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The Closest I’ve Come to Dying While in the Ministry

March 7, 2014

Recently I was asked by a student about the dangers I faced since I began my ministry over three decades ago.  “What about the worst time?” asked Rob.  “What was the closest you came to death since you started working in the ministry?”

I stood there and pondered this a moment.  Then I told him the story I’m going to share with you right now.  Prior to entering teaching I was a 24 year old evangelist, not yet married, traveling the country and speaking at over one hundred churches and schools – mostly tiny little country gatherings.  This was the scariest moment I encountered… 

It was 1984, and it was a good time for me.  I crossed the Georgia state line I couldn’t help but smile to myself.  This was actually a grand return to an old familiar stomping ground for me, tucked in the northeastern section of the state.  Clarksville, Georgia was an amazingly loveable place.  It had some simple main roads, lots of thick lush trees, thick hot summers and a solid business-world reputation as a trusted center for excellent craftsmanship in furniture making.    My first encounter with Clarksville was as a university student back in 1978, helping out with a small storefront church.  Upon arriving in town that very first time, I stopped at a local bakery to get directions and was treated to some free Danish delights, because the owner 1bbbwas happy to “see someone in town trying to do good.”   I sat there on the front porch, eating an embarrassingly large pastry and realizing that some people are just really, really fine folks.

The storefront church was just as enjoyable.  Led by a portly and ever-grinning pastor who went by the nickname “Tank,” the congregation was two dozen at its biggest, peopled by women in sundresses, men in jeans, and children with doe eyes and a penchant for saying my one-syllable name (Brad) drawn out in three syllables:  “Buh-RAY- ud.”  I loved every minute of being with them all, especially from their boisterous singing of “Home of the Soul” (this is the honest truth – they sang from a hymn book with shape notes.  Shape notes, I tell you.  I thought that was Civil War era stuff.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, give it a Google and see for yourself). Some of my fondest memories, I’m ashamed to say, were of the eye-popping afternoon lunches of fresh greens, pork chops, mashed potatoes, gravy and homemade pies foisted upon me by farm wives whose husbands would regale me with local tales as I filled up on their produce.  I still salivate when I reminisce.

Ah, those were some great days when I was in college those years back.  Now as I headed back in 1984, Tank had lost forty pounds, gained a new property for the church and was one of the first respondents to ask me to come and speak.

What a great way to start, I thought.  Going back to old friends.

I had aimed my car for Georgia and whistled as I drove (my radio didn’t work.  In fact, neither did the air conditioner).  This was going to be a nice quiet family reunion of sorts.

Well, not of the sort I expected.

The church had moved and was now meeting in a new metallic building with a freshly painted sign and a gravel parking lot.  The inside of the building still had that smell of new lumber and fresh paint so familiar to all homebuilders. Tank had met me at the door with a firm handshake and a wink, proudly introducing me to the new location and telling me what I longed to hear:  “There’s gonna be a nice big spread of food for us all to have after the meetin’ tonight, son.”

Boy, this circuit-riding thing was starting out better than I thought.

I stepped into the pulpit that Sunday evening with a gracious and comfortable feeling that we were all going to have a grand time in the Word.  The congregation had swelled to, oh, about fifty, the people huddled on metal chairs.  The smattering of kids comprising the youth group sat on the front row, intent as if I were about to reveal the next NASA space mission.  One young couple – I found out their names were Skeeter and Jan – stood in the back of the auditorium, both arms wrapped around each other and smiling blissfully.  It was an unusual hug, an odd position that they took:  chest–to-chest and knees-to-knees.  It made for an uncomfortable casual conversation on my side, but they didn’t seem to mind.  What was especially noticeable was their firmly locked grip – almost as if they were afraid someone would steal their spouse.  All through the evening they stood like that, never letting go.  Tank told me they’d been married for two months and still hadn’t let go of each other.

And so I was at the pulpit for my first meeting.  As I started to share my text in the book of James, however, I encountered a noise that I couldn’t decipher.

