In late 1996 I received an invitation for which I'd prayed since 1982. I would be allowed to spend a month with Gene Edwards, being shown how to nurture a church.
'96 had been a busy year. Gene poured his heart into rebuilding the church in Atlanta, and we began to see fruit. Our numbers went back into the double digits, as Gene put out the word that he would be working directly and specially with Atlanta over the coming years. And work with us he did. He publicized living room conferences and delivered some stunningly rich messages for us living in Atlanta and for those deciding whether to throw their lot in with us.
Gene hinted to us that he had never really liked Ormewood Park. It took little prodding to convince us to abandon the scene of our recent pain. Property values had gone up there too much, anyway. We needed to remove obstacles to entry for new folk, if we were going to make it back from the brink of death. Ormewood Park's inner-city feel scared people off even before housing prices soared into 6 digits. We all moved out to Lithia Springs on the West side of Atlanta.
Excitement and hope were back in Atlanta, and they felt good. Most of Gene's other churches seemed to be doing well, too, making it a good year for everyone. The church in Florida was the only exception. During our drought of '94 and '95 it was largely Florida's commitment to the Lord and their enthusiastic love for us that had kept our noses above water. We'd sent most of our inquirers and visitors down to Florida for two years, and they'd all come back with the highest praise for what they saw there. We'd even visited them ourselves, just to be reminded what it was like to be in the Lord's blessing. To hear that they were sliding toward trouble was worrisome, but then again, we'd seen up-close and personal that every honeymoon has to end eventually. Things were great all over, and Florida would bounce back, we were sure.
Into this exciting time Gene sent that monster of an invitation I mentioned above. He invited each church to send a brother to a retreat center in Florida to spend a month with him. He had observed that churches have down times and need encouragement. He could not be everywhere at once, so he decided to leverage some of his hard work. His idea was to prepare brothers from several churches to be able to visit and encourage the other churches through their hard times. He made it clear that the brothers sent to this retreat would not be learning to plant churches like he did, but only to encourage other churches. We would not be following in his footsteps, so no one would get too uptight about going or not going.
When Atlanta received the news, I was in "timeout." Harry and I had been kicked out of the brothers' meetings for not playing well with the other saints. Our presence was hindering the decision making process of the whole church, and detracting from her progress. You've probably heard me mention this before, but before I could even think about hoping some day to maybe be allowed back in I was required to read, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," ... twice. I needed the correction. I know I tell the story often enough, but I cannot help it! It was one of the most painful and profitable things that has ever been done for me.
In spite of my arrogance, I was surprised when I was one of the people the church chose to send. I was less surprised that Harry was chosen to go. For some reason, Harry could only stay two weeks but I was able to get all four weeks off from work and I took them. I'm pretty sure I'd have quit my job otherwise, but I worked for good people and they understood. I cannot imagine anything that could have kept me from that month.
I'm still glad I went, but for other reasons than I expected.
My fondest, most meaningful memories of that month in Florida are of the canoeing.
There was a little postage-stamp size pond set aside from the middle of the retreat center, and it had a canoe with a paddle. During the many moments of stress there, I would hop in the canoe and let the powerful wind push me along to the wayward shore. Once there, I would turn the canoe around and throw all my weight into paddling back up through the wind. It was a tremendous workout. If I pushed with less than all my strength or with a low stroke-count, I'd make no progress or even drift backwards. If, in my haste and exertion, I pointed the bow more than a few inches to the left or right, though, the wind would grab me and spin the whole canoe back in the direction from which I'd come. I'd lose dozens of feet of progress before I could get back on track every time that happened. The moments of abandon on that pond were deeply needed.
I faced a head wind the whole month.
There were seven of us there for two weeks, and six the rest of the time. We met in Gene's suite three times a day, and took meals in the cafeteria a quarter mile away. There was homework, note taking, and several oral reports. There was also a little ping pong, and a certain amount of time for me to keep my freelance web work on track. I stayed alone the public suite, and think the other suite had a good deal more fun. That suited me just fine. I was happiest when able to replay the events of each lesson and discussion in my mind. I only visited the other suite once in the entire month, if I recall, and I was content for things to be that way.
The first shock to my system came when I learned Gene's true views on prayer. Gene had been teaching us about prayer for 7 years, and I pretty much knew his spiel from beginning to end. In fact, I had gotten myself in trouble when he started one of his talks on the subject by saying, "I've never shared this publicly before..." Gene commonly starts messages with this phrase, and invariably I've heard him speak on that subject publicly a number of times. I stage whispered to the room, "Oh. Another rerun."
