I returned from the Florida retreat center a very confused young man.
I wanted Gene to remain for me the man I'd always imagined him to be. I'd gambled my youth on Gene and on Atlanta, and I wanted to wake up and find I'd been right all along. I wanted my clouds of doubt to part, and to find I'd faithfully puzzled through the hard riddles to earn a job in the kingdom. I wanted to be one of the guys who would change the world, save the church, and suffer in quiet dignity for the rest of my life, regretting nothing I'd done along the way. Remembering the little man I'd seen behind the curtain in that Florida retreat center left those desires on life-support.
The mighty wizard of Oz was shattered into a million pieces. I'd walked my yellow brick road in hopes of finding brain, heart and courage only to have Gene disappoint me in these very qualities. But maybe that was my only problem? Maybe I was simply disappointed that my hero had clay feet? Maybe in my intractibility I would reject Christ Himself, had I the opportunity to sit at His feet instead of Gene's. Gene was not the mighty wizard I imagined him to be, nor that he advertised himself to be, but maybe he was still the man God had put in my life. It was mine to decide whether the real man behind the curtain was worth following.
The last week of the conference did nothing to help me decide. It was more of the same. I volunteered to confront Lenny directly, and to let him know the score of the game in which he was caught. It was my last action of the conference, and our conversation lasted two or three hours. I was a good deal more honest than I had been with the sister I'd confronted earlier, and I listened a great deal better.
I left feeling like we understood each other, and we arrived in time to attend the last conference meeting of the whole church with Gene. Yet again, Gene expected to straighten things out once and for all. Maybe Lenny came to that meeting a little too prepared because, again, nothing significant happened. Maybe I played a part in the cooling the fireworks; I don't know. If so, it was not due to any noble intent on my part. I wanted Lenny to decide to be fully in the church or fully out, and to quit hovering on the edge like he had been. I was still very much trying to walk Gene's straight and narrow path.
After the meeting, I loaded my bags back in the car and headed home to Atlanta. The eight hour ride, just me and my incessantly buzzing questions, was not to be envied. I could not go back to my first intent of serving under Gene's ministry 'til death, nor move on to the new idea of getting out before it was too late. Cutting and running held no appeal for me. Some day having to write a history like this was a heartbreaking thought.
Zig Ziglar tells about an old shoe salesman who decided to show the uninformed kid how powerful a sales position really could be. The kid was merely trying to help customers pick their own shoes, but the old salesman explained how his job was to help the customer pick wisely. The rub was that the kid believed every customer knew exactly what he wanted. Finally, the old salesman pulled out all the stops. He told the kid he'd sell the longest lasting, best made, but ugliest shoe in the store to whomever next came through the door.
The hapless customer asked for assistance, and the salesman brought him a couple shoes in the style he asked for, plus the ugly shoes. He let the customer try on the ugly shoe. He said it was butt-ugly. Then he tried the other shoe, and it was the wrong color. So the salesman went back for another shoe size and style. When he returned, he let the customer try the ugly shoe again. The customer looked at it, and decided against it, then tried the other styles. After a short discussion, the salesman went back for more shoes. On his third trip out, he had the customer try all the other shoes, then finally the ugly shoe once again.
This time, the customer bought the well-built, long lasting, ugly shoe.
The strangeness of the shoe is what had thrown the customer off. It was simple unfamiliarity. The third time the customer saw the ugly shoe, it was no longer strange. He could see it for what it was, and having become familiar with it, he decided to take it home.
So it was with me and leaving Gene. I had never listened to such a thought as disagreeing with my mentor before, but I was wining and dining it now. Over the next several months the idea grew a little more familiar, a little more believable, a little more possible, a little more probable.
One day Gene called an emergency meeting of the church in my living room.
The whole church came together to hear whatever news was weighing so heavily on Gene's mind. We were all scared. We'd been in trouble before, and we didn't know what could possibly have gone so wrong. Gene had just returned from Florida, so we suspected it was something from down there, but one never knows. We were right. It was Florida.
He told us that Florida's struggles had gone on too long, and that the struggles were all due to Lenny's negative influence. Gene recounted how he had worked for a month during his training conference, then written and phoned Florida trying to drag them out of their problems. Finally, he had visited Florida alone, and only then learned the true extent of their problems.
While in Florida, during a brothers' meeting, Gene had taken a vote asking who were the most influential people in the church there. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lenny was voted the most influential person in Florida. The rest of the votes had been scattered around as expected, and Gene had gotten a few votes himself, but Lenny was the most influential member of that church.
