Sinking Sand/Solid Rock – An Anthology #15 Sacramento

sacramento-1970s

Driving into Sacramento; I had no idea where we were going.  There was no GPS to rely on and the map wasn’t complete.  Calling a number sent to me, I was told to go to a certain very inexpensive motel and register.  The church had no money.  The year before our arrival the gross income for the church was reported as $19,000 and some change, and 300+ in attendance consisting of 79% children under high school age.  We stayed in the motel for three weeks with our first day visiting the church on Friday June 19, 1970.

We were finally allowed to drive to the parsonage.  This was the beginning of our trek through the Sinai desert.  The place was spik and span, but it sure wasn’t like the new parsonage we purchased in Albuquerque and for sure not like Dallas.  It was located in a rather low income area.  That was alright.  My style.

Pulling into the parking lot of the church passing a vacant lot of star thistles, I entered the church that could seat about 200 people and walked back to the pastor’s study.  Welcoming me was a floor of rat droppings – that’s it.  No desk, no chair.  Guess who showed up to welcome me with a big ol’ smile!  Right.  How did you know?  He said, “You’re a loser!”  Satan is an evil angel cast out of heaven.   His express purpose is to defeat and destroy God’s good purpose in our life.

The way the calendar year worked for churches back in the day, voting by the congregation as to whether a pastor should stay or go was always a mystery to me.  Suffice it to say, my first day on the “job” was June 21 and I preached the same sermon I preached in El Paso, “We Have a Message.”  The following November it was required by church law to have a vote of the congregation to determine if we were to stay or be out on the street.  I had virtually no contact with other pastors at the time and no concept of California culture.  Believe me; things are different in California than in Texas and Oklahoma.

During the five months before the election, I noticed money was missing from the offering plate.  All hell hit the fan when I appointed a committee of three faithful men to investigate the deficit.  They found the culprit; an usher/counter.  He and other relatives of his were not happy campers.  I never exposed him publicly or in private conversation.  We handled it quietly.

The election; I squeaked by with one vote to count.  Hallelujah, I could stay for another year!  Five families stood up and left the church with all their kids, right there and then.  That same morning I preached like a bishop and made an altar call so people could get saved.  No one got saved.  They were too worn out from voting and so was I.  Maybe we oughta have a church split so we could create some new Christians.  Whoopee!

Back to the grindstone just like in El Paso and Albuquerque; pulling weeds, cleaning stuff, moving into and organizing a pastor’s study, knocking on doors, preaching and praying and trying to hold the family together.

For those days, explosive growth occurred.  Soon we had two services on Sunday morning, then three, then another baptismal service in the afternoon, and two on Sunday evening one of which was a teen service.  Associates and musicians were hired and then a seventeen acre property was purchased.  Architects were brought in along with faithful laymen who knew what they were doing.

There was absolutely no doubt about it, the Holy Spirit of God through Jesus Christ was there.  Miracles took place!

When Satan fought us, God made a way.  Even when the county architectural committee turned us down for the design, God made a way.  When the church district advisory board made us stop construction, God was there.  When a woman marched up and down the street with a big sign protesting our theology, God intervened.  When that drug addict stripped his clothes off stark naked during our early Sunday morning service running down the aisle to the pulpit area, grabbed me by the neck until I thought death was imminent, pulled a baby from her mother’s arms and with blood and foam running from his nose and mouth, God used it for His glory.  Through it all and over the next few years, hundreds were converted making a definite commitment to Christ.

Dr. J. Sidlow Baxter tells a story of an Anglican minister who happened to be looking through his parsonage window when he saw a rather rough-looking workman stroll past and on to the main door of the church.  He looked around rather furtively and then entered the church.  The next day, the same time and the same thing.   And the next and the next – always at 12:30 noon.  The minister was curious and set out to spy.  The minister went into the church, crouched in a safe place where he could not be seen.  And sure enough, right at 12:30 noon the man entered, stuffed his cap into his back pocket, walked down the main aisle to the rail before the communion altar where he bowed his head and stood in silence.  Then, putting his hands on the communion rail, looking toward the altar he said in a low voice, “Jesus … its Jim.”

