Part 1 UNSCREWED – Becoming Whole Again

Wood_Screw_Flat_Phillips

UNSCREWED – BECOMING WHOLE AGAIN    

© 2015 John Gouldener

All rights reserved including the right to reproduce this book

in any form whatsoever.

Some names have been changed to prevent access via search engines.

BETA EDITION

CONTENTS

Part One:

1…No Fishing

2…State Street

3…Common Trash

4…Yes Father

5…The Desert Rose

6…Highway 96

7…Neither Dreamed or Imagined

8…In the Beginning

9…Road Signs

10…Mr. Fix It

11…Ill Winds

12…Facing the Truth

13…Peeling the Onion

14…Sitting Here Crying

15…Too Late – Too Little

Part Two:

16…Katrina

17…Worst / Best Day 09.06.05

18…After the Music Stopped

19…Now What?

20…In the Jailhouse Now

21…Halls of Justice

22…Moon Mail

23…Sin Genome

24…Bingo

25…Of All the Lawyers

26…The Mistress

29…Hope Rising

30…Blown Calls

31…A Dog Named Limp

Epilogue

PREFACE

There is no one on earth who does what is right all the time and never makes a mistake. Ecclesiastes 7:20

My understanding of Scripture is that we are all sinners —- just different sins. A portion of this book centers on the events that culminated in the split of Highland Park Church, in the fall of 2005. During that tremulous time, God blessed me with the power to literally turn the other cheek and walk away quietly, without defending myself. Trust me; it was not from my own power! Any other choice, at that fragile moment in time, would have further wounded the church that I love deeply. It would have been a selfish, prideful and unwise choice. Ten years have now passed; people have moved on. HPC is, once again, a bright beacon on a hill pointing to the Kingdom. It is no longer in a vulnerable position. So now, the time has come for the story to be told. I once heard Pastor Rick Warren say that “Out of our greatest hurts, come our greatest contributions to others”. When I left the business world to enter the ministry, my boss asked me “Why?” “Because I want to make a difference”, I replied. Like each of you, God gave me a particular race to run. In order to share my testimony of unscrewing the shame of my past and to complete the race God has for me, the HPC story has to be told. That story is an intrinsic part of who I am today as it surely is for the other actors. Although, in telling the narrative, there are some very painful moments, believe me when I tell you, that my memories of that time and of the relationships forged are more good than bad. My purpose is not to cast blame; in the final analysis my failure to lead allowed the split. I do not believe any of us are bad people. However, we are certainly flawed. The characters from that time were my good friends. While many of us are hurt and estranged, there is still love. As a group, we shared our deepest and most private secrets and also the greatest victories imaginable. In a miraculous way, God assembled the “A Team”. Because of that team, many people are in heaven this very moment, with many more to follow. Praise God!

Yet, we are a 21st Century testament to the veracity of the above Scripture. I hope that my account is objective and fair. You will have to decide that for yourself; however, the bottom line of this book, it not about our corporate malfunctions, our pain, my failure to lead or the betrayals, but about our victories. A bunch of everyday people, through obedience for a time to the “Big G God”, pulled off the near impossible during a twelve year journey together. For me personally, my greatest victory came after my tenure as founding pastor. This book is dedicated to all sinners, past present and future, of which I am certainly one of the greatest.

Author’s Note to the Online Version:

Every attempt has made to keep to the facts of the story. In most cases I have relied on writings, emails, recordings, letters, personal interviews and the like. Much of the book is my opinion and perception. However, as with all stories of this depth, there are situations where I relied on my memory. If you are one of the characters in story, my hope and prayer is that I portray you accurately and fairly. Should you feel that I have not, please let me know (johngouldenr@gmail.com). Every effort will be made to accommodate you. My prayer is for this book to be one of hope and not hurt. – John

INTRODUCTION

“Unscrewed” is a book about many bad choices I made spanning 45 years. In the fall of 2005, they culminated in the loss of what, I am embarrassed to admit, was the most important thing in my life at the time — my church. Looking back on my life during that period, I clearly recognize that Highland Park Church had become more important than my wife, my family and my God. HPC defined me. Fortunately, the story does not end with the loss of bricks and mortar; it ends with my new found wholeness. For the first time in my life, suddenly I was enough for me! For it was only by walking through that self-imposed hammering, that God allowed me to find not only what I had always been searching, but something beyond my wildest dreams. The truth is, early in that journey I was so numb and shell shocked that I was not walking or even crawling, but being carried by so many who loved me and stood with me. Without them this story would have certainly had a bad ending! This is a narrative about shame and guilt, success and failure, love and betrayal, friendship and envy, pride and humility, but mostly about a group of imperfect people doing what imperfect people always do. Towering over all the pain in “Unscrewed” is a Big G God whose goodness, mercy, love and grace make this story possible. To Him is all the glory!

 1…No Fishing

Simon Peter said, “I am going fishing.” “We’ll come, too,” they all said. So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night. John 21:3 (NLT)

I wrote this chapter as an assignment in 2005 during a 30 day in patient treatment at Sierra     – Tucson (www.SierraTucson.com), where I was being treated for sexual trauma from childhood abuse. In those 30 days I became the man I always wanted to be but it took some time to actually realize it. My dad was a functioning alcoholic. He worked hard every day but beer was the most important thing in his life; at least that is how I perceived it. He could not do without it. When at home he always had a Falstaff with a napkin over the top by his side. He seldom said anything and left the run of the house to my mom — who was a total control freak and made all the decisions. I cannot even begin to count the number of times he would promise to take me places and he would either show up late or put it off. That made me feel sad, angry and lonely. When I was maybe six or seven daddy promised to take me camping and fishing on the Buffalo River, just me and my dad –for two whole days. I could not wait, because I had never done much with daddy except go to “Jerry’s”, the neighborhood beer joint, and sat on a barstool and spin around until I got dizzy while drinking Orange Crush in an amber bottle. I always pretended it was beer. This was going to be awesome, just me and my daddy! I felt really special. Finally the day came and we headed out to my aunt and uncle’s farm on the Buffalo River near Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. We talked about all the fish we were going to catch and how much fun we were going to have. Looking back he was such a nerd and so fragile, there was no way he could have done any real fishing. I should have smelled a skunk. As we were leaving Waverly, Tennessee, just before we turned off into the country, we stopped to get food,   Orange Crush and Falstaff beer. I remember thinking, “I wish he would not get any beer. I wish he would not drink on this trip”. Since he only bought a six-pack I thought there would not be much drinking. I guess I was feeling good but a little anxious.

When we got to the farm, boy was I excited! We drove past the farm houses down into the bottoms and though the corn fields with what I remember as towering cornstalks. I could not wait to get to the river and set up camp. Then we came out of the fields to a place we called the “pump” which was a hand water pump driven into the ground. I knew that we had arrived when I saw the pump because I had been there before with my uncle Bill and I knew the pump marked the entrance to the campground. That spot was amazing to me. It was nestled in a grove of trees right on the banks of the river with a little boat dock that I had watched Uncle Bill build the previous summer. There was Uncle Bill’s boat tied up at the dock. I remember that blue Evenrude motor. Everything was in readiness for us. I remember dad saying “as soon as we set up camp we would take the boat and go upstream a bit to a good fishing hole”. The next thing I remember, we were sitting at the picnic table eating bologna sandwiches, chips,and pork & beans. Me with an Orange Crush and dad with a Falstaff. Yet, even before we had finished lunch, I heard a vehicle in the distance approaching through the cornfield. I figured it was Uncle Bill in his pickup coming to check on us. However, when the vehicle came within sight, it was not Uncle Bill’s truck; it was a car I recognized — a black Studebaker. It was Mattie, one of dad’s drinking buddies. He was not part of the plan! My heart sank and I felt like crying. I remember a feeling of overwhelming sadness, confusion and fear. Loneliness and disappointment rolled over me like a river bottom fog.

My dad spent the next two days helping to drink the two cases of beer Mattie brought with him. We never went fishing together again. I hated Mattie; he was a big-mouth blow hard who always made life miserable when he came to our house. Now he had come to steal my daddy from me. I felt cheated, that I did not matter and that people would always disappoint me. I felt lots of shame, I felt like something was wrong with me. That was the day I began a process of not loving my daddy. It’s now sixty years later and I still remember it like it was yesterday. I remember walking down to the boat dock and looking into the water and seeing perch feeding around the dock posts. As I watched the fish swim about I could hear daddy talking and Mattie’s obnoxious, guttural laugh. I could have drowned and neither of them would have noticed. The drinking went on into the night and the next day.

The next afternoon Uncle Bill came to the camp and he and I fished the rest of the day while daddy and Mattie finished up the remaining beer. I felt safe with Uncle Bill. I also felt important, loved and worthwhile. He was in the back of the boat by the motor and I was up in the front. We had pulled up under some sycamore trees. I remember how huge those trees were. The fish were biting like crazy. Uncle Bill made a big to do over every fish I caught. I felt great! I thought about Uncle Bill and how great a man he was. He never drank, smoked or cussed. I felt good and safe; we always had a good time. After a while, perhaps I had lost interest in pulling up those perch, I said, “Uncle Bill, I love you more than my daddy and that makes me feel sad”. I felt guilty for uttering those words most of my life.

That fishing trip was the genesis of my waning love for daddy, which was only reversed as he was dying of lung cancer  nearly twenty years later. Two days before he died, I was in his bedroom at the house, just the two of us. It was obvious that his time was short. He looked at me with his brown eyes that had sunken back into his skull and he faintly whispered the words I had longed to hear all my life. “John I love you and am proud of you”. Tears cascaded from my eyes. Two days later, I was back in the room with him when he died in his sleep shortly after noon. Again it was just the two of us. I went to the kitchen and told my momma he was dead. I called my brother and sister and the funeral home. I felt guilty because I had little or no emotional feeling and my daddy was lying in his bed dead — more guilt and shame. The fishing trip was a major negative turning point in my life. To my seven year old brain the message I received was that my dad cared more about Mattie than he did me. I had already figured out that he cared more about beer than me. By now, I already had a gaping hole in my self-esteem. At seven I felt sad, lonely and guilty. I expect that had a lot to do with me having a difficult time trusting and why I have always struggled with a fear of rejection and abandonment issues.

Most of my life was lived in a hyper-vigilant mode looking for any signs that someone was going to let me down, or did not care about me or does not have time for me, or that someone was angry or disappointed in me. Then I would start obsessing that the relationship was coming unglued. That always led to a spike in the cycle of shame and guilt. Then things would get better until the whole cycle repeated itself. This had been a long standing problem but became even more problematic in the years 1997 to 2005.

2…State Street

We can’t escape the constant humiliation; shame is written across our faces. Psalm 44:15

As I reflect back on growing up in the 50s and 60s, it seems like that period was not just another time but another eon in some distant galaxy far, far away. Our country was of greater character than today. In the years immediately following World War II, we had something really special going. We all lifted together; when we went to war nearly everybody went. The sacrifice was homogenous. Yes, there were the privileged, some of whom are directly responsible for the dysfunction in our government today.   But as a rule when the USA was at war we were all at war. If one son was killed, in a faraway land, we all bled.

We were Americans. Because of the uproar coming out of 55,000 of our best being killed in the Viet Nam disaster that all changed. We asked “Why are we in Viet Nam?  Hell no we won’t go”, became the theme for many of our best and brightest. Astute politicians, led by President Nixon, realized that they had a real problem on their hands as far as future nation building wars were concerned. So they came up with the all-volunteer army concept. At the time I thought it was a great idea. But time has proven that it was a horrible one. I changed my mind in the midst of the Iraqi War after 3000 or so of our young folks were killed again for no good reason and thousands upon thousands of others were maimed. There never were any weapons of mass destruction. The reaction to that unjust waste of young lives from the average American seemed to be, “Well they volunteered; they are being paid; that is just part of the job”.  The all-volunteer army has so far removed most of us from the horrors of war that we do not really pay attention. It is not a priority so we do not give a damn. We do not keep a running total of the number of body bags used each week like we did during the Viet Nam Era.  Oh, some of us get all teary eyed when the media shows us the surprised reaction of a child whose soldier dad shows up at her school disguised as clown or a large mouse and then suddenly morphs into dad before the child’s eyes. That gives us little rush of a warm and fuzzy. And we think, “Better get me an even larger American flag lapel pin before Veterans’ Day rolls around. I am patriotic you know. I want our boys to know I’m behind them”. But the truth is we are not and have not been for years.

Before we lost our way we “Baby Boomers” had some real leaders; even a few actual statesmen who regularly put country ahead of ideology. They could disagree without vilification. There was no vitriol. Folks read the papers, listened to the radio and TV and were capable of thinking and forming their own conclusions without being told what they should think by some screaming talking head masquerading as a political commentator.

We were far from perfect, but in a real way we were in fact one nation under God.  Obviously, as the backs of busses, “Colored” signs and Selmer testified there was not quite liberty and justice for all. Yet, on Sunday most folks went to church; at least the ones did who lived on State Street. Many of us walked to church and actually carried on conversations with each other on the way. We went to First Baptist Church, the Catholic Cathedral, and the Church of Christ. We came home and then sit down around a big table and ate a home cooked meal together and looked forward to the leftovers for Monday’s dinner. Back in those ancient times so long ago in another century, even the politicians went to church. That was before they started trying to trick us into believing they had God’s endorsement by ending their sound bites with, “May God Bless America” while gently patting their colossal flag lapel pins.

Our original home place, where I lived from my birth in 1946 until 1963, was at 1921 State Street in Nashville, Tennessee. Our house, which apparently was considered a mansion in its heyday, was two doors from the corner of Twentieth Avenue North and State Street and directly across Twentieth Avenue from Mid-State Baptist Hospital. Its heyday had long since past!  momma, who was an only child, had inherited it upon her father’s passing. Growing up she had attended Tarbox Elementary and Hume Fogg High School and was a classmate of the famous singer Dinah Shore.  Growing up in the big house momma often told us stories of how hungry people had come to their back door during the depression for something to eat. Dave Wilson, her dad had been a conductor for the NC&SL Railroad. Apparently the railroads were not too adversely affected by the Great Depression, so the Wilson family was able to come out pretty much unscathed which allowed them to help some of their less unfortunate neighbors. In momma’s many depression stories her mother, Hattie Wilson, took absolute joy in helping the less fortunate.

Ours was a tree lined neighborhood where everybody knew everybody.  On our side of the street the lots were elevated slightly above the sidewalk with a sloping bank down to street level. We had a huge hackberry tree beside the steps which led from the yard down to the sidewalk.  As I recall it seemed like the larger and more ornate houses were on our side. Back then everybody had large front porches and no AC, so we spent lots of time in the evenings sitting on the front porch watching folks walk past our house on their way to visit friends or family who were in the hospital. From our elevated front porch, we had a bird’s eye view of all sorts of people traffic from 7-9PM each evening. During the summer we could hear the loudspeaker announce, “Visiting hours are now over”.  It was actually entertaining. Most likely that is where I developed my enjoyment of people watching.

My first friends were my across the street buddies: Forrest Russell, Terry and Bobby Rucker and Wanda Lynn Smith who lived on the corner next door to us. Even back then the hospital was in a perpetual building program, so the four of us guys regularly visited the construction site after the crew had left for the day to scavenger supplies for our various building projects of which there were many. Coasters made from discarded 2X4s and wagon wheels and various forts were our specialties. At night we would play king of the mountain on our front yard bank or kick the can in the street. We constantly had those little kid dirt rings around our necks; we played hard. Those days were some of my best memories. It was a fearless time. I am not sure we even locked our doors. We did have my grandfather’s double barrel shotgun that daddy kept behind a huge oak chest of drawers in a downstairs closet, but we never had any ammo. We felt safe. As far as I know there was no NRA or anti-gun lobby. We were Americans and that was all we needed to be.

During the mid-fifties our idyllic “Beaver Clever” neighborhood began to forever change as “black people” started moving into our sacred ground. One hot summer night, as we were all on the front porch watching hospital visitors, many with bright colored flower pots or boxes of Whitman’ Samplers, I recall  daddy saying to momma, “Audrey as soon as the n………s come across Cedar Street (Charlotte Avenue) it will be all she wrote”. At the time I did not realize what they were talking about. But I knew “All she wrote” was not a good thing at all. Before long I knew exactly what it meant.  Almost overnight “For Sale” signs started popping up as if some kind of a silent bell had chimed and in unison most of the houses sprouted “For Sale” signs like lawns sprouting a fresh overnight crop of spring wild onions. White flight was running unbridled not only on State Street but on all the surrounding streets. Nearly every family but the Gouldeners moved in short order. Equity was drying up; folks were scared.

Forrest, Terry and Bobby were some of the first to flee. They moved to newly constructed ranch style houses off Thompson Lane. Pretty soon Forrest invited me to spend the night with him. When I got to his new house I could not believe my eyes. There was no linoleum! Up until that moment I had thought that you could not have a house without linoleum covering most of the floor. For the first time I was introduced to wall to wall carpets. Of course we kids had to take our shoes off, but it was like walking on one of heaven’s clouds. My joy was not longstanding; in the middle of the night I woke up in a wet bed. And it was me! I had prayed a lot that it would not happen. I have no memory whatsoever of what Forrest had to say or his mom, but I remember that night all too well and I still feel the shame with each stroke on my keyboard. From that night until April of 2006 shame would me my constant traveling companion.

Pretty soon I only had three neighborhood friends left. Billy Chambers who lived on the eastern end of our block. I was several years older than Billy. There was something about Billy. I could never put my finger on it but we never really clicked. But Wanda Lynn Smith whom I loved in a little boy’s way; that was another story. I have no memory of her coming to my house but I loved to go to hers and I went a lot. In my mind it still was a mansion.  It was a huge big stone house next to us, on the corner that had the massive right angle stairway like I have seen in movies. There were a lots of built in cabinets, not only in the kitchen but in a hallway and the dining room. Mrs. Smith’ cookies and brownies were the best. I can remember going to Wanda Lynn’s play room on numerous occasions to play house. I also remember playing doctor.

Wanda Lynn’s dad was named Hershel. All I recall ever hearing her mom called was “Mrs. Smith”. To me he looked like he was in the movies but I have no idea what he did for a living. I cannot describe Hershel, but I would know him if I see him. For some reason I think that possibly all Hershels might look the same. I think my mom and her Aunt Ollie, who lived in our upstairs apartment, did not have a high opinion of Hershel. I remember a lot of whispering and then I did not see Hershel anymore. About that time I learned a new word –“divorce”. A while later, I do not know how long, Mrs. Smith sold her house to the hospital and she and Wanda Lynn moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

My third friend was Ben Lanier, a new kid. He had  moved into the recently vacated house on the side of our house where the front porch wrapped around to the side door.  Ben lived there until Mrs. Watts, the “Cat Lady”, bought it. I went to the Cathedral School on West End Avenue about three blocks south. Forrest, Wanda Lynn, Terry and Bobby had gone to Murphy School, the neighborhood public school. What was cool about Ben was that he was also Catholic so he too attended Cathedral; most days we walked to and from school together. Ben was just as into building things as were Forrest and the others, so the construction projects were up and running again. I had known Ben at school before he moved next door. So even though he was black, I guess I never really noticed that. To me he was just Ben and I liked him and missed him greatly when he not only moved but stopped going to my school too. As far as I can remember little black kids were always in my school. But I do not think that is actually the case. I started first grade at Cathedral in 1952;   Brown v. Board of Education did not happen until 1954. Nashville’s Catholic schools immediately opened their doors to African-American children. It took the public schools an additional three years to obey the law.  I have a vague recollection of school integration in Nashville, but for me it was a non-event.

