Saturday, May 7, 2016

Friends and Strangers Who Transform our Lives

Along the road that is my life, time and again I've been impacted by friends and strangers.  In our fast paced society many of us lost touch with something as basic as human relationships.  We're glued to screens and our lives no longer make sense.  But time and again great minds reflecting on their lives indicate that the most meaningful part were their relationships with others.  I have to agree.  

Of course my most meaningful relationship is with Jesus.  Yet it is fundamentally a relationship built on an arrangement for rebirth, redemption, legal absolution, and eternal friendship.

I can look back and see people who helped lead me to this vital relationship.  I can look back and see relationships that detracted from that journey.  Inevitably we all find ourselves broken off from those we've previously loved, or aching for those who are gone.  We wonder at those who have left our lives unexpectedly.  We pine for romances that were destruction.  We ache for people who treated us like trash.  We can't stop thinking about someone we've never even spoken to.  We want something until we have it, then we no longer want it. What an odd state it is, the heart of man!  

In my life I've known many people.  In my life I've been close with many people.  In my life I've lost many people.  And I've been betrayed by those who were close with me.  I'm sure most of us can say the same.  But the relationships I think of today are the friends and strangers who transformed my life.

Many of these people were there along the journey, pointing me in the right direction.  

There were two cute girls who walked up to me.  I was a young, hot shot journalist working at the college newspaper.  A buddy and I were at the office joking around listening to music.  These two girls asked me if I thought I would go to heaven if I died today.  I said yes.  They asked me why.  I said what most people say to that question, "I'm a pretty good person."  Then they told me the gospel.  And I listened.  I told them that I was open to the idea of God, but I just couldn't quite believe.  I said there was really no way to know for sure.  I said that there just wasn't enough evidence.  They asked if they could pray for me.  And I said, "sure."  And I'm so glad they did.  Because today I'm a rock ribbed follower of Jesus Christ.  I bet as they walked away they thought they'd totally blew it.  But they didn't.  

God takes our most pathetic, awkward attempts and uses them for the blessings of his glory in the renewal of the world in the power of Jesus Christ.  Very simple, they just tried their best.  God did the rest.  That was in 2008.  

In 2011 I experienced a very powerful moment.  It was a bright sunny day.  I was staring out the big windows of my mom's house wondering why I existed.  I was wondering why anything existed.  It was just then that I looked out on the colored flowers and noticed a humming bird.  I watched it's wings, moving so quickly all you could see was a blur.  I observe it's beak dipping into the tips of the flowers.  And at that moment I realized... there is a God.  All of this couldn't come about by chance, or by accident.  There is something more to life.  There is a hidden orchestra playing beneath the surface.  It was then that I really began searching for God.  And occasionally I will see a humming bird.  God uses it as a reminder, directly to me, to let me know I'm in the right place, right within his will.  And in his hand.  

I was feeling a bit crabby a few weeks ago.  I was at a lunch with some people from the church.  I suppose you could say I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of human contact I was having to endure.  I've been so often such a private person, preferring to spend not just some time, but the majority of my time alone.  I looked up as Major Evelyn sat down and I noticed two humming birds on her shirt.  And I smiled, and relaxed a bit.  God has me exactly where he wants me.

One year ago I was at Salvation Army Territorial headquarters and I noticed a beautiful piece of art.  It had been priced down, otherwise it would've been over $200.00.  But it was 75% off, only $50.00.  It was a painting of a beautiful road through the woods.  I purchased it, and hung it in my new apartment, once I moved to Escanaba.  I was following the road.  And one day I looked up close on the painting, and noticed something I hadn't seen before: two blue humming birds flying across the trail.

I digress.  After my parents divorced, my grandpa and mom started going to a baptist church.  At the time I was a brutal miscreant, addicted to drugs and chaos.  They started attending a Bible study, and those at the Bible study began praying for me.  Ten years later I was at a small group at an E-free church in Wausau.  I had become friends with the leader, a man named Ryan.  Now I hadn't mentioned my family much, but eventually I brought my mom and grandfather, using my mom's maiden name.  Ryan looked shocked for a moment when he connected the dots.  Then he looked at me and said, "I went to that church in Mosinee.  Ten years ago I was praying for you, with your mom and grandpa."  I couldn't believe it. 

