Finding Meaning At The End Of Life

I’ve always believed that no matter how long or how short your life is, as long as you are drawing a breath, God will use it for His glory.

I saw it the other day in a dear friend. Those of you who know me well know who I’m referring to. An old friend who has been overcome with cancer. Those of you who have read my book or blog might know him as the church leader I first shared my infidelity with. He’s much more than that. He’s a father figure to me. He was one of the first church members to offer me unconditional forgiveness.

I remember the day I approached him, in his pole barn. It was a year after my adultery. I laid it all out on the line. I had even been mad at him for how things had gone after I got caught. But there I sat, humbled. He said finally, “Yes, I was disappointed. All I could think of was all of the good you could have done. But I forgave you a while back. I’m glad you’re here.” A few months ago, before we even knew he had cancer, I saw him and he wrapped his hard-working agrarian arms around me and said to me unexpectedly, “You know I’ve always loved you, don’t you?”

I grew up with a rocky relationship with my own father. When I met this man, he mentored me as a young pastor. He lead me in the right direction, give me a kind kick in the pants when I needed it, encourage me on the days when I must have looked frustrated, and he looked after my family. I remember the day my mother was killed in a car accident. The nurse came into the room where he, I, and another deacon were waiting. She asked, “Who is going to identify the body?” She was looking at me. I began to descend into a panic attack. He stood up without hesitation and said, “Can it be anyone?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “I’ll do it.” I wept. When he came back, he was crying.

When I heard about his cancer a few months ago, I went and saw him. It hadn’t slowed him down too much yet. But we found we had more to talk about. He said, “I wish I had a little more time. There are a few more things I’d like to do.”

I about lost it. I started coughing uncontrollably. I said, “Really?” (For this next part, you really have to have been sitting where we were.) I said, “Look around these eighty acres you own. You bought them from hard work at coal mining and bull dozing. Not only you live here, but you have made it so three other families can live on your property, including my ex-wife and your own daughter. You built a covered, wooden bridge. Really? I built a wooden bookshelf once. And it fell apart. You have done more in your life than most men could accomplish in two lifetimes. What’s more is that you love people from your heart. You are an amazing man that gives and gives and sets an example. I wouldn’t be sitting here if that wasn’t true.

He’s the heart of that little rural church. He was there the day the doors were first opened as a kid and he’s still the heart of it now. His heart beats for that place. If I could give you an example – there was an awful ice storm about four years ago here. The power was out all across the county. Except for two places – the parsonage and the church. We were the only church that had services that Sunday after the ice storm, dagnabit. But we were there. All eight of us. He led songs, I preached like I had a cathedral full of people whose hearts needed to be warmed. And it was enough.

He led the choir. And he did more than lead a choir – he led it with his heart. He had sang in a quartet for years and just loved to praise God and that’s pretty much what he did while leading that choir. Sometimes, when the music got to him, a tear would come to his eye. And that was the best kind of worship.

He loves his wife and daughter and granddaughter. They are the world to him. He would fight fiercely to defend them, work his tail off to provide for all of them, and yet a tear comes to his eye when he talks about any of them.

He loves people. If a man showed up at church, regardless of his story, who needed $20, he’d fish it out of his wallet and pray with him. He just loved people. He loved people like Christ told us to love people. And he didn’t do it because it was being dragged out of him or because it was legalistic. He did it because it was the nature of his heart.

Most of all, he loves his Savior. I told a lot of stories about him in this blog post to get to this point. Finding meaning at the end of life. He’s in extremely bad shape and I told him what I tell everyone at the end of life – “God has a purpose for each breath and every heartbeat.” Then I said to him, “Is there anyone you haven’t talked to that you want me to contact?” He whispered, “no.” He’s unable to talk, eat or drink. His esophagus is completely destroyed.

I guess he had a little time to think about my question, though. I showed up a day later and asked his wife, “How are the visitors? Anything new?” She said, “He had me call two people up here who haven’t been here. He witnessed to both of them even though he can hardly talk. He gave one of them his bible. Both of them left crying.

