For any of you who have been following this blog over the last few years, you may have noticed that it has been one crazy, whirlwind of an adventure. I’ve highlighted a lot of the major developments from our time in Lake Wales and Sarasota, Florida as well as Asheville, North Carolina. However, as there are many new readers here these days, allow me to catch you up for the sake of context.
DISCLAIMER & SPOILER ALERT:
This is going to be a long post, but I feel like it’s important to get all of the details out there. Also, if by some miracle you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame, this will contain a few spoilers from that film. You’ve been warned… but seriously, go watch it.
There & Back Again
The Back Story (Abridged)
Way back in 2005 I was an ambitious 19-year-old college freshman. I had become a Christian the year before and not long afterward found myself called to ministry. I volunteered with the youth group that I had been with when I was saved and felt called to full time ministry as an international missionary. So after a gap year following high school I applied to and was accepted to Warner Southern College in Lake Wales, FL (now known as Warner University). It was a Christian liberal arts college affiliated with the Church of God (Anderson, not Cleveland for those who are curious). It was during this first semester that I met my wife and began truly seeking the Lord’s direction on where he wanted me to go as a missionary, and after one particular night of intense prayer and petitioning I was walking through an empty parking lot toward the library when I heard a loud, booming voice from behind me say the word Uganda. Now, I had no idea what that meant or that it was a country in sub-Saharan Africa but that one moment would shape my life and the lives of my wife and kids for the next 10 years.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2014 and after years of praying and waiting for the chance to go, we finally got to it. We had started through the process with our home church at the time to be considered “sent missionaries”, but as the process was being redesigned we didn’t really get anywhere. However in late 2013 (I think, though dates are all a bit fuzzy at this point) we were appointed missionary candidates with Africa Inland Mission. Realizing that while we’d lived in South Carolina for nearly 5 years at that point, most of our friends and family were still in Florida; so after a time of prayer and contemplation we sorted through our belongings, rented out our house, and moved back to the sunshine state.
Our first stop was going back to Lake Wales. We returned as interns to the HEART Institute where Abby and I received our first taste of missionary training. HEART is a simulated 3rd world village where you live in plywood huts, pump your own water, go without plumbing, and learn how to do things like gardening, animal husbandry, and build things out of whatever you have available. It is located on the campus of Warner University and we first went there in 2006. In some ways it was much the same as we remembered it, yet in many ways it was completely different. The huts were all as they had been, the animals and the garden were still there, and of course it was still ridiculously hot. However, what had once been a place to focus on preparing missionaries to thrive in an environment that so starkly contrasts with the American way of life now seemed more focused on providing youth groups and the like a unique experience. Whether that change was good or bad is subjective I suppose and not mutually exclusive. It was during this time that we started support raising for our first year in Uganda.
A number of not-so-pleasant situations arose in Lake Wales. Because we hadn’t finished the candidacy program we were informed by a representative from our home church back in South Carolina that they didn’t want us reaching out to members of the congregation for support even though we had been reaching out to people who had told us that they wanted us to do so. At the same time, we began to butt heads with some of the new HEART staff about expectations and the ways that our kids were being treated and before long we knew that it was time to move on. Let me be clear, I wholly believe in the mission of HEART and if you ever have the chance to spend some time there you should totally do it. I only bring it up because it is a big part of my story and while I know it may sound crazy, or even naive, it was the first time I had really experienced real, actual, significant conflict with other believers.
Back to the Suncoast
Only a few short months after leaving our home in South Carolina we realized that our time in Lake Wales was coming to an end. On the heels of our experience at HEART and struggling with feeling abandoned by our church my wife and I again prayed about the next steps. We were only a little way toward our support goal and we had gone through our savings faster than anticipated, so it was time for me to get a job.
We received confirmation to continue on to Sarasota which was part of the original plan. Shortly thereafter I went back to work for Starbucks and we continued to meet with pastors and share our story, however after nearly a year of support raising we were still only at 10% of our goal. Now I know plenty of people who take a long time to raise support, but when in the course of doing what you believe God has called you to do, it is important to check back in with Him to make sure nothing has changed (and to amend if necessary). It was at this point that we realized everything had changed.
