Thanksgiving in the Wilderness

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. A day of food, football, and most importantly, gratitude. It is a day for all of us to come together and recognize how blessed we truly are. What do we do though when thankfulness is hard? When the year behind us has been filled with ups and downs? Loss and pain? This is Thanksgiving in the Wilderness and this is where I am at. 

As a Christian, there are periods of life that are difficult. Seasons that are marked by pain and uncertainty. Confusion and chaos. This has been my last year and a half. 

Stepping out of ministry in August 2017 with no plan in site, I returned home. Angry. Depressed. Defeated. Once a rising star, now a fallen dud. The joy? Gone. The hope? Vanished. I know this sounds kind of dramatic, but when your career, and everything you worked for in the last five years is taken from you, then you just feel lost. 

Ministry was everything to me, and that was the problem. It had become an idol. I put my hope in it, and thus when it was taken away, my identity disappeared. My purpose sunk, and my life failed. 

Since I was called into the ministry at the same time I was saved, I felt lost without it. Losing ministry was like losing an arm. Or a leg. And when loss occurs, then you return to what you know. And that’s what I did.

Over the next several months, I just isolated myself and became quickly a shell of the man I used to be. I was always angry. Depressed. And moody. 

Feeling as though I had “failed” God and others, I gave up. I quit trying to live the good Christian life, and I chocked my last six years up to a good try. I sunk back to the lowness of the pits that I crawled out of. 

I became angry with God for taking from me the students. My purpose. I yelled and screamed and had a fit like a child throwing a temper tantrum. “It’s not fair” was my mantra. I questioned his calling of me into ministry when He knew that I would fail. That He knew that I would destroy what He had given me. 

I questioned God’s love for me, and I ran. I huffed and puffed. And thrashed about. And then I just sat down. Exhausted. 

Tuckered out from my hissy fits, I just sat there. Feeling as though life was over. Feeling as if the “good times” were over. So I sat there. At age 27, I felt like I was done. 

I sat there with regret, feeling the dust of the wilderness between my finger tips. I felt alone. People had reached out to me, but I had pushed them away. I just wanted to be alone in my pain and frustration. I wanted to shoulder the blame for my own destruction. 

I could understand the sins from before becoming a Christian, but the sins that I had now as a Christian? Bewildering. How could I, a Christian, knowingly disobey God and run back to the filth of my sins? I knew where they led to and I just didn’t care. I was under the belief that I better get comfortable. That the dust was my new home, and my new norm. 

In this state though, something amazing happened. In my inability to love God and in my exhaustion, both from living in sin, and defiantly running from Him, God was pursuing me. As I sat there in the quiet, in the loneliness, in the brokenness, when I felt no one else there, Jesus was still there.  

You see this was astounding to me. Because for me, even though I was saved out of my sins in the beginning of 2012 and radically transformed, I had come to believe that Jesus only loved me because I was important and because I had something to offer. In essence, I believe that Jesus loved me because I was his “preacher” and because I was “important” in His Kingdom. 

But when I lost this title, I thought I had lost my love. I felt like I was a misfit toy that was to be shelved now, and that I no longer had use. I had a purpose, and I had abandoned it, and thus I would be abandoned by God and others. 

This was not the case. Thankfully. 

I never have experienced a more loving pursuit of Jesus in the wilderness of my soul. He came after me with a fervor that I hadn’t experienced since 2012. This time it was different. He came and sought me out. He pursued me gently and patiently. Throwing an encouraging word in. Here and there. Speaking truth to me in the midst of my lies and sin. 

Even as I ran back to Greenville to experience “freedom” and to be on my own again, He pursued. He pursued and pursued and pursued. And it broke me down to my core. 

After 18 years of escaping, numbing, running, excusing, it was finally time to deal with the mess beneath the surface. For Him to do the long painful surgery that needed to happen.

He didn’t decide to do this six years ago when I got saved. He decided that now was the time to do the deeper work. 

His pursuit of my life stripped me bare. He showed me my idols. He showed me my insecurities. He showed me how empty and shallow the pursuits of my life were. 

He took me back to the past. To where things began. And He showed me that it was okay, even as a Christian, to have things that were unclear. To still struggle. He showed me that it was okay to not be okay, and that He had the answers. 