It was obvious to my little kid’s eyes that something titanic was happening on State Street. Things were changing much too fast. Moving vans seemed to be coming with the regularity of the morning milk trucks. At first there were only a few black families. It was not long until there were just a few white ones. Several times doctors or the hospital tried to by our house. But my parents thought after the hospital bought Mrs. Smith’s house that if they would just hold out that in time they would get a really large offer from a doctor or the hospital which was land locked. In 1963 they sold the house to a doctor for the whopping sum of $25,000. We bought a new house on Blair Boulevard for $13,500 and never looked back.

3…Common Trash

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like ourselves. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”  So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:26-27 (NLT)

I went to Catholic schools for twelve years, as did my siblings, Bill the oldest, Eddie who was eighteen months behind Bill and Kathy, the “baby” who is six years my younger sister. Other than the day that Bill and Eddie were playing chase at the cemetery and Eddie fell and split his head open on a tombstone requiring a trip to the ER, I have few memories of Bill and Eddie until they hit their teen years. In the early fifties we made regular Sunday afternoon trips to Mount Calvary and Mount Olivet, the Catholic and Protestant cemeteries which are side by side on Lebanon Road. After my parents sold the thirty-seven Chevy in 1955 we stopped going. We did not have an automobile again until 1962. The first vivid memories of Bill came when he suddenly exploded into my consciousness like a monster movie in both Cinemascope and Technicolor. Bill worked hard at being the archetypical teen. He often used the “F Bomb” toward momma. I hated him for doing that. I put up with it until I was 27. He never did it again. That was the first and last time I have ever completely lost my temper. It was well worth it! I regret that it took me so long.

Momma always blamed Bill’s unacceptable behavior on having had scarlet fever as a little boy. I do not think the rest of the family ever bought into her spin. I know I did not or did Bill. Shortly before he died, Bill told me that he had lived almost his entire life only caring about himself, because that is what he wanted to do. From his hospital bed, he looked over at me with the same kind of hollow eyes I had seen the day daddy died. “John I was one bad ass SOB and I was wrong and so sorry. But it was my choice.” He said that with a remarkable spirit of humility, candor and repentance that could have only come from the prompting of the Holy Spirit. That day he asked me to wipe his rear end. I did without giving it a second thought. Only when I was driving back to my office, did I realize what an important event that had been for the both of us. I also regret that it took two brothers that long to become brothers again. It is strange the things God will sometimes use to bring people together. He will use whatever it takes for his will to be done!

For the most part until his waning years, by choice for reasons I will never comprehend, he went out of his way to act out and embarrass our family. Once he stole a car for a joy ride and was arrested and put into juvenile detention for a short time. In those days, Nashville was a much smaller city. There were no wars, high priced gasoline or Facebook IPOs grabbing headlines; so almost every petty crime found its way into the newspaper – often on the front page. The morning after Bill’s arrest, momma raced like a charging bull from the kitchen the instant she heard the ‘Tennessean” land on our tongue and grooved wooden plank front porch floor. “Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help us!” she screamed, with a quiver in her voice, as she made her way back into the kitchen, which was now filled with smoke from the burning toast. As Eddie tossed a baking sheet of what looked like smoking charcoal squares out into the backyard, she sort of collapsed at the kitchen table where Kathy and I were finishing up our cornflakes. There it was on page one, bottom left, “TEEN STEALS AUTO – William Gouldener, Jr., son of Mr. and Mrs. W. S. Gouldener was arrested….”

Momma was a very attractive woman even until her death at age 92; as she read each heartbreaking word, tears streamed down her pretty cheeks. While she wailed in her excruciating pain, I will never forget her tears falling onto the red and white checked oil cloth covering our six place table. Hearing the commotion, daddy quickly made his way from the bathroom with a Lucky Strike in hand and smoke pouring from his nostrils. “Sump, it is on the front page! What are the people at church going to think?” That was always momma’s immediate concern. She did not think to say anything to her other three children concerning the morning drama prompted by Bill’s arrest. Not at all; it was always about what the “people at church” were going to think about us. Looking back, I am sure we were all more traumatized by our momma’s unabashed reaction than Bill’s criminal behavior. She glaringly screamed at daddy that “people would think that the Gouldeners are nothing but common trash”.

Prior to that morning, she had mostly used that despicable term when referring to Bill’s friends – particularly Pat Brovan and Ronnie Muller, the police chief’s son. She also frequently bounced the term around as a putdown of folks whom she did not like or approve.  At first, I did not have a clue what it meant and until that morning I did not care; although, from momma’s tone I knew it was not a compliment. For some reason, it seems like I had a vague feeling that to be called common trash had something to do with being poor and being a bad person. At some point, perhaps around age eleven or twelve, I began to sense a link between common trash and hairstyle — particularly Bill’s ducktails. His Elvis style hair made her skin crawl and the more she bitched the bigger and greaser the tails grew. That morning, as usual when Bill was the issue, she threatened to jump in the river. I laugh when I think about the “river threat” now, but for many years, I thought she might actually jump. Whenever she threatened, I would always say a silent prayer asking God to take care of momma. When she would go downtown where the bridges were, I worried until she returned home. Being the son of my mother, on my walk to school that morning, I was wondering, “What will they think about me?” Fortunately, nobody said a word. As usual, I ate lunch with my buddies Billy Lynch, Tommy Burns, Ronnie Resha, Dell Myers and Bobby Czynszak. Since nobody mentioned Bill’s new claim to fame, I pretty much stopped worrying about it. That was the calm before the second more severe storm of the day would roll into my life; that calm was about to come to an agonizing end.

No sooner had we taken our seats after recess, in my fourth grade class at Cathedral Grade School, than Sister Mary Anthony, who looked like a penguin wearing her black robes, veil, huge cross and that starched white thing that started at the top of her head in the form of a weird hat and came down in sort of an elongated half circle to cover her chest, said to me from her solid oak desk on a raised platform and in front of the whole class, “John, I was shocked to hear that Billy stole a car”. Then she motioned for me to come up to her desk. I was afraid she was going to tell me to leave. Obviously, Sister heard the news during lunch. There are no words to adequately describe the feelings that I had at that moment –— shame, fear, hurt, pain, and anger are rolled into a tight wad that felt like it was about to explode. That was the first time that I recall being humiliated. My face turned beet red and fire hot. I can feel it as I type this. I wanted to cry and to run out of the room, but I did neither. Instead I slowly made my way to her desk. Now that my friends knew about Bill I was wondering that they were thinking about me. Was I common trash? That question bothered me greatly. Somehow as I grew older, I figured out that I was not and pretty much deleted the term from my mind’s consciousness.

But it came back to me first when Bill was expelled from Father Ryan High School in the late 50s. Getting kicked out of Father Ryan was a big scandal back then. In 1958 when Eddie was also expelled just a few weeks before graduation, it was more than my momma could handle. She went to pieces. I heard her on the phone to Father Hitchcock, the principal, begging him to let Eddie graduate. He refused. I never forgave him; not so much for what he did to Eddie but for what he did to my momma. For a time I hated him. Although I had forgiven him I never respected him or did I ever go back to Father Ryan after the day I graduated.

While I was standing in the freshman registration line at Father Ryan in September 1960, I was excited but also frightened. In those days all good Catholic boys looked forward to attending Ryan. That is what we did. The drill was each new student hooked up with one of the many teachers / priests who were manning the registration tables. When my turn came, I drew Father James Zralek.  When I handed him my registration card, he looked up at me and said, “You look just like Eddie; you are not going to be like him are you?”  I think perhaps that was not the best way to start my freshman experience.   I felt like I had been hit in the gut with a 2×4.

A few years ago one of my dear friends referred to some people whom we both know as common trash. While it was tempting to agree I chose not to. Any of us can choose to do trashy things and many folks do; but the truth is, momma was wrong. No person is common trash. There is no such thing in God’s world. The only thing you can do with trash is throw it out, because it has no value. The Bible says that God made all humans in His image. There is nothing common or trashy about God and there is no person beyond God’s love. I hope that you never forget that fact!

4…Yes Father

I attended Catholic schools through grade twelve and was an altar boy in our church; I knew more priests than I can count. When I entered my teenage years, that fact became a double-edge sword. In the fifties and sixties there was no shortage of priests as there is now. There were more than enough to go around. Sadly, a few certainly should not have entered the priesthood; however most were dedicated men of God. One of my early mentors, Father John McMurray, was a parish priest at my home church, the Cathedral of the Incarnation, three blocks from our home. “Father Mac” was one of the finest and most godly men I ever knew. He had an indelible positive impact on my life. I put him right up there in the rarefied air alongside my Uncle Bill. I fondly recall the Saturday mornings when Father and I took our BB guns high up in the bell tower of the church to shoot pigeons. That was the first hunting I ever did and by far the most successful. Yet, as many of those critters as we killed, we never seemed to make a dent in the pigeon population at the Cathedral. Almost every Sunday after the evening service, “Father Mac” would take the altar boys in his almost army green 57 Ford to the Krystal for milk shakes. Times with Father McMurray are some of my favorite childhood memories. In fact, I recall those milk shakes as being the best tasting ever. Many things have improved since those days, but milk shakes are not one of them.

Since my family did not own a car for many years, Father McMurray reached out to teach me to drive in his Ford. As I approached sixteen, he began to pick me up on Saturday mornings. He would drive to Centennial Park; there we would switch seats and I drove around Lake Watauga countless times and practiced my parallel parking. He was always affirming even the times I hit the curb. Usually, when we were finished we would go for burgers at the Krystal. When I turned 16 he took me to get my driver’s license. That man had an incredible positive impact on my life. I felt really good when I was around him. It was not until I became a pastor myself that I realized how unselfish he had been with his time devoted to me.

From 1960 -1964 I attended to Father Ryan High School; in those days all the students were male and nearly all of the teachers were priests. Shortly after classes begin my freshman year one of the priests, Father Hollis, stopped me in the hallway between classes. He explained that he was aware that our family did not own an automobile and should I ever needed a lift to the football games, he would be glad to let me ride with him. His offer blew me away. I could hardly believe that he had reached out to me, because he had a reputation of being a complete asshole. I thought that was an accurate assessment. I considered him a bully and a man to avoid. As far as I was concerned, he was one of those people you just immediately dislike and try your best to look the other way if he came neared you. Yet, he was being nice to me. I remember thinking that seemed odd. Like him or not, I did want to go to those games, so I took him up on his offer and frequently rode with him to games my freshman year. Most of the time Father Hofstetter, a really cool priest whom I liked a lot, rode with us. I do not recall anything noteworthy taking place any of those Friday evenings. However, I do remember that after the games, we always made a beeline to get back to the school before the team bus, in order for Father Hollis to be in the locker room to welcome the team back. I would soon understand why.

One Friday afternoon, out of the blue and with no prior discussion whatsoever, he came up to me as classes were changing and told me to be at school Saturday at 2:00 to play in a pickup basketball game. No way did I want to do that. I was hesitant and made some lame excuse. He said, “You do not have a choice; I expect you to be here”.  “Yes Father”, I replied as he stood there in his black cassock, which was, as usual, dirty from chalk dust and reeking with the smell of stale cigarette smoke. He was skinny with an anemic looking flat top. I always thought he looked like he did not eat very well. Most Fridays on the walk home from school I looked forward to the weekend, but not that day. I dreaded the prospect of playing basketball with him. Little did I know that the next day of my life would be one I would never forget. Agreeing to play basketball with Father Hollis is the first of several choices that nearly destroyed me over the next forty-five years.

Boom! The door of Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, slammed shut behind me. Father Sterling McGuire stopped, looked up from the altar and said in a really pissed off voice “When you come here you need to be on time”! He then reverted back to his holy voice and continued with 8:00 AM mass without missing a beat, on Ash Wednesday in the year 1967. Immediately, fifty or so pairs of mostly elderly eyes turned and looked back at me. A few were so old that I am fully confident that they could not see me. But either way, I had captured their attention and it was not a pleasant experience. I have never liked being the center of attention and have not forgotten the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, when he shouted those words. It was a strange mixture of embarrassment, fear, anger and adrenalin all churning together. My face flushed into a fire-hot shade of red. I never walked into Immaculate Conception Church again.

That was pretty much it for me.  It was if God Himself had shouted from the heights of heaven, “John, you sinner, how dare you come into My house late”. After all, the good Father was as close as I would ever be to God on planet earth; at least that is what I had been taught in twelve years at Catholic school. Now, I was a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It was a cold later winter day. I walked the mile or so from my room at Melrose Hall worried that I was not going to be on time. I was not. That morning I thought Father’s conduct was outrageous and without excuse; I still do. That would be my last visit to God’s house for several years. At that moment in time, I more or less gave up on the “Holy Catholic Church”, even though it did not become official until years later. I now realize that God was not speaking, but merely a flawed man like me.

As best as I can calculate approximately, 7600 some odd days earlier, I had started my church journey as my doting mom and dad lovingly held number three son in their arms, while the good Monsignor Seiner sprinkled my tiny forehead with a splash of cold holy water while saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” as I screamed bloody murder! Looking back, I see my Catholic Church experience as a mixed bag. Some of it was very good; some was very, very bad, a bit was criminal. Growing up we were taught that the priests were special, near deities, living saints who were our only connections to a far away and mostly aloof God. Without these holy men we were pretty much up the creek or so we had been taught.

In January of 1975 Sandra Story and Debbie Dillon, who were secretaries at the A. J. Smith Lumber Company where I also worked, invited me to a party where I met Cathy Lovell, a gorgeous auburn haired who was sitting on the floor with legs crossed chatting with Sandra when I arrived, with my six pack of PBR in one hand and a Winston cigarette in the other. For me it was love at first sight. We were married six months later. This book is about some wrong choices I have made in my life. Choosing Cathy was not one of them.

As I write this we have been married nearly forty years. She is the kindest and most unselfish person whom I have ever known — a wonderful, wife, partner, mom and grandmother.  The truth is for several of those years, after Michael had left the nest, she had good reason to leave me. No, I was not unfaithful or abusive; in a sense maybe it was worse. There will be a chapter dedicated to that particular one of my moral failures a bit later.

As the wedding planning got rolling along, we quickly decided on having the ceremony at Jackson Chapel Methodist Church in Charlotte, Tennessee which Cathy had attended as a child and was only a stone’s throw from her parents’ home place. Although I had been “Catholic” in name only since Father McGuire dressed me down years earlier, both of us knew that my mother, a fanatical Catholic, would have a major hissy if a priest was not involved. Since Cathy did not object, I called Frank Richards, a former classmate and friend of mine at Father Ryan, who had recently become a priest and was assistant pastor at Christ the King Church. Frank understood the situation and made things painless as he met with us for a series of pre-marriage conferences. I have not seen the man since the wedding. But I have heard and read a great deal about him, beginning with a chance meeting with another Father Ryan alumnus in the Sonoran desert of Arizona in the fall of 2005 who told me a horrible but familiar story of abuse at the hands of Father Frank.

5…The Desert Rose

In January of 1980 I attended the National Homebuilders Show in Las Vegas. While there I made one of the most important decisions of my life. On Sunday the only business commitment I had was an 8:00 PM dinner with Jim McCanless, a loyal customer and good friend. Some of us decided to attend Raquel Welch’s early afternoon show at the MGM Grand. When it was over we walked over to Caesar’s. I still had a little of my “Vegas Spending Money” left; I had $300.00 when the plane landed, but by now it was considerably less. I made my way to the dollar slots. As I sit on a stool feeding the machines, Peg, an attractive blond champagne girl came by to offer me a cold glass of bubbly. Even though I did not really care for champagne, I accepted her offer. In a few minutes silver dollars started pouring out of my machine like the water over Hoover Dam. The sound of the machine prompted Peg to come back over and of course in my euphoria I accepted another glass of champagne. This time she made the comment, “From your accent you must be from the South”. When I told her “Tennessee” she said that Moe, the floor manager, was from Tennessee. Soon Moe made his way over; he picked up my half empty glass of champagne and replaced it with in his words, “Something more fitting for a Big Orange Brother” – Jack and water! By now I was up over $300 again. The more I played the more Jack and water Moe sent over.

Suddenly, I awoke from a banging sound. When I finally made it from the bed to the door there stood Jim who blurted out, “Man, what happened to you?” Initially, I was confused. I did not know what he was talking about. I thought it was morning. Jim was laughing; I recall looking at my watch. It was 9 PM! I was supposed to meet him for dinner an hour and a half earlier at a little Italian restaurant just off the strip. Cathy and had eaten there on an earlier trip and it have been out of this world. It was one of those places where all the Italian guys hug and kiss each other when they come and go — just like in “The Godfather”. The last time we were there we joked about ducking down in our booth if the bullets started flying.

Since I had decided to attend the Home Builders show at the last minute, I had a difficult time booking a room. There was nothing on the strip close to the action, so I ended up at The Desert Rose which was a couple of miles from the heart of the strip. It was the classic cheap motel – as far removed for the glitz and glamour of Vegas as the earth is from the sun. It was also one of those motels where you parked your car right in front of your door. The building was painted light pink and had a huge rose painted on the outside wall near the office.

As I stood there in the doorway talking to Jim feeling like I had surely died and gone straight to hell, I noticed my rental car parked at an angle in my space. I suddenly had a cold chill! I had absolutely no recollection of driving from Caesar’s. In fact the last memory I had prior to Jim banging on the door, was me sitting on that stool playing the slots sipping Jack Daniels. I had experienced a “blackout”. That had never happened to me before. I broke out in a cold sweat! Somehow I had driven two miles drunk. I am a guy who can be impulsive. That trait is both a blessing and a curse. That night I decided to never take another drink of alcohol. Other than a wine tasting at the Biltmore a few years ago I haven’t. I wish I could tell you that kicking booze cold turkey had been a battle, but that my courage and strength of character had won out. That would be a lie. When I realized what could have happened to me and the impact it would have had on Cathy and Michael that shook me to my foundation. I had made a series of stupid decisions that Sunday. My decision not to drink again was not one of them.

I have no problem if someone wants to drink in moderation. To me that is a personal choice. I am not one of those legalistic, pride filled folks who claim that the booze in the Bible did not pack a punch or was simply unfermented grape juice.  That kind of reasoning is either pride filled nonsense or hopeless stupidity. But for me since my first Sterling Beer at age 16 in the back seat of Wayne McNeil’s yellow Ford Fairlane on Highway 13, just outside of Waverly, Tennessee, I have  never liked the taste of alcohol. I did however, like the effect; that night I stopped liking that too. I have heard that we have a tendency to replace one habit with another. Years later I found that certainly to be the case for me.

