Those who know me know it isn’t unusual for me to have trouble sleeping. At 12:30 A.M., I was finishing my five minutes of cardio in my usual middle-of-the-night workout. Naturally, I went to my music playlist to look for something super hype, and I landed on Meek Mill’s first mixtape Dreams and Nightmares. That’s when it hit me. The album artwork was like a bright neon light in a dark hallway. It wasn’t like I had never seen the cover before, but where I was that night, and where I still find myself, gave it new meaning. I was exactly in the middle of that artwork, stretched between the dream and the nightmare. I don’t know if everyone comes to this point in life, but the last six months have brought me to a defining place, a pivotal moment. All at once it made sense, and to fully share with you what I mean, I have written this brief recap of 2017 thus far.
In mid-January, I received life-altering news about my family. Devastated, I was forced to reflect on everything from my childhood I had believed to be true. I think I could have stayed right there, right in that broken place, and never moved again, but that was not an option. After a day or so, a light began to peak through the situation and in entered a fresh breath of air. I hadn’t realized it at first, but the elephant had finally been let out of the room.
Growing up, I always had the suspicion that something was off. You know the kind of thing that just doesn’t sit right but you chalk it up to one thing or another? Well, this was exactly that. I am incredibly thankful for the upbringing I had, but we were not the type of family who brought up those kinds of thoughts. Everything stayed on the surface, and I was never encouraged to share any deeper, so I didn’t. I am not trying to throw any of my family members under the bus, but in all honesty, this recent development rocked me to my core.
In life, we sometimes have to process hard things like this; it just comes with the package. Maybe sharing this is therapeutic for me. What happened in my family introduced me to a lesson I am just now beginning to get a grip on: when things like this happen, they shake us. And what does shaking do? It brings things to the surface, things that have been buried or suppressed long enough that when something touches them just right, they begin to bubble up. What rose to the surface for me? A monster, the first of many. The nightmares were just beginning.
Not long after the news that changed my life forever, I received a phone call: my eighty-five-year-old grandfather had passed away. Another nightmare – or was it? This man had preached the Word of God for fifty years, and I now found myself six feet above him standing in front of his tombstone.
I don’t know how I missed it before, but between the dates on an epitaph there is a dash. It is perhaps the smallest of all the things on a tombstone, a simple line: an entire life summed up in one tiny symbol.
My grandfather preached during the Civil Rights movement in a time of great hostility in the divided south. He prayed prayers in the middle of all hell breaking loose around him, hopes and dreams that he would never see come to fruition in his time. I stand in the prayers he prayed and in the strides he took. Reflecting on his life and where the end of his met mine somewhere along my own dash, I began to think about dreams. What dreams will I hand off at the end of my life? In the middle of another shaking, I began to understand that my grandfather had a dream and that he had handed that dream to me. That is where life settled itself, with one foot in the dream and another in the nightmare.
I returned home to my family, my church and my business in a major transition. All good things. Actually, incredible things. I had written down some dreams, dreams I had prayed about and hoped for, in incredible detail nearly two years ago that were now being fulfilled. I saw those around me launched into what they were created to do, launched into their meaningful work in the earth. These are the types of opportunities that only God can provide. On top of that, our church was setting up to re-launch a second location, and we were seeing multitudes of people come to saving faith. It seemed as if the nightmares had ceased and the monsters were back in hiding.
It was the perfect time for the waves to settle. My in-laws had planned and paid for a family vacation for all of us, them, the kids, and Wendy and I. It would be the longest vacation I had taken since my working career started. As a family, we were pumped! Some minor passport issues and two ticket changes later, we arrived in Jamaica. Our family was enjoying being where my wife had spent much of her childhood, and the trip was off to an incredible start.
Soon after arriving, my father-in-law started to feel less than his usual healthy, active self. Deciding the traveling must have worn him out, he went to his room. But not long after, Wendy received a call that he had gotten into an accident. I turned and watched as she walked toward her father’s room. I turned to get something to eat, which is what you tend to do every half hour when you are in an all-inclusive resort, when all of a sudden, she wasn’t walking anymore. My heart dropped as Wendy began running frantically. I sprinted to catch up, and as I turned the corner I saw the faces of strangers. Their looks said everything. My father-in-law had a massive heart attack before ever reaching his room. He flat-lined for fifteen minutes.
I looked at my mother-in-law as she and I headed to the hospital in Runaway Bay. I didn’t have an eloquent prayer. All I could repeat was, “God, please let him live.” My mind went to comforting my mother-in-law and figuring out how I would break the news to my wife, tell my kids about their Papi, whom they adore, and what would funeral arrangements entail.
Some of you may read this and think I am not spiritual enough. You may wonder how I could be so morbid and lacking in faith. But this is the raw and uncut picture of where my mind and heart were in that moment. I was racing to the hospital to find out whether a man I deeply love and respect would live or die. In that moment, much like in the moment I received life-changing news about my family, I wanted to stay there. I wanted to stay in the hurt and feel the emotions, but I could not. This is where I often find myself. I am a man, a husband, a father, a pastor; I am a leader, and leaders lead.
This traumatic situation caused a violent shaking that brought more things to the surface. But this time, they were beautiful things. I felt the peace of God. One of the greatest moments of my life happened that day in the car en-route to the hospital: my father-in-law was going to make it. It was a textbook miracle, and only by the grace of God did he walk away from that hospital room with nothing to show for what happened but a story. He encouraged us to enjoy our time at the resort and told us that he would join us soon.