He showed me the evilness of my heart, but how much He still loved me and was changing me still. He showed me that sometimes we have to move backwards to go deeper with Him, and that going back to go deeper is a not a step backwards, but a step forward. 

He taught me that change was not an overnight thing, but a persistent and difficultly long process. And it has been. Many times walking out of my Christian counselor’s office wondering if true change was really possible. Many times questioning why I went.

But in this long wilderness process, God has worked, and is working for my good. He gave me this verse when I lost my job: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). 

Today, even in the midst of my wilderness, I am not alone. I am loved. I am pursued. And I see this now clearer than ever. There is hope. There is joy. All in front of me. I am leaning into that even in the midst of the wilderness of my soul and life. And for that I’m thankful. 

I’m thankful that He decided to temporarily wound me to permanently heal me. I’m thankful that He took from me things that I loved and cherished, so that I could experience new and better things in new and better ways. I’m thankful for the hours of questioning and asking because it made me see more clearly His vast love for me. I’m thankful that He never gave up on me, even when I had given up on myself. 

Maybe this Thanksgiving this is where you are. Maybe you have experienced loss, frustration, pain over this past year, and you are sitting in the dust of your own wilderness experience.

Maybe you lost your job. Or your spouse left you. Or you lost a loved one. Or maybe you’ve dealt with depression, or anger, or just confusion. 

Maybe you’re one of the many that have been impacted by the senseless shootings over this past year, or a victim of the destruction caused by the California fires, and you sit here today, and you don’t even have a physical Thanksgiving table. And life is well….just hard. 

I’m here to tell you that Jesus sees you in your pain. Your loss. Your hurt. Your loneliness. He is there with you in the wilderness that you face. He sits with you. In the dust, He wraps His arms around you and sits beside you. 

The promise is this: He will not leave you here. This is a season of life. A very difficult one. But He will use this for your good. He will strengthen your feeble hands and weak knees (Heb. 12:12). He will bring you out of this after He has taught you what He wants to teach you. 

Be encouraged those who find themselves in the wilderness this Thanksgiving and Holiday Season. While life is tough, and your loss is great, Jesus has not forgotten you. There is hope. He is with you. 

So rejoice. Be thankful. Even in the wilderness of your soul and life, in this difficult season, you can be thankful. 

As you sit today in the dust of the wilderness, look beside you. Jesus is there. This is Thanksgiving in the Wilderness. 

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Trust the Process

Trust the Process. It’s a phrase that is pretty common in the sports world, most recently, with the Philadelphia 76ers.

You see, the 76ers have been bad. Really bad. For a long time. Here are their records from 2012-2016:

  • 34-48
  • 19-63
  • 18-64
  • 10-72
  • 28-54

Ouch. Those records would make even Cleveland Browns, or Buffalo Bills fans squeamish. But these were their records. Along the way though, they championed this phrase. Trust the Process.

What was meant by this?

Well, from the outside looking in, it seemed as though the Philadelphia 76ers were going nowhere fast. Losing a lot of games, and for 5 consecutive years. But the management knew what they were doing. Thus came the war cry to their players and fans “Trust the Process.”

They petitioned their players and fans to be patient. To buy in. And that they would eventually see results. And so they did. The fans. The players. The organization. The city. They all bought in.

This was not the case from the outside. They were the laughing stocks of the league, and no one really believed in “the process” outside of the organization, but the team had a plan and they stuck to it.  You see, each year that they lost all those games, they were stock piling top draft picks. No one from the outside could see it, but little by little, the 76ers were putting together a team that would compete, and that was built to last.

And well, the process worked. After 5 consecutive losing seasons, the 76ers finally put together a winning season last year that landed them in the playoffs. They finished 52-30 and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Those top draft picks have now turned into all stars, and after many losing seasons, they finally have a team that is built to last. With 3 talented up and coming stars, with solid veteran leadership, the 76ers will compete in the Eastern Conference for years to come.

Now was trusting the process easy?

No. Lots of people questioned. Poked holes in. Made fun of this silly idea of “the process.” Even their own fans and players and coaches grew restless as the years went on. But it worked. It worked because everyone was on the same page. Everyone within the organization trusted the process. The owner to the general manager to the coach to the players. They all trusted the process. The bought in to this idea that one day all the losing would be worth it, and that they would reach their goals if they just bought in fully.