6…Highway 96

Galatians 6:4 Let everyone be sure that he is doing his very best, for then he will have the personal satisfaction of work well done, and won’t need to compare himself with someone else.(LB)

The decade of the eighties found me in the building supply business at the A. J. Smith Company in Nashville, Tennessee. Since college I had mostly worked in that industry both in Nashville and Atlanta. Materially it had been good to us. We lived in a custom built cedar house with towering trees and a gorgeous pool about twenty miles from the city. We loved our place. My job afforded Cathy the opportunity to be a stay at home mom and to send Michael to private schools. I did not love my job but I did like it. I am blessed in that I do not think I have ever had a job that I dreaded going back to work to on Mondays except for six weeks when I worked as a bill collector between jobs early on. On second thought I probably did hate that one.  I do realize how fortunate I am. But some place in the mid-eighties something began to stir deep within me. I became restless with the lumber business. Like many others who traveled this same restless road ahead of me, I had a somewhat vague notion that I wanted to “make a difference in the world”; albeit I was clueless as to how that would play out.  Let me tell you up front if you ever start feeling that way, watch out because anything might and probably will happen — things you never saw coming. For reasons that I could not understand my restlessness morphed into depression and sadness. Yet, my life was clicking on all eight cylinders and I was sinking further and further into an abyss of unexplainable depression and fear.

On January 1, 1986 the eighth ranked Tennessee Volunteers played the second ranked Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Michael, who was ten at the time and a huge Volunteer fan, wanted to go to the game so bad that he could taste it. I was able to work out a trip on a charter through the company. Since I invited Jim McCannless along it did not cost me much. New Year’s Eve, early on, we were on Bourbon Street for a small taste of the over the top celebration when two guys came out of a bar and did a full lip to lip long wet kiss. Michael’s eyes, and I guest mine too, were big as silver dollars. As I took hold of his hand to leave he asked, “Dad are they gay?”  I knew right then he was growing up. Our hotel was in the French Quarter and the ABC broadcast crew was staying there too. New Year’s Eve we were on an elevator with announcers Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles when someone asked Broyles what chance he gave Tennessee for the upset. “Son about the same chance a snowball has in hell” was his matter of fact reply. Frank Broyles was very wrong.

Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde had to call a time out before the first play because the mostly Tennessee crowd noise was off the charts. Then he threw an 18 yard touchdown pass to Michael Irwin on the first series. That was it for Miami with Tennessee winning 35 -7 in a complete rout. The memory of that trip with Michael  is a cherished one with the exception of the trip home. When our charter lifted off at 1:05 AM for the flight home, Michael was already asleep next to the window with his head against my shoulder. As our northbound plane made its way through a waning moon lit sky, in some tiny cocoon of thought just beneath the muffled roar of the jet engines and the obnoxious rants of the drunks a few rows ahead, I had perhaps the darkest thought of my life: Except for the fact that Michael is on board, it would suit me just fine if this plan crashed. Just two hours earlier I was on top of a Big Orange world hooting and hollering with my son. Now I was in the midst of that awful thought. I was forty years old, frightened and did not know what to do. That feeling actually worked for good because it frightened me enough that by the time we landed I had a plan.

A few weeks later during a routine visit with Roy Elam, MD, I told him about my depression. He referred me to a therapist, Dr. Gordon Peerman III. I met with Gordon weekly for several months. At his suggestion I began attending Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings. To me they seemed like big time pity parties. Each time I left a meeting I felt noticeably worse so I cut my losses and stopped attending after just a few meetings.  At that time in my life I was a world champion people pleaser so I dreaded having to tell Gordon that I had bailed. Actually when I told him he was cool with my choice and said that many of his clients reacted that same way to ACOA meetings.  As Gordon and I got deeper into the issue of my depression, he began asking some questions that made me uneasy.  When that happened I just lied to short circuit his queries. I know that because I was not completely truthful with Gordon that I simply kicked the can down the road.  Fortunately after a while the depression seemed to lift and I felt good again.

For reasons that I have never fully understood, at that time I developed a keen interest in drug prevention and had a vision for a peer based outreach into the school system. “LIFE Incorporated” as it eventually was known was designed to be more palatable to young people than Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign. I envisioned that LIFE’s thrust would be to send young men and women into the school system who, through their own personal testimony, would offer good reasons for kids to say no to drugs. I had no trouble at all in finding kids who had become involved with drugs, but who had been able to right their lives and were willing to share their stories. Those speakers were plentiful. The problem was finding the All-American type who had made it through high school without succumbing to the temptations of drugs and alcohol. I needed the type of guy who by his mere appearance would command respect from middle school kids. I needed a good looking, smart jock; not a nerd. I needed a Tim Tebow even before Tim was born!

Early on a winter Saturday morning I was watching a tape of some little league football games from the past season of the Bellevue Steelers’ program, of which I was the league president. That morning God showed me the man He would use. Part of the tape showed the end of season athletic banquet in which Dale Robinson, who was 18 at the time, and head coach of our 11 & 12 year old team; he was talking to his team. I was blown away by the way he commanded those kid’s attention and quite astounded that he quoted Scripture as he handed out those little plastic trophies to his players. Galatians 6:4 Let everyone be sure that he is doing his very best, for then he will have the personal satisfaction of work well done, and won’t need to compare himself with someone else.(LB)

No Bible quote before or since has impacted me like Dale’s message to his players. He quoted that Scripture with such passion and emotion that without a doubt I “heard” God say “There’s your man John!” There were several obstacles to “there’s you man”. The first of which was, I did not know  Dale and he did not know me. But I soon found out that when God says “there’s your man” he provides the way and the means. My company had several premium tickets to the “Clinic Bowl” which was the climax of the high school football season. I had read in the newspaper that Dale’s brother, Page, would be playing in that game so it occurred to me that I would take the tickets to the family insurance office and introduce myself. Later I invited Dale to breakfast where I shared with him my vision for LIFE and he immediately bought into the plan. Soon we had Dale booked to speak to several groups where we introduced people to the LIFE concept. As we met with and talked with parents we quickly realized that, for the most part, they were naïve about the depth of the drug problem in our local school system. France Incorporated, a local manufacturing company signed on to partner with us and we were off and running; however we did not wind up where we expected.

Dale and I never started out to plant a church. That was nowhere on our radar; all we wanted to do was have the best little-league  football teams in the city and short circuit a few kids from messing with drugs and alcohol. Our vision at the time did not have much meat on the bones. I wish I could tell you that all of what happened since that day that ultimately culminated in “a different kind” of church called Highland Park, was part of some long range strategic plan that we had developed over years of study and research, but it was not. Honestly, we succeeded at both of our original goals in fairly short order and moved into an area neither of us foresaw.

Soon we realized that, just as St. Paul had written 2000 years earlier, God had more in store for us than we could have ever planned or imagined. At that particular point in time, thanks to Father McGuire’s stupidity and my deep resentment of the Catholic Church in general, I had not been to church on a regular basis in almost twenty years. On Sundays when Cathy and Michael went to our neighborhood Methodist Church, I would keep the Lord’s Day holy by running 10 miles, cutting the grass or cleaning the pool. The few times I would go with them, I dreaded every minute. To me it was awful! But the worse was when the good Brother Jones would drop by the house at the most inopportune times attempting to save my soul. But when God is working things happen that you just do not see coming until they have knocked you over with His brand of shock and awe. The remarkable story of Highland Park Church is just that kind of God thing.

On Thursday afternoon February 19, 1987 the board of “Life Incorporated” — Pastor Jerry Smith, Dale and I were finishing up a working lunch at Shoney’s on Harding Road. We were there discussing plans for the next phase of LIFE. Just before we broke Dale looked at me and said, “We are having a revival at our church starting Friday night. I thought you might want to come.” I tactfully replied “Yea, maybe we’ll do that.” Actually, I had no intention of going. At that point in my life I linked the word “Revival” with a couple of other words, “Nut Case”.

As a child I used to visit Jimmy Hatchet, who lived next door to the Blakemore Church of the Nazarene on Natchez Trace. I recalled with horror the sounds that ricocheted from that place during revivals. I was now thirty something years from those experiences; yet that vivid and scary flashback assured me without a doubt that Dale’s revival would have to go on without me. Later that day I thought about the revival invitation and recalled the yelling and screaming during the Blakemore revivals. I was dumbfounded that Dale, whom I considered a very cool All-American guy and a young man I admired greatly, would actually invite me to a revival. It actually diminished by lofty opinion of him a notch or two.  I was raised Catholic; at the Cathedral of the Incarnation where my family attended, the worship was 100% preplanned, ritualistic, formal, and actually very beautiful. No one ever raised their voice in our church; if we talked at all it was in an almost inaudible whisper. Well, I do recall one time at Christmas Midnight Mass when some drunken guy did walk down front and yelled out to Bishop Adrian, “Hey Bishop; Merry Christmas”. We had laughed about that for years wondering if he would come back again. He did not, but past that it was all whispers at our church.

Driving back to my office I mentally filed the revival invitation in file thirteen. Later, that night as Cathy, Michael and I were having dinner, I told Cathy about what was going on with LIFE and ended with, “You’re not going to believe it; Dale invited us to a revival”. To my surprise she did not automatically discount the offer! We had been married at the Jackson Chapel Methodist Church. Even though Father Frank Richards was there to officially bless our marriage, Cathy had remained a faithful Methodist while I had evolved into a “none”. Revivals were commonplace and well thought of by Methodists.

The next day I woke up with the revival still on my mind. I could not shake it. Despite my childhood memories, something was actually pulling me toward what I had laughed at less than twenty-four hours earlier. Amazingly, Saturday night Cathy and I walked into Pastor Smith’s church for the first time. It was remarkable. There was no screaming, yelling or running the aisles. I seemed to be among normal people. Dale’s dad, Gary, opened the service with some poignant and relevant words about life and then he led the music portion of the service. I was amazed at his voice. His songs were incredible! My heart began to soften. At the end of the service there was an altar call. I watched as people, one by one, got up and walked down to the altar to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior or to rededicate their lives to Him. In that little Nazarene Church on that February Saturday night, I felt God’s presence as I had never felt it before. Little did I know that I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Sunday morning I told Cathy I wanted to go back. Since she already had plans to take Michael to the Methodist Church in our neighborhood, I decided to go back to the revival alone and then we would all go to my mom’s for Sunday dinner. The Sunday morning service was more or less like the previous evening service. The music was different and again excellent. The message was very similar. The thing that was different for me this time around when the altar call came, deep inside of me I wanted to go down, but my pride was stronger than my willingness to follow what I now realize was God tugging at me. The preacher kept saying, “I know there is one more person God wants to see at this altar”. The music kept playing and the preacher kept urging. And I kept standing there in that “electrified air” next to my friend, Dale, afraid to move a muscle. The end of that service was like nothing I had experienced prior or since. When the preacher finally gave up the cause and said “Amen”, I climbed past Dale to exit that pew and the building with only a “see you later” uttered in stride. I am not sure I had ever moved that fast in my life. I literally left in a double time. I made it to the safety of my car and headed through downtown Franklin, Tennessee toward Highway 96 for the twenty-two mile trip home.

Someplace along that highway between Hillsboro Road and TN Highway 100, I had an encounter with Jesus Christ. I said, “Yes” to Him. And he changed my life forever as we traveled that roadway together. I recall thinking what had happened to me was truly supernatural. I thought of my friends, many of whom like me had grown up Catholic then gone off to college and stopped going to church. I thought about them and wondered how what had just happened to me could happen to them. I wanted them to have it. Cathy already had it; I wanted Michael to have it. I wanted everybody to have it! When I got home the first thing I said to Cathy was simply, “I found it”.

The next day I wanted to make it official so I went back to the church, told Pastor Smith what had happened and we went to the altar and prayed together. On my way home from work that night I stopped by Dale’s to tell him what had happened. He was not there. When I told Gary and Thelma, his mom, what I had done, Thelma said “Dale has been praying that you would come to know Jesus”. That was one of the most touching moments of my life. I have never forgotten her telling me that. The fact that he cared enough about me to pray for me meant the world to me and still does even today. It was a high water mark. A few days later Dale gave me a Bible – my first Bible. Inside he wrote, “Congratulations John, Monday February 23, 1987 is a day that will last an eternity!” Although our lives have taken different twists and turns that Bible is still something very special filled with incredible memories.

There is no question in my mind that God used Dale in a supernatural way to get me to those revival services. Without that man’s prayers, I doubt that I would have a relationship with Jesus Christ today. We would have never started our first church together and many people would not know the Lord.

7…Neither Dreamed or Imagined

He will give you all you need from day to day if you live for Him and make the kingdom of God your primary concern. Matthew 6:33 NLT

Most people dream too small and pray to a miniature God of their own creation. In the process they likely miss God’s plan for their lives.  In the fall of 1989 I was still at the lumber company with a  nebulous plan to enter the ministry in 1995, after my son graduated from high school. The way Cathy and I had it scripted, when Michael left Brentwood Academy, a private school, for the University of Tennessee, we would then be in a position to swap selling lumber for selling Jesus.

My office phone buzzed; when I took the call my friend, Jeff Eby, was on the line asking me to meet him at the Cooker for lunch. Just before I hung up, he said that David Graves would be with him. Since the name meant nothing to me, Jeff told me that David was a pastor friend of his. I thought perhaps David was interested building a deck or something and wanted to pick my brain about materials. But that was not to be the case.

David Graves was a sharp looking man who was immaculately dressed, in his mid-thirties with not a hair out of place or a wrinkle to be seen. He did not look like the typical preachers that I had been exposed. He for sure did not have what I call “preacher hair”. In fact he looked very “corporate”. As the three of us were having lunch, I got the impression that Jeff was trying to sell David to me. Quite honestly, I was mystified as I did not know where our conversation was headed. About the time I took the last bite of my cheeseburger, David looked straight at me and said, “John I would like for you to join my staff at Grace Church (of the Nazarene) as my administrator and associate pastor”. When I try I can be a pretty good actor. I was able to continue chewing my mouthful of burger without even a hint that I thought perhaps I was hallucinating.

After swallowing the hunk of medium rare burger, I explained to David that I was honored and would love to accept the job and jokingly said if he could hold the job until 1995, I would certainly take it. But that right now I simply could not afford financially to leave the lumber business until Michael was in college. In those days, it cost less to go to the University of Tennessee than it did Brentwood Academy. Then David, in true preacher form, asked me to pray about it. I agreed, but thought that it was a lost cause. Very few things in life surprise me, but David’s offer was off the charts! So far so that I had a difficult time wrapping my brain around it. It seemed to me to be supernatural. That night Cathy and I talked and we both came to the conclusion that the time was not right; yet, we knew in our hearts that God had to be involved in a big way. Guys who are in the lumber business, with next to zero ministry experience do not get offers to become associate pastor at major churches. The average church in this country has less than sixty members. At the time Grace had around one thousand. Most ministers, who have worked their entire lives in ministry, never get a chance like I was being offered. With those thoughts in the center of my mind,  the next day I went through our income and expenses from the previous year and it was soon apparent that there was no way on earth that I could take such a huge pay cut. God ordained opportunity notwithstanding, it did not even come close to calculating.

The following day as I drove west on I-40 the two hundred miles to our branch office in Memphis, Tennessee, I obsessed over the offer. I wanted the job so bad, that I could taste it, but knew it was out of the question. I prayed for peace and tried to put it out of my mind. As I started my meetings with our Memphis staff, I was certain that I would be in the lumber business at least for five more years. That night the strangest thing happened. In my hotel room shortly after the 10 O’clock News, God told me to take the job and to trust him to work things out. Suddenly, even though on paper it did not compute, I had a total peace about the offer. I felt God’s mighty presence in the Red Roof Inn that Thursday night. My only remaining concern was how in the world was I going to come back home Friday night and explain to Cathy that I had done a 180? How would I sell her?

I did not have to. As I walked into our kitchen, she welcomed me home with a different kind of hug and immediately blurted, “John, I think we need to accept the offer”. When she said that, I recall that for some reason I was looking down at our brick floor at a brick that had an edge chipped off. The picture of those bricks and that moment in time are forever etched into my memory. Cathy explained that as she had prayed God had also spoken to her about the same time on Thursday night. That Friday night we begin a journey that would take us to high peaks and the deepest valley of our lives and then on to the highest peaks. Through it all God has remained ever faithful to our obedience to Him. His Word promises no less.

Cathy soon had two and later three part time jobs. She made a supreme sacrifice after being a stay at home mom for several years. In February of 1990 my last day in the lumber business, Gilbert Smith, CEO of our company, met me in the stairwell and said, “John, you can have a job here for life”. I know he meant that. When I walked out the door for the final time, I never looked back. However, I would soon second guess myself while anguishing in pain at the bottom of our first ministry valley. The A.J. Smith Company went broke in 2004, after over one hundred years as an industry leader.

A few weeks later I was introduced to the congregation of Grace Church of the Nazarene as their new associate pastor. They gave us a warm welcome and made over Cathy and me during an afternoon reception. I realized from the get go that I was working for the only pastor on the planet who would have hired me. It was a miracle! The truth is I was a fish out of water, but a fast learner.  I was never able to accept or even fully understand the murky and mostly misunderstood Nazarene cornerstone doctrine of “entire sanctification” or “sinless perfection” which for some at least seems to teach that it is possible to live a completely sin free life. Of course God’s word clearly teaches the opposite.  We are all sinners. Since I thought it was nonsense, I elected to stay with the God who had brought me to the dance. I recognized early in life that I was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but some things I could figure out. Sinless perfection was a no brainer.  There is no such thing this side of heaven. Jesus Christ owned the only sinless set of feet to ever walk the planet; although later Gary Robinson would dare to claim that he owned the second set.  He seems to relish in telling a rather odd story of a time when he was thirteen. As the tale goes temptation got the best of him. He claims that he stole a deck of Old Maid cards. Soon his conscience was do number on him, so he took the cards back to the scene of his crime, confessed to the shop keeper and has not committed nary a sin since!  As far as I know, Gary is the only person in history who has ever actually publically made such a claim.

I soon figured out Grace  Church was on the verge of a split and that my hidden mission was to bridge the gap between the two opposing forces, Senior Pastor David Graves and the Minister of Music and longtime church icon, Keith Showalter. I believe that both were godly men whom God had gifted greatly. They were up to their eyeballs in a toxic quagmire and they either did not know how to break free or were not willing to do what was required to escape.  I might add that they were also walking and talking proofs of the utter nonsense of the Doctrine of Entire Sanctification.

Their relationship was a train wreck from day one. David had followed a venerated, long time pastor who had moved on in what is known as “Upward Mobility”. As a rule when a pastor resigns, the staff also tenders their resignations, with the new guy having the right to bring in his own people. In this case the board of the church had refused Keith’s resignation and instructed David, and remarkably he had agreed, that he would retain Keith — sheer stupidity and the road map to disaster! Arranged marriages most always fail. Normally such an obviously bad idea would have been vetoed by the District Superintendent, but in this case for reasons unknown Dr. Tallmadge Johnson went along. By doing so he unwittingly lit the fuse that would eventually blow the church apart brick by brick.  Later he actually ended up being named a General Superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene which is the top of the heap of the hierarchy.

