Posts

Resilience

“And he will be the stability of your times…” (Isaiah 33:6).

 

Traumatic events and adverse experiences can be overwhelming. Too many, too early, without proper support lead to statistically more health concerns into adulthood.1 However, overcoming some adversity in life is actually beneficial.2

Our geography, from the Beltway to the Beach and from the Bay to Brazoria County, has not been immune to tragedy. From hurricanes to flooding, from school shootings to stay-at-home orders, our region has been hit especially hard.

Resilience, therefore, is crucial for our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Resilience is the capacity to recover from difficulty, the ability to successfully cope with a crisis, or (in engineering terms) the ability to absorb stress without suffering complete failure.

But resilience is impossible to develop or demonstrate without adversity. Fortunately, Jesus has assured us that we will experience trouble in this world (John 16:33). Paul and his companions were “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). For this reason, we are able to embrace moderate challenges. Refrain from avoiding all conflict yourself and coach loved ones through rather than around difficulties.

 

Walk With Others

How do we develop this perfect blend of firmness, resolve, and pliability that enables us to walk through difficulties and come out on the other side?

First, your history of connectedness is a better predictor of your health than your history of adversity.3

Aspens and redwoods are ancient trees that support one another with complex, interconnected root systems. Through these underlying connections, they share nutrients, reinforce stability, and strengthen one another to withstand adversity. No one is born resilient. We learn behavior from those we interact with regularly.

The compartmentalization of our culture has resulted in material wealth, but with poverty of social and emotional relationships. The fewer opportunities we have to interact with others, practice self-regulation, and overcome minor disappointments can impair our relational capacity.

Remember, resilience doesn’t develop without stress, and dealing with people can be stressful. Learning to balance our needs with others and experiencing both joyful surprises and unmet expectations in healthy relationships is key.

How “connected” are you to your family of faith?

Healthy relationships serve as buffers to adversity by creating bonds of trust and empathy.

At Clear Creek, serving consistently with a team of volunteers or joining a small group are significant steps that increase the intimacy with which you know, and are known by, others. This is how we grow our roots together to better weather the storms of life.

 

Walk With Hope

Another important aspect of resilience is hope (see Romans 5:2-5, 15:4). Hope gives us the ability to endure much more than we can imagine.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent time in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz during World War II. He lost his father, mother, and wife in the concentration camps. In his biography Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl documented poignantly that those prisoners of war who found purpose and meaning survived, while those who lost hope of ever escaping the imprisonment perished.

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

– Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Paul relied on the hope of the cross and faithful companions when he experienced numerous trials on his missionary journey throughout Asia Minor. He believed the pains of this world were “a light momentary affliction…preparing for us an eternal weight of glory,” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Before advising the Romans to be patient in tribulation, he encouraged them to rejoice in hope, (Romans 12:12).

Resilience is the ability to bend but not break; the capacity to overcome life’s challenges. You don’t earn the resiliency badge without having experienced some difficulty.

Remain steadfast in the hope God provides and connect with others who are on this same journey with you.

 

“When I fall, I shall rise; When I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me,” (Micah 7:8).

 

  1. ACES
  2. 2010 Study
  3. Bruce Perry https://www.neurosequential.com

 

A Fruitful Life

Imagine buying a beautiful new house with a gorgeous backyard. In the back corner of the yard there’s this healthy, lush tree. The real estate agent told you it’s an orange tree.

A few months go by, and all of a sudden, you start to see some little buds forming on the branches. And every day you look out and see more growth. And you see some little green fruits growing, and you say, “Oh look at those little baby oranges out there!”

“But, aren’t oranges supposed to be… orange?” your spouse says.

And you say, “Well, duh. But these are baby oranges. They’ll be orange eventually.”

More time passes, and more still, and there remains to be nothing but green fruit on the tree. Finally, you’re fed up. You storm out the back door, grab a fruit from the tree, take it inside, and slice it open only to discover… it’s a lime.

In the book of Galatians, Paul wrote to one of the first Christian churches about what to do after you become a Christian and used fruit to explain the markers of a life of faith compared to that of a life of sin.

“Now the works of the flesh [or selfishness] are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

– Galatians 5:19-21

Paul is listing these things to prove a point: these are the markers – the byproducts – of sin and selfishness. If you live a selfish life, these are the types of things you’re going to have to show for it. Maybe (okay, probably) for you it wouldn’t be sorcery, but Paul added in that little dig at the end: “and things like these.” Do you see what all of these markers have in common? They’re all about us.

I want to feel good.

I want to have fun.

I want to be in control.

I want to be right.

I want people to like me.

I want…

Paul warns us that these kinds of people aren’t going to inherit in the kingdom of God. They aren’t following the King. They aren’t going to go to heaven.

That might make you feel unsettled to read.

And you know why we feel like that? Because we all know that we’re those people. We’ve all had those kinds of thoughts, and done those kinds of things.

Fortunately, the story’s not over. Paul keeps going.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

– Galatians 5:22-23

Those are way better than the last list, right? And who wouldn’t want them? This is the fruit –the markers – of a life devoted to Jesus, the King. They aren’t forced, they just come out of us, like fruit from a tree.

Remember the lime tree?

We can call ourselves whatever we want to call ourselves, but who we really are is shown by the fruit we’re producing. We can say we’re a Christian and that we follow Jesus, but if everything in our life – the fruit of our branches – doesn’t reflect what we say, then does it matter what we call ourselves?

See, our situation isn’t really like the story I told before. This isn’t a simple matter of limes versus oranges. For us, this is a matter of flourishing life and fetid death.

Dead trees often still stand tall. They might even continue to resemble some of the trees around them. But they’re no longer growing. They’re no longer living.

When we become a Christian, we are set free from a destructive life that selfishness and sin cause, and we are brought back to life.

“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh [their selfishness] with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit”

– Galatians 5:24-25

When Christ died on the Cross for us, he took all of our sin with him. He paid for it all – everything we have done and will do – right there. He killed the power that sin and selfishness had over us. If you believe that, you’re no longer a withering tree. You’re alive.

And through Jesus, we are not only alive, but now live with the Holy Spirit’s power in us.

What Paul is saying is that if that same power that brought us back from the dead is available to us as we live, to not only keep us alive, but help us flourish, then we must do everything we can to stay connected to it.

But, how exactly do we do that?

Think about the way plants grow and thrive. They’re designed to funnel water toward them. They have intricate root systems to absorb nutrients from the ground. And some plants actually turn their leaves toward the sun.

If we want to follow Jesus and thrive, then we, like plants, have to be nourished with the right things.

We have to design our lives to funnel in the water. That means organizing our schedules to have time to do things like attend church and small group (physically or online).

We have to grow intricate root systems. That means we have to have a community of support – friends and family that will point us in the right direction and help us prune away our hurts and hang-ups.

And we need to lean toward the sunlight. That means we need to spend time reading the Bible and learning, and thinking deeply about the words on the pages and how they apply to us.

These aren’t things that save us or help us earn anything from God, but they are things that help us grow.

My prayer is that as a church, we will not only be Christians in name, but instead, be people who are truly made alive in Jesus, experiencing a deep, rich, and blossoming life through the Holy Spirit. May we all bring God glory, serve him, and help bring other people back from the dead, too.

“Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him… and with him everything else thrown in.”

– C.S. Lewis


 

Wash the Inside

Christians care a lot about behavior.

Usually, it’s with good intentions. We want to “do the right thing,” we want to “honor God,” and “not sin.” But why are our efforts oftentimes externally focused? We want to wash up the outside without worrying about the inside. Is this because it seems easier to us – a prescription we can easily follow without having to do any real work on our hearts?

A Pharisee, known for adherence to behavioral expectations, was astonished when Jesus did not follow the customary practice of washing himself before their meal. But Jesus responded with his own exhortation:

“Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.”

– Luke 11:37-41

The problem with this “outside” approach is that it’s not very effective. How crazy would it be to take a dingy cup and wash only the outside, then drink from the dirty inside?

And yet, this is what we do!

When struggling with a pattern of behavior, a deeply ingrained habit, a sin struggle, we tell ourselves to just stop it. Does that ever work? As a counselor and a small group leader, I’ve seen this approach (and its failure) many times over the years. People think, “I need to just stop it!” But before they know it, they are back to the habit. I have done this myself, hoping to address the outside instead of washing the inside, and finding defeat. People scrub the outside of the dish over and over again, only to continue drinking from the dirty inside.

But, there is another serious problem with trying to clean only the outside: this approach is not biblical; it is not what God calls us to do. In fact, Jesus called out the Pharisees for this “outer only” technique. The Pharisees were all about cleaning the outside. They were big on religious rituals and ceremonial cleanliness and rule-following. They loved appearances, they loved praise from men, and from the outside they looked great. But, they thought their outer washing outweighed what was going on in their hearts. They thought that by putting on a good front, they were excused to think and feel whatever they wanted.

In the passage from Luke above, when Jesus says “give as alms those things that are within,” he means for the Pharisees, as well as us, to give offerings from the heart. An alm is an old-school term that usually refers to something material like food or money, given to the poor. But in this instance, Jesus speaks of the gifts that come from within: goodwill, love, grace, and pure motivations and thoughts. Everything we have to offer on the inside make that gift worthy to God before it comes out. Instead of focusing on the outside and what everyone else sees, God asks us to look within first.

This is the secret behind real and lasting change. With God at the helm, we clean the inside of the dish (our hearts and minds) surrendering it to him, and then the outside (our actions and words) follows.

A little over a decade ago, I was trying to address my sin struggles and really surrender my life to Jesus. I was angry, hurting, and hopeless, but a turning point came when I heard a sermon reminding me I was a new creation in Christ.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

– 2 Corinthians 5:17

When we accept Christ as our sacrifice and savior and receive salvation in him, a monumental change happens within us. We truly become different – no longer under the dominion of sin. That fateful sermon was the first of many times I found myself crying as I realized my new identity, because the truth of God’s word was coming alive in my heart. In other words, I believed – I believed in Jesus and who I am as a result – and my heart began to change.

It starts with repentance.

Bring the inside of your dirty dish to him. Believe in his goodness and his forgiveness, and the result will be obedience. Your dish will be clean on the outside. This process of repenting and believing should never end, throughout your lives. When our lives are about repenting and believing, this is when what we do becomes something more.

It becomes redemption.


 

From One White Christian to Another

As I watched the public response unfold after George Floyd’s death on May 25, much of the controversy around the conversation of race and justice seemed distant. The vitriol was coming from politicians and media figures far away. The absurd headlines and offensive memes were being shared by people in other places, with a few exceptions. The hatefulness and ignorance were coming from other communities.

It turns out, I was ignorant too.

When local citizens organized a peaceful protest march in my neighborhood, I was shocked by the hatefulness shared by some in our community. It weighed on me. So I did the only thing I knew to do: pray.

I used social media and Nextdoor to invite others to join me in prayer at our neighborhood park six hours before the protest march. I was shocked again when some in our church and others in our community made assumptions and accusations about my invitation to pray.

It wasn’t all bad news, though. Just over 100 people gathered to pray that morning. I have seen countless posts and news stories showing unity and encouragement in the past couple of weeks, and there is a groundswell of support for reconciliation, healing, and justice.

However, my experience with the invitation to prayer has opened my eyes to a larger rift than I knew existed. I am cautious to wade into the broader conversation because I’m a white man, who has lived most of my life in a predominately white community. My family is white, my closest friends are white, and my life experience is white. But the most important truth about who I am has nothing to do with those things.

I am a follower of Jesus Christ. He is my king. His teachings and his way of life are my mission.

So, as a white Christian writing to other white Christians, here are three things I would like to share.

 

We have an opportunity

We can’t fully understand the hurt our black brothers and sisters are experiencing, but we can listen with humility and openness. The sad truth is, statistically, we aren’t great at this part. The Barna Group, an evangelical Christian research organization, published an article based on their findings that is worth reading. Barna VP of research Brooke Hempell says, “More than any other segment of the population, white evangelical Christians demonstrate a blindness to the struggle of their African American brothers and sisters.”

Wait…what?!? I don’t want that to be true of me. Do you want that to be true of you? Unfortunately, it is true of us.

But, do we want it to continue?

The first step we must take is to lean in and listen intently. What does that look like? It means seeking out conversations with black people in our lives. It might also mean reading things we wouldn’t normally seek out, or watching documentaries that make us uncomfortable, or exposing ourselves to things we disagree with or that offend us. This will take time and we should expect to be uncomfortable for a season, not an afternoon. Listening and learning will help us know how to take the next step.

We have an opportunity in this season to listen. To listen is to love, and love is what will change the world. Love has already changed each of us. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16a).

 

Race and reconciliation are not either/or issues

A false dichotomy exists in today’s either/or narrative and it should stop with us. We cannot participate in, or perpetuate, the division portrayed in the news media and on social media. There is more nuance to these issues than a meme can communicate. And nuance requires patience, thoughtfulness, and respectful conversation.

If we are going to listen in love, then we should be quiet long enough to understand all that is being said.

