Claudette Marley stood beneath the overhang near the far right corner of the Elk Creek Community Church building, puffing on a cigarette. It was her usual smoking spot before stepping through the open doorway for the morning worship service. Her faded raincoat reeking of smoke, she stood inside the foyer behind Harley Phipps, the church’s soft-spoken official greeter.
“A blessed Lord’s Day!” Harley intoned to each incomer. Harley’s salutations were politely robotic. He was the only man in church who wore a suit, which he adorned with a red bow-tie. With a click of his heels and a slight bow, he offered bulletins like he was handing out certificates of achievement. People felt more congratulated than greeted by Harley when they entered the church.
Claudette was an unofficial Sunday morning greeter of sorts, meaning she had no title and she was unassigned, and yet she was very much on her own assignment. She was at her best when the foyer got clogged with people. Edging her way through the narrow passage, she waited for unsuspecting bodies to stray her way. Like a spider strikes its prey, she wrapped her spindly arms around the unwary and snatched them into tight, rocking hugs. Through thick eyeglasses, she looked her catches squarely in the face and pronounced with a perfect Ozark Mountain drawl, “I love you!”
Most folks took Claudette’s greetings in stride, just like they took Harley’s handouts. He had his style and she had hers. But Gilbert Hawkins, a retired heavy equipment operator, took Claudette’s hugs like he was a fencepost getting pounded into a hole. His arms hung stiffly beside him. He grimaced and braced himself until the hug was over. He never seemed to catch on that he was only prolonging his pain. Claudette didn’t let go of her catches until she got a return squeeze or at least a little whimper. Gilbert must have coughed up a whimper because she always let go and let him pass into the sanctuary.
Children from the neighboring mobile home park came crashing through the same doorway on Sunday mornings. Their parents were still at home, comfortably resting in the knowledge that the local babysitting establishment known as the church would be keeping their kids out of their hair for half a day. Elk Creek was a tumbleweed town. A good chunk of its nearly 400 people lived in the trailer court, where the average household stayed six months to a year. Kids came and went. But none of them came or went from church without getting a hug from Claudette. The difference between her hugging the children and hugging the adults was that she didn’t need to go after the kids. They came to her. She often stooped and hugged them two-at-a-time and many kids looped around the line to get a second hug. And with every hug she was sure to drawl, “I love you!” Claudette had the gift of hugging.
Ken Langston had the gift of preaching. That’s why he was there that morning. He came to candidate as the church’s new pastor. He didn’t know that he was the only candidate seeking the job. Nor did he know that no one actually “candidated” at Elk Creek anyway. Preachers just seemed to show up when the time was right. Nobody publicized the need for a new pastor and no search committee was formed. News just got out by prayer and by word-of-mouth. Most came by recommendation of previous pastors. One way or another, God led pastors to Elk Creek. Each man had his own story and he arrived just when he was needed. When the time was right for him to go, he left. It seemed haphazard, but it wasn’t. It was like joining in a family talk. If you had something to contribute to the conversation, you were welcome to join in, but if you didn’t, you stayed out of it. And when you had said your peace, you left. Pastors came and went like kids in the trailer court.
With a sample sermon he had outlined on a notepad, Ken came to Elk Creek that morning ready to preach and answer to a formal committee. Harley’s gracious greeting reinforced his expectations. But then he walked into Claudette’s hug. Fully engulfed in her swaying embrace, he let out a whimper and she let go. He wondered if he had just walked into a big mistake.
“I love you,” she drawled. “I’m Claudette.”
“Oh,” Ken muttered. “So you’re Claudette. Uh, well, I love you too. In the Lord, that is. I love you in the Lord.”
The Elk Creek church was a small gathering of 35 or 40 people, including the kids. Their best days were apparently behind them. The church began in the early 1950’s. Now it was mostly made up of retirees who had stayed around the dying Oregon logging and mill town twenty years after the saw mill had shut down. Tithes offered from their social security checks barely kept the church going.
