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.
By church time on Wednesday night, my plan was beginning to materialize. I'd find a way to make Sarah choose the lesser harm to Larry. The beauty of figuring out the lesser and greater harm for a clown like Larry was that he wore his psychology on his sleeve.
His most cherished relationship was obviously not that with his wife; it was his dominion over his congregation. If I could create an appearance to Sarah that Brother Larry's congregational dominion was threatened, she might be willing to compromise her relationship with him to avert the threat. Little would she realize that their compromised relationship would bring his dominion tumbling down. She'd adopt the same mistaken assumption that all of us do: that our unseen deeds will go undiscovered.
Our Wednesday night services at First Baptist Church were always preceded by a family style home-cooked dinner. These meals were prepared by volunteers and funded by donations. One of the elderly ladies who had cooked the meal pulled me aside as I was about to get into the food line.
"Tom," said Mrs. Ogglesby, "I want you to know that we're all praying for you and Tricia. Times like these call for family to pull together. And we're your family here at the church." She smiled up at me and then gave me a tender hug.
I was genuinely touched by the old woman's words and gestures. I had gotten to know her better during visits to her dying husband at the hospital the prior year. She did feel like family – as did many of the other parishioners.
I began to question my strategy. Would I destroy the family if I destroyed its head?
I decided that the head of the family was not the pastor. The head was divine. If bringing down the pastor could bring down the church, then the church was of man and not of God.
Just as I reached this conclusion, Sarah Kershaw walked by. She gave me a glance and a smile, then proceeded to join her husband in line. My eyes lingered on her for a moment too long.
"Is this just about Larry and me?" I thought, "Or is it about Sarah and me, too?"
I decided it wasn't necessarily "either/or" but perhaps "both/and." Larry certainly had some lessons to learn. As to Sarah, I'd never really thought about her sexually when I had Tricia at my side. But now, I realized, I found her downright hot in an understated sort of way. I was actually excited about trying to lead her astray. And unless I was way off the mark in my assessment of Larry's investment in his marriage, Sarah was a woman who was quite unfulfilled in her marriage.
After the meal was over, Larry went into the sanctuary to prepare for the start of the service. I watched to see when Sarah would head in that direction. As I saw her leaving the fellowship hall, I scrambled to catch up. Halfway down the hallway, I gave a "Pssst!" to her to get her attention.
"Tom – what's the matter?" she asked.
"Mrs. Kershaw, would you mind stepping into a classroom to chat for just a minute? I don't want to take much of your time, but I need to talk to you," I said.
"Certainly, Tom." She followed me into the 5th grade Sunday School classroom.
"Please, have a seat," I prompted with a wave of my hand. I suddenly realized that all the chairs were built for ten year-old children.
"Thanks, I'll stand," she replied.
Before I began to speak, I mentally rehearsed the story I'd concocted to get her attention. I wanted to be careful to sound plausible. I would have preferred not to lie, but when it came down to it, I felt I had no choice. It would be up to her to decide whom to trust.
"You know that Tricia has left me, Mrs. Kershaw?"
She hesitated. I saw a tear forming in the corner of her eye. "Yes, Tom, that's what I was trying to say to you on Sunday. I know you're the victim in this, and I feel awful for you."
"Thanks, Mrs. Kershaw. That's very kind of you. But I'm not the only one who's a victim."
"It's noble of you to share the blame, Tom – but it's clear to everyone that Tricia's the one who walked away from church, and walked away from you."
"But she tried, Mrs. Kershaw. She sought help before it was too late. She went to see – your husband."
"She did? Larry never mentioned that..."
"Perhaps he simply respects parishioner confidentiality. Or perhaps – he's ashamed of himself."
"Why, whatever do you mean, Mr. Verbeek?" She looked genuinely puzzled.
"Well, I can't be sure, Mrs. Kershaw. I only know what Tricia told me. And I guess it's hard for me to trust what she says any more. So I guess there may be nothing to it..."
