by Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
THE ISLE OF PATMOS
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
— Psalm 27:14
A pastor at fifty should be at the peak of his usefulness. But as I passed this milestone in my life, I felt utterly useless. My father’s forlorn prophecy had nearly been fulfilled, for the church had played a leading role in destroying my faith and my family.
The first time Dad warned me about the church, I was only thirteen. Life largely consisted of school and sports, and I gave them my best effort. I worked hard, played by the rules, and helped others along the way. Rewards were reaped in the form of good grades, scholarships, and numerous awards.
The second time he prophesied to me, I had just become a Christian. My main goals outside of following Christ were to finish college and get a good job. I worked hard, played by the rules, and helped others along the way. The results included a degree, an entry level position with a large company, and a couple of key promotions within the first few years. Marriage, children, and a brand new house were part of the picture, too.
The third and final time he warned me that the church could destroy my faith, I was entering seminary and embarking on a calling and career as a vocational pastor. Once I began, I tackled the ministry as I had everything else in life. I worked hard, kept the word of God, and helped others along the way. My wife and I expected a rewarding experience with God and God’s people.
What did I get from the church for just over twenty years of faithful service? I got multiple attacks from both liberals and conservatives for simply telling the truth and trying to help. I got fired, twice, in spite of the fact that I did not do anything morally, ethically, or doctrinally worthy of rebuke, much less termination. Each church I served grew in number, financial strength, and ministry output. Still, they managed to either antagonize me or scheme to get rid of me.
At the end of my most recent pastorate, my wife left us for another life. I was expelled from the church parsonage and then the church. My daughter and I had no home, almost no money, and no place to go until a great friend took us in. By the way, she was thirteen, the same age I was when my father first said, “Don’t let the church destroy your faith.”
I was unemployed and unemployable, to old to start a new career and too young to be finished as a pastor. I clung to a torn and tattered faith, the love of my four wonderful daughters, and the support of several faithful friends who had stuck with me through my trials. I felt like the Apostle John, severely wounded and exiled on account of the gospel and the word of God. I was on Patmos, awaiting a revelation from the Lord to tell me what to do.
Unmistakably, definitively, and personally, a word from God came. It had been written three thousand years before. It was not exactly the word I wanted to hear. God said, “Wait.” On my isle of Patmos, Psalm 27 became my book of revelation. It served as a light to guide me during the darkest period of my life, and beyond.
What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You “wait for the Lord.”
A quarter of a century ago I had put my hands to that gospel plow. I could not turn back. But, I could not imagine who would want to call a twice fired, once divorced pastor. Spurgeon told his students that if you can do anything else besides being a pastor, do it! I looked at other fields of employment but could not conceive of doing anything other that what the Lord had called me to do, preach the word and pastor His church. So I prayed, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
Waiting does not imply inactivity. I prayed and prayed. I was willing to consider any church of any tradition that could value my gifts and experience. Four faithful friends wrote letters and sent resumes on my behalf. I endured some scorn from churches and pastors, even old friends, for trying to continue on in pastoral ministry after being divorced. I faced countless closed doors and cold rejection letters. I prayed some more. Out of approximately two hundred contacts, I received two phone calls. One of those didn’t call twice.
To slightly modify the wisdom of Robert Frost and Yogi Berra, when you come to a fork in the road, and one of them is blocked, take the other one. I waited on the Lord for a fresh start to serve Him. I was willing to go anywhere He wanted me to go. After months of darkness and doubt in the cabin in the woods, one church lit up to invite me to be their new pastor. It turned out to be the first unanimous call I had ever received from a church, thirteen to zero.
Sure, it was a small situation for a pastor with two graduate degrees and twenty years of experience, but it was God’s perfect place for me and my daughters. Most pastors dream of starting a church from scratch and doing it right, and this was a chance to start one over again. The location was inside a hundred miles of my oldest daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. My second daughter, also divorced, and granddaughter moved with us. My third daughter was traveling all over the country on business, but kept in close touch. And, the place where we moved put my youngest daughter in one of the finest schools in the country. The Lord blessed us and allowed us to be in close proximity as life and ministry began again.
