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…
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 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 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…