Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Pain: the most misunderstood form of Grace

I don't typically cry

Earlier in life it had been a sense of pride (girls dig the tough guy right?)

Other times it has been embarrassing (being the only dry eyed guy at funeral)

But in the last 5 months my tear glands and I have gotten well acquainted.  There have been nights where I legitimately cried myself to sleep. Nights where I fell asleep with the tv on, hoping that the sport game would be louder than the doubts and fears in my head. In the last 5 months  I have become well acquainted with pain, doubt, insecurity and grace. 


"Dustin, I think you made a mistake. That word doesn't belong with the others. "

For the longest time I believed this to be true as well. However in this season other than learning that I'm an ugly crier (but honestly who isn't) I have learned just how sweet God's grace is.

Please allow me to explain.

I had a series of events that happened in short succession that rocked me to my core. I watched as the carefully constructed comfort zone I was in, got ripped apart. To top it all off God was behind it. Most of the things that rocked me the hardest were also the events that God's hand was most clearly evident in. 

Up to this point in my life I truly believed that though I would go through hard times that comfort would always be the end result. Though I may have a tough week or two I would inevitably learn a lesson and go back to comfort. I could quote James 1 and Romans 5 and tell you that God chastises those whom He loves, but deep down I believed those were temporary detours on an otherwise comfortable trip. 

What God has led me to understand though is that my life is ultimately about two things: becoming more like Christ and helping others to become more like Christ. In this journey there may be periods of happiness and periods of pain, but the end result is my Christlikeness not my comfort. 

In the midst of these tears, one thing is undeniable I'm a better man than I was 5 months ago. I love Jesus deeper, my wife purer and my church more fully. God has used my pain for my holiness. Thus my pain has been nothing short of grace.

To be clear I deeply believe that the pain wasn't a punishment from God. The pain wasn't a test to teach me something. The pain hurt a lot... and it still hurting. I'm not writing this as a memoriam about a season that I just went through, I'm writing it as tour guide explaining to you my current experience.

 Pain is real, Pain hurts but I have found Pain often is also grace. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Dazzling in my Disappointments

      My college years were ones marked with great friends, great fun, great stress and decent food (sorry cafeteria workers). In those 4 years other than the question what my major was there was one question that I was faced with answering more often than any other. "What are you going to do when you graduate?" This question brought me joy or anguish depending on the mood of the week. I didn't have it all figured out at the age of 10 like some of my classmates so this question was often one answered with a bit of insecurity masked by self- confidence. Throughout the four years I answered it very differently depending on my mood

June 2011 (Freshman Year)- I want to be a Church Planter or a teaching team pastor, probably in North Carolina but maybe Africa. I just don't want to work in youth ministry.

June 2013 (Junior Year)- I think I'm going to do ministry in the Northeast. I really hope at Salem Church in Staten Island. I will probably be a young teaching pastor or maybe work with small groups or discipleship. I will probably do anything other than youth ministry.

June 2015 (1 Year after Graduation)- I am finishing a year long internship with Salem Church in Staten Island where I have worked in youth ministry while helping out with small groups. A role I will continue in for the time being.

        As you can tell my answer did not line up with reality. I graduated college with hopes of grandeur and knowing that I would come into Staten Island and change the world for Christ. What I was met with was a church that needed me to do the one job in ministry I felt unprepared for and honestly undesiring of: youth ministry.  What I have learned in the year of living in the tension of my dreams not being met by reality is what I would love to share with you: God can dazzle us in the midst of our disappointments. 

       Sitting in the reality of not being in the position that I was meant for and had dreamed of took its toll on me. I felt bitter at times but mostly I was just plain disappointed.

 I was a two-time award winning Pastoral Student at Liberty University. I traveled and preached at events up and down the eastern coast. People once told me that I would preach at conferences.  With all of these dreams and qualifications I felt I carried; why in the world would God have placed me in the one place I didn't dream of and the one place I felt unqualified for?

      I have come to find that the answer lied in the way I asked the question.

