November 15th marks the 3rd year anniversary of the most horrific experience of my entire life, and NO… it has nothing to do with internal church problems…but then again it’s the worst “INTERNAL” church problem I’ve ever experienced.
From my early childhood I have ALWAYS viewed life as being simply too short. I remember dreading to go to sleep, not because I didn’t enjoy rest & leisure. I was just afraid I’d MISS something FUN or important. I have even daydreamed about being CLONED somehow, so I could do 3 or 4 lives all at one time. My problem with graduating high school – I knew I could technically do ANYTHING…but not EVERYTHING.
When the Holy Spirit got through to me in 1976, I realized how many “church” people are actually NOT Christian people. I prayed and was baptized in 1972 but made it REAL in 76. Who knows, maybe I’ll stand before God and hear Him say…no son, I actually redeemed you in 72 and you just got serious in 76. Either way, what came with getting serious was a literal “counting of how many days I have left”. I still hated sleep but now it had as much to do with possible “wasted hours”, as the missing out on fun.
Just last week I looked at my dad after he and I took a trip to town to let an auto mechanic walk around my car only to say “Naw, I can’t possibly see how it could have bent the struts, but bring it back Monday and we’ll put her up on the rack.” “Well”, I said as we returned to the road, “there went an hour of our life that we’ll NEVER get back”. My dad who is definitely the rock from whence this chip was hewn said “Ain’t that the truth. Why didn’t you just tell us that on the phone and save us a trip.”
At 18, when I knew God wanted me to preach and presumably pastor as my vocation, I saw it as a race… not a slow paced marathon, but a very, very, VERY long hard sprint. Seriously, consider that if you are old enough to read this and understand it, you only have at best some 3000 weeks left? If you have $5.00 you’ve got 3000 weeks. If you have $5 billion, you have 3000 weeks. Point is…3000 weeks. Of course you might only have ONE. But even at that, my request to God is to go out in a blaze of glory.
So my ministry has always been one of urgency. I have a sign in my office that reads “Thou Shalt Not Whine.” And, to exponentially multiply this, I married a perfectionist who happens to have more talent in her little pinky than me or most people I know. SO…our quest together is to GET IT DONE, get it done RIGHT, get it done FAIRLY, and get it done YESTERDAY.
Quick synopsis of our ministry – youth minister – couldn’t wait everyday to get off of my mail route to get to our REAL job – youth. Church of @150 – we had 25-30 youth. But, that wasn’t enough. We started a para-church city ministry in 2 neighboring towns – saw 100+ young “spirit warriors” give their lives to Christ within months. If their parents went to a church we directed them to attend THAT church. 25 years later this “Spirit Warrior Youth” thing is well into its second generation and there’s no telling how many people these “warriors” have influenced for Christ.
Seminary – I prayed God, “I’ve got two kids and a good job…if you can work out a transfer with the post office, I can go.” Weeks later I was working in the Gretna, Louisiana post office. Second year a classmate said, “I know a church that you need to talk to.” Weeks later, I became a full time youth minister of around 75 youth (church avg. 700) – we maxed out at 152 before we got the call back home to come and pastor a small country church in SC…a “GREAT” small country church, ran about 50-60, and we saw over 40 baptisms the first year. Then we got the call to a big city church – big city church where half the deacons & leaders were having affairs and two were having an affair with each other (& all our deacons were men).
We did 6 years of evangelism (conferences & revivals), and 5 years as foreign missionaries, six if you count deputation. There have been many life lessons that we have gained along the way. And many great experiences worth mentioning, but I won’t bog you down or hold you up.
Lis and I both have always been serious soldiers, showing up first in line …for the Captain. Lord…you SAY it…we’ll DO it. One day in 1987 during Spirit Warriors, I felt the Lord saying, “If you really want THIS building…walk around it 7 times (like Joshua) and claim it as yours.” I know…I’m a NUT. Well, after my seventh time around, I felt good. Lesson learned – the Lord just wanted ME to realize that I WOULD DO IT. No, we didn’t get the building…but I DID exactly what I was TOLD. I’m almost positive God laughed for AGES. Glad to bring you a smile… SIR. I still laugh over that because I can imagine all of heaven laughing. There would come many more examples to follow. The overwhelming GOD message – “Chip, I don’t need you to FIGURE IT out…I just need you to keep your eyes HERE ON ME. I’ve got this. When I say move…you just MOVE.”
So, now I am downright obsessive about the days that I have left. I figure statistically, if you stand before the Lord (in that day) without having had SOMETHING to do with at least 5000 coming to Christ, you’ve wasted your life. THINK…If you interact with 3 people a week and let your light shine and your words be heard, 5000 is a minimum over a lifetime. It’s like Amway, you influence one who influences one, who influences one. The absolute best feeling in the world for Lisa and me has been recently finding out that our old youth have stayed active for 25 years influencing new converts. I got a Facebook from MY old youth pastor – Mike Catt (Albany, GA) – of “FIREPROOF” fame. He said what “40 yr old youth” were you referring to for prayer. I returned the note, “Mike, NOT one of YOUR youth. I HAVE 40 yr old youth…YOU now have 50 yr old youth.” BUT… if I have them … HE ALSO has them … because of his influence on me. Think Amway circles.
