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He Never Gave Up On Me!

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My first time interviewing with a conference to become a pastor was my senior year at southern. I wanted to work for a particular conference, so naturally they were the first of my scheduled interviews when 3 conferences came to interview. That evening I was told they went in a different direction. They along with the other 2 conferences were looking to hire one of my best friend’s instead. I later found out when I had shared some of my life experience, that particular conference was looking someone who had work experience outside of the church. Looking back I completely understand their rationale, but at the time, I interpreted it is as, I didn’t have a good enough testimony.
I like testimonies! They are tangible examples where you can see the real fruits of God’s work. Testimonies help us get to know and understand each other better. I’ve also found that testimonies help us get along with each other better. Testimonies always bring us back to the cross. However testimonies, now written on people’s hearts, are rarely the same. They do help us better understand each other and love each other. Testimonies inspire compassion in us for even those whom we have disagreements with. When you understand someones personal journey and struggles you can better find the ability to empathize…because you can see that God has clearly been at work in the individual’s life.
I am always amazed as I talk to many of you to hear about your life’s journeys. Some of you have lived quite the lives! God has taken many of you to some pretty incredible destinations. God has also brought many of you out of some awfully significant pits. One constant I hear from so many of you is that “God never gave up on me.” Some of you are in the midst of trial. I think many of the trials you are currently facing will one day be shared as a powerful testimony of God’s endurance of seeking the lost and healing wounds in which we bare. In one of my previous sermons, I talked about God’s amazing grace. The amazing thing about grace is that it is given to us almost as a safety net, so that we don’t have to live a life in fear.“ Mrs. White says: It is God who taking the first step in humankind’s salvation, yearns over lost humanity and desires to bring them back to him. God’s grace alone can quicken the faculties of the soul, and attract it to God, to holiness. God’s work of grace upon all beings, as a result of Christ’s death on the cross prepares them to receive His offer of salvation. Those of you who have shared with me elements or all of your testimony talk about, not what you did, through all of your hard work, but have always given credit to God for his work within you. Did I mention, I like testimonies? :-) Today I am going to share 3 testimonies. One I found in a book I’ve read ; another is found in the Bible, and the last is part of my own personal testimony. My hope is today you will leave hear inspired to examine further the testimony God has written on your heart. Before we go further, lets take a moment to pray.
I’m going to share with you now the story of Roberta Langela. Roberta began her life in a seemingly happy and stable home, living in Brooklyn New York. Her family was devout Catholic, and her father worked as a longshoreman providing a steady income for a family that included 6 kids. When Roberta was 11 years old though her parents marriage ended and she and her siblings were on their way to Florida living with her mom. Roberta says, “I couldn’t believe it, I was taught families stick together. If you couldn’t rely on the adults in your life, who could you rely on? I was shattered!” She says within a year or 2 she was already smoking pot and drinking, actually purposely acting out of her unhappiness. Her Mother did eventually remarry, but that made life even more contentious, among her siblings, mother and now step-father. Things got so bad, at age 16 Roberta moved back to New York to live with her father. That living situation wasn’t any better and within a couple months, Roberta dropped out of school, and ran away from home completely criss-crossing the country on her own (still only 16 years old.) She says that within a year she back in New York living with a man twice her age. She says, “I just wanted somebody—anybody— to love me and take care of me.” Unfortunately the man she was living with was an IV drug abuser. She says, before long, they were both on cocaine and then heroin. Roberta overdosed several times. Roberta said, on one terrible night in 1980, she had shot up on so many drugs her heart actually stopped beating. Her boyfriend at the time ditched her thinking she was dead and was afraid to have to answer questions. She said luckily someone did call the paramedics and her able to revive her. At this time in her life, Roberta was sure of only one thing, and that was no one cared about her. She went from new boyfriend to new boyfriend because, as she writes, said she was terrified to be alone. She lived in a rundown apartment above a church with one boyfriend who would beat her endlessly. Every time though, she would beg him not to leave her. She recounts, one instance on a sunday afternoon, she threatened her boyfriend, “I’m going to take my life!” He was sprawled out on the couch watching the Jets game. He didn’t even look up saying, “talk to me at halftime!” He didn’t even care.