I got choked up. Every moment we have in this life is worth something. Every breath we draw, even in suffering, is worth the glory of God. My friend won’t be around much longer, but I know he loves his Savior enough to make the best of it. He looked at me about a week ago. He’s not able to swallow the ice water that is given him. It can’t make it’s way to his stomach. He has to suction it back out.

He looked at me and said, “I’d give a million dollars to drink a glass of water. But soon I’ll have my fill of the living water.” Yes you will. Yes, you absolutely will. I said to him, “I don’t envy you right now, but soon, I will heartily envy you and your position right next to Christ.” He smiled and we shared a tear together.

Thank you, Lord, for a friend like that. A man like that who showed me forgiveness, kindness and the model of what a father should be. May we all remember and learn, especially if we end up in the same circumstances one day.

Pastoral Adultery Doesn’t Happen Overnight

“Our pastor committed adultery! How did this happen?”

If I’ve heard this once since I fell from ministry, I’ve heard it a thousand times. When a pastor falls, it is a shocking thing to the church and community. People’s emotions range from shock then to anger in a matter of days. “How could he?”

After the gossip wagon kicks into full gear and everyone knows who the pastor cheated with, the people begin to make assumptions. “Oh, I always thought I saw him paying her more attention. He always did hug her a little too long.” Those assumptions may be right or wrong, but it’s part of the church’s way of dealing with the betrayal.

Unfortunately, most church members don’t ever see what goes on behind the scenes with their pastor. A pastor is placed in charge of a church to care for his flock, to preach the Word, visit the sick and new members. However, those are not the only duties he has to deal with. His duties also include dealing with conflict between members, conflict at church business meetings, listening to complaints (suggestions) from people who know how to do things better, deacon’s meetings, staff meetings, funerals, weddings, and numerous other tasks that few hear about on Sunday.

It’s almost like going to a stage play. When you go to church, you sit in a pew and watch a performance. You expect the choir to sing, a special music, and the pastor to preach. He looks nice in his suit or khakis (depending on his dress style) and everything looks great to the congregation and visitors.

At a stage play, though, there are a ton of things going on behind the scenes. There are stage hands rearranging for the next act, people giving cues to the actors, people working lights, the director barking directions, costume changes, and a myriad of other tasks.

It’s the same at church. Parishoners see a polished product on stage, but there is a lot that goes into a Sunday service – especially in the life of a pastor. A week filled with prayer, visitation, Bible study, phone calls, dealing with conflict, etc.

Back to the original question, “Our pastor committed adultery! How did this happen?”

It didn’t happen overnight. The process that led to his fall had been building for years. Let me give you an example. About every time I talk to a fallen pastor, I ask him the following questions. “Were you having severe conflict in your church for a while?” “Were you having severe marriage issues?” “Had you had a tragedy in your life in the past two years?” “Did you feel that you were put up on an unrealistic pedestal?” “Did you feel isolated?”

Every time, the person answers yes to almost every question. These things have been going on for years. Like a pastor friend of mine said recently who pastors a very large church, “Ministry is tough. It’s tough on me and it’s tough on my family.”

How does it happen? Because the pastor allows himself to become isolated. Because he isn’t getting help from his church. Because the ministry has a terrible effect on many marriages. All these statistics are backed up in my book, “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World.”

The pastor doesn’t wake up one day and say, “This stinks, I think I want out. I’m going to have an affair.”

But it’s close. What I’ve discovered is that after years of depression, anxiety and growing tired of all the conflict, the pastor just wants to be out of the ministry. Some pastors turn to alcohol, gambling, laziness, embezzling, or pornography. These men are most often forgiven and allowed back into the ministry at some point. These men don’t really want out of the ministry, I think.

Like most ministers, they pour their hearts out to people every day and are looking (wrongly) to something to fulfill them. They selfishly look to something to make them happy, to make them happy. I think that set of men are looking for help, but think if they get caught they can get the help they need.

The minister who commits adultery is a man who just wants out. He’s done. He’s tired of it all. Everything has come crashing down and he has had enough. Enough of his disturbed marriage, enough of the negative conflicts, enough of being isolated, enough of it all. He’s not looking for someone, but he inadvertently finds someone who meets the needs he hasn’t been getting.

This process takes years.