An easy example is to consider the difference between “black lives matter” and Black Lives Matter. One is a humanitarian statement defending the value of life, the other is a political organization with a specific agenda. Every Christian should fully endorse the statement “black lives matter,” but most Christians will find it difficult to support the full agenda of the Black Lives Matter political organization (e.g. the legalization of prostitution).

The conversation about race and reconciliation has become politicized and polarized, and we have been led to believe that there are only two sides to choose from. This is not true. These issues are multi-faceted.

Refusing to accept this false dichotomy should cause us to listen intently without assuming we understand all that is being said. It will also free us up to evaluate each facet of the conversation biblically.

This will help us as we consider the differences between protesting and rioting, police brutality and #backtheblue, inequality and privilege, and a hundred other parts of the conversation.

We must rise above the polarization and politics. The stakes are too high. We must embrace reconciliation as a both/and issue – as a gospel issue.

 

We must do something now

Jesus summed up God’s expectations for all of his people by teaching that the two most important things we must do with our lives are to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40). When asked to define what a neighbor is, Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan – a story that shows everyone is our neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus took special care to break down the division of race for his followers.

White Christians, we must love our neighbors who are a different race from us. We must love in active, sacrificial, and uncomfortable ways. We must love humbly like our Savior loves (Philippians 2:5-8).

After listening and learning, we must engage the issues. We cannot sit on the sidelines! But we have to engage the issues like Jesus would. How did Jesus engage the world around him? He loved the broken and the hurting. He befriended the zealot. He washed the feet of his betrayer. Jesus forgave his executioners. He touched the leper. He wept with the grieving. He loved without pretense, prejudice, or politics. These examples show us that Jesus put the person above the problem.

 

What if you made it your mission to love like Jesus did?

What if white Christians across our community went all-in on this type of Jesus movement?

What if God used us to be part of the peace, healing, unity, and justice so badly needed?

What if God used you?

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

– 1 John 3:16-18

Want to listen and learn? There are a lot of resource lists available online. Check them out. I don’t think you can go wrong. Don’t know where to start? I like www.bethebridge.com


 

 

Carried by God

When my daughter was young, I would often carry her in a baby wrap, snug and warm and safe. She would calm almost instantly as I pressed her close to myself. My slow and steady movements would lull her to sleep with the assurance that she was safe in my embrace.

But no child remains an infant forever. My oldest daughter is too grown up to let me carry her any longer, wanting instead to prove her capability. She insists on independence, often telling me, “I know what I’m doing, Mom.”

As you might guess, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I also often resist the help of others. I like to be in control, and being helped often means losing some control. This attitude especially emerges in times of stress and uncertainty.

This season of COVID-19 is rife with fear, worry, and anxiety for many of us. Grappling for control over each new situation, I have caught myself slipping into old mindsets that take me away from reliance on the Lord. Our resistance to receive help may seem harmless, initially, but it always attacks our relationships with God first. When we rely on ourselves too much, we fail to rely on him. If this continues, we miss out on the source of peace and comfort we need most in times of uncertainty.

Most children eventually outgrow their need for their earthly parents, but we never outgrow our need for God.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see God shepherding the nation of Israel, his chosen people. As the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land after wandering the desert for forty years, Moses recounted the mistakes of the previous generation. God had brought them to the land he had provided, commanding them to take it without fear of the enemies who lived there.

Then I said to you, ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’

Deuteronomy 1:29-31

The Israelites had seen the mighty works of God: their deliverance from Pharaoh’s slavery, the parting of the Red Sea, and his provision of manna in the desert, among other things. Moses reminded them that God carried them all the way, providing every need while they walked through the unknown, as a good Father should. But despite all they had seen, their despair over their circumstances was greater than their faith in their Father’s care. Convinced that the difficulty was just too much, that generation missed out on entering the land God had promised them. And we are just as susceptible to reliance on ourselves.

Like an infant, I become restless in uncertainty. Eyes blinded by fear. Mind clouded by a lack of understanding. Hands clenched onto any control I can grasp. Convinced of my own competence and oblivious to my need for the Father who carries me.

We’re all walking through many unknowns right now. And though we may desire to trust God, we often resist his help and rely on our own competence. When we catch ourselves falling into that mindset, let’s turn back toward God.

Even in times of great difficulty, we can trust our Good Father.

He is always near, fighting for us in our most desperate situations and carrying us through seasons of fear and uncertainty. The Israelites lived with God’s presence among them yet did not truly see him for what he was. Because of Christ’s work on our behalf, we can walk in the light of his love, set free from sin’s power and relying on his rescue.

Let’s relinquish some of our self-reliance and control. Holding the circumstances of our lives with an open hand, instead of a tight grip, enables us to relax into God’s capable arms. And when we allow ourselves to be carried by God, our eyes will be opened to the work he is doing.

Exchange your self-reliance for faith in our ever-reliable God—the only one fully capable of handling our burdens. When we lean in, our good Father presses us closer to himself.

He will carry us all the way.


 

Studying the Bible

As a 19-year-old, I moved miles away from my parents’ faith-filled home into my very own Ikea furniture-filled apartment.

Relying on my own beliefs for the first time proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated. My faith, which once felt simple and clear, grew murky against the backdrop of popular quotes from sermons circulating the internet and common but unbiblical phrases like, “God helps those who help themselves,” or “He won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”

My confusion and uncertainty in why I believed what I believed sent me on a mission to find out for myself exactly what my Bible said. Along the way, I learned how to study the Bible in three steps: observation, interpretation, and application.

 

Observation–What does this say?

Growing up in the Church meant that I had heard a lot of Bible stories throughout my childhood. I was familiar with Biblical characters (who were usually painted as heroes that taught some kind of moral lesson) and general concepts, but I had a false confidence that I knew more about the Bible than I actually did.

When I started taking the time to observe the text, it forced me to ask questions beyond the words on a page.

Why would he say it that way? This story reminds me of that story, is there some kind of connection between them? What’s up with these pharisees and why are they hating on Jesus so much?

The more questions I asked, the more intrigued I became with the text. The more intrigued I became, the more questions I would ask. It was an endless cycle that felt more like an adventure than a box to check on my to-do list of spiritual disciplines.

In learning to observe text, I grew confident that asking questions wasn’t a symptom of doubt like I had grown up believing. It wasn’t an indication of a weak or small faith, either. Inquisition was an essential tool to grow and sharpen it; it was the first step to standing firmly on my own faith and knowing exactly why I could rely on its foundation.

 

Interpretation–What does this mean?

Doing the hard work of interpretation showed me that I had a strong tendency to make the Bible about me.

I had a propensity to approach Scripture with egocentric expectations. I wanted immediate solutions to my problems, direction for my life, and to know how significant was to God.

Before I knew better, I thought the Bible could mean one thing to me, another thing to you, and we could both have our cake and eat it, too.

What I didn’t know then is that the Bible isn’t actually about either of us. The Bible is a book about God written forus, not tous. Interpreting the Bible means uncovering the author’s intended meaning for his original audience. That meaning is objective, not subjective, so it will be equally true for those original hearers as it is for us today.

Interpretation is hard work. But I’ve found it gets a lot easier when I remove myself from a throne on which I do not belong and demand my self-esteem be spoken to. When I approach Scripture in worship with a bowed head and bent knee, I’m far more inclined to let God teach me through a text than to manipulate it to say something I want to hear.

 

Application–Why does it matter?

Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

I’ve found the accuracy of that verse to be most palpable when tasked with applying the truth of the Bible to my own life. The same verse that comforts a hurting friend convicts me. The same passage I studied last year, challenges me in a new way this year.

Applying the Bible to my life is a protection that prevents me from only engaging with the Bible intellectually. To examine my heart and my life in raw honesty before God and welcome his conviction is to cooperate in my sanctification.

 

Studying the Bible takes time. In the midst of a global pandemic, most of us have a lot more than usual. As we search Scripture for answers and hope in the face of uncertainty, we can find the satisfaction and peace our souls long for when we learn to handle the Word rightly.

It’s true: there are certainly no shortcuts when it comes to learning about the God of the universe. But when we try – when we commit to growing in our knowledge of God – we’ll find there’s also no pursuit more worthy.

My prayer as we engage with God through his word, is that we would pursue him with all of our hearts, souls, and minds.

As you begin your journey to gain a better understanding of the Bible, you may find these resources helpful:

BlueLetterBible.org

BibleProject.com

BestCommentaries.com

The ESV Study Bible

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee

God’s Big Picture, Vaughn Roberts

Women of the Word, Jen Wilkin

Clear Creek Classes

Who to Trust

I remember the way I felt some years ago, the first time I watched our teenage son drive away on his own. Part of me was jumping for joy at getting out of the transportation business, but part of me wanted to scream, “I’m sorry world! Everyone look out!” It was a clarifying moment because as I watched him drive away I realized I had zero control of how he was going to do as a driver. Maybe even worse was the realization that I would still be responsible for how well he drove because I was paying for the auto insurance. It was a helpless feeling. The butterflies in my stomach were fluttering because I knew I had to give up control and I had to trust.

But, who to trust?

Trust Josh or trust God?

It didn’t take me long to figure out that if I was going to trust Josh, which I had no real choice but to do, I had to first and foremost trust God. That’s the way life always has to work, if it is going to work. We live our lives with people. All day, every day. And so, our trust in God is inescapably reflected in how we relate to the people around us. If we are not very careful to trust God first then our only option is to pin our hopes on other people, and the only way we can get other people to do what we (think we) need them to do is to control them. Running around trying to control others is a bad way to live.

The need to control is a one-way road with two lanes. One lane is filled with fear, the other is filled with selfishness. I’m going to control people to keep them from taking something from me I am afraid to lose. Or, I am going to control people to try and get what I want from them. The lane of fear is filled with the potholes of shame and guilt that come from treating other people as threats. The lane of selfishness is riddled with the potholes of frustration and despair because people are hopelessly unreliable when it comes to satisfying your soul.

The only way to exit the one-way road of fear and selfishness is to trust God first. When you do, you release yourself from the need to depend on people or protect yourself from people, you actually free yourself to serve other people. This truth is at the heart of texts like “Blessed are the meek…” “Blessed are the pure in heart…” “Blessed are the peacemakers…” (Matthew 5:1-11). People who trust God first can be the kind of people Jesus calls leaders, “But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave…” (Matthew 20:25-27).

Jesus proclaims those who trust God first don’t have to dominate, don’t need ulterior motives, and are willing to endure some injustice to restore relationships. Jesus said people who trust God first are the kind of people who are his followers and the kind of people his followers follow.

This is always an essential truth for us, but particularly so right now, because this virus is like one of those watching your teenager drive away moments. It’s a flashing traffic light telling you “you are NOT in control!”

You are not in control of the measures government agencies and employers take to control the spread. You’re not in control of how responsible the people who pick and deliver your groceries are. You’re not in control of the people who bought up every roll of toilet paper in the universe.

I know you know all that.

But, whether you trust God first or trust people first is determining how you respond to it all.

If you are first depending on people to protect your job, your health, your savings, your vacation plans then you should be afraid. You need those people to protect what is most important to you. If you are depending first on people to address the specific impacts on your first, the way you want them to, you are going to be frustrated to the point of despair.

It isn’t that those things don’t matter. And, it is true that all of us have endured some degree of loss. For many it’s been mostly inconvenience, but for some it has been truly catastrophic. The question is, who are you looking to for restoration? Who do you believe knows what is in everyone’s best interest and has the power to bring it about? Whose goodness will allow your heart to rest enough that you can humbly obey those who administer our government and our employment? Whose power and presence can sustain you through grief and financial strain?

God first, or people first?

Who will present themselves as a servant to their neighbor? Who will rejoice in and redeem unprecedented time to be present with spouse and children? Who will regularly offer prayer for healing, wisdom, relief? The one who trusts God first, or people first?

I’ve been trying to figure out what my actions and emotions in response to the virus and its affects are teaching me about who I trust first. I’m trying to capture the moments of frustration and self-pity and figure out why I expect some other person to provide what no person can provide for me. Then figure out how I should respond that those people differently when I get my trusts in order.

I want to refuse to be gripped by fear, selfishness, or COVID-19 angst. I refuse to be a victim or a wet rag waiting for the next negative shoe to drop. I want God to make me pure in heart, to use me to be a peacemaker, to be someone Jesus would call a leader.

If nothing else, I know this much: I need to trust God first.


 

(Mom) Guilt and the Gospel

It started a few weeks after my oldest son was born.

I had dreamed of being a mom. Read all the books. Attended the classes. Developed and implemented a plan experts guaranteed would have my child sleeping on a schedule and through the night by six weeks old.

Except it didn’t work.

I was a wreck. I wasn’t even three months into this mom gig, and already I had failed my child in some significant way. I was experiencing my first bout of mom guilt.

I have a feeling most moms can share their own stories of times they felt they were not up to the task of motherhood, that somehow, they too failed their children. It’s almost universal. Studies say more than 90 percent of mothers experience this unique kind of distress, and 75 percent of parents as a whole feel pressure to be “perfect” for their children. Did you read that? Perfect. No wonder we feel guilty. Perfect is a pretty high standard.