You see, not only had we been unable to raise enough support, but every proverbial door that we knocked on remained firmly shut and every open door closed as we approached it. We were pushing hard to be faithful, but something just felt off about the whole thing. The passion and desire to go to Uganda had left us. Now I would have been critical of that “feeling” if it were just something we wanted to do, but going to Uganda was what we had been working toward since before we were married. It was a part of who we were and what we did. Nearly every life choice we made was oriented toward the mission of pouring ourselves out for the people of Uganda, and suddenly that purpose was gone. Not trusting ourselves because of the emotions involvement, we asked several brothers and sisters we knew to be faithful and trustworthy to pray through our next steps and all of them came back with confirmation of what we already knew: God had taken Uganda off the table.
Jump ahead several more months to the spring of 2015 and we found ourselves living on a lavender farm in Asheville, North Carolina. After realizing that we were no longer going to Uganda I started taking classes to finish up my bachelor’s degree which I had put on hold after my second child was born, and we realized that we couldn’t really stay in Sarasota (it’s really expensive there). This was the start of a really hard season that would last for the next 5 years. After everything we had been through over those last two years, my wife began to suffer from adrenal fatigue leaving her on bed rest for several months. I found myself working 2-3 jobs at one point to make ends meet while taking classes as I got closer to graduation, and on top of all of that we found out that our oldest son had been suffering from an autoimmune disorder that was effecting him neurologically.
Now I don’t want it to sound like everything was bad. There were some great and amazing times interspersed in all of these stories I’m sharing with you, and perhaps some day I’ll share some of those. But the fact is the overarching theme of this season has been that trial and perseverance. Devastation and reform. Spiritual war and fatigue.
Now I admit that I am not the best when it comes to dealing with emotions. While I like to work through and resolve problems, I have a tendency to try and roll with the punches. I don’t like to make a big deal out of things that might really bother other people. While I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing it can lead to suppressing things that are legitimately upsetting, even if it’s not on purpose which is exactly what happened to me. I felt like if I shouldn’t be upset or mourn what happened with Uganda, or what happened at HEART, or the response we had from our home church but really what was happening was suppressing and not processing. While I forgave and moved on from all of that in my mind, I was never able to fully reconcile that in my heart until now.
Jump ahead to the fall of 2018. We’d been in the process of adopting our daughter since March of that year and little progress had been made (if you are interested in that story, I’m planning to write more on the adoption process and our adoption story once it’s all done and she is home). It was in November that we got a call that left us completely wrecked. While we were still waiting for our adoption agency and the government agencies to process our paperwork another family had reserved the file for the little girl that we had been pursuing, meaning they had 30 days to decide if they would adopt her or not. Now it may not sound like a big deal, but for us it was. I had been uneasy about adoption at the start of the process, and even more so when it came to special needs adoption; but God changed my heart. We’d been praying for her as a family, making life changes to accommodate her, and making a special place in our hearts for her, and suddenly there was a possibility that this child whom we had come to love as part of our family might not get to be a part of our family. In the end that other family decided to pursue another child, but for that month we had to really wrestle with some extremely difficult thoughts and emotions. This was probably the first time in the 15 years of being a believer that I really felt like my faith had been shaken. First you took away Uganda, now this? I thought. I honestly hadn’t struggled like that before, but as the dust settled, no harm had been done so I just tried to move on as I prepared to start a new career after having to wait over a year after graduating to land a job.
And now we’re here, in the middle of 2019, still waiting. We’ve made progress in the process, but we’re likely still a few months away from getting to travel. I’ve had my head buried in my work as I’ve been getting acclimated to my new position which has kept me pretty distracted from the heavier things that I’ve mentioned here until the last few days. We recently found out that it’s possible we may have to go back (again) a few steps in the adoption. While it’s not likely, there is a possibility that in doing so we could still miss out on bringing her home. We thought the hardest part was behind us and this is when I hit my limit. My mind was racing. Again? Why has every step of this process been such a battle? Why do you keep doing this? Why can’t we ever have something like this be easy? Why do allow others to have such an easy time and we have to fight for every inch? Why are you making us suffer when we’re trying to do the things that you told us to do?