Over more than twenty-five years of ministry, I have made an observation about pastors in general. Perhaps this may not be a hard and fast rule, but I believe it to be true. I also include myself. Normal people do not become pastors. By that I mean that often they have issues and more often than not those issues revolve around their insecurities.  I am neither qualified nor interested in dissecting the reasons for their particular insecurities, but because the issues are seldom addressed, the end results are usually pretty unfortunate. Perhaps the reason the DS went along with this ill-advised plan was, like so many preachers, he is a closet people pleaser and tried to make everybody happy and ended up making nobody happy. He is a brilliant man; I am sure he knew it was a really bad idea.

For over two years I was the bridge between David and Keith. They seldom talked directly, but spoke through me. I struck out at bringing them together and they both failed the church, themselves, each other and God’s plan for their lives.  And it was not just the two supposed leaders. The board and the people of the church were divided along party lines and separated by a deep and uncompromising chasm of anything but Christian virtue. The vitriol was every bit as evil at that which is currently drowning our great country. I was not prepared for what I encountered at Grace church. In my opinion a more accurate name who have been “Disgrace Church”. I would later learn that it was pretty much the norm in the church world, because there is no such thing as entire sanctification in any church for the simple reason that churches are simply groups of flawed people. One night after a particularly trying day at the “zoo” after Cathy and Michael had gone to bed, I cried out, “God I thought we were following your will. Now, I am in this unsolvable mess. This church is going to go down the tubes and I will be screwed and my ministry will die off before it really got started. What am I going to do?” At our home we had a wall that was made up of mostly floor to ceiling windows. It was Christmas time and we had a lighted nativity scene in the woods. In my anguish I glanced out the window. As soon as my eyes focused to the baby Jesus I knew we had not made a mistake and that God would keep his promise.  He did.

Keith was the first to blink. David brought in his guy and things went from bad to worse. A year later, David resigned. God held up his end of the bargain. He took care of us and opened a door that we certainly never dreamed or imagined.

 

8…In the Beginning

I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ. I do all of this to spread the Good News, and in doing so I enjoy its blessing. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NLT

It is neither a stretch nor exaggeration to say that products manufactured today are actually obsolete before we can take them out of the box. Therefore, there are very few things that I am certain. This is the most important: I will spend my eternity in heaven, immersed in the love and splendor of an incredibly “Big G God”, because of what I thought I saw in young Dale Robinson. For in the final analysis, my personal relationship with Jesus Christ can be traced back to that single individual. Some folks are revisionists who rewrite history to suit their self-interests. Sadly, I believe that in recent years Dale may have become one of those as far as the history of HPC is concerned. However, despite the twists and turns along life’s journey, come hail or high water, the fact of how I came to know Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior cannot go through even a single word of revisionism and remain truth. So in truth, I unabashedly attribute my personal relationship with Jesus to my former best friend.

Several years ago, when Dale and I were working together on a potential forerunner to this book, he emailed me his abridged autobiography, which included these words, “…my (Dale) burning passion in life is to seek the heart of Christ, be a good husband, a great dad and a loyal friend”. The metamorphosis that my life went through after Dale and I became friends is detailed in this book. Suffice to say that God used him to change the trajectory of my life and ultimately the lives of countless others. For twenty years, through thick and thin, we walked side by side and we had each other’s backs. Highland Park Church was something of a paradox for us as it was both the grand climax of our friendship and its undoing.

As an outgrowth of both of our prior bad church experiences and on the heels of the absolute chaos and shameless testament to hypocrisy that I witnessed during my tenure at Grace Church, in 1993 Dale and I made up our minds to plant what we rather naively called a “different kind of church”. It would be a church for people who had given up on church, who had never gone to church, or who felt they were not welcome at church. We actually believed that we have invented the impossible — the split proof church! We failed miserably.

The final catalyst, that actually shifted our gears from the “talking stage” to the “doing stage”, occurred near the end of my time at Grace. One Sunday morning prior to the service, I was standing in the foyer next to Mrs. Potter, a long-time church member who had actually once said in a church board meeting that God told her in an “audible voice” that He did not think it was right for or teens to play flag football on the church property on Sunday afternoons.   Standing there we observed an older model, strange automobile pull into the parking lot. A family that we did not recognize exited the vehicle. The father, dressed in faded jeans, used his driver’s side window as a mirror to arrange his hair, took a final drag off his cigarette and begin walking toward the front door with his wife and two boys in tow. The “saved, sanctified and saintly” board member, turned to me and with an utter look and sound of disgust to moan, “Would you look at that! Wearing blue jeans and smoking and now he is coming into the Lord’s house”. She rolled her eyes as the venom from her judgmental attitude oozed out of the pride filled pours of her colossal cocoon of self-righteousness like pus from an infected boil. Her words made my skin crawl. All the time she was complaining, I was thinking, “Yea, ain’t that great”! That episode was a turning point in my church career and also in my life. I remember thinking, if Jesus followed those folks through our front doors, He would not recognize this place as His house. My next thought was that, the prideful display that I had just witnessed was a sign from God. God was yelling and not whispering, “John do it. Get off the pot!”

When I related that story to Dale, we intuitively realized that it was time to finally pull the trigger. I believe with all of my heart, that sometimes God speaks to us through, events and other people. Unfortunately, we are often so self- absorbed that we do not understand what He is telling us. But that day we heard Him in crystal clear, high definition, surround sound. There was no doubt about it.

A few months later Dale and I, along with our wives, Kelly, Cathy and Brad and Tracy Menzell, who were transferred out of town shortly afterwards, founded Highland Park Church on May 26, 1993 in Brad and Tracy’s dining room, as we chomped down on a large Papa John’s pepperoni pizza. During that meeting, we put the finishing touches on our detailed “operation plan” as to how the new church would operate. Candor requires me to admit, we did not know exactly how our vision was going to become reality, but we had no doubt that it would. For instance in preparation for the launch, since nobody on staff at the new church would be paid for nearly eight years, Cathy, who had been a stay at home mom, gave up her three part time jobs and went to work full time so we would continue to have health insurance. A few months later I took a part time job as chaplain at Metro Nashville General Hospital. Dale stayed at his parents’ insurance business. But his dad allowed him to spend most of his work time helping to build the church. HPC was founded on self-sacrifice, a concept that served us well for many years. The spiritual energy and combined faith of those six would literally move mountains and bring spiritually dead people back to life. The impossible would become the norm.

Our first non-negotiable tenet was that Jesus would be our sole model of ministry. He would be our final authority in all that we did at HPC —- not a creed, not a denominational statement, nor a political ideology, but what Jesus did, said and taught. With that foundational bedrock firmly in place, we selected three “Life Verses” as the Scriptural basis for our methods of doing church. Since our purpose was we to connect or reconnect people to the saving grace of Jesus Christ, we naturally chose as our first tenet The Great Commission:

Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciple. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.  Jesus Matthew 28:19 NLT

As for the actual methods we would use to reach those folks, we selected Paul’s words regarding his ministry. “I have become a servant of everyone so I can bring them to Christ. When I am with the Jews, I become one of them so I can bring them to Christ. When I am with those who follow the Jewish laws, I do the same, even though I am not subject to the law, so I can bring them to Christ. When I am with the Gentiles who do not have the Jewish law, I fit in with them as much as I can. In this way, I gain their confidence and bring them to Christ. But I do not discard the law of God; I obey the law of Christ…Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ. I do all of this to spread the Good News, and in doing so I enjoy its blessing. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NLT

Paul was saying that as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he made it a point to relate to and connect with those he was trying to reach. Therefore, our second precept was that HPC had to relate to the real world in a way that everyday people could understand and apply to their lives. No esoteric messages here!! Our philosophy was to boil the “Incredible Grace Story” down to its nuts and bolts, packaged in a contemporary style that anyone could understand. All of this fit hand in glove as far as our concept of being a “Different Kind of Church”. 2000 years earlier Jesus had founded the original “different kind of Church”; yet, over the ages, it lost its difference. We were going to go back to square one and hopefully never lose our unique “Jesus Flavor”.

As our third tenet, we selected the verse that I had heard Dale recite several years earlier to his 11 and 12 year old little league football players at the end of season banquet. It was the verse that turned the rudder of my life in such a fashion that it transformed a lumber salesman into a pastor. Even today, it is still my favorite verse in all of Scripture.  Be sure to do what you should, for then you will enjoy the personal satisfaction of having done your work well, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. Galatians 6:4-5 NLT

Next, we hammered out a Highland Park Purpose Statement: “To introduce and re-introduce people to Jesus by inviting them to our contemporary, pressure free, relevant service where they can learn about a real God, grow to their full potential in Christ, determine their God-given purpose and develop a desire to help others find a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.” We let it be known that HPC was not interested in getting a single person to leave his/her church and come to HPC. We sought to reach the lost only. We wanted to attract people who were not going to church. Most church growth today is from church to church (transfer growth). The Great Commission is not about transfer growth. Transfer growth is actually no growth.

Our church was to be different. In those days it was. Today, thank God there are many that have gone back to Jesus’ and Paul’s original visions for doing church. Since we tried to walk in the shoes of the non-churched, for that reason we did not sing centuries old hymns out of non-relatable hymnals. Instead, we selected upbeat contemporary Christian music accompanied by our house band and projected on large screens. We pioneered using movie clips to make message points. Dale labored tirelessly each week, behind the scenes, to consistently come up with the ideal three minute clip and the perfect songs to compliment the message. He always did an amazing job; today you can go online and get anything you want in a few seconds. Thankfully, our cutting edge methods have become common place today. Since none of us spoke King James’ English, we put the King’s translation of God’s Word into permanent hibernation. We replaced it with several more accurate and contemporary translations that everyday people could read, understand and relate. In other words, you would no longer need a decoder ring to figure out what a passage of God’s Word was saying.  Jesus was not a preacher, but the greatest teacher who ever walked the planet; therefore, we chose a teaching style over the typical preaching style for our messages.

In 1993 HPC was on the cutting edge; we developed our particular brand because HPC was a church for everyday people, in everyday life serving an extraordinary God. We made all those choices, not from tradition, but for those whom we knew God was calling us to reach — people who did not know Christ. Time after time in the Bible you see Jesus fixing a hurt first, then came the spiritual fixing. That is the reason most of our messages started off addressing a “felt need” and ended with a call to trust Jesus for whatever needs a person might have.

Have you ever been to a church service where you heard a sermon, and then you went home and could not do anything with it? Of course you have! Perhaps it was a lot of deep theology, dogma, Bible history, or Bible background. One of the most beautiful and well-constructed, yet least meaningful messages I have ever heard in my life, was from Dr. Millard Reed, the late, brilliant  former President of Trevecca Nazarene University. As he was speaking, I was in awe of his diction and word pictures. It was amazingly superb! But it was a complete waste of my time. I could not grab even a crumb of information that I could apply to my life the next day. His exquisite and poetic message was not something I could do anything with except recall how beautiful it had been. The Mona Lisa is beautiful too, but it does not draw me closer to the Lord.

At Highland Park, every sermon, every message, every study was not to give people a wind transfusion, head knowledge or paint a pretty picture, but to change lives, change behavior, offer hope and help folks become more like Christ. That is God’s goal for your life — to become like Jesus Christ. For a church service to prompt change, a person has to be able to understand what is being taught and then be able to relate the teaching to their life, not just for an hour on Sunday, but the other 167 hours of the week. People have to connect. That is why Jesus used parables throughout his ministry. He put his teaching into a contemporary form to help people understand His point. What we did at HPC worked well. When I left in 2005, our research indicated that 67% of our regular attendees reported that they were not going to church prior to coming to HPC. That percentage is far above the traditional church. Many churches that use this same type of strategy also have similar percentages.

Originally, Highland Park was a staff-driven church. Our belief was that the structure of the church should not be determined by culture, business practices, or even traditions. Our position was that the nature of the church determines its structure. In other words, what the church is should determine how it is organized. Voting, committees, boards, parliamentary procedure, majority rule, elections, board members — what do these words have in common? Politics? Trouble? Bureaucracy? None of them are in the Bible — not one of them. For that reason we did not vote or have boards. As we grew we sometimes had to fight for that fact.

Dale and I both came from church backgrounds where every single church we attended, except the Catholic Churches I attended as a child, were split over voting, infighting or jealousy. There’s not one example of voting in the New Testament. You would think if they voted on anything, it would have been choosing Judas’ replacement. They had to pick an apostle to replace him because he committed suicide, after his selfish and self-centered betrayal of his friend, Jesus. So how did they choose? Did they call a special meeting, bring in the District Superintendent and have a vote? No! The Bible says the remaining eleven “cast lots”. That means they rolled dice. Voting was so foreign to their thinking they were more likely to draw straws than they were to vote. A church is not a democracy. A church is a theocracy. God is in charge and our whole job is to find out what God wants us to do and then do it with the gifts and resources He provides to that particular body.

As a result of the events of September and October 2005, I have rethought my position on voting and boards. I have come to this conclusion: Had we had a church board in place, my guess is I would have won a vote hands down, had I chose to fight. But in the process HPC, would have certainly been even more grievously wounded than she was. At this point in my ministry, I am content either way, but I suspect that since there were no church boards and votes in the early church, there was a very good reason for that.

While I was at HPC nobody, with the exception of Gary Robinson who was not in leadership, expected people to be perfect. At some churches, by default you have to pretend that you are, otherwise you’re not welcome. So at least until Gary apparently took control after I had left, HPC was a church for people just like me and you, who did have it all together. A better way of saying that is that it was a church for all us sinners. It was a church for everyday people with everyday problems who were being loved by an extraordinary God. Just like Jesus modeled for us 2000 years earlier, we offered acceptance of people without being judgmental of them. When we came up with the HPC Plan, we were determined to guard against ever becoming “just another traditional church”. Only time will tell if our original vision has survived intact.

So that in a nutshell were the principles and the foundation for Highland Park Church. Like all of life, HPC has always been a mixture of good and bad. Every single person, without exception, who walked through our doors was flawed beginning with the six founders. That is why they need a Savior. That is why God brought Dale and me together.

“Captain, I have found the perfect place!” It was Dale Robinson calling to tell me that he had found a suitable location where we could do church; he spoke with genuine excitement. “It’s perfect! Have you ever heard of Looby Theater?” I replied that I was familiar with Looby because, when I had been in the building supply business, we had supplied material for its construction. I said, “Dale are you crazy? That is in North Nashville!” That was an area of town that had been notorious, when I was growing up, for the high crime rate. Fortunately, it was no longer that way, but it carried a stigma. No way, did I want to put Highland Park Church in North Nashville. Dale and I had previously done quite of bit of demographic study; based on that we felt that the church should be on the south side of town. However, we had not been able to find a suitable school auditorium in that area. At Dale’s insistence, the next day, we made a visit to Looby Theater and it was love at first sight. Both of us instantly knew that God had directed us to that holy spot. The theater, which seated 186 in comfortable and spacious seating, was part of a city owned complex which included a library, community center and an Olympic size pool. It was modern and a great fit for our contemporary church service. In addition, with Looby’s location near the geographic center of Nashville and near the freeway, HPC would be a city-wide church instead of a neighborhood church. Yes, Dale was right; it was the perfect location. All that God does is perfect. Yea God!

When we asked the manager if the auditorium was available on Sundays, he replied that it was, but that we could not hold church there. He then produced the policy manual and, sure enough, it said that no “ongoing church services” were allowed. When we challenged him on the policy, he suggested that we talk with Jim Fyke, who at that time was the Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Nashville. In spite of the policy, I intuitively knew we had found our first home. After lunch, I called Director Fyke, whom I knew of, but did not know. Fyke confirmed that we would not be able to use the facility for ongoing church services; he was polite but firm.  I countered that nearly every school in Nashville hosts a church, so why does the same government refuse to allow churches in city owned community centers? His reply was that he was aware that churches were using the schools, but that park policy clearly prohibited churches meeting in Looby Theater. He explained that we could challenge the policy by making an appearance before the Park Board. He transferred me to his secretary, Janet Frazier, who put us on the agenda to present our case at the next Park Board meeting which would occur in two weeks.

After talking with Ms. Frazier, I immediately called Bill Hart, an attorney friend, for some advice. Based on recent Supreme Court decisions, Bill felt sure that the Park Board would grant our appeal. Since I am a firm believer that you cannot make somebody love you, Dale and I decided against having Bill accompany us to the meeting. If we had to win by force, we were not interested. That has always been my philosophy of life. We were confident that our request would prevail on its own merit. At the meeting, the Board listened, but did not rule. Instead, they took our petition under advisement in order to run it by Metro Legal. They promised a decision at the next monthly meeting. When we left the chamber, I told Dale, “In thirty days they will agree, so we need to get our ducks in a row to launch HPC”.

The next month, we were first on the agenda; the Board announced that we were welcome to use Looby Theater as home to Highland Park Church. A very business-like Director Fyke immediately instructed an assistant to begin the process of filling out the application. When he asked me how long we would need the facility, I let my confidence overload my brain when I replied, “We will outgrow Looby within a year”. How wrong I was! Yet, before that year was out, God would act in a mighty way that proved to me once again that He had bought into this thing we were calling “A Different Kind of Church”. Wow —- did He ever! In a million years, we could not have predicted what He would orchestrate for us that would allow us to stay at Looby as long as necessary and at the same time open the doors to a move to Hillsboro High School several years down the road. People ask me often, “John how do you know there is a God?” My answer is always that I have been witness to His power in my life. My ministry experience, from even before day one, leaves absolutely no doubt of God’s existence and His mighty power to act. Dale and I, along with our wives, discovered that building a church from scratch is not an easy thing to do. Nor, is it one that happens quickly. In a world where instant gratification seems the norm, we were in the first steps of a multi-year journey that would teach us the lessons of patience, persistence, love, loyalty, failure, friendship, forgiveness and most of all faith.

While I was still associate pastor of Grace Church, I had produced a “Highland Park Church Ministry Plan”, which I had presented to Dr. Tallmadge Johnson, who was the District Superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene. I gave him a heads up that upon my resignation from Grace, we were going to plant HPC. I explained that if he wanted to be a part of it, then he was welcome. He and I went over the plan in detail. It was obvious to me that he did not like it. Who could blame him? It was not his fault, so I never took it personal. On the outset Dale and I called HPC “a different kind of church”. Our kind of evangelism, strictly based on Jesus’ model, devoid of the trappings and traditions of religion, was foreign to what Dr. Johnson had experienced inside his life-long Nazarene religious cocoon. Our whole concept was 180 degrees removed from Dr. J’s understanding of church. It was not an issue of right and wrong. It was simply two different methods of reaching the lost. I understood the challenge that he faced. I too, had been raised in a denomination that had programmed me that my religion had a corner on the right way. I knew well that it is a near impossible struggle to break free from the grip of religion even when you tried.

Because some of our core folks, who had deep Nazarene roots encouraged me, I extended an invitation to Dr. Johnson. My assumption was that he would not sign off on our idea; then we would start HPC as non-denominational. That is in fact what I preferred. In hindsight that is what we should have done; it would have eliminated multiple problems and hard feelings.

