Grabbing Hold of God and Not Letting Go

yoke-on-two-oxenI remember one day (about 10 years ago) Darlene telling me she thought I had ADD. She would know: Not only is she my wife, who probably knows me better than anyone save God Himself, but she is also a school nurse, and believe me when I tell you she sees LOTS of kids with ADD.

“You start on something,” she explained, “and you’re giving your all to it. Then you see something shiny that distracts your attention. So then you go chasing thing number two, and you rarely come back to thing number one. You need to finish what you start.”

Naturally I brushed her off. She’s my wife, so she’s kind of expected to say harsh things like that, right? But then, a day or two later, my boss at work told me the exact same thing.

That week was the first time anyone had ever told me I had ADD. And not one, but two people (and both people very important to me, and both in the position to know) told me the same thing. All of a sudden they had my attention.

If you know me, you probably do realize that I have some degree of ADD, though I don’t think it’s severe enough where I need medication (other than wine and mushrooms) or other major interventions. But I do get excited about things, and I do have a tendency to really focus on what’s in front of me at the moment, sometimes to the detriment of other projects I’m trying to multitask. I just write it off as one of the many quirks I need to work on. Later.

Where was I going with this? Lemme think …

… oh yeah. This blog. When I started it, back in August (about 20 posts ago) my intention was that it might be a way of putting my memoirs down, as some friends have suggested I ought to do. Therefore I assumed there should be some sort of structure. Such as, start at the beginning like any good storyteller would, and proceed to tell your story.

So, I more or less did that. At first. But then I got distracted. I departed from the timeline and wrote six posts on the theme of “transportation incidents.” And then I wrote five posts all dealing with how God is transforming me today, in the here and now. (And I could easily continue doing that.)

This morning I had a feeling I was wandering, so I went back and took a look, and realized I had departed from my original plan about 11 posts ago. So I guess it’s kind of time to get back to it. Here goes, picking up from my last “sequential” post ….

Gravity

There’s a song which always speaks to me. It’s called “Gravity” by Shawn MacDonald, and its refrain goes something like this: “I don’t wanna fall away from You. Gravity is pulling me on down.” In the physical realm, most of us are creatures subject to gravity. We always have to work to get out of bed in the morning, to sit, to stand, to walk, or even to get from point A to point B by flying in an airplane, helicopter, balloon, or whatever. Overcoming gravity takes constant attention, and can have disastrous consequences (like falling off the roof of your house) if you don’t take basic precautions.

And in the spiritual realm, I think the same thing is essentially true. We have a tendency to be pulled downward through our own lack of inertia. It takes work to keep growing, to keep moving upward, and serious inattention can result in disastrous consequences.

I’m not saying, of course, that our spiritual standing with God is a result of our own work. Far from it! Jesus has already done all the hard work, on the Cross. You could say that the Cross was an Atlas rocket that boosted us into space. Jesus Himself did the heavy lifting and created our escape velocity for us.

But in the practical here and now, if we allow apathy or complacency to seep into our relationship with God, spiritual gravity will slowly pull us earthward. And that is what I now realize was happening, to a certain extent, for about 10 or 12 years after I initially recommitted my life to Christ as a senior in high school.

Biola

“But I thought you went to a Christian college?” you might say. Yes, that’s true. Biola is a wonderful Christian college, and I deeply enjoyed biblical studies there, and making lifelong friends, brothers and sisters who have had a very positive impact on my walk with Christ. But, living in a henhouse doesn’t necessarily make you a good chicken, does it?

While there I also married a wonderful Christian woman, who has done more than anyone to help keep me on track with God. While at Biola, we had weekly chapels and Darlene and I attended a wonderful Friends church. After we graduated and moved back to Upland, for a time we attended the Baptist church where we first met, and our son was born while we attended there. We then moved about five miles to the east and began attending another church, called “Community Baptist Church of Alta Loma,” or CBC for short.