His prayers, and the prayers of many others had changed the course of my life.  

My grandfather gave me a Bible in 2010.  It was a beautiful Bible.  I started reading it.  I really loved Genesis.  I read Genesis over and over.  For some reason I became increasingly obsessed with reading this Bible I'd been given.  Things in my life didn't change right away though.  I was still a depraved drug addict hippie stoner gonzo journalist psycho.  But I was a depraved wretch carrying a Bible around with me.  

My grandpa told me about Jesus.  We sat down together several times and he shared about it.  I listened carefully.  I didn't really know what to think at the time.  I could feel something special was happening.  But I couldn't quite grasp it.  And my own cares soon crowded those moments out.  But then again, you never forget either.  It becomes a part of your mind.  

The experience builded for me, over years.  It progressed carefully, along a dark road where my soul was toeing the line between redemption and total destruction.  I was literally near death by 2011.

I had been admitted to the St. Clare's hospital for a serious drug overdose.  I was in ICU.  I had suction cups scattered across both my kidneys.  An IV in my arm.  And a special care worker sat with me consistently, so I wouldn't have to die alone, assuming I did pass.  The first night the doctor told me flatly: We aren't sure if your going to make it through the night.  Then he slammed the door brashly.  Why?  Because my life didn't matter.  I was a drug addict who had finally destroyed himself.  What a terror that night was!  What an unquenchable fear that came over me!

I survived.  The next morning father Marion, the lead chaplain came in to see me.  He was an intriguing man.  His face was like a wax painting, he looked like an Italian saint straight out of a french novel.  He talked to me.  I begged him for help.  I said,"How can I break free from this addiction father?  I've tried dozens of times, but I can never sustain it over a few months!"

He asked me if I believed in God.  I said yes, I do.  I told him about the Bible I carried around with me, and about the stories I was reading in Genesis.  He looked at me and said,"Your my brother in Christ."  And I never forgot that moment.  

In late 2011 I was arrested and thrown in jail.  I had nightmares almost every night.  My only comfort was clutching a Bible I'd found.  In fact I slept with it on my chest, and many times it would fall off my chest and hit the floor during the night.  The other inmates in the cell block were getting angry because when it hit the floor the "slap" sound would wake them up.  

I had been on so many drugs, been awake for so many days I thought the world was ending.  It took over two weeks of my time in jail to come down off the drugs.  During that time I was sure the world was ending.  The other inmates tried to convince me that it wasn't.  To add to the bizarre saga a Jehovah Witness friend at the time visited me in jail and told that the world was ending!  Which only added to my confusion.

Reflecting on those times, is troubling.  There was certainly something spiritually malevolent about those last two years.  There was something darker, something almost demonic.  Like I was under attack.  And that very well may have been the case. If one is not under the dominion of Christ then one is under the dominion and spiritual control of Satan (Ephesians 2:2). 

In 2012 I asked for Christian stuff for Christmas.  We have an exchange system, and that year my cousin Kimberly was buying for me.  And God was at work.  She purchased me a movie called "The Gospel of John."  The script of the movie is word-for-word the Gospel of John from the Bible.  As I've commented in the past, I'm an audio-visual learner.  I don't do well with reading.  I do best with presentations, talking face to face, podcasts, radio, television, and movies.  I watched the Gospel of John movie about two hundred times.  I watched it over and over.  I don't know why.  Well, I do know why.  Because God was getting a-hold of my heart.  

During that time I was writing a book.  It was a bizarre work I titled "Jacob and the Meadow."  It was a very strange piece of writing.  Looking back on it now, I realized the story was a spiritual exploration.  And within that story God stepped in.  God met me in a very powerful way, through my own writing.  He interjected his truth into this story I was writing, that I kept writing and rewriting.  Eventually as I read the Bible, the stories of Jacob, Joseph, Abraham, and Isaac I began incorporating scriptural references into the story.  

The drug addiction got worse and worse at the same time.  By the end I would sleep for several days after one trip, because my body was so devastated by toxins.  

As many of you know, because I've told the story again and again, in November 2012 I fell to my knees, realizing I needed to call out to Jesus to save me.  I did just that.  I cried out.  And he changed my life forever.  