Some days later there was a terrible accident at the construction job on which he was working and a number of men were injured.  He was taken to the hospital where he was placed in ICU.  After a few days, he was taken to a ward where some of the other construction workers had been admitted.  The men were rough and crude with their language, and disrespectful to nurses.  Such was their coarseness and rude ungratefulness that more than one of the nurses shed tears running out of the room.  However, after Jim had been there two or three days the nurses noticed a marked change.  The room had settled down amazingly.  The nurses could not conceal their happy surprise.

One morning, just as a nurse entered the room to start her rounds from bed to bed, the men were all enjoying a good-natured laugh.  The atmosphere had changed remarkably.  She asked the first man what it was that had made the change in everyone.  He replied, “Oh, I think it’s that chap in the fifth bed.  They call him Jim.”  So when the screen was around Jim’s bed, she softly said to him, “Jim, they say you’ve made a wonderful change here. Tell me what’s going on.”  With tears in his eyes Jim said, “Well, I’m not sure you would understand, but somehow, every day about 12:30 noon, I see Jesus coming toward the end of my bed.  He just stands there and then leans over, puts His hands on the bed rail and says, “Jim … its Jesus.”

Unfortunately, Satan struck again – at the heart of my family.

I was broken … and broke; spiritually devastated and financially crushed, rock bottom.  Who cared!  Oh, I know people cared, but who’s going to pay my bills?  Who is going to ask me to pastor another church with a red letter D on my forehead; single with two young kids?  Oh I know the people wanted me to stay, but quite frankly, I was just too tired.  And too, I didn’t know how to accept compassion.  I was the one who was supposed to show kindness and empathy not the other way around.  My pride wouldn’t allow me to let people know that I was financially upside down.  Furthermore, I had to sell my house right away to pay the church back for the original loan used to purchase it in the first place.  No job, bumfuzzled, no one to turn to, hurt beyond measure!  Sure nuff, the old accuser Belial made his presence known.  He always shows up right when you really don’t want the hassle.  But there he was.

“See, I’ve told you all along that you shouldn’t have moved to California.  You weren’t mature enough to lead a growing church.  And too, building that church was a mess and you knew it all along.  The advisory board turned you down because your members were too “low class” to build a big church building.  You shouldn’t have started building it with cash.  Remember, it sat there for 9 months, 17 beautiful acres with only the foundation finished.  Didn’t you know you had no experience building things?  What an idiot.  Besides, where’s your God?”  I heard myself saying out loud, “Look, I don’t want to hear this.  I’ve got enough problems as it is.  God is right where he has always been.”

“Really now,” Belial mocked.  “You better wise up cuz he isn’t anywhere that I can see.  Do you see him?  Be honest, has he ever talked to you or is it a figment of your imagination?  Have you ever seen an angel?   Remember when you were in Louisiana praying?  You thought it was to the “Almighty,” and you thought you saw him?  Well, you didn’t.  Come on, for the first time in your life, you can be brutally honest with me … and yourself!   You’re on the outside now.  Hey man, you’re free!  You don’t have to fake it til you make it anymore.”

About that time the phone rang.  I ran into the kitchen and grabbed it off the wall thinking it would be someone offering me a job that I didn’t even apply for.

“Hello.”

A loud and commanding voice yelled, “Do.you.think.I’m.crazy?”  It was the DBS.  I had remained a trustee of the regional college and a board member of the district financial institution.  Furthermore, a few pastors had asked me to help them with series of services.  Didn’t matter.  I hardly knew my name anymore.  Most pastors, however, had never faced this situation before; a leading pastor going through divorce.  That’s not supposed to happen is it?

“You act like you are purposely defying leadership and the Manual.”

“Well, I’m not quite sure I know what you mean.”

“You have no reason to stay on!  You know what the Manual says about divorce!”

Truth be known, I didn’t know what it said.  Actually, at this point I didn’t care.

Once again, Belial spoke quickly and laughingly said, “Quickly, tell him that the Manual also says you can’t go mixed “bathing” or the theater either.”  Isn’t it amazing how penetrating Satan can be?  Having been bullied most of my life I got my hackles up, at first.

Confused, I said to the DBS, “Are you asking for my resignation to both the financial board and the College Board?”  Those were the only two positions I had retained.

