Chapter OneNO ONE'S
He'd seen them all before. Sometimes even in his sleep.
The blank stares and faraway looks that told him he wasn't connecting.
Even as he continued to preach his message, another part of Pastor
Ray Martin's brain rehearsed a series of familiar observations.
There's John Phillips, sitting there trying to decide which stocks to dump
tomorrow morning when the market opens. And there's his wife beside him,
trying to decide whether or not to dump him. And Sally Kennedy, in her normal
spot two rows from the back . A great location to keep tabs on who's
here and who's not. And Norma Reed next to her, ready to supply the reason
for anyone being missing.
They were all parked before him, listening to the message-or at
least pretending to listen-as he tried his best to make the Word of God
come alive in the twenty-first century.
Their distraction began to distract Ray. He found himself wondering
if this was why those old fundamentalist preachers used to yell and
pound the pulpit. It was no easy matter to keep a congregation's attention.
He felt a sudden, wild impulse to simply pick up his notes and
walk off the platform. Had anyone ever done that? Just stopped preaching
and walked out the back door? Would anyone even notice?
Just stare at the back wall, he told himself. It was an old trick he'd
learned from a seminary professor. Just get through it; you'll be back
next week. Hopefully they will, too.
Driving home that afternoon, he rehearsed the comments of the
congregation that morning as he shook hands at the door after the
"Nice job, pastor."
"What a blessing, pastor."
"One of your best, pastor."
That last one was particularly cruel, since the comparison wasn't
qualified. Like telling your wife that, for her, her hair looked pretty
good that day.
He wanted to ask them all if they had learned anything. But, ultimately,
he wasn't sure if that was a fair question. If he couldn't answer
it, why should they be able to?
"It shouldn't be this hard," Ray said to no one as he turned in to his
His wife, Sally, met him at the door for their Sunday afternoon
ritual. They'd done this for the ten years that Ray had been pastor of
Meadowland Community Church. Ray often looked forward to the
message postmortem . but not lately.
"So how do you feel it went?" she asked, giving away her opinion.
"I don't know," he lied. "How do you feel it went?"
When all your wife and number one cheerleader can muster is a
"fine," then you know it's worse than you think. Ray sank down into
the sofa. "I just don't know, sweetheart. I don't know what I'm doing
anymore. I hate to say this, but Sunday morning has become just thirty
minutes to fill. Thirty minutes that I start dreading an hour after I've finished
the last sermon."
"That's a lot of dread, Ray. It can't be that bad. Your messages are
fine-and you do a good job delivering them."
"Honey, if you worked all week to prepare a meal for me, and I said
it was fine and that you did a good job delivering it, just how long
would I be sleeping on the couch?"
"Oh-you know what I mean," she said.
Ray did know what she meant. She meant that it was fine, but fine
wasn't good enough anymore.
"There has to be a simple solution to this," he finally said to Sally.
"I must be overthinking it. Either that or it's something I've never heard
"Why don't you call that baseball guy?" Sally asked.
"What baseball guy?"
"The rich guy that got you so excited about trying new ideas at the
Pete Harlan. It had been almost six months since Ray had spent a
memorable evening at the local major league ballpark, watching a
game from the owner's seats. Things had gotten pretty complicated at
the church, and a friend arranged for Ray to meet with Pete. A very
successful businessman, Pete had shared with Ray seven practices that
he had used to build his business empire. Seven practices that Ray and
his elder board had been implementing with some encouraging success.
"What would Pete know about preaching?"
"That's what I asked you about church ministry, but you came
home and changed everything. I figured if he could do that for the organizational
side of things, maybe he can snap you out of this, too."
"I don't need to be snapped out of anything-and I really don't
think Pete can help!"
"Well," she replied quietly, "then you really don't have anything to
lose, do you?"
"I don't even know where his number is." Ray was in no mood to
"Do you mean the number that's stuck in the corner of the framed
picture of you throwing the ceremonial first pitch that night? The picture
sitting on the mantle with Pete's card sticking out so everyone who
comes into our house can see it? Is that the number you're talking
about?" Sally was in no mood for a husband in a mood.
There were times when Ray wondered why he loved her so much.
But this wasn't one of them. He knew he needed some advice and that
Pete was indeed a wise man.
"Well, he did say to call if there was anything he could do," Ray
said. "I'll call him tomorrow." It had been an hour since church had
ended and Ray knew the dread was coming.
Traffic was light for a Monday as Ray drove toward La Frontera, a
local Mexican restaurant he and Sally often frequented. It had good
food at a cheap price, and the low prices made it an interesting choice
for Pete Harlan.
Ray smiled in spite of himself. One of the richest guys in town, Pete
picked one of Ray's regular spots to meet him for lunch. I guess there's a
reason he has so much money-and hangs onto it, Ray said to himself.
He pulled into a parking space next to a gleaming white Mercedes
with a vanity plate that said "Pete." Apparently, car purchases weren't
one of the areas where Pete felt inclined to economize.
Pete Harlan sat in a booth, smiling at Ray's approach. Ray remembered
the first time he'd seen Pete. A short, middle-aged man whose
demeanor belied his position in the community, Pete could've been any
one of a dozen guys already digging into the chips and salsa.
"Ray! It's great to see you again," Pete said with genuine excitement.
"Thanks so much for seeing me on such short notice."
"No problem. Things pretty much run themselves these days, and
that frees up a lot of my time."
"An organization that runs itself . now that would be nice." Even
as the words left his mouth, Ray knew instinctively what Pete's response
"Well, Ray, if you work hard enough at those seven practices I gave
you, then by the time you're my age you should have plenty of time on
your hands, too."
