I had reached a point of complete emptiness and sense of abandonment. I didn't doubt God, but I completely doubted my ability to hear Him.
It was a cloudy Sunday morning in October 2009. I had gotten in my car around seven and had been driving around Waco for the past forty minutes praying, through a mixture of angry words spilled aloud and tears, asking God too many questions to even try and piece together in hindsight. I wanted so many answers but didn't think I was even able to hear His reply if He was giving me any.
At 7:45, I found myself in the parking lot of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, sitting my car in the midst of the greatest crisis of Faith I have perhaps ever had in my life: was everything I had been doing completely wrong, had I followed my own voice and just told myself that it had been His?A little over a year earlier, in September of 2008, I was sitting in the lobby of my residence hall at Baylor talking to my closest friend since going to to college. It was late, quite late, and he and I were the only ones up after all our other friends had headed off to bed. He and I had bonded quickly over mutual appreciations for the changing and shifting nature of the church. Nothing so much as you would call emergent, but rather an appreciation for those who needed to have church in a coffee shop or how missional living was realized through relationships. For the sake of this blog and what came about in the aftermath, I shall dub this friend C for convenience.
C and I were talking about nothing of much consequence, then we drifted into silence. After a few minutes, he asked, "Preston, have you ever thought about starting a church?"
The question completely caught me off guard. The answer was burned into my brain. For the past week I had noted that thought swimming around the background of my mind, seeping into the cracks of my thoughts, and twisting up inside my heart. I immediately told him no, but I knew the answer was yes.
I could spend a lot of time here going through all the many, many different ways that God affirmed the process along the way. There were too many signs to ignore. There were too many obvious markers and open doors. God was moving in that direction. Not to start our own church, we discerned that quickly, but we were supposed to partner with a local church that was struggling, small, and did not have its own college ministry. That's where we found ourselves, the following January, and that seemed to be exactly what God wanted us to do: Saturday night services where I would preach, C would lead music. It was a hit. So many people became a part of it; so many people thought it was God's plan. People came to help renovate the church we were in. The congregation seemed alive and hopeful of what God was doing with these kids He had brought into their midst. The possibilities seemed without end and our energy was abundant. But we relied so much on our energy and not much on Him and He became less and less of the focus.
It started out incredibly well; six months later it was dead.
A year later, I was scraping the bottom of my heart trying to find any last bit to offer back to God as some form of substance. I was completely void of the certainty I had cleaved to the months before, thinking of His direction and plan. I had been so sure that we were supposed to work with that church; I had been so sure that we were supposed to start that ministry. Then through the choices of C to depart from the ministry and I fractured, fumbling walk with the Lord, it had all collapsed.
C and I disolved our friendship, our group of faithful had departed for other churches, and the whole of what was supposed to be God's ordained purpose was dissolving before my eyes. How was I to explain this to all the people who I had professed God's divine plan in this endeavor to? How was I supposed to make sense of these things? Could I trust myself enough to know my own voice over His?
I used to pride myself on that ability. I used to be so sure of my discernment. Suddenly it was pulled from me. Who I was, what I was capable of doing, was all adrift in an endless possibility of it just being my crazy idea that I forced to manifest in signs and wonders to reinforce it.
And, honestly, I didn't really need to know why. I wanted to know why I had been led to walk that road in the first place, if it had been His will.
It all seemed to have slipped away so fast. How was I even to be sure I was in God's will anymore. What exactly was "God's will" and what did that even mean when said out loud? I pounded my fists against my steering wheel, trying to make sense of shards of a dream that was being forgotten too quickly.
There was no energy left in me. I was running on empty and I was in desperate need of Him to fill me before I could even think of being useful.
I was in the parking lot of St. Paul's. I had just finished reading Surprised by Hope by NT Wright and was incredibly moved by it. I had no idea how I had ended up there, other than a passing thought of Wright's Anglicanism and happening to be driving by the church. I realized that they had an 8 o'clock service and it was 7:50 am. So I went inside.
It was the feast of St. Francis.
Look for Part II next Wednesday, in which I talk about how going to St. Paul's and the months following reshaped my understanding of God's will and how it helped me see His will in the events I had walked through.