The Closer

I’ve told this story probably a hundred times over the years. If you’re one of the ones I’ve told it to, well, sometimes real life has reruns, too. This one will be better than all those Saved the Bells. But not better than Batman, because what could be better than a Batman rerun?

In the summer of twenty-five years ago, the XO of our church at the time asked me to breakfast. Just like in the military, an XO at a church is the person who makes the things happen that the captain/pastor dreams up in his head.1 If you were to look up XO in the dictionary, this guy’s picture is who would be staring you in the face. In the world of making things happen, he was at the top of the heap. He didn’t make things happen, he Made Things Happen.

(He also played racquetball. Did I mention he was thirty years older than me? I made the mistake of inviting him to play. At the time, I was a decent C-level player (stop laughing, it was true, I haven’t always had this lovely pear shape), and I don’t think he broke a sweat the entire hour. He had better ball placement than Mariano Rivera. He closed games quicker, too.)

Although we were pretty good church friends, we weren’t social outside it (I don’t know what possessed me to invite him for racquetball), so the breakfast invitation was unusual. Unprecedented, even. Which, if you’ve been in church for any length of time, you know what it means when the XO invites you to eat — it means something’s up. Except that he was also retiring at the end of the summer, so how much could be up when he was on his way out the door? If you have to ask…

We went to breakfast, we ate, we chit-chatted about the things you chit-chat about when you’re at breakfast with a church friend, and then without warning he leveled a ninety-mile-an-hour serve straight at my head.

“Give me ten reasons why you aren’t teaching a Sunday School class.”

(Look it up, kids. It was small group ministry before small group ministry was cool.)

Trying to keep from getting knocked out by a ninety-mile-an-hour serve takes some effort; in the intervening silence (which lasted maybe 1.7 seconds), he said, “If it takes you that long to come up with one reason, there’s no way you’re going to get to ten.” Did I mention he Made Things Happen?

“Well, I guess I would have to say it’s because the Lord hasn’t told me to.” This is known in church circles as a ninety-mile-an-hour return. To the corner.

It also happened to be true. He hadn’t. And the XO folded quickly (or so I thought in my abundant naïveté; word to the wise, people who Make Things Happen never fold quickly). “All right, I guess that’s a pretty good answer. That’s the only good answer.” He talked for a bit about why my wife and I would be great at it, which I didn’t pay much attention to, because God hadn’t called me to teach and if He didn’t think it was a good idea I certainly didn’t. (I wouldn’t have thought it was a good idea even if He did, but that’s another story.) We chit-chatted for a while longer, and off we went to our respective days.

The next Sunday, he was waiting for me as we descended the balcony after church service. I repeat, the next Sunday. He pulled me off to the side and said, “Cheryl wants to start a Sunday School class in the fall, and she wants to teach with someone. I think you would be perfect. Pray about it.” “The fall” was four weeks away. Cheryl was the wife of our late pastor, who had passed away about three years earlier from brain cancer. She was as well-respected theologically as the pastor, maybe more so. Not intimidating at all, in other words.

I had two immediate thoughts. The first was, “Dude, didn’t we just talk about this like four days ago? Didn’t I make it clear this wasn’t on God’s list of things for me to do? Were you not listening? And aren’t you retiring? Shouldn’t you be out humiliating someone on a racquetball court instead of pestering me again?”

The second was, “Well, yes, of course I’m going to do that. Because that’s what God wants me to do.”

There are a few things you know in life. You don’t know how you know, and you certainly couldn’t explain to someone else how you know, you just know. You know. What was most annoying in that situation is that clearly he knew. Before I did.

It goes without saying I didn’t tell him that. I told him I’d pray about it. (In church circles, that’s known as “No.”) And I did, although only half-heartedly, because I’d already heard the answer. There’s not a lot of point in praying for something God has already told you; at that point, praying is just maneuvering for disobedience. But I couldn’t let the XO know know his ball placement had again been perfect, now could I? Of course not.

Schoeppey (nobody called him Jack) retired to Arkansas a few weeks later. He came back through town the next year, or maybe it was two years. I saw him at church, he asked how class was going, I said fine. “I knew that was going to be good,” he said, “I knew it,” with a PG-13 eating grin on his face the whole time.

Schoeppey passed away Friday, another in a very, very long line of COVID victims. Although I haven’t seen him in fifteen or twenty years, I’m deeply saddened by that. God needs more people in this world who will Make Things Happen for Him, and it grieves me to know that instead of doing that he’s going to be humiliating God on the racquetball court.

I mean, maybe not, but I wouldn’t bet against him.

  1. Where I’m from, that’s the only pronoun for a pastor. We can have that discussion another time.

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