I've met some of the kindest, most genuinely caring people in church. I've also met some of the most priggish, self-righteous assholes there.
Those in the latter camp are what I call the "dividers" – those who divide "us" against "them." They've forgotten the message that we're all sinners in need of forgiveness.
The "dividers" are the modern-day Pharisees, whom Jesus said were "whitewashed tombs": beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men's bones on the inside. Lest I myself be guilty of being a divider, let me sincerely state that these hypocrites truly need our prayers – and but for the grace of God, there go I.
Among the chief dividers that I've met in church life was Brother Larry Kershaw. He was the pastor of the First Baptist Church in the small Southern town where I used to live. Or, as they're fond of saying in Southern Baptist churches, he was the "preacher." He tended his flock with an iron fist.
"There are the sheep, and then there are the GOATS," Brother Larry was fond of saying. He was able to twist the Scriptures to make it sound like we're in an all-out war. Not a war against hunger, or a war against poverty, or a war against oppression – rather a war against homosexuals, a war against pornographers, a war against politicians who don't happen to be Republican.
"Brother Larry," I once asked him, "don't you think all these people you're preaching against need God's grace, too?"
"Turn or burn, that's my motto," he retorted almost gleefully, "but these folks have made their choice. They've signed up for the wrong team. They're the goats!"
"But isn't it a war against darkness and spiritual powers, rather than against other people? I mean, didn't Peter say that the Lord is not willing that ANY should perish, but that ALL should come to repentance?"
"You're wasting your breath," he said, "sounds like you've been eating some of that LIBERAL garbage that the Hollywood media's been feeding you!"
"Brother Larry – I got it from the Bible, not the media..."
"Then you're MISINTERPRETING it. I didn't go to seminary and get my Master's of Divinity for nothing, Tom. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."
Brother Larry was ALWAYS sure of himself. And yet, somehow, I didn't really trust him. My fears about his authenticity were borne out when my wife, Tricia, left me.
"So, Tom, you understand you'll have to resign from the deacon board." These were Brother Larry's first words of counsel to me in my hour of devastation and need.
I had served as a deacon in the church for nearly five years. I had reached out to families struggling with illness and to individuals in financial need. I had taught Sunday School, and truly believed what I was teaching. I had gladly visited patients in hospitals and nursing homes. And now I was being told that because my wife had left me, I was no longer fit for service.
Perhaps all that time spent in the Lord's service and away from Tricia had led to the demise of our marriage. She not only wouldn't join me in ministering to others, but she stopped going to church entirely. With Brother Larry's hellfire and brimstone messages, I bought into her excuse for not wanting to go: she couldn't stand the preaching. But she politely declined my offer to look for another church together.
The truth was that Tricia had found someone else. She had decided to join a local band, playing local gigs. Being a talented vocalist, she had exchanged the church choir for a rock band. And she soon exchanged her husband of eight years for the lead guitarist in the rock band.
Brother Larry seemed incapable of comprehending the painful loss and sense of utter rejection that I was experiencing. I needed comfort and compassion; he offered only coldness and cruelty. "The Apostle Paul was clear," he was saying as I reeled from his verbal blows, "deacons are to be the husbands of one wife. That means nobody who's divorced."
"But we're not divorced yet..."
"But the writing's on the wall, just like for Belshazzar in the book of Daniel," he replied cynically.
"Can't we talk about this later?" I asked.
"I like things neat and tidy," he replied, "I'll expect your written resignation by next Sunday. We'll start the replacement process the following week."
I didn't know whether to scream or cry. I was angry at his callous and cavalier attitude. I was deeply saddened by the double whammy of losing my wife and my ministry in one fell swoop. I walked away to avoid saying something I'd later regret.
Sitting in church the next Sunday, my deacon resignation letter in hand, I noticed Brother Larry's wife Sarah sitting on the front row. She seemed tired, gaunt, almost sickly.
As we all stood to sing a hymn, my eyes remained on Sarah Kershaw. She was at least ten years younger than Brother Larry – probably about my age. Her personality was a stark contrast to his – where he was confident, loud and brash, she was mild-mannered, quiet and cautious.