      I viewed preaching and the success I had experienced in the past in pastoral roles as products of how God had gifted ME. My gifting and talents were going to take me far in life with God receiving the glory of course. The truth was if I was being really honest, my hope for a successful ministry and future was placed squarely on what God had given me not on God Himself. 

     In taking me to a place where I felt my talent couldn't help me, God forced me to come to realize that the only thing I truly need is Him. My hope must be transfixed on the Giver of life and grace not on what I think He has given me. 

     Now a year into working with students I can tell you that I do still feel inadequate most days, but I know that is okay because my hope is not in my adequacy but rather in my gracious loving Father. 

 But perhaps the most profound thing I have come to realize is that I believe God graciously held me from my dreams and aspirations to guard and protect my soul. 

I am a better follower of Christ, husband and minister because of how God worked in the midst of my disappointment. He taught me where my hope truly needed to be found and a myriad of other things in this year. I will not downplay the emotions that I felt in this year or how difficult it was for me at times. What I will say though is that today I can tell you that I'm extremely thankful for it. 

 Through the circumstances of my life not lining up with my dreams and plans God has more aligned my heart with that of His Son.  

If you are in the midst of great disappointment, I encourage you to press into God. God dazzled me in the midst of my disappointment and I believe He wants to do the same with you!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Purpose in the Journey

           There are few circumstances in life where the personality of my wife and I are in more direct contrast than when it comes to how we handle road trips. 

           On my perfect road trip there are several 2 minute stops where it's a race to see how fast you can get gas and buy snacks that results in a frenzy that would make a NASCAR pit crew jealous.  

            In my wife's perfect trip we stop every so often for sit-down meals and sometimes we stop  just because. 

             In my perfect road trip I do whatever possibly allows me to pass the time the fastest whether it be entering into a comatose status of sleep or plunging my mind into some kind of entertainment venue. 

              My wife wants to look at every mountain and take in every second of the scenery as we drive by. 

           You might be wondering "Cool Dustin, why are you sharing this?" (If you weren't play along, it helps my ego). The reason I share this is that I think it highlights a very real tension that we all face in life. 

          This tension that I'm speaking of is the age old question of what is more important the destination or the journey?

          Though in the context a road trip the way you answer this question may not lead to any significant implications it certainly does have massive implications when applied to our life. Is life all about the destination? Your dream job in your dream house with your dream family riding in your dream car, or is life more about the path you take while getting to your destination. 

          As I have been dwelling on this question in my own heart I have come to the conclusion that while the destination is important there is purpose in the journey. In the Bible I see two shining examples of why there is purpose in the journey. 

          The first is the life of Jesus. In theory Jesus could have lived 33 years in relative obscurity before dying for our sins but He didn't. He chose to travel around Israel and Judea and Samaria before heading back to His destination, Jerusalem.

          In His journey through these regions lives were healed, communities were mended and relationships were created. Yes, His destination had eternal purpose but so did His journey. 

It is my fear that in placing too much importance on the destinations of our lives that we miss the beauty and opportunities that are afforded us on the journey. In our hurry to get to the next thing how often do we miss what is right in front of us. 

           The Second example is the concept of Sanctification. For those of you that don't carry around a fancy theological dictionary with you while reading blogs, that is just a fancy way of saying "the process upon which we become more like God." 

           Allow me to explain what I mean by this. The moment we are saved couldn't it be possible that God could snap His fingers and turn us into Christ in a second. In a split second we could go from wrong to right. Anyone who has been a christian longer than 20 seconds can tell you this isn't what happens though. In His sovereignty God allows us with the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit to struggle through becoming more like Him. What could He could do in a second He allows us to work alongside Him for a lifetime to accomplish. Why?

 I believe God allows this because it is the intimacy that is born through the journey that makes the destination worth it. 

            Though my head is drawn to believing that it is only the destination that matters experience has taught me that what happens on the journey makes the destination worthwhile.  

