But forget all that … For I’m going to do a brand-new thing. See, I have already begun! Don’t you see it? I will make a road through the wilderness of the world for my people to go home and create rivers for them in the desert. –Isaiah 43:18-19, The Living Bible
Sitting there almost mesmerized, it was as if we were eye witnesses to freedom.
Whatever your level of spiritual maturity there’s an uneasiness that goes with visiting new churches and we’d spent most Sundays during 2015 as visiting strangers hoping to remain low-profile. We’d watched one church fight itself into a split, and another required that an elder certify our salvation for membership so the wounds were fairly fresh. We’d settled into this new church for more than three months now and sensed it might be the one.
But something in the atmosphere was different in the moments leading to this service. The worship team entered the platform more focused than usual and volunteers moved swiftly up and down the aisles greeting late-arrivals and newcomers and exchanging occasional glances as if nodding green lights of approval. There was a buzz in the air as a visual five-minute digital countdown launched ticking down the seconds on massive screens to each side of the platform.
My heart was completely unprepared for what happened next.
As the worship team made its way through a verse or two of a song called Reckless Love, individual members of a group known as Celebrate Recovery*, recognized for its work helping break habits, hurts, and hangups, walked out stage front one after another. Each held a large cardboard sign marked in heavy black ink with words describing a life they’d left behind. A man I’d known for years walked out before hundreds and humbly held a sign labeling himself a liar, thief, and drug pusher. A young woman followed with her sign, that read “crushed by the guilt of abortion.” Another came next, the sign declaring him a sex addict. “So depressed I tried suicide twice,” read another. One after another they came frontward with labeled identities and moved into rows on the platform. There must have been fifty people on stage.
This is the bravest thing I’ve ever witnessed, I thought, and tears streamed a steady flow.
As the last member took his place in line the music reached a crescendo and in a single, coordinated motion each face changed expression and every sign flipped in unison. Now, the new sign for the drug pusher read, “clean, self-employed, Celebrate Recovery leader.” The guilt of abortion was replaced with “forgiven by God’s amazing grace.” A former sex-addict is declared “porn-free.” Hundreds stood cheering in the most anointed moment I’ve known.
In the midst of it all came the strangest feeling of misbelonging. Watching as the group members came one by one presenting themselves in a void of pretense acknowledging past mistakes, I felt guilty observing as if a judge. I belong up there with them, and the apostle Paul’s reflection on his own place as chief of sinners came to mind. Never have I witnessed a more defining example of God’s redemption, grace, and the power of testimony among average, ordinary, and broken people— the kind God has always used most.
There was a great sense of gratitude two years later when Celebrate Recovery invited me as guest speaker for their five-year anniversary. I’d just finished my first book focusing much on my own experience with chronic depression and the celebratory pilgrimage I took along the Camino de Santiago and in the early stages of recovery. It was that long five-hundred-mile walk where God put me on a new path to understanding, a genuine relationship with Jesus, and a burning appetite for His truth. And like so many in Celebrate Recovery I was set free from guilt, shame, and a debilitating depression. Because they’d had such an enduring impact on me from their presentation years earlier I worked for days on a thoughtful message I hoped to leave with them. What’s the truest thing I can share? As it turns out, it’s the same message I remember feeling right there in the church pews two years earlier.
We all carry a sign every day. Whether we have the courage to acknowledge, and do something about it is up to us. God’s not looking at our resume, our past performance, the number of chamber of commerce awards on our office wall, or even the number of times we knew what was right, but did the wrong thing anyway. Wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, a single, heartfelt cry for help unleashes the same power that created the universe. No one is beyond forgiveness or another second chance. Our past doesn’t define us, but it refines us. He promises to make a way through the wilderness.
Indeed, we’re all in recovery.