Loudly – since I’m left-handed, I had the phone to my left ear even though I’m hard of hearing in the left ear – loudly he spoke, “You need to resign from all of your positions.”

“Brother DBS, if I’m not mistaken, the Manual also says that you are my “administrative” leader, not my boss….”  I didn’t realize it, but the phone was dead; apparently he had hung up.

From that point on, others noticed that a raised eyebrow from the DBS or a click of the tongue or a dark smile told the brethren that I had leprosy.  Not very Christian-like, I kept my positions for one more year.  I had nothing to hide!  And, I held a few services to boot.  Wasn’t that awful of me?

Speaking derisively to the DBS worked on what little conscience I had left.  So a few days later I called the DBS office and made an appointment.  I called a few ministerial friends (I had one or two left) and asked for their prayer since I was going to see the big cheese. [Contemptuous of me!]

The big day arrived.  I was equipped with a nice suit on and prayer following on my tail.  I opened the door to the office and noticed a certain cold and sour look on the secretary’s face.  Without saying a word, she stood up and walked in a back room where I surmised the DBS’ office was located.  Even with my bad-hearing-left ear, I heard her say, “He’s here.”  At that point I walked on cheap tile to –tahdaah – the office!  I was armed with prayer.  With folded arms and red face he didn’t say a word.  I broke the silence by saying, “I just wanted to come by and ask your forgiveness for speaking disrespectfully ….”  Before I could continue, he bellowed loud enough people in the apartment building next door could hear, “Do.You.Think.I’m.Crazy?”  Seems I had heard that before.  With that, I walked out – and never returned!

What I didn’t realize was that one of the brethren had let it be known in the ministerial meeting that he had heard, or someone had said, or he understood, or that someone had told one of his friends that I had run off with a woman and was in Hawaii, he thought.  Rrreeellyy?!   Mercy hep us.  We gotta make this known from the roof tops.  It didn’t matter I was with my two children and my sister at La Brea tar pits … on her dime.  I couldn’t afford to buy lunch let alone take a trip.

I knew it was over.  That big redletter would be forever tattooed on my forehead.  In those days we had a tendency to shoot our wounded.  Oh I know, there were those who carried on; overcomers.  I wasn’t strong enough.  Too prideful.  I had been bullied all my life and I wasn’t gonna take it anymore.

That night I had a dream.  I walked to the front of a little stucco house.  It was one of those with a big picture window.  All the brethren were inside talking and laughing and holding their drink, cocktail party style.  Ima gonna promise you it wasn’t wine or anything that was unacceptable to drink.  There was no doorbell – in my dream – since this was one of those houses built in the 40s or 50s.  I knocked and the DBS opened the door.  When he saw me he shut the door.  I turned and walked away and as I looked back I saw one of the brethren pull the shade down on the picture window.

The dream was over.

It wasn’t dirty.  I just dressed down so it would look like I needed some help from the gubbmint unemployment benefit office.  Even $100 would help.  Jumping into my big, brown, 1976 Thunderbird I left thinking I would walk right in and present my case.  Confident all the way to Watt Avenue near I-80, I was puzzled when I saw, not a huge office building, but a warehouse with a thousand cars parked outside.  I parked out aways so that no one would bang their door into the side of my car, and walked hurriedly where people were standing in a line half way down the sidewalk.  I was confused.  This didn’t make sense.  Didn’t these people know that I was a pastor (or had been until a couple days ago)?  Not to worry.  I would go inside and talk to the nice lady and walk out with my $100.  Hello?  Is anyone in there?