What’s my point? That intervention right before a man commits adultery is almost useless. It’s like trying to grab for a man right after he’s jumped off the cliff.

Would you like to help your pastor? Get involved in his life. Make sure he’s being mentored. Make sure he and his wife have time set alone just for them. Send them on retreats for spiritual renewal. Make sure church leadership responds correctly to conflict and doesn’t place the load on the pastor.

Approach him honestly about these things. He may not open up to you, but there are people in the church he will open up to. Don’t let him become one of the 1,500 pastors a month who leave the ministry due to church conflict, moral failure, or burnout.

Scripture tells us to all be on guard. Let us all rally around our shepherd before it’s too late.

Descent Into Sin, Part One: Tragedy

I started retelling my story last time with a short prelude into how I ended up in the ministry. Strange how we can summarize our lives into one blog post.

I’ve talked to a lot of fallen pastors and have found that before their fall, they experience crisis or tragedy. The same was true for me. However, even if tragedy or crisis strikes, each fallen pastor I have spoken to is careful to point out that their sin is still their sin. There was no excuse for what they did.

I don’t write about the tragedies that occurred before my fall to garner pity, only to let you know that a fall just doesn’t “happen.” There are a typically a myriad of swirling circumstances around the event that contribute to a fall.

My parents divorced in 2005 and my mother moved to our little community. She was devastated by the divorce and I was angry at my father. He and I had never had a very good relationship. The divorce didn’t help much, either. Mom was an instant hit with my two daughters. They had never had a grandparent so readily accessible. She doted on them and played Barbies with them like there was no tomorrow.

In February of 2007, my father died in an accident when he fell. He was living about an hour away and our relationship had slightly improved, but I still harbored much resentment toward him. I sought counseling after he died to deal with my anger and hatred toward him.

I thought that his death would remove the bitterness I felt in my life, but I was wrong. It was still there, festering.

The next year, we had a crisis in the church. I won’t detail it here, but suffice it to say it was a small situation that got blown out of proportion. It lasted for at least six months. We tried to ignore it, hoping that it would go away, but it didn’t. Feelings were hurt, people left, and it kept me awake at night. It was one of the worst stretches of my pastorate. In fact, I was starting to send out resumes. I was beginning to hate the ministry. All I wanted to do was preach, but the nagging crisis was all I could see before me.

While the crisis was still going on, Christmas 2008 was fast approaching. I was hoping the New Year would bring some peace and resolution.

I traveled with my wife and children to see her family in a neighboring state. Mom stayed behind at home to get ready for Christmas. On the way out of town, we even saw her in her car and waved to her on the way out of town. That was December 22nd.

The next morning, I awoke with a horrible feeling. I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but I knew something was out of sorts. I called Mom. No answer. I called again. Still no answer. That wasn’t like her. She was OCD like me and always had a phone with her. I called and called and called.

I soon found out that she had been in a car accident. She had hit a sheet of ice and slipped off the road and hit a tree.

We left my wife’s family’s house and began to drive back home. On the way, I received a call from a hospital near Nashville. Mom was gone.

I have no way to tell you how I felt. Those of you who have lost loved ones suddenly to tragedy know how it feels. And when you lose them near a holiday, you know how intense it is. And more, you know what it’s like to have to tell your kids. I had to break my kids’ hearts that day.

We finally got back home and I had to go to Nashville and identify her body. Thankfully, one of my deacons did that for me. When we got back to the church, many of the members were there. They had been praying and mourning. It was a beautiful moment for me. Most of them didn’t know what to say to me, but that was okay. I didn’t know what to say either. They loved on me and hugged me. And I loved them right back.

I was in complete despair. Utter grief overtook my soul. My mother was my prayer warrior. She was the only one in my life who listened to my perils, my hurts, and my complaints. No one else did that for me. And now, she was gone.

Back to counseling I went, but I was numb to it.

There was another family tragedy that befell us just a few months later, but I cannot write about it. Let it be said that I was broken by that point. Was I going out looking for comfort? No. Was I searching for sin? No. But I was numb to everything. I had no purpose. No one understood me and I didn’t think anyone was listening either.

A New Home & Direction

It’s been a while since I wrote. A few things have happened and I’ll catch you up on two of them. God is working.

