Catching Grenades – Dodging Darts – A Story of Pastoral Affliction – Part 11



Author’s Note: This story, “Catching Grenades – Dodging Darts – A Story of Pastoral Affliction” is based on a true story. My story. Granted, all of these events have played out over the course of my 10 years in pastoral ministry, but they really happened. Please note that the names and identities of the various people in my life and ministry have been changed in this story to protect the privacy of the real-life characters they portray.

Some may wonder, “Why write on such a dark topic? What’s the purpose?” Well, I want my readers to have a better understanding of pastoral ministry, spiritual warfare, and the pastors who are literally the tip of the spear in this war against the world, the flesh, and the Devil. As I often say, “Pastoral ministry may be many things, but it’s certainly never boring.” Pastoral ministry isn’t simply preaching sermons and telling kids Bible stories, it’s a war against the Forces of Evil. Thus, the title, “Catching Grenades – Dodging Darts”. That is to say, pastoral ministry often feels like a death match in which you have to quickly pick up a live grenade and throw it back at the enemy, hoping that the kill radius doesn’t hurt or injure you. In addition, pastoral ministry often feels like a constant game of dodging the gnarly darts or arrows of the Evil One. Indeed, I have spent time in real life combat zones and have never experienced such intense darkness, depravity, and depression as is found in pastoral ministry. 

To those of you who read this story consistently, thank you. I know that it’s hard to read this story at times, but it will be good for you in the long run. Indeed, I started writing this story in 2018 during my sabbatical from Prairie Flower Baptist Church. It took me 5 years to actually muster the courage to put this story out there for the “world” to read. I honestly thought that people would think that I’m crazier than the “crazy vibe” I already give off to people. But the time to share this story is now.

Yes, I know that there are critics out there who honestly believe that this story is grossly inappropriate, not wise to share, etc. These are criticisms that I have come to embrace and accept. And I partly agree with my critics. As Frodo once said, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” But they did. 

I also know that there are consistent readers of this story every week. WordPress tracks very carefully how many people read this story. I’m at a consistent 50 readers a week. So, I’m basically headed to the New York Times Best Sellers’ list 😉 But for those of you who read this story consistently, thank you. And don’t be shy to “like” or “share” this story. Doing so doesn’t validate (or give applause of) the dark emotions and themes in this story, it simply gets this story out there to a wider audience who might be strangely comforted by one man’s story about fighting a very real and pervasive darkness. Indeed, the darkness is truly thick out there, but so is Gospel hope…Part 11 of this story is next. It’s the darkest episode yet. But bear in mind…I’m. Still. Alive. Yes, by the grace and mercy of God, I’m still alive and I’m still in the fight. So, buckle your seat belts for Part 11 of “Catching Grenades – Dodging Darts – A Story of Pastoral Affliction”…

Part 11: Suicidal…

A few days had passed since Derek’s visit to the ER, and today was Saturday – Derek’s day off. He got dressed for the day – blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and boots. I look like a poser, Derek thought to himself. Well, at least I fit in well with the Midwest farming theme, he thought as he chuckled to himself. He then kissed Patricia and headed out the door. He was headed towards the Ace Hardware store in town. His mission? To buy new 9mm rounds for his handgun.

Stepping into Ace, he was greeted warmly by an all too eager and heavily caffeinated sales associate. “Good morning! Is there anything I can help you with?” “9mm rounds,” Derek said without much expression. “Right this way,” the sales associate responded, leading the way towards the guns and ammo section of the well-stocked store. 

Derek surveyed his options. Man alive, these rounds are expensive, Derek thought to himself as he scanned the ammo supply, looking for the best bang for his buck. “I’ll take those,” Derek said, pointing to a 50-cartridge box from Ammo Incorporated. He walked up to the front register. “That’ll be $26.74,” said the salesclerk. Derek swiped his card. “Thank you,” the cashier said with a smile as Derek took his box of ammo and headed out the door. 

Stepping into his Chevy Blazer, Derek sighed as he placed the ammo box in the passenger seat next to him. He then opened the box to examine the rounds. Picking one up, he wiggled it in his hand, feeling the tiny weight and watching the glimmer of the casing as the sun hit it through his windshield. Just then his phone buzzed. It was Ronny – a highly emotional and impulsive gentleman, he seemed to thrive from one crisis point to another. Derek looked at his text. Cryptic as usual…Derek read the text out loud, “Maybe it would be best if I just went away…” Perfect timing, Derek thought as he stole another peak at the ammo rounds next to him. “Something’s come up,” Derek texted Patricia. “Need to head to the office…”

As Derek pulled into the church parking lot, he noticed a small object near the front door. Getting out of his Chevy to examine it, he saw what it was – a dead bird. Really, God?! Birds were hugely symbolic for Derek. He viewed them as a sign of God’s forever faithfulness, often counting each bird he saw on the one-mile stretch of road that led to the church building from the main highway. His wife was also particularly fond of birds as she viewed them as a symbol of each of their 4 children (girl, boy, girl, boy). I guess God’s faithfulness is dead, Derek thought to himself as a thick darkness seemed to envelop him as he walked through the church doors to his office down the hall.

Stopping at his desk, Derek reached for his handgun at the small of his back. It felt heavier than normal in his hand. He levitated it toward his bicep as if curling a weight. Maybe it would be best if I just went away, Derek thought with a flash of anger and sadness. He positioned the gun towards his right temple, feeling the cold steel next to his skin. Anger, rage, sadness, and depression rushed upon him like gooey lava from an open, active volcano. His mind raced. The last 7 years of his pastoral ministry seemed to be a glorious, gory mess of broken marriages, wayward children, lost jobs, natural disasters, medical emergencies, secret addictions, and feuding factions in the church. No one seemed to be helped by his preaching or the plethora of counseling sessions he had conducted over the years. It’s all been a waste. I’m just fooling myself to think that l can make a difference. In the end, people do whatever they want to do. His mind continued to race. In addition to the big crises over the years, there were all the little ministry annoyances that collected on Derek’s back – a slow death by a thousand cuts…People complaining, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, half-truths, and unreasonable expectations. I guess I’m just one big disappointment. Pastoral Ministry = Failure.

As Derek continued to ponder the last 7 years of his ministry, devilish thoughts percolated in his mind. Even the Bible says, “To die is gain”, Derek reasoned to himself. And then, that all too familiar, comforting, and ominous voice: “Yes! To DIE is gain. To die IS gain. To die is GAIN.” The dark words seemed to hiss at him with pinpoint precision and a frenzied passion. To die is gain…Indeed, what better way to get back at all these people and the untold hurt they’ve inflicted upon me and my family. I’ll just end it all right here…Or, better yet, on the platform in the sanctuary. That’ll teach ‘em! “Do it. Just man up…And do it,” the voice from the darkness hissed with delight. “It’ll all be over soon…”

Just then, Derek’s phone began to ring, jolting Derek from his suicidal fantasy. It was Patricia. He contemplated ignoring it, but he picked it up. “Yes, babe?” “Hey, when do you think you’ll be home? I have some exciting news to share with you!” Patricia was clearly excited. Her voice was elevated and rapid. Derek’s voice began to catch in his throat. So, clearing his throat, he said, “Can’t you just tell me the news over the phone?” “Nope! I need to tell you in person. You’re going to love it!” “I’ll be right over,” Derek said, faking enthusiasm for what awaited him at home.