After I was unceremoniously ushered back out to the end of the line, which had grown by 10 to 15 lost souls, I inched my way forward over the next two and one half hours.  In the meantime, babies were screaming, kids were running everywhere, smoke was billowing up, loudspeakers were blaring and the stench was horrible.  Not one person there knelt down and called me blessed!  No one kissed my ring because I didn’t have one to kiss.  Finally, fiiiinnally I was called to a window with a hole in it. The “lady” sitting behind the window took a full 30 seconds to look up at me. So I waited!  And waited!  Then she lazily looked up. [STOP!  Wait a full 30 seconds before you start to read again and see how long 30 seconds is and imagine standing in front of the “powers that be!”]  She then said, “Yes. May I help you?” (Well, at least she said “Yes” – a positive word.)  She didn’t say, “Well hello, Pastor!”  With ministerial voice I said, “I’m here to apply for unemployment.”  “What is your Social Security number?”  (Even though I have Lifelock, I’m not going to reveal this totally secure number at this time.)  I’m on my way to getting my $100.00.  Computers were not as efficient in 1977 as they are now.  She waited, and waited, and waited – and so did I.  “Who was your last employer?”  Doesn’t she know I was the pastor of an up and coming church?  Didn’t she know that we had purchased 17 acres of land and dedicated the first building project 3 months ago?  Apparently not!  Suddenly the crash came!  In monotone she said, “You can’t collect unemployment.  Your employer didn’t pay anything in. NEXT!”  Back in those ancient of days, pastors were considered self-employed for tax purposes, therefore the church did not include me as an employee for purposes of withholding.  I never received a W2 – only a 1099MISC.

Where was God?  As I sobbed on my way to Bertha, my big, brown Thunderbird, Belial whispered in my ear, “Do you remember that sermon you preached about the meaning of my name, calling me ‘worthless?’   Well, that is exactly what you are.  You’re not worth squat!  You’ve lost it all.  You’ve never really been a success at anything you’ve ever done.  You have always gravitated to all those little, low-class churches while all your college and seminary friends became bigshots.  Furthermore, none of your people had money.  Just think about it – do you remember pastoring that little church 2 miles from Juarez, Mexico, on a dirt road?  Didn’t you hear me when I told you not to move to El Paso?  “And what was the first thing you saw in your “luxury” office when you moved from Albuquerque to Sacramento?”

 “I already know.”

 “Well, what was it?  Tell me!”

 “OK.  It was rat droppings.”

 “See?  That’s exactly what I’m trying to get across to you.  You’re not worth anything.  You have no money; two children who need food, oh, and let me ask you – who do you think will hire you?  You don’t know anything about anything.  Business people don’t hire preachers!  What’re you gonna do, preach to customers?” 

While he was laughing, I jumped into the car and drove home, crying my eyes out.  Arriving, I fell on the floor in abject spiritual and emotional poverty!  I screamed out imprecations on my wretched life!

And then …

“O soul, are you weary and troubled?

No light in the darkness you see?

There’s light for a look at the Savior,

And life more abundant and free!

Turn your eyes upon Jesus;

Look full in His wonderful face;

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim

In the light of His glory and grace.”

Helen Howarth Lemmel

THREE WEEKS LATER I WAS HIRED BY A BILLIONAIRE AS HIS PERSONAL ASSISTANT!

billionaireIt wasn’t all that easy.  Before having a job, I went from place to place applying to work at anything – didn’t matter.  I had lost all confidence in myself.  I had no skill at applying for a job so I went everywhere and applied for everything.  I heard of a Catholic priest who had left the priesthood and married some gal in the Sierra Mountains.  He was driving a logging truck.  I quickly learned that I would need to get a license by going to a school, blah, blah, blah.  Even a 7-11 came into view.  They laughed me out of the store.  I applied at a messenger company.  No answer back.

Thank God for some wonderful members of the church who lived nearby.  They were wonderful, loving and beautiful people.  All I had to do was call them and they would watch over, and in some instances, take my children to their home.  They were “heart-friends” lovingly supporting our family in that awful time of distress.

I wished so much that I could have worked from home spending more time with my children during this time of transition.  My heart ached – and still does!   My Mother and Step-Father flew here shortly after my employment and provided comfort and help, as did my sister.  There is no substitute on earth for the love of family and friends who care enough to give their very best.  This brought to mind the song we sang in those little churches of my childhood:

“There’s not an hour that He is not near us.

No, not one! No, not one.

No night so dark but His love can cheer us.

No, not one! No, not one!

Jesus knows all about our struggles;

He will guide till the day is done.

There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus,

No, not one!  No, not one!”

Johnson Oatman, Jr.

