When I was a junior in high school, I had the opportunity to speak in our upper school chapel. For some reason, I chose to pursue this opportunity (Good thing I was athletic. Because of that, I was able to maintain some social clout after – as you will soon see — I gave a nice fire and brimstone sermon).
I don’t remember all the details of my talk that day, but here are the three things I do:
- I ended my talk with the last song from the first album by Jars of Clay, “Word’s Apart.” This was the climatic moment. Everything that came before was leading to this song. Therefore…
- My talk was about telling my fellow students to pray to God to destroy their lives.
- I also seem to remember telling everyone that they were going to hell for cussing.
I’m embarrassed to admit this; kind of like I am embarrassed to admit I have been baptized twice and both times were in an believer’s baptism church; kind of like I am embarrassed to admit I once emailed a pastor that he was bad at his job and a wayward Christian because I thought he cursed in a prayer. Some cringe worthy moments, for sure, and let me just tell you, I am only scratching the surface here.
In the end, I do commend high school Justin’s courage while wishing he would have been a bit gentler and a bit more nuanced. While the delivery was harsh and the content a bit misguided, I do believe I was onto something – that the spirit of the message still applies even though my theology and orthopraxy has shifted some over the years. Here is what I mean:
No matter the outcome, we are meant to surrender our lives to Christ.
In this journey of faith, this surrender reoccurs over and over and looks different at different stages of our lives. There is the first surrender – some may say it is the ultimate surrender – that turns us from walking backward on the path and faces and draws us to the Light at the other end of it.
The journey with and toward the Light is arduous, so we think, and we perceive that we wander backward, side to side, or even off it completely, screeching into the woods with the full hope that we will never be on the path again.
Yet, at some point in time, we find ourselves wanting to move back toward the Light. We imagine ourselves drifting back toward the center of the path, bruised and battered, with our head dragging in the dust as our feet shuffle back.
As we situate ourselves in that place hoping and desiring to move again toward the Light, not really sure of how to do it, we pray: “God, I surrender my life to you. Everything. My relationships, my job, my family, my church, my friends. Everything. It is yours. Lead.”
And, we imagine, God’s wrath soon to come, chastising us for leaving him and leaving the path. We imagine judgment raining down boulders to crush us and make the path ahead of us more difficult. We believe that we will strive and we will make it to the Light, and God will say, “well done, my good and faithful, obedient, self-sufficient servant.”
None of that happens. As we squint our eyes and brace for the condemnation to come, Jesus gently, with the soft underside of his finger, lifts our chin up from where we placed it and says, “You are my beloved. Whatever you have done, wherever you think you have been – even if you think you have been away from me, whatever failings you have perceived you have unleashed upon me and this world, none of that is true. You have been on this path, in the center, facing and moving toward the Light all along. You think you have to surrender something to me. You are already mine. I am already yours. And I have never left or forsaken you. Come.”
He takes us by the hand and continues to lead us in the direction we were already going.
Sometimes this call doesn’t seem so gentle. Sometimes, it feels like the hands of a carpenter make a stern appearance, crushing our gullet, and drags us kicking and screaming down the rocky path. But, when we are able to step outside ourselves and look down from a perched place above the scene, we see our perception was a bit off.
My soul, just like this person, has felt battered and bruised over the past few years, and especially over the past 8 months. Back in January, feeling as if a tree had crushed me on the path after a lightning storm dislodged it, I began praying the prayer mentioned above – the softer version of what my high school self challenged his classmates to do. I prayed, hunkered down at a local chapel:
“Lord, I surrender my life to you. All of it.”
I prayed, and continue to pray, this prayer. Not because the path I have been on has been the wrong one or one outside the will of God. More so, the sorrow, the depression, the difficulties I had been experiencing were calls telling me, “A fork in the road is coming, Justin, and please listen to the cries of your heart. I want you to hop on another path. I want you to surrender the path you have been on, the one that has been blessed with an abundance of fruit, and follow this other one. It goes to the Light – just like the one you are currently on — but it goes a different direction.”
There were tears; there was anguish; there was hurt. For 14 years, I have been on this branch of the path and believed it was the one to take me to the Light. I didn’t want to lose what I had accomplished, to leave all that I had built, to forfeit the relationships I so cherished. But, the Lord insisted, and I relented.
I am burying the lede. Big time. You had to suffer through an extended metaphor that is one of the oldies in the book. Good for you. So, here is where I have been heading…
I will not be going back to TCA next year to teach or coach.
The despair I have experienced, the struggles I have endured, are age old for me. I’ve consciously been struggling with 3 things since college (at least):
An inability to accept God’s grace for myself.
Even in the midst of all those things, God has been so gracious to have used me for his work along this path, and I have grown so much from it. But, once the tree fell and crushed me this year, it was clear that – while I had been able to access some supernatural well of strength deep, and I mean deep within the recesses of my soul, to crawl out from underneath the debris in the past — this time, I couldn’t. I had been on the path all along, and God was with me on it, but my eyes had been looking down for a while, working so hard and with much anxiety to move along this path in the correct way, without tripping or falling, that the reserves deep within the well previously had been sucked dry by my striving. Therefore, I was too pained and too empty to be freed. God was clearly saying that it was time to let go of all that I built – at my job, with my identity, with my hopes and dreams for the future, etc. – and give them over to him. He removed the tree and placed me upright along the path I wasn’t expecting at the upcoming fork – the one without TCA.
For the first time in a while, I am at peace. I don’t know all that is to come once August rolls around, and I’m sure fears and anxieties will build as the reality of next year sets in, but I realize for the first time in a long time that he is with me. And for the first time in a long time, I will realize that I am with him.
To find spiritual and emotional health is at the core of this. Not so much for my own sake, which that is part of it, but more so that I can continue to love and serve the Lord in all that I do.
I’ve been hiking enough to know that sometimes the fork leads back to the path you were once on so that may be the case for me. I don’t know where this path is headed. The sun is just now slightly peaking up over the horizon. What I do know is this: it is time to let go of the dreams that I had for myself, to hold them lightly in my hand, and to allow God to do what he wants with them – all while being bathed in the Light that draws me along the path to Him.
As Henri Nouwen says,
“In so many ways, the more we insist on control and the more we resist the call to hold our lives lightly, the more we have to deny the reality of our losses and the more artificial our existence becomes. Our belief that we should grasp tightly what we need provides one of the great sources of our suffering. But letting go of possessions and plans and people allows us to enter, for all its risks, a life of new, unexpected freedom.“
Turn my Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times