The Dirty Cocktail of Pain and Gratitude

As my fingers click these keys to type, I wince—knowing these might not be the words I should sharing. You might be surprised, disappointed or appalled. You might think less of me, be offended or even hurt. But I don’t mean it. Not like that anyway. And the very words I’m about to type might be one of the greatest victories of the story I’m about to tell.

I would not have done it this way. I would not have walked myself into this place. I admit I often think I know better. Better than God. I have not always liked His plan. And frankly, I really haven’t enjoyed this latest chapter. But upon reflection, His plan has always (ultimately) proved better than mine.

Five years ago, a large roller door on a weathered, old elementary school cafe-torium scrolled open. Music blasted, coffee brewed, and smiling people wearing “Welcome” lanyards scattered across the school grounds. This was the very first Sunday—a grand opening of Center Church.

My husband and I had been obedient to a burden in his heart to begin a Christian church in the center of a city we love. Our city: San Diego. We both knew the hard work of any start up. Intuitively we knew the statistical odds were stacked against us. That’s just the way it goes for most urban church plants.

But we love Jesus, and we do what He says. The dream that this new up-start would become a center of hope and a beacon of light reaching wide across San Diego lit my heart with anticipation. I knew other people who had stepped out full of faith too, with a similar passion to make a difference, who had experienced tremendous success. But my hopes were quickly confronted by a continuous taunting in my mind that said, “Yeah, but not you. Great idea, but you’re not good enough. It is possible; God can. But He might not—and probably won’t.”

That first day was hard. Not because things didn’t go well. In fact, people actually showed up. The music rang loud; the word of God was communicated with power. People laughed, they sang, their hearts were changed. Families connected, kids had fun, hope soared and the coffee was strong.

But Day One was just the beginning of a five year journey that’s been a dirty cocktail of surviving and thriving, pain and gratitude.

I won’t get in to the gut-wrenching details of what has most often felt like a daily fistfight on the battle ground of faith.  Perhaps you have been faced with an opportunity or a decision, and you hesitantly said, “Yes,” knowing full well things could go really badly. Or maybe you avoided the risk altogether because the fear it would be more than you could take.

We went with “Yes!” And when the reality of the journey arrived, it was most of the hardship we feared, mixed with some I couldn’t have even imagined. We have been sued, evicted, accused, abandoned. We’ve experienced hate for our faith, slandered in public and betrayed by the “ride or dies” in our life. My husband almost lost his life for a good deed, and our marriage has been fragile at times because it is true, isolation is The Enemy’s playground. We have tasted failure. We’ve been knocked so far down we almost didn’t get up.

That’s the pain.

But here’s the gratitude: we got up. We rose, not because we are great, but because we died. We died to our ego and our vain expectations. We were crushed in our self-concepts, and watched as identities rooted in anything other than Him were torn to pieces. Killed, our need for approval and preoccupation over what everyone else thinks.

I’ve been so disappointed—every fear has proven true. But I no longer look for all the answers why. My solution has been Jesus all along. I’ve seen Him provide resource to keep going when everyone else was leaving. I stopped the madness of my assessments and my assumptions. In their place, my soul has felt assurance, even when I don’t understand.

I’ve watched my kids light up with joy, even in the midst of Mom and Dad’s sadness, because God has faithfully guarded their tender hearts. I’ve been graced with abundance that has enabled us to breathe when the walls of our own home seemed to be closing in.

Tomorrow is five years. Five years since we creaked opened the roller door of Center Church for the first time. And it doesn’t look like the church I set out to make. But it IS the church that made me. It is the church that set me free.

Free… from fear of failure. Free… from other’s approval. Free… from being right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded or rewarded. Free to dream—to be who I am, and go where He tells me to go.

I will not look back, let up, slow down, back away or be still. My past is redeemed; my present makes sense. My future is secure.

God’s words are writing my story—a deeper story. And He is a better Author by far. The disappointments, the setbacks, the failure was what I expected it to be. But they are not reasons to run away. They are the impetus to turn a different way. Look how Jesus put this invitation to something deeper:

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” – John 12:24 (NLT)

And so, tomorrow I celebrate. I celebrate that even though I don’t always perceive it, God is making a way in the wilderness and a river in the desert. While it may seem like the soil of something deeper is dark and disappointing, death of the seed is a necessary part of the harvest. And my God (and yours) is doing His work in the soil so there can be a harvest of plenty at just the right time. He is doing something deeper. He is doing something NEW.