The Power of Your Story
We all have a story. And sometimes the way we learn how to hear the voice of God is through the breaking down and the building up of our character. So many of us want to experience all the blessings of a life filled with the presence of God, but we don’t want to go through the fire to become the people we need to become in order to really appreciate that presence.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” My point in writing to you is to help you to understand how God speaks and what the condition of your heart has to be in, in order for you to hear him. There’s not an easy way to get around it, God has to build your story so you’ll be in a position to listen.
My story is like so many of your stories. I began life full of hope and anticipation for what lies ahead. Big dreams led me into the work and relationships that I thought were going to sustain me throughout my life.
My wife and I met in college and we shared a passion for people. Early on, we decided that we wanted to work with teenagers and college students and so we set out to do just that. My choice of occupation was within church settings where I could build relationships with teens and create environments where they could come to know and experience God. So my first couple of jobs straight out of college were within churches as a Youth Pastor.
Ignorantly, I walked into these jobs thinking that I was God’s gift to the churches I was serving in, knowledgeable about student ministry and how to most effectively reach them on their turf. It didn’t take long to get chewed up and spit out by the political machine that often exists in the church and we were left in our mid-twenties stranded in a city we didn’t know anything about with broken dreams and bitter hearts towards God, towards churches, and towards anything having to do with the religious establishment.
As a young man who grew up in the environment of Christian circles, I was very fluent in the language of Christianity, but I didn’t yet know that it was God’s plan to get me out of the “Church Utopia” that I had grown up in so that I could learn how to actually live among people who had no connection to spirituality and definitely no desire to be connected to a religious institution.
I once heard it said that sometimes God has to get you out of the Church to teach you how to do ministry. Well, that’s exactly what happened to us.
We learned right out of the gate that the world of the church could be just as cold, if not colder, than the world outside of it. And so, God had to position us in a place where we could see better than the perspective we had been given all of our lives.
My wife and I were both unprepared for the world that we were about to enter. And I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know what we were going to have to go through in order to learn the lessons that I share with you now.
Hope In The Dark
It wasn’t long after I lost my second job at a religious institution that life handed us a difficult blow. We were now a young couple who had to figure out the next steps in our journey and so we just put our heads down and went into survival mode. Fortunately, in the middle of the uncertainty, God gave us a miracle. For months prior to me losing my job at the church, we had been trying to get pregnant. Both Rebecca and I had always dreamed of having children and we tried and tried to get pregnant, but it was difficult.
Once we started having problems conceiving, we decided to go see a fertility doctor in Nashville. It was the winter of 2001 when the doctor began running some tests on us both to determine how well we were suited to have children.
In January of 2002, the doctor had us come in to review the results of the testing and he gave us some very solemn news. Without help, we would not be able to conceive. We learned about in vitro fertilization and he told us that we were going to need to begin thinking about this kind of procedure if we wanted to get serious about starting a family.
That afternoon we went home, defeated and disappointed. I remember being with Rebecca and seeing the anquish on her face as she processed what we had just been told. A week earlier, I had just been fired from my job at the church. This was just another blow on top of an already difficult start to a new year. That night we went home to fix dinner and just tried to regroup from another disappointing day.
But then, as quickly as all this had happened, we were offered a new glimmer of hope. Something impressed upon Rebecca to just go and get a pregnancy test and take it. In an amazing turn of events, we found out that day that we were pregnant with our first child! Miraculously, God gave us hope right in the middle of our darkness.
As I sit here writing this, tears fill my eyes as I think of our 17 year old son who is now only a few months away from graduating high school!
This was only the beginning.
The next five years went by like a whirlwind. From 2002 to 2007, we went through a time of growth, struggle, and refining. Rebecca worked in the school system as a Special Education teacher and I worked on the night shift as a production technician on an automotive assembly line. I adopted a metaphor for my life that still resonates with me to this day. It was that of a clay pot, broken and tossed aside, waiting to become useful again. There is a verse in the Bible that describes us as “earthen vessels” or “jars of clay”.
2 Corinthians 4:7 says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”
This, I believe was a very solid metaphor for what we had become. All during this time I thought I knew what God wanted me to do, but I didn’t realize that there was so much more for me to learn. We grew our little family from one child to three children. My oldest son Caleb, my second son, Cole, and then my first daughter Ella were a tremendous source of joy and hope for us as we traveled through life trying to figure out how to navigate the uncertainty of the future and the living out of the calling that we had.
In the year 2007 things began to get very difficult for us as a family. I was working at the Manufacturing plant and we were pregnant with our 3rd child. The company that I worked for offered a “buyout” of $50000 and I took it! I was tired of working the night shift. Our marriage had suffered a huge blow from my mental disengagement due to the long hours I was working. We were both exhausted from the mental and physical damage that time of our life had been doing to us. I knew how to work hard, and was willing to do whatever it took to take care of my young family, but we decided during that time that our family wasn’t going to last if we didn’t make some kind of occupational change.
