I Finally Found God

This was written at the request of The Relevant Christian magazine–I suspect it will form some of what I might say in one place or another… In the meantime, here it is.

found

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr.

That may not mean much to you and that’s ok. In fact, you may have no idea who I am or where I have been. Any news stories you might have seen have long left the airwaves…

And I am good with that.

There was a time not so long ago when my name didn’t mean much to me either. I longed to drown my memories, to forget my existence, and to somehow alleviate my all-encompassing pain.

At this point, frankly, I am somewhat weary of the notoriety of my story—I am weary of some of the things that have become an ingrained part of my new identity. I am weary of the heartache of the past that will always be a part of my present and future.

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr.
I am a preacher’s kid.
The world of church work has been a part of my life since almost as long as I can remember.
I grew up in church.
I came of age in church.
Much of my identity and self-worth has long been tied up in church and service to her. Even when I wanted to be far away, she was always close by, an ever-present attraction or irritant, depending on the circumstances.

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr.
I used to be a preacher and that is a story we are getting to.

In fact, I started preaching for a little country church at the age of 15. It was a predominately African-American church. I say predominately, because there was one skinny white kid who preached there on Sunday mornings. Yes, that was me.

I owe that little group of folks a lot, but that’s a part of my story we will not delve into today…

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr.
I went to Magnolia Bible College and studied to be a preacher. My time at school was divided by a six-year hitch in the US Navy. After the Navy, I began work as a youth minister in Vicksburg, MS and also went back to school. In time, I began a full-time preaching ministry in Laurel, MS and later in Gulfport, MS.

I’d like to think I did good work during some of those years. Certainly I grew as a speaker/ communicator. More importantly, I grew as a theologian and minister. And as compassionate as I’d like to think I was, I had lessons yet to learn that would prove to be the fight of my life…

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr.
I used to be a preacher and then I found myself being one again.

In some ways, it would be easier if I could tell you I suffered a moral lapse or made some huge mistake that necessitated a ministry time out. It would be easier to say I cheated with my time. Or maybe I swindled some sweet elderly lady out of her life’s savings or insurance. It would be so less painful to tell you I embezzled church funds or got caught up in some aspect of illegal drug use. It would be far simpler to just acknowledge some degree of depression or a mental breakdown.

It would be easier and I wish I could, but I can’t.

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr. and the time between having been a preacher and becoming one again was a long hard battle of lost and rediscovered faith.

Preachers are not supposed to lose their faith. Standing all alone atop our pedestal of supposed super spirituality, we are thought to be invincible to the failure of doubt. At least until we aren’t and by then, there is little you can say to stop it.

When faith departs, there isn’t a single religious cliché that will fix anything—not WWJD (What would Jesus Do) and not FROG (Fully Rely On God). And faking it till you make it isn’t a viable option either.

And then there was scripture.

Comparing my story to the story of Job wasn’t comforting; it was obscene. And Romans 8:28 enraged me—there was nothing good about the murder of a wife and son.

And so faith departed. It didn’t happen all at once, but I felt it trickle away and was powerless to stop it.

I am not sure I wanted to.

I suppose I should clarify what I mean by losing faith. In my case, I never quit believing in God. I never doubted His existence. I never doubted His presence in this world. In fact, that knowledge and belief in Him fueled my doubt like pouring gasoline on an already raging fire.

When I say I lost my faith, what I mean is losing my trust, hope, and belief in a God who loved and cared for me. I knew He cared for others. I saw the evidence in a thousand places in a thousand times. I heard the happy praise. I saw the exponential joy. I felt the faith of others as a living, breathing, tangible thing…

I get giving God credit for the good things we experience in life. I really do. But every time I heard someone speak of what God had done for them–curing their illness, getting them a new job, buying them a new house, or making their headache go away… I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs both literally and metaphorically the immortal words of Esau, “Do you only have one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” (Genesis 27:38 HCSB)

The next phrase in that verse says, “And Esau wept loudly.”

So did I.
So did I.

And in my tears, rage, and bitterness, I cried with an impotence hard to imagine…

What about me?
What about me, God?
Don’t I count too? 
Why doesn’t my family matter as much as his stupid toothache or her goofy issues?
Why God, why?
Why can’t I be blessed like all the rest around me?
What did I do wrong?
How did I fail you?
What about me?

