His paintbrush dripping, Jeff Dillard tottered to the bench under the shade of the large pin oak at the back of the church. Collapsing onto its seat, he surveyed the results of his last four hours of labor. In the afternoon sun, the cracked weatherboard gleamed halfway up with the new coat of paint. That was as far as Jeff could reach. From there to its steeple, the church was a dull gray. He had painted around the building four times. Having seen not a drop of paint in years, the parched wood greedily gulped it in with each brush stroke.
At five-foot-seven, Jeff could only reach so far. He’d used the stepladder, but at 70 he had no intention of climbing an extension ladder. Wearily, he got to his feet and walked around the building. There was no ignoring the punishment time had inflicted on it. The white paint couldn’t camouflage the crooked front door; the windows were out of kilter, and the steeple leaned at least six inches off center.
When he became pastor of Wayside Baptist near Bramble, Indiana ,Jeff viewed it as a way to remain useful in his retirement. The makeup of the small congregation, mostly farmers and farmhands, was a drastic change from that of the larger churches he had pastored over the past 35 years. At those churches, the staff took care of the mowing, painting and repairs. Jeff never had to get involved in maintenance.
“We been meaning to get around to fixin’ her up,” was the response from the head deacon when Jeff mentioned the condition of the building. He called for a workday. Two women showed up. He bought boards with his own money to replace the rotted ones and found himself resenting it. He wasn’t merely tired, he was spent, body and spirit. He threw the paintbrush down in frustration and disgust. “They don’t care what your house looks like, Lord. And apparently neither do you.” He didn’t bother to replace the lid on the paint can.
“Let it dry up for all I care,” he muttered.
Leaving the church yard, the dejected pastor walked the half mile to the small Craftsman style cottage he and his wife rented six months ago. Margaret had been thrilled with the home’s character and charm. The grounds provided plenty of space–even a potting shed–for her to pursue her love of horticulture. It had all seemed so full of promise. Her husband would take this church and build it up as he had the others. He hadn’t counted on being met with such lackadaisical attitudes by its members.
Jeff washed as much paint off his hands as he could in the cold water from the outside spigot. Walking to the back of the house, he saw Margret on her knees in the garden pulling weeds. She straightened up, pressing her hands into the small of her back. He stood for a while, watching her. Like the flowers Margaret so lovingly tended, she had blossomed. Gone was the city pallor, her skin now tanned from spending hours in the garden. Her face eased of tension lines, she looked 10 years younger. Hearing Jeff approaching, she turned and smiled. “Want to help weed the beans?”
“No. I want to quit,” he answered flatly.
Margaret’s face fell but she kept her head down and poked half-heartedly at the soft soil with the garden claw. “Oh, Jeff, you don’t mean that. You have to give them more time. They’re country folks, more laid back than what we were used to in the city.”
In truth, Margaret liked the slow pace of country life–the quiet road with its sparse traffic, the sounds of birds and buzzing insects uninterrupted by blaring horns and screeching tires. She loved the luxury of sleeping late and waking to the sounds and smells of nature outside their open window. She had planted a bevy of flowers the first week of May, followed a few weeks later by a vegetable garden. Catching the spirit of her enthusiasm, Jeff had made use of the tiny workshop at the back of the property to build birdhouses and feeders, hanging them on trees near the house. Now he wanted to leave their tranquil little place?
“If they get any more laid back they’ll be lying down,” he said sarcastically. “The church is falling down around their ears and they don’t see the need for repairs.”
Close to tears, Margaret shaded her eyes with her hand and looked up at him. “Please tell me you don’t really want to leave here.”
Jeff softened. Taking her in his arms, he said, “No, dear, of course not. I’m just worn out.” He kissed her, thinking of the day 45 years ago when he asked Margaret to marry him. In his eyes, she hadn’t changed much. Or maybe the change was so gradual he never noticed. To Jeff, Margaret’s gray hair and wrinkles were her badge of honor.