Sometime later, after I had resigned from Grace, Dr. Johnson invited me to meet him for lunch at the Dickson, Tennessee Cracker Barrel. During our time together, he asked me what I was going to do “next”. I told him that the following Monday, we were going to incorporate HPC. I then challenged him for his part in hanging me out to dry through the Grace Church fiasco. I asked him what he had been thinking, when he allowed me to give up my career of eighteen years as vice-president at the A. J. Smith Company to blindly walk into the powder keg which ultimately resulted in the split of Grace Church. I said, “Dr. Johnson that was wrong of both David and you”. His response is not germane to the story. It would serve no purpose. After much discussion back and forth he told me that we could open HPC as a “Mission of the Church of the Nazarene”. He reluctantly accepted our ministry plan which clearly stated that the word “Nazarene” would not be a part of our name. He offered to have the District give me “personal support of $500 a month”. I cannot begin to express how much that $500 meant at the time. Since by now, I had resigned from Grace Church and we had no income except from Cathy’s new job at Saint Thomas Medical Group. The offer of $500 was an answer to prayer. Little did I know that a few months later, Dr. Johnson would actually have the unabashed gall to suggest that I give it back. Lesson learned! You cannot put a square peg in a round hole. If you try, neither the peg nor the hole will be happy.

Early on God sent us some amazing people. Dale’s parents, Gary and Thelma, who had been like family to Cathy and me, and who were the early financial backbone of HPC, got on board as did the Ebys and Chevaliers. Everybody put some cash into the pot. Right out of the chute, we realized that we would not have any storage space available at Looby, so we bought a rag tag U-Haul Trailer, which was obviously near death, to transport what little equipment we had. Thankfully, Pastor David Foster of Bellevue Community Church had given us some sound equipment and we had bought a bit more, as well as a video projector system that Dale rigged up and operated each Sunday as either Scott or I taught the message.

We officially launched Highland Park Church on the first Sunday of September, 1993. As I recall, we had 18 people. Since we had grown by a whopping 200% between the time the six of us founded the church over that Poppa John’s Pizza and our first service, I figured we were on a roll. We were — a very slow one! Early on, we would stand in the foyer before the service wondering if anyone would show up. We noticed that cars would drive into the parking lot, but often they would keep going. Like an unfamiliar restaurant, folks were checking to see if we had any “customers”. We caught on to that, so the regulars started driving all of the family automobiles so it would look like we had more people. Believe it or not that seemed to work.

After a while we had picked up several additional people. One day I happened to run into Dr. Johnson as he was going into his building on the Trevecca University campus. I was on the verge of one of the top-ten shocks of my life. Without any prior discussion, with the two of us standing at the door exchanging pleasantries, he opened his Day-Timer and said, “John I can come to preach at Highland Park this Sunday”. My heart skipped a beat! God gave me the courage to reply, “Dr. Johnson I am sorry; our services are planned out weeks in advance. We have a plan already in place for Sunday. You signed off on our ministry plan. We have worked really hard to get the folks we have. I love and appreciate you; you are always welcome to come, but you cannot preach this Sunday or any Sunday. Your style of preaching will not work at HPC.” He was visibly taken aback, “Are you saying the DS is not welcome at HPC?”  “No, that is not what I am saying; but your style does not fit our style. Your camp meeting preaching which many love, will not work at HPC. Remember — we are a different kind of church. You would run half our people off”. He was not happy and who could blame him?  I knew that the future of our fledging church was hanging in the balance. The pot was stirred and would soon be boiling. The DS is the boss. His preachers fall into line. If he wants to preach, the pastor steps aside and is usually thankful for his free pass for the day. I knew that the crap would soon hit the fan and that the decisions that we would make in the immediate future would have a direct bearing not only on the viability of HPC but also on many people’s ultimate salvation.

The following Sunday, I saw his Cadillac pull ever so slowly into the parking lot. I tensed up and I prayed for wisdom and strength. He and his wife were both dressed to the nines; they stuck out like sore thumbs in our casually dressed congregation. That particular day Scott was speaking; his message was about materialism and he had selected Madonna’s “Material Girl” video to start the service. While it made the point, I am not proud of that particular moment in our church history. After that we put a bit more thought into our video selections. I am sure that video sent Dr. J’s BP to heights hitherto unknown to his vascular system.

Just before the prayer, I introduced him and thanked him for his support and went so far as to bend the truth by saying that “without his support we might not be in existence”. But I did not ask him to pray or be a part of the service. In traditional church circles preachers fall all over themselves when the D S comes to their church. Obviously, we did not do the politically correct thing. However, undoubtedly we did the right thing as history proved. Most of the people in our service did not know what a D S. was and did not want to know!  We all knew the die was cast. A few days later Dr. Johnson called to tell me how disappointed he was in me for “incorporating Highland Park Church”. I was caught off guard with his comment since, during our meeting at the Cracker Barrel, I had gone so far as tell him that I planned to do that very thing. I had been transparent and upfront from the get go. His position was that by accepting his offer of the “monthly support” that he assumed that we would not incorporate HPC. I did not understand it that way. I reminded him again, that I had explained in detail upfront what the plan for HPC was and he had signed off on it. While I certainly appreciated the district’s financial support, HPC was what it was and we were not going to tinker with the vision the God had entrusted to us to satisfy a man.

As is the case from the Nazarene background from which he hails, Dr. Johnson suggested that we take a vote to determine if we were to be Highland Park Church or Highland Park Church of the Nazarene. I reluctantly agreed. It was our first and last vote. Votes are common in many churches; however, they certainly are not Scriptural. Voting is not God’s way. Never has been! Reluctantly we took a vote of the core group, which included the people who had been with us since our first few services. The vote was two to become a Church of the Nazarene, sixteen to become an independent church and forever sever out ties with any denominations. Co-Pastor Scott Chevalier and his wife abstained from voting. We never skipped a beat. The truth was, I had compromised my values and risked our vision for $500 a month “support”. I only have average intelligence, but I knew in my heart that by accepting the money, I was opening myself up to Dr. J’s attempt at molding us into his concept of church. I am sure that God knew HPC could not succeed as long as it was tied to “religion” so he quickly got us untied. However, I lost the $500 support and we lost four of our leaders including Scott, and our giving took a substantial hit, but an ever faithful “Big G God” quickly intervened in an unexpected way.

9…Road Signs

Let them see that this is your doing, that you yourself have done it, Lord. Psalms 109:27 (NLT)

The very next morning I got a call from Phillip Duke, a friend and former business associate. For many years we had worked side by side in the building supply business at A. J. Smith Company. Even though we had not talked in some time,” amazingly” less than 16 hours after my monthly “$500 support” came to an end, God used Phillip to swing open a brand new door for me. He is a mover and shaker in Nashville’s non-profit circles. In his typical detailed style, Phillips explained to me that he had been a part of a group that had established a chaplaincy at Nashville’s General Hospital. He offered me the position of chaplain. Of course, I would have to go through a formal interview process, but the reality was the job was mine to lose.  Phillip scheduled the interview and I was hired within a few days. It was the ideal part time job; one that I could work around being “Pastor John” and it more than replaced the income that I had lost the previous day. Obviously, it was another one of God’s road signs.

I have been amazed at the way God has taken care of us. On paper, there was no way I could financially afford to leave A. J. Smith Company for the ministry; but time after time God has been faithful to pull financial strings for me. In fact, he started doing that before I entered the ministry. In 1987, because of the example of our friends, the Robinsons, Cathy and I started tithing at least 10% of our income to whatever church we were attending at the time. The truth is we had a lot of making up to do! But since we made our commitment to tithe, we have never missed giving back to God as the first check we write each month; we have never missed the money or a meal. I make no claim to understand God’s arithmetic, but I think it is very cool! His most incredible personal financial miracle was a $38,500 dollar one that He pulled off in the fall of 2005. When I went to treatment at Sierra Tucson (more on that a bit later), it cost us approximately $38,500 that we had to pull from our retirement.  After I returned home, and with no income, fifty-three people, most whom were with us at HPC, graciously gave Cathy and me financial love gifts ranging from $25.00 to $10,000. When they were totaled up it came to a bit over $38,000. We were overwhelmed and humbled at the outpouring of love. And the love was not limited to financial assistance. Of even greater value, was the emotional underpinning and the knowledge that so many folks were there for us. We received nearly 300 phone calls and visits of encouragement. The first Sunday after my return home, at 10:00 AM sharp Tim Chadwick, Tim Gill and Paul Riggin showed up at our front door with a box of warm donuts. As that used to be the hour of our Sunday morning service, those three angels of God knew that would be a time when we would need some love. Their gift was one Cathy and I will forever cherish and I am not talking about the Krispy Kremes. When it was all said and done, the total of the love gifts was $38,510 which “coincidently” was within a few dollars of the amount we had spent on my treatment. I do not believe things like that just happen!

God’s road signs / miracles were not limited to ones containing dollar signs. In the early days of Highland Park Church, since we had no storage space at Looby, Gary Robinson volunteered to park our storage trailer at his house. He and his youngest son, Page, loaded up everything each Sunday and pulled it all to Looby, where they unloaded it. One of them would also run the sound board. A few months in, our trailer was on life support with its days numbered, but we were fresh out of funds with no money to buy a replacement. We soon found that when God is involved, sometimes you do not need money. One day Gary got a phone call from Clark Jones, whom he did not know. Mr. Jones owned a custom trailer factory in Arkansas. He said, “Mr. Robinson, I hear that your church needs a trailer. I manufacture custom trailers and I will give the church one built to your specifications.” Needless to say we were blown away! Here was a man we did not know, living 300 miles away, giving us a custom built trailer worth $3,500 in 1993 money. When God is into something, strange and wonderful things always happen. When He is not they do not. A friend of Gary’s knew Mr. Jones and he had mentioned to him our situation; God did the rest. I will never forget the day that Gary drove, Thelma, Dale and me to Arkansas to pick up the trailer. It was a fun day for all of us. In fact, for me it was one of my life’s pivotal red letter days, because I knew it was another of God’s affirmations of our different kind of church. From that day, I knew with certitude that our dream would come true. I intuitively reckoned that, in time, HPC would be a large church. But never did I dream of the incredible sixty-six acre campus that God would eventually provide. When you have that kind of knowledge, faith seems to come easy. I am a firm believer that God speaks through other people. As we traveled together to Arkansas, we could almost hear God screaming, “Guys, I am in this deal church in a big way so do not screw it up.” We eventually would.

All along the HPC journey, God posted his road signs so we would know that we were not traveling His road alone. As a group, our leadership recognized that God’s hand rested on our collective shoulders. We knew we were chosen and that we were blessed. He opened doors one right after the other. Those were some of the best times of our lives.

In the fall of 1993, at the suggestion of Pastor David Foster of Bellevue Community Church, Dale and I decided to advertise our church through direct mail. David had pioneered direct mail church marketing and it had been extremely effective.  Since God had decided for HPC to be a city wide church, we could not just mail to a zip code like a true community church. So we bought a mailing list of potential people who, by their demographics, might be favorably inclined to visit HPC. With much help from Tony Lipscomb, whose wife Nancy who was now our children’s director, we came up with our first direct mail piece. The “Blue Jean” mailer had a picture of Levis and said “Jeans are fine with us”. In 1993 that was a cutting edge departure from the standard, “Sunday Best” church garb. Dale and I picked the 5000 full color mailers up at the printer and were like kids at Christmas. We knew absolutely nothing about direct mail, we figured we would pack the house immediately. Again God took charge. After sending 5000 mailers, we had just a few new people the following Sunday. It was one of my major disappointments along the way. I could not understand why so relatively few people responded. The truth was He sent as many as we could handle at that time. However, for several weeks we continued to get a few new people each Sunday. In fact one family, the Gilgs, did not receive a mailer, but saw the one on Keith and Pam Back’s fridge. Both families came and they are still with us, as are several others from the original direct mail campaign. We have been blessed to see their babies born and grow up. Some are now adults, several are in high school and college, several I have married.  One, Scott Embry, is an MD.

In the spring of 1994 “The Tennessean” newspaper ran a very positive front page story in the local news section about us. It was a story about our vision for a different kind of church. Again, I thought folks would be knocking our doors down the following Sunday. They did not. God was teaching us that building a church is often an extremely slow process, even when God is running the show. We followed the newspaper story with another mailer featuring a partial reprint of the article. Once again only a few new people trickled in. However, by then one thing was clearly obvious to me. Nearly a year earlier, when we had secured permission to use Looby Theater, I had told the Park Board that we would surely outgrow the facility within a year. I was not even close. Our relationship with Director Fyke was not a warm and fuzzy one, so I was concerned with how he would respond when I went back to ask for an extension. Even though I did a lot of praying, I kept putting that meeting off and dreading it more each day. God was getting ready to show me another of His miraculous road signs.

One night over dinner, our son, Michael, looked over at me sheepishly asking, “Dad do you know a man by the name of Jim Fyke”? I was taken aback. “Yes, I do know him. In fact I need to go see him. Why do you ask”? Michael started to laugh. I pressed, “How do you know him”? He said, “Well, last night I was over at Rebecca’s, (his new girlfriend), and she introduced me to her stepdad – Jim Fyke. He said he knew you.” Yes Sweet Jesus! I immediately, felt God’s hand on my shoulder. In a few Sundays, Jim and his wife, Becky, showed up at our service. My fear of asking for an extension was no more! We quickly became great friends and are even today. In fact he is chairperson of our new church, Crossroad Community Church and his wife is the church bookkeeper.  Jim and I were at a basketball game together in March of 1995, when Dale called to tell me that their first child, Brooke, had just been born.

By 1997 we had finally outgrown Looby and hoped to be able relocate to Hillsboro High School, which had a newly renovated auditorium that seated 1000. Dale and I made an appointment with the principal. We presented our proposal, but she said that her last experience with a church was not a good one and she refused to let us use the auditorium. When I told Jim Fyke that the principle had turned down our request, he offered to see what he could do. In a few days the principal had reconsidered and approved our request to move to Hillsboro. We remained there until the June of 2005. During our stay at Hillsboro, we had our greatest growth. By now I had lost count of the road signs. But I soon realized He had a few more to post.

10…“Mr. Fix It”

Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters.   Hebrews 13:1 (NLT)

As a little kid I learned, early, to be a fixer. My heart immediately ached for him.  Years earlier, God had brought us together; first, to change the very course of my life and secondly, to change the course of many other lives through Highland Park Church. We had been best friends for over ten years. Our love for each other and for each other’s families was remarkable. Ours was an inspiring story to our church. So, I could actually feel the pain as he pursed his lips. That has always been a tell-tell sign.   I intuitively knew that his dad had embarrassed him. Gary seemed to have a blind spot to his son’s fragile self.  We were in our midweek small group Bible study at Gary and Thelma’s house. Somehow, Gary had gotten on the subject of their three sons, whom he was obviously very proud. Besides Dale, who was the middle son, there is Gregory, the eldest, and Page.

I have forgotten the exact context, but Gary was extolling Page’s athletic prowess and Gregory’s career in the music business, as only a proud poppa can do. With a broad smile, he related how Gregory had gotten into the sound mixing end of the music business, even before graduating from Hillsboro High School. Then upon graduation, he had launched his own company and now was a Coach driver for some big acts; one of them was the Rolling Stones.

Then he related that Page had been captain of the Brentwood Academy High School state championship   football team.  He had been an all-star baseball player, from pee-wee all through high school. He beamingly explained that Page had gone on to college and had graduated with honors, in four years. He now had a great job at a local accounting firm and would soon be taking his CPA exam and on his way to becoming a principal stake holder.

The truth is, Page is as impressive and remarkable young man as I have ever known.  However, nothing that Gary said that night was news to me. For years, going back to the “Life Incorporated” days, the entire Robinson family had been like blood family to Cathy and me. Dale’s wife, Kelly, had lived with us for two years during her college days. She was like a daughter to us; we treated her just like we did our son, Michael.  Ours was a remarkable relationship and one that I will forever cherish.

Then for some reason, Gary went on to tell us what a good golfer Page was and that he and Page played together quite often. He then turned his attention to Dale. He explained that he was not interested in golf and had decided to forgo going away to college, to attend a local junior college and work in the family insurance business.  Of course, Gary had no ill intent, but it came across as, here are these two really successful, cool and talented sons, with lots of ambition and oh yea, Dale is our “Boy Friday”, helping mom and dad out in our family business.

As a little kid I learned, early, to be a fixer. Our family was the epitome of dysfunction, as I described previously.  As early as ten, I had felt it was my responsibility to comfort my mom when she was in pain. She seemed to be in pain a lot.  In the fall of 2005 while at Sierra Tucson, I came to understand that what went on between me and my mom is called “emotional incest” and unfortunately, is all too common.  Early on, mom came to depend on me as her “little man” to meet her emotional needs. Either my dad could not or would not — which of those I am not quite sure. So even before my teen years, mom came to me for emotional support. Once, I learned to fix momma, I just naturally progressed to the point that it was my responsibly to fix the entire world — a job that is too big for anyone!  So, seeing my best friend in pain, naturally I immediately began constructing a plan of rescue.

The next day, I sent Dale an email about the incident at Bible Study. I was quite surprised when in his reply, he admitted that his dad’s comments had hurt him. Dale is an extremely private guy; the fact that he admitted his anguish, made me want to fix him even more. Over time, I explained to him what a vulnerable position he was putting himself and his family in, by working for his mom and dad, without a college degree. I asked, “What if something happens to the family business and you do not have an education?”  The answer was painfully obvious.   I myself had gone back to school while working and with a family, so I urged him to go back to school and get his BS. I went so far as to get information as to how he could do that at night, while he continued to work in the family business.  Dale had confided to me earlier, that he hated the insurance business. Of course that meant that it was my responsibility to help him with that issue too.

Dale was one of the original founders of our church. His contribution had been immense. I told our congregation many times that his role was just as important as my own. My primary gifts are teaching, mercy and empathy. I do a pretty good job with that end of things; but past that I need help. Dale is the most all around talented person I have ever known. There is nothing he cannot do if he wants to. He has a tenacity that will not stop. He attributes that to playing football for, perhaps the greatest high school coach in Tennessee history, Carlton Flatt. He told me many times, an inspiring story about coach and a vacuum cleaner. Once Coach Flatt told him to go to a closet, get the vacuum cleaner and bring it back to him. When Dale got to the closet, he discovered that the door was locked. Naturally, he went back to report to the coach that the closet was locked. He said that Coach Flatt screamed, “I do not have a key. Get that gosh darn cleaner however you have to”. He got it!  Dale carried that attitude into his life. I recall one day he and I were looking at a building as a possible church location. We came to a door inside the building that was locked with a chain. My immediate thought was, “Well looks like we are out of luck”. His response was, “Let’s find a bolt cutter”.  He got the door opened. He is remarkable; “can’t” is not in his lexicon. Dale is an idea guy. He thinks outside of the box. His brain is constantly in cutting edge mold. On the other hand left to my own designs, I crave stability; I want everything to be clearly laid out in front of me with no surprises.  So, by myself, most likely I would not change much. Therefore, we complimented each other greatly.