"Nothing to – what?"
"Well, it's like this. Tricia said that the first time she stumbled with that guitarist boyfriend of hers, she felt terribly guilty about it. She asked to see Brother Larry for counseling, and when he met her in his office, he wasn't exactly helpful."
"Did he start berating her?" Sarah asked expectantly. It was obvious that this was a tactic of Larry's with which she was exceedingly familiar.
"Surprisingly, no," I said. "She says he was quite interested in her willingness to cheat on her husband. She says he got a silly grin and shut his office door. She says he tried to – take advantage of her."
Sarah's eyes flew open wide and her jaw dropped. "My Larry?" she asked, somewhat inanely, as if I might be talking about someone else.
"According to Tricia, he threatened to tell me about her tryst with the guitarist if she didn't let him have his way with her. He started getting physical with her. He got part of what he wanted. Then she finally stopped him. She said it was better to leave the church than to give in to a hypocrite. That was also the end of her attempt to set things right with me."
"Oh, my LORD!" Sarah gasped.
"I'm sorry to break it to you, Mrs. Kershaw. But, like I said, I don't know whether to trust Tricia's word any more. I thought it would be better for you to approach your husband and gently ask him about it, than for me to confront him and risk a spectacle."
"I – I – don't know what to say," she stammered, "I'll think about it, and pray about it, and decide what to do."
"Thanks, Mrs. Kershaw. Maybe I can ask you about it on Sunday morning. I'd sure feel better knowing there was nothing to it."
Sunday morning couldn't arrive soon enough for me. I had laid the trap carefully, and if my view of their relationship was correct, Larry was in trouble. Either Sarah would follow her personality pattern and avoid the confrontation, or she would confront him and he would berate her for asking. Either way, he would do nothing to assuage the seed of mistrust that I'd planted. I searched my mental recesses to remember the character from Shakespeare's "Othello" who had employed a similar strategy. Ah, yes – Iago, a man after my own evil heart.
Before Sunday School that morning, I saw Sarah in the hallway. She looked even more gaunt and tired than the previous Sunday morning. I felt a twinge of guilt. I doubted she'd slept more than a few hours since Wednesday night.
"Any word?" I asked.
"No – sorry, Tom. I just haven't been able to bring myself to talk to him about it."
"Oh," I replied dubiously. "Then I suppose I should talk to him about it. If it's true, I think the deacon board will need to know."
She tensed immediately. The fear on her face was almost palpable. The deacon board had the power to sway the church to oust the pastor. "Oh, no, Tom – there's no need to do that. I'm sure it was just – just a misunderstanding."
So I was right. She would rather protect her husband than confront him. "Let's see just how far she's willing to go to protect him," I thought silently.
"I have to get to Sunday School," I said aloud, "but I think we should talk later. I think the deacons need to be aware of what's happened, but I'm willing to entertain other options."
I left my intentions vague. Larry had a nominating committee meeting that was scheduled for two hours that afternoon. Sarah and I agreed to meet during that time to discuss the situation further. She acquiesced to my suggestion that we meet upstairs in an adult Sunday School room, where the chairs were not designed for ten year-olds. My ulterior motive was to get her alone in an isolated area of the church building. The nominating committee would be meeting downstairs in the fellowship hall, at the opposite end of the building.
Two o'clock was the appointed time. I had feasted on fried chicken at KFC for lunch. I'm sure Sarah had barely touched any food as she fretted over our meeting.
"Look, Mrs. Kershaw, I'll be honest," I said, "I'm beginning to think that Tricia's story MUST be true. The way you're avoiding your husband tells me YOU believe it. So I think I should go to the deacons at their five o'clock meeting this afternoon."
"Oh, no, Tom – PLEASE don't do that. I'm sure that if there was a problem on Larry's part, he's sincerely sorry about it."
