Monday, August 15, 2005

Of people, places and things

I’ve been accused by my wife and my mother (up until three days ago they were 2/3 of my readership) of being depressing. I always write negative stuff, they say. Aren’t you ever happy? My response to that is that I write how I feel, and how I felt at the time. If I don’t have good feelings about a church I went to, I’m going to write that way. If I’m slightly upset at God and need to air it out, that’s what I’ll write.
But… I did have good experiences too. I have known some people who had a positive impact on me. And those are the people I want to write about now.

Dr. Jeffrey Smale- Pastor Smale came into the story late. I had already been a Christian for a number of years when I met Pastor Smale. If you remember the story you know that my wife and I joined Victory Baptist Temple right after we got married. We had been attending services there about once a month for the year prior. The draw of Victory Baptist Temple was that they were the same type of Fundamentalist Baptist church that Laura had grown up in- same hymns, same King James Only beliefs, even the same pictures on the wall of fundamentalist preachers who had gone before.
I knew who Pastor Smale was and had even visited Victory several years prior. In my church black hole of 1990-1996 I had visited several churches just for kicks, and Victory was one. Pastor Smale is as Baptist as the day is long, but he isn’t your typical “independentfundamental” Baptist pastor. In 1987 (I think) the Smales had a daughter, Hannah, who was born with Down’s Syndrome and other health problems. She had frequent surgeries and in 1991 passed away after open heart surgery.
Now I don’t care where you are on the theological spectrum, no on should have to watch their daughter die. You aren’t supposed to bury your children; your children are supposed to bury you. My heart ached for the Smales even in 1991 when I was 7 years away from knowing who they were.
The Smales didn’t let the experience keep them down. They have remained faithful to their beliefs come what may, and I respect that. They also began a ministry to special needs children and adults called Gems and Jewels. As a parent of a special needs child myself, I can tell you that this kind of thing is sorely needed. Churches are radically non-prepared to deal with special needs children, and families are staying away from church because of it.
Laura and I first visited Victory Baptist Temple in the fall of 1997, right after we were engaged, when we were searching for churches. As I related before, the church was very similar in style to what she grew up with. In 1998, a couple of weeks after we were married, we joined, and immediately dove right in to church life. Three services a week. Laura involved herself in the children’s ministry. I became an usher. We started going soul winning, which involved promoting the church door to door and asking people if they had been born again. If not, we had a script prepared- five or six verses from Romans and then “would you like to pray?” I didn’t have much success at it, but Pastor Smale chose me as his partner for several months, which was pretty cool for me. I dug the attention.
Things started to go sour for us when I wanted to visit a Vineyard church. I’ve already related that this was not a popular decision. When the pressure was put on us to “listen to the preacher” (and in Laura’s case, the preacher’s wife) the bubble burst for me and I started looking at the church in a much more critical light. Eventually I saw more bad than good and decided to pull out. We left in January of 2000.
But I never stopped liking the Smales. Pastor Smale didn’t care for my decision, obviously, and we didn’t have any contact for several months. After they began to lose members hand over fist, I began to feel sorry for the Smales. There were plenty of reasons why people were leaving, plenty of valid reasons, reasons which I won’t outline here. That didn’t mean that I should dance on their grave. I wrote to Pastor Smale and apologized if I had done anything wrong when I left. I didn’t apologize for leaving, mind you; but I didn’t want to hurt him either, and I felt like I needed to make sure the slate was clean. It was. Pastor Smale wrote back and we resumed contact at that point.
I consider him a friend now. We aren’t buddy-buddy or anything, and that’s not something I expect. He’s a pastor, a busy man. We do share an affinity for Detroit sports teams, and he has offered me plenty of advice in dealing with Matt’s disabilities.

My point is this. I didn’t see a reason why my not going to his church had to mean that I should be bitter and talk down on the man. If I disagree with his church, there are other churches. I respect the man; out of all the pastors I’ve ever had I’ve not had a closer relationship with any of them. If any current Victory members are reading this you can quote me on that.


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