Soiled Lives

Telephone 1When I answered the phone, it was my uncle. Though he had sons of his own and I had a father, he always called me “Son.”

“Son, I understand you want to be a pastor?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So you think you’re called, huh?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

“Son, if you’re really called to the ministry, meet me at the church Thursday morning and spend the day with me.”

My classes at San Diego State were on Monday-Wednesday-Friday, so Thursday morning I got up and went to the church. I had no idea what he had in mind.

After chatting for a few minutes, he said, “Follow me.” We got into his car and, without saying a word, drove to the outskirts of town, pulled up to a cluster of tiny, two-room shacks, and parked on the dirt in front of a small green hut, too small to be called a house or an apartment, yet this was someone’s home.

Uncle got out of the car, and I followed. We walked up to the door of one of the units, and he knocked. No answer. He knocked again, louder this time. Again, no answer. “I know he’s in there.”

He tried the door, and found that it was unlocked. Slowly he opened it, and went in. There on the bed in the small two-room cabin was a man — drunk, passed out. A mixture of vomit, diarrhea, urine, and alcohol on the bed, walls, sofa, and floor. The stench was overwhelming, as if attacking my nostrils and throat. I thought I was going to throw up.

Suit and Tie

Without saying a word, without even a grimace, the pastor took off his suit coat and tie and handed them to me. I watched as the man of God took on the role of the servant. He turned on the water to fill the tub, then went over to the bed. He undressed the man, rolled up his putrid clothing, and placed it into a garbage bag. He picked up the still-unconscious drunkard, naked and filthy, placed him carefully into the tub, and bathed him. I thought of the scene in the Gospel of John where Peter said to the Lord, “Wash all of me. Not just part of me.”

After washing the man, who never did wake up, my uncle said, “Make sure he doesn’t drown.” Then he went back to the bed, stripped off the blankets and sheets, and put those into the bag with the clothes. Finding an old towel, he mopped the walls and the floor, repeatedly going over to the sink to rinse the crud away. He searched the dresser drawers til he found a set of clean sheets and a blanket, and made the bed. There was a fresh pair of pajamas in a drawer, and he placed them on the end of the bed.

After cleaning up the place, my uncle returned to the bathroom, dried off the comatose man, carried him to the bed, and put the pajamas on him. Covered him up, and tucked him in. Then he took the bag of soiled clothing, bed linens, and a few other things that needed to be laundered, walked out to the car, and put them in the trunk of his car.

After locking the man’s door, we got into the car. The foul smell was not confined to the trunk. It filled the passenger compartment as well. The stench came with us, not only because of the awful stuff in the trunk, but because the filth had gotten onto my uncle’s shirt, pants, and shoes. Although by now it was almost time for lunch, I thought I was going to lose my breakfast.

Instead of going back to the church, we drove to the pastor’s home, where he took the bag from the trunk, went straight to the laundry room, and washed the man’s clothes and bed linens. After showering, my uncle dressed, and we went back to the church. Before I got into my car to go home, he said to me, “Son, that’s what ministry is all about. Good people soil themselves and make a mess of their lives because of sin. Your job as a pastor is to find out what Jesus wants you to do about it. And then do it.”

Though my uncle is no longer alive, I’ll never forget him — or the lesson he taught me that day. As we go about the daily tasks the Lord has called us to do, sometimes we find ourselves cleaning up our own messes — sometimes the messes other people have made. The ugly scenes are often the result of sin. Some of the mountains of debris we are called to clean up are caused by years of neglect or ignorance. Some is caused by discouragement, abuse, or failure. Seervant Leader Statue

In Lakeland, Florida, at the center of Southeastern University’s campus, is a bronze sculpture of Jesus washing the feet of one of his disciples. The sculpture is titled “Divine Servant.” I think of my uncle almost every time I see it. It is a great work of art, beautifully depicting the call for genuine disciples to be servant ministers. Ironically, the sculpture is beautiful, whereas the brokenness of human lives is quite unattractive, and working with broken people can get ugly.