Cynthia and I joined Hope Hills and it was a moving time for us. But a few days before we joined, I felt the need to contact my home church in Pella, Virginia that had ordained me. I’ve talked to several fallen pastors who have done the same and reached out and let their ordaining church know about their adultery and tell them that it was well within their right to revoke their ordination.

I haven’t spoken to anyone from my home church in at least four years, but that didn’t make my letter to them any easier to write. I put it in the mail on a Wednesday and prayed that God would do as He would.

That night, on a whim, I called Ryan, one of the deacons I had been very good friends with. I hadn’t spoken to him in four years. I called his home and his wife said he was on a business trip. She gave me his cell number and I reached him immediately. He sounded very surprised to hear from me.

We talked for a long time as I shared my story with him, my adultery, my new marriage and what God has been doing for me lately in my life. After I was done with my long story, he paused and said, “Arthur, I’d like to say I’m not disappointed, but I am. I had a lot of respect for you. But it lets me know that any of us can fall.”

“I know, Ryan,” was all I could get out. I can’t tell you how many times people had said that to me, but the closer people are to me, the harder it is to hear that statement.

“But let me tell you something else. I haven’t really thought about you for a very long time. I woke up this morning here in Los Angeles. And when I woke up, I had you on my mind. And it wasn’t just a fleeting thought, it was strong, and I couldn’t shake it. I even called my wife and told her. We prayed for you. And then a few minutes ago, she texted me and she was a little freaked out and told me that you had called the house. Arthur, this is a God thing. He set this phone call up today.”

I’m not going to go into the rest of the call, but it was amazing and very encouraging. For the past year, I’ve been wondering where God has been. Really, for the past five years, I’ve been wondering. As a pastor I was frustrated that He wasn’t doing more at Angel Falls Baptist.

But now, in the past few weeks, as I’ve finally humbled myself, He’s been responding. Of course, He’s been here. But I’ve been in the way.

On Sunday, Cynthia and I joined Hope Hills Baptist. The pastor, Brad, had worked out what he was going to say to the church. That morning, he preached a moving message on the woman at the well. Cynthia and I walked to the front for membership and nervously awaited our introduction.

Brad looked at the church and said, “This is Arthur and Cynthia Dimmesdale. Arthur used to be a pastor at a local church, but he fell. He divorced and is now married to Cynthia. Church, do we believe that God doesn’t just cover our sins, but that he forgets them? (Amens filled the room). Arthur and Cynthia have been looking for a church where they can heal and be loved and here they are. Can we do that? (More amens). Then this is the last time I want to ever hear about what they did, because we need to love them as Christ loved them.”

Tears welled up in my eyes as the church welcomed us. Sure, there were a few there who were looking at us out of the corner of their eye. But, for the most part, we were welcomed greatly. In the welcoming line, a few of the people came up to us and said that they had been in our exact situation and knew how hard it was.

The past few weeks have been great. Especially great when I get out of God’s way and let Him work on me.

I Hate Humility, But I Love Transformation

So much has happened in the past week. Just when I think my story is over, something else happens. I just can’t believe this is happening to me. But, it is.

I blogged about dreams last time. I haven’t had a good dream in over a year. I had one last night. I’ll get to that some other time.

Cynthia and I have been looking for a church ever since we had a terrible experience at the last one – not Angel Falls.

We have been visiting the church of my friend Brad – Hope Hills Baptist. He’s a sovereigntist like me. He spends his time three ways – knocking on doors in the community trying to save souls, witnessing in downtown Richmond, and spending time with his beautiful family.

You know how I know Brad is serious about the kingdom? Richmond is a far cry from Angel Falls. As a pastor, I wouldn’t have dreamed about going there and witnessing. He uses the Way of the Master witnessing technique like I did. He’s not going to get anyone there to join his church. You know why he goes there? Because he loves sinners. He wants people to see Christ. He’s not pushy. He’s not overbearing. He just loves Christ. He loves people. You may disagree with Brad and think he’s out of line and should leave people alone. Fine. But he’s got a heart for people. He doesn’t judge. If they don’t listen, he leaves them alone. He just loves.

