I slammed the door behind me, distraught, lost, empty, alone, and at a loss of words. How can this be happening again? Desperate, I cried out to God, tears streaming down my face, I ranted, I raged, but most of all I grieved. I wept and in my despair I pleaded with God to answer one question.
Are you even here? Do you hear me? Do you see me? Do I matter?
Left with no more words to speak and only more tears to shed, I laid down on my bed. As soon as my back hit the bed it happened. It was like a dream, a daydream, a vision of myself getting back off the bed and walking over to my desk. On my desk there was this plastic case filled with cards that had Scripture verses on one side and some kind of relevant message on the other side. The really cheesy kind of thing that church folks buy at christian bookstores. Someone at the church I went to sometimes bought it for me but I never looked at it really.
In my dream I walk to my desk, to this little plastic case, I open it and pull out a card. Then I woke up, startled. Tears still fresh on my cheek I get off my bed and walk over to my desk. I open that plastic case and pull out a card.
And here is what it said,
As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Joshua 1:5
As clear an answer that I could've ever asked for outside of maybe a burning bush. It was a turning point in my life. I began to refer to God as Father and as my Parent. My prayers became more intimate, more like conversations. I asked God to parent me, to teach me the things I knew were lacking. Even things like how to date, how to handle finances, how to have healthy relationships, and leaning on Him to help me build a non-existent confidence in who I was.
I heard from God and I believed that I continued to hear from Him. I believed that I could discern God's leading in my life. It is that discernment that led me to do many things in life including accepting what I believe was God's leading into being a pastor. Now, after everything that's happened, I'm not so sure I'm hearing from God at all, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we get there, another story.
I am the door...that slams in your face
After leaving Chicago in 2011 I had really struggled back in Cincinnati. I left Chicago with a bad taste in my mouth in regards to becoming a pastor, a story for another day. When I came back I decided to make a go of doing something else, to turn my back on my perceived life calling as a pastor. Long story short, I made it to a final interview at a place where most people don't even get an interview. As I walked in, excited and expectant, I prayed. Here was my prayer,
Father, if this isn't what you want for me, slam the door in my face.
Friends, be careful what you pray for.
After that rejection I faced a harsh reality. I felt like a failure everyday walking through the doors of my office. My calling seemed like fantasy yet the rejection I just experienced made me believe that I should continue pursuing it. I felt like Paul trying to enter into Asia and I was blocked by God in order to keep me on a certain path. I just needed to figure out what it was.
That feeling was confirmed by other people in my life. Everything seemed to be pointing a specific way and then it happened, I was asked to join a church staff as a volunteer to lead discipleship groups. We had been a part of this church only a short time and if I had taken the job I interviewed for I almost assuredly would've been moving away from Ohio. So it seemed I found the path.
I thought that finally I was in the right place at the right time. That the calling that I believed I had from God was finally being fully realized. I lived the next 10 months like I believed that was true. I took on more roles, became a church planting intern, and we oriented our time, talent, and treasure with a future as a church planter working alongside our church family firmly in view.
Then, in October 2012, while sitting in my cubicle at an engineering firm, I received a call that changed my life forever.
The Case of a Dual Exodus
My phone rang and on the other line was Beautiful, my wife, telling me that her grandpa had passed away. There was going to be a funeral to attend in Pennsylvania and I needed to ask for time off to go. Work was not going well for me, I was on my 4th boss in a year, and he did NOT like me. At all. I had a complicated relationship with my vocation as an engineer, but that's a story for another time.
I hated talking to my current boss. He was harsh towards me nearly every time we spoke. So entering his office to talk was like entering a minefield. I was never really sure what would set him off against me next. Just to be clear, I don't want to paint this man as some type of cartoon villain out to get me, some of his venom towards me was caused by things that were totally my fault.
Anyway, I go in to the office hoping for a day or two off and to get out without being yelled at. I was informed that he'd let me know at the end of the day, I didn't get yelled at, success!
The end of the day came and I was informed I could take all the time I needed for the funeral...
