What a difference six months can make . . .
Last Sunday, January 7, 2018, was the ending and beginning of two of the greatest experiences of my life. One couldn't have happened without the other. Two immeasurable forces moving in two completely different directions both served the same purpose . . . my restoration and redemption.
It's been about three months since I wrote my post with my confession and apology. That day was a turning point for me. That post was the closing of some doors that needed to be closed. It was the ending of so many chapters in my life. I thought it was a closed door to a relationship or two, but in essence, it was shutting out so much more.
I received lots of feedback from the post. I can't express how much each word meant to me. To read that people still believed in me helped to lift me up. To read where some had believed the lies only to realize the truth later made me feel relieved. I never publicly came out with "my version" of what went down. That's not who I am. I've learned that truth always wins out in the end, and it always has a way of coming out too. I just prayed that people didn't see me as the monster some were trying to make me out to be.
To be sure, there are plenty of things I would change. I also know now that some things had to happened for my own good. I'm not saying God had His hand in my demise necessarily as much as I believe God allowed things to take place in my life, some by His plan and some by my own stubbornness, to bring me to a place where He has been trying to get me the whole time. Sometimes you have to lose to win. Sometimes you have to fall to appreciate the ride.
To recap, no I never stole money. I never had inappropriate relationships with teenagers, nor did I have a sexual affair while I pastored, held license in the Church of God (which I sent back of my own volition . . . they were never revoked, rescinded, or requested), or was married and living with my ex-wife. All of those things are lies told by some to make their own decisions sound justified, look better, and to excuse their own sins and misgivings. To be fair, I made decisions after my separation and impending divorce that I know I shouldn't have. Those decisions gave credence to the lies and I brought that on myself. I'll freely admit feeling frustrated, hurt, abandoned, and betrayed to a point that I literally did not know who I could trust and as a result, I made damaging decisions that I'm not proud of.
I felt like I was drowning and instead of offering lifelines, others were telling me how to swim. Others seemed more interested in trying to explain to me where things went wrong and what I probably should have done differently. Others told me if I needed them all I had to do was reach out . . . while they watched me drown and scream, even in the silence, for help. I don't hold any grudges against these individuals. Sometimes life is like an interstate wreck. It's tragic. It's abnormal. We all rubber neck to see it, and then promptly stomp the gas and move on with life. I was just the latest broken down nomad, and worse, I supposedly wrecked myself all by myself . . .
There were people in my life, many who I mentioned in my last post, that did indeed continue to throw me lifelines. They kept me afloat. I wanted so bad to leave the waves and put my feet on dry ground again. I developed plan after plan to accomplish that. God didn't approve of any of them, because in the stormy waves I remained. I had lessons to learn before the storm would end. I'll say ahead of time that I've not learned all there is to learn from what I've experienced. Learning is a forever activity for those who want to continue to grow. But I do know that God had to get me to a certain place in Him . . . a place where Ryan was emptied of all I was and used to be. The facades had to fall. The pride had to be broken. The hurt had to be dealt with. The race had to end. The heart can only take so much. I was crashing long before I stopped. It's amazing how determination can will a person forward almost absently just because that's what he knows to do.
On Sunday, June 4, 2017, I walked into Lifespring Church in Waycross. I was a broken mess. The Sunday before, I had just resigned from a record-breaking church I had replanted in my home town. I was invited to come and lead worship for my best friend, James Evans. My heart was still hard. James knew it and invited me anyway. I came that day and led worship. The instant connection I made with Bryan and Brett Evans was amazing. We had never played together before, but no one could tell it when the service was over. I'll admit that I was leading worship that day and a few Sundays after with wrong motives. Don't get me wrong. I loved God, though I was equally upset with Him at the same time. I loved leading worship and music in general. Part of me though was leading just to show all those who attacked me that I could land on my feet. I know . . . it was pride. I knew it. James knew it; and still week by week, he kept encouraging me to come and lead.
James took some major heat for continuing to throw me lifelines. He was hit with the judgment and accusations of propping up a man who had done so much wrong. "How could you let that man lead your worship?" I, along with James, became a regular topic at a few churches. I was "sick" and James was "not a real man of God" for letting me lead. These people would have gladly threw stones at the adulterous woman when Jesus told them they could if they were without sin. It's amazing how many churches in the cities I've been in over almost 20 years are more interested in crucifying its own than rescuing its own. If I'm only your brother when I'm living a life you approve of, am I really your brother? If my relationship with you is dependent upon me doing what you want me to do, isn't that a one-sided relationship, if anything at all? If we're only close when I'm making decisions that benefit you, do you really love me or do you just love what I do for you?
