Emerald Empire Real Estate nearly went under during Oregon’s historic-low housing slump. Small firms like that were getting gobbled up by the big boys or left to die a natural death. But Ken’s former boss, Chad Marshall, was an old warrior in the business who refused to die easy. A Desert Storm Marine combat veteran, he’d survived under heavy fire before. He just kept firing back.
Three years after Ken had left Emerald Empire, Chad was making a living by selling bank-owned homes at rock-bottom prices. He knew the sad stories behind many of the repo houses he was now turning. He had sold those homes to families when the economy was strong. After the floor caved in, market values of homes crumbled and homeowners were stuck with high-interest mortgages. Jobs were being cut and workers were taking pay cuts. Unable to keep up on house payments, good families were simply walking away from their homes. It turned Chad’s stomach to see all the carnage, but for him it was do, or die. The downswing had forced a move from a nicely-renovated, rose-gardened Victorian home office building to a space in a strip mall, but he was grateful to still be in business. Now in his mid-40’s, he wasn’t about to make a career change. He would ride out the storm and keep his head down, as always. Sooner or later, the clouds would break. He was sure of it.
It was a bright, sun-shiny day in late June when Ken popped into Chad’s office. Chad arose from his chair with a wide smile.
“Hey, what brings you around here, preacher boy?” he chortled, tugging Ken into a tight bear hug. Chad was glad to see Ken again. They hadn’t spoken to each other in six months since the day of Fred’s funeral. Chad remembered the lost and sullen look in Ken’s eyes that day. A lot of people in the church had that look also, but it really stood out on Ken’s usually cheerful countenance. It looked more like shell-shock, a look he’d seen on a few Marines’ faces in battle. He was concerned for him then. Grief can really mess up a guy, he thought. So he was glad to see Ken looking chipper again.
“Just checking out my options,” Ken replied, easing out of Chad’s beefy grasp.
“You mean you’re candidating at a church here in Eugene? Is there an associate position opening at Northside?” Chad pried.
“No, none of the above,” Ken said carefully. “I’m looking for an opening in real estate sales. You know of any?
“You’re lying!” Chad laughed.
“No, I’m serious,” Ken insisted. “I was thinking you might take me back.”
“What are you talking about?” Chad asked. “I thought you were called to preach!”
“I can serve him wherever I’m planted,” Ken quipped. “We both know how to make the gospel relevant in the marketplace. And I’ve been thinking that the Lord doesn’t want me to throw away the platform he’s given me in business.”
“I see, so he sent you off to seminary to figure that out?” Chad inquired, slightly tilting his head and squinting at Ken. Chad was about fifteen years older than Ken. His personality was as large and looming as his big and bulky body. He was fair-skinned and freckled with rusty hair and he was perpetually red-in-the-face. He glared at Ken and his brown eyes reddened. “Look, you left me in a lurch three years ago when the market went south. I baled water all by myself to keep this boat afloat, and now you want back in? I was pretty ticked, but I let it go because I truly believed that you were called to preach. And I wasn’t the only one. A lot of guys believed in you. Fred believed in you.”
“Well, things have changed,” Ken replied, looking away from Chad’s red face. “Fred’s gone. Northside went with him, as far as I’m concerned.”
“What has that to do with your calling?” Chad demanded. “I thought God’s calling is supposed to be irrevocable. Where’s your loyalty?”
“What do you mean my loyalty?” Ken countered. “Didn’t I prove my loyalty when I took my wife and kids away from a nice lifestyle and suffered through three years of seminary?”
“Loyalty!” Chad hollered. “Try idolatry!”
Ken’s jaw stiffened. “What are you talking about, idolatry?”
Chad paused before speaking. “I know exactly what I’m saying,” he continued in a calmer tone. “I know an idolater when I see one, because that’s what I’ve been. It hit me after you left me in such a mess and I spent all my time stressing about it. I was saying all the right stuff about supporting you, but I was actually mad at you, which I thought I was over until now that I’m hearing you talking like this. But I was also mad at God. It came out when things fell apart and I couldn’t fix it. I had said all along that my business belonged to God, but I was also telling him how to run it. I wasn’t fooling God or anybody but myself. It was still mine and my business was my idol.”
“Okay, but you’re still in business,” Ken replied. “God hasn’t pulled it away from you. At least you have a shingle to hang.”
“Ken, I’ve stuck it out through some tough times in this business, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Chad said. “I wouldn’t even have a desk today if it wasn’t for the Lord. After I finally gave up running the business on my terms, he told me to cast my net on the other side of the boat. I never thought I’d sink this low, but if I didn’t have my hand in the foreclosure market, I’d be sunk. Believe me. I’m begrudgingly grateful for what I’ve got.”
