This story is one of three that were written for a service on outreach.
If you want to see how it fits in that context, then click
here for details of the service.
If appearances were anything to go by, Norman Wells was a highly successful man. He owned a large house in a picturesque Cotswold village. He drove a classic Bentley. His wife was a pillar of the community. His daughter captained the school hockey team and was a gifted violinist. His insurance business was flourishing and the money looked as if it would be rolling in for many years to come.
Only those who dealt with Norman on a regular basis knew that there was a deep sadness at the heart of his life. Some days he would simply sit in his office for hours at a stretch gazing out of the window. Occasionally his secretary would have to turn discretely away whilst he applied his handkerchief to damp eyes. His staff had learned that Norman was never out of action for long. He would soon throw himself back into the fray. He was a good boss and could be an inspirational leader when he chose. So his workforce grew to tolerate his ‘blue moods’ and simply worked around him until he snapped out of them.
Of course they also speculated freely about the cause of Norman’s sadness. Most thought it was the pressure of a high-powered job. Some suspected a mental disorder, or a shameful secret from the past. A few wondered whether Mrs Wells was quite the paragon of virtue she appeared to be, and invented all kinds of exotic psychological tortures that she could be inflicting on her husband. The truth was much more mundane. Norman was sad because he felt unloved.
No independent observer would guess that Norman felt unloved. His wife clearly loved him and would sometimes tell him so. He assumed his daughter also loved him, even if she never said. He was well-liked and respected at work. He had good friends at the golf club. Yet he couldn’t shake off the fear that people only expressed love or friendship to him because of his money, or his influential position. For years he had been doing his best to care for his family and to earn the respect of his colleagues but that only made the fears worse. What if they only pretended to like him because he was being nice to them?
Norman knew in his head that such questions were ridiculous. But in his heart he felt unloved. Deep inside Norman the voice of his father incessantly reminded him, “You’re a useless child. You’ll never amount to anything. No-one loves a crybaby.” His father had died whilst Norman was a student at university, but his voice lived on. Norman had not been loved as a child and try as he might, he couldn’t believe that he was loved as an adult.
One Friday morning in autumn, Norman arrived early at work. He greeted his secretary as he was passing through into his office, and exchanged a few polite words with Mary, the cleaning lady, who was busy emptying the bins. As he was closing the door he realised Mary was talking about him. “It’s a shame about poor Mr. Wells,” she said. “All that sadness isn’t proper. He needs cheering up, he does. It’s a pity he’s not a member of our church. Our minister’s a right laugh. Has me in stitches sometimes. And a friendlier lot you couldn’t wish for. They were a real comfort to me when I had all that trouble with me varicose veins...” Norman stopped listening. He didn’t want to eavesdrop on the details of Mary’s varicose veins. But a new thought had struck him. Why shouldn’t he go to church this Sunday? Mary always seemed to be cheerful in her work. Perhaps her minister could help Norman.
So on Sunday morning, Norman announced that he was going into town to visit the Methodist church, and invited his family to join him. His daughter used violin practice as an excuse, but his wife was curious enough to go along with the venture.
Their arrival at church drew a few odd looks. The local Methodists were obviously not used to such elegant cars as Norman’s Bentley. Undeterred, Norman shook the hand of the lady at the door, gazed around the sea of unfamiliar faces and asked where the minister was. “Oh, he’s not here this morning,” the lady replied. “He’s preaching at his other church. We’ve got a local preacher to take the service.”
Norman didn’t know what the lady was talking about. Surely the minister ought to be at his own church. And who or what was a ‘local preacher’? The lady started to explain about circuits and preaching plans. Norman didn’t understand all of it, but he gathered enough to realise that it was some amateur preacher leading the service, rather than the professional he had been expecting. He was not pleased at this, and turned round to go home, but his wife persuaded him to stop. “We’ve driven all this way to go to church,” she said. “We may as well give it a try now we’re here.”
So Norman took his first tentative steps into the foreign territory which was the Methodist church. Everything was strange to him. He thought congregations had to follow all the prayers and readings in some kind of book, but the only book available had nothing beside lots of hymns. Whilst the preacher was praying, Norman was frantically flicking through the book trying to find the place, until he noticed that no-one else was bothering with the book. They were leaning forward with their eyes closed – some clasping their hands in prayer, and some clutching their heads as if in pain.
The hymns were strange to Norman. He didn’t recognise any of the tunes, and was caught out twice – once when he remained standing whilst everyone else sat, and once when he sat down only to find everyone else had remained standing. He was bored by endless announcements about activities he wasn’t remotely interested in, and surprised by the number of times the congregation laughed, which in his view was not the done thing in a church.
But by the time he left the church, Norman had formed two overriding impressions. One was that the people he met genuinely cared about him. They had no idea who he was – Mary would have recognised him if she hadn’t been visiting her sister that particular Sunday – but their welcome was warm and heartfelt. They accepted him without embarrassment over his mistakes and without undue pressure for him to do or say any more than he was comfortable with.
The second and stronger impression was created during the sermon. The preacher was not the most dynamic of speakers, and Norman sometimes had to strain to hear him, but one short sentence slipped into Norman’s heart like a seed being planted. Three words. “God. Loves. You.” As the sermon progressed, those words took root and began to grow. Norman struggled to follow the thread of the sermon because a simple message was echoing insistently in his heart. “God loves you. God loves you.” By the end of the sermon the thought had evolved into a personal revelation. “God loves me,” thought Norman. “God actually loves me.”
As he drove home, Norman reflected on his excursion into foreign territory. The church had not been anything like he had imagined. These people called Methodists were an odd bunch. But for the first time in his life, there was a new and growing thought planted in his heart. Norman felt loved.
On Monday morning, Mary was puzzled to find in her cleaning cupboard a large bouquet of roses from her boss and a note which simply said “Thank you.”