            There is purpose in where you are at in your journey, whether that be mile 1 or 100. It is in these trying times on your way to your destination that you have the opportunity to make meaningful relationships that change lives and communities. It is also in these times that the intimacy created with God and others makes your destination worth it.  For if we gain all of our destinations but have no one meaningful beside us have we gained much at all.

May we delight in our journeys as fervently as we pursue our destinations.

- Dustin Wells


Monday, July 7, 2014

Kingdom of Belief

As a kid (Because I'm not one anymore right??? At least that's what I tell myself) I distinctly remember watching the original karate kid with my mother. I remember laughing at Mr. Miyogi and his anecdotal wisdom. I remember my mom using her best accent to mimic him for days later just to get me to laugh. All in all I have very fond memories of the movie, I mean what 9 year old kid doesn't want to do a jumping swan kick to his favorite bullies face.

While those are the memories that I cherished as a child from this movie, as I have grown up I take notice of an important lesson this movie stands to teach us that I missed as a child. It can be found when Daniel-Son agrees to train underneath Mr. Miyagi. For those who have watched the movie you will remember that Daniel shows up his first few days ready to learn how to punch and kick, only for Mr. Miyagi to instruct him on how to wash and wax his car, paint his fence and sand his deck.

At First Daniel thinks this is probably just some form of an entrance fee, thinking that if he did these long enough he would finally get to move on to learning the real stuff. After a few days Daniel has finally had it and confronts Mr. Miyagi asking when will he finally get to move onto the important stuff. In this moment Mr. Miyagi shows him that these chores that Daniel looked at as only the entry fee and not important are going to be the very things that help him advance to being a karate master. 

Recently in my life I have been learning that in my relationship with the Lord a very similar struggle has been going on. 

I was reading in Romans 4, where the apostle Paul instructs the Christians in Rome that the entrance into God's Kingdom was always on the basis of faith not works. He uses Abraham as his primary example and shows how "Abraham believed in God and it was accredited to him as righteousness". 

As I read this I found myself nodding saying "Ya Abraham's belief earned him that righteous relationship with God." It was in that moment where I felt the Lord press on my heart "It was also his belief in God that carried him through as well". At this I was immediately convicted.

I think too often in my own life and in the church as a whole we make belief in God a momentary thing that grants you access to God but once you are in you move on to the bigger and better things like "warring with sin, and using your gifts". But in this moment with my wife asleep next to me I was reminded that my belief is not just what allowed me entrance into Christianity, my belief is what carries me through.

In this moment I felt very much Daniel, realizing that this thing I had somewhat written off as not so important was actually the very thing that will and is guiding me through life. 

In that moment I had to stop and ask myself "In all life's circumstances am I believing God is who He says He is?" 

I was convicted to have to honestly answer no. I was being so fearful over all the unknown factors in my life right now: finances, the future, or family questions; and doing whatever I could to try and control these areas. In my sin I was believing that I had to fix and control these areas. 

I had to repent and remind myself that God has proven Himself faithful so I need not doubt His provision in the land where He has sent me. 

I needed to remind myself that God authors the family and ultimately when He says it is time it will happen and I need not concern myself with trying to control it.

I needed to be reminded that God relates with man in the present, so that was where my focus needed to be. 

As I let these truths sink in and I chose to believe them I found my very soul being refreshed. It was then that I realized that "Belief is not only what grants you access to the Kingdom of God, belief is what advances the Kingdom of God."

I then remembered Hebrews 11. We commonly call this the Hall of Fame for Faith. I realized for the first time this passage is not praising these people's actions but rather their belief in God that led them to perform marvelous feats for God.

As a matter of fact when your peer closely at the blemishes in these characters narratives, you find that their great blemishes came when they weren't believing that God was who He said He was. Whether it be Abraham not thinking that God could protect Him and Sarah so he sent Sarah to be one of Pharaoh's wives, or Moses not trusting God's provision and struck the rock twice. 

From this we learn that "Bad Belief  is what derails our walk with God". For bad belief will always lead to bad behavior, while true belief brings freedom.