For moms who are followers of Christ, what are we to do with mom guilt?  Actually, let’s first ask the question: what are Christians to do with guilt period?

2 Corinthians 7:10 says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas world grief produces death.” Said another way, our grief before salvation leads us to repent and accept Jesus’ gift of grace on our behalf. Once we’ve become followers of Jesus, Christians shouldn’t feel guilt. Conviction of the Spirit for sin? Yes! But guilt? No. The penalty for our sin has been paid by Jesus.

Bryan Chapell expands on this truth in his book, Holiness by Grace:

Remorse prior to approaching the cross is of God, but after true repentance beneath the cross such self-reproach is of Satan. Our Adversary wants us to believe that Christ’s blood is not sufficient to cleanse confessed sin. We become susceptible to his lie when we begin to doubt the power of the cross full to cancel our guilt, for then we will begin to live (and fall) in the strength of our own efforts.

If you listened to the Clear Creek Resources podcast episode Rachel Chester, Mandy Turner, and I did on mom guilt, we made the distinction between good and bad guilt. Good guilt is better called conviction. It’s one of the roles the Holy Spirit plays in the life of the Christian. It is a mark of true belief (see John 16:8). As followers of Jesus we should be broken over sin. As believing moms we should repent when we sin against our children. Certainly this happens: angry words, rash discipline, selfish motives. These are clearly times we should ask for forgiveness from the Lord and our children.

However, far too often we experience anguish and shame when no sin was involved. This is because somewhere along the way we exchanged the idea of what we might do to be a good mom with what we must do to be a good mom. I experienced mom guilt when I didn’t plan the perfect birthday party, or couldn’t have lunch at school with my boys because of work, or a thousand other things that made me feel like a bad mom. But, I had turned mommy possibilities into mommy imperatives. This is bad guilt.

Sometimes mom guilt has nothing to do with our actions. We may feel guilty because our child made a poor choice and is experiencing a natural consequence like the loss of a friendship. That is enough to send some into the mom guilt spiral of self-doubt, heartache, and despair. And you should know, this also is bad guilt.

Mom guilt is bad guilt.

We need a gospel pathway to walk in order to deal with it.

In my opening story about how I couldn’t get my son to sleep, my friend Amanda heard about my despair. She called and gave me words of grace. Gratefully, over the years, many other women have shepherded my heart similarly in other times of mom guilt. I want to leave you with four steps that have helped me get back on track, and I hope, might help you as well:

1. Remove the standard of perfection.
Get rid of the burden you’ve placed on yourself from wherever it may have arisen (e.g., family of origin, social media, friends). Realize there is one who has been perfect for you (2 Cor. 5:21). Like Paul, we certainly all have weaknesses. And if the apostle, who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament, can claim that because of his weaknesses he can rest in Jesus, certainly we should as well (2 Cor. 12: 9-10).

2. Fix your eyes on Jesus.
I think my mom guilt has often surfaced when my focus has been too much on me. Jesus frees me from needing to constantly evaluate myself against my “perfect mom” standard. Instead of my feeling being anchored to my accomplishments which fluctuate daily (sometimes I’m happy at the day’s end, and other times I’m discouraged), my affections are bound up in Jesus who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). His love for me is steadfast (Rom. 8:38-39) because of what he accomplished for me 2,000 years ago.

3. Call out to God.
Let’s be real. Being a mom is hard. Really hard. Go to Jesus in prayer when you feel the waves of self-doubt and despair begin to wash over you (Heb. 4:16). Don’t skip this! Prayer is one of the most effective ways to combat mom guilt.

4. Be involved in community.
Every mom needs two (or, maybe ten?) Amandas in her life. You need women who can speak gospel truths to your heart. You need friends who will not tell you what you want to hear but need to hear. This is authentic community. It is where can know and be known. It is where you can be vulnerable and find encouragement that you are not alone in your dealings with mom guilt…or any other endeavor (Heb. 10:24-25).


 

It’s Viral

Kay and I, like many other people, have been taking a lot of walks the last few weeks. It’s been fun and it’s been a bit strange because there are times when so many people are strolling it almost looks like a parade. Everyone walking in the street – keeping a polite distance – walking along with their dogs, children, bikes, and wagons. It’s hard not to think the world would be a better place if evening walks in the neighborhood became our collective norm.

Still, there is something unsatisfying about it.

The parade has the appearance of being quaint and beneficial, until you look closely enough to see what’s really going on. If you stop and just watch the “parade” through the neighborhood you notice people are together, but separate. They can get close to each other, but not too close. Some are obviously afraid of everyone and some groups are brazen in their disregard for the whole “distancing” idea.

I want to remember the picture because it so aptly illustrates what sin does.

Think about it. Like a virus, sin is unseen. It is present all around you, and even in you, and it makes you sick and it makes the people you interact with sick.

Sin is the greatest producer of “social distancing” in the history of people. Sin separates us from one another. Sin is like the unseen virus that produces conversations without hugs, presence without intimacy. Sin is the unseen virus that keeps some people bound in fear of others while some people flaunt their indifference to how they might injure other people. Sin is the virus that makes us mistrust the person approaching us, and even mistrust ourselves. So we keep safe space, we keep secrets, we erect defenses, we chase urban myths seeking cures and comforts.

Maybe the best thing that could come out of the unprecedented response to a physical virus would be if each of us would take some strong action against our spiritual virus, sin. Instead of using the current circumstances as an excuse to look outwardly and act against a physical threat, now would be a great time to look intently inward and deal with a more dangerous threat.

Here is a really good place to look for the virus: if in the midst of spending more time at home you find yourself getting irritable and impatient with your spouse, why is that? Why is it that the person you joyfully became one with is now somehow an inconvenience? What is it that is more important to you than they are? Or, what have you been thinking and doing over the years of your marriage to give your spouse reason to mistrust you or protect themselves from how you respond to life?

If there is tension between the two of you, you can “social distance,” or you can wear masks to cover up and protect what you’ve chosen to love more. You can make your focus the harm you fear they might cause you. You can prioritize your work and personal space and just adapt to the tension. That is what is happening in some hearts and homes in the midst of this forced presence at home. And so, like the evening parade in the neighborhood it looks kind of cool, until you look closely. But if you stop and watch you notice the masks, the fear, and the mistrust.

The better response would be to kill the virus that is living in you and making you the center of your own little universe. The better response would be to hold your heart and its desires up to the truth of Scripture and face up to the ways you choose to serve you, over and against choosing to practically love and serve the person you married. The better response would be to use this unprecedented opportunity to trust God in the simplest, most mundane interactions in your home to serve your spouse. You aren’t going to fix everything in a week, but you can change the trajectory of your marriage starting today, starting with you. As a beginning how about picking just one short verse of Scripture and commit to living it out at home, something like:

 

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:3-4

 

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 

Ephesians 4:29

 

But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Colossians 3:8

 

You pick a verse that will attack the worst symptom of the virus in you. You probably already have one ringing in your ears. If so, do that one.

This strange sort of national “time out” period could be the best thing that ever happened to you, your spouse, your family. But only if you look inside and only if you have the faith and courage to ask God to forgive you, heal you, remake you in his image. God will do that if you let him. He has the power and the will to kill the virus in you.

I hope and pray you will respond to the spiritual virus that’s in you with more energy and enthusiasm than the world is responding to a physical virus.


 

The Power of Presence

Our world is beautiful but broken, filled with both joy and suffering. When people we love are in the midst of this suffering, we desperately want to figure out how to help. How can we step into the dark moments with love? What can we do? How can we help? Our inability to fix suffering can lead us to feel helpless, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best answer: show up.  

 

Your presence is often the most powerful gift you can offer to someone in pain.  

 

Where is God in the midst of all the evil and darkness of our world? He is here. He is Emmanuel, God with us, and this transforms everything. Even in the most difficult times in our life, the presence of God with us sustains and comforts. Theological arguments on the why of suffering or scriptural truth on the value of suffering are important, but intellectual discussions are rarely helpful in moments of suffering or discomfort. These moments require relationship. We are created in the image of an eternally relational God—we are designed for relationshipwith God and with each other. Through Jesus we are able to experience the blessing of God’s presence, whose love transforms everything. In the same way, when we are present with each other in suffering, we are able to love each other as Christ loves us.  

 

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

 

John 13:34 

 

When one of my children is sick or upset, as soon as I show up things are better. Just by listening to them or holding their hand, they can find peace. Usually our experiences of pain are more severe as adults, but what we need from others stays the same. Suffering requires our patient and loving presence, modeled by the God who is faithful to be present with us, always.  

 

Sitting at the hospital when a child is sick, listening to marriage difficulties of a friend, attending the funeral of our brother-in-Christ—these tangible moments of presence can encourage and strengthen others in their pain. Showing up in this way takes time, sacrifice, and the vulnerability of deep connection, but it is worth it. Our presence does not fix the pain and suffering in this world, but it can be powerful. When we look back on tough times in our lives, we remember who was there with us—who stepped in and in doing so brought light into dark places.  

 

It can be difficult to remember in the midst of suffering, but one day our King will return to wipe away every tear and make all things new. The biblical narrative culminates in a world with no more suffering, in which we are finally in the continuous and perfect presence of God, who drives out darkness completely, eternally.  

 

His presence changes everything. 

 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…. I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…and I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.

 

Revelation 21:1-5 

 

The greatest gift God gives to us is himself. To be in his presence is to know peace and relationship and rest. Another great gift God gives to us is our family in Christ, embodying the gospel of salvation to each otherThe presence of our brothers and sisters demonstrates the power of compassion and reminds us of God’s faithful love.

 

As the family of God, we can bring the light of God into the dark places until they are transformed into something new 

Podcasts

042: 272 Days in Space – The Drew & Stacey Morgan Story

What’s it like to travel 115.3 million miles at 17,000 mph orbiting the earth? What’s it like to watch a tiny white light move across the sky and know your husband is on that light? On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen talks with Drew and Stacey Morgan about his nine-month stay on the International Space Station. They discuss the life of an astronaut, the view from space, what God taught their family, and the importance of community. And Drew tells us what he really thinks about the freeze-dried astronaut ice cream in the Space Center Houston gift shop.

RESOURCES:

NASA TV Broadcast of the April 17 Landing

Drew’s View from Space

Interested in Small Group?

038: Children/Teen Mental Health and the Gospel

On this episode Rachel Chester talks with Lindsey Lehtinen, a licensed therapist, about the unique struggles that children and teens go through and how the gospel applies to them. They also discuss how parents can disciple their children in this season.

RESOURCES:

Care & Support Ministry

Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF)

 

036: Mom Guilt

While many things are different right now, one thing that is not new is the reality of mom guilt. In fact, many moms feel the pressure of not doing enough or being enough even more in this season.  On this episode, Rachel Chester talks with Jennefer Arrington and Mandy Turner about what mom guilt is, where it comes from, and how we can encourage each other to find freedom and rest from it.

 

RESOURCES

Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full: Gospel Meditations for Busy Moms

“The Difference Between Guilt and Shame” (article)

“The Gift of Mom Guilt” (article)

“(Mom) Guilt and the Gospel” by Jennifer Arrington

 

035: The Blessings and Dangers of Technology When Everything Goes Online

People have been forced to connect using technology now more than ever. Overnight, what could only be experienced “offline” had to be moved “online”—engaging in the life of the church, connecting with friends and family, and going to work or school. Everything is online now, at least temporarily. On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen talks with Aaron Lutz and Lance Lawson about how the technology that makes this possible is a blessing, but it’s limitations and dangers still exist. They also discuss what they hope to learn personally and as a church from this season.

RESOURCES:

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer

Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble

“Normal Again, Thanks to COVID-19” (Article)

 

033: Loving Your Neighbor During a Stay-at-Home Order

Driven by the desire to love their neighbors with the love they’ve received in the gospel, many people are asking how they can serve the community during this season. Obviously, the answer to question isn’t so straight forward during a stay-at-home order. On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen talks with Chris and Amy Alston about ways people are loving their neighbors already and how you can too.

RESOURCES:

Clearcreek.org/covid19

031: How to Have Real Community in a Digital World

Our community has been ordered to shelter at home and engage in social distancing. As a church, we have suspended all in-person gatherings until further notice. But, does that mean you have to miss out on real relationships? On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen talks with Karl Garcia and Jon Crump about how to have real community in a digital world.

RESOURCES:

Video Conferencing Tools: Skype, Zoom, Teams, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Duo,

Virtual Group Best Practices

Wanting to join a group?

026: Following Christ as a NASA Flight Surgeon – An Interview with Rick Scheuring

As a child Rick Scheuring had dreams of becoming a doctor, but he also had a love of space. He could have never imagined being able to combine those two passions into one profession as he does today. Currently he is NASA’s Lead Flight Surgeon for astronaut Drew Morgan (also a member of Clear Creek Community Church). Rick and Michelle have been married for 26 years and have five children. In this interview, Ryan Lehtinen sits down with Rick to talk about how his career in the sciences has grown his faith in Jesus and love for the Bible, and how his work gives him opportunities to share the good news of the gospel with those around him.