Me:  “Let’s turn to the first chapter of James and I –“

Noise: Whine

Me: “Um… in the twenty-second verse, there’s an exhortation that I want to share with – “

Noise:  Whine whiiiiine

Me: “- share with you about going the extra step beyond being a mere listener.  We should all –“

Noise:  Whine snort whiiiiiiiiiine

 Where was that noise coming from?  Nobody seemed to notice the constant interruption … or at least they were amazingly good at ignoring it.  I scanned the audience as I spoke, desperately glancing about to find the source of this high-pitched, hair-raising noise.  And I found it.  Three rows deep, seven chairs from the left aisle.  There he was, a red-haired, freckle-faced kid of about seven, thin as a rail with a face that was even redder than his hair. He was crying, but not in the heart-rending sorrow that can shake a person.  This was a long-drawn out continual fingernail-across-the-blackboard screech of a whine that let me know he was in the midst of a self-centered funk.  And, brother,  that whine was loud.

Although I don’t know how I did it, I continued laboring through my outline as I assessed the situation.  Surely there must be parents or a guardian about… and indeed there was, right next to the child.  His mother was getting the full blast of this coil of sound but she was totally unresponsive. In fact, Mother sat there with heavy-lidded eyes like she was beyond tired.  She was awake –  but out of it.

This whining continued on a pace of twice a minute through the entire message.  And I spoke for twenty-five minutes.   This was my first message, and it was a disaster.  I stuttered all through it, trying to dodge the mortar-bomb whines that were being lobbed at me by the red-haired kid.

Afterwards I was quite dejected, but amazingly enough nobody seemed a bit bothered by it, nor did they mention it.  In fact, to my simmering suspicion, everyone seemed so excited about the food in the back dining hall that everything else – especially the message – was quite forgotten completely.

While people were coming up and shaking my hand, hugging me and patting my shoulder, there was a small call from Amy, Tank’s petite daughter.  Everyone kept chatting, but I could hear Amy was insistent in needing some help, so I excused myself and walked past Skeeter and Jan who were still standing with both arms wrapped around each other and smiling blissfully. I stepped to the dining hall doorway where Amy stood facing me, her hand on the knob.  I actually thought this was a trick, that she would usher me through the doorway to a loud blast of cheering and a huge buffet of food festooned with streamers and ribbons, celebrating my homecoming.

Instead, Amy said, ”Brad, we’ve got bees.”

“Oh,” I answered emptily.  “Uh, are there many of them?  Does the church have any spray?” I got a bit bold.  “When I was a teen I worked on a lot of farms, and sometimes we had bees.  Here, I’ll get them for you.”

She shook her head and looked me in the eyes.  “Brad, there are a lot of bees.”  She kept her hand on the doorknob, not moving.

After an uncomfortable minute of staring at each other, I coughed lightly and nodded toward the door.  “Well, Amy, why don’t I take a look and see what I can do. “  She moved aside as I gently turned the doorknob and took a peek.

There were bees, all right.

Lots of bees, like she said.  Hundreds … no thousands of bees.  Tons of ‘em.  It was like a scene out of a horror movie.   They were streaming through an air duct and were covering, so help me, covering  every bit of food on the table.  They were crawling all over the fried chicken.  They were mucking through the icing on the pink sheet cakes.  I am not making this up. They were dive-bombing the fruits, ham sandwiches, gravies, and I tell you honestly that some were swimming in the lemonade.

Some of them spotted me.

I stepped back and slammed the door.   I looked at Amy and gulped.  “Yes, there are a lot of bees.”

I looked for Tank with a broken heart.  There was no way we were going to have a meal of any kind that night.  No biscuits.  No blueberry cobbler.  Not even a chicken wing.  I was quite surprised that nobody else besides Amy had taken time to notice the problem with the dining hall’s situation.

I moped toward the middle of the church.  “Is Tank around? “ I asked the people who were now circled on one corner of the main auditorium.  A few turned around and looked at me and smiled slightly.  “Yes, Brad, he’s right here.”  They stepped back slightly and I could see that Tank was standing in the same position as the rest of the folks:  arms folded, looking down, face grim.

Tank looked at me solemnly and said, “We have a situation, here, Bradley.”

