My memory of that moment is so vivid because it was pivotal. It was the moment that all the other moments in my life at that time had been leading up to.
The smell of barbecue drifted in the air as I sat and watched the frost on my glass of porter style beer slowly turn to condensation and drip down.
I was tired, angry and at the end of my rope emotionally and had reached a point where all my attempts to pull my life out of the ditch had failed. Nothing was going the way I wanted it to and I felt completely abandoned.
My friend, Chris, sat across from me as I unloaded all the emotional baggage that I had been carrying in isolation for the past few years. Chris is the founder of a ministry called Encounter…..
“Encounter” because its only after we have a real encounter with Jesus that we know that we are loved and its only when we know that we are loved that we experience the life that Jesus offers.
Chris and his team walks closely and provides spiritual direction with individuals, couples, pastors and college students. And that time in my life, I was desperate for some direction. We sat in that barbecue restaurant for hours and I told Chris everything, my entire story. He would stop me on occasion to ask a question or two but for the most part he just listened.
With tears in my eyes I was going on and on about how I felt like a failure:
“Maybe I haven’t done enough? Maybe I should’ve finished college? What if it’s to late and God is angry with me because I squandered all of the chances that he’s given me over the years?”
I looked up at Chris and he was smiling…it was one of those half grins that a person gives you when they know something exciting that you don’t. He said “Jesse, your God sucks! He’s distant, judgmental and completely void of grace. He sucks!” And he was exactly right! The next thing that Chris said was something that I will never forget as long as I live – “God has rigged the world in such a way that we get to a point where we can’t go on without him.” And friends, I was at that point. This spoke to something deep in my soul that I had always hoped were true about God – that he is with me and somehow guiding the course of my seemingly haphazard life, that I’m not alone, that he’s a step ahead on the path, that I haven’t screwed things up beyond redemption. I can think of about 50 other people who I could have reached out to for advice, good-hearted folks with the best of intentions and it probably would have sounded something like this:
“Yes, Jesse. You need to go back to school and follow a career path.”
“You need to take charge of your life. If you’re not happy where you are change your situation!” (I literally heard that one a time or two.)
Or “You need to go back into the ministry.” (Heard that one too.)
And to be honest, none of these nuggets of advice are bad in and of themselves. The problem is, they do nothing to address the cry of the heart and the cry of the heart is heard in our stories – Our striving because we believe that life is up to us and ultimately God can’t be trusted; our need for acceptance that we try to meet through being good or hard work; our desire to be loved that we are trying to satisfy through sex; our attempts to self protect because we fear we will be let down – All of this is found within our stories.
I left that restaurant bursting with hope….finally for the first time in a long time I didn’t feel alone. That night as I drifted off to sleep I had a vision of Jesus in the middle of a dirt road sitting in a chair….not just any road but a road that I have been on for a long time all the while wondering if I had made a wrong turn, made a wrong decision or just ventured out past the realm of God’s grace, like, maybe I’m out of his jurisdiction, as crazy as that sounds. In this vision I see him sitting there waiting for me and when he sees me he smiles, stands to his feet and laughingly says “Finally! I thought you’d never get here!” I had never considered that Jesus could be that kind, that patient and that loving. Up until that point I had toiled under the rule of this god (little g) that I had in my head, the one that Chris said “Sucks”, the one that only cares about my productivity and success and achievements in ministry. But that day this caricature began to fade all because I had an encounter with the real Jesus.
That meeting with Chris led to another meeting and then to anther and another and before long I found myself working along side of him and his team ministering through hearing the stories of folks just like me and today there are 2 ministries of Encounter that I am directly involved with:
1 – Campus House
Located just off the UAB Campus, CH offers students weekly meals, small groups and a place to connect. Out side of the Tuesday night worship meetings, CH is open during the week to give students a place to hang out, maybe do some laundry, get caught up on homework or just hang out. A few years ago I started helping with CH by filling in as worship leader on Tuesdays and it has quickly become a big part of my life. You can find out more about Campus House here.
2 – Prison Ministry
I joined this team really not knowing what I was getting into. Chris asked me to come and lead worship on one of the trips back in 2016 and I agreed to go because I knew several of the guys going and thought it would be fun (as weird as that sounds). It’s a weekend event based on the John Eldredge book Wild at Heart. We walk these men through the wounds of their life to God as a good father wanting to heal their hurts and give them life. For me it was life changing….I’ll share more about my personal experiences with this ministry later. Stay tuned.
Here’s the deal. You can partner with Encounter through making a donation so that this work can continue – And I’m not asking you to simply give money; I’m asking you to ask God if this is something that you want to partner in through giving or volunteering. We believe that God has set apart some folks that will cheerfully support Encounter…the question is, are you one of those folks? Would you prayerfully consider making a donation today?
In the mean time, reach out to someone that you know is hurting and offer to listen to the story that is their life. It could mean everything!