Chris Watkins: My story could be your story
January 25, 2011 2 Comments
A Fall Into Grace
If there was anyone on planet earth that I would have predicted would not walk the path I walked it would have been me. I was and I am a Bible-believing, church going, quiet time having, and committed Christian. Heck, I was a pastor. Even as I look back on it now I can’t believe that is me. As I recall the events of 2003 it seems like I am thinking of someone else. How did this happen?
Part of the answer lies in my commitment to marriage and my confidence that divorce would never happen to me. My confidence made me not take seriously enough the verse that says, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” 1 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV) Another part of the story is pain. If a man is hungry enough he will steal even if he believes stealing is wrong. If a man is hurting enough, he will do things he never thought he would. Here is my story.
It has always amazed me how theology and normal life can be so similar at times and then seemingly worlds apart. I remember being in a class at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and thinking, “these guys just need to get saved.” The “guys” of whom I speak were actual pastors of local congregations who were questioning the lordship of Jesus Christ. They chose to simply view Him as their friend instead of their boss. I laughed out loud as an older, wiser professor simply said, “Well, the Bible says that God has made Him both Lord and Christ. I really don’t see that we need to pursue this any further.” I remember muttering under my breath, “Ya’ll just need to get saved.” I figured their congregations needed revival to get them all back on the right track. Because, as everybody knows, if revival can’t fix it, it can’t be fixed. It seems that I certainly had a lot to learn about God, people and most of all, myself.
In another class setting at seminary, a professor posed a case study that involved a deacon who was not regularly attending services and had let some of his duties fall by the wayside. When asked what should be done I replied, “Well that’s easy. Church discipline is obviously in order. And I’m sure a little revival wouldn’t hurt anything.” I later found that it’s much easier to deal with a case study than with a real person. A person who has a wife, kids and real life problems as well as church responsibilities.
A couple of years later I was pastoring a medium sized congregation in Southern Louisiana. The wife of one the deacons decided to leave her husband for another man. It was one of those circumstances that no pastor would want to have to deal with. It was a no-win situation. I tried to extend grace to all involved while knowing there were obvious consequences for them to face. Yet to extend grace to her upset those hurt by her decision. I also had to enforce church discipline, hoping for restoration at a later time. This decision upset another segment of the congregation. Usually, upset church members take their animosities out on the pastor. To compound my frustrations, a few months later someone in the church told me that I had not done enough to help resolve the situation. Little did this person know that I had met with everyone involved on many occasions while putting several hundred miles on my truck and trying to be as discreet as possible. Obviously, this was not a fun time in my life.
As I think back to that situation, I can honestly say that I was as disappointed in the people involved as anyone. I can also say that I know that I loved them and tried to help as much as I could. It was a difficult time for everyone, yet in the end, I witnessed the grace of God as clearly in their lives as I ever have. God has the amazing ability to take any circumstance, no matter how bleak, and use that circumstance for His glory. And by the way, He also uses those circumstances for our good as well.
I could go on and on about how God’s grace has been more than sufficient in their situation, but the truth I need to share from that account is a bit more humbling. I have been around people enough that their decision did not shock me. I was terribly surprised, but sin is a part of the human experience and they were obviously not immune. I was able to seek their restoration because I accepted human failure and God’s provision. Now for the brutal truth. I believed they were capable of that sin, but that I was not. My sin was an underlying arrogance that would end up revealing itself in a humiliating way, yet it would also prove to be the event in my life that would open my eyes to the greatness and the personal nature of God’s grace.
About five years later I was pastoring a different church in that same area. The previous church had forced my resignation, so I began a new church. The Lord’s Church. The group that formed the original membership of TLC desired an environment that was focused on honoring God and extending His redemption to people. We struggled with making changes in how church is done, yet in the end, it was a spiritual atmosphere that I have never seen equaled. During the 3 years I was the pastor, we had several challenges and met each one with the strong belief that God is able to protect and provide. We remained focused on Christ and the church seemed unassailable. Until . . .
