In February 2011 I began an interesting journey. Through an odd series of twists and turns, I began teaching the information you hold in your hands.
At the time I was working at a nonprofit in my hometown. We provided housing for men, women, and families who came to us from prison, human trafficking, addictions, and our city’s streets. Some were on early release from prison, some were court ordered to complete our nine-month program, others came to us because… well… they had nowhere else to turn.
That January I faced what, in hindsight, created a crisis of faith for me. I felt that God was leading me to do something, that He continued opening doors that I couldn’t fathom He would open— doors I didn't imagine could be opened.
Then, just as we were set to walk through the final door, I felt like I got the door slammed in my face. I was crushed. Embarrassed.
And I felt like my Heavenly Father had abandoned me.
We hoped to move our ministry into the former hospital complex near downtown Birmingham sometime that month. We worked for over a year on the project. We arranged details with the owners of the property (which had been sitting vacant for quite some time). We met with the local utilities companies to make accurate budgets. We networked with dozens of other nonprofit ministries who would move into the facility with us.
The idea was simple: create a massive “one stop” shop for human services- a place where people would be ministered to in the name of Jesus, whatever the need was. We were slated to open various floors that would house people based on their needs— a men’s transitional floor, another for women... one for families (who would not have to be separated from each other to be sheltered in our city any longer)… a floor for state-certified (not state-controlled, but credentialed) drug rehabilitation... and another floor to rescue victims of human trafficking from our city’s streets...
Other floors would house college interns, who could receive college credit while living and working on site. I met with college presidents to discuss the details.
Another floor would house people making short-term mission trips to serve our city. A friend moved his family across the county to assist with this part of the project.
In addition to the housing components, dozens of other ministries and nonprofits planned to move into the building with us. We wouldn’t duplicate the things each other did; we would all move to the facility and work from our unique strengths. The facility would really become a massive “ministry mall.” We had things they did not have, they had things we did not, and we had all come together to serve. We would be the Body of Christ in action.
This meant that we, as a team, could also provide a platform for any volunteer to serve in the area of their gifts and calling, allowing them to serve among any of our ministries. And, it meant that we could meet the need of anyone that walked through our front doors. It was a beautiful picture I saw manifesting before my eyes.
The only problem, humanly speaking, is that politics entered the equation.
There’s a great line in one of singer-songwriter Derek Webb’s songs that ruminates, “You can always trust the devil or a politician… to be the devil or a politician.”
Even in the most cynical of statements, there’s always a layer of truth. The stereotypical politician is… well… exactly what we expect from politicians, right?
Yeah, personally, I thought things might be different for the ones with whom I interacted during that season. Turned out, I was wrong.
I never thought I would hear it, but I did: “I have to get re-elected this year. I can’t do anything controversial.”
It came from a top City Official. He felt certain that meeting the needs of the broken and hurting in our city was a sure-fire way of not getting re-elected. It was a complete flip-flop from how his stance just months before— back when he was completely supportive.
“Don't misunderstand. We want to help people,” I was told. “This is a tremendous idea. This is the perfect use for that building. The location is fantastic, too.”
And, from one of that official’s aides, “No one else actually has a viable use for the property. This just makes sense.”
(That guy is no longer office, by the way. He won that election but then lost his next. He wasn’t progressive enough, and was out of touch. Makes me wonder what might have happened had he walked in his true authority.)
Rumors meandered through the nearby neighborhood associations that we would place 600 prisoners in the facility— turning it, in effect, into a penitentiary that allowed free “come and go” access for violent people.
The rumor was that all of them were mass murderers, of course. And they would all be wearing orange jump suits to the entertainment center that was slated to be built— and has been built— about a mile down the street.
And smoking… they would stand smoking on the street corners, eye-balling everyone’s children.
As this yarn circulated among the few (and I do mean just a few), our politicians got cold feet. It’s amazing how a handful of people can strike fear into the heart of people bent on political gain…
Of course, none of those rumors were true. We were going to allow for the transition of some prisoners— but they were all non-violent, and they comprised less than 10% of the total housing load at the facility. And, we had successfully being doing this for almost three years. We’d graduated over 500 people from our program by that point; none had relapsed.
