Heavenly Minded, Earthly Good
Getting to know Joe
“Pastor Joe are you in there? Hey, Pastor Joe are you in there?” Joe could hear the sound of familiar voices in the distance. Realizing he had fallen asleep at his desk Joe lifted his head, the moist notebook paper beneath his face clinging, then, gently it peels off his cheek. The voices continue to call out in panic. “Pastor Joe!”
Joseph Neumann is the Associate Pastor at Mount Carmel Christian Church. The Midwestern church is not the largest church in town yet there is a definite impact in their presence. The quaint church on the corner hosting nearly two hundred and fifty people each weekend supports several community events and programs. Always ready to welcome visitors this place just feels like home.
Joe came to Mount Carmel as a teenager with his parents after his father’s job moved them from Arkansas to Indiana. Things were a little different in the Indianapolis suburb but basically people were people and the church was church. Joe blended right in with the kids in the youth group and felt accepted right away.
The youth group meet on Sundays and Thursday nights and occasionally they would have trips to events or concerts. This group of thirty or so kids aging from twelve to eighteen were not only active at the church, they were equally active in the school sports, music and theatre programs.
Like many teens do, Joe went through several trying times at school, then went off to college, his first time experiencing life without the safeguard of his parents care. Joe made plenty of good choices and a few he would rather forget. At the end of it all he had not done anything to get arrested, no illegitimate children, no failing grades, just a very average experience and bachelor’s degree in Accounting, with a focus on Finance.
Returning to Mount Carmel after college Joe found a job with a local firm handling business loans and as a sideline job he began preparing tax schedules. Joe also returned to the Mount Carmel Christian Church this time joining the adult ministries and volunteering in the youth group he fondly remembered. The youth group always needed hand when it came to Vacation Bible School and a week in the summer acting silly and teaching some Bible wasn’t too heavy of a commitment.
About three years had gone by and Joe found himself learning more and more about the Bible while he was preparing for the VBS sessions. The stories had intrigued him as a kid and now they were really pressing his curiosity button. Joe wanted to know more and he followed the instructions of his pastor and joined a small group that met on Wednesdays at the church. Joe felt like he was back at home for sure now.
At the first of the Wednesday night sessions another new member arrives, Abbey Burnside, and as fate would have it the only open seat was next to Joe. Abbey was a pretty gal about the same age as Joe, dressed in medical scrubs, long blonde hair wrapped in bun that was held in place by an ink pen. Completing her ensemble was a stethoscope draped around her neck and name badge clipped at the hip.
Joe sheepishly said “hello” and tried desperately to remember if he had met Abbey before now. Abbey looked familiar but he just couldn’t “place her” in the particular situation where they may have met. Maybe it was college? no that wasn’t it. High school then? If so, it had been long enough that they both would have changed in appearance a little.
Abbey and Joe eventually hit it off and began dating. They shared a love for the church and the youth ministry where Abbey joined Joe in the VBS program. Two and a half years of dating led to a one year engagement and then a modest wedding at the Mount Carmel Christian Church. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Neumann.
Joe and Abbey continued to serve in the youth group for three more years after they were married when the church asked if they would want to take on the shared role of Sunday school teachers to the combined Junior and Senior High children. This would require an hour or two of study each week and they could divide that with each other, then there would be a thirty minute session with the Senior Pastor prior to the delivery of the lesson.
It would be nearly a decade of working with the youth group when Joe realized the hours of study and teaching were more of joy than the job at the finance company or the tax prep. Joe expressed this to Abbey and she encouraged him to talk to the Senior Pastor, Jerry. After several weeks of prayer and counseling Joe began a steady course in the seminary at a university in Indianapolis.
Working fulltime, serving the youth and going to college were a real handful yet in the long run Joe knew it was where he wanted to be and where he thought God wanted him to be too. Abbey would be his biggest supporter and things looked like they were clicking right along.
About the halfway point of the seminary study Joe and Abbey got the news. Pregnant! The arrival of the newest member of the Neumann family would coincide with Joe’s graduation from seminary. Michael James Neumann, named after Joe’s dad and Abbey’s granddad. A sturdy nine pound one ounce bouncing baby boy with mom’s golden locks and dad’s brown eyes.
Joe and Abbey would have three children in the first six years of their marriage, Michael, Jenny, and Emma Grace. The family lived not far from the church in a subdivision built in the nineteen fifties where a 4 bedroom was sort of rare. It was a bit cramped at times but they managed. It was then that the Senior Pastor called Joe into full time ministry as the churches first Associate Pastor.
Joe figured the salaried position could come close to meeting their financial needs if he continued to work the tax prep on the side. They would have to tighten their belts a little on the extras like movie nights out, instead they would have to rent a video, but they could make it work.
This is what made Joe, well Joe, he had a strong marriage, a strong family, a rock solid faith and dedicated church with a trustworthy leader. There were days where the job required a little more than the next but it was all as he had expected. He experienced joy in the overall activities of being the Associate Pastor and he was glad he had answered the call to ministry.
This particular day was not anything special or different. It was a very typical spring day and the annual Vacation Bible School was in the planning and preparation stage. Instead of Joe being a simple contributor he was now the executive overseeing the whole operation. With several years of various roles in the VBS program Joe had a pretty good handle on things.
The planning stage was nearly complete and Joe thought that another sixty to ninety minutes would complete the task. Joe puts his head down into his hands and prays. “Lord God, thank you for the opportunity to once again serve you with the Vacation Bible School Program. Father I pray that this reaches the lives of kids and their families within the church and those in the community that do not know you yet. Give us the courage to reach out to the lost in the community and”…… zzzzzzz.