CBC was (and still is) an absolutely fantastic church which grew (under the leadership of its founding pastor, Dr. Bob Logan, and later under the leadership of Dr. Rob Acker) from two people (Bob and his wife Janet) to more than 3,000. While Darlene and I attended, CBC planted about nine daughter churches. The ministry of CBC had a phenomenal impact in our lives.

Small Groups

CBC was where we attended our first small group. There they called them “Community Groups,” and they were serious about them. They had about 50 at one time, and they valued the leaders and worked hard to equip them. (Darlene and I eventually became leaders of our own small group. More about this later.*)

But, it was by participating in that first small group that I began to realize that the trajectory of my spiritual life wasn’t heading the right direction. Oh, I still did Christian things, like reading my Bible (occasionally) and praying before meals. But the focus of my life was my business, and my writing, and raising my family, and our home, etc. The focus of my life, which at one time had been my relationship with God, had wandered elsewhere. I had spiritual ADD.

That first small group helped me to begin to refocus. First of all, it got me thinking about serving others. The group leader somehow found out I played guitar (which I hadn’t really done since learning the instrument in my late high school / early college years), and dubbed me (over my feeble objections) as the official worship leader for our small group. I feel sorry for the group members in those days, but picking up the guitar and seeking to lead worship again really began to do a work in my heart. For one thing, it made me realize how desperately I needed to have God be back in control of my life.

Wrestling With the Angel of the Lord

The next thing that happened was pure God. I’m speaking of the modus operandi that He so often employs, wherein He will use a crisis to redirect our attention, to make us realize how desperately we need Him to be in control, and to force us to deal with our spiritual ADD.

Mandy had been born while Darlene was working a very rigorous job as nursing supervisor for the evening shift at the local hospital. She enjoyed it and it paid well, but it was highly stressful and slowly burning her out. I was doing my best to play Mr. Mom and help with the kids while simultaneously shepherding a struggling business, but I think I too was burning out a little bit.

Then Darlene got sick. She ended up in the hospital she worked at, very sick with pneumonia. While she rested in a hospital bed, I had my hands full with two kids in diapers at home. I was desperately tired. And I also had this heavy, growing sense of spiritual malaise.

Even though I badly needed sleep, one night at the heart of this crisis I found couldn’t go to sleep. So I got out of bed and started reading the Bible. It was near midnight, and I read Genesis 32, and a story which has been dubbed “The strangest wrestling match in history” (to quote Jon Bloom of the Desiring God blog). To summarize:

Jacob is at his wit’s end. He’s being pursued on one side by an uncle he served for many years, who is very angry with him for leaving. On the other, is his brother Esau whom he cheated out of his inheritance years ago, whom he believes probably wants him dead. He’s frightened and exhausted, with no good options. But beyond even this, I think Jacob was simply tired of being who he was: Jacob, sneaky, deceiver.

In this state he goes out late at night for a little alone time, trying to get his head on straight, as it were. And he meets an Angel … not just any Angel, but the Angel of the Lord (which most scholars think is a Christophany, a pre-incarnational appearance of Jesus in history). He meets up with Jesus! And they proceed to sing Kum-Ba-Yah.

No, I’m kidding. They proceed to wrestle! They literally wrestle all night long. Now, I have no doubt God could have “won” this wrestling match in an instant, but instead He allows it to stalemate, further exhausting Jacob’s energy and testing his determination.

As day is breaking, the Angel simply touches Jacob’s hip socket, and it pops out of joint. Now Jacob is completely disabled (and probably in severe pain), but despite this he does not release his grip! And what is he trying to accomplish? Verse 26 reveals:

Then He said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And He said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Reading those words had an impact on me which I can’t quite explain. I realized that, in one sense, I was Jacob. And God was waiting there for me to wrestle with Him, to let Him know I was serious about Him changing my name (my character), Him taking conrol, Him blessing me.