We were told the zoning ordinances didn't allow for people to live on the sprawling campus— a laughable claim because people were already living on-site in a nursing home. I spent an afternoon researching and learned that over a dozen other facilities in town that housed people actually had the same zoning. There was also— and remains— judicial precedent for what we had the necessary zoning, as a matter of fact- one facility in town actually filed suit against the City of Birmingham in order to have the right to allow residents to remain in a smaller building that they had opened for such use.
About this time, a neighborhood leader— connected at the city governmental level and introduced to us by a neighborhood officer— promised to make the whole process go smoothly.
“I’ll just need to be paid.”
My eyes glazed over as I looked at him in disbelief.
Then, after a long awkward silence— “Under the table, of course. And no one can know about it except just us.”
You can see where this conversation headed.
So, though we were asking for no money from the City— and though the City had adopted a ten-year homeless eradication plan (that had— and still has— made very little progress even 3 years after it was due to expire)— and though there were no other options on another vacant building downtown- we were left with the following options:
I didn’t want to do the first. I was unwilling to do the second. That left us with only one option.
Yes, I opted to wait. My thought was that if it was from God, if the entire vision was indeed His, then it would come to pass in the right time.
I still struggle with this thought pattern…
I mean, is everything that happens really God’s will?
No. If you say it is, then you’re suggesting He endorses war, rape, murder, lying, pillage, and the other things He speaks against in Scripture.
Is everything that doesn’t happen not His will?
No, of course not. Life is more complicated than that.
I’m learning more and more that although God is in control but He doesn’t control everything.
Furthermore, I realized that you could “do” a coffee shop, a laundromat, or a gas station in your own strength (not that you should— and not that it would be easy if you did). But, to open a several-hundred-thousand square foot ministry mall that would eventually provide living space for upwards of 1,000 people and office and operating space for 80-100 other nonprofit ministries, all working together around the clock as a church that never sleeps... that would require the hand of God.
Instead of kicking that door in (which I admittedly did as a matter of course whenever doors got closed in the past), I figured we could do everything that the Lord had already called us to which was sitting before us.
I was convinced that waiting didn’t mean we “just sit and do nothing.” Plus, I found myself battling depression, even though I didn’t know that’s what it was.
And I was getting bored. This project had consumed my entire year. Now, it was January of another year, and I was just… well… waiting. Even if that vision was on hold, was delayed, or was over, I decided we could faithfully work the field before us.
No, it wasn’t easy. Like I mentioned, it created a crisis of faith for me— a season in which I couldn’t fathom why God would lead me to do something (and open far more doors than I could have ever dreamed possible) but then put me on hold, lingering with no answers.
There was another source of tension, too.
That same year I watched others use my plans and pass them as their own— they used my diagrams, my 80-page description of the ministry center, everything!
I sat quietly as criticism was launched at me and the vision was misrepresented by others. Repeatedly.
I had people question what the motivation was in the first place. Some couldn’t fathom there wasn’t a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow— and that we really just wanted to help people. They were certain we were going to get rich from this project!
At the time, my home sat atop a small, rolling hill— the kind you’re impressed with when you’re in 5th or 6th grade and want to race skateboards but not the kind you even notice when you’re a driving adult. We had a great view of the downtown skyline year around, particularly in the Fall and Winter when the trees all drop their leaves. January provided me with a perfect view of the hospital. About two miles in the distance, the view from my front porch was a visible reminder of where I was now as opposed to where I planned to be. It was as if I could see the Promised Land but couldn’t quite make it across the Jordan to get there. I did a lot of reflecting and soul-searching from the front porch during that season.
I mused as to what the ancient Israelites must have felt like around the time the prophet Malachi spoke. He promised the return of their Redeemer, the One who seemed (in their mind) to have abandoned them.
(Some of them had waited so long they concluded it was worthless to serve God, that the life of faith produced no gain for the grit they endured to stand fast.)
“He’s coming quickly,” Malachi promised.
And— “Things are going to change” (Malachi 4:2).
His message of “quick change” was followed by 400 years of complete silence— virtually the same amount of time the Israelites spent in Egyptian captivity from the post-Joseph years until Moses redeemed them.
If you read the Bible closely, it seems like a significant chunk of the message can be summed up in this phrase: “Hurry up and wait.”
Yet it’s in the waiting that the greatest changes often happen inside us.