The difficulty for me in my previous marriage began only months after the advent of TLC. I was very much in love with my wife, Missy, and on occasion I would say to her, “I am simply addicted to you.” That became a common phrase for me. One day I said that to her and she said to me, “I just don’t think I feel that way about you.” It is hard to know whether I more struck emotionally or whether my male ego was simply damaged beyond repair. In the weeks and months to come I would want to talk about my desire for increased intimacy, yet it was a conversation she didn’t feel comfortable with. She would want to talk about me contributing more in regards to helping out around the house. A conversation I didn’t feel comfortable with. So we continued on without a sense of resolve in either area. I put more time and effort into church work and she remained focused on her teaching career, women’s ministry and our kids. From my perspective, our lives were stable most of the time and really good some of the time. Yet there was the nagging feeling in my heart that she didn’t really love me.
In the early part of 2003 we attended a marriage conference. One of the speakers explained that people have different love languages. As he spoke of these love languages I realized that our languages were different from each other. Hers was acts of service and mine was touch. That made sense. At the end, we renewed our vows. She promised to be more affectionate and I promised to put the door handles on the closet.
Here are a couple of things divorce taught me about marriage. First, intimacy is really important to a man.( I’d encourage you to read Josh’s post on sex within marriage.) Sex is a huge element of intimacy, but it is not the sum total of it. Some wives tend to communicate to their husbands that if they will just do those little things around the house and help out some, there will be a reward waiting in the bedroom that night. A female TV personality once said that foreplay starts with doing the dishes. That might sound like a good deal to some guys out there. But to a lot of guys, including me, it’s insulting. I don’t want to be treated like a trick pony in a circus. Do this to get that. I want to be wanted. Sometimes during the course of the day my mind drifts to my wife and I wish that I could kiss her right then. I would like to think that the same holds true for her. I know that men and women are different in many areas, but we are also the same in some areas. We all want to be wanted. Husbands, when you do things around the house for your wife expecting a reward, that is not love. Wives, when you try to manipulate your husbands to help out by promising to “put out”, it is not love and it is demeaning to the marriage relationship. In a way, we wish (like our wives might) that it wasn’t so important to us, but, sadly, it is. Second, our male egos need to be affirmed. We try to look tough on the outside, but we really do have tender egos that can get hurt. Again, I wish this were not true, but it is. One more point. We all have different love languages. If you speak your partner’s love languages you just might get your own needs met. Just make sure that you are acting out of love for your spouse and not just the hope of getting something for yourself.
As I remember back to that time period, it all seems to be a blur. Someone in the church brought up an area need for pastors who had retired, yet didn’t have the means to support themselves. It seemed unfair to me that they had given their lives to ministry and were now destitute because of it. It reminded me that I had no equity in anything and the debt we owed had grown. If I could blow up any particular industry, it would be the credit card industry. We were in credit card debt up to our ears. I contacted each one of them, trying to negotiate a way to get caught up. I suggested lowering the interest rate, consolidating the loans and even promising to pay more each month. They all refused to help. In fact, one of the companies raised our interest rate.
“Thanks for the help God”, I said. It looks like I’m well on my way to joining the destitute pastors club.
This is one of the things divorce taught me about marriage. Money problems are not just money problems. They affect us emotionally and relationally. Here is the take away: avoid debt at all costs.
Then a man who had been attending TLC, who was having marital and debt problems of his own, decided to commit suicide. I had to speak with his young sons about what he had done, try to help his widow deal with her guilt and assure the rest of his family that the sin of suicide is not an unforgivable sin. All the while hearing the word “failure” in my head. I knew he was having trouble and I believed that I could have done more to help him. But I was busy meeting with fire marshals and codes inspectors and contractors and electricians and everybody else who was involved with the construction end of TLC. I was too busy to do what I should have been doing all along. I was a failure.
I think I could have dealt with the marital issue alone, or the debt issue alone or even the feeling of failure issue alone. The avalanche of emotional weight proved to be a thief of my joy. I began wearing a smile instead of smiling. Telling a joke instead of being funny. Preaching a message instead of sharing my heart. I remember feeling very alone most of the time.