In those words are the pain of every hurting, broken, questioner who has wondered where God is and why He hasn’t made a difference so desperately wanted and needed.

In the dark despair of tragedy, in the grip of a destructive evil, those were my words.
They were given birth the day my family was ripped from me.
I angrily thought them the day I was forced to pick out two caskets.
I mouthed those words relentlessly as I stood in a day long receiving line.
I cried those words as the funeral message was preached.
I sobbed those words quietly at night as I tried to comfort a five-year demanding to see his grave-bound mother…

Eventually those words took on a life of their own. In my bitterness and despair–in a dry and weary land–there was no comfort, no solace, no balm of Gilead to soothe my spirit, to ease in even some small way the despair that had taken root in my soul.

In that fertile ground of pain and sorrow grew the sure knowledge that God—real and alive—cared nothing for me. I couldn’t trust Him. There were no bargains to be made; no deals to be had.

Hope was gone and I was alone.
Raw.
Bleeding.
And desperate for something to ease the pain…

In my heartache and anger, I eventually found God.
Not all at once.
But slowly and surely, as life became more than just my pain, God started showing up.

Here’s where the story gets real.

The former preacher, the guy with two theology degrees and a lifetime of ministry, finally found God.

Not the God who blesses America (even though He does).
Not the prosperity God who delivers wealth to those who contribute (to whatever cause or bank account needing funding).
Not the God we keep all locked up in a box (church, traditions, understanding) of our own making (although He can dwell there too if He so chooses).
Not the God we bargain with and cut deals for (even though I am sure He is interested).

Instead, I found God.
The God who created everything.
The God who wants nothing more than relationship with His creation.
The God who offers grace, mercy, and love.
The God who redeems our brokenness and changes our story.

For me, the redemption of my story was everything. To use my pain to bless others means my family did not die in vain.

And thus, the grace of God has proven to be overwhelming.

I am preaching again and this time I share a message of grace I have experienced; a message of grace I am compelled to share with others.

My faith is secure.

It took awhile, but I finally found God on His terms and not mine…

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Madison/ Ridgeland, MS.

When Church Is A House Of Pain

The title to this blog post sounds mighty negative. I get that. However, my goal in sharing what you are about to read is that it not be another post bashing the bride of Christ.

To the contrary.

I love the church and have much I owe her. I have not always gotten along with her well–there have been many days when she frustrated or made me angry.

But when you are dealing with mistake prone people–family and friends even who are as damaged by sin as the next guy (the next guy being me), you’re going to find flaws. And where you have flawed people, you will find pain–self-inflicted as well as inflicted by others.

As Uncle Si would say, that’s a fact, Jack!

I have written before about the pain and anguish felt as the result of people who didn’t handle the hurts and disappointments of others very well. Especially those who are struggling with death and loss.

Obviously, everybody’s story is different. But for most, the initial days, weeks, and months after the funeral is over are just the beginning of new adjustments, new levels of anguish, and trying to rebuild. Frankly for me, the second year was harder than the first. I don’t know why, it just was.

To illustrate how it works for some, read what Pam McCutcheon says about the aftermath of losing her son….

“I have a confession.  Please don’t judge me.  I haven’t attended a church service for over three years.  My relationship with God is strong and my faith is not in jeopardy.  But church is a house of pain, on many levels, since Max was killed.

First and foremost, my grief lives deep down in my soul.  A vulnerable place.  That same place in my soul that I tap in to when I worship God.  The tears naturally come.  And I refuse to “play” church and keep a happy face on.  I bawl when praise music starts.  God is fully worthy of my praise.  But (He already knows this, it’s well discussed territory), I am mad at Him for the decision to take Max to heaven at 18. I cannot sing about the faithfulness of God when I know very well I feel like He betrayed my trust.  I cannot sing about His goodness, even though I know and believe He is good.  Not in public.  I know others cry in church.  But I don’t have a ‘pretty’ cry.  My face gets red, I am vocal, and I melt down.  I’m a spectacle and truly, I don’t want people gawking at me when I’m that exposed.  It was much easier for me to sing “I Surrender All” when it didn’t require me surrendering my oldest child to death