(For some reason, Gene and I had an on-again/off-again relationship.)
I had long heard Gene teach that one must first quiet the mind, before attempting to enter the presence of God in prayer. That made sense to me, even though I was quite fond of the Puritan tradition of prayer. Entering the presence of God in prayer always involved my mind and emotions at some point, but I could see the value of silence serving as the door to the deepest prayer. I embraced Gene's teachings on silence happily. For seven years I happily understood Gene to teach this very thing, so when Gene started repeating himself on our retreat I again embraced the practice of silence with joy.
We started with baby steps, doing the things Gene had taught us over and over again every six months since 1990. As the days rolled on, he added more and more and more silence to our prayers. Then he took away the crutch of the few words we had been speaking. Then we capped the silence with silence. Finally, it dawned on me that we were never going to advance to spoken, meaningful prayer.
Like those dreams where you suddenly notice you've been naked all day at school, I learned I'd been hearing Gene wrong for 7 years. I learned I'd been campaigning for real prayer from a false position for 7 years. I learned Gene really did teach something I found dangerous and unchristian. (I've already shared my thoughts on centering, silent prayer here.) Gene believed silence was more meaningful and spiritual than any expression of praise or repentance, and somehow I'd never noticed.
The discovery left me stunned and a little wobbly, but still standing. The hardest realization was the prayer itself, but that I could have been so wrong about what Gene believed. In 1992 I had even written Gene a 3 page letter (that's pretty short for me) explaining how I thought some of the members of our church were misunderstanding him. I complained that people in our church were merely doing transcendental meditation, and experiencing the relaxation benefits of meditation, but then claiming spiritual growth. I asked Gene to clarify this confusion for everyone, because it was not good to let people wander so far away from what he really meant. I thought nothing of it when Gene did not reply to that letter, it's not his way. I thought of it on that retreat, though. I was the one who was wrong about Gene's meaning all along. I was the one with no clothes on.
I thought about whether I should quit the conference and head back home. And I prayed about it. (Yes, out loud.) It seemed both that the Lord was not ready for me to leave, and that I could abide this difference with my church planter.
I pushed my canoe up into the wind, carefully keeping my bow pointed straight at the opposite shore. I accepted that I might have to disagree with such a man and still gladly follow him.
The second blow to my system was deeper and harsher.
Gene had chosen to have our little training on encouragement in Florida for a reason. The church in Florida was currently experiencing a time as dark and lonely as Atlanta's had been just a year ago. Gene intended to let us watch him lift that church. He even intended for us to dirty our hands a little bit helping him, but not too much.
It was very important to Gene that we be properly softened with impossible demands and clever ridicule. He often pitted us against each other and compared us unfavorably to each other. Not that this was in some way new during this conference. For seven years Gene had often "softened" brothers who showed signs of wanting to serve the Lord. Some were put off by this method, but my four years in the US Army made me comfortable with it. Drill Sergeants worked in this same way, and very effectively. The difference between a Drill's method and Gene's was one of duration. The Army treated its finest like trash for a few months, then spent the rest of their time building them back up again. Gene only saw fit to do the building back up part after ... well, I don't know exactly when. It seemed to me he waited much too long in several cases.
I could not imagine a more exciting use of our month in Florida than pulling a church out of the mire, nor a more valuable learning experience than watching an old worker in the Lord ply his trade. I was pumped.
I went in with huge expectations, too, from my years of reading Gene's declarations and principles. Gene has written at length regarding his standards, the Lord's standards in fact, for workers when interacting with a church in crisis. The core of his ethic was that room should always be given for the Lord to work the church's redemption, and the worker should always be the one to suffer. If there were a crisis in a church, it was almost always a crisis in leadership at some level, and the leader could best diffuse it by give the church Christ and taking upon himself the cross.
In a crisis of leadership in the church, a responsible worker would surrender the church into the Lord's care. Sure, a leader might try to defend the people of God on His own, but he would be subject to too many mistakes. He would almost certainly succumb to the temptation to defend "his own work" rather than God's people. He would most likely hurt people who would otherwise never even have know there was an issue. And mostly, he would pick up the tools of politics, manipulation and authority and learn to wield them.
There's an old mechanic's joke teaching people to buy 1 lb hammers.
"Don't ever buy a 2 lb hammer."
"Because some day you might use it!"