But how to do that? It was late. I was exhausted … just like Jacob. My body and brain was calling out for me to just walk away, just let the Angel go His way, while I went to bed.

But … Jacob hung on and refused to let go until God blessed him.

In a sudden moment of very startling (and perhaps foolish) resolve born of clarity, I prayed: “God, I want you to change me, just as you changed Jacob. I want You to bless me, as You blessed Jacob. So I’m going to hang on. I may never go to sleep again. I don’t care. I’m not going to bed, until You bless me.”

And I stayed there, in my office, my Bible open, sitting in my chair. All night long. I prayed, and I read, and I prayed some more, and I kept repeating myself to God: “You’re stuck with me here. I’m not letting go until something happens. Until you bless me.”

It was about 4:30 in the morning when that “something” suddenly happened. I’ll never be able to describe exactly what it was. But it wasn’t gradual or subtle; it was a sudden, dramatic and sweeping change. It wasn’t physically painful, like Jacob’s hip socket popping out of place. But in a sense, it was spiritually painful. It was a “letting go,” but I liken it to the letting go that the character in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce experienced, when he allowed the angel to break the back of the creepy lizard sitting on his shoulder and whispering evil things in his ear.

It was a momentarily painful “letting go,” followed by a flood of relief as new vistas of God’s love and intention suddenly opened before me.

At some point I leapt up out of my chair. I was no longer exhausted; I felt as if I had the wings of eagles under me, lifting me up. I was a changed man. Transformed! The future suddenly looked completely and dramatically different.

As I said, I’ll never be able to tell you exactly what happened. I know it was the Holy Spirit, filling me up and taking control. I think he was just waiting for me to wait on Him, to truly become serious enough about needing Him to release control of myself. To hang on to Him, in order to loosen my grip on myself.

Transformed

And my life changed after that moment. I gave up my small technology business, which had been the cause of so much distraction. The pastor of our church, Bob Logan, approached me about helping him write a book (and some other materials) about church planting and church health. We ended up writing several books together, and after Beyond Church Growth the publisher asked for 10 sequels! (Some day I may contact them to see if they are still interested; I wrote the first, Mobilizing for Compassion, but that’s been nearly 30 years ago now.)

I began serving others around me instead of just focusing on myself. I got involved in several key ministries at CBC and in the community, which I will write more about later.

After Darlene recovered from her illness, we had a serious conversation about how our lives needed to change. “I’m not sure I can do this much longer,” she told me, referring to her stressful job at the hospital. “Something needs to change.” Then she added with a wry smile: “You need to get a real job.”

So I began looking for full-time work that would more consistently support the family in preparation for our kids’ mother being able to focus more time at home rather than at the hospital. I went back to work for World Vision in 1994, more than a decade after I had left the part-time job I held there shortly after college. (I’ll write more about this chapter of my life in an upcoming post.)

New Mercies, Every Morning

I’ve still had many spiritual ups and down since those days in the 1990s when God got ahold of me. (Gravity keeps pulling me down!) But I often think about what happened that night, and God’s faithfulness. He’s always there, waiting for me to release my grip, to stop trying to do things on my own, so that He can then start anew doing His work in, on and through me.

21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for a man that he bear
    the yoke in his youth.

Lamentations 3:21-27

Is the Yoke on You?

I included that last verse (27) because of the realization that my sense of self-sufficiency was a “yoke” (a burden strapped around the neck of a beast of burden) that I bore “in my youth.” I’m thankful to God for removing that yoke, or at least making it lighter. When Christ is in control, and when the oxen responds to His commands, a yoke really feels like no yoke at all, doesn’t it?

* * * *

*Ultimately I joined the worship ministry at CBC, and also got involved in communications, started their pro-life ministry, and served as an elder. Toward the end of our stay at CBC we joined a church-planting team and served for a year with one of CBC’s daughter churches, now called Journey Community Church.

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