RESOURCES:

Faith & Science Resources
Faith & Science (message series)

 

024: Legacy – Living Life to Maximize Significance

What do you hope people will say about you at your funeral? When we’re gone, more important than any possessions we might have acquired, we leave behind a legacy. On this episode, Ryan Lehtinen talks with Bruce Wesley and Mark Carden about what legacy really is and how their purpose and ambitions have been refined over time.

RESOURCES:  

Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance by Bob Buford

Living a Life on Loan by Rick Rushaw and Eric Swanson

 

023: How Can I Follow God When Those Who Follow Him Seem Intolerant?

On this episode, we continue discussing questions people have about faith, God, or the church as part of our “Here’s My Issue” message series. Ryan Lehtinen sits down with Yancey Arrington and Lance Lawson to address those who question following God because they view those who follow him as intolerant and hateful.

RESOURCES:
Starting Point – Class
Go Local – Find ways to love and serve our community
The Reason for God by Tim Keller
A New Kind of Apologist by Sean McDowell

 

019: Grief and the Holidays with Susan Wesley, Denise Ward, and Carrie Sutherland

In our final episode of 2019, Susan Wesley sits down with Denise Ward and Carrie Sutherland, two close friends who have each experienced tremendous loss in the last few years. They discuss their journey and how grief impacts the holiday season.

RESOURCES:
Care & Support Ministry

 

CCStories

Devotion: The Jonathan Newport Story

“As I look back on who I used to be, which was angry and judgmental, selfish, and just harsh with everybody, I’m just amazed at how much God’s grown me.” – Jonathan Newport


This was a part of our online service at of Clear Creek Community Church.

For more ways to participate in our online service in this season, go to www.clearcreek.org.

Follow us on social media:
Facebook – www.facebook.com/clearcreek.org
Instagram – www.instagram.com/clearcreekcommunitychurch
Twitter – www.twitter.com/_cccc

Finding Hope

Easter 2020 will be an Easter we never forget. For most of us, we’ll remember the Coronavirus, the stay at home orders, and church buildings being closed. But for the Larson family, Easter 2020 will be remembered for a much bigger reason.

Cameron Larson, a teenager in the student ministry at the East 96 Campus, had recently come to saving faith in Jesus and been considering baptism for some time. Easter Sunday was going to be the day. His parents Craig and Kari had planned to help celebrate Cameron’s commitment at a friend’s pool. The plan was to have a small party with Cameron’s student small group and Craig and Kari’s adult small group in attendance. But because of COVID-19, the party was no longer possible. Instead, people attended via Facetime and Zoom calls to witness this public demonstration of Cameron’s saving faith in Jesus.

But one person who was able to be physically present was Cameron’s grandfather, Frank.

Frank hadn’t grown up with faith in Jesus. He attended church on occasion, mainly holidays. Five years ago, after his son Craig was baptized, Frank began to explore faith in Jesus at his own pace, asking Craig and Kari questions.

In September of 2019, Frank was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This February, he got news that the cancer had spread… the prognosis was not good.

Frank struggled to have hope in the midst of his battle with cancer, but in God’s grace, Frank began to find glimmers of hope in Jesus. Frank believed Jesus was the only one who could save him and rescue him – not just physically, but spiritually. Since that realization, Frank said, “peace has washed over me.”

So, on Easter Sunday 2020, as the family was preparing to celebrate Cameron’s baptism and proclamation of his faith in Jesus, Frank turned to his son Craig at the kitchen table and said, “I’m ready to have the Lord in my life.”

Craig waded into the pool that afternoon with his teenage son Cameron, and his cancer-fighting father. Craig dipped Cameron below the surface of the water and brought him up again, and then did the same to his dad.

Now, Frank continues to hope for his body in his battle against cancer, but he rests in the eternal hope he has for his soul.

‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

2 Corinthians 5:17

Lighthouse: Navigating the Waters of Grief Together

Their friendship began at a party. 

Meredith Harris once sold a gift-products line called Thirty-One to a house full of laughing women. The events were always upbeat, and Meredith delighted in hosting her friends for a light evening of fun. 

After one such event, Meredith was packing up and talking with an acquaintance, Allison Swenson. The two were shooting the breeze when Allison abruptly changed the direction of the conversation. 

“Allison said, ‘I haven’t really shared this with anyone, but I just had a miscarriage,’” Meredith recalled. “I remember feeling very special that [she] would share that with me. That just fast-forwarded the depth of our friendship because [she] had shared something that was very painful.”

Meredith and Allison both recognize that conversation over a decade ago as the first of many times each would walk the other through loss. 

“Allison and I’s friendship is very intertwined with grief,” said Meredith.

Allison Swenson with her husband, Brad, and their two sons, Bradley and Cole.

“So, several years ago,” said Allison, “I started a pregnancy journey that began with a miscarriage and then two live births. One little guy lived for 30 minutes and the other little guy lived for 20 days.” 

Allison, her husband, Brad, and their two young sons have experienced other losses, as well. Hurricane Harvey devastated their home, and, most recently, Allison’s father passed away. 

Meredith’s grief journey began as one grieving alongside her friends. 

“My journey [began by] walking with friends who lost two of their children to unforeseen heart issues within one year,” she said. She then walked alongside her friend Allison as she grieved the losses of her two children. 

“And then my seemingly very healthy brother died unexpectedly of a cardiac event when he happened to be at our lake house,” Meredith said. Her only brother, Bill, left behind his wife, pregnant with their second child, and a very young son. 

As these two friends have journeyed through their own losses, those of each other, and other friends, they have gained unique perspectives on navigating friendships and loss and how to hold steadfast to their faith through grief. They have waded into the challenging and overwhelming waters of grief and come out stronger. 

From left to right: Denise Ward (Meredith’s mom), Meredith, Brad and daughters, Amy Ward holding son, Bill Ward (Meredith’s brother), Dave Ward (her father).

 

 

On being the best friend you can be

Both Meredith and Allison noted the many ways friends cared for them in their grief. One friend who loved fashion hand-selected outfits for different occasions Meredith would need to attend. Allison recalled how, while she was on hospital bedrest, Meredith and another friend “drove inside the loop” every week to inject much-needed laughter in dark times. There were friends who delivered groceries and friends who cleaned their houses, only asking that they leave the door unlocked. 

And it’s here that they have advice for the person grieving: allow your friends to serve you. And to the friend: serve the way you feel led, not how you think it should look. 

“We cannot put our friends in a box of one way to love and care for us,” said Allison. “Allowing my friends to serve me and love me in their gift sets is really valuable.” 

As Meredith grieved the loss of her brother, she saw that sustaining friendship with a grieving person equates to simply being present. Meredith’s parents’ house became the hub for visitors, family staying over from out of town, and gatherings. People brought food to their home for over a month, so they kept an ice chest on the front porch for deliveries. One friend stopped by to put fresh ice in the chest every day for a month. 

“It was just the most wonderful [thing],” she said. “No words were used, but it communicated, ‘I love you. I thought about you. I took care of a need today.’” 

Ultimately, those acts of service done by people uniquely created by God to serve in specific ways helped Allison and Meredith, in their respective situations, grieve well, and it displayed the body of Christ in action. 

“If you have that calling and feel truly led, just go do it!” said Allison. “Send the card, go to the funeral, make the phone call, drop toilet paper on the front stoop… because when those things don’t happen, that’s when you feel alone, lost, and forgotten.”

Meredith added that, as a friend, your duty is to “say with your words, ‘God has not left you’ and then communicate with your life that you have not left that person either.” 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Allison and her husband were not able to get back to their home in the first few days and had to allow friends to begin the process of gutting their home and removing their possessions to curb the growth of mold. 

“During Harvey,” recalled Allison, “that’s what I felt like the Lord was screaming at me: ‘You are known, you belong, and you are okay.’ And that overshadowed every single thing we lost. Everything was out on our front lawn, but people were waiting there for us to drive up.”

 

On how to love a close friend who is grieving

Meredith and Allison both talked about a deeper kind of friendship —  “safe” friends who allowed them to be honest. These were the life-giving friendships that helped them to walk in a healthy place as they grieved. The sometimes difficult part was discovering that not all of their friends were able to give this kind of friendship.

“For me it’s just trust,” said Allison. “Without that trust, I would not be vulnerable. Vulnerability in grief and trauma is important because I need to feel safe, loved, heard, and seen in my most raw state… Having permission to be true and unashamed and allow myself to feel in front of someone else is life changing.” 

Brad and Meredith Harris, and their two daughters Charlotte and Camille.

Meredith added that she began to clearly see a distinction between “people that can handle deep pain with you and people that are not ready or have not personally experienced any deep pain.” The latter, she says, “still want to keep [deep pain] at an arm’s distance.” 

“And you have no choice when you are in the pit of grief other than to be really raw,” Meredith continued. “And so if there are people that cannot enter in with you — and that just looks like sitting with you and letting you snot cry — if they can’t handle that, it’s almost a natural thing. They kind of just stay away because it’s too much for them.”

Meredith came very close to being stunted by her fear of dealing with a friend’s immense grief. When she and her husband, Brad, arrived at a hospital to be with their friends whose son had been rushed to the ER after collapsing at soccer practice, they arrived at a scene that turned out to be much more complex and difficult than they had imagined. 

“We walk up to the hospital doors and [our friend’s father] comes out screaming to God, not screaming at God, but in a fearful way,” Meredith recalled. “And then I stopped dead in my tracks, and I said ‘I can’t do this.’ Brad had his hand on my back and said, ‘You don’t have a choice.’ And he lightly shoved me, like we’re gonna do this together.’”

Meredith looks back on that as a defining moment for the kind of friend God calls all believers to be: one who wades into the waters of grief alongside their friend. 

“God calls you to go,” said Meredith. “To make the phone call. To show up at their door. To be uncomfortable.” 

 

On pointing a grieving friend to God’s truth

Staying connected with biblical truth is absolutely essential for a grieving person, and they need friends grounded in the truth of God to help them navigate their grief.

“Before it gets to that point [of tragedy], I would encourage people to be known,” said Allison. She emphasized the importance of being connected in community no matter what is going on in your life “so when something happens you can allow yourself to be counseled.”

“You know [the truth] in your head, but there’s this incredible disconnect with your heart,” said Allison. “What’s in your head keeps you grounded. Staying connected, pursuing community, pursuing truth always – every day – can prepare us for this life-altering moment.”

Meredith agreed, “Being immersed in the truth in everyday life prior to the grief is really key. If you have this beautiful foundation when things are pretty peaceful and have this steady peace in your life… [you remember] the God who loved me in a steady time has not left me now.” 

From left to right (standing): Lindsey Lehtinen, Meredith Harris, Allison Swenson, Brigette Swafford. From left to right (seated/crouching): Nicole Haas, Erin Funke, Christie Frodge, Laura Sherman.

This concept can sometimes be fleeting, even for seasoned believers, when faced with tragedy. 

“I have one brother. We both love Jesus and are in the middle of actively trying to serve God. And God just takes him,” said Meredith. “I think there is something in us that thinks that there are some things that are off limits.”

“So you need people who are brave enough to tell you ‘That’s not true’,” said Allison. “There are so many people going through really hard things and won’t allow themselves to be vulnerable or people to know how they’re really doing. I just want to encourage that pursuit of finding that person [or] people… and not to give up when you get burned.”  

These are the friends that offer a lighthouse of guidance when those around them cannot find their way. 

 

On finding strength in grief

As Meredith and Allison have allowed God to heal them over time and allowed friends and family to speak God’s truth into their lives through serving them, they have both recognized a subtle change in the way they approach life, faith, and others. 

And that is a work of God. 

“I thought I cared well for people before Bill died, but once I experienced it for myself, I [realized] I had no idea what they were truly feeling,” said Meredith. “I wanted to care for them, but relishing in their pain with them — I had no clue.” 

Carrying the burden of another’s pain might seem weak or problematic, but it is actually a source of strength. It is a quiet strength, they now see, but it has emboldened their faith. 

“Strong is not defined by ‘I don’t hurt or have pain,’” said Allison. “Strength is not defined by how many tasks I get done or whether I can push my emotions aside. If you can survive, if you can stay present for your family, I think there’s strength in that. I think there’s strength in staying married in grief, staying in friendships, getting out of the house. All of those things are strong.”

Ultimately, only God has provided the strength Allison and Meredith have needed to endure the overbearing storms of grief. 

“Strength is continuing to have hope”, said Meredith. “I haven’t lost hope. Being rooted in hope — that’s where I have found my strength. And I have learned so much about God’s sustaining power in this. Less miraculous, flashy Jesus and more the steady hand of the Holy Spirit. He is preventing me from feeling crushed. I am broken, but I am not crushed.” 

Allison also felt God’s miraculous work in her life to bring her peace in the midst of devastation. 

“The closest I have felt to the Holy Spirit,” said Allison, “was washing [my son] William after he had passed and dressing him. And I long to feel that connection that I felt in that moment.  I should remember that as one of the most devastating moments of my life, but I remember it as this beautiful peace that I have not felt again. I think that’s the miraculous part.”