At this point in time, Dale was not a staff person; yet, he functioned like one. So, I decided that too was part of my role as “Mr. Fix It” I would develop a plan that would make him a staff member. Since we needed to come up with a plan of succession, should anything happen to me, I figured this was an opportunity to cross that bridge as well. At that point in the history of HPC, being a staff member did not equal any pay or benefits. The first seven and half years, we did not have any paid staff and that included me. In those days we did both television and radio live spots. One day a pastor who I did not know called to ask me if they were effective and about how in the world could we afford to do them. I replied that “They seemed to be working well but as for how do we afford them, I am afraid you will not like the answer. Nobody gets paid at HPC”. There was noticeable pause in the conversation. I look back on those days as perhaps the very best days of our history; albeit, days that could not continue forever.

Not long after the Bible study incident, during a Sunday service, I sent up a trial balloon when I referred to Dale as the “church administrator”. I thought that was a compliment and it would be a way of recognizing the important contribution he was making to Highland Park Church. It was part of my “Fix Dale Plan”. The next day, he asked me not to call him that because it sounded “stupid”.  He did not like the term “administrator”.  He thought it sounded a bit too clerical.  Soon after that, I started feeling him out on the idea of him getting into the ministry end of the church. At first, he did not want to go there. There did not appear to be any interest at all. In fact, Kelly made it clear to me that, in her words, “She did not marry a pastor” and wanted no part of being “Mrs. Pastor Dale”.

Soon, Dale enrolled at Trevecca Nazarene University. He took to college like white on rice. Once he got his undergraduate degree, he craved more. Later, he wanted to get his MBA. I encouraged him to do that. As a matter of fact, after he told me that he could not afford it, Cathy and I paid his tuition. A year or so later he had his MBA. His education had done wonders for his self-esteem. Some of us used to laugh over the fact that “My MBA” somehow found its way into most all his messages. My plan had succeeded better than I had ever dreamed!

In 2000 I was out of town for two Sundays. These were the first Sundays I was away since we planted HPC. The first one was during a mission trip to Shenzhen China, which was 12 hours ahead of Nashville.    Sunday night our mission group was at a church giving away Bibles.  This event was the highlight of the trip.  While we were at the service, I noticed that Tom King, a pastor whom I met on the trip was nowhere to be seen.  After the service, we were standing on the sidewalk waiting for our bus, when Tom came up to me and said that it was 10 AM in Nashville and that  Dale’s service was just starting and that he had spent the last hour praying  for Dale. It was one of the most unselfish acts I have ever seen in my life.  Tom’s prayer worked; 12,000 miles to the West, Dale was hitting a home run, as I knew he would. Instantly, he was hooked; I did not have to do any more selling him on a future in the ministry. Several months later, I had to be away and he again did the message. It was another great job. Soon he was the Co-Pastor.  We started slowly, but over a few years, he was doing messages on a regular basis. Whenever he did a message, I made it a point to tell him what a great job he had done. He did not give many compliments, but like the rest of humanity, he needed them for himself. One Sunday, after Dale had done a really amazing job with the message, I told Kelly how proud I was of him. She fired back in anger, “I did not marry a preacher. I will get even with you”.

11…ILL WINDS

The wind blows, and we are gone— as though we had never been here. But the love of the Lord remains forever with those who fear him.   Psalms 103:16-17 (NLT)

All those incredible summers spent with Uncle Bill on the farm, taught me much about hunting, fishing, being a man and observing the weather. Uncle Bill’s weather forecasts were usually right on the money. For as long as I can remember, he had a worn and tarnished  barometer on his den wall, “Co-Op” thermometers were tacked up on about every place there was vertical surface and a multitude of rain gauges scattered about the farm. He taught me, that falling barometric pressure indicated degrading weather and a rising pressure was a harbinger of fair weather. I learned early, that red in the west, often meant rain the next day and to pay particular attention to the winds as a forerunner of things to come. I am metaphorically calling this chapter “Ill Winds”. It is about events, impressions and perceptions that began to blow through our church, shortly after we had moved to Hillsboro High; in time they blew a bit of Highland Park Church away. Taken together, my collective mishandling of these ill winds was another of my mistakes.

The first ill wind centered on David’s dad, Gary, who used to sing professionally with a group that recorded with a prominent county/pop artist, before going into the insurance business in the seventies.  The group had constantly hovered near the top of the charts compiling over 72 hits.  Although, I did not know Gary back then, I have always loved the group’s sound and owned many of their early 45s.  I still have several CD’s that Gary gave to me.  Gary had an amazing voice. Early on in HPC, he was our worship leader. In fact, since 1994, he is the only true worship leader the church has ever had. We had some very good singers and band leaders, but no worship leader, since Gary’s tenure. In addition to his incredible voice, Gary had a strong platform presence and an amazing gift of connecting people to the Lord, both through his songs and his words. Before I left the business world for the ministry, I recall telling Dale, when I was attending another church where Gary was the Minister of Music, that I got more from the few words his dad said between his songs, than I did the pastor’s messages. God entrusted Gary with amazing gifts and talents.

Shortly after we had moved HPC, from our original location to Hillsboro High School, one Sunday Gary brought his old group in to do the music. As I expected, they brought the house down. Our people loved it; albeit, it was not a style for an every Sunday diet, but it was excellent and obviously something that Gary enjoyed immensely, as did our congregation. However, from the arrival of Music Director, Gene Cole, there seemed to be a veil of jealously between Gary and Gene. Both were excellent singers, with totally different styles and personalities. Clearly, there was room for both. However, shortly after the group’s appearance, Dale told me that he was not going to let his dad sing any more. We were at the gym; when I objected, he said, “John you do not know anything about music”. Actually, he was correct, but that was not the issue. He and Gene did not think that Gary’s style of music was a good fit for HPC.  I agreed that the younger people whom we were trying to reach would prefer more of a contemporary style, but I thought it was outrageous to banish Gary entirely. I reminded Dale, that without Gary’s financial support, we probably would not be in business and reminded him of Gary’s faithful volunteerism to HPC from day one.  My pleas were for naught. My best argument fell on deaf ears.  I did not like it, but I accepted it, since Dale and Gene were in charge of the music end of the church. However, I did note that the decision was made without any input from the supposed boss —me. This was the beginning of a trend that became more pronounced in the ensuing years. It was not an anomaly.  On the one hand, Dale certainly loved his dad immensely and appeared extremely proud of his music career, but on the other hand, he seemed to be embarrassed by it.

In 2006 a man, whom Dale had once referred to as the “Tree man” and worked for the city codes department, came up to me at Westside Athletic Club and asked if I was Dale’s dad. His question startled me. When I told him I was not, he explained that his daughter had played on one of Dale’s softball teams and he had seen me at many of the games and assumed I was his dad. He then said, that Dale had told him that his dad, “used to sing with Elvis”. Thinking I was his dad, he had hoped to ask me what Elvis had been like. By that time I was not only startled but also dumbfounded. But I guess the truth is we all can sometimes be guilty of embellishment. Dale, was the complete package, but for reasons I could never fully understand, he struggled to a fault with his self-esteem and that battle fueled his thirst to not only be perfect in his appearance, but in all that he said and did. For that reason, Dale was always “right”. In any event, Dale pulled the plug on his dad doing any more music at Highland Park; he continued to head up the church sound department, a job Gary loved greatly and one in which he was abundantly gifted.

If you have ever spent any time around musicians and soundmen, you know that they crave the impossible —- perfect sound. There is no limit to the number of gadgets and gismos they will buy and hook up in their futile quest for perfection.  Like most churches, the sound was a constant battle at HPC. It was usually very good, but never good enough.  Gene did not like the way Gary mixed the sound, period. Gary did not want to be told anything by Gene, who was many years his junior. The bottom line was, neither of them had much respect for the other. One day after the service, they got into it about the sound and it ended with dicey words and hurt feelings.

A few days later, after Dale and I had finished our regular afternoon run, we were cooling down on my front lawn, when Dale told me that he had now “fired” his dad from doing the sound. I was knocked for a loop. Again, I recounted Gary’s history with us and repeated my constant mantra that I preached whenever the arguments and criticisms of the sound mixing erupted. My position was that since “sound” is totally subjective, it cannot be graded with objectivity. Dale held his ground. He was adamant.  Gary was finished doing sound, “even if he left the church”.  I will never forget the sadness that came over me when Dale said that.  As I sat there, perched on the step to my front door, I thought, “If Dale will do his own dad this way, eventually, he will probably screw me too”.  In my heart of hearts, given Dale’s insecurities which fueled his thirst for power and control, I feared that in time he would want to take over the church. It was the first time in our long relationship, that I actually mistrusted him; it would not be the last.

For many years, Dale was the best friend a man could ever have. We were like brothers; albeit, rather co-dependent ones.  I do not fully understand what makes me the way I am, much less, what is the causation of another’s particular way of doing life. I believe that we are all born with roots that tap into our genes, our environment and life experiences. Those roots can have an enormous impact on the direction of our lives; but they cannot define us, unless we wave the white flag of surrender. When we do that, we take a giant step down the slippery slope of destruction. Dale lived in a self-engineered protective bubble that I not so jokingly referred to as “Robinson Reality”.  The facts not withstanding as long as Dale thought he was right, then he was right. That is an extremely perilous way to do life.

Another ill wind that blew though the invisible walls of HPC occurred one Sunday when Dale and I were discussing whether to use six or ten people to collect envelopes at the end of the service. To be honest, I am not sure if I wanted six or ten. I think I was in the six camp. In any event we were in disagreement. Whenever I disagreed with him, he took it as personal attack. In his mind, to merely disagree with Dale, was to be angry at him or to put him down.  To him, if you were not with him, then you must be against him. So, here we were in the process of getting the high school auditorium ready for the service while discussing the number of special ushers. When I stood my ground, Dale literally went into a fit of rage in front of our several volunteers. He wrongfully accused me of deliberately embarrassing him in front of the others. He made me the bad guy. His pride was hurt because he looked small and petty, but that was his own doings.  When his white hot rage erupted our set-up volunteers suddenly had things to do in others areas of the auditorium! They were shocked at conduct that they had never seen from Dale. I was not; I had witnessed his tantrums on several occasions. Once at the ballpark, he had picked up a rock and threw it at somebody who he thought drove by him a bit too fast. One New Year’s, as our families regularly vacationed together in Gatlinburg, when he thought someone had moved his clothes, he went totally off and ran though the cabin wearing only a towel, yelling and screaming in a  scary spasm of rage.  His behavior put an end to further New Year’s holidays together. Unfortunately, he never apologized and he should have. In addition, I had heard about his rage from both his wife and his mom, who once had gone so far as to tell me, shortly before we moved into our office building on Music Row, that she “felt sorry for me for having to work in the same office as Dale”. Actually, I found that working in the same office was by and large a pleasant experience. In fact, I always looked forward to Wednesdays, the day that he was in the church office.

So here we were standing in front of the sound board, he was beet red and in my face. We both left the auditorium and ended up in a closet, where he said “I ought to smash your face”. He was totally out of control. You could not have put a vanilla wafer between our noses. We were on the brink of disaster. His anger level was way past the red zone. Remember, we were arguing over the number of ushers we were going to use in the service! I have never forgotten the look in his eyes. I was terrified. I repeatedly told him that I loved him as I kept waiting and hoping for his dad to act like a dad, but he did not.  After several minutes, he calmed down. What we did not realize, was that the closet had a return air vent that went directly into the auditorium. The volunteers heard what he said to me and the way he said it. They also heard what I said. Every word was transmitted through the grill into the auditorium. Neither of us could put our own spin to what went on in the closet. It was what it was.    Later, Bob Willis, an incredible volunteer, told me that he would never have “an ounce of respect for Dale again”.  Sadly, he did not. Interestingly, when the church split years later, all of those same “non-family” volunteers, who still attended HPC, left Dale to help us start Crossroad.  After the service, Gene came to me and said, “I just want you to know that Dale was wrong and I am going to call his hand on it”. The next day, Dale called to apologize. Frankly, it was not much of one, but he did say he was “sorry”. I know in my heart that he was sincere.  In twenty years, that is the first and only time he ever apologized to me for anything. As far as I was concerned, my once lofty respect for Dale had taken another hit. Like me, he had clay feet.  He had a meltdown in that closet, but I knew him well enough to forgive him and focus on the much greater good, that I also knew resided in his heart.

Soon the wind was blowing quite strongly and centered on Gary again. Dale emailed me to say that Gary wanted to start an Adult Sunday School class. Staring into my computer screen, a cold shiver went down my spine. Gary is a brilliant, self-taught man in many areas, but his idea of Christianity is not an orthodox one by any stretch of the imagination; but one constructed in his own image, based on misunderstanding and man made rules, gleaned from his former legalistic church background. He told me shortly after his dad died, that he thought his dad might be in hell. When I asked him how he came to that conclusion, his reply was,   “Because he smoked cigars and cussed”. I found his thinking to both heartbreaking and pathetic!

My encouragement rolled off like water off a duck’s back. Once the plague of legalism gets a foothold on us, it is nearly impossible to break free. Having come out of a legalistic background myself, I know the hold it had on my friend. On the way home, I told Cathy about how sad it was to see Gary in such pain over stogies and words. Past that and perhaps even more problematic for me was Gary’s public claim to be perfect and without sin — a concept that most Christians would consider heresy. The idea that my very good friend, someone I loved and without whom we probably would not have the church, but someone I considered theologically unsound, wanted to teach Sunday school scared me to death. I responded to Dale, that I had major reservations about, some of the “out there” stuff his dad might say. Dale replied that he would caution him and that he was sure he would not embarrass us.  I should have said “no”.  But since he was my friend and I knew he just wanted a place to serve, I agreed.   As it ended up, it was not long until people were bailing out of his class.  I was told that some actually walked out during a session when he shared with them that their teacher was actually a “perfect man”.

The ill winds continue to blow; this time from Gene’s direction. One day he and I were returning from lunch at Belleceno’s on White Bridge Road. I was driving east on West End.  We were discussing the lack of volunteers in the children’s department and he said something to the effect that he did not appreciate what Cathy had earlier said to him about our musicians. I was clueless so I asked him what he was talking about.  Apparently, she had told him that there was a big difference in volunteering to stand on the stage and pick and sing under the bright lights in front of 600 people, as opposed to volunteering to be in the back wiping baby’s butts. I said, “Well that is true Gene, there is no glamour and bright lights when you are changing a diaper full of fresh crap”.  We were in front of West End Middle School. He went berserk.  He screamed that he wanted me to stop right there and get out and fight with him. He said he was, “going to whip my ass”.  His face was redder than his hair. He went ape. I thought about stopping the car and firing him right then. Instead, I told him I loved him and that there would be no fight. After about five minutes of silence, he apologized.  I made a huge mistake when I did not fire him.

He has a red hot temper. He himself told me that was an issue that was on the verge of ending his second marriage. This was the first time it was directed at me. When a staff member threatens to whip the pastor’s ass, it is time to cut your losses.  Several years later, while in another fit, he made a similar threat. This time there were witnesses.  After I had left HPC, he called me with another bellicose threat of physical harm. That one was recorded. Ill winds blew through HPC for years; these are just a few of them.

Uncle Bill had taught me to be observant of the winds and make appropriate plans. Because of my shame and my own self-esteem issues, I refused to exercise control over the ill winds that were in the process of blowing our church apart. Because I allowed myself to be frozen in fear, self-doubt and a horrible case of co-dependency, I allowed the stage to be set for the church to be taken over at the first opportune time.  That was my bad, because I allowed it to happen. Because of my failure hundreds of people would later be irreparably harmed and the cause of Christ would be wounded.

12…FACING THE TRUTH

I saw an interview with Kansas City Royals pitcher Matt Herges discussing his former steroid use in which he said  “I am absolutely grateful it came out. It was a secret that was not fun to live with. Even my wife did not know. I kept saying, ‘Please do not come out. Please do not.’  But the day it came out, honestly, there was unbelievable relief. I had never slept better. I do not hide from it. I want to be wide open about it.”  Like Matt some of us may be carrying around secrets. I was; perhaps you may be too. Here’s one of mine. On a beautiful mid-fall day Cathy was at work. Michael was away at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Highland Park Church was growing. We had outgrown our first location at the Looby Community Center and had moved to Hillsboro High School in the Green Hills area of Nashville. The leaves were turning, and football was in high gear. Things seemed really great. Yet, my life was about to take a downward turn that I never thought possible. At the time we were running the church from my home office. I went to the mailbox and along with the usual bills and junk mail there was an AOL disk. Prior to that moment in time I had never seen one of those.  I expect that some of you reading this have never seen one. It was what we used to call a “floppy disk”.  Although I never understood that name as it never actually “flopped” around.  I suppose you could say it was an earlier distant cousin to the CD. Back in those days AOL was top dog on the Internet, but it was all dial up. This was a time before high speed was available.  The way AOL built their base of users was to give the disks away. Early on they did that by direct mail. Later they could be picked up for free at almost any retail establishment.   You would then load it into your PC, dial an access number and presto you were surfing for a ten day free trial.    That day I surfed the Internet for the first time. I now recall how horribly slow it was.  I typed “Playboy” into the screen and   instantly I was hooked. One thing led to another. I felt so guilty. The shame was awful. As a teen I had looked at “Playboy”, “for the articles”, but past that porn was not on my radar. Actually, I do remember in the 70s after several hours at Kings Inn, a local watering hole, that some of us guys went to the midnight showing of the classic porn movie “Deep Throat”.  I slept through the whole thing. I recall the opening scene which I think was a car traveling down a road and the next thing I remember is my friend Jack Hofstetter shaking me saying “shows over”. I was not into porn or so I thought. I had stopped drinking several years earlier, but the high I got that afternoon was one of the greatest ever. It was much better than booze and I could do it for free right there in my office. Like all highs I came crashing down feeling like a complete piece of crap. I cancelled my AOL account, deleted the program from my PC, cut the disk into pieces and promised myself I would never do that again. And I was true to my word…until the next disk arrived in the mail perhaps a week later. Same story second chapter – surf, high, guilt, delete, destroy disk.