We filled our time with water slides, adventures meeting new friends and, for me, a walk on the beach with my nine-year-old daughter. I hope I never forget the face she made when I asked her to promise me she would marry a man who loved Jesus more than her. Confused as to why I would want her husband to love anyone more than her, I explained. At the end of the day, she understood and made a promise to me that I will cherish forever. It was a dream. And four days after being released, Papi flew home with us in the same condition he arrived.
I was excited to share the miraculous story of what God did while we were gone, but before I was able to unpack my bag, something else rose to the surface in the shake, something far from a dream.
I received another phone call: someone close to me, a man whom I had helped to develop and disciple, had an affair. It was like someone had pulled out a rug right from under me. One moment, I was celebrating the beautiful with my family and the next, I was walking through the rubble of this devastating blow for my friend’s family. Affairs never affect just those involved. There was no time to revel in the dream of our family vacation; it was time to face the nightmare. It was time to lead.
Not long after, another monster came out to play. A young man whom I’ve known since he was five committed suicide and left his family with a hurt only the supernatural love of God can minister to. What do you say? How do you comfort parents who are experiencing the worst nightmare any parent could ever face: the death of a child?
Before I could even think of where to start, my phone rang again.
At this point, you might be thinking, like I was, “What did this guy do?” There had to be some unrepentant sin in my heart or some act of idolatry I was unaware of for the world around me to be melting like glacier caps in the height of global warming. I was racking my brain for most charismatic friend I had, wondering if it
was possible for them to baptize my entire life and ward off against anymore of this bad juju. Or maybe I should have just thrown out my phone, right?
Ring… Ring… Ring…
I am not even sure how to transition into explaining what was said in that phone call. A man near and dear to me, a man whom I have respected and looked up to over the last four years, a man who made an impact in my life and in so many countless others in our city and beyond, a life lived to lead others to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, was arrested for and admitted to being a child predator. I felt as if I had run into a brick wall at full speed.
There was pulling so intense I could almost physically feel my heart stretching in different directions. I wanted to mourn, but again, I had to lead. The story is still unfolding, and we are learning more of the depth and gravity of the sin that took place, causing a ripple effect going out and affecting the city that I love, the people whom I love. Like tremors after a terrible earthquake, our city has been left in the wake of a disaster.
My close friend is a pedophile. What do you do with that? What do I do with that? I am trying to process this. I mean, is he still even my friend? He preyed on minors. I am a father, and my raw emotion makes me want to find him and harm him and hurt him like he has hurt these children and the families who trusted him. I pray for what these families are going through right now. I don’t now what that feels like as a parent, and I am so deeply sorry that there are so many who now have to experience this. As a leader, I do not have the luxury of grieving to the extent that my heart has broken; I must lead.
Here enters the tension: I am a Jesus follower. “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” (2 Cor. 5:21). My feelings lead me one way, but scripture leads me another. Christ on the cross became a liar, an adulterer, a murderer, a thief, a pedophile: on the cross, He became me. There are different levels to the laws we break, but the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Sin committed against a holy God weighs the same at any amount. In no way, shape or form do I diminish the gravity of the sin that was committed, a horrid act against children that I believe should be punished to the full extent of the law. But this is the tension we must face.
If you don’t know what the cover of the Dreams and Nightmares mixtape looks like, it shows a stark opposition of two different words and images: dreams and nightmares; a handcuff and a gold watch. The closer I look at the last six months, the more I realize the tension never dissolves.
The thread that began to unravel at the beginning of this year has taken me straight to 2 Corinthians 11: 23-28. This is the part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which he recounts all the awful nightmares and monsters that have chased him throughout his entire ministry. Shipwrecked, whipped, beaten, robbed, hungry and without clothes or shelter, Paul writes that these are just additions to the “daily pressure of concern for the churches.”
For me, the nightmares don’t look like being stranded on an island or receiving forty lashes, but they are nightmares all the same. In our context, the pressures look more like running a business, meeting a budget, trying to lead a fast growing church, having people leave your church and say bad things about you, raising a twelve-year-old son on the autistic spectrum who is hitting puberty and dealing with the hormones and emotions that go along with that, supporting my wife in her thriving business, loving my growing daughters and being there for them, leading a staff and being a good pastor to them, being involved in my community as a leader, and facing the racial tensions of the state of our nation. These are the daily parts of life, the everyday pressures.
This is what we sign up for when we decide to take positions in which we lead others. We do not have the luxury to stop for catastrophes, even if they deeply affect us. We signed up to lead. We signed up to lead in the violent tension, the war between the dreams and the nightmares. Thriving happens when we hold on to God in the dreams and let Him form and fashion us when the monsters come. In the nightmares, the refining fire burns brightest.
I am not a glutton for punishment. Trust me, I want the fantasy devoid of storms and pain. But the more and more I read the Bible and the more and more I go back through my life, I look at the nightmares. I stare down the monsters, and what I’ve learned is that without them I would not have grown closer to looking like Jesus Christ.
At times, I have found myself incredibly disillusioned because I let go of this reality. I let go of the cold, hard fact that dreams and nightmares dance together and, on this side of eternity, they always will. Knowing this balance has made me who I am, and it makes leaders who they are. The monsters weren’t the original plan of God. In the beginning, everything was good. But even after the fall of humanity and the entrance of nightmares into the earth, the grace of God allows us to still experience the dreams.
Today, I am super hopeful because I know this balance is preparing others and me for both the dreams and the nightmares. I stand as a man in the tension, in the blessings and curses, pulled between the things on this side of eternity and those in the new Heaven and new earth.
Now we will process and we will pursue the presence of Jesus, where we can allow the Spirit of God to fill us and change us. I encourage you reading this to believe God for the dreams and to never, ever let go when the monsters come.