Derek placed the handgun back in the small of his back. Soon, he thought to himself. Soon. He locked his office door, stepped out of the church building, and got into his vehicle…Pulling into his driveway, he thought, I’ll just get this surprise over with and then head back to the office. I’ll tell her that it’s Ronny again. She’ll understand… Stepping through the door to his home, Patricia was wide eyed and bouncing with excitement. “What’s up?!”, Derek asked as he tried to match her excitement. “Well, I know that you’ve had quite the busy year at work, but I think this will brighten your day and redeem this whole messy year for you!” Patricia’s hands were behind her back. Derek looked right into her eyes. They gleamed with joy and hope. He looked down at her waistline. What’s behind her back? Patricia couldn’t conceal her secret any longer…She took her hands from behind her back and revealed a blue and white plastic device with two little pink lines. “We’re pregnant!”

Part 10: Vomit…

Derek muddled his way through some sort of makeshift homily, attempting through the fog of his own personal grief to offer Haddie some measure of hope. “Haddie? Haddie Nobels?”, came the inquisitive voice of a pretty nurse at the ER entrance double doors. Derek’s train of thought was immediately interrupted. It didn’t really matter though because Haddie was only half paying attention as the razor blade wounds on her arm began to cause her some pretty intense pain. “I’ve – I’ve got to go,” Haddie tiredly, but politely said to Derek. Derek smiled, “Absolutely,” he responded, immediately second guessing if the smile was too much for such a pain-filled moment. No time to overanalyze. It’s time to go see Don…

Entering Don’s hospital room, Derek and Draike were immediately met with a plethora of digital sights and sounds that smashed them into sensory overload. Squinting his eyes to focus his mushy brain, Derek fixated his gaze on Don. Don looked weak – pathetic – destroyed. His body was convulsing in a non-rhythmic pattern that frightened Derek. He’s going to die, Derek thought without hesitation. But his train of thought immediately derailed as Don began to cough up blood and vomit. The stench was immediately recognizable to Draike (a former Army Infantry Soldier)…Smells like war – smells like death, Draike thought to himself…

“Move! Out of the way!”, came the shouts of commands from a whole slew of doctors and nurses. “We’re going to need you guys to leave,” a hyped-up doctor said with focused determination. Derek and Draike immediately obeyed, exiting the room.

As they sat outside, they both could hear the distinct commands of the doctors and the swift movement of machines to rescue a drug-induced life. “Do you think he’s going to make it?”, Derek asked Draike while fixating his gaze towards the floor. “I don’t know. Let’s just pray for
him right here – right now.” “Okay. I’ll go first,” Derek said, slightly irritated that he hadn’t initiated such a spiritual response to a difficult and fear-inducing moment. Derek began, “Father God, I come to you because you are God, and I am not. Indeed, you are perfectly holy, and I am not. You are perfectly loving, and I am not. You are perfectly sovereign, and I am not. And God, I confess that I am a sinful man, plagued by so many struggles. Forgive me. Grant me your mercy. And God, I come to you on behalf of Don – Don Freeman. God, he needs you. Ultimately, the only one who can help him is you. So, Father, I am begging you, despite all that he is and all that he’s not, would you spare Don’s life? Would you grant strength and skill to all those doctors and nurses in there, working like crazy to rescue his life from death. [His voice began to crackle with deep sorrow and overwhelming compassion…He struggled but continued on]. God, shorten my life and give to him years from my life. I’m serious, God, I’m asking that you, in your perfect providence and amazing power, shave off some years of my life and give them to Don. He just needs more time to really get to know you. To find his hope in you. To find his ultimate delight in you. To find that you are so much better than any high from any drug. He. Just. Needs. More. Time. God, you are good and do good; and I’m asking that you play out this whole thing for Don’s good – and your great glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

A tear splashed to the sterile hospital floor. Derek quickly wiped his face, hoping Draike didn’t see his emotional turmoil. Draike didn’t notice. He was busy looking at the flurry of activity all around him. So many people in pain, Draike thought to himself. “Dude, do you really believe all
that stuff?”, Draike asked Derek with genuine interest. “What are you talking about?”, Derek responded. “Like God being holy, sovereign…loving? I mean, you ended your prayer expressing your thoughts on God’s goodness! Look around. Do you really believe all of that? And not like a
pastor…But as a person…Do you really believe all of that stuff?” Derek was terrified of such a direct question. Is he losing faith? Is he beginning to doubt our God? Does he sense that I’m spiritually weak and fragile right now? Is Draike testing me right now? Why would he ask me this? “Of course,” Derek responded, furrowing his eyebrows to study Draike’s face as he looked for non-verbal clues that would unearth the motivation behind such a probing question. “Well, good,” Draike said without much emotion. “But, if I can be honest?”, Draike stared straight into Derek’s eyes. “Of course,” Derek responded, immediately regretting using the “of course” line twice in a row and also worried at what Draike would say. “Well, we’ve been through some crap over the years. It seems like pastoral ministry is just a caravan of craziness that leads us from one disaster to another. It’s not that I’m losing faith, but [Draike paused to collect his thoughts…He hesitated but eked out], but I’m feeling crusty. Dried up. About to break. Does that make sense?” Derek took an involuntary big gulp of saliva. “More than you know,” Derek replied.

“Let’s get out of here,” Draike said, jumping to his feet with renewed energy. “Yeah,” Derek said, pulling out his phone. He had a text message. It was from the Lockers…A troubled family, plagued by average intelligence and hyper-emotionalism. They were some of Derek’s worst critics, complaining about everything from his preaching length to how the nursery was staffed. Derek sighed as he opened the text message from Ethan Locker (the husband and father). It was a long text. A short story really. It was written with unnecessary formalism. It began, “Pastor Stevens, we regret to inform you…” Derek quickly skimmed through the rest of the poorly written text that clearly oozed of a person who was swinging way outside of their intellectual bandwidth…They were leaving the church. Finally, Derek thought. He looked at Draike as they walked out of the ER towards the hospital exit sign, “The Lockers are leaving the church…” Draike smiled and raised his hand high. Derek smacked it – hard – with excitement. Draike emoted, “That’s something worth high fiving and…celebrating! Let’s get some pizza. You hungry?” “Ha! After the smell of blood and vomit? [Derek paused for dramatic effect…] You bet!” Draike laughed, “Yeah, buddy!”Part 9: Happy…

Heading onto the interstate, Derek’s mind was a messy swirl of dark thoughts. Must. Stop. Overthinking. He reached for the radio and turned it on. He was met with the following song. It was new to him. So, he turned it up – loud, very loud…

As these song lyrics blared in his old Chevy Blazer, the tears began to thickly drip from his eyes and onto his thin cheekbones…Why can’t we all just be happy? Why is there so much pain in this world? Why does everything have to freaking hurt so much? Is Don gonna be okay? How in the world can I help him now? “AHHHH!”, Derek screamed as he tried to unhinge himself from the dark, depressing thoughts of his foggy mind.