Sure, he loved her when they first married. Those first years were priceless. He couldn’t wait to spend time with her. They would sit on the couch holding hands and talking for hours. She was always his most faithful supporter. He took her with him on visitation and to conferences. He pined for her anytime she had to stay behind to tend the home fires. They ministered side by side in church after church until they settled at Grace Baptist in Indianapolis. Jeff loved Margaret more than life. When the children came, no matter how busy, Jeff always made time for the family. Those were hard years, yet great years during which the attendance at Grace Baptist increased from a small crowd to hundreds. The children grew up and their eldest son became Jeff’s associate pastor. Thirty years passed in the blink of an eye.
When Jeff announced his retirement, the Grace Baptist congregation surprised Margaret and him with a party. Speechless, the couple stood looking at their smiling faces. These people were their family. He had married them, been there when their children were born, held their hands and prayed with them in difficult times, wept with them at the graves of loved ones and rejoiced at their accomplishments. How could he leave them? He would always be their shepherd. But it was time to pass the mantle to another. Now his son stood at the helm and under his direction the church continued to grow. The people loved him as they had Jeff.
Secretly, Pastor Dillard thought of the passage of Scripture that had plagued him for 40 years: Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. Many times Jeff had opened his Bible to that passage. He puzzled over commentators’ explanations of it, gaining no enlightenment. He dared not ask his fellow pastors its meaning. The verse haunted him, because so many times he felt like Esau. This was one of those times.
He looked at other pastors who seemed to achieve success with ease and sail through life with no troubles or heartache. Their ministries grew effortlessly. Publishers came to them begging for their writings. TV and radio producers fell all over themselves to offer them contracts. Meanwhile, despite concealing it from everyone including his wife, Jeff struggled in his little corner of the world.
After the evening meal, he told Margaret, “I’m going to walk back over to the church.”
“Have a nice walk, dear.” Any other evening she would have gone along. Wisely, she knew this was something he had to work out himself. At the kitchen window, she watched her husband walk wearily down the gravel road. As on most evenings, the road was all but deserted. His discouragement notwithstanding, Jeff relished this quiet time. The work for the day done, the hot sun would soon set, leaving the evening cool.
Somewhere in the distance a whippoorwill called to its mate. Jeff approached the neighbor’s cattle pasture and smiled at one cow’s quest to reach sweeter blades of grass. Stretching her neck under the fence, she reminded him of some church members he had known over the years, jumping from one church to another, never satisfied, believing the grass was greener on the other side and discounting the lush pasture right beneath their feet.
The coolness of the dusky evening invigorated him. He loved this time of day almost as much as he did the hours he spent with the Lord before daylight. Entering the churchyard, he spotted the paint brush lying where he had tossed it. A murky skin covered the paint in the can. Feeling guilty, he replaced the lid and tapped it onto the bucket. Maybe he could salvage some of what was left. The brush was stiff beyond repair. Pitching it into the trash, he placed the bucket in the storage shed.
Turning his back on the old church building, he walked through the gate to the cemetery. Several Wayside pastors were buried there.
“Shepherding this flock is probably what killed them,” Jeff said aloud. As soon as the words left his mouth he regretted vocalizing what was in his heart. He looked around to see if someone might have heard. There was no one. The only sound was the mooing of the cows down the road.
One headstone held particular interest for him. According to church records, the man buried there had pastored this church for 25 years. The inscription read, Jacob Hunter, 1829-1901. Below were the words For His Love.
Pastor Dillard returned to the churchyard. He circled the church, inspecting his handiwork. Sitting on the bench under the oak, he was gripped with melancholy. Why am I here? I’ve worked hard all these years. I looked forward to my retirement. This should be my refuge from the world. He heard the still small voice within: “What of my people?”
“It’s not fair, Lord,” Jeff said aloud.
“What’s not fair, dear?” Margaret appeared out of nowhere, startling him. She sat down beside him.
“I ministered in churches for forty years. Funerals, weddings, hospital visits in the middle of the night and on my day off. Day off–isn’t that a joke. I’ve preached thousands of sermons. Refereed deacons’ meetings. Jail ministry, nursing homes. I’m tired. No, scratch that. I’m exhausted. I don’t want to be selfish, but will it ever be my time? Our time?”