 

On their friendship

These two women have endured much devastation and loss in the first decade of their friendship. But they count all of it toward setting a firm foundation that they’ve relied upon for safety, accountability, and truth in their darkest days. 

“Allison was one of the only people I shared the depths of how ugly it really got,” said Meredith. “I was really transparent with her, and she could totally handle it. She was not freaked out by what I said. She validated my feelings, but then pointed me to truth.” 

Allison agreed. We don’t pull any punches. We can speak some pretty deep truth and trust that it’s okay.”

This is what Allison and Meredith believe is the most needed type of friend when you are going through the worst experience of your life. One who is present. One who will hold steady. And one who will point you to the only one who can truly offer hope and healing in the midst of the storms of life. 

 

Empty: The Marilyn Hester Story

“I felt like I was entering a darkness I couldn’t get out of. I’ve been in a cave before where they turn the lights out on you and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. It’s so black.

“That’s where I felt spiritually.”

 

* * *

 

Marilyn Hester’s bracelets clicked together musically as she spoke, adding expression and emphasis to her story with each hand gesture. Her bright voice, quick movements, big laugh, and sharp tongue suggested she was much younger than 76. And the joy in her smile did not convey the grief she still carried.

Marilyn became a Christian over 40 years ago. To her, God had always been her “best friend, confidant, counselor, everything.”

“He is everything to me,” she said. “I’ve always talked to him. I always had a relationship with him from the moment he revealed himself to me. He created that… He gave me an understanding of his word and the ability to remember it. And I have learning problems!”

Marilyn struggles with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. As a new believer, Marilyn asked God to help her remember Scripture, and he did. “The word came to life for me; it meant something to me,” she said. “He brought it to life as being real and truth… What’s in here,” she said, pointing to her head, “he pulls out for his purpose. He brings his word to my remembrance.”

Over the years, Marilyn realized she was gifted in remembering and using God’s words in conversations, in speaking to groups of women, in teaching, and in her fervent prayers throughout each day for her loved ones. When her husband, Ed, endured open-heart surgery and almost died, she prayed until he was well again.

And when her daughter, Kim, was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer of the tongue at age 42, she planned on doing the same thing.

Around six months into her diagnosis, Kim left an abusive relationship to move in with her parents again. It was a changing of the guard at the Hester home. Their middle daughter, Carrie, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and mental retardation, had lived with Marilyn and Ed most of her life, but was on her way out of her home for surgery and rehab. Kim returned, needing her parents’ help and care once again.

But the cancer spread rapidly, weakening Kim’s body and mind with every treatment and setback.

“Kim’s suffering was before my face every minute of every day,” recalled Marilyn. “That was more than I could bear —  to see her in that kind of pain. Deep, deep, deep down, I knew she wasn’t going to make it. But I kept praying and putting [God’s] word before him.”

Just over a year into her diagnosis, Kim Hester entered the hospital for the last time. She was given just days to live, and the family was told to make final plans.

“I thought we had more time,” said Marilyn.

[Marilyn (right) with her daughter, Kim.]

“When it was time, she was just gone like a vapor,” Marilyn said with a snap of her fingers. “She took a breath and didn’t exhale. There was no struggle. There was no pain. There was no anxiety.”

Marilyn was able to take some comfort in knowing that Kim was a Christian. She believed Kim died and was immediately in the presence of Jesus. The peace of that certainty was real. But the pain of her loss was overwhelming.

“I could be in the store and would see a pair of shorts — and she loved shorts — and it would bring back memories of when she was a kid and all that, and I would have to go to the car and cry,” said Marilyn.

“The pain was horrible. It was a physical pain, and I wept deeper than I’ve ever wept in my life… It would just erupt like a volcano, and then it was over. That was at the very beginning.”

Then, still in those early days of the grieving process, Marilyn and Ed were thrown a curveball when they were made fully aware of the living conditions of their other daughter. Carrie lived in a group home which meant that Ed and Marilyn had little legal say over what happened to her there. They were beholden to the caregiver who ran the group home, but they discovered she was not taking proper care of Carrie nor was she regarding Carrie’s grief over the loss of her sister. Marilyn’s hands were tied because she and Ed had no way to properly care for her on their own, and this affected her deeply.

“I really felt like I had no more kids,” Marilyn said. “My son worked all the time and lived across town and pulled himself away from us… And I’d lost Kim. And now I’d lost Carrie. So, I began to feel like I had three children and now I had none. It took away my identity. It made me feel like I wasn’t a mother.”

“I began to realize I had put my identity and worth into how my children turned out, or how much influence I had in their lives, and then they’re gone,” she said. “So where’s my identity? Who am I? It was just another thing that was pushing me down into this quicksand of darkness, deep darkness. Because I felt like I was worth nothing.”

At some point, Marilyn’s daily time set aside to read the Bible and pray began to take a discreet turn. “I would read his word and think Okay, well you had the power to heal her but you didn’t do it. I began to center on what I wanted for Kim more than what [God] wanted for her.”

Slowly, Marilyn’s thoughts toward her beloved Lord began to change and lies took root in her mind.

“You see the pain of the memory, and then behind it is this little thinking… And you fight it for a while. It’s like [Satan] tickles your ears with a lie and truth and together they become truth to you. And you just listen. And you don’t even know you’re doing it, but you begin to believe that God was not there for you.”

Often, the lies came in the form of seemingly benign questions, like Did God really love Kim?

She began to question God and then believe things like, “God doesn’t love you God left Kim. God left you. God doesn’t care. You can’t trust his word.”

“It was like little bitty tiny bites into my heart and mind,” recalled Marilyn. “And I began to listen and think you’re right, you’re right, you’re right.”

[Kim (left) with Marylin (right).]

Finally, after a long day of trying unsuccessfully to find a new home for Carrie, Marilyn had had enough. She sent her husband into the house and stayed in the car to let God know exactly what she thought.

“I was so incredibly involved in the grief that I was not pouring it out to [God],” she said. “It was like a volcano erupting. I couldn’t control the crying. I couldn’t control the words coming out of my mouth… I was more honest with him than I think I’d ever been.”

In the midst of this crying out, Marilyn sensed a brokenness between herself and God that she had never before experienced.  “I was like a broken vessel,” she said. “And in that, he just sat there and listened. He never made me feel like he was angry with me, like he would leave me. I knew he was there. But he was so quiet. And I needed him to talk to me!”

“Very slowly I pulled away [from God] until there was nothing,” said Marilyn. “There was no comfort. There was nothing… I quit talking to him. We didn’t have anything to say to each other any more.”

 

 

* * *

 

Give ear to my prayer, O God,

and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!

Attend to me and answer me…

 

Some time later, Marilyn awoke one morning and decided to open her Bible, something she had not done in a while. She thought, “I’m going to open his word. It’s not going to mean anything anymore but I’m just going to read it.” Scripture was no longer bringing her “any comfort,” so she had set it aside. But on that morning, something prodded her to open God’s word.

As Marilyn opened to Psalm 55, she read words penned as a lament of David. The words were familiar, not only to her mind but also to her heart. She understood the anguish David experienced. She continued reading.

 

…I am restless in my complaint and I moan,

because of the noise of the enemy,

because of the oppression of the wicked…

My heart is in anguish within me; 

the terrors of death have fallen upon me. 

 

It reminded her of something from her childhood.

“I would have these nightmares all the time that someone was trying to kill me,” recalled Marilyn. “I remember thinking that I was going to die in the dream.”

 

Fear and trembling come upon me,

and horror overwhelms me.

 

“Before this person trying to kill me could touch me, I would just be lifted up above the whole thing, and I would fly,” Marilyn said. “And the ability to fly as a child just blew me away, and there was a peace. I could see the guy running after me, but he couldn’t get to me. I would soar like a bird above all of the danger and was perfectly safe in this one place. I felt at home.”

 

And I say, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!

I would fly away and be at rest…”

 

When she read those lines, something shifted within her. “No longer was it David… it was me,” she said. “It was like God took me back to the dream and said ‘I delivered you then. I deliver you now.’”

All at once, the memory of her childhood dream and the circumstances of her present moment collided as she read those verses, and the darkness within her broke.

“That was God when I was a little girl!” she recalled. “Oh my God, that was God! He really does care!”

“He knew me as a child,” she said. “He delivered me from my nightmares with his own peace. The word that he showed me… was the same thing that happened in that nightmare, and he delivered me. He knew me then, and he knows me now.”

 

* * *

 

Marilyn marks that moment as the time where the deep darkness left and never returned.

“I felt like I was trying to lift myself out of [the depression], and God did it,” she said. “He did for me what I could not do for myself.”

[Marylin (right) holding Kim.]

As she looks back on the darkest days, and how God pulled her up out of the pit, she thinks the experience was “about needing [God] more than it was about needing him to do something for me.”

“I missed him more than I missed my own daughter,” she said. “I missed that relationship we had before. It was a walking, talking, living relationship.”

Marilyn knows now that walking away from God was the worst thing she could have done in her grief.

She has learned a few things.

“Go to the Lord with the suffering, and be honest with him. Don’t hold anything back… If you’re just grieving and stepping away from God and not letting him heal [you], then it’s more painful because you don’t have the power to heal you.”

Marilyn still grieves, but it’s different now.

“We’re closer,” she says. “I think what God wants to do with walking through the grief process is to fill that emptiness with himself. And it takes time. Still the pain of it is there… but it’s different than it was before. It truly feels like grief; it doesn’t feel like blackness.”


 

Here For You: The Erin Contreras Story

 


“Growing up, I had a really rough childhood, the type that comes up in the news,” Erin Contreras said. “I mean, I went to 23 different elementary schools, so there was no stability or time to go to church.”

Even with so many variables in her life, Erin always felt the presence of someone there for her. She believed in God even though no one in her family was guiding her.

“[He was] who I called out to in my times of need,” Erin said.

When Erin met her husband, Eli, her thoughts of God faded into the background. Although Eli grew up with a really religious background, Erin didn’t have a foundation that stuck. In 2007, a coworker invited Erin and Eli to attend Clear Creek Community Church. Eli, with his strict traditional religious background, was skeptical upon seeing “a bunch of hippies” in jeans and flip flops, but ultimately they decided to regularly attend Sunday morning services.

“We didn’t have any community,” Erin said about their early experience at Clear Creek. “It was a very transactional relationship. We went, we punched our card, and we left.”

Just before the Conteras’ second son was born, Erin was involved in a traumatic home invasion where the intruder tried to kill her and kidnap her oldest son while she was nearly 9 months pregnant. The only reason she was able to escape at the time was because the intruder thought she was dead already.

“It just left me so broken… with such bad PTSD,” Erin said. “I had Max two weeks later and, after that incident, our marriage just fell apart.”

With the ensuing depression Erin experienced, the foundation she and Eli had as a married couple crumbled. On top of that, Eli lost his job.

“The depression cut me so deep. I lost sense of reality. I lost sense of who I was,” Erin said. “We stopped going to church because… I just felt abandoned [by God].”

After the incident, Erin sought relief from her trauma and depression through medication and therapy, but she often felt alone. It seemed impossible to find other people who could identify with what she had been through.

“There weren’t any support groups for ‘Housewives of PTSD’” Erin recalled. “Either you’re a soldier [struggling with PTSD] or you don’t have it.” She had no one else in her circles who could relate to her experience. As a couple, Erin and Eli were never comfortable talking about Erin’s feelings or how her therapy was going.

“All Eli ever wanted to know was how I was doing because he just loved me so much,” Erin said. “But I could not talk about it at all. I would become too emotional, and it was too much for me… I just held it all in, and it was like a cancer.”

No longer trusting God, Erin isolated with her kids, wrapping them up in her self-protective armor. But, Eli’s response to the home invasion was the complete opposite.

“My husband, in that tragedy, found faith and I lost it,” Erin said. “He saw that somebody was there – somebody kept me alive.”

Erin and Eli continued to struggle, leading them to separate and no longer communicate with one another. They were headed towards divorce at full speed.

“We didn’t have family support. We weren’t in a small group. So that was just the path we were going down,” Erin said. “But my husband, out of desperation, started going to church again because he didn’t know what else to do.”

This time, Eli took a step in faith and joined a men’s small group. When the men would pray at the end of every group, Eli would ask for prayer for his marriage and prayer for his wife.

“At that time, I wanted nothing to do with him,” Erin said. “But Eli kept going to small group and prayed for us.” Erin freely admits that it would have been easier for Eli to just leave her completely. But Eli’s small group encouraged him to love his wife, even at her worst. Toward the end of the life cycle of the small group, Eli was ready to get baptized.

Erin finally agreed, and at Eli’s baptism, she met his small group.

“I saw that they were all married men,” Erin said. “And it broke my heart because I saw how happy all those married couples were, and I knew that they knew my story. I knew they knew what I was going through.”

Shortly after Eli’s baptism, he asked Erin, “What do you think about maybe coming to church with me on Sunday?”