I followed his gaze and looked down to the corner of the room.  There was a small brunette woman leaning against the wall, completely unconscious.  Her glasses were slightly askew.  I recognized her.  She was Whiney Boy’s mom.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Dunno,” Tank answered, stroking his chin and folding his arms again.  “She walked over here acting funny an’ talking even funnier, an’ here she fell.”

“She always does that,” said a man who had his back to us.  He was walking toward a water fountain.  I glanced back.  It struck me strange that he had said it in so matter-of-fact a manner.

“Who is he?” I asked, wondering why he would know this fact.

“Oh, that’s Bobby,” said Amy, who also had her arms folded.  “Bobby’s her husband.”

Nobody seemed to share my concern that Bobby was walking around on the other side of the room while his wife was completely unconsciousness. Skeeter and Jan stood off to the side, both arms wrapped around each other and looking a wee bit concerned.

I coughed slightly.  “Well, uh, isn’t there something we should do?”  I realized I was treading on local church etiquette here.  I’m the guest; the pastor, deacons or a leader should be taking control of the situation.  However, since everyone – and I mean everyone – seemed satisfied with hugging themselves (or someone else, as in Skeeter and Jan’s case) and looking on, I stooped down and drew near to the woman.

“Can you hear me?”

Her eye faintly flickered but she closed them again. She gave no verbal response.

“Daddy, there’s bees in the back room,” said Amy.

“Aw,” said Tank.  “Did they get in the pies?”

“Yes,” said Amy. “They did.”

I checked the woman’s pulse.  “What’s her name?”

“She’s Melody Jean,” said a voice.

“She did this three times yesterday,” called Bobby.

“Her pulse is steady,” I said, placing the back of my hand on her forehead,  “and she doesn’t seem to have a fever.  But we need to get her awake.”

A white haired gentleman leaned forward and stuffed something in my hand.  “This ought to do it, preacher,” he said, smiling.  I looked down.  He had given me a smelling salt tablet.

Shaking my head slightly at the thought of why someone would mosey around town with smelling salts in their pocket, I broke it and waved it under Melody Jean’s nose.  Her eyes opened widely and she shuddered, but then within ten seconds she closed her eyelids and fell back against the wall with a thunk.

“She woke and then she fainted again, Bobby,” called Tank.

“Well, what am I supposed to do about it?” asked Bobby.

“Hey preacher,” said the white-haired gentleman.  “Stick it up her nose.  That’ll do it.  Way up.”

I shrugged and lifted the smelling salts tablet up into the edge of her nostril.

“Naw, shove it up there,” he said.

I inserted the tablet as far as I dared in a social setting, and her eyes blazed open in a cartoon-like manner… before she passed out again.

“She fainted again, Daddy,” said Amy.

“I saw that,” said Tank.

“Look,” I said, turning around while still on one knee, “we’ve got to get her to an emergency room.  This is obviously not normal.  She needs help.”

“I agree,” said a lady to my right.  “I’m a nurse and I should know.”  She never moved, though.

I blinked three times.

“Let’s lift her up an’ get her to a car,” Tank said, and I grabbed her under one arm while Tank reached for the other.  She oozed out from under our grasp like Jello under a hot sun.  I realized that in this genteel setting it might be embarrassing to see how we could grapple with a woman who suddenly has become fluid to the touch.

“Uh,” I said, but Tank already had the same thought.

“Bobby,” he called over his shoulder, “come over here an’ get your wife.”

Bobby obeyed but started whining.  “And what am I supposed to do with her, Tank?”  I could see where Whiney Boy got his habit.

Tank straightened up.  “You’re gonna go get your car an’ you’re gonna take her over the hill to the Toccoa hospital, that’s what you’re gonna do.”

Bobby shrugged and strode through the group and so help me, in one swooping motion he threw her over his back in a fireman’s carry.  “Okay, then, get out of the way.  Andy, hand me my keys –  they’re over there on that red chair.”

The rest of the group watched as he lumbered out into the parking lot toward a tan station wagon with a rusty fender.  “Now, how am I supposed to get her in?”  He looked like he was going to toss her in the back compartment through the window.