One thing that kept Roberta going was, that she never seemed to have trouble finding work. She would work as a bartender in after hour clubs deep into the night. She would then proceed to participate in afterparties, where looking back she understood there was definitely a strong demonic presence. She writes, these were the parties even craziest people found to be to much. Violence and drugs were everywhere, it was a miracle she didn’t die at one of those parties. She writes she’d head back to her home around 9 a.m. on sunday mornings and find people lining up walking in the church she lived above. This church was one some of you have heard of, the now famous Brooklyn Tabernacle. Roberta said she would walk by these people who would be smiling, some would even look at her smiling and invite her in, but she declined angrily. Other people being happy made her sick! They made her so angry inside, she would go home even angrier. She says though, one thing she could not escape was the music. Some of you I’m sure aware the Brooklyn tabernacle have become most famous for their great choir. Songs such as “How Jesus Loves” and “I’m clean” made their way through the walls and into Roberta’s ears. She recounts breaking down weeping several times in response to the music.
Eventually, or as Roberta, puts it, as expected her relationship with her live-in boyfriend deteriorated and came to and in. Very quickly she was in another relationship and moved in with another man on the upper-east side of Manhatten. She recounts though, although she no longer lived above a church, she still could hear a neighbor singing every morning hymns of praise. She met the woman in the hallway, and said to her, “I hear you singing all the time, are you a musician? The woman replied, not really but I sing in my church choir…In fact, roberta found out this lady sang in the Brooklyn Tabernacle choir whose music she had heard so many times. She couldn’t believe the touching music had followed her and touched her although she desired not to be touched.
Meanwhile, her drug and alcohol use intensified, she began selling furniture to buy drugs with. One night finally she expressed to a friend. “I think I have a drug problem.” noting this was the understatement of the century. This was an important step for her, expressing a desire to live differently. She then proceeded to zero in on the biggest problems in her life. One was her drug addict boyfriend being high all the time. She kicked him out. Isn’t it often the case though, when we begin to make strides in our lives and God reveals what changes in our life needs to be made, the devil seeks to clamp his talons in deeper. Roberta, again found herself in another relationship, this time with a man who was clean. However, even though he didn’t use drugs, she found drugs to be even more a temptation because this man was a drug dealer! Very soon she began shooting up again. Her desire to be clean was still present in her though. She finally reached out to her mother, who in the meantime had become a Christian. Roberta told her about her life, and then couldn’t stop sharing. Her mother calmly replied by inviting her to come spend a couple days with her in Florida. Those couple days turned in 14 months. Her mother got her into a Narcotics anonymous program and finally Roberta got clean. She was even able to get her GED. Finally Roberta felt she was making progress in her life. Roberta’s next challenge was her greatest. It was just after she had made an outlined plan for her life and was about to implement it that she found out from the doctors, she was HIV positive.
Roberta was angry. She got angry with her mom, she got angry with the God her mom talked about so much. She was furious that nothing in her life could ever be right. She ended up moving back to New York and began her own business. She was clean at this but still very angry. Her brother had also become a Christian and began witnessing to her. She agreed to attend church with him once, in the very back and was out of there before the closing prayer was over. It was only a matter of time that she lapsed again with drug use. She re-entered heavily. She began a 5-6 day binge of drugs. She said she “thought” she wanted the drugs more than she even wanted to live. What she really desired, was the same thing that so many of us want. Peace. She wanted peace from the pain and wanted to be loved. When she ran out of money, she went driving with the last bit of gas in her vehicle. She ended up at the church she had once heard the beautiful music at beneath her apartment. They were having their tuesday night prayer meeting. She found herself accepting a call to come to the front and give all that was on her heart to Jesus. Within the year, she was singing in that choir she couldn’t escape. The pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle Jim Cymbala shares, today Roberta Langela heads up their ministry called “new beginnings” a weekly outreach to drug abusers and homeless people on the streets of New York City. She has over 100 workers involved riding the subways on afternoons to shelters and rehab centers and they escort people to church and a meal. She also goes and sits on the curb with those who feel unworthy to sit in a church. She sees herself in them. She is a living example of the power of God to pick up the down trodden, the self-loathing, the addicted, and redeem them for his glory.
I’ve said it before. People the devil seeks to destroy the most are often the ones he fears God will do the most with. Is there anyone whom God is beyond rescuing? Is there anyone God gives up on, even after they relapse. No we give up on people, God does not. He is never unwilling. His love is relentless. To many of us have fallen into the same sins…and then gotten clean…and then fallen back in. Is God done with you then? No! He remains steady. His love never fades. He never gives up on us. As I wrote those words into my sermon, I realized i had written almost the exact lyrics to a Christian song. I the song writer may have had quite the testimony to.
Testimonies speak to the heart. If you read in the book of acts you find Paul without relent sharing his conversion story. In fact even after he is arrested in Jerusalem, rather than just simply defend his innocence to his charges for the purpose of saving himself, He goes on to share his testimony. He wanted no moment to go to waste to share about what God can do in someones life to change them and use them for a greater purpose.