Over time it became a secret sin that took control of me. It consumed me! I felt like the biggest hypocrite on the planet. The guilt penetrated ever cell of my body to the spirit of my soul. I prayed and begged God to help me. I promised; I bargained with Him. Yet, nothing worked; I could stop for a little while, but it always came back worse than the time before. I was to later learn that is the way it is with addictions. Finally, I promised God I would do anything it took to gain freedom from the grips of pornography. And He answered me very clearly when He said, “John, this is bigger than you and will continue to grow. It will destroy you. You cannot defeat it on your own. You have got to get help.”  No, I did not hear God’s audible voice, but He did tell me that. When He said tell somebody I figured he meant Dale. When I decide to do something I do it. Once I make up my mind I pull the trigger. I got up off my knees, picked up the phone and called Dale and explained that I needed to get with him the next morning to talk over some church things.  That was an extremely difficult call to make. The next day as I was driving to his house my heart was pounding and I nearly threw up. What would he think of me?  Would he reject me? Would he tell others? Nope, I knew he would not betray me. I never really worried about that. The only real deal was my pride; it was about to take a licking and I knew it.  It was raining Saturday morning and we just drove around Bellevue after going through the McDonald’s drive through so Dale could get a large Diet Coke. Dale’s reaction to my confession was that I was “Making Mt. Everest out of a molehill”. It was obvious, that the discussion was making him uncomfortable, but he graciously agreed to hold me accountable. We decided that each Friday I would send him an email telling him if I had made it that week. At that time we were such tight friends, that near the end of our conversation, as we were driving by the Noah Liff Estate on Poplar Creek Road, he looked over and told me a secret that he had never shared with anybody before. Compared to mine his seemed pretty benign.   I am sure he told me as his way to encourage me. That is the kind of friend he was.

Soon I became uncomfortable that I had told Dale something so personal without telling Cathy. So in a few days I also told her. Naturally, she was hurt that I had first told Dale.  In 2001 I also told my son Michael who had recently graduated from college. So with Dale’s and Cathy’s help things improved greatly.  I had slips; things were better, but I was still struggling. I realized that I would have to do more. So I called Gordon Peerman,  the counselor whom I had seen in the late eighties when I had my mid-life crisis which eventually resulted in me leaving the lumber business for the ministry. I saw him in a few days; Gordon listened and he told me that what I was describing was a huge problem with ministers. He said, “The reason you cannot stop is because it is an addiction. You must deal with it like an alcoholic deals with alcohol. You must get into a 12 Step Program.”   The very last thing I wanted to hear from Gordon for whom I had the greatest respect. My response was, “No way. Gordon you know I am a pastor, I cannot do that! That will not fly”. At the end of the session he emphasized that he strongly urged me to reconsider and asked me to think and pray about it for the next week. I did, but I was terrified that if I did the 12 Step route that the word could get out and I would lose my church. Before I saw him again the following week I fell off the wagon. I felt hopeless.

13…PEELING THE ONION

In February 2000 I started literally peeling the onion of my life. It was a process that continued through my time at Sierra Tucson in the fall of 2005. It was both painful, yet a therapeutic process that has profoundly shaped the man I am today. As with all onions there were many interconnected layers each touching and affecting the one below. Cathy and Dale had both felt that for me to go to SA Meetings (www.sa.org), which is what Gordon wanted me to do, was too risky. I agreed with them; but a far greater issue for me was one word “pride”.  My pride was simply blocking any serious consideration of my going to meetings.  As a compromise Gordon suggested that I enroll in the “Living Centered Program” a week – long intensive at a place called Onsite which is located in Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee (www.onsiteworkshops.com).  Again, my pride flared up when Gordon made the suggestion; however, I did agree to at least call them and check it out.

God is so cool how he works things for our good when we are   willing and open to his leadings. After, I left Gordon’s office I called Onsite’s number, which he had written on his business card. I explained to whomever answered the phone that I was calling for information about their program. I was transferred to Deb Linhart, who was the Clinical Director at that time. I explained to her about the porn and that Gordon had suggested that I call her. Deb was incredible, but very “nosey”. Over a period of thirty minutes, she asked me so many questions — very personal and private questions! Strangely I was able to answer them without hesitation, shame or guilt. After Deb knew practically as much about me as I did, she told me that they had an opening in the program the following week.  By this point in the conversation, I actually wanted to go to Onsite because Deb had been amazingly understanding with me. I felt hope. For some reason I felt safe with her.  But there was still the issue of my pride; although by then it had begun to soften a bit.

I asked Deb if the other people who would be attending the session would be local folks or would they be from other states. She explained that Onsite was both nationally and internationally known and that there would be people from everywhere. She then asked, “John why is that a concern”?  “Deb, I am a pastor and I sure do not want any of my church members knowing I went to Onsite”.  She replied, “Oh I see. John there is something I need to tell you….I go to your church”.  I cannot even begin to describe the feeling I had when she spoke those words, so I will not even try. Use your imagination! After a moment of total and complete shock, I started to laugh. I realized that the chances of me calling someone who attended my church were so overwhelming small that something else had to be in play here. I knew that something was God Himself. I said, “Sign me up”. Deb sent me some information and forms to fill out which I received the following day. I sent the forms and a check for the deposit. No sooner had I left the post office than I began to have second thoughts.

Driving down on the following Friday afternoon. I remember thinking, “How did I get myself into this situation?”  Simultaneously I wanted to go and I did not. I was afraid, really afraid of what I might find out about me.  I was afraid of the unknown. I was afraid of being honest.  I felt like a little boy and I did not like the feeling.  I remember asking God to please let me have a private room or at least a roommate who did not snore.  I guess I did not have a lot of faith in that prayer because I had stopped at Walgreen’s and bought earplugs on the way – not just one set but three!  I always am prepared. Unfortunately it did not take me very long to get there.  It’s only about 40 miles from my house.  When I was driving up the driveway of the Onsite campus my heart was pounding ninety miles an hour even though it was a beautiful country setting even in the wintertime.  I was blown away by the mansion where I would stay the week. Although I had seen it on the Onsite website the real thing was something to see indeed. When I got out of the car to walk into the office my legs were wobbling.  I dreaded going in there.    When the guy at the desk looked up I was tongue tied and just kind of spit out some words.   Apparently, I made sense to him as he was able to point me in the right direction. Driving over to the main building I thought, “John just turn around and go back home where it is safe for you.”  I realized right then that is why they make you pay half in advance, so you won’t chicken out.  Had they not already had nearly a thousand of my dollars I would have driven out the gate and back to the safety of my dysfunctional world.  While I was signing in the lady looked right into my eyes and said, “John we were able to give you that private room you requested”.  The look on her face was like an angel.  It was like she knew how much I wanted that room.  She was so sensitive to me. She knew how I was hurting. I will remember that look for a long time.  “By the way, she said, “your room is on the second floor of the mansion.”  God answered my prayer exactly as I had asked him. As she handed me my key she smiled and said, “John at Onsite we encourage our clients not to isolate but to mix with others, talk and get to know each other. We like to see people in groups of three or more — never alone or just two. Our rooms are for sleeping not for hiding out”.

The house was like out of “Gone with the Wind”.  My room was at the head of the stairs. It was amazing!  There was an antique bed, perhaps the most comfortable bed in which I ever slept.  My room had a huge fireplace with gas logs, oil paintings and antique furniture.  A strange and infectious sense of peace came over me in that room; I actually felt very content and hopeful as I killed time until 5:15 when all the program attendees were supposed to meet for a tour of the place before dinner.  I did not realize it at the time, but looking back I now see that I did not dread going down and meeting 30 people whom I did not know.  That was a big change for me.  When I was in the business world and went to out of town sales meetings, I would hide in my room dreading having to face strangers, until the last possible second. When all 30 of us met for the first time, I was struck by how normal we looked. There were a couple of people who looked very sad, like they were wearing signs, saying “Please look at me”.  But by and large it seemed to be just 30 regular people. The first meal we had was interesting because all of us were struggling to be able to carry on conversations without asking where each other worked, etc. That information was optional and would be saved for the final day.  That is harder to do that you might think.

Saturday it snowed; the day was mostly spent on learning about the disease of codependency; I have heard the word for years, but never really understood what it meant. This is the definition that they used:  Codependency is a pattern of painful dependency on compulsive behaviors and or approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth and identity.  Recovery is possible. Wow!  That hit me right between the eyes.  Most of our time was spent in our small groups with each of us working on some issue that we had not yet dealt with in our lives.  As each person went through their work I could identify with areas of their struggle.  It really did not matter what their issue was, the pain was pretty much the same.  All ten people in my small group had an alcoholic father and or mother.  Six of ten had been raised in the Catholic Church, although none were attending at the time. My counselor was a wonderful Jewish woman named Helen from Chicago.   “John I am going to tell you up front that I am going to push like hell, but I promise that I won’t push too hard.  Trust the process and it is a process”. The second day I met with Helen and another counselor named Tom. Tom looked into my eyes and asked a question that literally changed my life. “John, tell us about your sexual abuse”. My immediate response was, “I have never been sexually abused”. Everybody, including me, knew I was lying. They did not push me on it. Within a week or so I had a dream in which I recalled what had happened after a pick-up basketball game orchestrated by Father Hollis back at Father Ryan High School.  Things that had been pushed so far down inside me that I am not at all sure I was conscious of them were beginning to simmer anew. I did not have a clue what to do with those intensifying feelings. I know as time passed, I became more and more afraid. I started obsessing.  I was afraid to tell anybody because of the shame of it all. I feared that people would think I was gay. I hoped it would all go back to sleep. In fact,  later on I chose to make it even worse by coming up with an absolutely horrible lie so as to allow me to admit to being abused, but one that I thought would make it more acceptable. Perhaps a year or so later I actually told the lie that my grandfather abused me when I was three. I was in the process of making another mistake that eventually allowed the split of Highland Park Church.

Helen suspected that I had an issue with repressed anger.  I had heard that before from Gordon, but I just could not see it. I could count my angry days on one hand; two at most. I did not think that was any part of my problem and I told Helen that right off the bat in front of my whole small group.   I was wrong!   In group when I did my deal we worked on issues with my mom, dad, Brother Bill, and the Catholic Church. Of the four, surprisingly Bill and the church seemed to produce the most heat. Lots of emotion came out during my time.  So much so that I became horse and my back was sore from swinging the foam bat to express my anger.   I made lots of progress in recognizing that repressed anger and shame were the roots of my compulsive use of pornography. For the first time I was working on the cause not the act itself; that was a huge switch for me. Now I had a fighting chance.   I never before had even considered that Bill might be a part, but as I worked through my feelings about him, I was able to see clearly that he played a major role in me feeling like I had to be the “Perfect John” so as to make up for all the hurt he had caused in our family.  I could not imagine how I missed that all these years.  I was able to clearly identify and admit to my group that I had three major ways of medicating my emotional pain: pornography/masturbation, work and rescuing. I talked about how early on I had tried to be perfect  in order to please my momma and redeem the family name. I shared I had signed up to enter the priesthood to give her the ultimate rush a Catholic mother could have. (Fortunately, I came to my senses and accepted a scholarship to Aquinas College instead.) Through a flood of tears and wailing I described the church imposed guilt that I carried my teenage years because I had been unable to stop masturbating. I detailed the countless times I had gone to confession as a good Catholic boy and said “Bless me Father for I have sinned; it has been three days (or whatever length) since my last confession. I have committed the sin of ‘Self Abuse’ so many times. I told them about the constant fear that I was going straight to hell because of it. I described a day when I was 12 or 13 and was spending the summer on my Aunt Ruby and Uncle Bill’s farm.

I described how I had lain in a beautiful meadow surrendered by deep green corn fields, looking up into a sky full of beautiful cumulus clouds silently racing each other through a blazing blue sky. Starring at the clouds I was worried that if I died before I could get to confession, I would surely spend eternity burning in the blazing hot fire of hell. I remember trying to grasp the meaning of eternity and the utter hopelessness of me going there because of my unbridled “self-abuse”. Everybody in my small group was crying as I talked about it including me. That admission was so freeing and cleansing!  Even though I knew better, there was some area of my psyche that thought God was still going to send me to hell for that.   I had a complete understanding of grace, but seemed to have a hard time accepting it for me.

I heard Rick Warren say in a message about addictions that God usually uses us the most in our deepest hurt. I saw that demonstrated at Onsite. Two people told me on our last day that I had actually led them to Jesus Christ during our week together. There is no greater use of man than that. I met with Deb on the last day. Oh, by the way, she did go to HPC; I recognized her right away on the first day. But that was not all. Another of the staff, Barbara, also was a member of my church. I still think that is more than just “small world stuff”. Deb told me that unless I was willing to start attending SA meetings then I had just thrown away over two thousand dollars. She said the only way out of my hole was the 12 Steps. She made me not only promise to go to my first meeting the following Monday, but she insisted that I commit to “90/90” — ninety meetings in ninety days. Monday mid- morning Deb called to ask how my first meeting went. Shamed, I admitted that I did not go, but would later in the day.  Thank God Deb would not accept that answer. She said “John I will call you back shortly”.

Ten minutes later she called with directions to what I would soon come to know at the “Blue Portable”, which was a free-standing classroom behind the Belmont Church on Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee. Deb said, “John there is an SA meeting there at noon. You be there at 11:50 and a man by the name of Bob will meet you just outside the entrance. Make sure you are there”.  I gave her my word that I would and then I simply said, “Thank you Deb”. By that point I would have walked over hot coals to keep from disappointing her. There was no doubt in my mind; I knew God was now active in my recovery. How else could I explain calling Onsite and having a member of my church answer the phone? One of the very people I was hiding from. Things like that do not just happen. It sure helps to be loved by someone who cares about your wellbeing with nothing to gain for themselves. I am not at all sure I would have made it without Deb’s encouragement.

Driving to my first meeting I had an uneasy feeling from the bottom of my feet to the tips of the hairs on my head.  I could not wrap my brain around the fact that I was on my way to a Sexaholics Anonymous meeting. My brain keep playing a tape of my church family finding out and running out Sunday screaming, “John is a sicko”! I feared that my ministry was on the cusp on becoming a lost memory.  I arrived at Belmont Church at 11:40; the parking lot was empty so I drove around the block a few times.  As frightened and unsure as I felt, someplace, perhaps in my soul, I felt an ever so small sliver of hope faintly glowing in my colossal shame of the moment.

Finally I parked my car, I spotted Bob standing near the entrance. He looked normal! There was no trench coat or hat pulled down over his face, but he did have a warm smile and a strong, welcoming handshake. We were the first to arrive. We entered and walked down a short hallway to a classroom on the right. Walking in I noticed twenty or so chairs around the walls of the room.  As I sat there I recalled thinking how disappointed my mom would be about me. As I counted the floor tiles I felt like I was literally wearing skin of pure shame. About that time a familiar voice said, “John Gouldener”. Instantly my loneliness and its accompanying fear evaporated.  It was a man who had attended Grace Church when I was associate pastor. Again real life is much better than make believe.

Before the end of the meeting I had a sponsor and had committed to “ninety in ninety”. For the next nearly five years I attended an SA meeting at least five days a week. I got clean and stayed clean.  I had some of the most incredible spiritual experiences of my life in the blue portable. Nearly everybody seemed to be professional folks —- doctors, lawyers, architects, professors, preachers, etc. Over those five years I ran into countless people whom I knew and several from HPC. One of the men I met early on accepted Jesus Christ in my office just a few blocks away on the same street. During my time there I laid bare all of me save one single secret. I never admitted that I had been sexually abused. But I did learn that secrets can only live in darkness and that light destroys them.

14…SITTING HERE CRYING

So began his email and one of my life’s major disappointments.  As was my usual custom upon closing the books on one year and opening them on another, I asked the man who functioned as our treasurer, in fact but without the title, for a printout of the staff remuneration for the previous year.  Unlike past years the document was not forthcoming.  Again, I emailed him “send the info”.  This time I got a partial document but it was far from complete.  I tried again.  In a few minutes a little bit more information oozed onto my PC screen.  As I sat there trying to process my frustration it became obvious that there was only one reason that I was not getting a full accounting. So both annoyed and with a deeply aching soul I responded that if he did not send me the complete information then I was going to drive to his place of business and get it myself.  Ten minutes later the long awaited complete document arrived. I refer to it as the “I am Sitting Here Crying” email.  At that moment I discovered that without my knowledge or approval he had helped himself to a five-figure raise the previous year.  His email disclosure ended with his offer to resign (1). I was incredulous, hurt, disappointed but mostly very sad.    After I processed my emotions, I replied in my final email of the day that I did not want him to resign, but I did want him to meet me at my house in thirty minutes.

Driving home my emotions swung from anger to heartache. I prayed for God to give me the wisdom to know how to handle this situation. My trust in Dale was fractured. I thought about the good times we had had together over the years.  I thought of my love for him and for his family, that his two children, Brooke and Carson, called me “Uncle John”.  Cathy and I had just recently paid nearly $5000 tuition so he could complete his degree after he had said that he could not afford to continue his post graduate studies.   I thought of what he had done for me. Several years earlier when I had confessed to him that I was addicted to internet pornography and had asked him to hold me accountable. I went so far as to turn the control of my AOL account over to him. He had done a yeoman’s job. He had stood faithfully by me. I recalled a conversation we had had about some porn filters that I had him install on my PC. I mentioned to him that whenever we got new PCs, I wanted him to take the filter off before we gave mine to somebody else, as it would be a bit embarrassing for someone to find that on my former computer. He replied that if someone found that on my PC “they should be proud of me not condemn me”. When I got my three year chip I sent him an email thanking him for all of his help; he had replied how proud he was of me.  That was the kind of friend Dale had been. Early on I had some stumbles, but with his and Cathy’s help, I had been clean for over four years. There was no way I would let him resign! I knew that without his help I would have never been able to climb out of the dark chasm that I had fallen into and we would never be where we were in our ministry.  Nope, there was no way I would let him resign; besides I had always placed high value on loyalty over mistakes. I saw him drive up and park in front of my house. As soon as I opened the door he began to apologize. Then he started to cry again while telling me that he knew he had been wrong to give himself the secret raise. Seeing those huge tears roll off his cheeks brought tears to my own eyes. I loved that man with a strange brew of love that was both fraternal and paternal-like in characteristic and which was constantly shifting between the two, yet never quite settling on one or the other.  Dale repeated his offer to resign.

We talked a bit and then I hugged him and told him that “I do not want to do church without you”.  For reasons that I could not or perhaps would not explain to myself until years later, I never suggested that we cancel the raise. I should have.  That was a serious mistake on my part. My mishandling of this entire episode was another of my series of fatal mistakes that help to doom HPC. The train was now full throttle, heading down hill and quickly picking up speed. A few weeks later Dale almost in passing   said, “John you deserve a raise too. You haven’t had one in quite a while”.   I replied  “I do not disagree, but I have a year left on my pledge to the ‘Building for Life Fund’,  after that is paid it will be time for me to have a raise”.  That was our last conversation that I recall about salaries. We had both made $25,000 pledges to BFL. Cathy and I had written a check for $15,000 on the front end and were having the balance taken out of my pay over a three year period. My recollection is that Dale pledged the same amount and was supposed to be having the entire amount deducted over the same three years. My problem with me taking much of a raise at all during that three year period, after asking our people to make sacrificial giving to our building program, is that it would be in essence having the church pay my pledge just like it did Dale’s.   However, I know everybody may not agree with my reasoning. But that was my position and my personal choice at the time and I still believe it to be the correct moral choice.

15…Too Little, Too Late

If you do what the Lord wants, he will make certain
each step you take is sure. The Lord will hold your hand, and if you stumble, you still won’t fall. Psalm 37:23-24 (CEV)

Shortly after the six of us founded Highland Park Church, we selected Scott Chevalier to be my co-pastor; Scott and I had worked together at Grace Church of the Nazarene, where he had been an outstanding youth pastor. He is perhaps the most naturally gifted communicator that I have ever known. Scott taught me a lot about communication. I owe him a great debt in that area.