After that vote, Gene continued, his hand had been forced. He could not willingly split a church, so he had been forced to step aside as the father of the church in Florida. He had handed control of the church over to Lenny, and requested that every member of the church follow Lenny with all the faithfulness they had shown in following him.
We were stunned.
I'm sure the brothers and sisters in Florida were devastated.
That such a fate should come to such a faithful church was deeply shocking to us all. I was reeling. I fought to rationalize what Gene had done, wondering how it could be the right thing to do. I knew Lenny, and I knew the other brothers there, and I knew Gene. It was a matter of finding the missing link. I was missing something obvious, but key. I kept shuffling the players and games in my mind, seeking the combination that made it all come together.
Until I talked to one of the sisters in the church.
She said, "You believed that crap? None of that's what happened. Lenny won that vote and Gene lost his temper. They thought Lenny was the most influential person in the church, so Gene decided they could stew in their juices and gave the whole church to him. Gene knows it'll never last, and he was too angry to care who it hurt."
Wow. That was definitely the missing piece. Her explanation covered character, motive and opportunity perfectly. There were no gaps.
We sat for about an hour, connecting dots. We looked back at times Gene told us he was doing things for our good, and somehow those things always matched up with better with his convenience or emotions than ours. We looked at the way Gene treated influential brothers, and he always found a way cool their jets. And now, when the church in Florida withheld their affirmation, Gene lashed out.
No one knows what is happening in a man, except the spirit of the man and his Lord. I'll never know why Gene handled the church in Florida the way he did. I'll never know why he reacted the way he did to Florida, but when Gene rejected the church in Florida the ugliest shoe in the store started looking really good to me. I'd be walking away from Gene Edwards.
But it wouldn't be easy.
The old voice grew stronger as I slowly accepted my decision. My flesh screamed, "What about your work?! You have to mature into a worker in God's kingdom, and for that you need the church. You have to save the church, not run from its problems." I grew truly. I fantasized that I might change Gene's style, or run off and start another church, or that everything might just turn out OK. I'd built an inner world around waiting for the day I'd emerge from my cocoon and be a worthwhile person in God's kingdom. Breaking out of that cocoon was a slow, painful process. Losing my best hope of being "somebody," riding on Gene's coattails, was terrifying. Leaving Gene meant going back to just being Kevin, instead of Kevin Knox, church planter in training.
I couldn't really believe I'd be "somebody" as anything less than a church planter.
Slowly, though, walking away from Gene grew real to me. I loved the brothers and sisters in my church, but I realized I'd have to leave them. Too much of what they talked about was rationalizing the things Gene was doing in Florida, Lithia Springs, and all the churches. Many of their discussions assumed my implicit agreement with everything Gene was doing, and I'd have to leave the room or change the subject if they started wondering why I was so quiet. It was not workable, and I began to resign myself to my final departure from Gene's churches, from my church.
There were a couple of obstacles.
I lived in the heart of the Lithia Springs church, and I had promised to leave quietly if ever the time came. Gene was careful to teach that silence was golden, and anything else was a dishonor. If, at any point, you were unhappy with the church or the worker you were to talk to no one about it. And the day you decided to leave, you must leave without giving reasons, without confiding in friends, sharing your hurts, without "accidently" taking anyone with you. From the beginning, I'd promised to leave quietly and alone, and at the end I intended to keep my word.
That promise was a lot easier to make when I was sure I'd never, ever leave. Now that I was leaving, silence was a grave test. But was my word worth anything or not? I was silent. I said nothing, and prayed the Lord would show me an open door when His time would come. I prayed a lot - out loud.
The door opened painfully slowly, but when it finally opened no man could shut it.
One day while I was doing some of my freelance programming, Gene called. He had not called me three times in the nine years I knew him, so he had my full attention. To hear from Gene was an odd, odd thing. He called to ask me about the y2k bug. Did I know what it was? Did I know how serious it might be? Was it a threat to embedded systems? They were pretty technical questions coming from a pretty non-technical guy.
It so happened I'd just finished coding my very first y2k fix a day or so before he'd called. I had been examining some code from the Internet for reuse in one of my projects, and I noted a comment left by its second developer. He identified that the original code was vulnerable to the y2k bug, explained exactly what the y2k bug was, and outlined how his fix corrected the problem. (He explained all that in a 3 sentence comment. Computer programmers are very terse communicators.) From that day forward, I never wrote another y2k-vulnerable program, but that wasn't a big deal. The whole fix was only 2 lines long.
