The “South Banks Project” was a bitter pill for Banks’ residents. Streets and utilities had been completed in what had been a field and construction had begun on the houses, when I arrived at the church. By and large, the predominant attitude about the project in the community was critical. The folk of the Banks community held onto their small town. The population sign was not changed for nearly a decade even with the influx of 400 new families! For those years, defying truth, the sign still read “Population 522,” as if in denial that it was pushing 4500. Eventually, the sign, post and all, was removed instead of changing the number.
In the use of language, this unacceptance was voiced in speaking of Banks as separate from “the Project,” or “the South Banks Project.” Even a decade later, when the trees were huge and children had grown into teenagers, this continued.
But the church, over against this prevailing spirit, sought to welcome these newcomers. Together we baked loaves of bread, created baskets of information about the community and us, and went door-to-door after each new family took up residence with our welcome. Along the way, we met some beautiful people who ended up becoming a part of our lives and the church.
One couple in their fifties, John and Janet, moved in with their two huge mastiffs Bruno and Helga. John and Janet had spent years immersed in the New Age movement until one night they both had the same dream and sat up awake in bed at the same moment. Turning to one another they said, “I just had the strangest dream.” On comparing notes, the dreams were identical. In each dream Jesus had come to them and said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life and no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). They knew this was Jesus, whom they had previously respected as one of many prophets.They got up confessed their waywardness and sin and turned their lives over to the One who had reached out to rescue them. There was nothing like that experience to emphasize the sovereignty of God! We held amazing conversations between their Calvinist and my Wesleyan theological approaches.
The next day they found the verse Jesus had quoted and began to remake their lives following the King. The first thing they did was to burn all their New Age books and then began to study God’s Word.
John had been on the stage in theater and stand-up comedy, and then worked in the corporate world until his recent retirement. He was great at one-liners and comic responses. Janet was a bank executive overseeing customer relations and marketing.
They both sharpened my ability to communicate and think with clarity. Janet coached me on my preaching style and strengthened my life at many levels. Once after what I felt had been a disastrous Christmas Eve service, which at this point in life I know is an impossibility, Janet came up to me. I am certain the feeling of failure and shame was showing. I would be a terrible poker player; my face always gives me away! Janet put her hand on my shoulder and said firmly, “The Word went forth. God never sends it forth void. It will produce.” It was a powerful “Step forward!” invitation.
John challenged me theologically every time we spoke. He and I started a Pub Theology group at a place in the next community which met for a couple of years.
Then, when it stopped, we continued to meet at his and Janet’s place on Sunday mornings at 7:30 am for coffee and discussion. It was a small group of guys with another man named John, a man named Dave, and a few others all of whom were new to the Banks church community. We would sit at their big, wooden table, after Bruno and Helga greeted us, drink coffee and tea, wrestle with theology, look at the language of Scripture, and ask tough questions. We would laugh, talk, debate, and tell stories. We would go through the upcoming scripture passage for the next Sunday, debating that as well. Those mornings became rich gifts.
These guys loved God with their minds and taught me to do so as well. They clarified my thinking and placed my feet firmly on the earth. I needed this. During these years I was filled with inner torment. My mind felt plagued with sexual imagery hooked to the abuse I’d experienced as a child. No matter how I fought in prayer, they remained. Because of this, shame filled me. In addition, Karen had encountered and was walking through the toughest recovery work of her life. The more I understood of her own suffering, the more anger I felt toward her perpetrators. On top of that anger, I was angry at myself; I struggled with self-hate on many levels. Suffice to say, I was an emotional mess inside while seeking to pastor, counsel, preach, and lead on the outside. These head guys, therefore, were a blessing. They became a rudder for my ship.
One morning at 5:50 am, I got into my car to leave for the pool where I swam several days a week. Emotions flooded me as I sat in the seat. I was so tired of the mess, the invasive images and the emotions. I cried out to God. “Take it away. Uproot this whole awful plant out of me! I don’t want it! I cannot do this anymore!”
God responded, “Son. I could do this. I could uproot it all at once. But if I did, you’d have to experience all the pain of all that occurred, all at once. It would be too much for you. It would physically kill you.”
That got my attention. “Okay, then. Do it your way. I’ll choose the process,” I said, as I started the car and immediately, the radio began to play. I never used the radio, so had not left it on. I sat there, astounded. A beautiful tenor voice sang, “Faithful and True, when I need a hand to hold me, I’ll lift up a hand to you. You are Faithful and True.” Then tears came anew. Thoughts ran through my head: “Who was this singing? How was this possible for God to place this man singing these words on my radio when I don’t turn it on?” But there it was, the verses and the chorus cascaded over me as I drove to the pool, cheeks wet. That was the first and last time I ever heard that song play on the radio.
Jesus combatted the shame I felt when several of the members of the church attended a worship night with leader Dennis Jernigan. He is the songwriter and pianist who had serenaded me in the car. His abuse and deliverance story echoed my own. During this concert, he asked people to stand who had any shame in their lives. I didn’t stand, thinking, “I don’t have any shame.” I was deeply invested in denial! As I sat there, before Dennis began to sing, an image came to mind, and I was flooded with shame remembering it. I stood, at once!
Dennis sang and the first image, still burning in my mind began to shift to another. Before the scene shifted, I felt a hand on my right shoulder even though there was no one physically there. I became aware and saw in my mind’s eye, Jesus standing there. He was in a shepherd’s robe, His hand on my shoulder. As soon as His hand touched my shoulder the shame, like a sliver from a wound, was plucked out of that memory. Another memory arose, like the next photo in an album. The same sense of shame flooded me, but then was pulled from the scene. A third image came and a fourth. The whole time, Jesus stood there, cleansing the infection of shame. By the end of the song, this refreshing sense of renewal flooded me at the Shepherd’s touch.
Throughout these years in Banks, there was this Good Shepherd leading me in relationships with the great men there to change me, strengthen me and mostly to grow me up into the man I was called to become. The guys I mentioned above were such thinkers. There was another group of guys who were the doers – remodeling, rebuilding, painting, and completing construction projects around the church. Those heavy-lifter guys showed another aspect of Jesus to me yet, who was Himself a carpenter and understood them. Through all of them, God grew me up into His likeness. It has been a slow process, yet ongoing, but God proved Dennis Jernigan correct, Jesus the Shepherd was faithful and true throughout.