Dale humbly assumed the mantle of “chief roadie”, which was a highly critical position, as we had to set all the equipment up and take it down each Sunday. He had an incredible ability to overcome any and all technical obstacles and tenacity second to none. In those early days, Dale was also fearless both spiritually and physically. He thought nothing of climbing up into the innards of the auditorium to dangle in thin air in order to hang a light or a cable. The word “cannot” was not in his vocabulary. Without him, Highland Park Church would most likely have remained only a dream in my heart. He was that important.

The truth is we were all roadies in those early days. Brad, who traveled through the week, printed the bulletins and filled in wherever needed and helped keep us on track. Our wives did it all on Sunday mornings, from cleaning the bathrooms to handing out bulletins and serving the coffee and donut holes. I have always referred to that group of folks as the “Dream Team”. There is no doubt in my mind but that God hand-picked each of us. In those early days it was easy to keep our egos in check. Unfortunately, that changed  the farther we got down the road.

Next, two of our friends, Tony and Nancy Lipscomb brought us their gifts from God; we immediately put them to work on our steering committee, which was charged with developing the form and function of our “different kind of church”. Nancy was an exceptionally gifted elementary teacher and thankfully she volunteered to head up “Kids’ Klub”, our children’s department. Tony was an early “Mac Geek”. At that point in 1993, I was computer illiterate. I am afraid I have progressed only marginally. Dale was familiar with PCs from his work in the family insurance business, but graphically challenged. With input from Dale and me, Tony transformed our raw concepts into our original “Rising Sun” HPC logo, which several years later Dale changed without my approval, knowledge or input. Tony also produced our defining “Blue Jean” mailer. Both visually set the compass bearing for the course HPC would chart to the future. I believe without doubt, that souls will be in heaven as a result of that first mailer.

During a mailer design session at Tony and Nancy’s house, Dale spotted the nearly complete remains of a six pack of Bud Light in the refrigerator.  I had noticed it a bit earlier and had feared that Dale would react legalistically. My concerns were justified. No sooner had we pulled out of the driveway than Dale said, “Did you see that beer? We cannot use them in leadership if they drink. I am going to confront that issue!”  My stomach began to go into knot stage. Sooner or later, I had known that we would face the faux alcohol issue head on. The Robinsons came from a legalistic Nazarene background. Some of what Dale had told me about his youth was scary. Neither he nor his brothers had been allowed to go to high school dances. At church camp the boys and girls were not allowed to swim together and when the guys went swimming, they had to wear blue jeans. I do not mean cutoffs! God only knows what the girls had to wear.  Dale confided in me that his parents had always allowed him to wear shorts and swim trunks when away from church functions. It goes without saying that his background of having to be “good enough” to get into heaven, produced quite a bit of flawed theology. The apple had not fallen far from the family tree. But at that time, I never dreamed that he would ever be a part of the pastoral staff, so I was not overly concerned at that point in the HPC journey. His function was limited to administrative, ideas, methods and set up on Sunday.

I suppose each denomination has its pet “sins”. Once they are infused they cling to the very fibers of our being where they are nearly impossible to expel. The ones hammered into my head growing up Catholic were things like impure thoughts, masturbation, eating meat on Friday and missing mass on Sunday. For Dale they were different. His big three were smoking, drinking and cussing. His childhood church also taught that it was a sin to go to the movies, but he had been able to circumvent that one with not even a tinge of guilt.  Early in our relationship he had looked me in the eyes and said that he believed that if a person used any alcohol or cigarettes that their eternal destiny would be spent in hell. For him it was a cut and dried issue as it was for his parents Gary and Thelma. Popping a top or lighting up meant eternal damnation — no question!  Now he had stumbled upon evidence that a couple of key members of the HPC leadership were on the sure road to hell! That beer did not just appear in Tony and Nancy’s fridge and he was going to cut that cancer out of our body! Before I replied, I asked God to give me wisdom. Obviously, drinking a beer is a neutral issue with God. Anyone with a basic grasp of Scripture should be able to figure that out, if they want to.  Nowhere does the Bible say that it is a sin to pop a top. Actually, it is quite the contrary.  So I replied that it was a non-issue with me.  I have chosen not to drink alcohol since my blackout in Las Vegas mostly because alcoholism runs in my family for generations back.  I argued that since a six pack has six beers and there were five remaining in Tony’s fridge then that itself demonstrated that Tony and Nancy did not have an alcohol problem. My experience with Dale is that he would normally dig in his heels to have his way. Surprisingly, this time was one of the few occasions he did not. I told him how I felt and crossed my fingers. I assumed that he knew he was wrong. I did not hear any more about HPC’s leaders’ drinking habits until years later.

After the church had grown to over 450 people and we had a paid staff with our own office building on Music Row, we were in the process of hiring our first single’s pastor. We had pretty much settled on Randy Neff, but Dale wanted to do one more interview with him. The night before that meeting, he sent me an email saying that he was going to ask Randy if he used alcohol and if the answer was “yes” then he would not allow him on our staff. That came out of left field; I have no idea what prompted it. By that point in time, I had spent years and years arguing with Dale over at least half of the issues we had faced as a church. We argued over things from whether we would have flowers on the stage to would we have a cross on our building.  Once when I had disagreed with him, in a nose to nose confrontation, he drew back his fist and threatened to hit me.  The dynamics of our relationship were that we seldom agreed on much of anything. Perhaps one of the most explosive of our arguments was over the number of ushers we would have on a particular Sunday.

The truth is if I saw something as white, Dale saw black and vice versa. We were both in the wrong about half the time. Neither of us had much visual acumen in the gray spectrum. Dale is a task oriented, get the job done, very detailed type “A”, steamroll them personality type; whereas, I am more of a big picture, generalities type guy with lots of empathy for people. In many respects, at that point in my life, often I was simply a people pleaser. Singularly, we both sometimes let our personalities stand in the way of wise decisions. But taken together, our personalities had complimented each other by providing checks and balances which seemed to have served HPC well. As I read his email, I decided not to respond. Dale threw the bait out; that night I was not biting. Instead, I asked God to handle it. He did. The issue did not come up in the final interview and we hired Randy.

Back in our original days at Lobby Theater we were space poor. Initially we did not have a dedicated room for our children, but screened off a section of the back hallway. This worked well at first, but did not look professional nor would it work at all as we grew. Finally, we were able to secure a room where Nancy did a great job with the little ones of which we were blessed. All of the children loved Miss Nancy and it was crystal clear that she loved being their teacher.

I picked up the phone and it was Tony. Nothing could have prepared me for what he had to say.  Nancy had just had an ultra sound. The results were devastating. Their son had a major heart flaw. The doctor had told them that it did not look good at all. In the best case scenario, the baby would have to have several heart surgeries and even then stood a high chance of dying. The doctor discussed abortion as an option. Tony told me that they had decided to have the baby and trust God to heal him. He asked for my prayers. I cannot imagine what that pregnancy was like for those two. As long as I am on this planet I do not ever expect to be able to understand things like that. But I know that Tony and Nancy are the real deal and their faith sustained them.

Shortly after little Stephen was born, he needed surgery.  Tony and Nancy took him to the University of Michigan Children’s Hospital which specialized in treating his condition. Dale, Kelly and I drove up to be with them during the surgery. As we waited, we met several other couples whose children had the same issue. Many of them were back for their second or third operations. Stephen came through the surgery in flying colors. However, we did not have a good feeling as the three of us made our way back to Nashville; our day in the waiting room brought little long term encouragement.   Yet, for some time, things seemed to be going well; I began to think that perhaps my initial pessimism was unfounded. I was wrong.

Several weeks after the operation on a Friday night, while we were at a Brentwood Academy vs Franklin high school football game, Dale got a call from Tony. Something was wrong; Stephen was in an ambulance on his way to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. By the time we arrived at the ER, Stephen had been pronounced dead. Words cannot describe our feelings. We later learned that Tony had been holding him; everything had appeared normal; then he just seemed to pass out. That was one of the few times in my life that I truly had a broken heart. It was like a heavy dark shroud had been wrapped around our entire church body and was choking us. At the time, we were small and all like family. We thought of Stephen as our little boy. As a body of believers, we had faithfully prayed and believed for many months that Stephen would grow strong. I have no idea why he did not. That is one of the first questions I intend to ask when I get to heaven.

Obviously, you do not need to read this book to realize that Stephen’s death took an unfathomable toll on Tony and Nancy. As they worked through the grieving process, they drifted farther and farther from Highland Park. Cathy and I and the rest of our leadership team were wading in uncharted waters. In all of our lives, we had never had a close friend lose a young child. Sadly for us, in time Tony and Nancy left the church. While standing in my driveway, they told me they were leaving. For reasons I have never understood, they felt like the church had not adequately been there for them. I challenged them on that and in the process mortally wounded our relationship. I should have honored their grief and kept my mouth shut. Instead reflexively I mounted a defense of our church family. But I was not standing in their shoes. I made a mistake, but the damage was done. I did however, learn a lesson. In a situation like that, where people are in agonizing pain, do not be logical; just be loving. My bad! Time has not erased the sadness I felt as I watched their car disappear down Harpeth Hills Drive. I long for the relationships I lost that day.

With all that was going on with Stephen, Kelly had stepped up to the plate in the Kids Klub and was doing a splendid job. However, down the road we tweaked our music program and one Sunday before the service, I noticed that Kelly was on the stage rehearsing BGV. I do not recall her ever saying a word; she just switched departments and left us blowing in the wind. She showed little or no interest in the children’s department until many years later — 2005 to be exact.

During the beginning of HPC, Cathy had declined my suggestion that she be the children’s director; but she did agree to do it until God sent someone else.  Now she had the position by default. She eventually accepted it as God’s will and did a wonderful job for eight years.  As the church went into a steep growth curve, Cathy recruited two wonderful young couples, Eric and Trish Rather and Chad and Elisha Hayes, to be “every Sunday” teachers. The five of them were outstanding and the children loved them all. That team was made for children! Over the years, we had constant complaints about the music, both in style and volume. I, myself, complained about the volume repeatedly to no avail and I was supposed to be the head guy.  We had complaints about the videos and drama. There were complaints about the donut holes and coffee, the temperature of the auditorium and Gary Robinson’s theology. There were some about me and Dale, but never a complaint about the children’s program. We did get one regarding the condition of the school facilities as it related to Kids Klub. In twelve years I consider that a remarkable achievement. It was a result of the unfailing dedication of our incredible team of volunteers.

However, Dale more than made up for the lack of complaints from our members.  He constantly whined about “the image our Kids’ Klub was projecting to our visitors”.  Specifically, he had a problem with Trish who was overweight.  Once he said, “The first thing a visitor sees is her lard ass and that depressed look on her face. John that has to turn visitors off”.  Cathy was also overweight; however, he never mentioned her weight as it regarded Kids’ Klub.  But he regularly told me that she needed to lose weight, get on an exercise plan and go on a diet. He was smart enough to always couch those remarks in an “I am worried about her health” context. Many times over years we conducted church-wide written surveys of all aspects of the church. Nearly every area had some complaints, but we never had anything less than an A-.  Expectedly, the music always got the most negatives, which is the case in most churches. However, the one time that we had the negative comment about the school facilities where the children’s department was located, Dale gnawed on that bone for years, taking it as his opportunity to claim that the Kids’ Club was keeping us from growing faster. With Dale failure was always somebody else’s fault, although I suppose that might be all of our default setting. I pointed out that he came to that conclusion based on one negative comment regarding the space that Kid’s Klub occupied not the program itself, while the same survey had multiple negatives about the music. I said, “Based on your logic music is our biggest problem”. The truth was that was our biggest problem. It was excellent, but Gene was not a worship leader. He is simply not gifted to do that.  The result was that visitors either loved or hated the music. Had we done the same music, but also incorporated a true worship leader along with Gene’s production, there is no doubt in my mind that our growth curve would have been much steeper. In typical Dale fashion, he dug his heels in deep into what I referred to as “Robinson Reality” — which meant he would not let the facts stand in the way of him being right.

In the last quarter of 2004, for a variety of reasons, some of which are covered in a later chapter, Cathy decided that she wanted to start easing herself out of the children’s department. Cathy and I wanted Trish to have the position that now paid a small salary.  I knew if I suggested that we simply move Trish into that slot, I would have a ten megaton explosion on my hands. So I decided that we would have Cathy cut back on her workload and create an assistant Children’s Director’s slot.  Cathy and I would pay Trish out of our own pockets, by voluntarily taking a personal pay cut.  I met with Dale and his reaction was exactly what I expected, “If Cathy wants to cut back fine, but we need to find a cool, hip girl”. I understood his point and there was some merit to his case, but since Cathy and I would be paying Trish out of our own pockets, my position was that we would try this arrangement and see how it worked. If Trish bombed, then we could go the “Hot Momma” route. Dale did not like it, but there was not much he could do about it under my proposal. So that is what we did, our eventual goal was for Trish to become director. Cathy and I strongly felt that we owed Trish the opportunity and we went above and beyond to make sure she got that chance. Well, whenever there is a forced deal with someone who does not like the deal, there are always going to be problems. That is a human characteristic.  This arrangement was chocked full. Dale and Kelly constantly found fault with not only Trish, but her husband Eric and their children as well. Their demeaning comments were a continuing and growing staple. I learned to live with it. What saddened me most was that the whole issue with Trish was not based on questioning her ability, but her appearance. Dale and Kelly looked like Ken and Barbie, albeit it was because they worked at it. They watched their diets and worked out regularly.  People, whom they did not consider their equals, as far as appearance was concerned, were often made fun of and demeaned. Dale got that attitude naturally from his dad, who seemed to have a propensity for pointing out overweight and gay people to laugh about. Perhaps that is the reason that Thelma seemed to be on a perpetual diet.

As our construction project was nearing completion, I received a large check from a gentleman who actually did not attend our church, but who enjoyed my messages on tape. He directed that all the money be spent on the children’s area. With that gift, it was like the cicadas coming out of the ground. Suddenly, after years of Dale and Kelly ignoring the children’s program, as soon as the big check came they suddenly got interested. On a Sunday afternoon in April, Cathy, Dale and I were inspecting the progress of construction in the nursery area and Cathy casually mentioned that she planned not to use a certain kind of floor mat in the new building that we were currently using at Hillsboro High School. For some reason Dale insisted that she was making a huge mistake. He reminded us that he was “in the insurance business and he knew much more than us about that kind of thing than us”. Cathy replied, “Dale, we have visited other churches and they are not using them. I do not want them”. Dale responded, “You may have to use them”.  You could have cut the tension with a butter knife. Not another word was said.

Chalk up another leadership failure on my part. I should have stepped up to the plate to confront Dale for being out of line. I should have reminded him that Cathy was his equal in the HPC structure, had by far made the greatest sacrifice to make HPC a reality  and that he was not to give her orders, nor was he and Kelly going to take control of the nursery build out. I should have reminded him that the people who have been wiping baby’s bottoms for the past twelve years, while the rest of us were enjoying the service, the people who had sacrificed to made Kids’ Klub what it is, namely Cathy, the Rathers and the Hayes, were going to pick what they believe to be in the best interest of our children. That is what I should have done, but I did not. Things went downhill fast from that point.

The following week at our offices, I overheard Dale and Kelly picking out kids’ furniture, floor coverings and wall selections online. It was as if what I had said did not register. That night I told Cathy what I had heard. She was devastated and said, “Let them do whatever they want to do. I no longer care”.  By that time both Cathy and Dale were upset we me for not supporting them more. One day while Gene and I were standing in line at a fast food restaurant, Dale called me to complain about the Kids Klub issue. At that point I blurted, “God damn you Dale…”  Since I never talk that way, I knew I was nearing the breaking point. I asked God to forgive me and begged him for strength and wisdom.

The final Kids’ Klub episode involved the hanging of the wall murals in the children’s hallway. Trish wanted be involved in helping to hang the murals and was excited and looking forward to that opportunity.  Kelly insisted that she and Gene’s wife would do that without any help from Trish and Elisha. Besides she did not want “their kids” in the building during the hangings. To that end Kelly, who was our office manager, hung the murals during our regular business hours, denying the others the joy of putting the finishing touches on the Kids’ Klub area. When the others showed up it was already a done deal. There were other incidents, but basically, during that period, I consummated my surrender of the control of Highland Park Church to Dale. I served it up to him, not on a silver platter, but on a platinum one.

To this day, I am not fully aware of why I allowed that to happen. In hindsight and ten years removed, here is the conclusion I have finally come. It does not make me look very good. The best way I can describe that whole time of my life is that I was like an alcoholic who wanted to stop drinking, but could never bring himself to make the hard choices that needed to be made to actually stop. I wanted to take back control. I knew that I was betraying my wife, Trish, Eric, Chad and Elisha, but I went right on and allowed Dale and Kelly to do what I knew was unfair to people who really cared about the children. At Sierra Tucson, I did a lot of work on that area of my life.

Several weeks before we had our first service, the staff occupied our new building. At this point Trish started coming into the office a few mornings a week to do the children’s planning. It soon became clear that her computer skills were sorely lacking. Dale commented that she was the slowest person that he had ever seen. This time I was forced to agree. She seemed to move in slow motion mode. For the first time, I began to fear that perhaps she would not make it. But it was not because she was overweight, but because she was so slow. I recruited my daughter in law, Emily, to give her some instruction. Thankfully, things started to show improvement, but still Dale and Kelly found fault at every turn.

On Wednesday August 10, 2005 just after 3:00 PM, Dale came into my office and closed the door, which I normally held open with a door stop. One look told me he was angry about something. “I have had it! We are going to fire Trish today. This is it. I am not taking any more from the Rathers”!  I did not have a clue what was going on or what had happened to get that kind of reaction.  He then proceeded to tell me a very convoluted story about an incident that had taken place the previous Sunday between Gene and Eric. Wesley, one of Eric and Trish’s children, had been corrected by Gene over a donut incident in the church kitchen. Gene’s word choices were often a bit rough and sharp, but that was his style.  Eric had challenged Gene and told him he was out of line. Feelings were hurt on both sides. Gene had apparently just informed Dale of the incident which sent Dale into another rage. Now, he was using that encounter as his justification to finally get rid of Trish. Needless to say, I did not follow his logic. There comes a point where every person on the planet finally reaches the point of “no more”. At that moment, I had finally reached that point.  I looked straight into Dale’s eyes and said. “Over my dead body are we going to fire Trish!  I do not know who said what. I am going to call Eric and get him over here.  He and Gene are going to man up and work this out today! But either way, nobody is going to be fired. That is not going to happen!”  I had reached my limit. Unfortunately, it was too little too late. My fate at Highland Park Church was sealed, the minute those words reached Dale Robinson’s ears.

Part two  continues at:

http://johngouldener.com/?page_id=3838

7 Responses to “Part 1 UNSCREWED – Becoming Whole Again”

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  5. john says:

    Tim I was tempted to do that but I did not want somebody who was “not in the HPC loop” to google one of them and fine out what they did. Not my purpose.

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