This story is a work of pure fiction, but I hope it feels familar.
Pastor Randal Moylan, or Pastor Randy to the children, slipped quietly into the front pew. The large sanctuary was brightly lit by the late afternoon sunshine pouring in through multiple stained glass windows. The combination of time and lighting beauty always seemed wasted to him when no one else was here to enjoy it.
It was quiet. The Monday cleaners had just left having vacuumed and dusted away all evidence of both services yesterday. The place was again spotless, ready for whatever the church calendar would throw at it.
Rubbing his unshaven chin, he smiled sardonically. Senior Pastor Randal Moylan of Olive Path Evangelical was rarely seen without a fresh shave. He was always crisp and clean, always; studied well-rested, focused and ready to be the best representative of Christ that, with all his disciplined human limitations, he could be. Those scruffy whiskers felt suitable today.
He rarely had the time to just sit and think about his situation in life, but he did now and something inside him drew him to a time of personal accounting. He had mixed feelings about taking this walk through his tenure at this church.
New graduate Randy Moylan had just married Gail Turner the previous year when they were invited to join the church staff as the youth pastor and his wife. They were of one purpose as they prayed through a private dedication of their new apartment, role and life. They would be unstoppable in their pursuit of God’s will and their part in his mission.
He sighed and addressed his thoughts upward, “Lord,” you were so good to those two novices. You knew well what was coming, where we would succeed and where we would not.” Sometimes, he felt so close to God that he could clearly sense God answering him in a clear, loving but firm and almost audible voice, but that voice was silent for now.
He glanced around the array of pews, recalling where certain families or people sat each Sunday. “You gave us such a spectrum of experiences both sweet and bitter. All those births, weddings and deaths – occasionally all in one day.” He recalled instances of hard-won salvations, heart-melting baptisms, glimpses of divinity in communion and several rebellious breaking of relationships with God by Christians collapsing under some hidden crisis. He shook his head, knowing better than to be embarrassed, but regretting that he was unable to save some who had been so close but simply would not trust God enough.
“You did give us success with Matthew Jordon when he was such a strong voice against us being asked to take this pulpit after serving as Youth Pastor for five years and associate pastor for three more.” Randy frowned sadly as he recalled the death of Matthew’s daughter from a terrible accident when a family lost their brakes in the parking lot, hit and killed young Aubrey as Randy was leading a group of children between buildings to children’s church. Her death t rocked the congregation with grief. Matthew never directly blamed the new youth pastor, but for many years acted as if he did.
He shook off the connected memory of when just a few years later, Katie died suddenly from a septic infection that the doctors were unable to trace. Matthew was left with no answers; broken, alone and bitter against any reminder of God’s love that somehow did not apply to his wife and daughter. His worship and fellowship became curt, even perfunctory at best. His daily countenance became dark and distant.
“That was such a hard blow to Matthew, Lord,” then repeating a quick prayer that had been near the top of his daily prayer list for years, “Please bless Matthew with a complete healing of his broken heart.
“Then last year, you sent your Spirit and broke through part of his prison. We both cried when he confessed his pain and withholding of the love he used to share so freely. After so many years, he finally embraced the possibility that you indeed loved him, Katie and Audrey. It was such a long haul for him.”
He opened his memory to his own failings. “My life and work have been far short of perfect Lord and I know I’ve been useful only through your grace.” He recalled with embarrassment how during his seventh and eighth years, he was writing adult education classes, teaching some, administering the church’s education programs and carrying about a third of the counseling load for the senior pastor.
He began to neglect Gail and their twin girls in favor of meeting as many congregational needs as humanly possible. He ran so fast for so long that Gail began to protest and Randy became angry because she was forgetting the very reason they joined the ministry. “I thought this was what we agreed to, but Gail was right – we had a marriage and two kids to nurture.” He shuttered to recall how he started looking for other places to go and minister after his normal work hours instead of going home to an angry wife and cranky daughters.
“I came so close to losing my family. I was so wrong Lord, but you got my attention by sending an angelic Nathan to me.” He grimaced as he recalled Abuela Sanchez, the self-appointed congregational grandmother and, “how she chewed me out for abandoning Gail. I never saw it coming from such a quiet soul, but she yanked my choke chain real good.” The memory of how hard it was mustering the courage to apologize to Gail and how it took her several weeks to really believe that he was going change was still scary fresh. The twins were almost five at the time and themselves modeled the grace both of their parents needed as Randy emotionally moved back into his home with his family. Soon laughter and love returned as well.