Despite her fears of something happening her kids, she took a step.

About a month later the Contreras were still going to church together every Sunday. Erin and Eli had talked about moving back in together, and six months later, they were living together again. When another GroupLink happened, Eli suggested they join a small group for married couples.

“I was like, ‘I do not want to be in a married group. First of all, we’re barely married at this point. We just started living together and… the last thing I want is some hypocritical Christian telling me what I should be doing in my marriage.”

But Erin eventually agreed because she wanted to find some sort of hobby to do with her husband, though they drove separately to group each week.

“I didn’t want to go there to make friends,” Erin said. “I [didn’t] need churchy people in my life.” Within the first few meetings, the group members were already sharing their backgrounds and stories, and when it came time for Erin to speak, she was frank.

“I was like, ‘Basically, I’m not here for you guys. I don’t want any part of this. I’m just here for [Eli].”

Erin calls it “probably the worst introduction that anybody’s ever had,” but she didn’t think her life and marriage were anybody else’s business. But, she found that the group members were willing to receive her exactly where she was at.

After a while, Erin and Eli started riding to small group in a car together, which turned out to be catalytic for their marriage.

“I never thought the car ride would be the biggest thing, but it’s really where he and I became husband and wife again.”

They would talk about their thoughts on the current small group study, and it was the first chance in a long time to connect with one another about something deep. In those moments, without their kids and without distractions, Erin and Eli began to develop a friendship again.

“It just opened up a narrative… where we couldn’t before talk about how we were doing,” Erin said. “It got to the point where we’d get home, and we wouldn’t get out of the car. We’d just sit in the car and talk more for another 15 or 20 minutes. And so, I really think that those car rides were the most special time we’ve ever had.”

After going to small group for about a year-and-a-half, Erin got severely sick one summer and had to endure seven surgeries within a single summer. It was during this time that Erin’s perception of small group took a dramatic shift.

“They just really poured into my family,” Erin said about her group members. “They brought us meals. They checked on me daily. They would check in after every surgery asking, ‘Do you need help with this? Do you need us just to run to the grocery store?  What can we do for you?’”

The Contreras’ small group community intimately entered their lives during one of the most critical times for their family.

“I had never experienced anything like this,” she said. “Even when I had both of my kids, it was just me… alone. There was nobody who came over. There was nobody who brought meals… It was a shift. I belonged.”

Something about this love in action softened her heart. Air rushed back into her lungs. She still wouldn’t describe herself as a believer at that time but just going with the flow. Then one day, something that Eli and her Navigator had both said just clicked.

If God wasn’t there, then why are you angry at him?

“I was angry because I felt abandoned,” Erin said. “Eli had tried to tell me this many times. He would say, ‘Well, how can you feel abandoned by somebody that was never there to begin with?’

It finally made sense to Erin. You can’t be mad at somebody who isn’t there.

“I mean, if I’m angry at somebody then obviously there’s somebody in my heart that’s always been there… that’s when I really started believing.”

Erin got baptized in March 2018.

“[My baptism] was just another moment where I was like, ‘I’m still doing life with these people. These people are still pouring into me. They’re still here for my children. For my husband. And it was a really beautiful thing to have my community with me.”

Another part of her recovery has to do with her current job opportunity where she teaches music at a Classical School. She has the privilege of talking about God’s beauty every day.

“My whole job is to point out what is true, good, and beautiful in this world and how that all points back to God,” Erin said. “And not being a believer, I wouldn’t have the job that I have. I wouldn’t be able to form these little lives or these connections with these kids.”

Three months after Erin’s baptism, she took a huge next step by starting to serve in the music ministry at Clear Creek. Once someone who slipped in under the balcony and out before the end of the last song, Erin now uses her gifts to play the keyboard and sing on stage.

“You have to be so vulnerable to be on stage worshiping because you’re not just putting on a show for everybody. You’re worshipping withthem.” And each time she serves, she thinks about the people who might be sitting under the balcony.

“Music is one of those things that engages everybody,” Erin said. “So I always pray before I go on stage, Use our music to touch somebodyOpen somebody up.”

Erin found, and continues to find, places where her true passion and talent can encourage others to align their hearts in worship, no matter what their own circumstances might be.

Making a Man: The Ryan Thomas Story

By Ryan Thomas (as told to the Story Team)

I grew up with a view of what a man should be that can be portrayed as Men’s Health—a magazine that advocates a man should be athletic, chiseled, well-dressed, successful, just desired by women.

And at the same time, my father was man preoccupied with athletic prowess. With that influence, I wanted to be a super athlete, successful, worshipped by women, a hero, and admired by worldly standards.

As a teenager, the disdain I had for my father and his ambivalence towards me, grew. Yet, I still followed directly in his footsteps. I pursued athletic success. And really, my primary objective was to attract women, but that ultimately led me down a path of destruction.

During my junior year in college, my father passed away. He was continuing to pursue extreme sports, and he was killed doing hill intervals on his bicycle. That really kind of rocked my world, because I realized at that time, that I was trying to earn his approval and now that he was gone, I really didn’t have that opportunity. It changed the way I thought about the pursuits that I was after. And in some ways, I really wanted to pursue a life of purpose and something that I could give back to, but at the same time, I was still a pretty broken guy and was still trying to prove myself in terms of Men’s Health magazine or the way that my father raised me.

I began to formulate the idea that I could join the military, because what’s better than the ultimate man’s profession of being in Special Ops in the military? So, I joined the Army as an officer, and became a Ranger, and was deployed several times into combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That really shaped what I felt a man should be. And that was the first step, I think, in God’s journey for me—understanding it’s not just selfish pursuits, it’s now doing something for others that, in a lot of ways, is sacrificial.

One of the other surprising things that happened while I was in the military was I met my wife Tasha. We decided to get out, and got married, and had, ironically, two little girls. I never really realized how selfish I was as a man until those three relying on me and looking to me for guidance, and just how many things I’ve screwed up in the past. God has a funny way of doing that, especially when you have two little girls. I really started to realize that it’s okay… to be more vulnerable, to know that I’m not in control—God’s in control—that God is ultimately the one who is shaping my life and shaping my family’s existence, and that I don’t have it all figured out, and that I, in a lot of ways, need to lean on him.

Accomplish: The Tasha Thomas Story

By: Tasha Thomas (as told to the Story Team)

There I was in the Middle East, wearing a camouflage uniform, carrying a 9 mm handgun—a successful U.S. Army officer whose accomplishments were pinned to her uniform.

As a young child I grew up in a home that was just broken. It was filled with domestic violence, alcohol, [and] drugs. And from an early age, I decided I wasn’t going to rely on anybody else, I didn’t need anybody else, that I could just do it on my own. You know, I went to college at first, and then I joined the Army, all to show that I didn’t need anybody else.

I really had the idea of becoming a general as my ultimate goal, because once you reach that level, I felt like you had made it. And I wanted people to go “wow, you did what?” I was really looking for that approval from others, that I was accomplished and I had done well for myself.

So, as I met my husband, Ryan, and we had begun dating, I quickly realized that I was going to have some decisions to make because he wanted a family and I knew deep down that I was never going to be able to balance both. I just knew my heart, that I was going to continue to strive at my job, and that I would probably not balance that well and my family would suffer. So, for me it was going to be a decision, and how to make that work. I kind of had this idea of motherhood that it was going to be something that I was going to accomplish and I was going to be really good at, because in my past I had always done well, I was always at the top of my peers. And so, when Everly came, it was kind of earth-shattering for me because I wasn’t—I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t meeting all of these accomplishments, or these things that people said I should be doing.

I quickly was thrown into postpartum depression, not only because kids are hard, but also because no one applauds you or gives you a gold star for being a mom. So, I struggled with that. And I found myself, at times, I would meet other people, and they’d go “oh, what do you do?” And I would say, “Oh, well I stay at home now, but I used to…” and then I’d throw in an accomplishment that I had from the Army.

Looking back at that, it really makes me sad because I wasn’t identifying as a mom; I wasn’t holding value to that.

Unfortunately, I wish I could say that this is struggle that I can say that I’m done with, but it’s not. It’s something I struggle with every day. And when I see a peer get promoted on social media, or I see photos of this life I used to lead and was very accomplished in, it’s hard. I’m angry about it, I get envious that I’m not getting to do that. Instead, I have these two little blonde girls telling me what to do. You know, it’s tough. And, I think I always have to remember that I’m not called to this job, I’m not called to that job–I’m really called to be a follower of Christ.

Making the decision to stay home versus working full-time, it made me realize that one isn’t more important than the other as I had earlier thought. Staying home doesn’t mean you’re less awesome, or you’re less important. There’s not a sliding scale of who you are as a person dependent on where you are.

For me, I’ve realized that truly my identity is in Christ, and that’s what I should focus on—to look to him for my strength, and look to him for my being accepted because he’s the one that truly loves me. My identity is truly in Christ, and not in motherhood, and not in a job, and not in the day-to-day. He’s more concerned with the way I live my life than a job that I’m holding.  

The Road: The Jay Ellis Story

By Jay Ellis (as told to the Story Team)

I had an amazing childhood. My dad was a pilot and a good provider, and my parents were always there for me, especially when I developed diabetes at the age of eight. That was my big growing-up moment, because it stole away part of my childhood. I had to learn how to give myself shots and take blood tests five times a day at a young age. I was the only one at school with diabetes, so I was the oddball, which put a little strain on me. But despite that, my childhood was awesome.

My family did go to church, but we never stayed at one place long enough to really grow in anything. But my parents always tried to keep me focused on who Jesus really was even though we didn’t go to church regularly. 

Basically, I had a pretty normal childhood, until seventh grade.

My friend Chad grew up three houses down from us, and his dad ran off when Chad was four. His mom passed away when we were pretty young, so my parents kind of took him in. One day, in seventh grade, Chad—along with another friend of mine—handed me a piece of acid.

They said, “Here, put this under your tongue. It will make you see crazy things.” I thought they were just trying to pull my leg but I did it just to see what they were talking about. I thought it was all a joke.

It ended up being really scary, but really freeing at the same time. And I dove into that stuff real fast. I started doing acid every weekend, with those guys and some other friends.

That was the beginning of a downward spiral. I was already behind a grade in school because of my diabetes, and after I started using drugs, I started failing. Most of my friends had moved on and I was falling further behind.

 That’s the lifestyle I lived from junior high until I was 29 years old—a complete party lifestyle. All the people I knew experimented with drugs at one point, and then just went to normal drinking or something. I couldn’t get enough. And at the age of 14, my diabetes doctor told me, “If you keep living this way, you’re not going to live to see 21.” In my mind, I wasn’t going to see 21 anyway, so I was like, Well I’ll just party hard and die young,you know?

When I first started using drugs, I realized it was going to be an expensive habit.

I graduated at 19, and three months later I was doing runs to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, picking up a bunch of pills and coming back here. I did that for about two years until I got caught and went to Mexican prison in Nuevo Laredo.  

My arrest in Mexico was the first time I’d been in trouble with the with law, and I got a federal offense of trafficking across federal lines on my record. I was on probation and being drug tested three times a week. There are no drugs you can do that are out of your system within three days. I was like, What am I gonna do?So I started drinking like a fish and piling on the DWI’s. I got four DWI’s in three years, despite the fact that I didn’t have a driver’s license.

By the time I turned 29, I’d been working for an organization for 10 years collecting money; large amounts of money—like $500,000 or more. It’s an ugly world where nobody plays nice, and that’s the life I lived to support my habit.

Even in all that ugliness, I never once asked God for help. I’d been run over twice, stabbed seven times, had my face crushed with a baseball bat, and I lost count of how many times I got shot at. I was even thrown out of a moving car on I-45. That one hurt. That hurt bad. But I never asked God, “God, would you just help me get through this?” I never had those prayers. I still thought it was all me getting through all this, and that I could make it happen.


During my DWI spree, I got a call from a buddy who lived in Freer, Texas, which is right on the Mexican border. He wanted me and several friends to come visit. He said, “Just come out for my birthday, man.” And I was like, “Listen, if I make it out there, we’re not going to Mexico because I ain’t ever steppin’ foot back in Mexico. And I’m not drinking tequila, because I go to jail every time I drink tequila.”

But after a bottle of tequila, we ended up in Mexico in a truck. My buddy Anthony was riding on top of the truck, shooting an assault rifle, and the next thing I knew I saw him rolling down the road.

I thought to myself, I’ll be danged, Anthony fell out of the truck. And then I looked around and realized Iwas lying in the middle of the road. And then I thought, Well I’ll be danged, Ifell out of the truck, too.  

When we got home from that, I was out on a boat one day, in the middle of the bay. I told God, “God, if you’re really there – if you’re really real – fix me or kill me. One of the two. Because I hate being me right now.”

The next day I got my fourth DWI, dressed in a hula skirt and holding two pistols in my lap – drinking and driving like a rock star. I knew I was going to prison then. I was on the Top 5 Most Watched list in Texas, and they had me. I had seven felony accounts on that pullover alone, so they had everything they needed. And I never did call anybody to come get me out.