"Tricia didn't seem to think he was sorry. She said he laughed when she took off. She said it was clear that if she hadn't left, he was going to – to have sex with her. She was very explicit about what he did to her."
"Gracious – no," she whispered.
"Yes," I countered, "She said he started by fondling her breasts – like this." I reached out and cupped Sarah's well-formed breasts in my palms. Even though my touch was through her blouse and bra, I could tell her tits were pert and supple.
She immediately shrank back in response. "There's no need to SHOW me, Mr. Verbeek!" she chided, raising her voice.
"Oh, but I think there IS," I contradicted, "a 'tit for a tat', so to speak."
"Mr. Vebeek, it's WRONG of you to TOUCH me like that!"
"I'm not so sure. YOUR HUSBAND touched MY WIFE like that – and he did a whole lot more. You don't seem to think THAT'S wrong!"
"A whole lot MORE?" she asked worriedly.
"Yes. He did this – " I leaned forward and took her in my arms, planting a kiss on her lips. I tried to gain entry to her mouth, pressing my tongue firmly against it, but she would not give in. I rubbed her ass with my hand, trying to ease her resistance, but she held firm.
She pulled away from me. "Mr. Verbeek, this has got to STOP!"
"I'm just showing you what a rat your husband is," I replied, throwing my hands up in the air as if I was fully justified and at a loss as to why she'd be offended.
"It's just not – PROPER!" she said, tears beginning to fill her eyes.
Another twinge of guilt pricked my conscience, but the devil on my left shoulder overwhelmed the angel on my right.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Kershaw, but there's a lot more that your husband did to my wife. I think the deacons need to know exactly what their fearless leader has been up to..."
"No, Tom – PLEASE! Just let me work it out with him..." The tears continued to flow.
"You've had four days since I talked to you, and you've done NOTHING about it. Why should I give you more time?"
"I just – hadn't realized the SERIOUSNESS of the situation. Please, give me a few more days. I PROMISE I'll do whatever I can to make it right."
I looked her over lasciviously from head to toe. I deliberately rested my eyes on her breasts and pelvic region for several moments each. I hoped she would notice through her tears. I wanted her to know what I had in mind. "That's a promise?" I asked with a deliberate grin and raised eyebrow.
She hesitated in giving a response, trying to dry her tears. "Within reason," she finally answered.
I smiled my most charming smile. "Great!" I said cheerfully, "the deacons meet again on Wednesday night. How about you meet with me on Tuesday night to give me an update? I'm sure Brother Larry will be on visitation on Tuesday night, so you can just stop by my house while he's gone."
"I – I couldn't come ALONE to your house. People might see me – and – and get the WRONG idea!"
"Tell you what," I replied, trying to sound as if I was taking it easy on her, "I'll arrange to have a hotel room at the Super 8 across town. That way you won't have to worry about being seen at my house. You just meet me in the lobby there, and we'll go speak in private. Nobody has to know..."
"Oh, THANK YOU, Mr. Verbeek. That's mighty kind of you." She managed a smile behind her dried-up tears. As book smart as I knew she was, her naivete astounded me. She may as well have just fallen off the turnip truck.
I took off work early on Tuesday to set my plan into motion. I rigged a stationary video camera on a tripod inside the closet, and pointed it toward the bed. The view captured most of the hotel room. With two hours worth of recording time available on the disc, I set the camcorder running as I left the room for our 5:30 appointment.
Sarah Kershaw was fidgeting behind a tall plastic plant as I sauntered into the lobby. She was again in a dress, which was again too high in the neck and too low in the hem.
She looked up as I approached. Somewhat flustered, she said, "I really shouldn't be here. Larry would be mortified if he knew."
"Haven't you spoken with him?"
Her hesitation told me everything I needed to know. "I ... I just couldn't bring myself to do it. He's the – the head of the household. And he's always provided for me. For me to – to ACCUSE him would seem so ... UNGRATEFUL."