Whipping into the ER parking lot, Derek and Draike arrived nearly at the same time. “Speed much?”, Draike asked Derek, chuckling to himself. “Indeed. Let’s get in there and visit with Don.”, Derek said with the intensity of a solider on a mission.

Stepping into the hospital, the ER waiting room was beyond crowded. Nearly every chair was filled with people holding bandages, doubled over in pain, and looking exhausted with surprise grief. Such a scene was strangely comforting to both Derek and Draike. This was their domain. This is where they felt most – alive. Being in the center of chaos, pain, urgency, and intensity fueled their adrenaline, causing them to embrace life (full throttle), even as death closed in on them from all sides. Indeed, for Derek he felt most comfortable and free in the pulpit and in the hospital. “Time to get to work,” Derek said to Draike. “Got your Bible?”, Derek asked. “Always,” responded Draike, holding up his tattered leather brown Bible as if it were a literal sword.

As Derek and Draike stepped into the ER registration line, Derek looked around the ER waiting room. Is that Haddie?! “Hold on a sec,” Derek said to Draike, quickly stepping out of the line to approach what seemed to be a haggard, greyish version of Haddie Nobels. “Haddie?”, Derek asked nervously. No response. “Haddie? Is that you?” “Yes, Pastor. I’m not doing too well. I cut myself.” Derek looked down to see Haddie holding her left arm with a green towel. “What happened?”, Derek asked. Haddie took the towel off to reveal deep razor blade cuts up and down her arm. “Oh, Haddie,” Derek said with unreserved grief. “Why?” Haddie looked up. “I’m just so unhappy…”

Part 8: Drugs…

Derek’s eyes immediately popped open. He grabbed his phone to ascertain the time. 4:56am. Perfect…Just 4 hours of sleep. He then immediately remembered one of his drill sergeants from Army Basic Training. His loud, domineering voice of authority echoed in Derek’s brain, “All you need is 4 hours of sleep (in non-consecutive order) to be fighting, battle ready! No complaining. Let’s get after it, men!” A smile of pessimism crossed his face. “I guess I’m battle ready,” Derek whispered to himself.

Climbing back up the stairs from the living room, Derek stumbled into the bathroom. Closing the door, he turned on the light and stepped on to the scale. 164 pounds. Great. Another five pounds lost, Derek nervously thought. Indeed, before the trauma of this year, Derek was a solid 180 pounds. But as winter morphed into spring, and spring into summer, and now summer into fall, Derek had lost a total of 16 pounds. He just couldn’t eat. Absolutely no appetite. Indeed, when there was work to do and a crisis to handle, Derek hardly ate – and (now) he was hardly sleeping. I’ll regain the muscle mass later, Derek optimistically thought to himself. I don’t need food right now. I just need to fix this mess…

After heading back down the stairs, he made himself a quick cup of coffee and headed to the office to get a head start on the day. Arriving at his office, he surveyed his to-do list: 1) Check in with Haddie and pray with her over the phone, 2) Call Hannah back and reschedule counseling, 3) Visit with Louis in the psych ward and offer support, and 4) Conduct Staff Meeting with Draike. Draike! That’s right…He gets back from his three-week Missions‘ Trip today, Derek thought to himself as a surge of dopamine quickly flooded his brain.

Draike Samuels was Derek Stevens’ right-hand man – his Associate Pastor. For the last seven years, the two of them were an unstoppable duo of passion and precision. Indeed, both of them came from similar backgrounds. Derek had served in the Army and had been deployed twice to Iraq. Draike had also served in the Army and had been deployed twice to Afghanistan. Derek was an Intel Analyst. Draike had been an Infantry Soldier. Derek was an airborne paratrooper. Draike had been an air assault soldier…The two of them frequently gave each other a hard time, joking hard corps of who had more of an impact while in the service. “Airborne is superior to air assault,” Derek would emphatically state. “There hasn’t been a legitimate, guts and glory airborne operation since World War 2,” Draike would consistently pipe back. “Intel drives combat operations,” Derek would crack back. “Infantry is the Queen of Battle,” Draike would consistently and factually reply back. “Yeah, but who’s the King?”, Derek always questioned back with a grin on his face. Yes, these two were combat vets, family men, and now pastoring in the same church together. Derek truly considered the two of them as “David & Jonathan”, “Frodo & Sam”, or a “Batman & Robin” combo.

As Derek continued to daydream in his office, Draike walked into the office. Derek moved towards him with enthusiasm and embraced him. “Welcome home, brother! How was your trip to Ukraine?!” Draike responded, “Exhausting, but good.” “That’s good to hear,” Derek responded, “But why are you here so early?” “Just wanted to get a jump on the day,” Draike answered. “My man,” Derek said. “Well, it’s 6:30am. Might as well get rolling with our Staff Meeting, if that’s okay with you?” “Absolutely. Let’s knock it out,” Draike responded.

After spending some time in prayer for their church family, Derek and Draike began to go over the preaching schedule for the rest of the year, both of them agreeing that a mini-series on the suffering of man and the sovereignty of God was exactly where they needed to direct the congregation in terms of preaching and teaching for the rest of the year. They also went over the fall ministries of the church and divided out different administrative responsibilities (mostly in regard to recruiting an adequate volunteer force for each ministry). They also did some slight visioneering for the future, dreaming about what could be (and should be) in the life of their church. Visioneering was Derek’s favorite part of his weekly Staff Meetings with Draike. They would simply spend some time dreaming of how to make the church better, stronger, and more efficient in the great work of sharing the Gospel with others.

Towards the tail end of their meeting, they both looked at each other. Both of them clearly reading the other person’s mind. “You ready for this?”, Derek dryly asked. “No, but let’s get on with it,” Draike replied. Derek then brought Draike up to speed with all the issues, problems, and fires raging in their small church family. Derek updated Draike on the Nobels’ crumbling marriage, Jason’s secret baby with Abby, Hannah’s recent counseling “progress”, their pastor-friend (Louis) having a mental breakdown and entering the psych ward, and a few other families that had reached out with vague requests for help over complicated situations. “Okay. So, what do you want to tackle first?”, Draike responded straightforwardly.

Just then the church phone began to ring. “9:00 on the money,” Derek excitedly said to Draike. “This is Kingland Baptist Church. Pastor Stevens speaking.” Strong profanity immediately met him over the line. “Pastor, I need you at the hospital right now!” It was Sam Freeman, a new believer and church member who swore like a sailor. Derek could hear the panic and fear in Sam’s voice. “What happened?!”, Derek asked with concern. “It’s my son, Don, he [more strong profanity] overdosed. God, I hate meth. I swear to you, I’ll find the person who sold to him, and I’ll kill him!” “Pastor Samuels and I are headed to the hospital right now. We’ll meet you there. Hang tight.” Derek hung up the phone and looked directly at Draike. “It’s time to mount up…Don Freeman has just overdosed on meth.” “Let’s go,” Draike emphatically responded.