NOW MY TRAGEDY!!!
I don’t share the following with you for your pity…your pity and $5 will buy a venti cup of caramel macchiato at Star Bucks. I do (honestly) hope that some of my friends and former church members might finally understand… BUT, mainly, as Barney Fife would say, “It’s theraPEDic” just for me. I just told Lis last week that “I really MISS working with the military” mainly because somehow I felt connected to their psyche after this event…sort of the brotherhood of the affected.
My wife and I had just gotten to the new church – a church that had been written off by most. The people promised, after I BEGGED over & over …DON’T call me unless you are ready to REACH THIS IMMEDIATE COMMUNITY like you’ve NEVER done before. I am NOT AT ALL interested in maintaining your church. There was an Army base next door (tattoos… no way) and a housing project (poor, unruly, kids of different races … you’re kidding)
We began to head in the right direction with a great unified attitude as we started to renovate a 1970’s church into a state of the art 21st century place of worship. Instead of putting the jailhouse industrial look back into the bathrooms we created “a beautiful Tuscan tiled bathroom that people actually came out talking about – $5000+ instead of $2000 or less. We…excuse me (I) … yes I … insisted that the wallpaper from the Brady Bunch’s split level come out of the 30 ft high sanctuary and throughout all the halls. Also the children’s building needed to be “themed,” as well as our nurseries. OF COURSE, it was only the idea that originated from me. It took my wife and some wonderful ARTISTS and some strong construction oriented people to make it happen. We also wanted to turn our youth house into the MOST cutting edge hang-out that it could possibly be … on our budget.
Lisa and I were in our office area like we were on most late afternoons. Everyone else had gone home and we were getting ready ourselves. We had hired a wonderful Christian man who sang Southern Gospel with his family group on the weekends and worked as a painter by trade during the week. He was the low bid and we knew him & his ministry so he got the contract.
They were in the process of repainting our two-story, 30 ft tall, fan shaped sanctuary from top to bottom. It was Bruce, his son, and two workers that had been with him, like forever. Bruce had borrowed a scaffold from a dry wall guy in our church and had his extension ladder braced on top of the double scaffold. We had enjoyed him singing “I’m winging my way back home” all day while he worked away.
I’m going to take a break here and actually BEG…if you KNOW Bruce or you are his family…DO NOT READ ANY MORE OF THIS POST. I write these details for ME and for those who I really, really NEEDED then to reach out with a hug… instead of a pointed finger or fist.
I repeat…please don’t remind yourself of this day.
Lisa and I were in the office wing…some 100 yds away, I’d guess. All of a sudden we heard a “traffic accident”, a fallen power pole, maybe the wall of our church crumbling … SOMETHING … something loud and NOT good. Time sort of went into slow motion when we realized that it was very close, like INSIDE. I moved fast, then I ran. When I swung the sanctuary doors open I caught first glance of a pile of scaffolding and ladder at the back of our church.
I have always known that I was a leader because in any tragedy I go into “Survivor” mode. Yep, I’m the one they send home first – I automatically & very sternly instruct … YOU call 911, YOU get a blanket, and YOU come help me with this.
Only this time it was WAY worse. The 3 workers/son actually SAW it happen, so just one look at the result and (instant shock) it petrified them to such a degree that they absolutely could NOT come back inside. Three grown men almost crying, “I CAN’T!” I guess I went into three stages – 1.shock – 2.protect my wife – and 3. you’re IT buddy… whether you want to be IT or not. When I approached what I thought would be, at least somehow, a fixable situation… it was anything BUT.
My first words were, “LISA DO NOT come over here!!! DO NOT – he IS alive – so call 911. What my eyes were gazing on was straight out of anything but REALITY. Oh…God…oh…God…oh God and I was not taking His name in vain. Bruce had been painting the very tip of the peak of the wall when the ladder pushed the scaffold completely over causing him to plunge head first off the top of the ladder into the tangled scaffold and onto the concrete floor. Claw marks were visible on the freshly painted wall. The scaffolding sprawled onto the rear 3 pews and in the middle of it all was the contorted body of this gentleman who had brought a smile to us all morning with his singing.
When I got to him, he was inverted at about 30 degrees, his right leg twisted so far back that his foot was up close to his shoulder. I couldn’t tell or I don’t really remember the other leg. His back was no doubt broken because of the extreme bend. Both of his arms were obviously broken, his left sort of parallel with his body, back just enough to be snapped. And his right arm was not even describable. It was exactly like an arm is NEVER supposed to be. It was bent behind his back straight up, with 4-5 inches of a raw jagged bloody bone sticking out the end with the hand and wrist dangling below like a piece of rubber. The worst part is that I knew I shouldn’t – I couldn’t possibly – move him, and the problem was … his face was slammed, nose first into the thinly carpeted concrete. (We would later dig nose bone fragments out of the concrete.)