Although things were going reasonably well, I received a call from my successor at the church – late at night, woke me up, in fact!   In that dignified voice that all pastors are wont to have and clearing his throat, he said, “Brother Pryor, I think it would be more fitting for your children to attend another church.  Now don’t get me wrong, they are wonderful young people,” he said, “but a clean break might be more appropriate.”  He must have been getting advice from upper management.  Am I hearing what I am hearing?  I didn’t sleep the rest of the night!

The early morning-time was spent in that netherworld between heaven and hell.  If there is a purgatory, I was in it!  Once again, Belial whispered in my ear.  In my mind his name changed to Beelzebub, the dung god.  He said, “You ain’t worth squat!”  I wrestled the rest of the night between intense, god-awful anger, shock, heartaching agony and worthlessness.  There was not a single thing neither he, nor my successor, nor the DBS could point to that would justify such a petty, insecure request.  As a result I realized that people are always going to act like people.   Why should I take someone else’s knife and stab myself with it?

I didn’t realize that Satan needles, but God pinpoints.  Everyone has their own horse to ride.  So what!  When all else failed, I read God’s advice to Joshua after Moses died.

“You will be successful in everything you do.

Yes, be bold and strong!

Banish fear and doubt!

For remember, the Lord your God

Is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:7 & 9

If I placed in writing my 2 years spent travelling the world with my employer, meeting with the movers and shakers of business, government, finance and Hollywood, attending lunches and dinners exceeding $25,000 per plate ($100,000 in today’s dollars), you would either be stupefied or skeptical.  No, the money was not for rubber “chikin.”  Most of the money went for political donations … and, of course, influence.  Hello?!

After two years of this, I resigned my position rubbing shoulders with mayors, governors, representatives and senators, with Hollywood celebrities, the monied and the nouveau riche.   It wasn’t worth it.  Sitting at tables with people who only knew how to babble, with no depth having a shadow but no substance, people who can only talk about other people, people pretending to pretend they are not pretending.

I would imagine my friend who owned a real estate school was singing “rescue the perishing, care for the dying” when he hired me to be the business manager of his growing empire of schools [real estate schools, bank training, escrow training and contractors’ testing schools].  He had been a neighboring pastor and was owner of his own businesses.  He laid it out and turned it over to me.  Later on he was elected to pastor a large prestigious church, and has been there for over 20 years.  I elected to lick my wounds and carry on.  No regrets.

It dawned on me – I am above the age when most of my friends have passed along.  They aren’t worrying about things and neither am I.  Age has found its home deep in my breast.  I had grab bars installed in the shower, LED lights placed in strategic locations because the elderly need more light.  I don’t trust myself to climb ladders anymore.  Tomorrow I have an appointment with the hospital staff to walk me through their clinic for those who are beginning to forget things.  Later on, the doctors will test my hearing.  More and more I’m careful about spicy foods.  Carole, my wonderful wife and companion is soon to get a knee replacement and we had to cancel our month-long trip to South America.

No regrets.  I moved on down the road; business and tax consultant, stockbroker and financial planner, owner of various business operations, real estate brokerage, developer of land, builder of custom homes, and owner of assisted living facilities.  Challenging?  Yes.  Always successful?  Not always.  Thrilling?  Absolutely!   I’ve come to the conclusion that in the grand scheme of things it matters not if you are a U.S. Senator in a wrinkled up suit, a strong governor of a state that is the eighth largest economy in the world, a silly mayor of a large city, a big church pastor, little church pastor, or no pastor, if you are a butcher, baker or candlestick maker, a big shot, little shot or no shot, “where Jesus is, ‘tis heaven” there.

“Once heaven seemed a far-off place,

Till Jesus showed His smiling face.

Now it’s begun within my soul;

‘Twill last while endless ages roll.”

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One thought on “Sinking Sand/Solid Rock – An Anthology #15 Sacramento

  1. Marshall I came to the church you pastored in 1973 and I remember some of the junk you had to go through. My heart hurt for you as I was reading this because I saw what “the church” did to you. My faith was shaken but I carried on as you did. I have also learned through the years to lean hard on God and not people. I have lost two husbands to cancer and now fully involved in the Celebrate Recovery Ministry at Christ Community Church in Carmichael . Through it all I have learned to trust in Jesus as you have. I have so many good memories of your sermons and how powerful they were, they changed my life. Thanks for posting this. Joyce (Johnson) Bridges

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