The thought crossed my mind, as I sang and watched, that she almost seemed to blend into the background – not just here and now, but in church life generally. The spotlight was always on Brother Larry, whereas Sarah was always in the shadows. I suspected he liked it that way.
Another realization that struck me was that Sarah was an extremely attractive woman. She did her best to hide it. She wore no makeup or jewelry. She did little to fix up her hair. She wore extremely high necklines, not daring to show cleavage. Her skirts and dresses never ventured above her knees. Yet, somehow, she exuded a quiet, innocent allure.
Her loose-fitting clothes could not completely disguise her slim hips and ample breasts. Her arms and calf muscles were toned and athletic. Her dark auburn hair was certainly God's gift rather than the product of a Clairol or L'Oreal bottle. Her clear, natural complexion was nearly flawless, save for a few endearing freckles sprinkled across her nose and cheeks. And her green eyes belied a spirit and spark much greater than she had yet displayed while operating within her husband's shadow.
"Please take your seats," Brother Larry's voice boomed from the podium, stirring me out of my reverie. The music was over, and I was among the stragglers still standing. My eye caught Sarah's as she turned to sit. Her sad, tired countenance showed an immediate reflection of my own pain. She tilted her head and pursed her lips in an empathetic gesture.
Half an hour later, after sitting through another of Larry's scorched-earth sermons, I waited patiently for other congregants to finish telling him what a wonderful message he'd given. When the coast was clear, I handed him my letter. He read it and said, "I'll handle it from here." No thanks for services rendered, no expressions of sympathy for a dashed marriage, no words of wisdom for dealing with the pain – he had what he needed, transaction complete.
As I walked toward the back to leave the building, a hand tapped my shoulder. I turned and was pleasantly surprised to see Sarah Kershaw's attractive countenance. She bore a look of concern. "I heard about you and Tricia," she offered, "I know it's none of my business, but..."
She left the thought hanging. I knew she didn't know what to say, but wanted to show her concern. There were others in the church for whom the same words as Sarah's would have been tantamount to asking for the juicy details. Not Sarah Kershaw. She was definitely not the gossipy kind.
"Thanks, Mrs. Kershaw," I replied, "it's tough right now, but I'll eventually be okay. I may even get to the point where I can wish Tricia a happy life."
Sarah's response left me speechless. A tear leaked out of one eye, then another from the other eye. Before I knew it, tears were streaming down her face. "I'm so sorry," was all she could manage to say. She hurried past me and made a beeline toward their family vehicle. She sat, head down, her face buried in her hands.
It would be a long wait until Brother Larry was finished soaking up all the congregational adulation and joined her in the car.
Over the course of the next week, I had a chance to stew on Brother Larry's cold and cruel response to my predicament. Though I stayed busy at work, my time outside of work had been freed completely by my banishment from the deacon group.
A devious and cruel plan began to form in my mind. I was somewhat ashamed for even thinking of it. I knew down deep that revenge belongs to the Lord, and that I should show kindness to my enemies. But the more I thought about my plan, the more I liked it. If it worked, then he deserved it. If it didn't, then I needed to accept it graciously and move on.
"Give the bastard a taste of his own medicine" was the crux of my plan. Get his wife to cheat on him. Under his own interpretation of Scripture, he would necessarily be made the scapegoat for her indiscretions. He might even learn some empathy by finding out what it feels like to lose his ministry for something beyond his control.
But why would she be willing to cheat on him? That was the key question. Understand what makes her tick, and maybe she could be led astray.
She'd already shown me that she was a person of deep empathy. I strongly suspected she was a person of great loyalty as well. It would be hard to stay with a prick like Larry without feeling a strong sense of obligation. Therefore, an outright and direct seduction would be out of the question.
However, her loyalty could be a two-edged sword. Surely it would make her reluctant to do anything that could harm Larry. But it could also be used against her, if she were forced to choose the lesser of two evils when it came to harming Larry.
.... There is more of this story ...