Yes, I learned that waiting, though hard, creates sacred space where great things happen. Waiting can be a time when God does something to you so He can then do something through you.
And, if we’re going to blame God every time something bad happens, we also have to credit Him every time something good occurs. This act of maintaining a divine balance sheet, a “God” scorecard, is an odd game to play. Eventually, you learn that there aren’t many tidy answers. You let go of the need to understand everything, and you simply let grace do its great work.
I saw the Lord’s hand move during it all:
First, we opened the doors for the human trafficking program. Another 501c3 moved into our offices and began housing women who were exploited (yes, it happens in our City)— and even partnered with other groups to provide air support to fly out of state to snatch women from the fire- bringing them to safety and sanctuary.
When our existing housing filled (we would have had plenty of space at the empty hospital, but we were cramped when we had to “make do” with what we had available), several of the women moved in my home with my family. I remember laughing that people in that neighborhood were freaking out about prisoners down the street and here I was with a combo of prisoners and former prostitutes in my house. With my wife and kids.
Second, we began creating the ministry intern program. We had too much work to do, but not enough people to manage it. As we began accepting new interns to work with us, our team grew— and I began walking with some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met (many whose lives had been restored in radical ways).
In order to train them, I blocked about 6 hours a day for for a 5 week period and wrote The Kingdom 101, a book that was my theological distillation of grace (and practical ministry) and became a manual we used to equip— and empower— new leaders.
Third, we launched what would have been one of the staples of the ministry mall: the Thursday evening midweek worship service. This was going to be a time when we would create a massive, weekly family reunion type of atmosphere. Residents of our program could bring friends and family. We planned to invite all of the neighbors. Scheduled on Thursday evenings, donors and ministry supporters could easily attend without interfering with any of their church activities. Plus, we planned to cookout and have lots of food— every week.
In other words, with those three ventures we began doing what we could do, trusting that as we were obedient with what the Lord has spoken, we could simply trust Him to open the other doors in His timing. And, we would find ourselves more equipped and tooled to be a blessing when He did— even if He opened a different set of doors for us, doors we didn't see in that moment.
As I was explaining this plan to my friend Jason, he asked, “Where are you going to do that midweek service?”
The plan had been to host it at the hospital— in a large room that used to house medical records— a massive space that could hold several hundred chairs. Since we weren’t there, we would start small and grow the service to fill an area that size.
“I don’t know…” I told him.
I sensed that we were not supposed to do the worship service at what was then our office building, a warehouse downtown that had a large area that could be used. We had been preparing to move from the facility for quite some time, anyway.
“What about The Dream Center?” he said.
Turns out, Jason would be hired in the next two weeks to manage the center— even unbeknownst to him at the time. When he asked the question, he was simply dreaming about possibilities for me, not necessarily possibilities with me.
We spoke to Robert, the doctor who conceived the original vision for The Dream Center (a community center, ministry outpost in the inner city). He was on board, too. In fact, the two of them led a small group the previous Fall at the center and were contemplating not scheduling it for another run— even though they had a small group of 10 who were attending each week. Together, they envisioned something like what we were describing. They just didn’t know we dreamed of a similar thing.
And, of course, we didn’t know what they were thinking, either.
But, God did. And He supernaturally intertwined our paths over the previous few years. For that season, He knit us together on a singular vision— one that had no egos, no ulterior motives, and was content to release everyone to serve boldly and beautifully as long as 1) it was fun, and 2) it glorified Jesus.
This was in January. This door opened, just as the other one was (it seemed like and felt like at the time) getting slammed shut.
I honestly thought it would be incredible if we built a launch team throughout the Spring, so that we were able to kick the midweek event off early Summer with a team of 50 volunteers.
We began meeting on Thursday evenings only two weeks after the initial conversation. Turns out, 85 people showed up... that first week. That night we had only hoped to have all the pieces of the evening roll out on time (i.e., the guys show up to cook out on time, the food ready to serve on time, the music cue and begin on time, and the event end on time) but we ended up with a full service and people getting saved!
The group— and their excitement— grew.
From 85... to 100... to 120... to 200-plus.
More importantly, our two criteria were met: 1) it was fun, and 2) Jesus was glorified.
People continued encountering God and getting saved every week— the number topped 100 by week ten. I remember meeting with a small group of leaders at my house a few weeks in and deciding we would pray for something “radical” (in our minds) that Spring: “Let’s pray that 100 people are saved by the Summer,” I told them.