God met our spiritual needs through answered prayers. God met our emotional needs by keeping us close together and giving us time to heal. God met our financial needs through the new church, a part-time gig at a local Bible college (something I had always wanted to do, too), and my retirement savings. I took the latter as a sign the Lord doesn’t want me to retire, anyway. The Psalmist said to seek the Lord and He will not forsake you, even when others do. We did, and He did. When you don’t know what to do, God does, so “wait for the Lord.”
What do you do when you do know what to do? You “wait for the Lord.”
Had the Lord not knit our hearts together, the church I came to serve could have otherwise closed the doors and I might be out sweeping floors. I had literally looked into a church janitor position about the time this church called. Another good friend and faithful pastor I know had been forced out of a church and served as a janitor for a season, even though he had been a medical doctor before seminary and pastoral work. The Lord spared me from the mop and broom, and now that I had been provided with a place to serve and a people to serve with, I knew exactly what to do.
But the Lord continued to speak, especially through Psalm 27, telling me to “wait.” God’s word, good mentors, positive experiences (even in the midst of dysfunctional churches), and even my own mistakes had taught me how to lead people in worship and discipleship and the other purposes of the church. But it had taken me this long to learn that every church is different, every field is unique, and every purpose of the Lord should be fulfilled by waiting upon the Lord for a sure sense of direction.
The new church, like our family, had been torn apart by past strife. Previous pastors had stayed an average of three years, about the national average in our denomination, which seems to be indicative of a major problem. Deacons had run the church, unbiblically and ineffectually, and run off more than a few pastors. In the most recent conflict, however, they retreated and handed the reins to the immediate past pastor who proceeded to run the church, straight into the ground. Even the facilities looked as if they had battled a hurricane and lost. To top it all off, a trusted member had embezzled what little money the church had. Like me, they hit bottom. Surely there was no way to go but up!
Up we have come, but this is a chapter that remains to be written. Our membership has increased four-fold, but four times thirteen is still only fifty-two. We have money in the bank, but it is taking all our members can give to sustain our small budget and repair our buildings and grounds. We have established biblical parameters for membership and leadership. We worship in spirit and truth, and our Lord’s Day service is God-centered and infused with the gospel and the word of God. There is still much to plan and do, and I know a lot of ways to do it, but we are waiting on the Lord to show us just when and how He wants us to make His name great and reach people for Jesus Christ.
I used to wait on the Lord in desperation. Now, I do it in deliberation. What the church has done to destroy my faith has actually caused my faith to grow. I have learned not to fight, for it is the Lord who fights for me. I am learning to trust people that the Lord has put in my path, and tactfully ignore those who come from some other origin. I am learning that time belongs to God and is only borrowed by man, and God is not in a hurry. I am learning to wait upon the Lord, and trusting that good things do come to those who wait.
The revelation I received on my isle of Patmos is brought to a conclusion with this optimistic promise: “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13-14).
At the beginning of this chapter, I could see nothing good that had come out of a life of service in the church. I was divorced, unemployed, homeless, and hurting beyond imagination. But the Lord loved, the Lord spoke, and I waited.
What God has given me is beyond good, and it got me off the isle of Patmos. God gave me a richer, more rewarding relationship with the four beautiful young women I am proud to call my daughters. God gave me a new church, small in number but large in its desire to do the right things the right ways at the right time. God gave me the opportunity to take all He has taught me and teach to young Christians on a college campus. And, after my heart had time to heal from divorce, God gave me perhaps the greatest gift other than my salvation that He has ever given to me.
I must tell you about her in the next chapter, for our lives comprise a story that needs to be told to the church that so often hurts, but needs to help. The church can destroy your faith and your family, if you are not careful, so we must learn how the church can make both, church life and family life, all that God wants it to be.
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