A.W. Tozer said the most important thing about a man is what comes to his mind when He thinks of God.

So I invite you to join in a sacred moment and ask yourself:

 In my circumstances, who do I believe that God is?

Is it true???

If not let us all repent, so that our correct view of God will lead to a life of worship so ,that like the brave men and women of Hebrews 11 , God's kingdom will advance on this earth through us.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Sand Art, Stones, and Fearful Commands: Is this truly the story of the Adulterous Woman?

As a younger child there were a few days in the elementary school calendar that I looked forward to more than others. While playing with parachutes and soccer balls at Field Day excited me, there was an equally fun day for me that came twice a year: The Scholastic Book Fair. I wish I could say that this was because even at an early age I had a true appreciation for gathering knowledge through books but alas I can't. At the ripe age of 9 I loved the book fair for two reasons; first getting the newest Kobe Bryant poster and secondly getting cool book marks.

My favorite bookmarks were those that contained optical illusions within them. These illusions operate on the premise that at first glance one object or picture seems to be present, but over time you come to see a different picture that was wholly different than what you originally saw. This idea of an illusionary bookmark is one that has been carrying over recently to my time in the Bible recently. Allow me to explain.

In recent months as I have been reading the Bible I have noticed how often myself and the church culture settle for the first reading or first meaning or first takeaway that we see from the text and as such we only get the first picture. I think this is because too often we read the Bible as a straightforward manual to better living rather than the beautiful transformative piece of literature it was written in.

 Before I go on please do not misunderstand me for saying that we should not take the Bible literally or that we should read ideas into the passages. This idea could not be farther from what I'm advocating. What I'm stating rather is the need to read it literarily (as a piece of literature) and as such not settle for the first idea that pops off into our mind, but rather like a illusionary bookmark, continue to delve and examine the text to see if there is a more fuller meaning and message we are missing.

A prime example of this principle that has been nourishing my soul can be found in the 8th chapter of John with the familiar story of the Woman caught in adultery.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, this moment begins right on the heels of a heated moment with the pharisees (or the religious leaders of the day). The Pharisees then bring out a woman who had been caught in the midst of adultery and they place her at the feet of Jesus asking Him what they should do to her. They clearly expected Him to condemn her and even referenced the Law of Moses as giving Jesus reason to condemn her to death by stoning. Rather than do this though Jesus bends down and writes in the sand, then states that whoever is without sin can throw the first stone. One by one the Pharisees drop the stones, and the woman is left with Jesus. Jesus tells her that He does not condemn her and tells her to go and sin no more.

If you have grown up in the church or even been to a few  Bible studies no doubt that you have heard this story taught and preached. In these sermons typically a pastor will camp out on a few ideas:

 The first being "What did Jesus write in the Sand?" from this point many hypothesize that Jesus was writing the sins of the Pharisees as to put them in their place. The application then becomes what would Jesus write in the sand if you were in front of Him?

A second common point addresses what Jesus says to the Pharisees regarding him who is without sin be the first to throw the stone. The common application from this becomes that we should not judge those caught in sin due to the reality of the presence of sins in our own lives. 

The last common point preached refers to the last part of Jesus final declaration to the woman "... go and sin no more". This is applied to our lives by most pastors as a charge to go out and quit sinning because Jesus tells us to.

Are these really the main points of this story? Is this passage truly a call to a recognition of the sin in ones life? Or like a illusion is there something far greater going on that is right in front of our eyes? 

We only get to see the true beauty of this short moment in the ministry of Jesus when we truly make Him the focus of our reading. Allow me to illustrate:

These Pharisees bring a woman caught in grotesque sin to the Son of God (the true Judge of the World) expecting Him to condemn her and allow them to stone her to death. While He does write in the sand and command those without a stone to throw the first stone, that is not where the true beauty of the story lies. It lies in the first part of Jesus's address to the shamed and humiliated woman: 

"Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

The greater beauty of this Story comes from realizing that every one of us is the woman at the well. We all have been caught in grotesque sins and have stood before the judgement throne of God expecting Him to respond angrily and harshly, only for the mystery of grace to confound us when Jesus replies "Neither do I condemn you". 