That was when my dad showed up. He’d found out.

He was crying when I came out of the jail, and I’d never before seen my dad cry.

On the ride home, he asked what was wrong with me. And the first truthful thing I’d ever said was, “I don’t know… I really don’t.”

He said, “Do you need help?”

And that’s when I laid out my addictions. My parents knew I was an alcoholic because I couldn’t drink and drive worth a poo. But they had no idea about the drug addiction. For a long time, I’d used my diabetes as a cover for things like weight loss and other side effects of the drugs. 

My dad asked, “Well, can you give me a week, and let me find a really good place to send you?”

And I said, “Dad, if you give me more than 24 hours, you’re never going to see me again.”

So my dad woke me up early the next morning, and took me to Pathway to Recovery in Angleton, Texas.

I remember feeling petrified on the ride there because I didn’t want to go. I wanted to go, but I didn’t want to go. And all I was trying to think about was, How bad did it hurt when I got thrown out of that car? Can I make it if I just jump out and run for it? That’s how twisted an addict’s mind is whenever they’re at those crossroads.

But I held out. I got there.

I remember having 12 Valium in my hand, because I thought the program was 30 days. But my struggle was, How am I gonna space this out over 30 days, so I can stay calm throughout this thing?

When I realized it was a 90-day program, I downed all the pills. I was like, All right, I’m gonna feel good this first day.

***

My very first day there, before I knew the rules and everything else, I was reading about God on all these steps in the program and I thought I got tricked into some church thing.

I was mad.

I said “G-D” and this kid walks up, and he’s all, “God doesn’t need a dam, he can walk on water.” And I’m not good with comebacks, so I just hit him. I got in trouble for that, and I was like, “You need to tell people to keep their mouth shut.”

I ended up being grateful the treatment program was 90 days, because I remember very little about the first 30 days. Detoxing was bad for me. I pretty much just laid on the bathroom floor for three weeks. It was rough. But I finally got coherent enough to start attending meetings and start really digging into the steps—the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. And that’s where I found a relationship with God.

It was easy for me to admit to Step One, that I was powerless over drugs and alcohol, and that my life had become unmanageable. But it was hard for me to grasp Steps Two and Three.

Step Two was admitting my life was unmanageable and that God would have to restore me to sanity. Despite my situation and current condition, it was hard for me to grasp that I couldn’t pull myself together, that God would have to do it.

Step Three was to turn your will and your life over to the care of God. That one was really rough for me. When we did go to church when I was little, we went to a Southern Baptist church, and I remember the pastor saying once, “God’s got a path for everybody.” That ran through my mind all the time, and my question was, Why does my path suck so bad?So turning my will and my life over to God scared me, because I was like, If I don’t have any control over it, if this is the path God already has me on, how am I to trust that?

***

While I was in treatment, there was an old country guy named Bubba who came in and taught Sunday School. I’d always just stand around the corner and listen because I didn’t want to be part of it, but I wanted to hear what he was saying. One Sunday he did a lesson on forgiveness, and I stepped in because I wanted to hear about this. I was about two months sober at that time, so I had a littlebit of clarity. Bubba asked everybody, “Do y’all forgive those that have harmed you?”

I spoke up and said, “Yeah, I forgive everybody that’s harmed me.” And he said, “Well, you say that with hesitance. Who do you not forgive?”

“I don’t forgive myself,” I said.

“Well, why don’t you forgive yourself?” he asked.

“I’ve tortured people for the past 10 years. That’s a hard one for me to swallow and forgive myself for.”

“Well, do you believe in God, son?”

“I’m starting to,” I said.

“Do you believe that God forgave you?”

“Yeah,” I said.

At that point he got right up in my face, nose to nose, and he said, “What makes you bigger than God? Why can’t you forgive yourself then?”

It was like a gut punch. That really got me thinking. Bubba sent me off with a Life Recovery Bible and reading assignments. That exchange made me understand God’s forgiveness in a completely different way than I’d ever known.

***

Four months into my sobriety, I went completely blind. Blood vessels in my eyes had burst and caused my retinas to detach during the detox process.

But, even though I couldn’t see and my life had quickly become more complicated, I was committed to staying sober. I endured 25 surgeries in one year to repair my eyesight, and did so without any medication before, after, or during the procedures. They just strapped me down and gave me something to bite on. I had to sign a waiver for my doctor, and had to explain that the short amount of pain I would feel during surgery would be nothing compared to the amount of pain I would feel as a result of a relapse.

During this time, a friend of mine said, “I want to go to this church down on Egret Bay called Clear Creek Community Church. Do you want to go?” I said, “Sure, let’s go.”

Through everything that was happening in my life, one thing I’d really been struggling with was the concept of God’s will. In AA you’re told to “align your will with God’s will,” but I had trouble figuring that out. I’d been asking people, “What’s God’s will?” But nobody had an answer. Some people told me, “Whatever you’re thinking ain’t God’s will, so don’t do that.” And I was like, “Well, that’s obvious, but what is his will so I know how to align mine with it?” But nobody ever had an answer.

The first day I stepped into Clear Creek Community Church, the very first words out of Bruce Wesley’s mouth were, “If you want to know God’s will, you’ve got to know God’s Word.”

I thought to myself, Oh man! Here we go! I’m never leaving this place! I got the answer I’ve been looking for. And that started a relationship with Clear Creek for me because I heard truth I hadn’t heard before. I heard about a relationship I had never heard about before. What I heard at Clear Creek made my recovery make sense—it connected the dots for me.  

But, I wasn’t taking responsibility for learning God’s word and his will. I was a big-time consumer of church. I would show up each week dressed up in a suit, and it wasn’t until I recovered my eyesight that I realized I was the only one. I wanted to come and get fed and play the part, but I was still fighting outside. I still had my anger. I tell people I have 14 years of sobriety but I haven’t put my hands on anyone in six years. It took me a long time to grasp that there’s a new way to solve things without using your fists. 

Coming to Clear Creek and hearing the sermons started a change in me, and led to other significant changes in my life.

I exchanged some messages with a woman named Jennifer, who I’d met previously through a mutual friend, and we discovered we both attended Clear Creek. At the time I didn’t have many friends at the church and usually sat by myself. So I said to Jenn, “Come sit with me, please.”

As it turns out, we were both already going to the 10:30 a.m. service at the Egret Bay campus, so we started meeting up and just going to church together. One Sunday we went out to lunch at Chuy’s, and as Jenn tells it, “We were there for four hours because he laid out his life.” I didn’t watch the time, but that last part is true. I wanted her to know everything so she could either run or stick around.           

She stuck around and we started hanging out for a while, always meeting at church. After about four months, Jenn asked, “Are we dating?” I said, “I don’t know, are we?” (I honestly hadn’t thought about it.) She said, “I think we’re dating.” And I said, “Hey, that works for me. You’re beautiful, you know? I can handle this.”

(Jay and his wife, Jennifer)

We ended up getting married, and by then she and I were each already serving at the church. She volunteered with the junior high ministry, and I started greeting. I wanted to work with junior high students but was sure they did background checks and knew there was no way I would pass that test.

One Sunday morning, I was at the doors and a woman I knew walked up, along with a guy I also happened to know but hadn’t seen in a long time. The man jumped back when he saw me. “Oh my God! Jay Ellis?!”

I said, “What’s up Eugene?”

He looked at the girl he was with and said, “You’re friends with this dude?” She answered, “Yeah.”

“This dude stabbed me in the neck! And he chased me around the neighborhood with a frickin’ knife!”

By this time Eugene is yelling it at the front door of the church. I looked around and everyone nearby had pretty much stopped and stared at me.  I just smiled and tried to continue greeting.

***

As Jenn got more settled into the junior high ministry, people started learning more about our story. Student ministry leaders, Angie Thomas and Lance Lawson, asked me to sit down with them and tell them mywhole story, and after I did they both said they wanted me to be serving in junior high ministry.

I filled out the necessary paperwork but told Lance, “Dude, the background check is pretty extensive.”

Lance said, “Is there anything with kids?”

“No.”

“Then I’ve got a shot,” he said. “I might be able to make it work.”

It took about a month, but I was finally approved to serve in junior high ministry, which I ended up doing for five years.

That was a huge growing experience for me – just leading in student ministry, learning how to be compassionate to a student instead of wanting to slap him upside the head, which is what I wanted to do a lot of times. And I learned so much from those kids—particularly Thatcher Arrington. I was so new to the Bible that anytime we looked up Scripture, I would fumble through, trying to find the right book. Thatcher would grab my Bible and say, “Let me get it for you.” I don’t think he realizes how much he helped me through that first year. 

During this time I was attending the Celebrate Recovery class at Clear Creek but wasn’t getting too much out of it—I wasn’t finding recovery in it. Four months after we got married I was laid off from my $12-an-hour job, which was the most I’d ever made in sobriety.

As I wrestled with what to do, Jenn asked me, “Well, what do you want to do?”

I said, “I don’t know. I don’t have any skills. All I know how to do is sell dope and go collect money. That’s it. I don’t know anything else.”

She came back with, “Well, why don’t you go to school and figure out what you want to do?”

So I got an associate degree in occupational safety and health and started applying for jobs. Jenn sat down beside me one day and asked, “What are you doing?”

“Applying for jobs.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” she asked.

At this point I was completely confused. I’d never gone to college or applied for jobs. I was just trying to play out the process.

“Well, aren’t you supposed to start applying for jobs once you graduate from school?” I asked her. “Isn’t that how it works?” 

“I feel like God’s building you to do something different. I feel like he wants you to do something more than safety.”

“Well, what are you talking about?” I was still confused.

“What about ministry?” she said. “I feel like he’s building you to do ministry work from the way that you’ve been learning and going.”

I trusted Jenn but felt this was a decision too big to make on my own, so I reached out to Lance from student ministry. I’d spent several years learning from, and serving beside, Lance in ministry. I’d come to consider him one of my greatest friends because he was able to present himself and present the gospel in a loving way, but willing to call me out when I needed it. He had become “that guy” for me.

After my conversation with Jenn, I went to Lance and said, “You know, I think I want to get into ministry.”

“Okay. What kind?” he asked.

“I have no idea.”

“Well, student? Campus pastor? What kind of vision do you have here?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I like them all. I kind of like each of the duties that everybody does.”

“Well, I’ve got to tell you something,” he said. “I see you do really well in front of groups of people. I always see you do your best, in your environment. Think about this Jay: God allowed you to go through everything you went through—every single drug, every single drink, he allowed you to hurt as many people as you needed to hurt, and get hurt as many times as you needed to get hurt—in order to reach the people that you can reach; people God needs you to reach, that I can’t reach because I’ve never walked that walk.”

He added, “God allowed you to go through that so that your story can reach the people he needs you to reach. So my recommendation would be for you to start a ministry that involves that.”

And that sounded very pleasing to me.

“All right,” I said.

So Lance set up a meeting with me, and campus pastors Greg Poore and Karl Garcia. They asked me, “If you could change one thing about Celebrate Recovery, what would it be?” And I said, “Everything.”

“Really?”

“I really don’t like any part about it, but that’s just me. Celebrate Recovery works great for some people, but it didn’t work great for me.”

“Well, what would you do different? Can you come up with a plan for what you would want?”

(Jay, Lexi, and Jenn)

Over the next year, I went to 15 different recovery ministries in the greater Houston area and found one curriculum I really, really loved called SteppingInto Freedom. It’s the same 12 steps as Alcoholics Anonymous, but every single step points to Christ. The three fundamentals of their step work are growing a foundation in Christ, learning how to walk in Christ, and maturing in Christ. And I loved that! I thought, This is what people need to hear, right here.

I presented the curriculum to Greg Poore, then took him through it.  Following his approval, it took a year to get our new ministry, Pathway to Peace, ready and going. We launched Pathway to Peace with four in the group and went through the 12 steps. But then we started getting new people coming in who had never heard of one of the steps, and we heard things like, “Well, what’s steps one through six, if y’all are on seven? I don’t get it.”

Jason Wilson, who was leading the group for me, suggested doing topics at each meeting rather than going sequentially through the steps. “That way,” Jason said, “anyone can relate no matter how far along they are” 

I took the suggestion back to Greg—with my sales pitch all prepared—and Greg looked at me and said, “Well, really, my opinion doesn’t amount to crap for you, because I feel like I’ve got the right man for the job for this, because I don’t know about recovery. I don’t know how it runs. I feel like you do, and you’re in a good position to lead these people. So I trust your opinion. If you think this is what y’all need to do, run with it.”

We made the change, and Pathway to Peace attendance has multiplied ever since. We had about 40 people show up at a recent meeting, and we’re an established ministry at Clear Creek Community Church.

A year into the life of Pathway to Peace, we realized that on top of ministering to recovering addicts, we also wanted to minister to the families and friends of addicts. Jenn now leads the Concerned Persons group that does exactly that, while I continue to lead the Into Freedom group within Pathway to Peace that is solely for those battling their addiction.