Amazingly, some in my former denomination felt, and probably still feel, I should have just sat down and been restored. That's the equivalent of sending someone to their room to think about what they've done. When Peter denied Christ three times the night of the crucifixion, how long did Peter wait to be restored? Believe me, I completely understand the need for a person to be restored and to heal, but what I also understand is that when it comes to matters of the heart, a one-size fits all band-aid doesn't always heal properly. Sitting in a church to spectate and come to the altar every week isn't necessarily the best and only way for restoration to occur. The harsh reality is that many who are pastoring, teaching classes, leading worship, and performing other ministerial duties in church also find themselves in sin, and because it's in private, they continue in their task.
Lifespring Church became my place of healing and a place of grace for me. In the midst of the accusations, finger pointing, lies, and betrayals, the one constant I had on the spiritual side was that I had a pastor and a worship team that was ready to invade hell if necessary to pull me out each week. It was selfless. It was the most Christ-like thing I had experienced in church ministry. James literally stood as a shield for me. He didn't have me in service as a spectacle or an altar call waiting to happen so everyone could feel good about having witnessed a grown man do publicly what he had been doing every night in private . . . cry until there were no tears left to cry.
As the weeks went by, the healing started. Dealing with betrayals and lies alone was debilitating and heart breaking. Experiencing divorce and not being with my girls every day like I loved was the killer. James and Lifespring Church loved me through the hardest times of my life. I have never experienced hell like I did in 2017. It felt like I had been burned to a crisp and I was lying awake on an operating table while doctors peeled the burnt and charred skin from my almost lifeless body while I laid there awake. At times the pain was so excruciating that I prayed for God to just take me. Other times I became numb and unable to respond to anything. Other times I became angry and lashed out. And through it all, James was there. I'd call him and yell and scream and talk for almost an hour without giving him a chance to say anything. He'd listen. He'd love. He'd refocus me, and I'd move on to another day.
Before long, I began to break while leading worship. I remember singing a worship medley I wrote with Breathe and The Stand . . . In the interlude between the two songs I lost it. I sobbed and couldn't get any words out. The praise team carried it because I couldn't hardly make a sound. These lyrics to The Stand became my anthem after that Sunday:
You stood before creation. Eternity in Your hands.
You spoke the world into motion. My soul now to stand.
You stood before my failure. And carried the cross for my shame.
My sin weighed upon your shoulders. My soul now to stand.
So what can I say? And what could I do?
But offer this heart oh God . . . completely to You.
A few weeks later, I preached my first sermon since I had resigned entitled, "How to Survive a Shipwreck." I had no business preaching it because it wasn't like I was really out of the water yet. I thought I was. I wanted to be. In reality, I was preaching it for a few other people that I knew also had experienced shipwreck. I didn't realize that the sermon would be almost prophetic for me. I preached it like I've preached all of my other sermons . . . without notes. I read my scripture, stepped down from the pulpit, and let God speak through me. (Yes I had studied, but I study all week and then step away to let God speak either out of what I've studied or something completely different when I preach.) I've listened to the sermon a few times . . . Many said it was one of the best ones I'd ever preached. The people of Lifespring went on and on about it. I was blown away. Listening back, I now realize God was actually detailing how I would indeed survive the shipwreck my life had experienced long before I actually would get out of the water.
Though I lived in Perry, I drove to Waycross every Sunday to lead worship. The church was my safe haven. James was my friend, pastor, and shield. The worship team was my family. By the time I wrote my last post in September, the last planks of my ship had sunk to the bottom and I was being held up by these amazing people. I started feeling stronger and stronger. It started coming through in my worship leading. People were responding. Things were stirring. The fire was returning in me.
The last few years, I had began to question so much about my belief system. I questioned doctrines and theologies. I questioned practices and traditions that I had seen for years. I felt the need to break away from all I had known. The break was taking place without my permission, but I was pursuing it nonetheless. Lifespring gave me the freedom to pursue God free from tradition, free from denominational expectations, and free from judgment. I was stripped of all I knew to become something brand new. I had been remodeling the house of my calling for a few years, but the house finally had to be demolished so the new could begin.
And that "new" is certainly beginning . . .
When I came to Lifespring in June of last year, James told me he was really praying about the direction of the church. As the months went on and my healing was being completed, he told me he believed Lifespring remained because it had one more vital mission . . . my restoration. I couldn't agree more. I don't even want to imagine what I would be right now or what my life would look like had Lifespring not been there for me when my whole world crashed.
During one of our many lunches where we sit in a restaurant for about three hours after we're actually done talking, laughing, impersonating wrestlers, TV personalities, and even church people (oops), James told me that he was beginning to feel that it was time to step away from Lifespring so that he and his family could heal from all that he had been through over the last few years. I wasn't surprised. I knew it was coming. I felt it too though I hated it so much. Lifespring had been my saving grace. If it wasn't there for me now, what would that mean? After prayer and a few more talks, James felt the release to make Sunday, January 7, 2018, Lifespring's last service.