“Okay, so you gave up your idol,” Ken replied. “But how am I an idolater? I don’t have a church to preach in. I don’t even have an income to support my family. So what am I supposed to give up?”
“Oh yeah, you do have a church,” Chad retorted, his voice rising again. “It’s the church of your dreams. It’s the only church you think is good enough for you. Can you guess which church I am talking about?”
“If you’re talking about Northside,” Ken countered with obvious defensiveness, “I already told you it’s not an option for me.”
“So Northside isn’t the only church on earth where God is present and where you can serve him?” Chad pressed, trying to corner him.
“Obviously not,” Ken deadpanned.
“So why hasn’t it been obvious to you?” Chad asked, his glare locking again on Ken. “If Northside is the only place where you have a heart to serve God, then it isn’t God you want to serve, it is your idol you are serving. And you’ve replaced the Lord with Northside.”
“I could serve the Lord in any church he calls me to, as long as it’s a good fit for me and my family,” Ken insisted.
“Drop the conditions!” Chad commanded, gritting his teeth.
“What conditions?” Ken stammered.
“‘As long as it’s a good fit’ – those conditions!” Chad uttered emphatically. “If the Lord wants to be captain of my boat, then he wants to be captain of your boat too. Let him steer it.”
Ken was looking sullen, maybe even a little shell-shocked. He’d come to Chad looking for a break, not a pummeling. Chad watched him squirming. Then he lightened his tone.
“Look, Ken,” he spoke into the silence, “I don’t want to be hard on you. The truth is I think you’re making it hard on yourself. Do you remember what Fred used to tell us about finding God’s assignments?”
“I can’t remember everything Fred said,” Ken softly replied.
“I remember it almost verbatim,” Chad said. “God won’t let you put your work or ministry before him. He said you can tell if a job or a ministry has become your idol when you are setting the terms for where you’ll work and where you won’t. He’ll give you assignments that will reveal and destroy all the idols in your heart. That goes for business assignments too, by the way. I know that for a fact.”
“Yeah, I remember Fred saying that,” Ken admitted.
“So now that Northside isn’t an option, is there any other option you can think of?” Chad inquired.
“Well, I never thought I’d say this,” Ken offered, “but Nancy mentioned a little church in the Coast Range that is looking for a pastor. I suppose that is an option. In fact, it’s the only option I know about.”
“It’s not a repo church, is it?” Chad laughed. “You’re sounding too much like me.”
“I’ve actually seen the church building,” Ken answered, shaking his head. “Barb and I happened to drive past it last summer. Let’s just say it didn’t leave me with a favorable first impression. But the weird thing is that it turns out to be Fred’s first church, of all things. Nancy told me so.”
“You can’t make up stuff like this,” Chad marveled. “This has got to be the Lord. If I were you, I’d consider it an honor to serve where Fred has gone before you. Throw the net on the other side of your boat, Ken. You may be surprised by what you’ll catch on your next assignment.”
Chad was sad to see Ken leaving that day, just as he was sad the day he had left the firm three years earlier. He had poured himself into grooming Ken in the business. And it had paid off big-time. Ken was a natural salesman. He was affable and bright. He had a knack for quickly sizing up homebuyers and matching them to suitable homes. He often had them sold on their first walk-thru. If he and Ken had stayed together during the housing slump, Emerald Empire would have gone lean like all the other realtors, but Chad was sure they would have chewed most of the meat on the bone that everyone else was fighting to get. They were a tough team to beat.
Although it had cost him a few idols of his own, Chad admired Ken for turning his back on a successful career to follow God’s call. He was starting to sense that, for both of them, their loss would also be their gain.
Ken had dropped off Barb and the kids at Nancy’s home before going to see Chad. Driving back to get them, he uttered a meek prayer, “Okay, Captain, you can steer the boat, I’ll drop the net.”
Ken felt surprisingly free and peaceful all of a sudden. When he entered Nancy’s home, he asked her, “Remember the church you were telling me about – Fred’s first church? Do you have a number I can call about that?”
Barbara looked at him with as much surprise as she did when he had made that awful comment about the church.
“Oh, yes, I have it in my address book,” Nancy replied, opening a telephone desk drawer. “Let me see, Marley, Claudette Marley. Here it is. I hope you don’t mind, Ken, but I told her you would likely be calling her sometime.”
Ken hadn’t backed the van from the driveway before Barb asked him the obvious question, “So tell me, what’s happening?”
“I’m not yet sure,” he said, “but I sure couldn’t make up a story like this.”