I get one or two phone calls from somebody new every single day, from either the website or a referral from somebody at one of the campuses. We hear so many stories of people who had zero relationship with God, and are now serving at the church, and in small group, and, even leading groups. People now having a relationship with God. Three people who have gone through Pathway to Peace have been baptized.

It’s beautiful to sit back and watch when we see the light go on for someone, and they’re finally understanding grace and the relationship aspect of God. That true surrender finally happens and it changes their life. 

***

You should know, my life isn’t easy. It’s tempting to read all of this and think, Oh, I guess it all worked out.In reality, I continue to battle constant health issues because of my past. But for all the bad, and all the hurt and pain I’ve caused and endured, God continues to use my experience for his good.

We all have a story, and we all need to use it to reach the people that God needs us to reach. Our story is our platform, it’s our poster, it’s what we need to go show the world so that we can say, “Thisis what I was, but thisis who I am in Christ.”


Forgive

Physically, I’ve been somebody who, since I was in high school worked out every day. I was a college athlete. Played sports my entire life.

I stopped working out, I stopped training. Things didn’t get to me. I could really feel my heart hardening to a lot of things that would previously affect me, and that was when my wife really knew that something was wrong.

When people are going through depression for whatever reason, they don’t necessarily recognize it at that time. And I didn’t either.

So, my brother had a child with my sister-in-law, my wife’s sister. And he just up and left. He abandoned the family, took off. And whenever all of that happened, because of how tight-knit both of our families are, it created a lot of animosity and thrust me into that middle man role. With that came a lot of expectation and things – the way other people wanted me to handle the situation. And it created a lot of tension within my marriage. And we were still a very young marriage, at that point we hadn’t even been married a year.

When I would come home from work, I would eat dinner and go to bed because the last thing I wanted to do was have a conversation with my wife.

I was a coward to the point where I was going to try to push her away.

In my mind at that time, that was the only way I was go get the resolution that I wanted, which was to get everybody away from me so I could get a fresh start, and I could go out and be alleviated of this situation, because I didn’t want to live that way for the rest of my life.

Everything I was doing was dictated around trying to get rid of that sense of stress in my life to the point where it actually pushed me to commit adultery. That was the lowest I’d ever sunk in my life. I didn’t know how to come back from that.

At that point, I fully anticipated coming home, her having my stuff waiting outside. I could pick it up and hit the road.

And I was wrong.

When I got home… Well, I didn’t go home. She met me at a church. And, she sat there and I expected her to chew me out and to want to know why, and to hate me, to just throw me out. And she didn’t. She sat there and she looked me in the eyes, with tears coming down her face and she told me that she’s not giving up on me, she’s not quitting on me. And it made me so angry. I was so mad at her! How can you respond that way? That makes no sense to me.

So initially, I just fell deeper into that depression and started struggling even more, and tried to push her away even more. Then it was just a slow battle of redemption.

It wasn’t me.

Because at that point, there was nothing that I wanted to do that was going to bring me out of that. I wanted to get away from it, and that’s what was going to bring me out of the depression in my mind. It was God working in certain ways. Everybody thinks about the way that God’s going to work within them. But what you don’t understand, and you don’t anticipate, is the way that God works in people around you.

That was the thing that I guess affected me more than anything, was I got to see it in my wife. I got to see the people who I expected to be the angriest, and the most disappointed in me, not be so. I got to experience things that were total God moments, where people that, for no other reason than God being in that place at that time, were pouring very specific messages that I needed to hear during that journey into my heart. That was kind of how it happened. It was gradual, it wasn’t just overnight I flipped a switch, but there was that moment of clarity for me where I realized I do love my wife, and God brought her into my life for a reason. And she’s the person I want to spend the rest of my life with.

For a lot of that entire process I didn’t want to know necessarily the answer for forgiveness because I didn’t feel like I was forgivable. I felt like what I did was the most heinous thing that anybody could ever do. For me, there was no excuse why my wife should stay with me. I didn’t deserve to be with her. Just kind of painting this pity party, so to speak, of why I didn’t deserve to be forgiven. All the while, I’ve got people who are showing me the entire time what it means to forgive, what it looks like to forgive. I didn’t understand that God is a forgiving God, that he is a redeeming God, and he forgives us and allows us to be able to have these opportunities at redemption.

So, understanding that, and learning exactly what the gospel teaches us about forgiveness. Because in our world, when people do things as heinous as what I did, you don’t forgive them. You don’t ever lose that sense of being angry toward that person, that just doesn’t happen. You don’t see that happen unless God is truly working in somebody. So, learning what that looked like, and seeing it firsthand from my wife, that was the lesson that I learned. It wasn’t a particular verse, but it was seeing the lesson of forgiveness being lived out through the people around me. You know, the way that she was handling things with sending me prayers, and sitting there and actually seeing her go through and revert back to Scripture to pull her through the situation, because, obviously, she was struggling as well. And so, she’s finding Scripture to pull herself through it, she’s finding Scripture to pull me through it. And then from there, it was just, you know, we had a very intentional sense that the Gospel has to be at the forefront of our lives.

So, we got plugged in at Clear Creek [Community Church], and really started to grow, and continued to push each other.

I mean, obviously, since I got baptized last year, there are things that I still struggle with.

When you get baptized and you come to faith in Christ, it’s not easy. I tell people oftentimes, it’s a lot harder. Walking this way and living your life by faith is a lot harder than not. But there’s no better way to live it

This is Ginger

 

Meet Ginger.

It was three years ago that God pressed a very particular mission on the heart of Ginger Sprouse.  Having recently opened up her own cooking school in Nassau Bay, Texas, she passed one particular intersection on her way to and from Art of the Meal multiple times a day.  And every day, she would see the same African American man standing at the corner of El Camino Real and Nasa Road 1.  He was always in the same spot, pacing or dancing, waving to those passing by, or sometimes just staring.  Presumably homeless, she couldn’t help but wonder: What was his story?  Who was he?  Why was he always standing at the same location?  But for Ginger, this tug of compassion had not always been a familiar feeling.

Hearing about God’s love was routine for Ginger, having grown up in church, but witnessing His love in action was much more foreign.  Her judgmental family upbringing critically impacted her outlook on both life and Christianity.  She spent most of her life pointing her finger at everyone else and never at herself, and she carried this self-righteous disposition into adulthood.  Nevertheless, Ginger succeeded in creating her own beautiful family.  She and her husband lived a peaceful farm life where she spent her time gardening and homeschooling her two children.  Until the day she threw it all away.

Ginger embraced a sinful lifestyle, left her family, and threw God away as a byproduct.  It was at this time that she was told, “You are the least compassionate person I’ve ever met.  You don’t have a shred of compassion in you that you can throw your family and life away.”  It was time to face the ugly truth about herself—she lacked the very compassion of Christ that she had learned about all those years growing up.

“You know, my prayer for a long time was, ‘Lord make me want to want you because I don’t have that,” Ginger admitted.  Having divorced her husband and strained her relationships with her children, she eventually came to a place in life when she determined to “grow up,” spiritually, and her focus began to shift from herself to Christ and Christ alone.  It was around this time that she discovered Clear Creek Community Church and eventually met her now husband, Dean, who also attended Creek.

Her prayer ever since the Lord brought her back became, “You have to show me how to be compassionate like Christ because I don’t have it in me; it’s not natural to me.”

The funny thing about asking is… you typically shall receive.

Although she was certainly feeling compelled to stop and talk to the man on the corner, she initially resisted the strength of the pull.  Instead, in Jonah-esque fashion, Ginger drove out of her way to work for an entire month so she wouldn’t have to pass by and reconcile the insistent feeling in her gut that she was supposed to stop.

“I didn’t want to stop.  But finally one day, I was driving by and I saw him again, and I called out loud to the Lord, ‘Fine! But you’re going to have to do something because I got nothing!’ and so I pulled over, and that was the first time I ever talked to him.”

Meet Victor.

“I remember it like yesterday,” the thirty-two-year-old autistic street resident recalls about the first time he met Ginger.  He has nothing but positive things to say about the woman who befriended him at his corner.

Ginger recollects a mentally ill man who was in a pretty bad state: unmedicated, unbathed, and not very lucid.  “It was kind of scary… but I looked in his face and there was such pain there; it was like he was trapped.”  And he was—it has been told that Victor Hubbard’s mother dropped him off on the corner years ago and told him to wait there for her to come back.

Victor was still waiting.

“How could I walk away?” Ginger reconciled.  “It was then that I realized: this was compassion. And I started praying for the Lord to heal him and give him enough lucidity that I could have a conversation with him.”

Thus began her regular visits with a man she now describes as sweet, gentle, and eternally optimistic.  “I would take my coffee and we would sometimes just sit there and sometimes chat and sometimes just watch the cars drive by.”

“I would always wait for Ginger to come around the corner,” Victor reminisced, “so we could go do something together and forget about everything else. ”

And then, suddenly, Victor disappeared for two weeks.  While Ginger’s husband, Dean, encouraged her that she was doing everything that she could do—hanging out with him, bringing him sandwiches, bringing him clothes—she struggled with the idea of just leaving him on the corner.  Ginger felt compelled to do more.

“I said you know what? He has 15 sandwiches; he’s got tons of coats; people are bringing him sleeping bags; he has all this stuff, which is good.  But this stuff is not going to get him out of this situation.” And that’s really what the Lord put on Ginger’s heart—what could she do to help transform his circumstances?

“I kept saying, ‘Lord, you have to break my heart for what breaks your heart.’  And the Lord has such a heart for the people who are helpless, and I just said, ‘Okay I have got to get out of my bubble and not be so consumed with myself that I don’t have time.’”  She spent many sleepless nights worrying about him until, finally, her husband agreed she could bring him to their home.

When the weather got cold in December, Ginger began asking Victor how he would feel about coming to her house to get out of the cold.  It was a day neither of them will likely ever forget, and not because of the ice-cold December rain.  As Ginger pulled up to the corner and got out of her car, she voiced six life-changing words: “Do you want to go home?”

To which Victor replied, ‘Yea, I want to go home.’”

Ginger, Dean, and their two teenage children welcomed Victor into their home to bathe, put on clean clothes, eat their food, and sleep—which he did for twelve hours straight that first night.  But Victor wasn’t just invited into their house, he was invited into their family.

Meet the community.

Ginger began making phone calls to rally the community to come together and find Victor the mental health help he needed.  Eventually, she create the Facebook page, This is Victor, as a way to advocate for resources and create a community of people to care for him.  Ginger believed in faith that at least 200 people in the community would recognize Victor as the man from our community, who they also drove past, and rise up to help.

The response from the community was overwhelming.

Today, the Facebook page boasts over 8,000 followers and Victor has received medical attention, meal gift cards, clothing, bicycle transportation, and nearly $15,000 in a gofundme account to go towards finding him a more permanent living situation.  He has become quite the public figure in the community over the past few months, and more recently, has even garnered national attention. After being featured on TV via KHOU, both CBS News and Fox News have also run his story as well as other major news avenues.

However, Ginger says the most popular response to the Facebook page has been people sharing how they have been praying for Victor for years every time they drive by the corner.  “Many people have seen Victor over the years, but not known what else they could do to help except to pray.  And that is what I love about God, that so many people were praying, and all the while the Lord was equipping me to stop.  I feel like I didn’t do much but just show people what they can do.”
Anyone who gets the chance to talk to Victor will tell you that he is an eloquent speaker who so effortlessly paints pictures with his words.  In fact, he is a writer and a musician, and now that he is officially off the streets and temporarily staying in a local hotel, he has his own space to write again.  When asked how he feels about how his life has changed, Victor says he feels like an eagle, “because they symbolize justice, equality, and freedom, and that’s how I feel; I feel like a bird that has been freed.”

And this eagle doesn’t stay inside all day, in fact, he sometimes goes back to visit the corner.  “I go back to the corner just to remind myself where I came from… I was in a war zone and I’ve been through the worst, but I never let it destroy me.  I let my friendships take over, instead,” he says. “You overcome something so it won’t overcome you. You stand over something so it won’t stand over you. I always remember that things can change, and I remember that they did change, so I can still look at the corner like he is my friend.”

Victor isn’t the only one who looks to his past to make sense of his life moving forward.  “It still breaks my heart when I consider the pain and disruption that I caused everyone else in my life,” Ginger admits without a single flippant note in her confession. “But he could never have transformed me if I was still sitting in the middle of my judgmental happy little self.  I feel so sad that I was so hardened that the only way God could transform me was that other people had to be hurt in the process, but I also know that he can use that hurt in their lives to bring them to himself as well.  So I’ve asked the Lord to never let me forget it.”

Ginger has recently given Victor a job at Art of the Meal and admits that they are, “going to be in each other’s lives forever.”  She hopes that one day she and Victor will see someone who needs help and then, together, they can bring someone else into their “circle of overcoming.”

Victor claims he isn’t going anywhere either, “Nobody has a friendship like we have and it’s a long lasting thing because once you become a friend you’re always a friend.” And with a big toothy smile on his face, Victor added, “Other people are already invited to the party, they just gotta come get their invitation.”  To which Ginger laughs, acknowledging she was invited all along.  She just had to show up.