He announced it on Sunday, Decemeber 31, 2017. I understood what he was feeling to some degree. I had just resigned and walked away from my church six months earlier. While there is still a church called Grace Community in Hazlehurst, it's not the church I planted. I knew when I resigned, that vision was gone too. It hurts to walk away from something you've given everything you have to. Many would judge people like James or others who planted but whose church didn't remain. I've often thought that it is a very weak individual who will throw stones at a person who gave everything to start a new work while they themselves simply get by on waiting for a new appointment from a political machine with guaranteed salary and housing in many cases. I understand not everyone is called to plant so I don't mean that in a derogatory way towards those who don't plant. I only mean to point out that the call to plant should be one that is celebrated and encouraged and not one whose sometimes failure is used to prop up fragile egos of little men.
The statements, "I knew it wouldn't last," or "He should've never done that," or worse, "If he really knew what he was doing . . ." have no place in the Kingdom. To think or say those things is to discount and cheapen the ministry that took place in that respected church and to disrespect the journey that led to its existence. With all that in mind, I heard James speak the words that he was resigning to heal and that Lifespring would close as I sat in that community center for service. I wasn't trying to be seen or be a show off, but the only thing I could think of was to stand to my feet in honor of one of the greatest men I know and clap for a man who has been the epitome of the hands, feet, and heart of Christ in my life and so many others' lives.
It was on the way that Sunday however that I had an idea on the way to Waycross for church . . .
In November of 2017, I met the most beautiful, sweetest, most amazing woman I've ever met . . . Rachel Woods. She is so much out of my league . . . She's the all-star on a team and I'm the concession stand guy in the stadium. She's diamond. I'm aluminum. She's gentle. I'm abrasive. She's calming. I'm confrontational. She's full of faith, and I get lost in reason. She's kind and sincere. Her heart is so full of Christ. There's not a bone of judgment in her. She's selfless. She's a giver. She's sacrificial. She is the definition of unconditional love, and she has saved me.
I saw her picture and heard about her almost a month before we met. I tried to brush it off like I didn't care partly because I was still hurting and angry and partly because I knew I wouldn't have a chance with her anyway and didn't want to get hurt again. Had I met her at that time, I don't know if we would have made it. Lifespring had changed me and was helping me heal, but I wasn't quite ready.
One Sunday after practice, the worship band and I started doing some musical impressions. We started playing some Creed songs and our little sessions got recorded. We put them on Facebook for laughs. Rachel would see me acting the fool in that video and ask about me to our mutual friend, Russ. He in turn told me about her again and this time, something in me just decided to jump.
I messaged her on Facebook on November 8th and we talked for hours. It felt amazing . . . It's like I had known her my whole life. It scared me honestly. I had decided to not date, possibly ever again, and here I was feeling things in my heart for a girl I'd never laid eyes on in person. I honestly took the position of having nothing to lose because I just knew she wouldn't be interested in me so I just went for it and asked her out to lunch to get to know each other. She surprisingly agreed and we went to lunch the next day, November 9th. It was the best lunch date I ever had . . . Before it was over, I asked for a second date and she agreed. When I took her home and got back in my car, I knew I loved her already. She literally checked off everything I ever had wanted and prayed for in a woman. I had given up on finding that kind of woman years ago and decided that since I was not the best looking guy in the world and was flawed myself, I couldn't find that dream girl . . . and if I did, she wouldn't want me. I just figured I had missed opportunities and that I was just going to have to accept my punishment for my past decisions so I had settled. I found happiness in settling, but never fulfillment. I've learned that happiness absent fulfillment leaves one feeling shallow and wanting.
I didn't know it, but when she walked in and talked with her mom, she told her she was going to marry me. After the second date, I knew she was the one for me too. It scared me to death. I knew all the things people would say. I knew I had so much baggage and she didn't deserve to have to deal with any of it. I felt guilty for even asking her to. I spent the next four weeks pursuing her and then pushing her away. I literally tried to convince her that she really didn't want me. Part of that was because I needed to know she really understood what she was getting into with me. The other part was because I was still dealing with so much in my heart with hurt and more. I gave her every reason to walk away. I gave her multiple reasons to move on, but when I pushed the hardest, she'd push back even harder.
I have never been loved that way before . . .
I had (have) nothing to offer her. No money. No stability. Nothing but baggage, pain, a broken story, two precious little girls, and a broken faith. And she came in to my life and loved me unconditionally. She took me as I was and not for what I could be or would be or might could do for her later. Me . . . in that moment . . . broken, hurt, confused, scarred, manipulated, and hopeless . . . she wanted me. When I had my bad days, she'd softly speak words of encouragement to me. When I was faithless, she was faith. When I was hopeless, she was hope. When I needed grace, she was the embodiment of it. She embraced all I had been, all I was, and all I could be and loved me the same with a love that only deepened day after day.
