About a year ago, our lives were tragically changed in an instant.
Last June on Father’s Day, my brother-in-law Claude Williams was killed. He was a pastor in New Orleans, with a wife and three young boys. He’d stopped to help a stalled motorist and was hit by a drunk driver speeding at approximately 100 miles an hour. His death left an immense gap in our family as well as in Claude’s church.
I’ll never forget the sound his kids made from the other end of the house as they were told their daddy was dead. Their cries hit me on a visceral level unlike anything else I’ve experienced since my family’s own car accident over 20 years ago.
As the next several weeks were taken up in traveling to several memorial services, I did a lot of thinking and praying. Mostly, I asked God what I was supposed to do. The answer that came back would displace my own family and throw the next year into more upheaval.
My wife and I felt God was telling us to leave our home and my job as a pastor. We were to move and live near my brother-in-law’s wife and kids in hopes of filling in the gaps left in their lives. It’s been one of the most disorienting, scary things I’ve ever done. But we felt God leading us, so we did it.
When people discovered what we were doing, the reactions were occasionally surprising. Some folks seemed to think we’re some kind of martyrs for making that sacrifice. While I appreciate the sainthood, what we did was the same thing a hundred others would have done. No one else was available to step into a fatherhood role for the boys and to give a new widow the backup she’d need so they’d listen to her.
Some people gave us way too much credit. But surprisingly, the rest wondered if there was something wrong with us. I suppose nobody does something simply because it’s the right thing anymore.
When I told people in my new town why I’d left my former church, I could tell some wondered if I’d really been run off from my church, instead. Maybe I’d done something wrong and was just trying to paint myself in a noble light? A pastor without a congregation sounds odd so there must be more to the story.
From their sideways looks, I found myself occasionally feeling guilty, but for something I’d never done. I spent the next six months looking for work in our new town. I’d hoped to find another church to pastor there. Instead, I bounced between several unfulfilling jobs. I sat in the church we attended and felt less like a hero and more like I’d been put in the corner for “time out.”
Looking back now, I think I had a naive conception of what happens when you “do the right thing.” In the movies, doing the right thing almost always pays off. You know…
The hero bites his lower lip, weighing the cost of such a sacrificial decision. The camera moves in tight on his furrowed brow.
His wife looks on sympathetically. You see the trust in her eyes that he’ll make the right choice.
They both look at each other knowingly, acknowledging what must surely be done. And then, as they move toward that noble future, the music swells. The violins swirl triumphantly in a grand crescendo of glory…
You can bet that within the next 30 minutes of the movie, that couple is proven right. Everything works out, but you knew it would all along. Those emotional cues in the film’s underscoring told you it was “that kind of movie.” The one where the boxer’s going to win the fight, or the evil company executives will be exposed as one man stands defiantly against all the rest. When the credits roll and all is well, we’re inspired, but not surprised.
As soon as we heard the violins, we knew there’d be a happy ending.
If only life had underscoring and violins.
The reality is none of that happens. When you actually make a sacrificial decision, half the folks think you’re crazy or hiding something. But the others who are for you still think it’s so much easier than it ever is. If you did what God told you, surely everything works out in the end, right?
Except that God never promises to wrap up things quite so neat and tidy. In fact, he promised quite the opposite.
“In this world, you will have trouble.”
“Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore, the world hates you.”
“They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”
Thanks a lot, Jesus. Boy, that sounds fun.
No, the reality looks nothing like my inspiring script. There’s no confidence, no certainty. Mainly, there are lots of questions about the future. There are frustrations with day-to-day realities of life (like how to pay for food and where to live). Those are things the movies never deal with.
And along with those mundane details, you can add buckets of doubt and, occasionally, crippling fear. But I guess the victory is that, in the midst of those doubts, you decide to continue on. You remind yourself of what God said to you when you headed out on this journey. And you trust that he hasn’t forgotten you and that he has a plan for your future.
But you do all that with no violins, and no picturesque shot of you looking forward into the sunset. And that’s the truly noble part of sacrifice.
While I’m nowhere near her category, I’m sure no string section accompanied Mother Theresa while she ministered to the poor in Calcutta. And the families of those pastors beheaded in the Middle East surely wonder from time to time if not denying Christ was worth not seeing their loved one again until heaven. Surely, they have to wonder, even in the midst of their amazing faith.
Every one who has ever said “yes” to Jesus has had a million questions that keep them up at night. But without lush orchestration or picturesque cinematography, you get up the next morning and do what you have to do. That’s what sacrifice really looks like.
As I look back now on that year, God really worked in some amazing ways. We did our best to help, and our family huddled together to heal. The boys got in counseling as did their mom. They got a new home in a new school system, and their church rallied around them to help in amazing ways.
After about 6 months together there, we all celebrated our first Christmas without my brother-in-law. It was around that time God started showing me to my surprise that our purpose there was coming to an end. I’d moved there thinking we’d spend the rest of our lives there, surrounded by family.
But that was my screenplay, not God’s. His ways are completely unpredictable, and much stranger than fiction.
Now I’m sitting here in a new office, in another town, pastoring a church again. Our family couldn’t be happier and I’ve busy again after a season of silence. My brother-in-law’s family is making it – limping along at times, but getting there. I could have never predicted where this story would end up, but that’s okay. We listened and obeyed, and all of us ended up where we were supposed to be.
So when you hear God tell you to do something sacrificial, don’t listen for the orchestra to kick in. God rarely speaks in the earthquakes or in the whirlwinds. Those dramatic flourishes would make it too easy to take the leap into the darkness under the steam of pure emotion.
No, when he speaks there’s rarely any hype at all. Just a still small voice whispering gently in your ear something terrible, yet wonderful.
And in the absence of those violins, there’ll be enough quiet for you to hear all the more clearly. And the quiet is your guarantee that what you’re hearing is not hype, but his voice alone.