He has a passion that 99% of pastors don’t have. I didn’t have it. He preaches with a fire that men like Spurgeon and Whitfield had. Lord, is that even a fair comparison? No. I hate it when people do that. If someone could make a list of pastors throughout the ages of passion, some guy from North Dakota who pastored a church who no one ever heard of would top the list, not Charles Spurgeon. It’s not right of me to compare Brad to Spurgeon or Whitfield. If he knew I was making up a pseudonym for him and doing it, he would be embarrassed. He would say, “I’m just a preacher trying to glorify Christ.” But I’ll tell you. In this ragged county dearth of preaching, he’s like Spurgeon. And those of you who are hurting for good preaching, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Is he seminary educated? Nope. And it’s probably to his advantage. He just loves people.

He told me last week that he had a wife and husband in his office at midnight. The husband was drunk off his butt. He was a gulf war veteran and was screaming at his wife. She was crying. He told me, “I felt like I was in over my head.” But he stayed in there and presented the gospel. The couple left. The man came back three days later and was begging to be saved.

Friends, in the past year, I’ve lost touch with Christ. I have hated church, I’ve hated religion, and I sure as hell hated to see anything associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. But seeing Brad and his passion has reminded me what it’s all about. It’s about Christ. It’s not about me. It’s not about parking lots or buildings or the weekly offering. And I’m downright ashamed of the pastor I used to be. In fact, I want to strip myself of that.

Cynthia and I met with him and told him we wanted to join the church. We told him we didn’t see any other way for us to join but to tell the church what we had done. He agreed. It’s going to be embarrassing this Sunday when he tells them. Cynthia and I had a heart to heart about that last night.

I told her, “Sweetie, in Nathaniel Hawhorne’s classic, ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ Hester Prynne is commanded to wear her ‘A’ on her chest. But the first time she shows up in public, she has embroidered it herself. It’s not a plain ‘A’. It’s adorned with gold and it’s absolutely beautiful. The people are stunned and are awed with her workmanship. She’s taken ownership of her sin. On Sunday, that’s what we need to do. We’ve been forgiven. In that congregation, there will be people there who are/have been/who will be committing adultery. We need to take ownership of what we’ve done. We aren’t proud of it, but God has set us free from it by the grace of Christ. And we can be an example to someone and maybe, just maybe someone can be helped by our story.”

There’s more, dear reader . . .

I told you in the last blog that I called Phillip Townsend. He was the deacon who called the shots after I committed adultery. When he found out what I did, he told me he “ought to beat the sh-t out” of me. We had a rocky past. I blamed him for a lot of my current problems.

Today, friends, I went to him with all humility and grace. I laid myself at his feet. I apologized to him and told him I was terribly sorry for all the pain I had caused him and the church.

As a sidenote, I have talked to many fallen pastors across the county in the past year. 95% of them tell me that for the most part, reconciliation with the church that was sinned against is IMPOSSIBLE. You know what? I’m a hard headed jerk. Today, I proved that percentage wrong.

Humility goes a long, long way.

The only issue I left with is this – Phillip told me he forgave me a long time ago. Friends, if you forgive a person, you need to TELL THEM. If you don’t tell them, forgiveness is not complete. But I understand the process. He also told me he had no intention of contacting me. He said he was going to wait for me to initiate contact. I said, “I get it. I’m a jerk. I would’ve just responded like a jerk, right?” He had a point. There’s a time for reconciliation and a right time to talk to people.

I left Phillip’s home with a good feeling. Does he feel the same as he did when I was pastor? No. Do I think he’s flawed and should have handled it different? Yeah. But you know what? I love him. And one day in glory, we’re gonna have to live next to each other. And today, for an hour and a half, we understood each other. And as a man, I looked him in the eye and I took the initiative to call him and make him meet me.

There’s no reason Christians shouldn’t be getting along in this world. Phillip told me there’s about 30% of that church that will never forgive me. That’s sad. Because if they’re really saved, they won’t like seeing me in heaven.

And when I’m there, I’m gonna rub it in.

I called Brad to tell him that I met with Phillip. He started to cry. I said, “What is it?” He said, “When I met with you and Cynthia last week, I wrote in my prayer journal that I was going to begin praying for you to reconcile with the people at Angel Falls. I just didn’t think that prayer would begin to be answered so quickly.” My faith is beginning to be restored.