Secondly, I have been betrayed by those who genuinely love and follow Jesus.  Some do not know how to minister to grieving people.  Some can only do it for a short while. I’m not talking about those people, although they have hurt me because I truly needed them and they weren’t there.  No.  I’m talking about the horrible things said “in the name of Christ”, or “telling the truth in love”, both phrases thrown around with too many cliches that have no meaning or power in my grief.  I am not going to get too specific because I hope to mend those fences someday, even if I have to wait until I reach eternity for unity again.  The self-righteous, smug, advice-givers inflict the most damage.  And they are not the reason I stay away from church.  But they certainly contribute to the church being a house of pain.  I do not doubt that they love Jesus, but they surely don’t reflect His heart for grieving people.

Do you know what Jesus did when He came upon the sisters of Lazarus right after he had died?  The sisters were angry with Him, yelling, they told Him that if He had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died!  Did Jesus say “but he is in heaven, a better place”?  Did Jesus say “you might damage your witness by grieving so outwardly”?  Did Jesus say “here is some Scripture”?  NO.  Jesus simply WEPT.  He wept with them.  He was deeply moved and He wept.  Even though He knew He was going to resurrect him that very day.   He wept out of love.  (John chapter 11)  I pray more would use His example and not say damaging things, but simply weep with those who weep.
The man who asked me to write a blog on this topic has this to say in HIS blog – ‘I discovered that theological arguments, debates, and discussions matter little to people living on the jagged edge of holding it together or losing it entirely. And, I discovered that more “church members” are in that category of folks than we could possibly imagine.’ 

And finally, if you (as a church) are looking for people to minister to, please humbly accept my suggestion to start with your own congregation.  There is plenty of pain in your own back yard.  Talking of grand mission trips are fine, but only if you are taking care of your own too.  Know someone in pain in your congregation but don’t know how to help?  Take a meal, send a note of encouragement, organize a group to come over and surprise with a cleaning crew or a day working in their yard, take the kids out for an afternoon so the parents can be alone for a few hours, call them for lunch, meet them for a walk, ask questions that allow them to talk about their pain rather than avoiding them.  The gestures don’t have to be big, but they need to be ongoing beyond the first days of crisis.  People in pain look around at the others in church and beg to be helped, yet it seems easier not to get involved or bring “it” up.  Please do.  Get involved, bring it up, JUST DO IT.  Otherwise, your personal church is a house of pain.

I will attend church again.  I want a place to belong and feel loved again, a place that I can contribute my gifts and talents to.  But not yet.  Just not yet.”

Yes.

Even though everyone does not have the same grieving experiences, those are hard words to read.

And, in an effort to help the church be what she should, may I humbly suggest… We can do better.
We can.

Part of my mission in life is to help those who hurt and those who might minister to us.

Here’s the second rule to follow: when striving to help the hurting, patience is the key, along with lots of mercy, grace, and compassion.

And the first rule is even more simple: use hugs and actions. Words just muddle it all up!

God bless us all.

Please remember my in-laws in prayer… Joan Brown is very sick and Bob is keeping a bedside vigil. They have experienced so much loss…

Les Ferguson, Jr.

I Didn’t Believe

I didn’t believe.
God help me, I didn’t believe.

It was a normal stressed out Wednesday. I was getting ready to go home for supper and take a break before services when the phone rang. I heard the words, “something’s happened and it’s bad.”

Before the evening was through, a professional counselor would tell us she believed Cole had been molested.

A handicapped young man.
Wheelchair bound.
Totally dependent.
Mentally deficient.
Molested (and worse) at the hands of a seventy year-old man.

On our part, there was tears, anger, hurt, and confusion.

How could this be?
How could such a thing happen?

And then my distorted view of reality kicked in.
No way.
Not possible.
There has to be some kind of mistake.
Cole is just confused. He has no idea of such things.

I didn’t believe.
God help me, I didn’t believe.

How could I?
How could I suspend disbelief and even think such a thing was possible?

I know these things happen all the time. I know that sick perversions warp, hurt, and do damage to a degree we may never fully comprehend.

All the time.
In situations and places where kids ought to be safe.

I know this intellectually, but emotionally, I still find it hard to wrap my mind around such a thing. It makes no sense to me at all.

I didn’t believe.
God help me, I didn’t believe.