Getting into their vehicles, Derek paused for a moment and then asked Draike, “Did you ever think the ministry would be this chaotic and insane?” Draike chuckled, “No, but it sure makes things fun, huh?” “Fun? You and I have two very different definitions of fun,” Derek chuckled back. “Yeah, that’s because you’re just an Intel Nerd,” Draike quipped back. “Touché,” Derek responded. Just then, Derek felt a shiver come across his body. He looked up. The sky was grey with specks of flurries in the air. “Snow? In October?” “Yeah,” Draike responded, “Winter’s coming.” “Indeed,” Derek acknowledged. Winter’s coming…And winter was the absolute worst season for Derek. During this season, his depression would spike and his battle with the darkness always intensified. Good thing I’m in optimal fighting condition right now, Derek sarcastically thought to himself as he and Draike pulled out of the church parking lot and headed to the hospital…

Part 7: Stuck…

Getting into his Chevy, Derek was more than exhausted. His body felt heavy as he settled into the driver’s seat. With a tiny groan, and his hand making a sloth-like movement toward the rearview mirror, he stole a peek at his face. It was red, and his eyes were clearly puffy. He grimaced at himself, annoyed at his sorrowful humanity. Then, with a burst of energy and emotion, he pointed at his reflection and angrily whispered, “I. Resign!” He continued to stare at his reddish, puffy reflection, fully expecting for the face in the mirror to respond back with some sort of independent validation of his dogmatic statement…He paused for a few moments more…”Yeah right,” he gently whispered to himself as he put the Chevy into drive and made his way out of Haddie’s driveway. “Yeah, you’re just going to suck it up and drive on,” Derek said, continuing his monologue towards home.

Just then, his phone began to buzz. What is it now? Derek picked up his phone. It was Hannah, his counselee from earlier that day. What could she possibly want now? Honestly, I don’t have time for this. Derek looked at the clock in his Chevy. 3:23pm stared back at him from the dashboard. Well, I have the time, but I don’t really have the energy right now, Derek resolutely thought to himself as he silenced his phone, feeling slightly guilty for redirecting Hannah towards his voicemail. She’ll be all right. I will talk with her tomorrow. I just don’t have the strength to deal with another problem or issue today…

Pulling into his driveway, Derek felt relief. Home. Sweet. Home. Derek was truly looking forward to seeing his wife, Patricia, and spending a relaxing evening with her and their four kids, eating a nice dinner. A smile crossed his face. “It’s so good to be home,” he whispered to himself. Just then, his phone alerted him to an incoming text message. His smile faded, replaced with an intense focus….What the blazes now? He picked up his phone to see that one of his deacons, Robert Goodman, had texted him. Robert’s text was simple and direct: “Have you heard about what happened to Louis?” Louis? The Presbyterian Pastor in town? Derek texted back, “No. What happened?” Robert’s reply was quick and clear: “Apparently, he’s suffered a mental breakdown and has been admitted to the psych ward for evaluation…” Another positive and uplifting message, Derek thought with dreary gloom. “Thanks for letting me know. I will keep him in prayer and visit him as I am able…” Derek wrote back.

Entering his home, Derek was immediately met with a flurry of activity. Patricia was slaving away in the kitchen, making dinner…And the kids? The kids were fighting. “Give it back!” yelled his oldest daughter, Becky (age 10). “No! Mooooom!” shouted his youngest son, Travis (age 5). “Can you please handle this?” Patricia asked Derek with frustrated overtones that clearly indicated that she had been having quite the day herself. “I’ll take care of it,” Derek said, irritated that his perfect vision of a quiet evening at home had been shattered by the reality of a busy home life…

Later that evening, Derek and Patricia crawled into bed. “How was your day?” Patricia sleepily asked Derek. “A trainwreck,” Derek dryly replied. “Oh, what happened?!” Patricia asked, suddenly energized with genuine wifely concern. Derek didn’t have the energy to sugarcoat anything. “Well, freaking Jared got his girlfriend, Abby, pregnant. He’s already left Haddie, and, apparently, is getting ready to restart his life with Abby and their new baby girl that’s coming.” Patricia was flabbergasted, but managed to emote, “Oh, my! Poor Haddie. And their three precious girls!” “Yeah,” Derek said gloomily. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Let’s just get some sleep.” “Ok, but are you okay?” Patricia asked with deep concern. “No,” said Derek flatly. “But it is what it is. Let’s just get some sleep.”

Sleep came fast and furious for Derek. Indeed, he fell into a deep sleep, and as he slept, he dreamed a dream…Before him stood a mansion – a glorious mansion, imbedded with immense wealth, deep history, and breathtaking majesty. Indeed, it was beyond beautiful, and yet, it carried a sinister, invitational horror. But such thoughts quickly evaporated as Derek, viewing himself from above, saw himself holding his wife’s hand. Intense feelings of pleasure erupted from him as he saw himself dressed in an expensive tux with his wife wearing an equally expensive, sparkling, and elegant dress that waved in the soft wind with dramatic flair. She looked absolutely mesmerizing. And in this moment, he was (truly) happy…

Entering the mansion, Derek was swept away with the grandeur of the mansion. Everywhere his eyes turned he saw wealth, history, beauty, and power. Indeed, the house was filled with party guests, all of them clearly people of high importance, royal in appearance, and oozing of old money. Quickly brushing off thoughts of his own inferiority, Derek and his wife were whisked away with the pomp and circumstance of the party. Everything was top shelf! The food was divine, the conversations were stimulating, and the entertainment was grade A. Everyone was having the time of their lives.

Gathered around the stately dining room table, the party guests were deeply and energetically enraptured by the bounteous feast and the riveting conversations. This was a party like none other! But just then, the phone began to ring. The ringtone pierced throughout the mansion, causing conversations among the party guests to come to a complete halt. The silence was deafening. The regal butler answered the phone and was immediately met with a stern command, “Put me on speaker phone…” The caller’s voice was deep, distinct, dark, and undeniably dangerous…

The butler immediately and unemotionally obeyed. The ominous caller continued, “Good evening, my dear guests. Welcome to my humble abode. I trust that the food and the entertainment has exceeded your expectations. Now, it’s my turn for a bit of fun. At this present moment, you all are trapped in this room. Indeed, your feet are cemented into place around this table. You’re stuck. The only way to free yourself from this dire situation is to set your feet on fire…” As the sadistic caller continued his dark diatribe, the butler began to pass out matches and candles to all the guests. Suddenly, one of the party guests burst into flames and began running around the dining room, engulfed in horrific flames as her husband had tried to free her by setting her feet on fire. Then, another one burst into flames…Then another…Then another…Then another! Derek panicked. He tried to unhinge himself by vigorously pulling at his legs. He begged Patricia to do the same, but she was screeching in utter horror at the devilish scene unfolding in front of her. The mansion was now totally on fire, the screams of the unstuck were horrifying, and the fear of those still stuck at the table was palpable…And the mysterious caller on the other end of the line? He – he was laughing with utter delight as if this were the only scene that could satisfy his overstimulated, over-experienced, and overly tainted soul.