I was stunned. What kind of mind control had Larry been using? If he truly HAD been doing what I'd said, gratitude should be the LAST thing on Sarah's mind. But if she truly trusted him, she should have told me to take a flying leap and told her husband what I was up to. No, she was one confused lady. My guilt pangs were on the rise.
But I had a role to play, and retribution to render. "Let's go talk in private," I suggested. She followed me out of the lobby and up to my second floor room. I closed the door and latched it.
"Mr. Verbeek, there's no need to latch it."
"I just thought you'd want some privacy..."
"But I'd like to be able to leave without impediment if I wish," she countered.
"Okay, fine," I said, unlatching the lock, "but I don't think you'll be leaving any time soon. We have a lot to work out."
"I'm prepared to offer you money, Tom," she said, a fearful expression on her face. "We don't have much financially, but I can scrape together a few hundred dollars."
A deliberate smirk spread across my face. "And you think a few hundred dollars will make amends for what your husband did to my wife and me?"
"I – um – I don't know, Tom. I feel just AWFUL about it. I wish I had MORE..."
"Oh, but you DO!" I retorted.
"No, seriously, Tom – Larry doesn't make much more than we need just to get by. And I've been working part-time at the library, but I don't make much at all."
"I wasn't talking about money," I replied firmly, gazing at her breasts.
Her eyes followed mine. "You – you can't be SERIOUS!" she responded vehemently.
"Think about it, Sarah. Your husband has, by his words and actions, robbed me of the comfort of my wife. And right now I need some – comfort. 'Turnabout's fair play' and all that," I said, trying to sound like the injured one.
"But – but – I've NEVER been unfaithful to my husband!" she cried out, tears once again beginning to stream down her cheeks.
"That makes ONE of you who's faithful," I replied coldly. I nearly had myself convinced that Larry was a skirt chaser. Maybe he was, for all I knew. But I knew for sure that he was something far worse – a heartless prick who judged and destroyed others.
Nonetheless, my conscience was rearing its not-so-ugly head as I thought more clearly about what I was doing to Sarah. I was breaking her trust for her husband, pushing her toward an outcome that she could never have imagined from her innocent view of the world.
I reached out and wiped the tear from her cheek with my thumb. I waited, watching her shoulders heave gently and her freckled nose contort with sniffles. She was a good woman, and I was a heel.
But I was a heel with a libido. She was truly a very pretty woman, and with a little luck, I would basically have her at my mercy. I found myself thinking less of revenge and more of satisfaction of another sort. Sarah was infinitely more pleasant to think about than Larry.
I put my finger under her chin and tilted her face up toward mine. I held her gaze for several seconds. Her crystal green eyes were pools of confusion and doubt. "Looks like YOU could use some comfort, too," I said sincerely. I wrapped my arms around her in a gentle embrace.
She cried into my shoulder for a minute or so, then pushed back to capture my gaze once again. "What do you want in exchange for not going to the deacons?" she asked, a note of resignation in her voice.
"Only one thing, and then you'll never hear another word about it again from me..."
"Just one thing?" she echoed.
"But it's pretty – intimate," I cautioned.
"I will NOT have sex with you, Mr. Verbeek!" Sarah insisted.
"That's not exactly what I was going to suggest. Bill Clinton wouldn't refer to what I have in mind as 'sex'. He did NOT have sex with that woman – Monica Lewinsky," I declared solemnly.
"I – I'm not putting your – your THING in my mouth," she exclaimed.
"That's also not what I had in mind."
"No. Remember, I said YOU could use some comfort, too..."
She stared blankly for a moment. Then, as the realization as to my meaning sunk in, her green eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open. She looked down at her own pelvic region. "You mean – you want to – you're asking to provide – ORAL stimulation to ME?"
I smiled at her and nodded.
"But – but – I've – I've – I've NEVER done something like that, Mr. Verbeek. Larry says that it's – SINFUL!" she cried out.