“Here, I’ll help,” I said as I sprinted forward.  “Not the back cargo area, Bobby, put her here, right behind the driver’s seat.”  We pulled her into the dusty vinyl back seat.  Thankfully, she was small enough to lie completely across with her head on the armrest.  “I better come and help,” said Amy, sliding into the passenger seat.  Mumbling, Bobby fell heavily into the front seat and started the car.  As soon as he put the car in gear and moved it, Melody Jean rolled off the seat and onto the floorboard with another thunk.  The rest of the church folded their arms and watched.  Skeeter and Jan, both arms wrapped tightly around each other, shook their heads in disapproval.

“Uh, look,” I said.  “She’s not going to be able to make it to the hospital like this.”  I pulled down the back hatch and with a grunt, climbed into the cargo of the station wagon, pulled off my suit jacket and reached over.  Amy leaned over from her position in the front and we hauled Melody Jean back up on the seat.  “Well, are you ready?” Bobby asked with a tinge of irritation evident in his voice.  I looked down at Melody Jean, who was ready to roll over again.  The only solution I could think of was to lean bodily over the seat and hold her by the wrist with one of my hands while cradling her head with my other hand.  Mind you, I am kneeling in the cargo area and leaning over the seat doing this.  My knees are in the back section, where the kiddies and the flowerpots are usually thrown.

Bobby gave a half-hearted wave to the people in the parking lot and threw on his turn signal blinker as he entered the main road.    “I just don’t get her sometimes,” he said aloud, while dribbling along at 22 miles per hour in a 40 m.p.h. zone.  “She does this stuff, like, every day lately.”

“Well, Bobby,” said Amy.  “You ought to look out after her, make sure she don’t have a cold or headache or something.”

Bobby shrugged and glanced over at the convenient mart with a sign for corn dogs.  For the life of me, I really thought he was thinking about pulling in and getting a soft drink and a dog.

Melody Jean stirred.  “Arrrraaaaaaaaaaah,” she groaned piteously.  I grew nervous. She was getting pale and this guy was puttering as slow as if we were sight-seeing.

But that noise caught his attention.

“What was that?” Bobby snapped his head around.  That’s when I decided to make my big dramatic statement.

“She’s sick, Bobby, “ I said as sternly as I could.  “Can’t you see that?  This is not normal.  Your wife is very, very sick.  People don’t just up and faint in public, man. They don’t plop down and remain unresponsive.  There is something,”  I bobbed my head for emphasis, “seriously, seriously wrong with your wife.”

That was my speech.  In reflection, I should not have made it so forceful.  Upon further reflection, I was an absolute idiot to get the driver stirred up.

The expression across his face was as if he had stuck his finger into a light socket.  His eyebrows went up and his neck went stiff.  And his foot crammed on the accelerator.  Crammed.

The only thing that kept me from sliding out the back gate was the fact that I was holding onto Melody Jean.  In fact, I suddenly realize that I was actually clinging to her as we shot through the town.  I do not embellish when I tell you from my vantage point that the speedometer said we were clearing seventy.  Within the town limits.

Bobby was now stammering and glancing back towards her.  “I – I just had no idea… I didn’t realize…”

His right hand locked on the steering wheel, his left arm was cocked up at the elbow, with his raised hand furiously twitching into an open–and-closed fist rhythm.  He looked in the back, full in her face.  “Is she gonna make it?”

I gulped.  He was racing towards the back of a stationary car sitting at an intersection.    I tried to stay calm.  “Bobby, she’ll be fine if you get us to the hospital in one piece.  Now, keep your eye on the road.”  He zoomed around the car ahead and weaved like a stock car driver on the last lap.

We cleared the city limits and headed up the hill.  The speedometer said eighty.   There were cars in both lanes, doing approximately thirty-five miles per hour.  Bobby was looking back at long intervals, staring at his wife. With deep horror I realized that I was not only without a seat belt, I was on my knees, leaning over the back seat and in the worst possible position for an accident.  If Bobby should slam into another car from behind, the deceleration would give me enough forward inertia to torpedo me right by Amy’s ear and through the windshield.

“Bobby, mind the car ahead of you,” said Amy calmly.  He swerved, missing it by inches.  He looked back, gripping and ungripping his hand.  “Ah, she’s gonna die, I just know it.”  A fully stopped car was in front of us, and Bobby didn’t see it.

“Another car,” said Amy, pointing.

Bobby snapped his head around, swung the car so hard that I slid and hit the cargo area’s side wall with my hip while still hanging on.  When the speedometer said ninety miles per hour, I decided not to look any more.  We zipped and swerved through traffic like a skier in an Olympic slalom course.   More than once there could not have been a half-foot clearance between our car and the bumper of other vehicles.

Up ahead was the hospital, but Bobby kept looking back.  Not glancing, mind you, but staring at her.

Bobby, “  I called loudly, because we were well past the stage of politeness.  Shouting was the only thing to get through to him.  “The hospital is up here on the left, and that sign is pointing to the Emergency Room entrance.  You see it?   Look at it.  Bobby, you’ve got to slow down to make this turn, and make the turn across the highway in front of traffic, okay? There is traffic coming toward us, and so you must slow down.”

He went into a slide that would have made any drift racing driver proud.  We screeched past a dump truck, bounced into the entrance and jostled over speed bumps before sliding onto the porch that was the entrance to the ER.  Profuse with thanks to the Heavenly Father for journeying mercy, I was trying to unfold myself from the back as I saw Bobby get out and sprint.    His panic mode was so extreme that in a fit of energy, he got out and began running.  Not toward the entrance.  Not toward one of the medical staff.  Just running.

I rolled out of the back of the station wagon as I heard one of the ER attendants, a skinny fellow with a shock of uncombed yellow hair speak in a slow drawl as he pointed listlessly toward Melody Jean.  “D’ye need a gurney or a wheelchair?”  The other attendant, a stocky fellow with sleepy eyes, looked on disinterestedly.

“Um,” I said, rubbing my hip and overcoming a state of shock, “this woman fainted in a meeting and we can’t bring her around…”

“D’ye want a gurney or a wheelchair?”

“Fellas,” I said, straightening up.  “You’re the professionals, and you can see this woman is out cold, so I think – “

“D’ye want a gurney or a wheelchair?” asked Blondie a third time.

To my left I heard an explosive noise that was, shockingly, emanating from a human.  It was mean. It was deep.

It was Amy.

Gone was the genteel attitude.  Bobby’s erratic behavior, the bees, and the ride had changed her.  Her eyes were flaring and her hair had that static-on-a-cat look.  Her voice was razor sharp, coming through clenched teeth. She ripped through her words like a lumberjack saw on a redwood tree.

“There is a woman in this car who collapsed and is unresponsive.  She could be dying so you’re going to get her out of that car and get her help right now, d’y’hear? NOW.”

Blondie snapped to attention.  “We’ll get a gurney.”  They darted back into the building and had Melody Jean wheeled through the doors within seconds.

With shaky legs I wandered over to the admission window where I found Tank leaning casually on the counter, and wonder of wonders, Bobby.  Bobby was openly crying while rifling through all of the cards in his wallet, looking for his Blue Cross card.  He couldn’t find it, though he was rapidly shuffling cards like a Las Vegas dealer.

Sorting through the thick stack  madly, he was whining and snuffling.  “I don’t know what I’d do with the kids, Tank, if she dies.”  He shuffled yet a third time.  “I can’t find the Blue Cross card, just can’t find it.  Tank, if she dies I can’t take care of the kids.”

The matronly attendant behind the counter sipped a diet Coke and waited patiently.

Bobby  was on his fourth try when Tank reached over casually, pulled out the Blue Cross card and handed it to the attendant.  Bobby had shuffled by it three times without really looking at it.  Now he grabbed the hair just over his forehead and wept.  Tank looked over his head with a faraway gaze.

“You understand,” sobbed Bobby, “I got enough stuff to do around the house.  I can’t take care of the kids, Tank.  What’ll I do if’n she dies?”

Tank kept that faraway look.

“I got the truck payments and a promotion due me,” continued Bobby.  “The kids’ll need to be driven to school every day…”

Tank kept his gaze, but finally spoke.  “Aw, Bobby, hush up,” he said.  “Melody Jean ain’t gonna die.  Now come on over here an’ sit down.  The Falcons are playin’ on the television.  Let’s sit and watch the game.”

I looked up over my shoulder.  Tank’s faraway gaze was locked on the waiting room TV.  The NFL game was on, and indeed, the Atlanta Falcons were in full battle.

Bobby turned and squinted at the television.  “Oh,” he said.  “Well, okay.”  He wandered over to a seat and plopped down.  That was the last I saw of him.

Things seemed to be in hand, so I glanced at my watch and realized that it was time for me to head to my car.  A kindly man had grabbed my keys and driven my car to the hospital, following Bobby’s station wagon.  “You was driving real fast and dangerous,” he chided me kindly while he handed me my keys.  “Gotta be careful next time.  Coulda been killed.”

I thanked him and walked into the waiting room.  As I walked through the hallway, I realized that Tank had not taken an offering during the service and since we had no supper afterwards, he may have forgotten to give me an honorarium.  I would get no offering or traveling expenses for this cross-country trip.

My first test, Lord.  Okay, then.  I know You’ll take care of me.  I made a promise not to ask.  I breathed deeply and realized that I was truly at peace.  God would take care of me.  I relaxed and smiled.

The entire congregation was standing in the lobby, arms folded and chatting happily as if we were about to embark on a picnic on the front lawn of the hospital.  Amy stepped forward as the whole group turned and grinned at me.

“The doctor just came out and told us,” Amy exclaimed.  “Guess what!  Melody Jean’s gonna have a baby!  They’ve got her safe and taken care of!  A little ‘un!”

I shook my head and grinned widely.  “Well, what do you know!  That’s great news, it really is.” Amy reached out and took my hand with both hers. She shook it and said, “Brad, the ladies of the church left a small gift in the back of your car as a thank you for all you’ve done. Come again soon, okay?” 

 “I will, as soon as I’m able.”  I stepped back and drew a long breath, still trying to take in what had happened in the last few hours.  “Well, since I know she’s okay,” I said, pulling on my suit coat, “I guess I must be going now.  I need to head up north – Delaware and Maryland are my next stops.”

The people murmured their thanks and drew close to me.  Amidst back-pats, hugs and handshakes – along with a deep grief of not having any cherry pie, corn on the cob or roast beef due to the bees – I walked out to the car and waved goodbye.

“Oh, hey, son,” Tank waved and jogged toward the car as I was about to close the door.  “We passed the hat for you.”  I later calculated that it was – to the dollar – enough gas money to get me to my next church in Bel Air, Maryland.

I looked behind me as I backed the Aspen out of the parking space, but pulled the car to a sudden stop.  Settled atop my Army trunk and crammed into the floorboards were packages and boxes of homemade foods, ranging from biscuits to jars of honey to Tupperware containers loaded with fried chicken.  And not a bee in sight.

I looked up at the hospital entrance in shock.  Tank and Amy stood laughing and waving.  “We had some of the ladies run home on the way to the hospital and get you some fresh goodies on the road,” called Amy.  “I told you we had a small gift for you!”

I smiled as I drifted out of the parking lot, waving to Tank and Amy as they stepped back into the hospital, assuring myself of God’s close hand in all that was done.  Especially in seeing that I was able to survive a trip in Bobby’s station wagon.

What a great way, I thought,  to start my circuit riding.  What a great way for God to say, “Welcome to a new ministry.”

Before turning onto the highway, I gave one final glance in the rear-view mirror and had a good long laugh because…

…my last sight of the congregation was of Skeeter and Jan standing on the steps of the hospital, both arms wrapped around each other and smiling blissfully.

P.S. I received a letter from Tank a month later.  Melody Jean gave birth to a fine seven-pound, eleven-ounce boy.


(The above story was also in my recent book Gas Tank Chronicles, which you can obtain through Cedar Springs Christian Bookstore through the information on the right hand side of this page.)

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