Derek jolted awoke, sweating, shaking, crying, and totally terrified. He bolted out the bedroom door, headed down the stairs, towards the living room. Dear God, help me. I just need these voices in my head to stop. Dear God, silence the noise! “Yes…Silence,” Derek said softly, remembering a dark lullaby from his days in Iraq. He reached for his phone and went to his YouTube app…”There it is. ‘Sound of Silence.’” God, get me to sleep. I have so much to do tomorrow...With that prayer firmly stuck in his brain, Derek listened to the following words that simultaneously haunted him and helped him with a schizophrenic joy, the hot tears pooling at the end of his trembling chin…

Part 6: Secrets…

His heart was beating so fast…Driving to Haddie’s house, Derek’s mind raced in a million different directions. What did she find? Is it bad? Is it really, really bad? How bad could it be? Will it cause further hurt and damage to an already dying marriage? His thoughts continued to jumble in all sorts of dark directions…And his heart! It was beating so fast – too fast. What’s wrong with me? I feel like my heart is about to jump out of my chest…And my blood…It’s rushing too fast. He pulled over, slamming on the brakes of his Chevy, causing the rocks on the shoulder of the highway to go flying.

Just calm down. Breathe. Breathe. Just breathe. Derek did his best to analyze the situation. And then, the shaking began. Son of a biscuit. What’s wrong with me! Get it together. “Ok, God. I need you to help me. Slow my heart. Slow my blood. Stop my shaking. I hate feeling this way! I don’t want to feel my heart and my blood. I need this shaking to stop. Now!” Just then he could hear the hyperventilation of his breathing. Hffff – Hffff – Hffff – Hffff – Hffff. His breathing seemed to match the fast-paced throbbing of his heart and blood. He tried to regrip the steering wheel, but his shaking was so bad. “God, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Help me. Just help me.”

Derek put his vehicle into park and carefully felt for the lever to his chair. Pulling the lever up, he felt the jagged downward movement of his seat. He closed his eyes, using his trembling hand to caress his chest. I just need to calm down. Goodness! Why do I care so much about this situation with Haddie? Derek paused his thinking for a moment, and then continued on, Because you’ve got freaking co-dependent issues, Derek correctly counseled himself. Just breathe. Derek took slow, careful breaths. In. Out. In. Out. He seemed to feel better. He couldn’t feel the rushing of his blood anymore. Derek grew excited and opened his eyes to examine his hands. Shaking was gone. Ok, finally, let’s get on to Haddie’s house, Derek concluded.

Pulling into Haddie’s driveway, Derek peeked at himself in the rearview mirror of his Chevy. Cool, calm, and collected, Derek thought as he snickered to himself. Haddie met him at the door. “Thanks for coming, Pastor. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble.” “No trouble at all,” Derek said mindlessly with immediate regret for the flat-out lie. “You said you found something?” “Yes,” Haddie said grimly. “Come with me. It’s upstairs.”

Making his way through the Nobel’s home, he immediately felt surges of sadness and anger. How could Jared just up and leave his wife and three girls! And they’re so young. Just 6, 8, and 11. Derek’s mind immediately rushed to thoughts of his own four kids. They were young too. Could I ever do something like this to them? Derek’s thoughts were quickly jolted as he followed Haddie up the stairs. Where is she taking me? Getting to Haddie’s bedroom, Derek immediately felt uncomfortable. “I’ll just stay out here,” Derek politely, but firmly stated. Haddie didn’t respond. She immediately opened the bedroom door and went to her nightstand and picked up a small picture. Derek couldn’t quite make it out from the doorway, but the picture looked like a black and white photo.

Haddie came to the doorway but stopped just shy of entering the hallway with Derek. With hot tears in her eyes, she laboriously mouthed the words, “And. Here. Is. The. Real reason that he’s gone…” She dropped the photo with her knees simultaneously crumbling to the ground. At this point, Haddie was sobbing. Then the wailing began. Derek’s mind immediately retreated back to his military days. The last time he witnessed a young wife sobbing and wailing with uncontrollable grief was at the funeral of a fellow soldier who had been killed in combat. Derek was all too familiar with the shrill sounds of death as a young widow’s cry will splatter your heart with unrecognizable and unforgettable emotions. But who died? Whose no longer alive?

Derek began to shake again. With trembling hands, he picked up the photo. Indeed, it was a black and white picture- an ultrasound picture. A tiny baby with outstretched arms was clearly visible. Derek turned the photo over and read these words of delight – words of doom: “Here’s our little peanut. She’s beautiful! Can’t wait to begin our lives together as a family of 3. XOXO, Abby”. So, this was his big secret. Derek’s eyes welled up with tears and the snot simultaneously loosened from his nostrils. He was about to cry an ugly cry. Good thing no one’s around to judge me, Derek thought with angry satisfaction as Haddie continued to wail in the fetal position on the floor. God, when will this nightmare end? How do I help her when I feel like my own heart is just so jaded

Part 5: Holy…

Slumping into his office chair, Derek leaned back with heavy exhaustion. Cracking open the thick can of his cold energy drink, he took a big gulp. Refreshing, he thought. Just then, Derek heard the rumbling of rocks in the church parking lot. Great, he sarcastically thought to himself. Who could it be this time? With begrudging effort, he sat up straight in his chair and tried to look dignified by acting busy with the paperwork on his desk.

“Morning, Rev!” said Lawrence Brown as he bounced into Derek’s office. “Question for you. I’m looking for a holy man. Do you know where I can find one?” Derek’s mind raced. What in the world is he talking about? A holy man? Lawrence, sensing that his joke was going over his pastor’s head, broke the awkward silence with the completion of the joke, “Because you’re not him, and neither am I!” Lawrence grinned as if he had won the Joke of the Year Award. But Derek could barely keep his composure from looking deeply disturbed. I’m looking for a holy man. Do you know where I can find one? Because you’re not him, and neither am I! The words stung deep. No truer words have been spoken, Derek thought with sad irritation, while eking out a small and nervous, “Ha-ha.”

“How can I help you?” Derek asked the highly extroverted construction worker who was a long-time member of the church. “Oh, I was just out and about and thought you would like some company.” Lawrence beamed as if he was Derek’s gift of the day. “Well, thanks for stopping by, but I have a counseling appointment with someone in about half an hour.” “No problem. I’ll just keep you company till then.” Perfect, Derek thought to himself.

Derek’s 9:30 came like a superhero to the rescue. “Thanks for stopping by,” Derek eagerly said to Lawrence, ushing him out the door with a hearty handshake. “See you soon!” Lawrence responded, oblivious that Derek was feeling drained from the fast-paced, random conversation about everything and nothing at the same time. See you soon indeed

“Hi, Hannah. How are you?” Derek asked with a renewed sense of pastoral decorum. “I’m ok,” Hannah answered timidly. Derek took a moment to gauge her response. She seems distant – guarded. Derek continued, “How was last week? Any improvement in your marriage?” “I don’t know. Grant just seems so distant – guarded.” Ironic, Derek thought to himself. “Well, how did your homework assignment go? Did you read the verses assigned?” “Yes,” Hannah stoically responded. Just then, Derek’s phone began to ring. It was Haddie Nobles. “I better take this,” Derek said to Hannah, excusing himself from his office to take the phone call in the cold hallway.