Believe me, it was much more intense and angry than that reads. There were some not so kind or appropriate words in there too, and I acknowledge that it was wrong; but I’m thankful that we worship a God that we can be brutally honest with, who is faithful even when we push back against Him. After 5 years of intense, nearly non-stop struggle and trials, I’d had enough and for the first time I seriously questioned if it’s worth it. Hadn’t my family and I been faithful to everything he’d called us to? I’d invested in relationships that many people that other Christians wouldn’t feel comfortable around. We’d opened our home to a woman and her child that we barely knew because they had no where else to go. I’d given up my plans and my dreams in order to go to Uganda like He’d told me to only to have it taken away at the last minute. And now, after everything my family and I had gone through we were once again being faithful to something that He told us to do and now there is a chance that even that could get taken away. I had to be honest with myself; even though nothing bad had happened yet, could I still follow God if He was willing to take this away too?
The Lesson from Captain America
While I know that there are plenty of examples of men and women in the Bible who have struggled in similar ways and beyond (Abraham, Job, Daniel, John the Baptist, Jesus himself, etc.) I’m not going with their stories even though I could. As many of you know, I love music, movies, and games so for years God has often revealed Himself and spoken to me through various songs and scenes, which is just what He did yesterday.
As I stood in the kitchen with my wife, both of us discussing where we were emotionally and spiritually the Lord brought to mind the following scene from Avengers: Endgame. In the scene, the mad titan Thanos has knocked out Iron Man and temporarily incapacitated Thor. After a spectacular flurry by Captain America (Steve Rogers), Thanos turns the tables not only beating him back, but breaking his shield in the process. Alone and beaten down, Cap wills himself back to his feet only to find himself face to face with Thanos’ army of Chitauri, Outriders, and the Black Order.
This video clip below cuts past it, but in the film there is a moment where Steve looks over the invading army and senses the hopelessness of the situation. It is in this moment that he has to make a choice. He’s already done so much, and fought so hard. He’s stood up to enemies bigger and stronger than he is and has always pushed through to victory, but even the legendary Captain America has his limits. His choice is simple: lay down his shield and wait for death to come, or keep fighting for what is right no matter what happens. Steve then grabs the strap of his shattered shield, cinches it tight over the deep cut on his arm, and slowly moves toward the enemy ready to fight until the end.
This was God showing me what I needed in that moment. While I am no Captain America, one thing that God has made me is firm in conviction and resolve but just like Job we all have our breaking point. We all have a point – whether we all hit that point or not – at which we are confronted with the choice of choices. “Am I willing and able to do the hard things?” It’s not, “Will I suffer for Christ?”, but, “How much am I willing to endure to remain faithful to Him?” Sadly, as we’ve seen lately with a number of our more well known brothers it was not enough, but I cannot judge them as harshly as I might have in the past. That doesn’t mean it’s ever okay to walk away from Jesus, but perhaps a little more grace and understanding is in order because being a Christian can be really hard sometimes.
It was in this moment of sorrow and struggle that I remembered something I used to know quite well. It’s important to worship through the pain and the suffering… so that’s just what I did. I poured my heart out to Him, continuing our “conversation” from earlier in the day (in a more respectful and genuine way) and the Spirit reminded me of some things I had forgotten or been blinded to.
- God is good, and just, even when our circumstances aren’t.
- God isn’t here to fix all of our problems and to give us all of our rewards. That comes at the end of the age, not in this life.
- When I chose to follow Him, I committed myself to Him no matter what.
- These are things that may not always make sense to our fallen minds, but that doesn’t change His love for us.
It was then that I realized that perhaps we are also too critical of past generations that took God more seriously. Some of us, if not many of us, see them as more primitive because of their technological capabilities; however, they had to really contend with God. They didn’t have the luxury of being an atheist or agnostic, or walking away from God because things got too hard. Of course, some people did, but most often you’ll find people who were religiously devoted even if there religious merits weren’t up to par.
I am a Christian. I was never promised an easy ride. Thomas Hobbes rightly described life on this sin filled planet as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, and we are called to live according to God’s Word, not our own ideas of fairness. In tears I came back before my Father, broken and repentant, and ready to face down the enemy no matter what the outcome is. This is who I am meant to be. This is who we are all meant to be. We are sojourners and exiles passing through this planet with one job: to love God, and to love others. But as harsh as this world can be, we have a God who loves us enough to walk through it with us. And as I repented in worship, He spoke one more line to me from my favorite Marvel film: