Servant Song

Servant Song

Brother, let me be your servant. Let me be as Christ to you.

Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.

It was the first Sunday in September, 1999, and I needed a confessor. But I was an Evangelical. I attended an Evangelical church. We did not believe in auricular confession and absolution. True believers confessed their sins to God in secret and were forgiven in secret.

But secret confession wasn’t working for me anymore. I had confessed my sins in secret, over and over. I had fasted in secret, because I couldn’t eat. I had begged for forgiveness in the night, because I couldn’t sleep. I had screamed for forgiveness alone in my car - one of the few places you can scream without risking a 911 call – without relief. If, anything, my feelings of guilt were growing worse. At the slightest reminder of my sin, shame would rise up to kick me in the gut, starting a new round of panic and pleading.

We are pilgrims on a journey. We are brothers on the road.

We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.

I sang the words of the closing hymn, but my mind was elsewhere. I was thinking of the three times over the past year I had crossed physical boundaries with a 15 year old girl, the daughter of family friends. Twice I had vowed I would never do it again, and twice I had found myself back where I shouldn’t be. And I knew I would do it again.

In desperation, I searched the Scriptures for some word, some divine promise to claim. That’s what good Evangelicals were supposed to do. And then, as if God were speaking directly to me, I read Proverbs 28:13, “Whoever conceals his sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” Yes, of course, in a divine quid pro quo God was promising me mercy if I ended the secrecy, if I confessed and renounced my sin. 

I will hold the Christ-light for you in the nighttime of your fear.

I will hold my hand out to you speak the peace you long to hear.

“Please, God, let it be true,” I whispered.

We always sang the “Servant Song” on the first Sunday of the month, after we ate the little cubes of bread and drank the grape juice from tiny plastic cups. I gripped the pew in front of me, feeling nauseous. Out of the hundred-or-so folks around me, I didn’t know anyone who had sinned like me. Sure, I heard the rumors that a pilot in the congregation was a secret womanizer. And I knew a member who had given birth out of wedlock. But, otherwise all was well with the saints assembled.

I studied Pastor Chris standing, small and toned, beside the Communion table. Sometimes he vaguely mentioned his wild life in the Marines before coming to Jesus. But I had the impression his life had been Semper Fi ever since.  He would ask the same of any believer. I tried to imagine bearing my sick soul to him - a foot soldier confessing treason to his superior. I was a disgrace to the corps.

I will weep when you are weeping. When you laugh I'll laugh with you.

I will share your joy and sorrow till we've seen this journey through.

As the hymn wound down I scanned the elders flanking Chris. I felt closest to Fenton, a big mid-westerner who had been a believer since childhood on the farm. I recalled his self-revelatory talk during a Saturday seminar called “Every Man’s Struggle”.  One day while working as a travelling salesman, he passed a young woman hitchhiker on the road. In a moment of weakness he turned the car around. But by the time he retraced his route, she was gone. He thanked God for saving him from sexual temptation. I had hypocritically nodded my approval.  But I knew I was a sinner in a whole different league.

When we sing to God in heaven we shall find such harmony

Born of all we've known together of Christ's love and agony.

After the service I told Ben, the music leader, I could no longer in good conscience play guitar with the worship team. He gave me a look of genuine concern.

“Why not, Phil?”

I blushed. I mumbled something about personal issues.

“I don’t want to lose you,” he said. “Do you want to do breakfast tomorrow?”

“Okay,” I said reluctantly.

The next day at a local diner, Ben and I skirted the subject.

There was something I was struggling with, I told him.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

I looked at his earnest face. Maybe this was my chance. But when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. I had no Evangelical words to describe what I had done.

Instead I told him I wasn’t ready. I picked at the eggs and toast on my plate then excused myself. I left the diner sicker than ever. I was a failure at confessing.

A few weeks later, I finally told my secret to my wife and then to the girl’s parents.  It was more like vomiting. I could no longer hold it in. It came out in a gut-wrenching paroxysm of shame. When I look back at the bilious mess I spewed, it was a stumbling, fearful, incomplete first attempt to come clean.

Relief often follows emesis, but my confession was not cathartic. It didn’t lead to release or reconciliation or restoration.  It brought the opposite. My offenses were not secret anymore.  They were a pile of vomit on the floor. And, like a pile of vomit, they couldn’t be ignored.

A few days later, Pastor Chris appeared at my back door.

“Hey, can I come in?”