He says in :
And he said:
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.
“As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11 And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.
12 “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
Then Paul admits that he had once stood in approval of the stoning of stephen. Now God had changed him into something greater he never could have imagined. He led Paul from an extreme wickedness which had been disguised as one of God’s ambassadors. What is the purpose here though of Paul sharing his testimony? Is it just simply a defense. Its worded as a defense, but he speaks out of opportunity. Paul, no matter how small or large the platform saw opportunity to share God’s grace toward him. His testimony was not about him at all, but about only a testament to the degree to which God will go after his people. He took a moment to share. Personally I think he could have done more to try and plead his case to be released, but that was not his concern. His concern was to share what God had done in his life.
I often think about what God has done in my life, and inside I know God has done a lot. But sometimes I’ve thought, mine is kind of boring. My story doesn’t include any drug or alcohol consumption. It doesn’t include being blinded by God and told to go preach in neighboring countries. My autobiography so far, I don’t think would be best seller at the adventist book center. I’m actually more used to sharing other people’s testimonies, but earlier this week I felt impressed to share my testimony. Well actually, I felt impressed to share the testimony of Jesus in my life. He never gave up on me.
I think I have shared with you bits and pieces here and there but now I want to share with you all more than I have ever shared. Most of you know I am a lifetime SDA Christian, third generation, in fact. My father was a pastor, my mom a nurse, and I am the youngest of 3 siblings. When I was a baby, if it were not for the protection of guardian angels I may not be here today. My family was camping in asheville, and my papaw was driving an RV, my mom was holding me in the front seat. (I guess the laws were a little different then about babies traveling :-)…my mom had my head resting in her left arm but it became tired and she shifted me into her right arm. It was maybe 30 seconds to a minute later when a brick size rock was thrown from some teenagers off the overpass we were about to go under and crashed through the windshield and struck my mother’s left arm right where my head had been. There were plenty of miracles that happened there. My papaw maintained control of the vehicle. My mother was okay except for a massive bruise on her arm. Every one else was okay. But being told that story as a child made me feel proud. It made me feel even at a very young age God cared about me, that he had spared me. As a kid in elementary school, I embraced being the pastors son. In school, the only subject I stood out in, was Bible, mostly because we learned a lot of Bible trivia. We played a lot of Bible games as a family so in school I didn’t have to much of a challenge there. It was a strange thing to let go to my head, but I did let it go to my head sometimes. I would tell people at a young age, that I wanted to be what I coined as a doctor/maker. I would help kids, and then give them toys I made. This turned into the doctor/maker/pastor. I now wanted to tell the kids about Jesus that I built toys for. I was very into this idea, until I realized, I didn’t really enjoy science or building things. Luckily the pastor dream remained.
When I was a kid, I had plenty of issues, but the 3 that were most prominent, was arguing, pride, and a fierce little temper.
For the sake of time I have shortened my elementary part of the story to
-I argued a lot
-My parents were very patient with me, and I was lucky my siblings didnt kill me, because i argued so much.
All through elementary school, I maintained I would one day be a pastor. With all my arguing, my parents wondered if being a lawyer might be a better fit. But when I got to academy this idea went from being a childhood dream of being like his dad, to feeling a real calling that God had plans in ministry for my life.
I don’t think there are to many kids who think aware they are sheltered. I didn’t think I was that sheltered, but looking back now, I know I was. I don’t think I was overly sheltered but I was protected from many temptations that exist. But as you get older no matter how sheltered you may be everyone grows up and faces the realities of life. When I was a camper at camp on a friday night, our counselor at camp had just prayed with us before bed and then stepped out of the room for a few minutes. Then one of my friends who is actually a wonderful academy worker now but at this moment as a child began cutting up and doing something i knew was wrong and especially on the sabbath. I said, how can you do that? He replied, what does God not want us to have fun? I remember that time at 11 years old actually questioning rationale for the way i followed Jesus. All through elementary school, I maintained I would one day be a pastor. With all my arguing, my parents wondered if being a lawyer might be a better fit. But when I got to academy this idea went from being a childhood dream of being like his dad, to feeling a real calling that God had plans in ministry for my life.
All through elementary school, I maintained I would one day be a pastor. With all my arguing, my parents wondered if being a lawyer might be a better fit. But when I got to academy this idea went from being a childhood dream of being like his dad, to feeling a real calling that God had plans in ministry for my life.