When he first thought the Lord might be calling him into the ministry, Ken felt flattered. People in the young adult Sunday school class he taught said he had a gift for making the Word come alive. He loved that kind of input. He was a lover of truth. Since he had come to Christ as a student at the University of Oregon, Ken had sat under the plainspoken preaching of Pastor Fred Stevenson, the head pastor at the bustling Northside Bible Church in Eugene where Ken and his wife, Barbara, served and worshipped. It was a two-service affair with an auditorium-style sanctuary and cushy seats and a professional-sounding worship team.
Northside was a perfect fit for “Ken and Barbie” – that’s what their college friends used to call them – and like the classic doll-set, they seemed to be made for each other. Ken was tall and sinewy-slender and he was a jogging junkie. Barbara was blonde, blue-eyed and pretty. They were the vibrant, attractive kind of Christians that lured others of their kind to Northside.
Ken marveled at what Fred did in the pulpit with scriptural texts every Sunday morning. He sounded like an animated tour guide leading a throng of tourists along an ancient pathway. Waving his Bible, his voice ringing emphatically, every passage he covered was packed full of truths that mattered to him and he let his listeners pause long enough in each place to take in every sight. Truth, he used to say, is too beautiful to satisfy the soul with just a passing glance. His worn and tattered Bible looked like an original manuscript and he resurrected old truths from that same reliable source every Sunday morning. Falling from Fred’s lips, the old, old story never sounded like the same old story. Even his well-rehearsed stories and illustrations sounded crisp and energetic. His preaching was persuasive because, as he liked to put it, he was always preaching to himself first. And Fred was fully persuaded of his message.
To be affirmed for his teaching – and for the same reason that he admired Fred – had a pleasant ring to Ken’s ears. He held Fred in higher esteem than his own father. His parents had divorced years ago. His dad lived across the country, in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he was raising a second family there with his second wife. Ken seldom saw or heard from him. But it didn’t bother him much anymore. Fred was a better deal than his own dad.
On Saturday mornings Ken met with a group of eleven other young men that Fred had selected to personally mentor. Ken was thirty years old and a rising star in residential real estate. The others were about his same age, but they couldn’t have been more varied, both professionally and personally. There was a chef, a car salesman, an optometrist, an electrician, just to name a few. One man was a recovering alcoholic. Another struggled with homosexuality. Another guy had spent a couple years playing pro football, a linebacker. Fred had purposely put together an eclectic group. He said it helped men to discover their own commonness among the commonality found in diversity. Fred knew it was an idea that would take awhile to sink in, so he kept stressing that you can learn from anyone if you are teachable. His aim was to help men to become teachable. His mentorship program required a yearlong commitment. Every year he gathered a new group. And men lined up to get in, knowing that Fred required hours of personal Scripture reading and study. He insisted on prayer-journaling, plus reading a list of books on masculinity and leadership.
The group talked the gamut of life struggles – the real battles that men face. Fred’s transparency was kind of unsettling at first. He told stories on himself – bad stories about his personal failures and mistakes he had made in ministry. He told stories on himself as a young man who had desperately needed forgiveness and deliverance from sin. And he told current stories about his most recent scrapes with sin and the grace he was given to escape temptation or recover from guilt. God was the hero in all of his stories. Other people were heroes who had forgiven him and helped him in his struggles. It wasn’t always the “spiritual giants” who came through for him. It was often the Ordinary Joe or Plain Jane whom God had assigned to help straighten him out.
And so this man that everyone admired showed his protégés all of his warts and wounds. Little by little, the men opened up and revealed their own fears and regrets and insecurities. It evolved into a safe haven for all. And in that safe place Fred started asking questions like, “What would you have done in that situation, if you were me?” He listened and he learned and they all learned from one another. It was just what he wanted to see happening and what he wanted all to see – that they all had something to contribute to each other, regardless of age, status or profession. They were brothers in Christ and they all belonged in the same conversation.
Fred was remarkably ordinary, if that makes any sense. He drove an eight-year-old Buick and a battered Ford F-250 pickup truck. He was also built like a truck. In his middle-sixties, he had that solid, old-man strength that couldn’t be budged. His handshake was firm and you felt it even after he’d loosened his grip. He was white-haired and stocky and he couldn’t find a suit that hung well on him. He was unassuming, approachable, a little naïve and given to bouts of oblivion. His deep-set blue eyes misted over when he listened to people in pain. When people were talking big, he was dumb like a fox. He preached most Sundays, but he carefully planted other men in his pulpit. He was always trying to develop the talents of other men. He was a chronic learner, a student of other people. He seldom finished a discussion by having the final say in a matter. He deferred to someone else’s insights.