Because I was being let go.
The next 3 months were a whirlwind. We found out we were pregnant a week after I was let go. Working with my pastor we decided that maybe this was a move from God to move me away from engineering and into pastoring. I would start raising financial support to join staff full time with the goal to start a new church in Cincinnati. I started a website, started making phone calls, gained some awesome initial supporters (shout out to y'all if you're reading, you are a bright shining light in some of the darkness that shrouds my experience!), and felt like real progress was happening. This all the more felt like confirmation that we were hearing God clearly.
When starting this new work I thought about the vision I received when I was younger. I thought about how God had been with me, guiding me, through good and bad, and I believed that maybe like Moses I was experiencing a personal Exodus. The story of Exodus is of God bringing His people out of slavery and into the land He promised them.
I thought, this is a movement of God, to finally be able to realize the calling I received long ago, to be a shepherd of His people. I even named the Excel sheet I made for support raising "The Exodus Project". I still have the file on my computer. Cheesy a bit I know, but for me it was a signal that God was doing something. Everyone around me confirmed it. I heard clearly the call to push forward and I was excited for the next phase.
Exodus to Exile
The story of Moses is known for many things, the ten commandments, the splitting of the Red Sea, leading the people of God through the wilderness for 40 years, the plagues that strike Egypt, and the burning bush.
But do you remember the story of Moses before the burning bush? Moses was raised in Egypt, where his fellow Hebrews were slaves, and he saw how they were treated brutally. One day, he observes an Egyptian beating one of the slaves and decides to act. He strikes down the Egyptian and hides him in the sand. The next day he spots two of his Hebrew brothers fighting and he confronts the offender saying, "Why are you hitting your friend?"
The offender responds with, "Who made you our prince and judge? Are you going to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?"
Moses was immediately stricken with fear. He fled into exile from the people he was trying to stick up for. He was trying to be a leader for a people that didn't want him to be their leader. This rejected leader would some day encounter the burning bush while shepherding sheep and be sent back to lead them on their exodus journey.
Looking back now, I realize that I wasn't living out an Exodus story in my life. If my experience reflects any part of Moses' story, it is that of the rejected leader. Not yet am I on the exodus journey, but instead find myself in exile.
Now, I question everything.
Grasping For Meaning
Looking back, I have to ask some hard questions. And some of those questions have shaken me to my core. The one that has shaken me the most is this.
Have I heard from God or have I simply grasped for meaning in life's coincidences?
I can't get past this question. It haunts me.
I don't believe the people around me were lying to me when they confirmed my "calling". In other words, I don't think there was any manipulation or telling me what I wanted to hear. I believe that everyone who confirmed me looked to encourage what they thought they saw.
But what if all they saw was someone who so happened to be in a role of a pastor or someone who sought a role of a pastor that so happened to have the requisite skills of a pastor and passion to follow Jesus. What if, none of us heard from God, but given the coincidences of losing a job opportunity at P&G, losing my job at the engineering firm, moving into an apartment complex with a neighbor who ended up being a pastor that I connected with, and seeking to be a pastor all formed such a "lining up of the stars" that we assumed that God was doing something.
Even worse, what if we grasp for meaning in everyday coincidences and presume upon God?
Worst of all, what if I'm not hearing from God at all?
And this is my biggest fear. The disappointment of disappointments. What if I don't hear from God? And if I don't hear from him, then why not? Why have I endured so much vocational and relational rejection and turmoil? And how can I thrive if I don't hear His voice in the midst of it all?
In my darkest moments, I'm back in the same place I was years ago asking the same questions again, "God, are you here? Do you hear me? Do you see me? Do I even matter? If I do then why don't I hear from you? If my daughter cried out for me in the same way I cry out for you surely I would come to her and let her know that her Dad is here and loves her fully. I would wrap my arms around her and hold her. When will I feel your embrace?"
