Michael’s truck was parked inside of Abby’s driveway for about five minutes when the kissing started again. In between, they talked about the future. Abby made it no secret that she intended to be a pastor’s wife and had no interest in a career. Like her mom, Abby firmly believed that a woman belonged at home where she could make a home for her husband and properly raise her children. The world was all messed up because parents had let down their children by selling out to the work world.
Abby and her siblings were raised by a full-time mom who had been there for every scraped knee and scratch. She’d taught them moral values, common sense and a love of God. Abby owed no less to her children.
What she couldn’t properly decipher was what Michael wanted. They had both been involved in youth ministry forever. Michael attracted people like a magnet. The youth ministry at First Baptist had grown tremendously because of his presence. He had a gift for showing God to people in ordinary ways. He once drove forty-five minutes out of his way every Sunday for a year to carry a kid to church that was considering running to the streets. Michael had helped save that kid, but for him, it was just the way he was. No muss, no fuss.
It was also clear that Michael received the greatest response whenever he made an altar call at youth camp. His grandfather was a preacher, his dad was a preacher, and his older brother was a preacher. David and Jeremiah had both attended First Baptist Bible Institute while they served as pastors in churches. It was already December and Michael hadn’t enrolled or said what he was doing.
She looked at the dashboard clock. “It’s late Michael. I’m wiped out. Plus I’m sure that we’re under nuclear radar right now.” They laughed.
“You’re right, I’m pooped.”
Abby stretched. “I can’t wait until the day we won’t have to go in separate directions.”
Michael thought: You don’t know the half, but said, “I know, babe.”He glanced again at the clock. “There won’t be anything left of you to marry if you don’t get in the house.”
“I’ll see you in church tomorrow.”
“Shhhh, but I think I’m skipping tomorrow. I asked Leroy to cover my Small Group for me. I knew I would be wiped out tonight, either way.”
Abby put her hand over her mouth in feigned shock. “Michael Knight, future Lead Pastor for First Baptist Church of Ozark Falls, skipping out on Small Group? I am shocked!”
Michael leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Out of my bucket, babe. Gotta crash, but not before I get home.”
“Don’t talk like that Michael. Call me when you get there.”
“You know I will.”
He waited until she was outside of his van and through her front door before driving away. He knew he’d done a bad job of side-stepping the marriage issue, but at least he was off the hook for tonight.
Abby stepped inside her home and slipped off her boots. She headed toward the stairs when her father, Lincoln Snow, emerged from their dining room.
“Hello, Abby. How was the game?”
“Hi Dad. We won. Can you believe it?”
“That’s great. How’s Michael?”
“He’s excited for the win. We were sitting outside for a while.”
“Yeah, I saw you.”
“Abby, you have got to understand that I’m the chairman of the deacons at First Baptist Church—”
“And?” repeated Abby.
“And . . . I can’t have my daughter seen necking in parking lots around town, that’s what. Especially with the preacher’s son.”
“OK, Dad. It’s late. I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Abby said, becoming visibly upset.
Lincoln pushed. “What’s the deal with Michael anyway? By this time David and Tara were practically—”
Abby’s eyes flashed at his implication. She turned and ran up the stairs.
Lincoln’s voice trailed off, finishing the damaging sentence; “Married already.”
He walked to the foot of the stairs and stood, suddenly feeling as if his tongue weighed 500 pounds. Abby had already slammed her door and was in her bedroom crying.
Deborah Snow stepped out of the dining room and walked past Lincoln. He was still standing at the foot of the stairs, in his bathrobe and pajamas, looking like a scared boy. She began to climb the stairs.
“Let me handle this, Deb ... Let me handle this, Deb . . .” she mimicked.
Jeremiah had never been able to shake the habit of waiting up for his children. He hadn’t gotten a good enough opportunity earlier to tell Michael how proud he was as a father. Michael had many athletic and scholastic achievements, but Jeremiah was more impressed with the man that he saw his son becoming. He’d found a great girl to build a life with. He was a leader in his school and church groups and God had given him the gift of preaching. Even if Michael didn’t fully recognize it yet, it certainly was not lost on Jeremiah.
Over the past thirty-plus years of ministry, Jeremiah had been around many preachers; young and old. He’d been able to observe the best and the worst. He’d been watching Michael with his youth group duties since he was thirteen. The boy could lead people to Christ without even trying. The minute he began talking about God, eyes would start to well-up with tears and hands would go up to receive the Lord. It was uncanny. It was a gift of God, pure and simple.
In a gentle way, Jeremiah had mentored his boys over the years. He’d given them responsibilities in the church from picking up trash to helping him research and prepare his sermons. David had responded strongly to the call of God at the age of twelve. Jeremiah listened to his message on the answering machine left earlier this evening about the powerful service at his church. That was typical of David. He seemed to always be excited about the Lord.
Michael, on-the-other-hand, was different. He was a terrific son and a good, wholesome kid. He was dutiful around the church and faithful to his roles, but he just didn’t seem excited about the things of God. Over the years, Jeremiah had been watching and Michael had led many young people to the Lord. Other men would wear that knowledge with great pride or gratefulness. Michael didn’t seem to even consider it—all in a day’s work or something.
David also had fruit in his ministry. But whereas Jeremiah was sure that David would affect thousands through his ministry, over time, he was convinced that, for reasons known only to God, Michael was one of those rare individuals that came around once in a generation—the kind of individual that would lead millions to Christ.
Michael was the only one who could embrace his destiny; if Jeremiah’s instincts were right. Michael would have to be the one to say, “Yes, Lord.” Not his dad, not his friends, nobody but Michael. Jeremiah hoped that Michael would soon give him his decision regarding the First Baptist Bible Institute; the school founded by Jeremiah’s father, to prepare preachers on the job. That way, Michael could continue to get solid Bible teaching, coupled with practical church ministry under his guidance.