On giving the place a final look around, he decided to walk up to the platform and stand once more behind the podium that so intimidated him when he first arrived – what – 26 years ago?
“Then there is this matter of speaking for you.” He pinched his lips and shook his head, “You knew how scared I was. I wanted each sermon and each word to be yours, but you rarely gave me word-for-word messages. I felt like you left me to wing it. When you called me to take the role of Sr. Pastor, I almost said ‘No’; in fact I wanted to say ‘No” because I could not imagine hearing from you often enough to preach almost every Sunday. I could do so many of the other programs. They were just work, but this preaching thing. . . How did you ever convince me to do it?”
The large room before him remained silent; so much so that even his breath returned as a nearly silent echo. That mental frame of mind where sometimes, God met him for conversation was also silent. Not Godless – just very quiet. “No matter Lord, I know you’re there and that overall I did a reasonable job of it. I heard that you changed many lives through those messages and lessons. It was all exhausting, but you can be my Aaron any time.”
“How many did we baptize up here Lord over the years? How many potlucks? How many vacation bible schools How many pre-marital counseling sessions, how many late night calls to how many hospital visits and how many final prayers for those who knew they were only minutes away from meeting you – or hoping to? And Lord, how many did we lose because I was somehow inadequate?” He shut his eyes, pinching back the temptation to see only his failures. After so many years, it still took discipline.
“Your church here has grown during my tenure, but I know that this was you moving and not me. Good things have happened and we’ve gone from a church in a large field surrounded by agriculture to a large church surrounded by nice urban neighborhoods. We don’t do overhead projectors anymore. We have big screens. We no longer depend on my inspiration for worship music but have Nelson running worship and he is so gifted.”
“So, how did I get here Lord? My last day as Pastor,” and glancing at his watch, “actually my last four and half hours?” He lifted his head and tried not to sink into any of the many forms of depression that were within reach. The new pastor was moving into his old office at this very moment. Polite, well trained, an experienced man of God who seemed full of energy and respectful for everything Pastor Randal Moylan had done here. “Am I just resentful Lord, and hurt that after 26 years of investment into the lives of so many people, they have chosen a different leader?”
“Did you really want to die as Pastor here?”
Randy straightened – stunned at the clarity of the voice in his mind. “That’s not what I . . .” and he paused. Of course, that’s not what he was thinking of and of course, God would have a larger issue or a more important question in mind. “I am here Lord, here and listening,” He braced himself for whatever God might say next. What he got instead was something of a detailed review of germane facts that arrived as he would have listed them. Was this his own stream of thought or God’s?”
“Do not create an insult where one was not intended. Both you and Gail are healthy. The girls are almost through college and doing well. You’ve been tiring of many of the tasks of the Sr. Pastor. You’ve been both a good leader and a good follower. You’ve carried the message faithfully. You found a good balance of being friend and pastor. You navigated many difficult issues for the church from the aggressive gay, anti-Christian activist movement to the spiritual decay suffered by our youth due to social media. You helped people with hard questions that have no human solutions. You’ve written three books that progressed important messages to the church and Christians today. You’ve daydreamed of what it might be like to teach young adults in college and you have a fourth book in your heart. Some of the youth I would send will be leaders of the next generation of churches. You have managed your finances well and are not old enough to retire, but you could travel, study, write or teach or lead any number of para-church ministries.”
The voice paused leaving Randy trying to decide how to respond. He did not doubt the voice was God’s, but that was a lot even for their relationship.
“Lord, I think I am most grateful that, apparently, I’m also not ready to die. Thank you for all these gifts and for keeping me sane in your ministry. I will miss all these people but understand that they might need a different leader with a fresh voice for their future. I think I would be comfortable with any of those options and suddenly look forward to exactly how your will, will be done.”
“Randy! Are you in here?” He looked up to see Gail standing an open door in the back. “Ah – there you are. “Enjoying one last grip on that podium are we? Are you ready to leave yet?”
“I am and I am m’lady. Are you finished packing already?”
“Yep, but were you expecting a call from a David Langstrome, from Northwest University? His voice message indicated that he knows you from some conference and he’s one of the academic deans at the college. Have I met him?”
“No, I don’t think you have, but I do think I should have been expecting his call. Interesting timing. Wait there and I’ll walk you to the car. Do we have any dinner plans?”