Similar to the 76ers, our lives as Christians is a process. A process that at times is grueling. Confusing. A lot of cutting down and shoring up. A lot of waiting and praying and waiting some more.

We, like the 76ers, have an owner, a general manager, and a coach. Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. And they are encouraging us along the way to trust the process. To trust that all that is happening in our lives is being worked for our good. That even the hard things  are growing us into the men and women that we are supposed to be.

There will be some hard seasons along the way. Years that feel empty and lonely. And in the midst of these difficult seasons, it can be a hard thing to trust our lives to the ownership and guidance of our management team. We may even begin to question the competency of our management and ask where they are taking us.

We can be assured though that they can be fully trusted. We can trust their process in our lives because they can see the full picture when we can’t.  They know not only exactly where we are, but also where we are going. They know how to get us there.  And once we get there it will be glorious. If we will just buy in to the promises they have laid before us, and stick to the game plan, the abundant life that is promised, will be realized.

Will you buy into the promises of Jesus, and submit to his authority and trust the process?

It will be worth it to buy into what Jesus has laid out before you.

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Mourning with those with Mourn: A Christian’s Response to Tragedy

I usually don’t write about current events in our country, but after the string of recent mass shootings, I feel I must say something about what is happening. I want to help us put to words what we may all be feeling.

I feel helpless. I am scared to death that something like this will happen where I live, where I work, where I eat. I am scared to death for my friends, my family. I wonder now when I walk into a restaurant, into a church service, into a grocery store, if someone will come in and shoot it up.

I feel angry. I am so mad that people aren’t getting the help that they need. That these same things keep happening over and over and over again, and nothing is changing. This new norm is frightening and upsetting.

I feel sad. As I read these new articles, my heart is torn in half. Tears come to my eyes for these parents who lost children. For these friends that lost friends. For these communities that are picking up the pieces of broken families, and torn apart friend groups. It is demoralizing. It is shattering. I can’t imagine what they are going through right now.

It is times likes these that really shake the foundations of our lives and show us what is really important. I think as a Christian, we must always respond, but even more in times like these.

So how should we respond?

We should respond by praying. I know it sounds cliche, but for all you families out there, that have been impacted by this grave atrocity, Jesus is there with you. He is there with you in your hurts, your confusion, your fears, your anger, your sadness, your loss. All of it. We, as Christians, as fellow human beings, are here with you as well. We as Christians are praying for you.

We should respond by serving. The families of those affected, the communities that have been literally turned upside down, need Christians and others to step up and to serve. Make a meal. Sit down and talk with those who have been affected. Be there.

We should respond by mourning with these families, friends, and communities who have lost loved ones. Romans 12:15 says rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. This is not a time to pull away, but to come close to those who are hurting. We need to truly mourn with them as they grieve the loss of children, friends, and family.

We should respond with trust. The age old question always comes up during tragedy “How can God allow evil to exist when He is God?” I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know though that God is worthy of our love and trust. We must trust Him in this time to provide us with the peace that surpasses all understanding. We must trust Him to provide us with what we need. We must trust him to provide us with strength, words of encouragement. We must trust ultimately that all of this is in His hands, that it’s not wasted, and that even though it doesn’t make sense to us, that it is perfectly understandable to Him.

We should respond by holding on to hope. It is easy in times like these to shut down, and to give up. We must not lose hope. Darkness and evil may run rampant now, but there will come a day when all will be made right. When Jesus will return. Where the mourning will cease. Where the pain will end. Our suffering will be no more. So we hold on to hope.

Lastly, and this is the most important thing we must do. We must respond by living in the present. So many times I think, I’ll do this or that tomorrow. Why? Because life to me seems endless and the end of my life appears distant. It is times though like today, or last week, when I’m thrown back into reality, and shown not only the preciousness of life, but also the fleetingness of it as well. Life is a vapor. A precious vapor. We must not put off what we should do today, tomorrow. Tomorrow may never come. It didn’t for these California victims. Or those in Pittsburgh. Those in Las Vegas. Those in Orlando.

It is easy in times like these to grow numb to these senseless acts of violence. To see the news and then move on throughout our day. We MUST NOT do this! We must respond as ambassadors of Christ, not in fear, but in bold humility, holding our lives out to God, and saying “Take me and use me. Until my time is up, I will use every minute of every day with intentionality for your glory and for your Kingdom.”

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