Before I knew it, I started dreaming again. Joy was felt in my heart again. Laughter started becoming regular again in my life. I started telling my lame jokes again. I walked around doing crazy impressions like I was a teenager all over again. I couldn't get enough of her. My heart leaped when I would hear her voice and I would almost melt every time we'd touch. She continued to amaze me along with how compatible we were and just how much she looked, sounded, and acted like the dream girl I had always prayed for.
Rachel believed in me. She would (still does) tell me that I will pastor again; that I will plant again; that I can lead worship; that I'm not damaged. She constantly told (tells) me that I'm a great daddy and that who I am is more than enough. She took to Rylee and Charlee and has loved them like they were her own. The girls love her to death too . . . Rachel's family is the kind of family I always envisioned being a part of. They have loved and accepted me just as I am and have been nothing but encouraging and uplifting. With Rachel and also with her family, I can be me. There are no fronts. There is no awkwardness. Being with her . . . being with them . . . it feels like home.
I was able to find her because of what God did in me through Lifespring and James. So on that drive that New Year's Eve morning, I came up with the plan to propose. We had experienced almost two full months of bliss. While I was more than aware of what a fast engagement can turn into, I also knew I had never experienced anything even remotely close to what I found in her. I knew she was the one and there was no point in waiting any longer.
I had already asked Rachel to come to church with me for the last Sunday to see me lead worship one more time. Because the church was closing and I'm unsure of what the next chapter will hold for me in terms of church, I wanted to share the last worship experience with her. Knowing that she was going to be there for the last service, I asked James about possibly proposing to her after service. He was beyond excited. His words were that it would be the perfect epic ending to the church in that it emphasized the mission of the church from its inception. Lifespring found me on June 4th as a broken man ready to give up on life. Lifespring would leave me on January 7th engaged to the girl of my dreams.
So on Sunday, January 7th, I led about 8 songs with the most amazing worship team I've enjoyed playing and singing with. James came up and spoke a little bit and opened the floor for others to talk about Lifespring and what it did in their lives. Everyone took a turn and I stepped up last. I told James that whatever I do in ministry from that day on would have his fingerprints on it. I wouldn't be where I was without his love, support, and kindness. Even in my weaknesses and sin, he loved me through it all into redemption.
After sharing my heart with James and the church, I turned my attention to the most beautiful blonde haired woman I've ever seen. I surprised her by singing "God Gave Me You" by Blake Shelton with the help of Bryan and Brett. We never practiced it and my voice was almost gone from singing for about two hours straight, but we made it through the song. I love the second verse and I've quoted it to her many times:
There's more here than what we're seeing
A divine conspiracy
That you an angel lovely
Would somehow fall for me
You'll always be love's great martyr
And I'll be the flattered fool
And I need you
When the song ended, I told her I had another surprise and we met in between the stage area and the crowd where I proposed and she said, "YES!" I'm the luckiest man in the world . . . I'm going to marry that beautiful woman on March 10, 2018 and I can't wait to see the story that God will continue to write from His redemption story.
All of this wouldn't be possible had it not been for the ministry of James Evans and Lifespring Church. God has restored me. I'm dreaming again. I'm loving again. I'm believing again. I've forgiven those who wronged me. I've turned the page on yesterday. I'm thankful for where I was and what I experienced, both the good and the bad. All of that is what led me to this place today.
Scripture says that God gives us beauty for ashes. He has taken the ashes that remained from the bonfire of my life and has made something more beautiful than I could ever imagine. The story is still being written and I know healing will continue to happen. I will always have scars that remind me of who I was and what I experienced and choices I've made, but scars don't have to define. Scars should inform, but never define the measure of a life.
Thank you Lifespring Church for taking this broken soul in and loving me through the hell I was in. Thank you James & Debbie Evans for loving me, believing in me, standing with me, forgiving me, uplifting me, and continuing to push me even when I wanted to quit. Thank you Bryan & Ashley Evans for making the worship team run and for your devoted friendship. Thank you Brett Evans and soon to be Fanci "Evans" Hellard for your love, support, and friendship. All of you are my family and I will forever be indebted to you.
Thank you Rachel Woods for making me the happiest and luckiest man on the planet. I'll spend the rest of my days working to make you the happiest woman in the world. I give you all my love and all my heart. I can't wait to make you my wife. And thank you to Andy & Shelia Woods and Andrew & Licia Woods for taking me into your family and making me feel like I've always been a part. I hope I never bring anything but honor and joy to your amazing families.
In June 2017 my life was ending. In January 2018, a new life has sprung forth . . .