It was a difficult decision, but for a brief time, we knew it was the right decision. We spent six months refreshed, renewed, and hopeful about the future. We were heavily involved in our church’s youth ministry program. Rebecca was pregnant and we were ready for our little girl to arrive. Ella came in July of 2007 and we were so elated that we finally had a little girl!
Three months later, though, we began a descent into the most difficult season of our lives.
In September of 2007, we were starting to feel the financial pressure that our decision to leave the manufacturing plant had created. Rebecca was now a stay-at-home mom (full-time work in itself) and I couldn’t find a job in the area that I had wanted to pursue again (that of work in a ministry setting).
One afternoon in the Fall of 2007, Rebecca and I had been out of the house for a little while and we left a friend to babysit our little three month old girl. I got a call from Rebecca that afternoon, and she was frantic. Ella had somehow thrown up or suffocated in her sleep and she was not breathing well at all. She was on a life-flight to Vanderbilt in Nashville where they were able to resuscitate her and put her in ICU. We were incredibly scared! Our brand new baby girl spent a week in the hospital where they ran tests on her day after day. We never got any answers as to what exactly had happened, but she was let go at the end of that week and given a clean bill of health.
Gratefully we went home with our baby girl, but then things began to take a turn for the worse in our circumstances. I began looking for work and realized that we were going to be short on our finances after not being able to handle the financial load that we had accumulated for ourselves over our first ten years of marriage.
October of 2007, I took a job working for a bread company, getting up at 1:00 in the morning and working until 1 or 2:00 every afternoon running bread to and from stores around Middle Tennessee. I also took a job working at our church as a night janitor around that time. Making ends meet was the name of the game.
Things became more difficult as the Spring of 2008 came around. We began falling behind on our mortgage payments, work was sporadic, and making ends meet became more and more difficult. A glimpse of hope came in the form of a surprise pregnancy that Spring. What made it even more suprising and exciting was that we were pregnant with twins! A lifelong dream of Rebecca’s was about to come true. In the middle of all of this, we were dealing with news that had come from my parents that my mom had been diagnosed with leukemia and she was going to be starting chemotherapy treatments.
The difficulty of paying the bills, thinking about the future, and knowing that I couldn’t get home to see my mom during this time began to really take its toll. We reached a pinnacle of heartache when, at four months pregnant with our twin daughters, Rebecca went to the doctor for a routine ultrasound and we found out that our little baby girls’ hearts had stopped beating. Not only was a miscarriage about to happen, my beautiful wife would have to be induced into labor and actually deliver our stillborn twin baby girls. It was absolutely horrible.
We were devastated.
It felt like God had abandoned us. Many of our friends from whom we had gotten support from the year prior as we had been involved at the church, left us stranded with no communication or presence as we went through the darkest time of our lives. We received letters and notes, but what we really needed was our friends, not simply their condolences. Death loomed over us like a shadow as we experienced the pain of losing our babies and then slowly watched my mother wither away as the combination of chemotherapy and cancer took her to her grave in the summer of 2009.
For the first time in my life, at that point, I realized that I could not manipulate, coerce, or control the way things turn out in my life. I could make decisions, for sure. And some of those decisions were the cause of some of our pain. But much of what we experienced was out of our hands. What was going on? Was God up to something? Was He even there?
Why did it feel like every time I would look up to heaven, all I got was silence? Did God even care about my dreams? Did He care about my family? Why did He abandon us to this darkness? Was this all we had to look forward to in life?
I kept meeting people who, it seemed, had everything together in their lives. It seemed like God was working for their good and communicating blessing and goodness to them. I couldn’t understand at the time. Why was He not blessing us? Why was God not speaking to me?
Back to the Drawing Board of Faith
For most of my life, I believed that God had led us into every circumstance we had gone into. I had spoken boldly to others about the importance of having faith and trusting God in every thing. But then I began to really seriously question everything I thought I knew about God and how he spoke to us. I knew it was important to believe that God was working everything out for His glory and our good. But I didn’t realize that the story He was building for us and through us was the means by which our faith would be tested and forced to grow.
If we were going to be able to hope for a better future, how was that going to have to look for us?
In order for us to ever be able to look into the future and to move towards something that looked like a stable life, we were going to have to hear from God in a way differently than we had ever heard before. He had brought us through what felt like hell and I knew in my heart that I was going to have to actually hear him speak or we weren’t going to make it. We needed to hear God speak something…anything over us, just to know that He was actually there.
And speak He did. But not how I thought He would.
And He began with one word.