion of indescribable proportion burned inside of me, and here I was, barely past my 22nd Birthday, and my dream was coming true. Tears welled up and I could not contain them.
The congregation that October Sunday included my parents, my two incredible sisters, my paternal grandparents, my Dad’s brother, Jerry and his three beautiful daughters.
Center stage was to be mine, but for a brief moment, it was stolen by my infant son, who appeared to be sleeping peacefully in my mother’s arms, but promptly awakened on hearing my voice, and puked down his grandmother’s brand new dress. My preaching has continued making people sick ever since.
After Church, we retreated to my Father’s place of business for a pot luck picnic. People came and went all afternoon, stopping by to grab a bite to eat, congratulate me and wish me well. I remember my head spinning and the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the moment. It was surreal, almost like an out of the body experience. I wanted to capture every memory and hold it tightly forever. Sadly, like most men of my age, my grip on memory isn’t as firm as it used to be and I only have fragments of pieces of those moments, but I do cherish them.
One thing that does stand out from that afternoon was the extra attention I was getting from my three cousins. Normally, Joy, Jill and Jane reserved all their affection for my Dad, their “Uncle Buddy”, but on this day, the fair haired, quiet Joy, sat by me at dinner and talked a blue streak. Jill, in her lovely, frilly frock, and barley knee high, sat on the other side and sang songs while toddler Janie, insisted that I hold her, which I ended up doing for the better part of three hours.
My son, Doug, however, exhausted from his morning projectile vomiting, slept the day away, with only the occasional disturbance when someone needed him for a photo opportunity.
I can close my eyes and see my sisters, Denise and Lisa, laughing and helping Mom with some project. I can see my Dad, my Grandpa and my Uncle as they shared a mutual, silent moment of pride at their legacy interacting before them. It was a good day, a very good day.
I could not possibly have known the tremendous heights or the great depths my journey would take over the next decades. I have sipped tea from the finest china with members of the British royal family on castle grounds in Scotland and have drunk kool aid from polluted wells in the poorest homes in Latin America. I have been wined and dined by political dignitaries and business tycoons and have been heckled by drunks at events on three continents. I have slept in opulent quarters in exotic places, and I have slept on the ground in filthy ones. I have shared the stage with some of the most famous preachers of our lifetime and I have shared it with toothless nationals from faraway places, whose names will never be known here, but are etched into the annals of Heaven.
I have preached to crowds of thousands upon thousands in mega Churches, to crowds of unknown number and origin in open air campaigns, and to the ‘two or three who are gathered’ in buildings with leaky roofs and poor heating. I have been lauded, applauded and feted. I have been mocked, ridiculed and rejected. I have been interviewed on radio and TV and been arrested behind the old ‘Iron Curtain’. Three times I’ve been held at gunpoint, my freedom and my life in the balance. I remember the elders of a Church in the War Zone in Northern Ireland, begging me through tears, to come and stay with them. I remember Churches in America refusing to take my phone calls when my world had gone dark.
The first 15 years following my ordination were an unbelievable adventure. Then it all came crashing down in the blink of an eye.
We all know the stories of professional athletes who, in the prime of their careers, plant a foot wrong, ruin a tendon throwing a curve ball or take an awkward hit that brings a promising future to a screeching halt and finds him or her watching from the sidelines in street clothes rather than on the field in uniform.
My story is like one of those. At the height of my ministry, with my calendar booked years in advance, with people coming from all over to participate in what God was doing through me, I took a hit that drove me from the game I loved.
Through a series of events and choices made by people close to me, I found myself without a ministry, without a family, without a job and eventually, without a home. I was a broken, empty vessel.
For 7 full years I floundered. My life, my dreams, my world, lay broken, shipwrecked on the rocks of some desolate shore. With a few notable, but extremely rare, exceptions, Churches wanted little to do with me. I wore a Scarlet Letter. For many congregations, the unpardonable sin for a Pastor was not adultery or financial malpractice, those could be forgiven and a new life started in a new place. No, the unforgivable stain upon an ordained life, was, and often still is, divorce.
The scars on my heart from being rejected and divorced have long since healed. I hold no grudges and God has given me a most incredible wife, who has stood with me, fought with me, wept with me, survived with me and thrived with me for the last 16 years. It’s very difficult to live with hurt from the past, when the present and the future are paved with support and love.
The scars from wounds inflicted by the Church, though, still sometimes seep and fester. For years, it was my scarlet letter that banished me from most pulpits. I have lost count of the number of places who saw my resume or heard me speak and showed interest, only to balk once my divorce became known. These days, though, it is not so much the limitations of my past, but those of my future that disqualify me. The date on my birth certificate has become my mortal enemy. Time is a cruel thing. When we are young it moves too slowly, then suddenly, almost overnight, it transforms into an irresistible force that cannot be restrained.
As I stand in the shadow of the 35th anniversary of my ordination, my emotions are bittersweet. The passion of my call burns as brightly, and as hotly, as ever. The gates of Hell still need to be breached and the hostages bound inside liberated. I stand, sword in hand, wounded, but unbowed. I do not know what role I will play in the battle. The future is dark to me. I cannot see. I will await the voice of my Master and I will wreak what havoc I can upon the prince of that darkness. Thirty Five years behind me, Eternity before me. I am a warrior.