I explained to Gene that the y2k bug was mostly harmless. I explained what it was, that it could be very dangerous if us programmers could not make the fixes, but we would. The fixes typically took a few minutes apiece, and we all loved pizza and overtime. Embedded systems absolutely could not be hurt by the y2k bug, because they kept time in "seconds from the epoch," not Gregorian dates, so they'd never know the current year had 3 zeros in it. The electrical transmission grid was safe. I had solid knowledge on that one, because in my day job I formerly worked with 3-phase industrial generators. I let Gene know that I thoroughly knew what I was talking about on y2k, and that he need not worry about it.
Gene hung up, and I wondered whether I'd heard the last of it. I had not, but it was months before I found out what was brewing.
In late 1998, Gene released a book decrying the unavoidable disaster that would end Western Civilization forever. Y2k, he said, would take down the electrical transmission grid and all electrical generators. Without electricity we'd soon find ourselves living in the stone-age. There would be food riots radiating 50 miles outside of every major city, and little things like toilet paper would become the scarcest, most valuable commodities in our lives.
It took every ounce of discipline in my heart to read that book, but I did - from cover to cover. It was not a pleasant experience.
Gene's churches went into light panic mode, but Gene was prepared. He called us all together and layed out his plan. He assured us he'd been exercising practical parental care for us while we were still oblivious to the danger. He'd already thought through the ramifications and the wisest course of action for us. We only needed to believe the seriousness of the problem, and be thankful God had given us such a careful church planter.
He had already purchased a tract of land just across the Alabama border, more than 50 miles from any major city, and was preparing that land to be subsistence farmed. He counseled all of us to cash out our 401k's, taking the tax hit for early withdrawal, and invest that money into emergency supplies and a portion of the Alabama land. We'd move the supplies to Alabama throughout 1998 and some time in late 1999 everyone could evacuate there to start a new life.
My jaw went slack.
Brothers and sisters quickly figured out that I was not on board with Gene's plans and preparations. Not cashing out my 401k and buying zero emergency supplies was probably their first clue. At first a couple people asked me what I thought of the whole thing, but gradually they just left me alone. I was not 100% sure Gene was wrong, of course, but there was no way I was throwing my future in with Gene Edwards again on a subject about which he knew nothing - computers and farming were both in that category.
I watched saints cash out five-figure 401k's back when we thought that was a lot of money. They gave half their money to the IRS, spent the rest on disaster supplies and farmland, and then watched as the stock market soared (was it 40%?) in the ensuing months. I figured that a $25,000 401k was worth $14,000 after it was pulled, instead of the $35,000 to which it would have grown. I watched living rooms fill up with canned and dry foods, water, and survival gear. I listened while city-slickers debated what they could and could not grow in Alabama soil. The intensity kept ramping up, and I kept playing dumb. Finally, they reached the point of requiring a commitment from me.
They needed to know who was in and who was out.
That's how y2k gave me an open door out of the church. I went through it with peace in my heart. In Nov, 1998 I officially announced I would not be moving to Alabama and I was taking a break from the church. In late Jan, 1999 I announced that I would never be returning. In Mar, 1999 I received a piece of personal news that confirmed leaving was the right decision, but by that time I was already gone. I received that personal news exactly because I had finally left, so it was no factor in my decision. I hit the door because Gene did not treat churches the way he advertised he would, and Gene's y2k blunder was my convenient excuse.
I was well and truly gone, and never looked back.
I stayed in Atlanta through Dec 31, 1999, to see my company through the turning of the millenium. My family and I watched movies on the projector screen, while I babysat my computers through the transition into the new century. We had pizza that night, and not a single system hiccuped. I have no idea what the churches said or thought or did when all the lights were working on Jan 1, 2000. When I leave something I leave it for keeps, but I'm sure they congratulated themselves for preparing so well. It's human nature to always see the good in the things we do, and I don't blame them a bit. I shudder to think how much dried food I'd still be eating if I'd never gone to that training retreat with Gene.
I know the churches carried on after I left, and continued to explore the things I once held so important. I trust they found the Lord together, as I did with them during the good years. Their hearts were turned to the Lord, and He always hears His people. I praise Him for the hope I still hold that He's blessed them over the years.
For my part, I've slowly learned to enjoy being a regular Joe, a normal Christian. This month I will even sign the dotted line and become a thankful member of an organized church. My brothers from Atlanta will tut-tut me, and I will mourn my faded dreams just as if they'd been real. And somehow all of us, no matter what we've decided, will know that we are walking where the Lord has put us.
I'm not sure life gets any better than that.
And so I close the book on some of my dreams. As I look back at the pride that dragged me down, the pain I've caused and felt, the places the Lord has brought me, and the joy I've found at last, the letter from James seems to answer my story best:
Blessed are those who persevere under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each of you is tempted when you are dragged away by your own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Don't be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
Praise the Lord's mercy, it's never too late to stand the test.