Here is what divorce taught me about marriage: external stresses have a way of crawling into the marriage. We can’t always avoid external stress, life is just that way. We can at least be aware of how they are affecting us and monitor the condition of our heart.
The obvious question each reader must be asking is, “Why didn’t you talk to someone about how you were feeling?” That is a great question and the answer is I was too proud to believe that I had a problem that I could not resolve. I distinctly remember saying to myself several times, “I can handle this.” I had handled many difficult situations and this one would be no different. About the only person I really enjoyed being around was a woman in the church I had known for the full 7 years I had been in that area. Her husband was the chairman of the deacon body and he was also on the original search committee at the previous church. And he was a really good friend.
Cindy had the ability to help me forget about the stresses of my life and smile a bit. She was (and is) a delightful soul that sees the humor in every part of life. A few minutes around her after church or between services and I felt a tremendous relief. However, that relief was always temporary. I found myself looking forward to church services just so I could “happen” to spend a few minutes with her talking about whatever I could think of. One day I realized I was becoming attracted to her in a romantic way. I decided to approach her and explain why she and I would have to be very careful not to let our relationship go any further because of obvious implications. Big time mistake. As I confessed to my feelings about her, she did the same. I thought it was a productive, preventative meeting. Man was I wrong.
The phrase, “throwing gas on a fire” doesn’t even come close. I was consumed with the thought that she liked me in the same way that I liked her. We liked being around each other. This new found information threw me into a tailspin like I had never experienced. And I still believed that I could handle it. I decided I would get a grip on reality and suck it up. I didn’t sleep or eat very much at all. I spent most of my time grumbling at God for letting this whole situation get this out of hand. Just a few weeks before, the passion of my life was preaching. Now I struggled to make any sense at all with a sermon. I invited every preacher friend I knew to come and preach. They all wanted to know what was up and how could they help. I told them I was fine and would be alright. I just needed some time. I was “handling it”.
As the days and weeks drug endlessly on, I realized that the only way out of this craziness was to leave. I told my associate pastor that I had gotten too close to Cindy and that I had chosen to leave the church. I met with Cindy’s husband, Scott, and told him that Cindy and I had developed an emotional attachment and that I would be going back to New Mexico to try to put my own marriage back together and to give them the chance to do the same. I announced my resignation to the deacon body first and then the church. I truly believed that the only chance of Scott and Cindy (and Chris and Missy) making it through this ordeal was contingent upon people not knowing that the reason I left was because of our attachment. The added pressure would surely have compounded the difficulty they faced.
So I left. I moved back to New Mexico. I began working for my brother, who owns a hardware store. I was the guy in charge of inventory control. Wow. To go from a highly respected leader within the Bride of Christ to counting nuts and bolts. I think that’s what they call a reality check. The days drug on and on. I had to force myself to get out of bed and go to work. And then after work I didn’t want to go home. I would stop in at my brother’s house for a beer or just sit in my truck on a hill overlooking the Mesilla Valley. To make my world a little more difficult, the man I left in charge of TLC decided to announce to the church that Cindy and I were involved in an inappropriate relationship and that was the reason I had left the church.
How in the world did this happen? Only months ago I was making a difference in the lives of people. Now I don’t even want to be with my own family. Insanity. That was my conclusion. Insanity.
I read somewhere that the clinical definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome. Well, if that’s the case, I figured I needed to pursue a different path. And I did.
On a Sunday morning, I woke up to find a note from Missy. She had taken our kids to a kids event in El Paso with her sister. Her note basically said that I needed to take responsibility for what I had done and come to grips with reality. Everyone’s suffering was a result of my decisions and life as we knew it could only resume if I would just come to my senses and snap out of my depression. I did not save the letter so I cannot repeat it verbatim, but to the best of my recollection, that is the message I remember.
