I found the message on our answering machine on a Thursday afternoon: "This is so-and-so from the church. I presume you've already heard about the fire. We're having a prayer meeting tonight at seven."
No, I hadn't heard about the fire, and I didn't know the person who had left the message -- it was a product of the church's very efficient phone tree system for passing information rapidly to the congregation. I sent an e-mail to Sally, who was away on business, left a message on my older son's cell phone (he was away at a school summer session), and arranged for our babysitter to stay with our younger son. Shocked at the news, I did what I thought would be expected: wrote a check to the church for $500.
When I arrived at church that evening, I expected to see a smoking ruin. Instead, the building looked completely normal. Three hazard cleanup vans rumbled away on-site, with big hoses snaking into and through the building. The smell told the story: smoke, water, soaked drywall and wood.
That afternoon, our youth minister had parked the church's van at the far end of the classroom wing. There, unattended, the vehicle had caught fire. Flames had been sucked into the classroom wing, where the sprinkler system kicked in and knocked the flames back to hot smoke. That smoke rolled along the ceilings, then got pulled through the entire wing to the sanctuary, on the other side of the ell, where open windows sucked it out and fed the heat. The firemen told us if the sprinkler system hadn't been the absolute best available, the smoke would have burst into full flame and consumed the structure. As it was, water and smoke had damaged the walls up to a height of about six feet, and all those walls would have to be re-built.
We held hands in a big circle, sang hymns a capella, testified, and prayed. I had to pull up a chair to ease my back, and when I sat down, I found the seat of the chair soaked. Afterward, the pastor, with whom I had become friends, spoke to me. I handed him the check.
"What's this?" he asked.
"Money," I said. We had all found out by that time that the church was thoroughly insured, and that fire investigators and attorneys would be on-scene the next day. As far as I know, I was the only one who had brought a donation.
Later, when I talked with Sally on the phone, I said, "Something was not quite right. We were all so busy being stout testifying Christians, we didn't mourn." And I quoted something that had been liberally repeated at the prayer meeting, something one of our associate pastors -- the son of our chief preacher -- had said: "Satan has got something in store for us."
We thought this was it.
THE NEXT DAY, SALLY CAME HOME, and we got the letter. Signed by the board of elders, the letter told us that our preacher had been arrested for drunk driving the night before the fire. He had taken a glass of wine in a toast at a wedding some months before, and found that the alcohol eased an old pain -- of a marriage that had slowly gone bad over decades. He drank steadily, he drank in his car, he drank in secret, something he had never done before. Inevitably, he got dinged.
Over the months since, the story has emerged in bits and pieces. The church took the position that our pastor and his wife would have to enter marriage counseling to save their marriage -- divorce was wrong, and he could not have his job back until and unless he repaired his marriage. He met every night with the board of elders and told his story in excruciating detail. He confessed to the congregation -- a sermon that I missed.
In my heart, the painful sympathy turned like a screw. This was a man of whom I had said, "I think he's going to be one of the best friends I ever had." This was a man who had been sitting at my bedside with a big smile on his face when I came out of a coma in a hospital, after I had had a gastrointestinal bleed. This man had spent his life building a vital church, and he had done so not only with charisma and eloquent preaching, but with managerial expertise and attention. Testimony to that? That the church did not collapse after the fire and our pastor's drunk driving bust, but pulled itself together, re-devoted itself to its core mission, and continued to thrive.
I would not want to have to undergo marriage counseling -- or personal counseling, for that matter -- under the supervision of a board of elders, and with only a single outcome allowed.
Yesterday, I drove my older son back to school, a drive of some 90 minutes or more, and we had one of the best and longest talks we ever had. Among many other things, we talked about songwriting.
"Imagine a country song," I said to Bud, "that started with the lines, 'The preacher took a glass of wine to toast the groom and bride. He took a sip and then one more, it felt so good inside.'"
"IF YOU WROTE THIS DOWN LIKE A STORY, no one would believe it," one of our congregants said to Sally and me when she came to dinner last week. Well, believe it. It does not appear that our preacher will ever get his job back, because it appears that his wife does not want to be married to a preacher anymore, and that she's done with the whole long life journey they had undertaken together. To be fair, our preacher may have to realize that he is not the same man anymore, either.
People at church have reacted in different ways. For several Sundays, attendance fell notably. Lately, people have started coming back. At first, the elders took turns preaching, and, to put it kindly, some of them are not really preachers, no matter how great their faith or their sincerity. Lately, and ironically, the preaching assignments have settled on our pastor's son, who is good at the job, and who has explored the Christian and emotional issues behind this tragic fall unstintingly and courageously.
Among the many things we have found out is that our preacher had no real friends among the congregation. The elders had, in fact, walled him off. It took me some real effort to get his phone number. I may be the only member of the congregation who has communicated with him, outside the channels of the deacons and elders. And his wife has disappeared entirely, in terms of church association.
For my part, I have stayed away from church since then. I'm sure I will go back. All the people have been very good to me, and my core faith remains undisturbed. But it was my friend who fell. It was my friend who lost his life's work. It was my friend who got hurt. And for now, I just want to be his friend.
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