Gene had taught us never to pick up these tools, and never to "defend the work of God." If it were truly God's work, let God defend it. He conjured images for us of dangerous workers in God's kingdom who had devastated entire churches for sake of "defending" the flock from "wolves." And he explicated those images, showing us how the real wolf was the worker who defended his own ministry at terrible cost to God's holy children.
His teaching on saving churches was positive, too. He explained that the church really only needed one thing, and it was not a thing at all. The church did not need messages, shepherding, counselling, or even defending, though she could benefit from all those things. The church needed Christ.
If a try to combine Gene's positive and negative lessons, I'd say that a church in crisis needed a rich, deep, living experience of Jesus Christ. She didn't need wolves to be shot nor rules to be established. She needed to be reminded of the work and character of her Bridegroom. Nothing less would do, and every trick of men and pastors was "less" than Christ.
We were into the second week before Gene felt prepared to start working with the nearby church. He called a special meeting to tell us what the church needed, and what he needed for us to do.
Gene told us about two sisters in that church. They had formed a clique of two, and they were constantly distracting themselves while he was preaching. In fact, he told us, they had unpleasant expressions on their faces the whole time he was preaching, and they were quenching his spirit. He would be unable to minister effectively in that church until two things happened.
1) They quit being a negative clique together. Their friendship needed to be sacrificed for the good of the church.
2) They developed better attitudes.
We were to visit that church over the weekend, and make that happen.
A mature man, a man without a selfish agenda of self-promotion, would have balked right there. I was not that man. I was a little man with big fantasies, and when I was sic'd on a victim, I sic'd.
Some people wonder how Nazi soldiers did the awful things their leaders asked them to do. It's easy. When you can get a man to focus on whether he's courageous enough, dedicated enough, man enough to overcome his own squeamishness, he will do anything. I already believed I was supposed to be being "someone" for the Lord, and if this was what Gene said I had to do to grow into that role, then this is what I had to do.
I would speak to one of the sisters, and someone else would speak to the other.
Like any other man in the depths of sin, I made a big point of being as kind as possible in breaking my sister's heart. My heart broke watching her, but I shut that down and did the job I'd been asked to do. I explained the damage her relationship was doing to the church, and that her friendship needed to be transformed or end. I also explained how her distracting habits were hurting the meetings of the church. And I saw the look of confusion and pain I brought to her face.
She didn't cry until after I'd left, but we both knew she would.
I never forgot the glass of water she and her husband served me while I was breaking her heart, the hospitality I accepted while I was bringing injustice into their home.
Some of you have emailed me and told me about meetings you were going to have with angry church leadership. Now you know how I knew what they would say. I've been those men, and I've hurt the children of the Lord for the convenience of a leader.
By the time I made it back to the conference grounds, I was squarely in the middle of a cognitive crisis. I was sure I had performed adequately, but I felt like death warmed over. Gene approved of me, but I did not. The two could not mix in my mind, so I shoved them to the back of it and dug more deeply into the training.
My little canoe started showing signs of heavy use.
By the next weekend, the whole story had changed. Those two sisters had never been the problem at all. No, instead the problem was two brothers. They were strangers in the church, having only moved in a year or two earlier, and they were too close to each other. In fact, Lenny was the leader and Terry was his lapdog, but together they were causing every problem in that church.
Gene aimed to cure the problem once and for all.
His plan was to call all the "black hats" and "white hats" of the church out to the conference center for a reckoning. All the brothers who were causing problems and all the brothers who were keeping things together would gather with us, the brothers in training, and Gene would settle all scores. (The brothers who did not get invited were probably hurt the worst. Who wants to be nobody in the family he loves so deeply?)
Gene worked hard to prepare us for that weekend meeting. He had us each read a selected passage from Paul without commentary. He chose all the passages that selfish men use to justify defending their work against sheep in wolves' clothing. They were all the passages about Paul kicking divisive people out of the church, and coming to the church with a rod, and the kingdom of God being built on power. Gene chose all the verses he had spent a lifetime writing and preaching he'd never use.
He told us that he would use every one of them, and that he would always use them. We were all dead silent. He promised us he would use them more swiftly and more brutally than we'd ever imagined before, until the wolves were scared away. Then he'd have a quiet laugh with all the sheep who remained and put away his scary verses, his rod and his power, and everyone would be happy again.
And he told us we'd all be there in that meeting with him to see how it should be done.
He capped our preparations off with this threat, "I'll be watching every one of you. I'll be watching your eyes to see whether you blink, and if you do I'll know it, and I'll know what you're made of."