By the way, I had a great dream last night. First good dream I’ve had in a while. A very long while. I love airplanes. I was at an airfield with my girls and Cynthia. There was an airshow. And we were free. And we were watching the planes go by. And we were happy.

Forgiveness is good. Do you have someone you need to talk to? Humility is so freeing. Is it hard? Sure. But it will free you from a lifetime of anger, hatred, and bitterness. Do it before you waste anymore time.

My Weird Dreams And A Hope For Reconciliation

Dreams. They’re weird for me. Always have been. I don’t have normal ones. Maybe you do. If you do, you’re lucky.

I’ve got several theories about how they work and I’ll get to them in a minute. Theory means that I don’t have a clue why or what dreams are.

I have several recurring dreams that have nothing to do with this blog post – or do they? I dream about midgets on occasion. Or little people. Apologies if I’m using the wrong terminology. Typically, they come bearing advice or I’m having a casual conversation with them.

I dream about driving off the road a lot. I’m usually at a busy intersection and for some reason, I just let go of the wheel and the car goes off into a tree or a ditch. I either wake up, or survive the wreck and steer back onto the road.

The worst dream I ever had was when I was five. I’ll never forget it. I watched from my room as Santa (who was coincidentally a midget) walked into my parents room and poisoned them with a green gas he sprayed from a garden sprayer. He did it while looking at me and smiling. Yeah, it was not good.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming that I’m in the right place at the right time to stop a crime. Like an accidental superhero. That’s about as positive as my dreams ever get. If I’m really, really lucky, I won’t dream at all.

However, ever since I committed adultery at Angel Falls which led to broken relationships with my ex-wife’s family and the whole church, I’ve been having awful dreams. I have them just about every night. In each dream there’s a church member or a member of Angelica’s family. I typically dream of church members, almost always Phillip Townsend. When I first started having the dreams, I’d be arguing with them or they’d yell at me. At times, they’d stand there and stare distainfully at me.

As time has gone by, the dreams have gotten “happier”, if you will. For instance, recently, I dreamed I was standing outside a grocery store renting movies from a Redbox. Up walked one of the deacons and his wife. They started talking to me with kindness. Behind them were another deacon and his wife and several other couples from church. Each couple was nice, but somewhere, deep in my heart I knew two things: One, they were shocked at running into me and didn’t really like me. Two, I was ashamed of myself still and wanted to run away. So it wasn’t a happy dream at all.

I’ve actually run into one of the deacons in my dream recently. I went out of my way to talk to him. We made small talk and it was okay. I had my girls with me. He was uncomfortable, but I felt a little better about being seen in public.

The dreams are getting old. What’s my theory? I think that when we sleep, our unconscious mind works through things that our conscious mind pushes away. Sometimes, it presents them as a weird picture. Sometimes it’s frightening. But our minds don’t rest. I think that our minds are wanting to work free of the stress that we place on ourselves and they try to unwind at night. Is there a portion of it where God is at work? Sure, God is sovereign over all things.

So, late last week I got sick of it. That, and I got humbled after talking to the man who will probably be our new pastor. I’ll blog about that later.

I made a phone call to one of Angelica’s brothers. I apologized to him for what I did to her and the drama it caused to their family. I told him I knew that he had to explain it to his young children and humbled myself to him. He received it graciously. I knew I could call him because he’s just like that. The other members of her family probably wouldn’t answer the phone, so I wrote letters, including her parents. I told her what I was doing before I did it.

Today, I made a phone call. It was a hard phone call to make. Phillip Townsend. If you’ve read this blog at all, you know it was hard. I hurt Angel Falls with my sin and he didn’t handle the situation well either. However, if I hadn’t sinned, he wouldn’t have been in that position. We have some talking to do.

I talked to his wife for a few minutes and she was kind to me. He was out and she said he’d call back. So, I’m sitting here waiting for him to call back so we can meet. All I want is to show humility to him and put this behind us. Surely, two Christian men can do that for the sake of Christ.

And then maybe these dreams will go away.

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