Ray then spent the better part of an hour-and a Burrito Grande-updating
Pete on life at Meadowland and the changes he'd been
making. He also unloaded the reason for their meeting that day. He
talked of the frustration of working as hard as he could at something,
only to see himself fail again and again.
"I wouldn't call you a failure, Ray," Pete finally said. "Your sermons
aren't as bad as others I've heard."
A wry smile crossed the pastor's face. "Now that's some consolation
right there. I'm not the worse communicator that Pete Harlan has
ever . Wait a minute, when did you ever hear me preach?"
"Oh, I've got my sources," Pete said with a grin. "I keep in touch
with Joe, and I asked him to give me a couple of your tapes." Joe
Dickinson was the mutual friend who had introduced Pete to Ray. "I
told Joe that I had to keep an eye on my investment."
Pete had invested in Ray that night, sharing a lifetime of wisdom in
a few short hours. A few million in the building fund would be nice, too, Ray
"Those message tapes are a great idea. If they'd had those when I
was younger, I might've gotten into church a little more-or maybe a
little more church might have gotten into me. You can listen in the car
if you find yourself with some drive time-and make the time count.
And I like the fact that you can rewind if you don't get something. That
doesn't work with a live preacher!"
Pete sipped on his iced tea then looked up into Ray's eyes. "How
do you feel when you listen to them?"
"Listen to them? I don't even want to see them-much less listen
"Practice number seven," Pete said in a matter of fact tone.
Practice number seven. Ray knew it well and it embarrassed him to
have been caught red-handed. "Work On It. Practice number seven is to
work on my ministry, not just in it. I know Pete, but this is different.
This is . painful."
"Imagine how your congregation feels," he said with a twinkle in
"Thanks a lot."
"Seriously, Ray, how in the world do you expect to get any better if
you don't listen to yourself? You can't fix it if you don't know where it's
broken. Step one is, you've got to start listening to yourself."
"Okay, you're right. Step one: Start listening to myself, no matter
how painful. What's step number two?"
"I have no idea," Pete said and then sat quietly.
After a moment, Ray broke the silence. "What do you mean you
have no idea? You're the answer man. Don't you have nine practices for
"Nope. But that was nice alliteration. Maybe you should try some
of that, it might help."
Pete could tell that Ray was getting frustrated. "What were you
expecting, Ray? I'm a businessman, not a preacher. Did you think I was
going to wave a magic wand and turn you into Willy Graham?"
"His name is Billy Graham. You called him Willy."
"I know who Billy Graham is, and I meant Willy Graham. Billy
Graham is good, but he's no Willy Graham."
By this time Ray was either angry or confused-he really wasn't
sure. "Who's Willy Graham?"
"Willy is the best communicator I've ever known. There's not a
finer man alive, as far as I'm concerned."
"And this Willy Graham is a better preacher than Billy Graham?"
"Well, Willy would never say that. That's my opinion. Willy used to
speak all over the country, and there were many times that I made sure
I was wherever he was. In fact, I knew a lot of men who would
rearrange their schedules if they knew Willy was coming."
Ray wasn't convinced. "So what makes this guy so special?"
"Hard to say. I just know that whenever he finished it was like he
was talking to me, personally. And I always walked away with something
that would help me. I didn't always do what he said, but that was
my problem, not Willy's."
"Well, I'd sure like to know his secret." Ray couldn't keep the bitter
edge out of his voice. "I don't know when I last helped someone.
In my business, there's not much you won't do for that kind of
"Well, I'm glad to hear that, Ray."
"Why?" Ray was suspicious now. He didn't like the look in Pete's
"Willy's agreed to meet with you, and you leave right after lunch."
"What?" Ray had to process this. "Well, okay. I guess that works.
Where do I meet him? Is he coming here?"
Pete raised one eyebrow. "Not exactly."
"Pete, I don't know you well, but I don't think I like that look. Just
where do I meet Willy?"
"Atlanta? That's in Georgia, Pete."
"So they tell me."
"That's like . a thousand miles away."
"Well, you'd better get started then," Pete said as he paid the check.
"Sally, that's your wife's name right?"
"I called Sally this morning and she packed you a bag. I told Joe to
let the church know you'd be gone a little while. He said the elder
board would be a little curious, but that he would handle them and not
to worry. In the long run, they'll be glad you took the time."
Ray's head was spinning. Sally and Joe were involved in this plot?
The elders were asking questions and now he was supposed to up and
leave? This had to be stopped. "Wait a minute, Pete. Taking me to lunch
is one thing, but this is a little much."
"Really? I thought you just said there was nothing you wouldn't do
for that kind of impact."
"I know, Pete, but Atlanta is a fourteen-hour drive and I've got
things to do at the office. Not to mention that I've got to get ready to
preach this Sunday ."
"Which brings us back to why you called me, Ray. Now what was
it you wanted help with?"
"I know, but ." Ray began to object, but Pete would have none of it.
"No buts. You called for my help, and this is my help. Take it or
It was easy to see how Pete Harlan had built his fortune.
Ray sat there not knowing what to do. It seemed like a wild goose
chase. Traveling halfway across the country to meet some guy named
Willy Graham. Ridiculous! Billy Graham would be one thing, but
Willy? What Ray said next was more an indication of his desperation
than his common sense.
"Where in Atlanta, Pete?"
"You let me worry about that. You just drive to this address, and I'll
take it from there."
Ray followed the directions Pete had given him and ended up at
"Are you Ray?" a woman asked as Ray walked through the door.
"We've been expecting you for half an hour."
"Traffic .," Ray said slowly.
"Don't worry. We can get you there in plenty of time. Just go down
this corridor, down the steps, and out the door. The helicopter is on the