We prayed— and it happened about 5 weeks earlier than anything we imagined possible in our biggest prayers.
I learned a huge lesson during this experience…
(Even if it wasn’t a lesson I was able to articulate for a few more years… because some of the greatest wisdom is attained by time… I acquired some truths that can only be attained by walking an odd terrain. You can’t cram “life experience” anymore than you can microwave grapes to create fine wine.)
Here’s what I learned: Circumstances do not dictate your calling.
I mean, that’s straight Bible…
Your circumstances don’t dictate the gifts God has given you. We decided that, building or no building, we could just begin doing the things we knew we were gifted to do, working where we were…
I am a teacher— an uncredentialed rabbi, I’ve been called. It doesn’t matter the context. Whether it’s in “church world,” the business world, or whatever-this-is-that-I-get-to-do-now, that gift always surfaces and makes room for me (see Proverbs 18:16). It began making room for me, once again, on those Thursday evenings.
That leads us back to the subject at hand.
As early as the third week of the study, we saw the momentum and we knew that we needed a plan.
What were we going to teach?
What did the people who were coming every week- many of them coming from prison, from drugs, from the streets- need?
And what did they need that “white collar” business leaders needed, too?
What could we teach that provided common ground for young and old, rich and poor, people who had been in church for years and people who weren’t even there yet…?
By this time, one of the local drug kingpins was attending, as well as several of the local prostitutes. And, no, they weren’t “working” when they came, each independently of one another. They were captured by grace. They had been invited into a family.
As we prayed over all of this, we sensed the Lord leading us to share with everyone three basic truths that the church often misses:
In other words, we were about to teach people about their true identity— who they are now, regardless of who they've been. We wanted to move them from what the world says about them (based on their past, based on their education- or lack of education, based on their paychecks, based on their family structure, based on their job title, based on the letters they place after their name denoting some degree or credential, based on... you get the idea) and move them to what God declares to be true.
The greatest example of God’s love, of course, is the Cross. So, I began studying the Cross again as if I had never seen it. I began surveying it through fresh lenses. I wanted to know if I could look at God’s great display of affection for us in a way that I had not seen it before— totally anew.
And, I wanted to learn if I could simplify that message of grace— if I could make it easy to understand and easy to hold onto. I wanted the people we were teaching to leave encouraged as well as leave being able to remember what they had been taught.
The result is that we were about to teach people how to live free…
We were about to teach them the info you hold in your hands.
Oh... the building…
It’s an important fixture in this part of my story because it caused the crisis of faith that led to the season of active waiting which led to the context in which this material was first taught.
Yeah, the building…
Almost a decade later it sits empty, abandoned.
The now spray-painted walls are crumbling, the windows have been burst with rocks. The iron and copper have been pulled. And the ceiling tiles. Those, too. Anything of value has been looted, plundered.
Rather than boasting what may be the largest community center in the U.S., our City has a 1 million square foot eyesore, complete with overgrown shrubs and graffiti. Maybe it's time is yet to come.
I’m working yet also— as you can imagine— still waiting…
Such is life, right?
I suppose I’m…
In retrospect, I see the domino effect of things that happened because of the pursuit of that hospital building:
Each of these blessings are the results of that chapter of my life that involved me failing to move that ministry into the hospital.
Though it’s often difficult in the moment, I’m learning that waiting is often a time when God does something to you, so that He can do even greater things through you.
Hindsight always provides a different perspective, doesn’t it?
Things look different in the rearview mirror than they do when they’re coming at you…
It seems to me that the Father is always orchestrating things for my freedom, regardless of how those things came to be…
A few years ago I read Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning. In that book he reminds us of some of the perplexing truths in Scripture—
Notice— Paul (who wrote Romans) does not say that all things are good. Rather, he contends that all things— even the worst of all things— work together in our favor.
Manning suggests this includes the horrible things other people (i.e., government officials rolling over and asking for payoffs in order to follow the laws they’re elected to actually adhere to), as well as the sins we commit. Even then, at our own worst moments, God works on our behalf.
And that leads me to this, redemption— living the life I’m meant to live and you living the life you’re meant to live… and how two 2,000-plus year old stories empower us to experience the lives we know we're meant to live now…
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