The day had been a little cooler probably due to the rain. Anyone living in Indiana in May can tell you that it’s a coin flip when it comes to the weather. You hear people say all the time “if you don’t like the weather wait fifteen minutes it will change.” The combination of the rain, the clouds, the sun fading away and the long hours caused Joe to drift off in the middle of his prayer.
What seemed like ten minutes was actually two and a half hours of facedown, lights out, wide mouthed, slobbering sleep which Joe really needed to have had at home in bed and not at the wooden desk. In that amount time your brain goes into deep R.E.M. sleep and your back into a vise like lock. All the while, outside a very serious spring storm has rolled in on Mount Carmel.
The sound of the rain and thunder could not break through the several layers of walls that held Joe’s office almost directly in the middle of the brick church. Even the crash of lighting and the sounds of traffic were hard to distinguish and this made a great place to work when you had to study intently. However in this instance it was a bit of a hindrance.
The voices yelling for Joe were getting louder as Joe was struggling with the smell of smoke, of burning plastics and chemicals. As his eyes begin to open not much changes in the light levels as the smoke in the room provides dark obscurity. Joe comes to realize the church is on fire!
Apparently during the storm, lightning strikes a utility pole outside of the church and the electricity races along the main wire feeding the church. The power surge hits the main breaker box and explodes igniting the wallpaper and curtains. All of which Joe has been totally unaware during his “power nap”.
In other rooms throughout the church items that had been plugged into the wall sockets, baby monitors in the nursery, lamps in the offices, computers, fax machines, etc. had all experienced the same power surge with several catching fire as well.
With the totality of the electricity gone the fire suppression system and smoke detectors were out of commission. Even the battery backup had been overloaded and failed to warn or wake Joe until he had heard the voices of those is search of him.
Now fully awake and fully aware, Joe is sitting in the church he grew to love and serve, and it is now burning to the ground around him. Joe finally answers the voices he now recognizes as the custodian Bill Winters, the Youth Pastor James Miner and one of the church board members Kyle Smith. “Hey guys, I am in my office!” Joe replies.
Joe had dropped out of his chair and began crawling across his office floor towards the door. Smoke was pouring into the room from around the door and through the vents at an incredible rate. More concerned with his personal safety than the contents of the room Joe knew he had to get out quickly.
Feeling the door it was very warm and the higher he pushed his hand up the door the warmer it got. Grabbing the metal handle Joe felt a sharp stinging from the heat as swung the door open slowly. Like a blast furnace the fire raced across the ceiling of Joe’s office and then receded back into the hallway.
The quick flash of light that came with the fire lit up the room and the hallway enough that Joe could see his friends Bill, James and Kyle also crawling down the hallway. Kyle shouts, “Thank God Joe, are you hurt?” Joe replies, “No not really.”
The four men then crawl in single file down the hallway to the community room where there were multiple doors leading outside. Joe asks if anyone knew what had happened, to which Bill explains, “it was the lightning and the following power surge”. As they reach the community room they can see a raging fireball centered in the kitchen area. Bill says “that must be the last of the gas that feeds the ovens.”
Moving away from the kitchen area the men make their way through the maze of round dining tables and chairs. Through the smoke filled room they can see the emergency beacon of the police car and a flashlight beam from the officer responding to the fire. The sound of multiple sirens increases with every passing moment. The men are within a few feet of the door when a loud crash and falling debris begins to pepper the room. “The ceiling is giving way” explains Bill.
Coughing on the smoke, and with eyes watering, Joe thought to himself “is this the end? Do we die three feet from safety? Why did this happen?”
The officer was now beating on the glass door and yelling “Anyone still in there?” The men in unison “Help us!” Pulling on the door frantically the officer shouts “it’s still locked!” Bill announces loudly “I have the key on my chain.” Reaching the door Bill raises up on his knees and unlocks the door. The officer bowls Bill over as he pushes through the door and then is leveled himself by tripping over Bill.
Composing himself the officer ask “let’s get you guys outta here, anyone hurt? Are there more people in the building?” Kyle says “I’m good and I am pretty sure I was the only one in the west wing of the building.” “I was the only one in maintenance that was working today” replies Bill. “Fine here, don’t think anyone else was here” explains James. Joe still shaken by all the happenings murmurs “God, I hope not.”
Now outside and across the street the four members of the Mount Carmel Christian Church stand staring at the twelve thousand square foot building engulfed in flames. It reminded Joe of a scene out of a war movie like something that had a bomb dropped on it. The men stood there crying in disbelief as the ambulances and fire trucks pulled up.
Joe’s pants pocket begins to vibrate and he hears the ringtone of his cell phone. Stunned that he managed to grab it in all the chaos he slowly pulls the phone out to see “Abbey’s Cell” on the display. “Hello honey, yes, yes, I am fine, calm down. But the church isn’t. I pretty sure it is a total loss. I gotta go honey, the paramedics want me.”
Joe sat on the end of the ambulance as the paramedics administered their routine of exams on Joe. They applied oxygen and checked the vital statistics of all the men and the officer. Then they rounded them up inside the ambulances, Joe and Kyle shared one, Bill and James shared one, and the officer rode alone to the hospital.
Abbey told the other nurses in her ward about the fire and asked if they would be alright without her for a few that she wanted to be there when Joe arrived in the Emergency Room. They assured her they were fine and that she should take a deep breath, pray and not to worry about anything else but Joe.