Taking him by the hand, she said, “Let’s go home, dear. Things will look better in the morning.”
“I doubt it.”
On the walk home, they stopped at the bridge over the creek. The slow running water never failed to soothe him. Earlier on his way from and to the church, he had been too upset to notice. Now he stood with his eyes fixed on a leaf as it made its way lazily under the bridge to appear on the other side. Mentally, Jeff compared himself with that leaf: drifting along with the current with no discernable purpose in life.
The movie Margaret felt sure would perk Jeff up put him to sleep halfway through.
She considered waking him but thought better of it. Jeff used to be a ball of energy, waking at 5AM to study and pray until seven, then joining her and the children for breakfast. He often worked until 10 at night and his sermons, powerful and memorable as they were, reflected his efforts.
At 11:30, he roused himself and rose groggily to his feet.
“Is it over?”
“Yes, but it’s okay. We can watch it another time.”
After taking his nightly aspirin, Jeff stumbled into the bedroom. Changing into his pajamas, he climbed in bed. Within a few minutes, he was snoring softly.
“You there, get over here!” The harsh voice startled him. He felt the Roman soldier’s lash cut into his shoulder. He knew he was dreaming, yet he could feel the open wound on his back. The man brought the whip down again. Jeff cried out. Before him, a bloodied man lay on the rough cobblestone street. Beaten to a pulp, blood poured from his back and dripped off his face. A ring of cruel thorns pierced the top of his head. The massive, crude wooden cross on his back seemed to crush him to the ground. Yet it was the man’s eyes that struck Jeff. They were clear, peaceful, beautiful, full of love and compassion.
“Take his cross,” the soldier ordered, raising his short whip. Stepping forward, Jeff struggled to lift the heavy beams off the fallen man’s shoulders.
A gentle smile flitted across Christ lips. “Thank you,” He said softly. Tears moistened His eyes. Jeff knew his Savior’s tears were not for Himself but for mankind. With herculean effort, Jeff hoisted the cross, bending under it. With its weight pressing on his back, Jeff offered his hand to Christ. Taking it, Jesus struggled to his feet.
Then Jeff was standing with the crowd watching Christ die. He felt stickiness on his hands. Glancing down, he saw they were covered in blood, Christ’s blood. The blood He had shed for Jeff’s sins.
Jeff’s eyes flew open. He looked at the clock: 5:15 AM. Urgency clenched his heart. The office he had created in the corner of the spare bedroom had stood idle for the last two months. Tossing on his robe, he went to it. He cleared off the desk, tossing circulars, ads and junk mail. Going to the kitchen, he brewed a pot of coffee, then returned to his office with a cup of the steaming liquid. Sitting down at the desk, an old, familiar feeling came over him. He was a pastor, a shepherd of the flock. It was his task to lead and guide them through life. He opened his Bible to the account of Christ’s ascent to the cross. With tears misting his eyes, Jeff read the scripture with a new attitude. Turning on the computer, he began typing.
Margret woke at 7:45 to find Jeff’s side of the bed empty. Hearing the clacking of the keyboard, she walked down the hallway. Looking up from his writing, Jeff smiled at her. Glancing around the neatly organized office, Margaret smiled back.
“Just let me know when breakfast is ready. I’m almost finished here,” Jeff said as he had a thousand times before. Returning to his sermon, he heard Margaret in the kitchen humming a familiar hymn. Later that week he turned over his fear of climbing the extension ladder to the Lord and finished painting the church.
On Sunday morning, Jeff stood with his hands gripping the edges of the pulpit and preached with power and authority. His sermon on the eyes of Christ touched the congregation. Several members dabbed at their eyes. Margret smiled. This was the man she had known and loved for the past 45 years. This was her husband and her pastor.
I would like to tell you that under Jeff’s leadership the people of Wayside Baptist were galvanized to action. The truth is, however, that the real change took place in the heart of the man of God. From that, point on Jeff Dillard never doubted God’s love for him.
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