To say the least, I did not receive the message well. I packed a few clothes, my guitars and my power tools…and I left. I sent Cindy an email to let her know what I was doing and I left Missy a note that basically said I am sick and tired of living without life and I will let you know when I find it. I stopped to fill my truck with gas, and then I drove. I didn’t stop until a Texas State Trooper pulled me over for speeding. In a construction zone. Oddly enough, there were no construction vehicles or workers. Only some construction signs. On an ordinary day that would have concerned me. But not today. My only response was, “Where do I sign?”.
I drove to Austin, Texas, parked in a parking lot overlooking the city and sat in my truck until the sun came up. I found a pay phone and called my brother to let him know that I was alright and would stay in contact until I figured out what I was going to do. Then I called Cindy to find out what she was going to do. She said she was leaving and would meet me later that day in Austin.
As I recount the events in order to record them, I seem to be writing about a person I never knew existed. He seems foreign to me even now. Who, in their right mind, would ever pull a stunt like that? Certainly not a guy who was so committed to the cause of Christ. Not the guy who so many people had looked up to and had followed as their spiritual leader. Not the guy who had lived the better part of his life choosing the straight and narrow path of life over the broad road that leads to destruction.
This is one of the great lessons that divorce taught me about marriage: it could happen to you. It could happen to me.
There is a rumor that exists regarding Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper. As the story goes, Leonardo used a 19 year old baker as a model for Christ. He was a nice, innocent looking young man. Years later he still had not found a suitable model for Judas when he stumbled upon a hardened criminal that was perfect for Judas, not knowing that it was the same man. A few years and some bad choices had altered a guy who looked like Jesus to guy who looked like Judas. There is no real evidence that this story is factual, but it does convey a disturbing truth. People can change. People do change. Change is not always for the better.
I remember reading another story of a guy who was walking somewhere near the North Pole. He checked his bearings and began walking south. A few hours later he checked his bearings again only to find that he was farther north than before. He later discovered that he was walking on a huge chunk of ice that was drifting north faster than he was walking south.
Drifting. Not running. Drifting. I do not believe that most people who change for the worse do so overnight. To go from the person I was before my own personal fall to the person who I had become took months of drifting. Drifting in my thought life. Drifting in personal holiness. Drifting in enforcing safe boundaries regarding relationships. Drifting away from a firm stand in the faith to a slippery slope that would result in a long slide.
Funny how slides always go downward. The biblical account of Jonah records a story of a downward slide in the life of one of God’s prophets. It says instead of going to Ninevah, the city God chose for him to visit, he went down to Joppa. Then he went down to board the ship. Then he went down to the lower deck of the ship to sleep. He ultimately went down to the bottom of the sea. A prophet that runs from God is always on a downward journey.
Another concept from the book of Jonah that I like is the phrase, “and the Lord prepared”. Jonah chose to run from God, and God prepared a storm, a great fish, a plant, a worm and scorching east wind. All meant to help Jonah come to his senses and return to his appointed place of service to God.
God does not simply leave us to our own devices when we drift into the long slide away from Him. James 4:5-6 says, “Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously’? But He gives more grace.” God yearns for us when we turn to worldly desires and begin making decisions based on the flesh rather than in the Spirit. His voice can be heard as softly as a whisper or as thunderous as a hurricane. I believe He desires us to hear His whisperings because that means we are tuned in and listening intently for His voice. But if by chance we are being sidetracked by something else, He can raise His voice to the level required to secure our attention.
God’s desire is that all be brought to repentance. His love for us guides His hand upon us. People do change, but God does not. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. His love is constant and His provision is always perfect. When the world gains our attention, God gains it right back. Sometimes our slides away from Him produce wounds consistent with our choices, but His grace is always sufficient to restore our fellowship with Him and to diminish the amount of scar tissue resulting from our disobedience.
It is the nature of man to drift. But more importantly, it is the nature of God to love. Some people would contend that I fell from grace. I can tell you that I fell into grace.
It took me a long time to accept the fact that God could forgive me. I struggled with unspeakable guilt. That struggle is the subject of another chapter.
“O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”