Shortly before his 17th birthday, Craig Barnes and his brother came home from the Christian camps where they had been working for the summer.
They were PK’s – “pastor’s kids” – and their identity had largely been shaped by the predictable rhythms of home and ministry.
All that changed when they returned to discover their parents were getting divorced. Their mother had already moved out. Their dad soon resigned from his congregation.
Then he left. Completely.
Barnes never saw his father again. He later wrote, “Maybe Dad’s sense of failure was so great that he couldn’t see his sons without anguishing over the family that was lost. Maybe leaving us was easy. We’ll never know.” His dad missed all the things that are important to most fathers – graduations, weddings, career choices, grandchildren. “For a while my brother and I tried hard to find him, but in time we learned to let him go.”
He adds, “I know about abandonment. I know that you never really get over it. I also know it can force changes that you think will kill you, but in fact they save your life.”
That’s how Barnes launches into his book When God Interrupts. Despite the circumstances that upended his world while he was still a teenager, he went on to become a pastor himself. Today he is approaching his tenth anniversary as president of Princeton Theological Seminary.
Barnes points out what we all know to be true: Every human life is marred by major interruptions. All seems well. Then something happens. Somebody dies. Somebody betrays us. We make a stupid miscalculation. There’s an accident. There’s a blood test that leads the doctor’s office to call and say, “We’d like you to come in for a consultation.” Out of the blue in our marriage, or in our plans for education, or in the dreams that we had for being parents, or in the scheme we had devised to scale the corporate pyramid, there’s been an interruption. Our original hopes are fried.
The church is the community of interrupted lives. This is the place where men and women are free to ask a very important question: “God, what in the world is happening in my life? How did I end up here?”
The more time we spend in God’s Word and in the company of fellow “interrupted travelers,” the more an important truth dawns on us: We wouldn’t be nearly as open to trusting God or even remotely as certain that we needed a Savior, unless our own plans and security systems had been severely disrupted.
When we experience disillusionment or abandonment, we can go one of two ways.
We can either turn our hearts toward what we have lost (or are still in the process of losing), or we can open our hearts wider to what has always been our one true hope, which is Jesus. More than anything else, that choice will determine the character and outcome of our lives.
Are we longing for some version of the life we used to have (and, realistically, can never have again) or are we allowing the tectonic shifts in our worlds to show us more of Jesus than we ever would have seen otherwise?
Here we should pause and address a misconception that gets a lot of play in some quarters of the church – that there is one and only one path that has been foreordained for your existence, and if something goes wrong, you have irretrievably lost “God’s best” for your life.
If that were true, we’d all be in despair.
Things go sideways in the lives of God’s people all the time. Joseph, Moses, Jonah, Elijah, Paul, Jeremiah, Peter, and Mary – to name just a few biblical luminaries – were all heading in one direction, only to be rerouted (sometimes dramatically) towards new goals that opened the way for God to do great things.
Before you go to bed tonight, you will almost certainly have fumbled away at least a few of “God’s best intentions” for your life on this particular day. Sinful people do that like clockwork. Or it may be that an interruption that has nothing to do with your personal choices will unexpectedly drop out of left field and leave you shaking.
Suddenly, your world has changed.
But there’s one part of your world that will never change:
“Since God has assured us, ‘I’ll never let you down, never walk off and leave you,’ we can boldly say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. Who or what can ever get to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6)
As Craig Barnes reminds us, we may never really get over an experience of abandonment.
But by God’s grace it can become the primary way for us to learn that the One whose love we need most of all is never going to let us go.