The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus was condemned on behalf of our sins, Jesus took the punishment for this woman and all of us on a tree on Calvary. This passage is not a call to stop and think about our sin in a shameful way. It is an example of the grace God offers his children as He declares that if we are in Christ we stand pardoned not condemned. 

To the many of us who have focused on Jesus's final words in this passage as a call to stop sinning. Jesus did everything with purpose in His ministry including wording that command with a connecting clause. Without the realization that we are not condemned and the resulting freedom that occurs it is impossible to war against sin successfully. 

For it is only when we are feasting on God's grace that we have the strength to say no to our vices. 

So friends I invite you to glimpse and savor the deeper beauty that arose from that day at the feet of Jesus. The mysterious grace that a perfect savior showed a scornful, shameful woman. I then invite you to along with myself remember that we are that woman, having warred with our own sin and deserving of condemnation but spared by the gospel of God's grace, and in doing so thrive in the power of the realization that you do not live punished by the Son but rather purchased by the Son.

Romans 8:1 "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus..."

Friday, January 10, 2014

Redeeming the Why

Within popular Christianity today there is one word that more often than not strikes fear into those who face it. This question makes the youth group teen quiver in embarrassment, makes the insecure mother respond with "Because I said so", and can get you dirty looks from the elderly section at church. The word I'm talking about is "Why?". Whether it be phrased as "Why do you believe in Jesus?" or "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

I can only speak from my own experience but in my church experience asking a question starting with "why" was taboo. If you did ask it was because you "lacked faith" or "doubted God". I think for too long this simple question has been ostracized to such a point that if you ask "Why" you have less faith than someone who just believes. The question I want to ask, ironically, is why?

In my experience most of the time the fear of the "Why" boils down to one of a two reasons:

1.)  Ignorance-

When it comes to this fear one of the most common reasons people within the church fear the question "Why" is because they themselves do not know why. They simply are masking ignorance with the stupid, and in no way spiritual, blind faith. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us that we should always be ready to give a defense for the hope within us. Therefore it is not more spiritual or more trusting in God to not question, but rather is disobedient.

2.) Fear of not knowing all the answers-

While no good church person would tell you that they are afraid of the answers to these pressing questions. They worry that if they dig too far, they might just find out the are believing a lie. If this logic would be true, it is still faulty to continue to live in denial of the word "Why" because one would be dedicating their life to an elaborate lie. Luckily and beautifully for us as believers of Christ we need not fear the answers for we know the One who is the Truth, and the Author of all things Jesus Christ Himself!

Admittedly there are questions we don't have all the answers for... but news flash no one does. These unknowable answers shouldn't stop us from pursuing all the truth we can about Christ.  Allow me to explain:

I have a wonderful, beautiful fiancee. One day we hope to have children. No matter how many questions I ask her about child birth I will never know what it is like to give birth (of which I'm very thankful Lord). However, just because I will never fully know the answer to that aspect of my fiancee doesn't mean that I shouldn't explore other truths about her such as her favorite flowers, or candy, or  movies. If I didn't ask these questions to further explore what makes Sarah who she is, I would have a hard time loving her.

In the same way when we let the fear of not being able to answer all the questions stop us from asking them at all, we are not living a more faith filled life. Rather we are denying ourselves from knowing God on a much more intimate level.

Ultimately though the real damage for me comes in this: The one word the Church seems to want more than any to be erased from the "World's" dictionary is the one word the Church should be begging them to ask.  For the question "Why" signifies a pursuit and probing for truth on the part of the questioner. So rather than shy away from this question we must redeem it, and use it to point people to the truth they are looking for: Jesus! 

 In order to do this though we must be willing to prayerfully engage the scriptures for ourselves and ask the tough questions believing that this pursuit of truth will lead us into a deeper devotion to Christ.
We must not take conventional tradition as truth but rather we must challenge it with the Scriptures and be willing to change if we are not in line. We must be willing to not settle for a blind faith, but rather be prepared to give a defense so that we are begging our friends and neighbors to ask us "Why?"

