Sunday, October 14, 2007

Doctor Bob

ex·hor·ta·tion [eg-zawr-tey-shuhn,] noun;
  1. the act or process of exhorting.
  2. an utterance, discourse, or address conveying urgent advice or recommendations.

It's been well over a decade since I began to re-surface out of my own season of detoxing. During this time – especially since posting the original Detoxing from Church article online – I have had the privilege to connect with people from literally around the world. And as we have all shared our stories, discoveries, struggles, and questions (hindsight is always 20/20), I remembered a significant day when someone I had never met before shared an exhortation with me, which I have never forgotten.

As the definition above suggests, exhortation is beyond simply offering a take-it-or-leave-it suggestion. It's more profound than off-the-cuff friendly advice. There's a sense of urgency, as if failing to heed the exhortation may result in disastrous effects. It may even be an admonition that challenges your current thoughts and attitudes.

And yet, when it is truly a word of exhortation, you recognize the spiritual wisdom it holds, and you are grateful that somebody cared enough about you to say it. The story of how this word of exhortation came to me goes something like this:

More years ago than I'd normally like to admit, I had the dubious distinction of experiencing first-hand what it feels like to be fired from a church. Well, technically, I 'resigned', because the leaders wanted to tell the congregation that they didn't fire me. However, it was an increasingly difficult environment, in which the proverbial heat was being turned up with one goal in mind: to encourage me to accept the inevitable, and 'resign'.

As stubborn and thick-headed as I can be at times, I finally realized that we'd reached a complete impasse, and my continued presence was only going to wear everybody out: the staff, the leaders, and the congregation. It was definitely taking its toll on Wendy and I. So I resigned, although it sure felt like getting fired. I think the technical word is 'duress'.
"Well, of course he resigned of his own free will! Look, here's his signature, at the bottom of this blood-stained document!"
But I digress...

In the midst of the pain, feelings of betrayal and disillusionment, as I watched my dream of full-time pastoral ministry morphing into something less than what I had hoped for, I felt very isolated, without anyone to turn to for wise counsel.

What had once been a vibrant team of youth leaders had become a difficult place for everyone. These were our closest friends and co-workers, but all of us were suddenly caught in a maelstrom of church politics, which none of us had a grid for processing. Wendy and I couldn't think of any way to share our side of the story without being accused of sowing division, and the numbing silence that grew between all of us resulted inevitably (for Wendy and I) in further isolation.

My last official pastoral duty was locking up the church after the midnight Christmas Eve service, before sealing my keys into a letter-sized envelope, and 'delivering' them back into the church through the mail slot in the front door.

We lost our church family, our house (the parsonage), the youth ministry we had pioneered, our only source of income, and a lot of friends, who felt they had no option but to choose between friendship with us, and their church home.

It was a very dark time.

During this hard season, just a few weeks before that final Christmas Eve service, the phone rang in my office, and I heard an unfamiliar female voice asking if she could schedule me for a lunch appointment with Dr. Bob.

I had heard of Dr. Bob by reputation only, having never met him nor heard him speak, although I was aware that he was a pastor in a local church. Curious, I agreed to a time and a restaurant, and the church secretary informed me that Dr. Bob would meet me there.

At the appointed time and place, Dr. Bob showed up and treated me to lemon pie and coffee. During our one hour together, he delicately probed the situation I was experiencing, and allowed me to sort through some of my thoughts and feelings through his wise combination of insightful inquiries, and lots of reflective listening.

As the close of our far-too-brief hour arrived, Dr. Bob gave me the only piece of pastoral advice that he was to offer that day. His exhortation.

Stirring his coffee, seemingly fascinated with the concentric swirls he was creating in the cup, he asked, "Tell me, Robby, how old are you?"

"I'm thirty," I replied, and waited.

Dr. Bob took his time, stirring his coffee slowly and deliberately. Still gazing thoughtfully into his cup, he softly remarked, "You're still quite young. You have many, many years of fruitful ministry ahead of you."

Then he stopped stirring, carefully placed his spoon on the napkin beside his empty pie plate, and finally locked eyes with me.

"Unless you grow bitter."

His gaze held mine for what seemed an eternity, as he watched the lesson sink deep into my soul, before he spoke once more.

"Guard your heart, young man. Guard your heart."

And with that, he paid our bill, bade me farewell, and that was the last I ever saw of him.

But what a gift he had given me that day...

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