He was still breathing and all I could do was keep calling his name and trying to encourage him if he could hear me. I wanted to KEEP MY WIFE AWAY from the horror and make sure HIS SON didn’t come back in. The ONLY constructive thing I could do for him was to keep the blood away from his nose and mouth, so he wouldn’t asphyxiate. And for what seemed like an eternity I scraped a quart of blood at a time away from his face, each swipe would only make room for the next quart to gush out. I simply could NOT get ahead of the flow, but I knew he’d drown if I didn’t keep it up. It started to GET TO ME and I don’t know if I cried out loud … or just inside. But when the ambulance finally arrived, the paramedics came in, took one look and couldn’t have cared less about any damage that might take place by moving him. They moved as much metal that could be moved and one of the two guys said to me “OK…now grab his legs and let’s flip him over as evenly as we can.”
He was immediately intubated and before long they were gone and there we sat…tired, clueless, helpless, SPENT. My precious wife … (some of ya’ll … SOOOO don’t know my wife) she began to console the workers and son (she is the most compassionate person I know) and we got them to just sit & wait there until the family could arrive from 30 minutes away. Bruce lived in ICU for several days but he never regained consciousness. He was basically dead when I was in his face, urging him to hang on.
I left the church that day, NEVER to be the same. For months all I can remember hearing from MY congregation was the scaffold guy (deacon) worrying about getting sued, and everybody talking about how tragic the accident was. I was numb. But I had a job to do and that job was to be the PASTOR, the counselor, the encourager. Life became EVEN MORE URGENT for me. Some people just went back to their normal belly aching about spending money, or whatever else they could find wrong with church life. The chairman of deacons had helped me and Lis clean up the blood with a carpet cleaner (over & over & over & over & over…foamy blood). I think if anyone understood he did. We replaced the carpet squares in the middle aisle at the back under the clock next to the sound booth. If you go into that church today you can see exactly where it happened (as clear as day) because the carpet doesn’t match. Week after week, I stood in the pulpit staring back at the war zone that I had NOT yet come to grips with, as a reminder every week. The “leaders” questioned why my preaching changed – more urgent – not quite as funny – more serious. He has never preached fluff, but now he’s down right getting into our business…down where the rubber hits the pavement.
For months, there was not one single solitary HOUR that passed that I didn’t think about it. I woke up one morning weeks later at 3 am throwing up, numb, really hurting in the chest, dizzy, head pounding, I could NOT move – a sure heart attack. I told Lisa that she had best call 911, I thought it was bad. When the ambulance got there and got me to the hospital I found out for the first time what a “panic attack” is and how it mimics a heart attack. Weeks later, again I just randomly passed out in our hall bathroom and knocked a hole in the wall. It scared the girls to death. I told a few close friends, but by this time everybody was back to their normal lives . The funeral was way past.
BUT, finally the breaking point came. One day I was driving home and I heard an ad on the radio about this man’s family singing, still ministering, and I started to literally sob– they were going to be at such & such church. I remember as vividly as if it were today…I SAID IT OUT LOUD to myself. THE LORD NEEDED ME … TO HEAR IT. I seriously said through a stream of tears, “IF I HADN’T KILLED THEIR DADDY…he’d be singing with them tonight”. It was then that I knew I needed help…real help. You see…with leadership comes responsibility, and down deep in my soul I reasoned that “if I had not insisted that our church look its best to welcome guests” Bruce would still be here. I WAS GUILTY.
Thank God for doctors in a military town who deal with PTSD everyday! It’s been three years now and I don’t think about it as much…probably once every week or two…and I don’t dwell on it as long. I generally have a terrible memory, but I can reenact every microsecond of that event. But my worst haunting of all is the fact that, in a time when I needed MY PEOPLE the most … the only ones that were there was my family and that faithful handful of die hard friends who had taken the time to get to know and LOVE their pastor and his family.
I HAVE changed. Don’t we ALL change as we go through STUFF? I DO take life more seriously than I EVER have. I abhor “posers” more than ever. I just don’t have time for it. They are Christ’s worst enemy. I have very little patience with those who SHOULD be teachers and yet are still babies, whining and demanding to always be the CENTER of everyone’s universe. I have no patience for blatant racists, self proclaimed heroes, self appointed (exclusive) scripture interpreters and just general experts in their own minds.
I HAVE changed – I’ll never be the SAME person. I’m glad God is actively molding and changing me (and Lisa) for new and exciting challenges. And we will proudly approach the next challenge with just as much ZEAL as we have faced prior ones.
I pray that I will continue to CHANGE – to grow and learn, and that God will correct me and/or reward me. And I pray that November 15, 2007 will always remain “the worst day of my life”.