Ken figured out that the true measure of Fred’s greatness was in his attention to little things. He remembered a telling incident that happened on the Sunday when the new sanctuary was being dedicated. Fred was walking briskly down a hallway, running a little late as usual while some regional church leaders were waiting for him on the podium. Fred noticed a little boy walking along with an untied shoe. Fred stopped and stooped and tied the kid’s shoe. The fact that he had even noticed the kid, let alone that he noticed that his shoe was untied, was remarkable to Ken. But Fred bent his barrel-chested, husky body to eye-level with the boy and offered his help. Fred never imposed his help. He offered it. He was always in a hurry, but never in too much of a hurry to tend to the little things.
Northside was a mid-sized church that was stuck in park before Fred came there about thirty years earlier. When someone on the search committee asked him about his vision for building the church, Fred simply answered, “Building men.” And just like that, men were drawn to him. They came loaded with gifts and passions and finances and with loads of problems. He taught them how to unpack and redistribute their loads for the benefit of others and how to receive help as well. The church grew up around Fred. Men with visions for expansion exerted their talents and added greater dimensions to the ministry and to the facility. Fred was unchanged by all the changes. Gifted musicians and artists created an ambience that invited fresh ideas to find free expression at Northside. Fred was awestruck by the variety of talents the Lord had distributed among his people there. All the technical gadgetry that came with such progress bewildered him. He was pleased to pass along those headaches to others. He used to joke, saying if he were to come along now as a pastoral candidate in his own church, he wouldn’t make it past the first phase of interviews. He wondered aloud when he would get ousted by a vote of no confidence. He claimed the reason he never touched a piece of technical equipment was his fear of his ineptitude being found out.
Fred was constantly expressing his belief in people and encouraging them to find and take on God’s next assignment for them. “Ken,” he would say, “you are on the increase and I am on the decrease. The Lord has great plans for you, my friend.”
One morning Fred sat in on Ken’s teaching and took him aside after the class. Looking at him with hard, serious eyes, he said, “You are a good handler of the truth, Ken.” And then with his eyes turning soft and moist, he added, “Have you considered that God may be calling you into a pastoral ministry?” He prayed with Ken for God’s leading. Ken knew then that God was speaking to him. He envisioned himself someday standing tall in a pulpit like his mentor. His dream was to saddle himself beside Fred at Northside, gleaning all he could from the older man and perhaps eventually filling his gigantic shoes.
With that inducement, Ken quit his real estate job and hauled his pregnant wife and toddler a hundred miles north to Portland to attend seminary. It was a constant strain studying and making ends meet, but just as he was beginning to see daylight during his final year, Ken’s whole world went dark. Fred died of a sudden heart attack. Ken didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to his beloved friend. He felt too heartsick and too weak to finish the course, but he told himself he needed to do it for Fred, if not for God. So he did it.
Northside Bible Church regrouped as quickly as it could after the big blow. It was commonly felt that they needed to stay the course as much as possible, so Fred’s longtime assistant, Pastor John Perry, was promoted to replace him. He was a good man, a managerial leader. But his style had no appeal to Ken. And besides, since he had gone away to seminary, someone else had admirably filled Ken’s spot teaching the adult class. He wasn’t really needed or missed anymore at Northside. At least, that’s the way Ken saw it. When a new staff position in men’s ministry had been filled even before he found out about it, Ken felt slighted.
“Can you believe that?” he asked Barbara with feigned laughter. “I’m just months away from graduating. You’d think somebody there would have considered me a worthy candidate.” Ken later turned down an invitation to speak at a weekend retreat for young married couples at Northside, saying he was too swamped with studies. He was quietly surprised by how sweet it had tasted saying no to an offer from his former church. But that sweetness quickly started turning sour.
Ken had a secret stipulation for ministry. He didn’t even realize he had it until it slipped from his tongue. He and Barbara were on a summer Sunday drive on a back road through a tiny town when they noticed a nondescript church building with a rain-warped plywood signboard out front. It looked boxy and boring to Ken. He laughed out loud, “I would die on the vine right there!” he said, poking a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the church as he drove past it. “I swear I could never pastor a church like that one. I would die from boredom.”