This program had worked great for him and David. In fact, David’s church was now growing and could greatly use someone like Michael with such a strong background in ministry. Based on the proximity, Michael could even split his time between the churches while completing the Institute.
Jeremiah was opening the refrigerator when he heard the familiar tinkle in the front door. He closed the door and walked toward the sound. Michael was taking off his coat when he emerged from the kitchen.
“Hey Dad, what’s up? What are you doing up at this time? Aren’t you preaching three messages tomorrow?”
“I suppose so. You’d think a guy with two gifted preacher sons could sit back and take life a little easier, wouldn’t you?”
Michael was cautious. “I don’t know about those two gifted preacher sons, Dad. David’s got the gift. I’ve got football fatigue and another killer in a week.”
Jeremiah was not known for taking a hint. “Well, remember football season ends next week. Then what?” he asked.
“I don’t know Dad. The Lord hasn’t confirmed my direction yet.”
Michael winced inside. He hated to play the “Lord” card, but he wanted the conversation to end quickly. Jeremiah was no pushover. If he wanted to make a point, he could debate all night. The only boundary that he would respect would be an honest “waiting on direction from the Lord.”
No arguments there, Michael thought to himself. His instincts were right. Although Jeremiah was convinced of Michael’s destiny and needed nothing further, he acknowledged and respected Michael’s need to find his own way. He’d been around long enough to know that no man could outrun the Lord. Michael was a terrific athlete, but he wasn’t that fast. If the Lord was going to really use Michael, it was a done deal. In fact, he felt a little ashamed about pushing. He changed the topic.
“I hear you son. Listen, I know that you’ve already heard a thousand times what a great game that was, and it was. But I want you to know that I’m not just proud of how well you play ball or how you’ve done in school. I’m more proud of you as a person. You’re a good man, Michael, and I love you.”
With that the two of them embraced. As much as Michael was conflicted about his future, he truly loved and admired his dad. His desire for Michael to follow in his footsteps was more than understandable. Deep inside, Michael wanted to want it. He’d put off making any decision by riding the fence for a long time. But he knew that the hour of decision was near and soon he would have to let everyone know. It didn’t matter what his decision was; that did not take away from his love and respect for his father.
Jeremiah stepped back. He did not try to wipe the tears from his eyes. “Good night, Son.”
Michael closed the door to his room, warmed by the embrace, but still a bit ashamed about the cheap win that he’d just stolen. The truth was that he hadn’t consulted with God about his future. He didn’t even care to. His whole life had been spent in Ozark Falls, like his father and his father before him. He stripped down to his undies and fell heavily unto his bed. He longed to taste the world, to smell a different kind of air, to go beyond his current space.
In the tenth grade his science team won a statewide championship. He and two other representatives flew to New York to present their project at the Museum of Natural History. He stayed in midtown Manhattan for three days and walked back-and-forth throughout the city. He visited the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street and the Empire State Building. He’d never felt more alive.
It was in that great city that Michael made the discovery —a secret not shared with anyone. It was hidden from his family and friends, but always present in his thoughts. That weekend he became connected with what he was sure would be his life’s purpose. He could remember every detail of the life-changing moment.
He was watching a news report in his hotel room about a corruption trial in lower Manhattan, when he caught a glimpse of a man who held his attention. It was only a sound bite of footage, but he could see a United States District Attorney, pleading passionately with a jury about its responsibility to send a message to organized crime in New York by convicting a local mob boss.
He looked to be about thirty-five years old and stood over six feet tall. He was nattily dressed in a navy blue suit, white shirt and power-red tie. His dark hair was closely cropped and he was in complete command of himself. With no fear, and a strong sense of contempt, he pointed directly to the defendant and begged his fellow citizens to deliver swift justice.
Michael stood and watched silently, even after the footage was over. His roommate was saying something, but he could only answer “uh hmm.” For the first time, he realized what was missing from the vision for his life he’d been handed. It was produced in a bubble called Ozark Falls. He’d never been exposed to the real world and neither had anyone in his circle. He enjoyed the family ministry, for the most part, but he also felt that sometimes evil had to be confronted head on, just like that prosecutor did, with a finger pointed in its face.
Ever since that day, he pictured himself as the man in the courtroom—a warrior for the people, and felt, he was sure, the peace of God. He carried that warrior spirit deep within. It was what made him so competitive on the football field and in the classroom; at whatever he did. He was a warrior at heart. God made him that way.
He couldn’t understand why being a lawyer was any less God-honoring than being a pastor. Being around ministry his whole life, he knew a little about spiritual warfare. But sometimes that seemed to amount to little more than church politics, busybodies and gossip, masquerading as prayer requests.
He turned on his bed, thoughts flowing. He couldn’t explain it but he longed for more. He felt the call of God to go into the rough and wicked world and mix it up. Perhaps he would learn something valuable that he would bring back to his hometown in the future. Perhaps he would never return.
In either case, his time was running short. He’d applied to New York University Law School and a few others, and his answers would be coming soon. The entire town of Ozark Falls had laid out his life for him, in advance, it seemed. He didn’t want to disappoint them but he feared disappointing himself even more. Was God now in on the conspiracy?
Isn’t that what the voice in the end zone meant? “Before I formed you in the belly I knew you and have called you to preach—”
“Before you formed me in the belly?” Michael asked out loud and then sighed. It was a big game and a supercharged moment. Perhaps he’d been hearing things. Stuff like that was known to occur in stressful games.
He replayed the evening in his mind; the opening kick, the final play, the celebration, making out with Abby, his conversation with Jeremiah and the voice of God? Michael turned out the light and placed a pillow over his head. He was tired of thinking. If that was God, then he would drown Him out too.