“Hey, Haddie. Is everything ok?” “Pastor, can you come over? ” “Sure,” Derek quickly responded, sensing something urgent. Haddie continued, “Thank you. I just found something, and I think you should see it.” “I’ll be right over,” Derek responded. Making his apologies to Hannah, he quickly prayed with her and reset her counseling appointment for tomorrow. “Same time?” asked Derek. “Sure,” said Hannah. “I’ll see you then,” said Derek. Hannah made her way to the door and then hesitated for a moment. “Pastor, your sermon from last Sunday about the holiness of God?” “Yeah,” Derek nervously responded. “Well, why is everything in my life so unholy? I try my best to love and serve the Lord, but I just feel so dirty – so used – so broken.” Derek looked at her, at a loss to respond and feeling slightly exposed. Indeed, before he could say anything, Hannah was out the door with thick tears welling up in her eyes. Derek gathered his belongings in preparation to get to the Nobel’s house. He silently prayed, God, I’m looking for a holy man. Do you know where I can find one? Because I’m certainly not it…

Part 4: Smoke…

He barely got any sleep. Too much tossing and turning had warded off the comfort of rest. He was up by 7am and truly felt guilty for not getting up earlier. Derek headed downstairs to grab a cup of coffee. He then made his way to a small wooden table tucked in the corner of his kitchen. He randomly opened his Bible to read a few verses. His eyes stumbled upon Psalm 9, Verse 10, “And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.” Hmmm, Derek thought to himself. “Not forsaken”, that’s a comforting thought. He took a few more sips of his black coffee and scanned the rest of Psalm 9, looking for relief. He found none. Better head to the office, he morbidly thought to himself.

Heading to the church office, Derek realized that the coffee he had consumed had done nothing for him. He was still exhausted – sleepy – restless. He decided to swing into the local gas station on the way to work. Stepping out of his Chevy Blazer, he heard the creak of his car door and smiled at the old faithfulness of his vehicle. 120,000 miles and still running strong, he thought to himself with pride and amusement. He stepped into the gas station and was met with a gruff grunt from the counter, “Good morning”, said the unenthused cashier. “Good morning”, Derek humbly responded.

Stepping in front of the energy drink aisle, he surveyed all the options. Too many options danced in front of him. Why are there so many options? And why are these things so expensive? Derek thought with irritation. He grabbed his favorite drink and headed to the counter, the cold drink sweating in his hands. There was a line – a long line for 8:30 in the morning. He was fifth in line. “Hurry up and wait”, he whispered to himself, chuckling at just how apropos that old military saying was to the whole of his life. Hurry up and wait indeed, he thought to himself.

While in line, his eyes glanced at the tobacco options behind the register. So many options: Marlboros, Camels, and Lucky Strikes donned the neatly packaged shelves. The line moved forward. He was now third in line. The doorbell dinged, indicating a new customer had entered the gas station. A farmer waddled in, looking beat with sleepless eyes. I feel his pain, Derek thought to himself. “Scuse me,” the farmer said respectfully, but tiredly as he moved past Derek. “No problem,” Derek responded, his eyes quickly dancing back to the cigarette options behind the counter.

As he got to the front of the line, Derek’s eyes took another peak at the tobacco options, this time looking at the options at the bottom of the cigarette rack. A small black box stole his attention, “Djarum Black”. He smiled as his mind whisked back to his days in the Army when he was deployed to Iraq. Those sleek black clove cigars had provided so much comfort on the tough days of his combat deployment. His mind revisited campfires where he and his brothers-in-arms would sit around the fire after a long day of work…eating, drinking, and smoking. He inhaled deeply, remembering the thick, silky, spicy punch of this clove cigarette. Ahhh, relief, Derek reminisced. “Will that be all?” the gas station attendant rudely asked, breaking Derek’s train of thought. “Yes,” Derek stiffly responded, looking around him as if he had been caught doing something horribly wrong.

Driving away from the gas station, Derek couldn’t help feeling that he just needed something for relief – anything to distract his mind and heart from the constant turmoil he was feeling. Pastoral ministry in many ways had left him feeling defeated. Indeed, he seemed to have more sad stories than good stories to tell in his almost 7 years of ministry. I hate feeling this way. Why can’t I just be happy and carefree? Then, like a faithful butler at a creepy mansion, the Darkness responded with its gnarly, dogmatic voice, Ha! Would you even be able to recognize yourself if you were happy? It’s been years since you were truly carefree. Take my advice, turn the vehicle around. Buy those Djarums. You just need a healthy smoke

Part 3: Free…

Derek drove by tall fields of corn. Many farmers were still hard at work in their fields, harvesting their corn. Their bright tractor lights lit up the night sky. “America’s heartland,” Derek whispered out loud. Your graveyard, the Darkness hissed back. Perhaps, Derek thought back. No, the Darkness seemed to scream back, you’ll die out here, in the middle of nowhere, unknown, unloved, and totally deserted by the God who sent you here. Derek turned on the radio. Perhaps something encouraging and uplifting on the radio would set his mind straight before his visit with Haddie and Jared. But try as he may (this night or any other night), trying to drown out the voice of Darkness, or Depression, or whatever it was, was like trying to drown a hammerhead shark in the ocean – it just never worked.  

Pulling into the Nobels’ wide driveway, he glanced at the clock in his Blazer. Bright neon green numbers flashed the time – 11:38 PM. Wow, this is way too late for a visit, Derek thought to himself. Grabbing his Bible and phone, he exited his vehicle, took a deep breathe, whispered a quick prayer for help, and stepped toward the front door.  

Haddie must have seen him pull into the driveway because she immediately opened the front door as Derek neared it. “Good evening,” Derek said with subdued enthusiasm. “Thanks for coming,” Haddie responded without much emotion. They seemed to greet each other with the perfect degree of sobriety, which only intensified Derek’s anxiety over the dilemma that awaited him in their living room.

As he entered their house, he took of his shoes and placed them on the mat by the front door. He then briskly followed Haddie towards their living room. As they marched towards the living room, he felt surges of adrenaline as his body readied itself for what was about to take place.

Pictures of the Nobels lined the hallway that lead to the living room. Each picture told a story. Stories of hope, happiness, growth, and gratitude. So many stories…So many memories, Derek mused to himself.  

Entering the living room, Haddie and Derek found their seats. Haddie sat with Jared on the couch (Jared on one end and Haddie at the other end) while Derek made himself comfortable on the La-Z-Boy chair just cattycorner to the couch. For a moment, everyone sat in silence. Derek had always struggled with silence. As a pastor, he felt that he should always be saying something to cut through the awkward silences – something encouraging, or insightful, or just plain helpful.

Derek, seeking to relieve the tension in the room, broke the silence with a general question, “So, how are you guys?” Haddie looked at Jared, hoping he would respond first. Not seeing any desire within Jared to speak up, Haddie answered, “Not good,” Haddie said with gloomy frustration, “Jared wants to leave.” “Leave?” Derek asked, “What do you mean?” “I’ve just had enough,” Jared quickly interjected with his thick, originally-from-Alabama accent, “This marriage simply isn’t working. I’m unhappy. She’s unhappy. We’re just better off apart.” Derek sat up in his chair, trying to think of an appropriate, pastoral response.

