A Sheep’s Tale

I stood. The colors leapt off the shelves in front of me. With my head cocked sideways, my eyes hungrily devoured the vertical titles, one after another. I needed another book like I needed a black eye. Yet, they beckoned.

No, Carolyn will kill me. I don’t need another book. About the time I have fought off the temptation to buy, I noticed his new book. It glowed.

Boy, that looks great! I know full well that I have yet to read his last three on my shelves at home, each as attractively packaged as this beauty two feet away.

Then I did the unthinkable. I retrieved it from its niche, and I opened it. The crisp white pages had a fragrance somewhere between fresh cut grass and a cake right out of the oven. The smooth linear black type marched efficiently across the spread, leaping the gutter effortlessly.

I left the bookstore $15 poorer but happier for the future knowledge I would one day find time to absorb.

As I reflect on that day (and other days like it) in the bookstore, a startling thought sacks my conscious like an angry linebacker. Those books that most appealed to me were a silent indicator of my current frame of mind, my mood, and my attitude. Could a trip to the bookstore really be indicative of how I am? Well, at least that day it did. The books I looked at and the one I purchased told me something. They told me that I hurt.

It is an alarming revelation, and one for which I cannot simply slap the snooze. Not only was I hurt, but I was hurting. Much like that vague awareness you have that the faucet in the kitchen is dripping, I believe I was aware of my hurt, but for whatever reason, I had chosen to be martyred by emotional pain.

This account may or may not be for you. It is a record of my journey. It may or may not echo with familiarity. It’s a multi-faceted story with many twists and turns. It is the story of the lost sheep and his desperate search for his shepherd. It is also the story of the sheep’s failure and the shepherd’s success.

Life was good. I was a seminary student in Fort Worth, Texas, and a minister in a large, metropolitan church. My faith was vibrant and alive. I had a never-a-dull-moment, just-trust-the-Lord, everything-works-out, isn’t-being-a-Christian-exciting outlook on faith and fully expected the next Great Awakening to occur on my watch. My vision was boundless, and my head was in the clouds.

I was so intent on seeing the star of Bethlehem and its glory that I forgot the stigma of the cross and its shame. I knew in my head that bad things happen to good people and sometimes life doesn’t work out like you want it to, but if the rain really did fall on the righteous and wicked alike, I had stayed dry under a relatively large umbrella of idealism. That is, until the phone rang.

I was at my desk at Tolar Baptist Church then. I was the Associate Pastor/Minister of Youth. Carolyn and I had been engaged just a few months.

“Jeff, it’s cancer,” she said as we learned about Hodgkin’s Disease for the first time in our lives. Three months of radiation treatment later, her Hodgkin’s was halted, and the doctors declared my fiancee cancer-free – just in time for our wedding.

I asked God a lot of questions in those days: Why did this happen to us? I had sold a promising advertising business to come to seminary, and this is the reward I get, God? Just show us that we’re on the right path… Thanks for helping us through this, but don’t do this again, OK?

I still tackled my ministry with starry-eyed optimism, but I no longer felt invulnerable. God had allowed life to happen to me. The beginnings of cynicism pitched a pup tent on the outskirts of my consciousness and planned a longer camping trip later.

The Winnebagoes of disillusionment wheeled into my life for a protracted excursion two years later.

The following is an excerpt from my journal on October 31, 1994:

Two days ago, the doctors told us that Carolyn, my wife of two and one-half years, has Hodgkin’s Disease again. Hodgkin’s is cancer of the lymph nodes. We go Saturday at 6 p.m. to get a CAT scan.

The slap of the news is numbing. I had holed up in the library at seminary to digest a dozen different opinions about Paul’s theology before my evening doze, I mean dose, of Systematic Theology. I casually glanced at my Donald Duck watch only to have it quack back at me about my immanent tardiness.