It was in academy, I became more exposed to what I had been sheltered from at home. I don’t want that to sound like a criticism of adventist academies. Mount Pisgah Academy is where my love for Jesus became very real. But there is no denying when you get to high school or academy, no matter how strict, no matter how conservative , and no matter how many rules are implemented, as teens we begin to be more exposed and even drawn to things that probably shouldn’t be in our lives. You begin to be less secret about having crushes on girls. You begin to be more daring with following rules. Some kids go to academy and think its a prison with so many rules, for me I had never seen so much freedom! Like I said, I didn’t realize how sheltered I was, a dorm felt like I was free. Between my sophomore and junior year I also made a very concious decision, that I wanted my relationship with God to grow and I wouldn’t do or watch things that some of my friends were. Once I made that committment, I felt at times, alienated. However my resolve was affirmed. I had three mentors during my pisgah days Dean Hector, who still works there as Dean, Brian Hindman, who is now a colleague of mine in this conference, pastoring down in Hendersonville. He was my favorite teacher. And lastly Michael Brackett. Pastor Michael was my boss in the student center. When it was slow in there, he and I would play ping pong non-stop. He’s the first adult outside of my parents to take a genuine interest in asking me what I would do with my life. He began giving me opportunities to preach, even though I was awful at it. He told me he could sense, whatever I did with my life, whether it be a pastor or something else ministry would be included. Little did he know I had privately begun doubting that ministry is where God wanted me. One of my friends who was a girl, and that I quietly had a crush on, had left school, but had also decided she didn’t want to be an adventist anymore. I had reached out to her several times trying to get her to reconsider, but she effectively closed the door to all the rules of being an adventist. i felt I, in turn, had failed God because I hadn’t effectively witnessed to her. I had a misunderstanding of God’s expectation for me. It was not that he expected much from my talents at all. It was that anything good I could accomplish would be done by his power and not my efforts.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal THROUGH us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Pastor Michael was there for me that year and helped me see what God can do through someone if they are willing to be used by him. It was also around this time I became truly aware of how damaging arguing can be. I had always been a defender of the church to kids who would criticize. My junior year the church and the students began having issues. The students felt like the church was not for them much at all. Many felt they were just simply there to come walk in quietly and leave when it was over. If they did anything out of line they would be met with angry glares. This was the perception which may not have been the complete reality. What the students, including myself, didn’t know was how much the member prayed for us. Many had been giving money to the school for years although they had no kids attending. I watched Pastor Michael bring the student body and church members together unlike any other time I had been there. He began inviting students to participate far more than ever before. He started having members come by weekly praying with the students in the dorms and coming out for school functions. It was witnessing this sort reunion that helped me see how much I desired to see that in our larger church. I was now aware that not all adventists looked and acted exactly alike. I reasoned, my arguing habit had never brought anything positive in my life. I saw the bickering that had existed between our church and our student body and nothing positive had come about. But when someone united our church body and school body in love, the bickering began to cease. I was just about to graduate Pisgah, when I reasoned, God wants me to have love for everyone, whether I agree with them or not. He wants me to love people whether they are very conservative or liberal or somewhere in between. It was kind of an interesting epiphany, because I knew God wanted me to love EVERYONE, but I didn’t connect the dots, I guess, that, loving everyone means I have to treat everyone with love and that arguing my points over and over isn’t an example of being loving. Also I began to learn that not arguing over certain topics was not compromising my faith or beliefs but that I could live out my convictions better than I could argue for them. God was breaking through to me. So of course as a college freshman, I now had all life figured out :-) thats a laugh.
When i began studying at southern, i had very similar feelings to how I felt when I first went to pisgah. FREEDOM! Again this was very different to how many others i knew felt. Those who weren’t accostomed to the whole boarding school thing, saw it as a place of nothing but rules and regulations. But being used to academy life, college felt still like something more free. There were times I felt alienated from some friends who wanted to experience things I knew I shouldn’t but it wasn’t to bad. I say to everyone, if you go into college looking for trouble, you will find it, and if you are looking for good things, you will find that to. It was actually in our first class, that Meggan and I met. College, is where I began accumulate the knowledge to go along with a calling to ministry I had already felt. It was also where I discovered you had to work hard. I struggled with my grades. No longer were bible classes just trivial knowledge, and I wasn’t the star anymore. It was here, again, I became more and more aware of the debates that raged within our church, ranging from styles of worship, women’s ordination, and evangelistic tactics. These were subjects being debated I had truthfully not yet spent much time at all considering. I felt behind many of my classmates who some had already made up there mind. Maybe I had grown a little, but I didn’t want to be the guy who argued all the time anymore so I decided to try and stick middle of the road on all these points of contention. The problem is taking the middle of the road can sometimes be a lonely one. I met people from both sides of these theological perspectives who would often see me as against them, mainly because I hadn’t aligned myself as entrenched as they were for or against certain stances. I once again felt alone. Lonliness was definitely something I had struggled with in academy at times, and it had now followed me to college. It’s hard to describe. I was often around people but didn’t feel like I had many who were there with me. That’s when I realized my personal relationship with God was not where it should be. I was looking for affirmation from only those around, but I had been ignoring to some degree, God’s affirmation. I needed to share my struggles with Jesus.