I nodded, and held the door open. I offered him a chair, but he wanted to stand.

“Look,” he said, “we heard that a young girl has made accusations against you. What’s that all about?” There was a hardness in his voice.

“Yes,” I said, staring at the floor. “I told her parents about it on Thursday.”

“Well, the police have gotten involved,” Chris said. I guessed someone had tipped him off about the impending scandal.

“I want you to meet with one of the elders - with Bruce - tomorrow at the church to tell him what’s going on.”

“Okay,” I muttered. Chris left without offering any of the usual pastoral comfort. I shook as I watched him drive away. The nighttime of my fear was upon me.

The next day, Bruce and I sat on folding chairs in the empty church basement. I told my story for the third time. I flushed with shame.

Bruce tried to reassure me. He had once pled guilty to running an illegal gambling operation. I think he said he had to pay a fine. I appreciated his candor but wasn’t consoled by our kinship in crime.

“Phil,” Bruce said, “the elders think it would probably be a good thing if you didn’t come to church for the next few weeks…just until we sort this out. Some people would be uncomfortable having you there.”

I didn’t go to church on Sunday. On Monday I lawyered-up.

“My advice to you is not to discuss this further with anyone other than me and your wife,” my lawyer told me. “We’re the only ones who can’t be compelled to testify against you. I’m sure the leaders of your church are well-meaning, but you never know what someone will say if they’re put on the stand.”

How could I follow that advice and still claim Proverbs 28:13? What about the divine promise of mercy if I confessed? What about walking the mile and sharing the load?

Against my lawyer’s advice, I agreed to meet with the elders. We crowded into the pastor’s office at the front of the sanctuary. I looked around at the seven somber faces and felt alone.  I determined to speak the truth, but found myself being guarded, second-guessing my answers. Why did I give ten thousand dollars to a lawyer, I wondered, if I wasn’t going to follow his advice?

The elders seemed unsure how to respond. The State’s no-contact order prevented them from pursuing reconciliation between offender and offended. When they contacted the leaders of the girl’s church, they were rebuffed. My case was heading toward a trial “before unbelievers,” despite the Apostle Paul’s admonition against such things. My insistence the charges against me were inflated, raised questions about the sincerity of my repentance. And, if I wasn’t truly repentant, was forgiveness and reconciliation even an option?

One of them suggested I just go down to the police station, make a full confession, and accept whatever penalty the courts decided to impose. My lawyer shuddered at the idea.

When the state prosecutor asked the elders to give statements about my meetings with them, they also lawyered-up. Their attorney wasn’t sure the legal protections given clergy extended to lay elders. Should they cooperate with the authorities to bring charges against a fellow believer who had broken the law? They weren’t sure. Eventually some complied with the prosecutor’s request. Some refused. I remember the feeling of abandonment when I opened a packet of discovery materials and found their testimony.

I attended church once more with permission of the elders. By then I had been on the front page of the newspapers. We arrived late and sat near the back. No one spoke to me. After the service a few friends greeted my wife, careful to not look my way, avoiding the unavoidable. I left knowing I would never go back.

The following week I met with a Christian counselor. He asked how things were going at church.

“Not good.” I told him. “I feel like everyone knows I’m the worst person there.”

He nodded. “That’s hard,” he said and scribbled something on a piece of paper.

“I want you to call these guys. I think you’ll find them to be more sympathetic.”

Back home, I dialed the number for Re-Creation Ministries - “a Christian self-help group for those struggling with sexual issues.”

“Hello?” a voice answered. “This is Steve.  How can I help you?”

“My counselor recommended that I call you,” I said, then started into an awkward explanation. 

Steve interrupted me. “Let’s not talk about this on the phone,” he said.  “It would be better…it would be safer to do it in person.”

I met Steve the next day in a borrowed church office in a neighboring town. He smiled and gave me a welcoming bear hug. We sat knee-to-knee as he led me through a tearful recounting of my failures, my fears, and my feelings of utter hopelessness.

“You’ve come to the right place,” he said. “We’re your kind of people. Broken.”

At my first group session, about a half-dozen guys sat in a circle. I would later hear of each one’s struggle with some distressing aspect of his sexuality. Today, Steve introduced me and asked me to share my story. I kept my eyes on the floor as I told the shameful details.

When I finished, one of the guys said, “Hey, Phil, look around. You’re not alone. There’s nobody in this room who hasn’t done something just as bad as you. But God loves you, brother, and He forgives you.”

Author: Philip Horner