The meeting rolled around, and nothing memorable happened. I'll never know what Gene thought of us, but I don't remember anything being said that warranted a blink. I remember everyone walking out and wondering why they'd even been called out to the retreat center. I remember wondering whether I'd blinked, too, and whether I should have. We'd publicly read Gene's tough-guy verses for him, but no one had risen to the bait. No one had really opened up and gotten honest.
I didn't really wonder why.
The last couple weeks of the conference forked into two separate conferences happening in the same living room. The first was the repeated rehashing of Lenny's and Terry's sins and how to split those two from each other. As Gene worked through this problem out loud with us, he identified a coherent enemy and a solution. He had delivered a message in the year or two leading up to our retreat regarding friendships that mutated into enemies of the church. Now he reapplied that lesson to Terry. He even sent a tape of that message to Lenny and Terry for them to listen to before the next weekend. Gene worked his way around to the conclusions that Lenny was bad for the church, that Terry was being sucked along, and that he would have to find a way to fix that problem.
At the same time, though, we talked about the heart-purity needed in the ministry, the brokenness. We talked about church history and the practical day-to-day grind of making sure a living room is properly ventilated, comfortably furnished, and suitably cleaned. Gene spent a lot of time trying to convince us that beautiful sermons are nothing compared to looking out for the little things.
He told us the old story about Watchman Nee visiting a church every year for three years. They had requested him to come and advise them why they were not growing in the Lord. The first two years he left, to everyone's consternation, without saying a word. The third year, he finally spoke. He pointed up at the clock at the back of the church, and observed that it had been broken the first day he came, and it was still broken. Then he left without saying anything else. I assume the story is fiction, but it was impressive.
Gene drilled home to us that caring for the little things, caring for maintenance, caring for comfort, was the real work of God. The people of God would take care of ministering Christ to each other, if someone would just keep the bathroom clean and the room bright and the clocks ticking. That job would fall to us because everyone else would overlook it.
It's hard to underestimate Gene's attachment to history, either. He took us over into the public suite and had us lay out a piece of butcher paper on a long table. On this piece of butcher paper he drew a picture of a bookcase with several shelves, and then he proceeded to draw a library of Christian history that he needed to know would be written before he died. There were series and period pieces and accountings of little groups in every age from before Genesis to after the Revelation. The church, he said, needed to know her place in the eternal drama of God's plan. She needed to be saved from her tunnel vision of the present, and have her eyes opened to the sweeping grandeur of God's eternal campaign for His bride.
When the felt-tip bookshelf was full, Gene looked up and asked me point-blank whether I'd agree to be the one to write these books, to carry this project to completion after he was gone.
He had no idea the cognitive dissonance wracking my heart at that moment. The things Gene said about prayer threatened to blow me to left, and the things he had me do to a sister threatened to blow me off to the right. The things he'd planned for Lenny were like a gale in my face. I was paddling my canoe upwind for all I was worth, but I wasn't sure I was strong enough to make it. I wasn't sure I could push hard enough to overcome those questions, and I wasn't sure I could keep from turning aside. I was paddling ferociously, but not single-mindedly. I wondered with I should be paddling with the wind instead of against it? Was I even in the right pond? I didn't know any more.
I've never been less prepared for a moment of decision in my life.
For all my doubts, I was still paddling into the gale with all my strength. I just didn't know whether I should be. I really didn't know. Gene wore his pecadillos on his sleeve and admitted them freely. Was that enough? Was it enough for him to be human and admit it? Or should I demand a standard of him to which I could not rise myself? Could I really be sure I was right about silence in prayer? Could I really be sure Gene was wrong to defend the church in the way he'd chosen? Was I sure enough to throw away this opportunity? I had a chance to co-author a whole library with the best church historian I'd ever known. Should I say no? I had a reputation for cussedly saying, "No." Wouldn't overcoming my stubbornnes be a good thing? The flesh lay on either side. There was no way to make this decision.
I didn't make it.
None of those thoughts went through my head at that moment. I'd already thought them all through in my canoe, and I'd never found the bottom of my heart. I'd never find it with 7 men staring at me.
But when looked him in the eye, I knew I couldn't say yes. So I said, "No." I told him I was "shooting at another target." I had no clue what that meant, but he didn't ask and the conversation moved on.
From that moment, I was outsider in the only place I'd ever hoped to be at home.
There were still a couple more scenes left to play out.