While we had lots of lively arguments and discussions at my house during those early days of discovery and comprehension, I was still determined to support my son. The disbelief of others made me incredibly angry.

And yet,
I didn’t believe.
God help me, I didn’t believe.

Before you judge me, hear me out.
I didn’t believe, not because I distrusted or doubted my son.

I was a Daddy who loved his boy with all that I was or could ever hope to be. Still do.
I didn’t believe because I didn’t want to.
Would you?

Who could want to believe such a horrible thing? I would much rather Cole be confused or even dishonest than to be forced into believing such horrible things had happened to him under my watch.

I didn’t want to believe because I didn’t want it to be true.

But, God help us, it was true and I had to believe.

You need to believe too.
You need to believe that there are sick evil people in this world who prey on the helpless, the innocent.
You need to believe there are those who will go to any measure to infiltrate the lives of good people in order to fulfill their wicked desires.

When it does happen to someone you know, please be sure to understand that how you handle the knowledge can have a lasting effect.

I didn’t believe.
God help me, I didn’t believe.

But I believe now.
And that belief will ever be vigilant for the predators among us.

If you or your church are interested in a conversation along these lines, please let me know.

Les Ferguson, Jr.

What Molesters Do

What do molesters do?

That’s a seriously good question with major implications.

What do molesters do?

Please don’t freak out on me or get all squeamish. This isn’t about the actual molesting. You’ll get no prurient details from me this day.

Obviously molesters do lots of ugly nasty things. But outside of the ugly and separate from the nasty that actually makes them molesters, it’s important to know what they do.

My new friend, Jimmy Hinton can probably help us better understand the process child molesters go through in selecting, grooming, and manipulating their victims and their families.

But make no mistake, I can easily see with hindsight the inroads Paul Buckman made into our lives and the life of the Orange Grove church. I remember with crystal clear clarity how he played my family’s difficult situation into being the hero of the hour–our helper straight from the hands of God Himself.

Even now it makes me sick to remember how easy it was–how desperate we were for help and relief.

To call it easy is a seriously major understatement.

Cole had a difficult existence. By the time Paul Buckman entered our lives, he was completely wheelchair bound. He took narcotics three times a day for severe leg and muscle pain. Moving from the wheelchair to the van and then the van to the wheelchair again was a painful process. Add to the fact that he was a homebody, and, well, anytime we needed to go somewhere was fraught with hardship and difficulty.

In the meantime, Cole had an upper body strength that was astounding. If he didn’t want to go somewhere (which was most of the time unless it was Sunday morning worship), he fought. If he grabbed you, he was not letting go.

Consequently there were many times when one of us stayed home with Cole. We needed help. Paul Buckman volunteered with a grandfather’s enthusiasm to sit with Cole every Wednesday afternoon–clearing a timeframe where both parents could be out of the house doing whatever we needed to do.

If that wasn’t bad enough, our molester/ murderer also divided the church. Long before the murders of October 10, 2011, he was helping foster the murder of relationships.

Because he loudly and publicly proclaimed his innocence, he contributed to the death of commonsense.

Instead of reporting the criminal accusations (which turned out to be far worse than even our imaginations could conceive) I should have–as it was pointed out to me quite angrily and forcibly–gone to Paul Buckman and worked it out with him.

If it wasn’t so sickening, it would be laughable.

And yes, a few folks left the church over the way we involved the law. Others began a campaign of innuendo and slander.

Let me be fair. Most members of the church were very supportive. But, it only took an extremely small, tiny minority to swallow Paul Buckman’s lies… and those few made life even harder.

The point of all this isn’t to make you feel sorry for me or my family. Not at all. The past is the past–and even though the past extends to the future, we are marching on with determination.

However, there is a point. When churches are invaded by those who would do great bodily and emotional harm, church members have to unite. The offenders will do anything to persuade and deflect and turn public opinion in their favor. As that happens, more harm is being inflicted on the victims and their families.

Believe me, there is a loneliness in that situation that boggles the mind.

What do molesters do?
They destroy lives, futures, families, churches, and ministries.

Be vigilant.
Stay strong.
Protect the children.

They deserve that and more.

Thanks for reading, sharing, and commenting. Let me know if I can help you or your church/group!

Les Ferguson, Jr.