Before Derek could respond, Jared continued, “It’s really the best solution for everybody, especially the kids. I mean, the kids deserve for us to be happy. With the way things are right now, Haddie and I are always fighting and arguing. This isn’t good for the kids at all. Wouldn’t you agree, Pastor?” Jared looked at Derek for some sort of reassurance. Derek responded, “I would agree that you and Haddie constantly fighting isn’t a good environment for the kids, but do you really think leaving is the answer? I mean, what about counseling?” “No, it’s too late for that. We’ve tried that before and it simply doesn’t work. I mean, it’ll work for a little while and then we go back to our old ways of doing things.” Derek looked defeated. He really didn’t want another imploded marriage on his resume. Indeed, Derek felt surges of grief and anger overtake his body. Another marriage down the pits, he gloomily thought to himself.

Suddenly, Haddie’s anger seemed to bubble up and excrete towards Jared, “Why don’t you tell Pastor the real reason you are leaving,” Haddie glared at Jared with intense rage, “Tell him where you plan to stay.” Jared tried to diffuse Haddie’s anger with a factual response, “Tonight, I’ll stay at a hotel; and then I plan to move in with Abby.” “Abby?” Derek questioned, “Who’s Abby?” “His girlfriend,” Haddie responded with disturbed irritation.

Haddie and Jared then began to attack each other. “Why do you have to act that way?” Derek said angrily, “Why do you act like this is all my fault? Our marriage has been over for a long time and you know it.” Haddie ignored Jared’s questions and asked one of her own, “How long have you been with her?” “Why do you need to know?” Jared shot back. Derek interjected, trying to diffuse the situation, “Did you two meet at work?” “Yes,” Jared responded, “And all I know is that when I’m with her, I feel happy. I feel…I feel free,” he finally concluded with an exhausted look on his face.  

Derek’s heart sank. Unfortunately, he had dealt with this same type of scenario a half-dozen times in his small rural congregation. Yes, he had seen it before, namely, a man becomes bored with his marriage and fosters that discontent for months or years. Discontent then gives birth to bitterness and then in swoops the other woman, ready to provide the escape and freedom that man is longing for. Same story, different day, Derek thought to himself.

“How should we tell the kids?” Haddie asked matter-of-factly. “Hold up,” Derek interjected, “So that’s it? You’re both done? Why not stay tonight and we’ll evaluate everything in the morning. Let’s not make any rash decisions,” Derek spoke intently to Jared, trying his best to convince him to stay. “No, it’s over, Pastor. We’re done. Thanks for trying to help, but this marriage has long been over.” Jared spoke with finality and authority and then got up from the couch. “Are you leaving now?” Haddie asked. “Yes. We’re done and I don’t feel like talking about it anymore.” “Please stay,” Haddie begged. “I can be different. We both can be different. Think about our girls!” Haddie was almost frantic with emotion. “I am thinking of the girls,” Jared responded coldly, “They’ll be much better off with the two of us apart.”

With that, Jared picked up a small black duffel bag, already packed with some clothes and hygiene items, and walked out the front door. The roar of his Ford F-150 could be heard from the living room as Derek and Haddie sat in silence and stared at the floor. Cold, defeat enveloped the both of them. Why did they even call me? Derek thought to himself. Derek had begun to loathe his front row seat to the damage and destruction that sin and selfishness seemed to wreak upon his small congregation and community.  

“How am I going to tell the girls?” Haddie seemed irritated, shocked, and disappointed. “They’ll be devastated,” she continued. “Do you want me to tell them for you?” Derek offered with sympathy. “I don’t know,” Haddie said as she began to tear up, “I just feel so…so…” Haddie disrupted her own thinking by exploding with emotion, “I mean, how could he? Am I really that horrible to live with? How could he leave his girls? And for what? Abby?!” The questions seemed to pour out of Haddie like hot lava from a volcano. “I just feel so…so abandoned.” There’s that word again, Derek thought. “God will see you and your girls through,” Derek said with believability and pastoral tactfulness. “God?” Haddie questioned, “I can’t believe that God would even allow something like this to take place.” Derek secretly emphasized with her. “God will get you through,” Derek repeated, hoping that the repetition would build confidence into Haddie’s faith and thinking.

“Is there anything that I can do for you?” Derek asked, trying to close down the conversation. “No, thanks for stopping by,” Haddie responded grimly. “Ok. Well, let me pray with you,” Derek offered. “Sure,” said Haddie. Derek paused for a moment, and then prayed, “Father God, we come to you right now with hearts that are heavy. God, I ask that you would walk beside Haddie and give to her grace and strength to meet this new trial. I also ask that you would give to her great wisdom and discernment as she encounters many decisions in the days and weeks ahead. And God, most of all, I ask that you shield Haddie’s precious girls from the damage that Jared’s leaving will do.” Derek paused in his prayer and tried to tame down his mounting emotions. “And God,” Derek continued, “Just get us all through this trial. Remind us that you are near and that you care; and if it be your will, bring Jared back home. In Jesus’ name…Amen.”

For a few minutes afterwards, Derek and Haddie spoke about general topics. Their conversation was mostly somber, but pleasant. Derek offered basic, biblical advice and loving, pastoral counsel. Derek then got up from his chair and walked to the front door. “Thanks again for coming,” Haddie said as he walked out the door. “Stay strong,” Derek responded.

Just before he got into his Blazer, Derek looked at his watch. 12:58 his watch read. Almost 1:00 in the morning, Derek mussed to himself. The cold night air made him shudder and shake again. He looked up into the cold, but clear midwestern night sky. So many stars danced in the night air, taunting their joyful distance from the pain and sorrow of this earth. This is ministry, he thought to himself in depressed anger.

Indeed, as Derek drove away from the Nobels’ house, so many emotions pulsed through his body; so many thoughts pounded in his brain…Maybe I’m just doing something wrong. Why is all of this happening to me? This is like the third crisis I’ve dealt with in the last several weeks. He felt exhausted. “We’ve both been abandoned,” Derek said out loud with morbid certainty. I’m quite sure of it, Derek thought to himself, Haddie and I have both been abandoned. He then let out a tired huff and a nervous chuckle. “So, so, Jared is free, and we’ve been abandoned?!” Derek loudly whispered the words with angry intensity, smashing his hand against the steering wheel…

Part 2: Abandoned…

Patricia rolled over, unable to sleep. “Who was it?” she asked with concern. “Haddie Nobels. She says it’s an emergency. I really need to get over there.” “What is it this time?” Patricia groaned. Derek’s mind continued to race as to what problem awaited him at the Nobels’ house. Did they have another fight? Did Jared get violent with Haddie this time? Will they finally pull the plug on their rocky, volatile marriage? Derek’s mind sputtered different thoughts from bad to worse. “Your blue jeans are in the dryer,” Patricia said, disturbing Derek’s thoughts of doom and gloom. “Thanks,” he said, irritated at being jilted from his thoughts, but thankful for clean blue jeans.