This is the goal of this humble servant of Christ, that in someway through this blog we can journey and ask these questions together allowing the truth of God's word to wash over us. That we would allow the Truth to trump tradition in our lives and churches. In this blog I will attempt to do just that, I would be thrilled if you would come along for the journey over these next few months!

For it's as the old hymn says "To love you is to want to know you more"

Monday, August 5, 2013

This is it?

           I recently went on a family vacation to Savannah, Georgia and while it was a truly great time with some great people there was a moment that bears mentioning. It wasn't out of the ordinary, as a matter of fact if you were listening to the conversation you wouldn't have probably given it a second thought. But this moment like many others continues to remind me that the extraordinary often pierces through what we might classify as the ordinary. 

          The moment I'm talking about happened as we were arriving to our rental home for the weekend. We had seen pictures on the internet and thought that we would be staying in this super nice home that would suit 8 comfortably. When we arrived though we found something different than what we were expecting, for one we had to park our cars in a pretty sketchy ally and found that the house really only creatively comfortably housed 8 (The wonders of air mattresses).  In this moment where our expectations were met face to face with the reality of our situation someone followed by a chorus of followers asked "Is this really it? This isn't what I was expecting."

          I'm sure my family and I aren't the only ones to have this experience, I mean it could happen on a blind date (Tall, dark and handsome my butt), or a class (You want how many pages on that paper). Those moments of feeling deceived by a friend on the attractiveness of a peer or feeling over burdened by a professor can leave us feeling betrayed or drained.

            While I don't mean to downplay the seriousness of those times, what I want to focus on is when those "Really??? This is it??" moments creep into our relationship with God. Those time where we find ourselves in a situation that may be incredibly painful, fear stricken or immersed with doubt and our temptation is to look at God and say " Really, Is this it?" One such man that found himself in that situation is John The Baptist.

             In Matthew 11 John the Baptist finds himself in prison and while there sends a messenger to Jesus asking him " Are you the Coming One or do we look for another?" (Matt. 11:2) This question might seem outlandish or strange coming from John the Baptist but we have to realize that he found himself very much in a situation like this. The Jews had expected a political savior so in their mind when the Messiah came he would deliver them from under the thumb of the Romans. You see this at several points when the crowd would want to make Jesus king only for Him to retreat. 

            So John the Baptist found himself in an extremely difficult situation being in jail and not having his expectations of how God would work through His chosen Messiah met. How often do we find ourselves in this position, broken over our current situation and asking God why He isn't working the way we thought He would... even subtly finding ourselves asking "Is this really it? Are You really the One?"

            Christ answers his question not with judgement but rather with a beautiful reminder:

Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor."

          He responds to John's question by reminding him of how exactly He is at work in the present situation. He tells them of the healing He is bringing to those who are broken and lost. He shows John the Baptist that their expectation of a political agenda is so far inferior to His work of restoration. 

         I think when I humbly look at my life the moments where I most commonly want to ask "Is this it God? Are you really the One?" come when I'm more focused on my agenda rather than His will. I can just imagine Christ calling out to me saying "Dustin I pursued you when you were unlovely and rebellious, I delivered You, I have purchased you, I am redeeming you, I have presented you as blameless before my Father and am even now working in you to make that a present reality."

          So my encouragement for myself and all of us is when we find ourselves in those situations where we want to cry out in confusion and frustration is to remind ourselves of two things.

 1.) Remember that Christ cares more about redeeming that which is broken than He does keeping us comfortable.

 2.) When tempted to ask what are You doing God, we must remind ourselves of all that He has already done for us in the Gospel through Jesus.  

           The reason these can bring us comfort in those hard times is because the answer to John's question "Are you the Coming One, the One we have been waiting on, The One we can find rest and hope in?" is a resounding restoringly emphatic YES