Friends, this is my downward spiral. This is the aftermath of a pile of disappointments. My response to them has left me feeling quite unlike myself. I know I dwell far too much on what has happened to me, on what I don't have, on the disadvantages and challenges I face, on the "what the hell am I gonna do" questions and it steals any trace of joy from me. It steals the very breath from my lungs.
And now I've learned a horrible skill. I've learned to manage my disappointment and now I find myself in protection mode. Don't get your hopes up. Don't let your desire for delight or hope or for good work seduce you again. Accept who you are because fighting it is a losing battle.
But I can't give up the fight. I know that I'm believing some lies while also facing some hard truths. The problem is that I can't discern the difference between them. Often I feel overwhelmed by it all. I feel sluggish, as if some promised land awaits before me but I'm running on quicksand. Every step I sink further, the more I struggle the more I sink.
But now, I'm trying to learn a new skill. I'm trying to learn an ancient discipline, one that was practiced by God Himself. In fact, more than an ancient discipline, it is an ancient command.
In six days God worked to create all things but on the seventh day - with the canvas of the cosmos completed - God paused from His labor and rested. Thus God blessed day seven and made it special — an open time for pause and restoration, a sacred zone of Sabbath-keeping, because God rested from all the work He had done in creation that day.
One of my favorite books, Slow Church, has this to say:
Thus we see at the very beginning of human history God inaugurates a basic rhythm of good work and rest, both of which are characterized by deep pleasure. It's almost as if the work of creation is not complete until the creation of work's ceasing. We often assume that humans are the apex of the first week, but this isn't so. Though humans are given dominion over the earth, to protect and nurture it for its flourishing and our own, the pinnacle of creation was not humanity but sabbath rest (menuha). "After the six days of creation - what did the universe still lack? Menuha. Came the Sabbath, came menuha, and the universe was complete."
The command from God to rest isn't some rule given to restrict or hinder, far from it, it is a gift. It is a day for me to pause my striving and start abiding. Far from a legalistic requirement that I have to follow, sabbath is an exercise in radical grace: in the midst of my sin, my brokenness, my disappointment, my questions, my fear, my struggles, my anger, my bitterness, and everything else, God loves me. My creator God looks at me with absolute love and in Sabbath rest I take the opportunity to meet that gaze.
But I'm not good at this. How can I rest when it feels like my world is falling apart all around me? How can I rest when I feel so far behind? My circumstances won't magically change when I meet His gaze. But here is what I know, in order to meet his gaze I must look away from everything that pulls me down. I can't focus my gaze on all that afflicts me while also keeping my gaze on the One who is the giver of strength and rest in the midst of our afflictions. In this way, practicing Sabbath is a form of repentance. I have to turn away from everything that I falsely believe requires my full attention in order to give my full attention to my good Father.
I have to preach these truths to myself given that my feelings betray me. I have to trust that truth in the midst of inner turmoil. That I'm allowed to rest, even more, that if even God rested then I MUST rest, that when I seek God I will find Him, that even when I don't sense the presence of God I'm still loved and haven't been abandoned, that I'm His son and part of His family even when I feel unlovable and on the outside of it all. Because if I can't trust these things then I will never recover and I will continue to sink into myself and in that place, in that darkness I will find that only bitterness flourishes.
So, God help me, I will recover. But I know I can't do it alone. I need the Family God has brought me into. I need to be willing to fix my gaze on Jesus and look away from my affliction. I have to trust that when I fix my gaze on Jesus that I will find healing even if my circumstances don't change. I have to forgive, to let go of bitterness, and not allow anger, anxiety, or pride to choke out the life and rest offered to me. I have to stop striving and start abiding.
And I have to stop grieving what was or who I once was. I cannot go back to who I was nor do I believe God would want me to. Because God is picking up the broken pieces of who I was and making me into something new. And that something new will be greater than what once was.
As I recover, I have a simple prayer, a song that I sing (thanks to My Epic, it is a song that places me on a strong foundation to stand upon through good days and bad:
Reign here Good King and I'll not be afraid.
Speak Living Word, I have nothing to say.
Come Comforter, lay your hand on my head.
Stay with me Father and I'll be content.