I could not believe the letter I was reading. My long-time friend, one of our elders, had resigned and written a scathing critique of my theology and sermons. Just last June we had gone fishing together in Idaho. Now he was informing me that he had officially contacted the bishop, seeking my removal.
"How could he do this to me?" I muttered, trying to decide if I felt more despair or anger.
Just the week before, I had learned that my next door neighbor was suing me and the church. He was naming me a defendant in the case over an incident that had occurred in the driveway shared by his house and our parsonage. Our son had accidentally hit the neighbor's car as the two of them were backing out together. The neighbor had for years complained about the on-street parking problems and noise whenever we hosted gatherings in our home. This was his perfect opportunity to exact revenge.
The suit named both me and the church since the parsonage driveway was church property. He claimed the accident had resulted in neck injuries forcing him to miss work. He had hired a downtown law firm that specialized in personal injury suits. The amount they were asking for in damages was twice the church's annual budget.
It wasn't just the neighbor who was now experiencing headaches. The migraines I'd struggled with in college returned just after the first court appearance.
Finally, one Sunday evening, after a particularly encouraging morning service, I received a phone call from my younger brother Philip on the West Coast. With a quiet voice he told me the heartbreaking news that he'd been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.
I felt myself sinking under a weight of anxiety and discouragement I simply could not bear. The thought of getting up and preaching next Sunday seemed impossible.
"O Lord, how am I going to continue?" I prayed. "Every day the pressure gets worse, not better. And it's been this way for weeks, not just days. Help me, Lord; please help me."
I didn't realize it then, but I was just beginning the worst year of my life in ministry. As my brother's health worsened, the alienated elder became more and more vocal, and the lawsuit threatened to swamp both me and the church, the words of the apostle Paul became my own spiritual autobiography, "We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death" (2 Cor. 1:8-9).
Lying awake at night asking God what I had done to deserve all this, I remembered Warren Wiersbe once commenting that when we go through periods of prolonged and intense suffering, "God has His eye on the clock and His hand is on the thermostat." He promised listeners God will not allow our trouble to go one minute beyond the length of His choosing or permit the intense heat of affliction to go up one degree above what He has declared.
Even that assurance provided little relief as painful days turned into painful weeks and then increasingly painful months. I wavered between doubting my calling and questioning my ability to stay at the church.
In the midst of turmoil I began to discover ways of coping that provided genuine relief and comfort.
None by themselves proved a cure-all, but together they provided hope that someday I would again see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Looking back at my dark year of the soul, I now see God provided several important strategies for persevering when it appeared the trouble would never end.