I want to share with you a struggle that many theology students and even pastors get from time to time. They are always reading great books, ones that are very spiritually uplifting, but because they are assigned reading for a class, or for the sake of a sermon topic while pastoring, they can often miss the spiritual nourishment that is there for them. I’ve actually gone back and re-read some of my assigned reading for myself and gotten loads more out of it in my personal time than i ever did as a student. That being said, I realized I was neglecting my personal time with God. I was trying to count books I was assigned to read as my worship time, and that just was not cutting it for me anymore. While on trip to Israel midway through my time at southern, I started reading “the great controversy” and then desire of ages, and then steps to Christ. I started falling in love with God again even more. Because of this revival in my own heart again, I started to have more love in my heart for others even with different theologocal perspectives than me. This was important for me because it helped me remember my calling which was to share the gospel with people, and not just debate with people. Let me be clear, the conviction God placed on me was not that I shouldn’t or couldn’t stand up for truth, it was just that God had worked so hard to chisel out the arguer in me, he knew how easily I could be seduced back into the extreme side of arguing and debating. I realized, in fact, the mentors in my life who had helped me identify my spiritual gifts had done so with such brokenness and humility. They had shared with me, and I responded. God was calling me to do the same. God was telling me, Ross you are trying to do things your way. I’m telling you, you need to surrender to my way. If you respond to humility, you need to be humble yourself. By the time I got to my senior year of college, I felt i had found my groove. I was sure any conference would be lucky to have me as a pastor in their conference. Essentially I was probably more thinking, God you are lucky to have me! I also knew where God would have me hired to be a pastor. It would be in Georgia cumberland conference. 3 conferences came to southern that fall to interview candidates, Georgia cumberland included. All three conferences passed on me and didn’t give me a call back or 2nd interview. I was devestated. To make matters worse, one of my best friends in the program was offered a sponsorship to seminary by all 3 conferences. He got his pick. I remember praying, and asking Go for answers. I even tried to reason with God, why I would have been a better candidate than my friend. (apparently my arguing habit had extended even into my prayer life. God reminded me again. “This isn’t about you, you are here to do my work.” Once again, I reasoned I needed to surrender to His will over mine and recognize His will above my own. One of my favorite texts came to mind. “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire and it will be done for you.” This time I prayed, Lord I am willing to go where you will send me. I sent my resume out to 12 different conferences. Suddenly i had 3 interviews and responses from most I reached out to. One of those conferences that reached out to me was my home conference here in the Carolinas. It wasn’t the highest on my list because my family lives and works in this conference and I wanted to spread my wings elsewhere. But they called me in. It was the only interview I felt completely comfortable in. I was called a few days later and was told they wanted to send me to seminary with the intent to hire me once I finished. Obviously I was ecstatic I would have the opportunity serve God in pastoral ministry one day.
At the beginning, I mentioned I was scared I would never be hired. God had to remind me, ministry is not something you get hired for, it is a response to a calling. If God had called me, he would use me no matter what my profession was. Yes my testimony was not one where I came out of drugs, or alchohol. He had to bring me the most out of my habitual arguing. Let me tell you that is only by God’s grace and persistence. God has been so good to me personally. He blessed me with an amazing relationship, when Meggan and I were both ready to have one. Now we’re married! His timing is so much better than what we draw up for ourselves.
conference here in the Carolinas. It wasn’t the highest on my list because my family lives and works in this conference and I wanted to spread my wings elsewhere. But they called me in. It was the only interview I felt completely comfortable in. I was called a few days later and was told they wanted to send me to seminary with the intent to hire me once I finished. Obviously I was ecstatic I would have the opportunity serve God in pastoral ministry one day.
My testimony is not over. Because God isn’t finished with me. There will be challenges ahead that will one day be attached to my story....but a testimony doesnt become a testimony until we come to the realization that our personal story is not our own but Christ’s story of converting your heart. It’s his story. He had to soften my heart. He had chisel out a lot. He still is chiseling out a whole lot. But he never gave up on me.
He will cannot, will not stop peruing you either! Those of you in the midst of a battle. Those of you watching your kids in the midst of a battle. Pray!! Pray! Plead with God! Ask Him for his plan! You all have a testimony to share! But God is not through with you yet!
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