Facing Messy Stuff in the Church Book

In his book, Facing Messy Stuff in the Church, Ken Swetland talks about the ugly, painful situations church leaders may deal with. “Churches are made up of sinners whose lives are broken – sometimes because of their own choices, sometimes because of experiencing wrongs outside of their control. . . . Resolutions are hard to come by.” He goes on to say that the church is “. . . a fellowship of people who come together to worship God, serve him in the world, and be agents of healing in the lives of broken people who make up the church.”

As we respond to the situations that people have made of their lives, their families, their cities, or their nation, it is helpful to keep in mind that we have a rich heritage of serving in Jesus’ name, cleaning up the stench and the debris of people’s lives. As my uncle said, that’s what ministry is all about.

Personal Info

Paul 1

After serving as a pastor, I went into the Army as a chaplain. Now retired from the military, I’m teaching writing at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. My wife (Linda) is a literature professor at Southeastern University, and chair of the Department of Humanities. We have three sons and eight grandchildren. We love dogs, and currently have a tri-color beagle. Personal interests include movies and plays, music, travel, sports, and games. And reading, of course!

Throwback Thurs 1When I was a kid, my brothers and sister and I would tell stories, making them up on the fly. We wrote poetry – well, more like silly rhymes – and produced plays and skits. As an adult, I told stories to my children and wrote poems for family events such as reunions, birthdays, and holiday get-togethers. I’ve published a half dozen or so articles in religious and military magazines.

Knowing that I wanted to start writing seriously after getting out of the Army, I started reading books on writing by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Elizabeth George. I read William Zinsser, Francine Prose, PD James, and many others. Each writer taught me something.

In 2006, My wife and I were at a Barnes & Noble on a Friday night in Atlanta. After getting a Frappuccino and Chai Tea Latte, we separated to browse. That’s when I discovered Josip Novakovich’s book, Writing Fiction Novakoviche's BooksStep By Step. I bought it, read it, then went back to get his Fiction Writer’s Workshop. After reading the second book, I prayed that someday I would meet the man and study writing under his tutelage. Seven years later, living in Florida, I inquired about the MFA at the University of Tampa and discovered that he was one of the fly-in teachers for the program. Josip has been my writing mentor the past two years – a literal answer to prayer. I had a dual focus of Fiction and Non-Fiction because I write in multiple genres. Two other key mentors were Don Morrill and John Capouya. John was my guide in the writing of the thesis.

The MFA thesis was a book about my military ministry experience in Iraq.CH 1 My doctoral dissertation, which I hope to put into book form, was on the Biblical Principles of Marriage. Linda and I plan to write a companion devotional book for couples along the same themes. Plus, I have a collection of stories about interracial experiences I’ve had starting when I was a kid in Boston and then in Charleston. Those are my first four book projects. I also hope to prepare shorter pieces such as articles, short stories, and microfiction along the way.

There are several reasons why I write:

To Influence: There are so many people who have no clue how to make a marriage work. Many don’t know how to parent effectively. Others don’t know how to live their lives meaningfully and productively. Many Christians don’t seem to know how to live a godly life. I think I have something to offer, and hope to influence people towards happy, successful, effective Christianity and relationships.

To Entertain: In the same way good teaching and preaching must be interesting and fun, good writing has to have an entertainment quality as well. St. Paul wrote that we should speak the truth in love. I would add this: we should also be eloquent, interesting, and fun. Adding these values gets the message across and makes it memorable, increasing the impact on our readers.

To Inspire: Throughout my life as a pastor and a chaplain, I’ve had the privilege of building friendships with people, and then from that relationship encourage them in their journey of faith. It’s now my desire to do that through my writing – to help people develop a relationship with Jesus Christ, to understand the Bible better, and to be more effective in their personal and public life.

Because It’s Fun: Writing is a lot of fun, something I really enjoy. Sure, it can be hard work. But to get an idea for a story or an inspirational piece and then to watch it take shape in front of me is just a lot of fun. I even enjoy editing, refining, and rewriting.

Because I Sense a Calling: As I prayed about what the Lord would want me to do when I got out of the Army, I specifically felt the Lord saying he wanted me to preach, teach, mentor, and write. Therefore, I want to be as good at each of these tasks as I can be.