Flip over to the other side.  Shift to the other side of the cross.  Justin is reborn.  Justin has cried out to Jesus.  Jesus Christ has answered and set Justin on a new path.  The addictions, they were gone, through hard work in recovery.  But hard work fueled by Holy Spirit fire.  Hard work fueled by the drive of a new Christian heart.  Hard footwork energized by prayer and total surrender to the will of God.  That's the difference.  Because I'd tried before, in recovery, but without the fire of the Spirit, without Christ in the middle, it was doomed from the outset.  

Thankfully after the cross, God brought person after person to speak into my life.  

First off there was a man named Randy O.  He helped me through a process called the twelve steps.  The twelve steps are designed to help addicts to make contact with God.  Randy O. did not listen to my crap.  He didn't listen to my sob stories and rub me gently on the back and say, "Oh Justin, it'll be OK tell me more."  Instead Randy told me to show up at his place five days a week, at 8 am in the morning.  I actually did that.  And everyday we sat there for 3 hours a day going through the steps, 1 through 12, one at a time.  This was the beginning of hope in my life.  There had been so much trauma, so much damage, so much PTSD, so much depression that I desperately needed a thorough house cleaning.  Thank God for Randy, who took me through that process without apology.  

Of course a man who spoke a great deal into my life was the man who baptized me.  Very simply, he shared the gospel with me time and again at Sunday services.  He preached the word.  Thankfully my heart was willing to receive it.  Eventually the formula of eternal life through Jesus Christ snapped into place in my mind.  I was saved.  The opportunity to be baptized was offered, I took that opportunity.  And I was baptized publicly into the body of Christ.  

Still another person, at that church, told me about Liberty university and how she was attending to become a minister.  Ironically enough she knew Marion the priest at St. Clare's because she was interning under him at the time.  The whole thing had an unmistakable symmetry.  So I applied to LU and I was accepted.  Today I'm finishing up two degrees at LU (We theology types save math until last).  

I was looking for work a year later and I applied at a Salvation Army homeless shelter.  My dad had worked for 25+ years at the Salvation Army in town as a teacher, helping the homeless work toward their GED.  Once again I was noticing a symmetry.  I was looking for work, little did I realize that through several odd shifts in events, I would become progressively more and move involved in the Salvation Army.  

I was working full time, weekends, and I was not able to get to my home church because of the Sunday hours.  The Social services director told me I could come to the Salvation Army chapel services while I worked on Sundays.  I started doing that.  And through that several new mentors showed up in my life; Lt. Jacob and Melinda, and Ed and Dee.  They spoke into my life, and shined the light before me.  I watched them quietly, learning and saying little.  I had run my mouth enough in my life, I knew it was time to observe for a while.  And they set an example, a wonderful example for me to follow.

Another man named Al became a mentor for me.  He was a retired Catholic priest and he became a chief encourager and supporter in my life.  He helped me in many ways to make peace with my Catholic upbringing and the disdain I had developed for Catholicism. 

There has been so many people.  Yet there have never been enough.  The heart aches for these vital friendships, these connections.  Here in Escanaba I've been blessed with wise leaders that I look up to.  I've been blessed with a congregation that has become my family in a way I didn't think was possible.  

People, friends and strangers, they transform our lives.  But there is one relationship that keeps me through all of it: God with us, Immanuel, Jesus Christ, Yeshua, the great physician, the son of God: He is with me always you see.  His Spirit guides me.  He communicates to me through His good book, and He speaks to me through dozens of mouths.  And even through sunsets, skylines, and green forests.  Every single relationship leads back to Jesus.  Every single time a Christian impacted my life, it wasn't even them it was Jesus.  They were His body you see, speaking to me.  They were His body to me, calling me to something greater.  Now I've become a part of that body.  My job is to be that body, especially when it's hard, and some scumbag who doesn't deserve it stumbles into my arms, it's my job to be a link in that chain, because because because friends, that scumbag is me.  Even more so, that scumbag is Jesus in disguise.  Little do I know how a few words from my mouth, a few prayers to God will cause a scumbag like him, like me, to someday know and glorify my dearest friend Jesus. Remember that when you think you blew it, you tried, God will do the rest.  

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