Derek hurriedly put on his clothes and then looked at himself in the mirror. A red polo, blue jeans, and sneakers stared back at him from the mirror. I wonder if red is too aggressive of a color, he thought to himself. He quickly dismissed the thought as overly-picky and hyper-analytical. Indeed, Derek had a problem of overthinking just about everything, and this little habit, though at one time he thought it was a gift, drove his wife bonkers. I’m sure the color red will be just fine, he imagined his wife saying.

Derek then took a hard stare at his face in the mirror. He felt old, but his face looked young…Perhaps too young. He often got raised eyebrows and small smirks whenever he would introduce himself as “Pastor Stevens” during hospital visits. He could tell that most people doubted his abilities because of the appearance of youth that donned his face, and some were so bold to actually voice their concerns over his appeared age. But at age 35, he was glad to look younger, not older, because internally he felt old…Perhaps too old.

Derek took a quick look at his watch, 11:20 PM. He turned from the mirror that hung on his bedroom door and approached his wife who was half-asleep in bed. He took a good long look at her. How grateful he was for Patricia. She was such a beautiful woman with golden brownish hair, an athletic face, and full lips. Derek bent down to kiss his wife, who returned the kiss with a small peck. He smiled. He loved the way his wife’s lips felt on his…So soft, almost feathery, and always comforting. “I love you,” he whispered. “Love you too,” she sleepily replied, trying to give him a smile.

Derek tiptoed out the bedroom door and continued to step lightly down the hallway, past his children’s bedrooms, and then down the stairs. The stairs creaked and groaned as he placed his weight on each step. Indeed, he loved the way his old house creaked, revealing not just old age, but distant memories and subtle charm. I sure hope this creaking doesn’t wake the kids, he thought to himself. However, before he could fret any longer over the thought, he was already down the stairs and making his way out the front door.

The old wooden door closed hard behind Derek as he struggled to pull it shut. Out on his front porch, he stopped to take a look around. Between the bright streetlight and the full moon, he could clearly see everything. Looking out over his nicely manicured lawn, he noticed that his shaking had stopped. “Finally,” he muttered out loud, somewhat relieved that the shaking was over, and somewhat irritated that he even had to deal with this issue in the first place.

He then walked towards his vehicle that was parked in the street. His vehicle was a sturdy 2003 Chevy Blazer, maroon in color. Maroon was his favorite color. It reminded him of his time in the military as an Army paratrooper, wearing a maroon beret. It also reminded him of courage. Yes, to Derek, maroon was the color of courage. And according to Derek, “Courage, next to godliness, is perhaps the most important virtue a pastor can possess.”

As he neared the Blazer door, he was struck with the coldness of the fall night air. Fall was Derek’s favorite season. All the coloring in the trees made his imagination percolate with thoughts that God, the Grand Designer, would take out his paintbrush every year and color the trees bright shades of yellow, red, and orange. However, the jagged coldness of this particular night, made him shudder at the thought that winter was coming; and winter, unlike fall, was not his favorite season at all.

Entering his vehicle, he quickly placed his “pastoral toolkit” into the passenger seat. His must-have-tools for daily efficient ministry, included: 1) His black, leather-bound Bible, tattered from years of use, 2) A brown, leather-bound planner (a paper brain never forgets, he thought to himself in amusement), and 3) His cell phone, the battery charged at just 89%. Derek truly loved his Bible and his planner. Totally necessary for pastoral ministry, he confidently thought to himself. He picked up his phone and then set it back down. “A necessary evil,” he jokingly said out loud.

He then put his Blazer into drive and set out toward Haddie Nobles’ house. He had been there enough times to know that it would take approximately 15 minutes to arrive at her country farmhouse. Driving down the road, he turned the radio on. A few seconds later, he decided to turn it off. I’d better use the drive time to think and pray, he thought to himself. Derek would often use his drive time to think and pray, occasionally indulging in the radio as a way to distract his heart and mind from the stresses and tensions of ministry.

“God help me help them,” Derek muttered out loud with some degree of fervency. “God, I just can’t do this without you. I’m too weak and too dumb to help Haddie and Jared on my own. Please help me help them.” Derek listened to the gentle humming of his motor as he made his way down Chestnut Street toward 5th Street. He so wished for God to audibly speak back to him…to say something – anything, but Derek never heard the voice of God. In nearly seven years of pastoral ministry, he never heard God speak. Yes, surely, he had seen God work in his life, his family’s life, and his church’s life, but never had he experienced something as supernatural as hearing the voice of God.

And you never will, the Darkness seemed to hiss. Your God has abandoned you, the Darkness kept taunting. Such invasive, depressive, and demonic thoughts were a constant theme in Derek’s life and ministry. Indeed, he never seemed to hear the voice of God, but the voice of Evil seemed to register into his heart and mind on a frequent basis. “Abandoned?” Derek questioned the Darkness. At times, it certainly felt like God had abandoned him in the middle of nowhere…

Part 1: Shaking…

He laid there in his bed, shaking uncontrollably. Like a tired, cold dog just fresh from his bath, Derek Stevens could not stop shaking. His wife, Patricia, held him and gently caressed his back. Derek felt momentary relief and true gratefulness for his wife’s compassion, but the shaking would not stop.

“You need to get some sleep,” his wife said in a gentle whisper. “I – just – can’t,” Derek said in a choppy and rhythmic pattern that mirrored the shaking of his body. “What are you going to do?” his wife asked. “I need to use the bathroom,” he muttered with frustrated overtones.

As Derek got out of bed, he stiffened his body, trying to stop the shivering and shaking. It didn’t work. He staggered to the bathroom that was just down the hallway from his bedroom. As he arrived at the bathroom sink, he began to dry heave. His belly seemed to convulsive violently, trying to erupt something from out of his mouth. Combined with his shaking, Derek felt woozy, weak, and (worst of all) humiliated. He made his way over to the toilet and hugged the porcelain pot, hoping to vomit. “Dear God, help me, help me, help me…”Derek pathetically prayed through spits and drools.

Indeed, Derek was overworked, overstressed, and overburdened. In a word, he was overwhelmed; and all of this stress was fighting back by means of destroying his physical health. There had been warning signs for many years, telling Derek to slow his pace and catch his breath. Warning signs like disrupted sleep patterns, difficulty concentrating at work, and increased anxiety, but he had ignored such signs, determined to keep on going. Don’t ever give up, he consistently thought to himself.

After a few more minutes in the bathroom, dry heaving and shaking, he heard his phone ring. A shot of terror ran through his body and his blood began to curl. Derek had begun to hate the sound of his phone. Someone was always calling with some concern, or emergency, or heartbreaking news. Rarely did anyone call with good news; and at 11:00 at night, this was most definitely not good news.

Just as Derek’s ringtone went off for the fourth time, he picked it up. Caller ID revealed the caller – Haddie Nobels. He inhaled deeply and blew out the air through flared nostrils, bracing himself for what awaited him on the other line. “Hello,” Derek answered with caution. “Yes, Pastor, I’m sorry for calling so late, but it’s kind of an emergency. Would you be able to come by the house for a few minutes? Jared and I really need to speak with you.” Derek analyzed the crackling in her voice, trying to decipher what dilemma he was about to walk into, but his mind raced in a dozen different directions. This could be anything, he thought to himself. “I’ll be right over,” he said reluctantly…

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