Obedience, Not Achievement

My father taught me this simple lesson of the motivation of obedience through an unusual preaching experience.  After we moved to Misouri, he discovered there was a large mental hospital run by the state with no Sunday service for the patients.  Dad made himself available and structured a worship service early Sunday morning for these people with mental disorders.

The church service at the state mental institution was enjoyable for my brother Jay and me, but not so much for spiritual reasons.  We saw it more as an experience in entertainment, for these folks displayed true spontaneity.  At a normal church things may be predictable—but at the mental hospital you never knew what might happen.

Our song leader was always full of surprises.  He was a large man over six feet tall, and you would have expected him to have a booming voice. He would compose himself, instruct the piano player and congregation of the page number and begin singing.  But out came a high-pitched shriek like a pig getting poked with a prodder.  He led the singing in an unabashed falsetto voice and had a terrific time doing it.  His conducting was entertaining and effective, for we all sang loudly to lessen the pain of hearing his voice.

Another person who added a lively touch to the service would sit in the back of the room and chime in to affirm whatever Dad was saying.  But instead of saying, “Amen,” he would say, “wha-oh” as if something was going wrong. If ever a turn would take place in a story Dad was telling, or if something unplanned would happen, you would hear him come through with a “wha-oh!”  Or if Dad would ever mention a woman, he would come through without fail. “Wha-oh! Wha-oh!”  My brother and I always counted how many “wha-ohs” he contributed during the service, and would keep track seeing if he could break his record from the previous week.

Another lady always sat in the same seat on the front row and contributed to the service regularly.  Her form of participation was to use filthy language throughout the meeting.  She could cuss for thirty seconds straight and not use the same word twice.  We were amazed—nothing like this ever happened at regular church!  Just as Jay and I kept track of how many times the man would say “wha-oh,” we also kept track of her utterances. We figured we must have been the only kids who could go to church on Sunday and learn new words for the week.

One Sunday morning Dad was telling a story.  He described a man who was lovingly trying to help out a needy person.  A line from the story went like this: “And the man reached out his hand to touch her shoulder.”  I guess Dad thought the swearing sailor lady needed the personal touch, and as he spoke he reached out his own hand as if to touch her on the shoulder.  At that moment, she stood up and said with a profane expletive, “don’t ya touch me, preacher!”

For a moment there was silence, and then “wha-oh! wha-oh!”  Soon everyone roared with laughter!  Jay and I just about laughed ourselves out of our chairs, because we had never heard anyone say that to Dad—much less while he was preaching.  I remember Dad laughing right along with everyone else.  It didn’t seem to interrupt his line of thinking and his message, and he simply continued with what he was saying.

As we were driving away from the hospital, my dad asked me a question.  “David, don’t you have to give a short message in Sunday School next week?”  I replied, “Yes, sir.”  Dad continued: “Why don’t you be the preacher next week here at the hospital.  It will give you a chance to practice, and these folks would enjoy hearing you.”

“Sure, that will be fun!” I said.  But then my thoughts turned to the sailor woman.  Wha-oh.    I felt I should go ahead and do it, but was concerned about how I could handle her interjections during my talk.   So I decided to take the spiritual approach.  I told Dad I would do it, and would pray for her all week.  I did pray for her: that she would get real sick or die.  When Sunday came and we walked into the meeting room at the hospital, she was the first one I saw. She was sitting there waiting for me, guns loaded and ready to fire.

When the time came for me to speak, she had not uttered a sound.  I began talking, went through firstly, then secondly.  I thought my prayers had been answered. Maybe she had lost her voice? But when I began “thirdly,” she chimed in with a reference to Hades and said, “Somebody shut the little preacher up!” No one laughed at that point. I did hear a faint, “wha-oh.”  I turned red, forgot about thirdly, and called on Dad to end it with the benediction.

While riding home I asked Dad, “When she blasted you, everyone laughed and so did you.  It didn’t bother you one bit.  How come?”

“You don’t have to worry about how you’re being treated, or even whether or not they’re responding.  Just think about the Lord, how much they need Him, and that you are busy doing His work.  Then what they say or do won’t bother you that much.”

Dad had been led by God to minister to these people, and he was being obedient.  In his normal ministry, Dad received much affirmation from many responsive people, leading hundreds to Christ in seventy years as a pastor.  In addition to work in his own church, Dad spoke to many large gatherings as a revival preacher with thousands of conversions over the years.  But what about his ministry at the state hospital?  We could not see a lot of response from those folks.  For Dad, simply being obedient to God’s leading was reward enough.


–David Maddox

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