He felt a piercing sense of conviction when he said it. Even Barbara looked at him with a surprised expression.
The road to Elk Creek is steep and winding. The town sits among the foothills of the Coast Range, where rain clouds hover and spray a constant mist or a downpour in winter, which is depressingly dreary. Summer is splashed with uncountable shades of green, but it is far too short. A few gypo logging outfits try to scrape a profit from logged-out woods in the surrounding hills, but the trees keep getting skinnier and scarcer. Most town folks commute to work at low-paying jobs in McMinnville, a bigger town a half-hour drive down in the valley.
There are two churches in Elk Creek: The Old Church is perched with its high steeple atop Cemetery Hill. It’s the town’s pioneer church with a rich community history and where the old-money people in town still go. Then there is Elk Creek Community Church. It has the liveliest spiritual history. It got its start in the early 50’s during a camp revival meeting under a big tent. Loggers and mill workers by the scores found new life in Jesus in those days. The old-timers gave up a lot of Saturdays to build their little house of worship. It is a simple square building with one story and a basement. It was a happy place for years until the town started to slide.
Ken liked to tell people that he wound up in Elk Creek by word-of-mouth. But that was only half of the truth. He actually had come there by a dear friend’s recommendation. But what he didn’t tell them was that it was also by his own mouth and by his own doing. He still blushed when he recalled the haughty words that had spilled out of him the time he spotted that dull-looking little church building. He confessed his sin every time he thought about it, but he had an awful feeling that the Lord wasn’t letting him off the hook so easy. He still needed to learn a deeper lesson than confession alone could do for him. Something very ugly inside of him had made him swear like that and it needed to get squeezed out of him.
As it turned out, Elk Creek wasn’t Ken’s last option. It was his only option. Fred’s death had so stung him that he lost all of his motivation to candidate for other pastoral vacancies during the final part of his senior year. Most of his classmates landed on their feet somewhere, but Ken didn’t even step out. He kept breezing past the bulletin board that posted church job openings. He was on auto-pilot, just trying to finish his degree. He would decide later what to do with it. He was leaning toward returning to real estate and writing off his seminary education as good grounding for ministry in the marketplace. But then the plummeting housing market ruined all that.
On graduation night Ken walked the aisle feeling all dressed up with no place to go. Fred’s widow, Nancy, attended the ceremony. She was as much a fan of Ken as her late husband had been. She was a sweet, nicely-coiffed lady whose serene face made her look ten years younger. Ken was glad to see she had come, but he felt sheepish about talking with her. He hated to admit even to himself that Northside was still his only choice in ministry. Like a lovelorn suitor, he couldn’t imagine giving his heart to any other church. But he knew he couldn’t avoid telling Nancy. So he walked right up to her and frankly divulged his secret. He was quitting the ministry even before he got started. Saying it out loud sounded so sacrilegious to him, but it also felt freeing. It was the honest truth of how he was feeling. Ken half-expected her to look at him with disappointed eyes, but he knew her better than that. Her eyes crinkled and shined and her smile illumined her face.
“Ken, you are so much like my Fred – so loyal, so true,” she laughed. “Fred used to tell me he had two first loves: me and that first little church. For years it felt like family to us. But it wasn’t an easy assignment. Fred had to work in the town sawmill to keep us alive. But he always said that little church was the best training in ministry he ever got.”
“Knowing Fred’s legacy, I’d say that’s a pretty solid recommendation. So where was this church?” Ken inquired.
“As a matter of fact, it still is,” she said. “It’s in a little town up in the Coast Range called Elk Creek. Have you ever heard of it?”
Ken’s eyes widened. “Uh, as a matter of fact, I have,” he gasped. “I know right where it is. Barbara and I drove through there last summer.”
“What a coincidence!” she exclaimed. “You might be interested to know that they are searching for a new pastor. I got a note just yesterday from a dear friend of mine who still lives there. If you’re interested, I’ll call Claudette and put in a good word for you. Fred would be so thrilled if Elk Creek were God’s assignment for you too.”