My book bag leapt to my shoulder, as I drained the last of my Diet Caffeine Free Dr. Pepper. I breezed by the pay phone on my way to Scarborough Hall. A faint impression gently nudged me, and I did an about-face, picked up the cool black plastic receiver. Purposeful punches soon rang a phone an hour away in Garland, Texas. My wife answered. I intended simply to see if she needed anything on the way home.

“Hey there, hon,” I said.
“Jeff… hold on.” Her voice was not right, but she clicked over to her other call to say goodbye before I could decipher it. My intuition screamed. Just as suddenly, she was back. And she was sobbing.
“It’s cancer,” she said.

Another phone call with the same script. The cancer was back. I hung up and drove myself downstairs to my car. I had been in the world’s largest theological library. Surely the answer to our sufferings and an intelligent explanation of God’s perspective lay in one of its many volumes, but how do you search for answers when life won’t give you time?

I couldn’t focus on my work at the church, now First Baptist Church of Garland. I had forgotten about the “Basics for New Baptists” class that I was supposed to teach on Wednesday night. Its members were gracious to understand my absence. Thank the Lord it was Friday now. Surely the weekend would help me catch my breath and my bearings.

I sat at my desk, straightening it again when thunder clapped. The antique car that was a pencil sharpener clinked as the rumbling vibrations intruded into my office. Channel 4 had been right – a severe thunderstorm had violated the complacent afternoon and promised to snarl Friday’s rush hour traffic unforgivingly in the metroplex.

By the time I left the church to walk the two blocks to our home, the drenching had slowed to a drizzle. It had been three days since we learned about Carolyn’s cancer.

I stood in the chilling fall rain waiting for the Garland Fire Department. My house was on fire. The gray smoke defied the rain. It billowed from pipes on the roof and seeped from under the eaves. I laughed in disbelief as the relentless drizzle slowly conquered my dry clothes. Was this really happening, I wondered? I thought, “At least this will take our minds off the cancer for a while…”

Two weeks after the fire, three after Carolyn’s diagnosis. With the diligence of Sherlock Holmes, I examine myself emotionally. Nothing. Nada. It’s like staring into a black hole. We were staying at La Quinta Inn, and rather enjoying ourselves. Our insurance agent had taken extra measures to see that we were treated like royalty. Our belongings had been shipped off to a warehouse somewhere in Dallas to be treated for smoke damage. We had found another rental house for less money and were preparing to move in.

It was during this time that I bumped into God. It wasn’t a particular moment. I didn’t burn my hand on a flaming bush. I saw no star. But I felt His presence. He cared. He loved me. And He would see us through the days of transition, chemotherapy, and stress that were to come. He promised. And through circumstance after circumstance, His rod and staff guided me in his ways. His voice was unmistakable.

Though my “tough” questions remained unanswered, I discovered with joyful reassurance that it wasn’t answers I wanted after all, it was Him. My pride had led me to demand my Shepherd work in my prescribed ways. He refused and continued to tend his flock as I, His sheep, wandered.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t leave the faith or curse God. I just began meeting my needs my way instead of letting my shepherd do it. Everything looked fine from others’ viewpoint, but I was lost. I had strayed and didn’t know my way home.

Scripture told me that the Lord was my shepherd and I should not want, or need anything else but Him. When King David wrote that, he was writing after the fact, I was sure. He had found God to be that way. His confidence haunted me. I felt more like, “If the Lord is my shepherd…” I knew he was, but I felt like he wasn’t.

And that’s where my account ends. You may have been expecting some Lucado-type conclusions that would blow your socks off, but it is hard to conclude powerfully when my experience taught me the value of meekness. I learned how to be a sheep. Sheep are meek.

Carolyn was declared cancer-free for the second time after her chemotherapy treatment which ended in July 1995. We live daily in God’s grace that it will not come back. We are expecting our first child in March 1997, a miracle in itself. My confidence in my shepherd is stronger now than ever, not because I found Him to be trustworthy, wonderful, holy, or compassionate, though He is all those things. My confidence is strong not because I found Him to be anything, but because in my confusion and doubt, He found me.

On this day...

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