This article was first released in the Catch the Fire Revival magazine. We loved it so much that we wanted more people to read it. Sarah Burnham is an intern at The Father's House Church, a PIH church in Oroville, CA. Sarah is originally from Reading, England. Sarah fell in love with the Father’s House during her time at Catch The Fire's School of Ministry in Toronto, and eventually decided to stay.
Five months ago I left my home in the south of England and headed to Oroville, California. I came to Southside, a neighborhood long ravaged by epidemic drug abuse and crippling poverty, to work at The Father’s House, a church that ministers daily to the addicted, homeless and broken.
My time in Oroville has changed my life in many ways, but I want to share with you the most important: my head-on collision with reality; the newly poignant challenge to actually live out what I claim to believe.
Never in my life have I so needed Jesus to be real. If he isn’t, then I’m stuffed. So is everyone around me. Southside is full of desperate people, and desperate people have no interest in religion. If you do not know that God can heal, deliver, save and provide, then you have nothing to offer. If Jesus is not real in your own life, then you have no hope of leading someone else into an encounter with him. Lately, I’ve had the privilege of watching many people face situations in which their faith has been greatly tested. My fellow intern, Tiffany, stands out as one of the bravest.
Tiffany had hit rock bottom when she arrived at The Father’s House. She had lost care of her kids to drug addiction and the sight in her right eye to domestic violence. Jail had come as a relief. Since that time, Tiffany’s life has been completely transformed. She’s overcome addiction, seen God restore her family, and even had thousands of dollars of fines paid supernaturally. But earlier this year tragedy hit. One of her sons was diagnosed with a rare disease that causes tumors to develop on the spine and brain. The disease is genetic – Tiffany has it too – and one small tumor threatens her good eye. Over the last few terrifying months, Tiffany’s faith has been tested to the limit. But throughout it all, as she’s sat weeping through staff meetings and stood weeping through worship services, she’s never lost sight of the reality of her God. After some successful surgeries, things are looking up; but above all, whatever happens, Tiffany is not letting go.
For me, living in reality is living out what you believe. If I claim to believe something, then I am responsible for living it. This conviction has led me to ask some tough questions. If I believe God heals, then why don’t I expect healing when I pray? If I believe God provides for me, then why does having no income scare me? If I believe God lives inside of me, then why do my circumstances often feel more real than his presence? I don’t want to be satisfied with a faith that is not born out in my actions.
Jesus said: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46 NIV)
Intellectual agreement is worthless; what matters is what we actually do. My friend Jan provided a picture of this for me. Homeless through no fault of his own, he makes a few dollars a week hunting in garbage for cans to recycle. A few weeks ago I was sat near him at church as the offering was taken. I felt surprised and moved as I watched him add his tiny tithe to the basket. When he told me later that he’d been learning to rely on God, I believed him.
In my pursuit of reality, it’s not only my faith that is being challenged, but also the truths I have long taken for granted. Growing up in the church, I unquestioningly took on my parents’ beliefs and was innocently certain that, out of the whole world, we were the ones in the know. But even now, as an adult, I’m realizing that my confidently held convictions often have more to do with the current views of my comfortable church culture than a serious attempt to listen to Jesus. Perhaps this is a normal part of growing up, but I’m beginning to realize how little I know.
I had one of those moments in a recent staff meeting. Pastor Steve was asking us the question: What is love? I felt relaxed. This was a religious exercise I’d participated in before. I was sure I knew the answer, though if others didn’t I was happy to humor them. But, as often happens in our staff meetings, conversation moved swiftly past vague, surface responses. If God is love, then is everything he does an expression of love? Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers”. He called a Samaritan woman a “dog”. He told his disciples they were part of a “perverse” and “unbelieving” generation. Was that love? Pastor Steve shared how he had recently told a young man recovering from a life of destructive choices that he was an idiot. The man later asked Steve to be his father. Tears were shed as people recounted stories of situations where similar ‘tough love’ had proved life saving. Bill described his darkest moment, crying out to God in the midst of the addiction that was destroying his life: “The next day, I was arrested and went to jail. That’s how I ended up here. That was love.” At some point during that meeting it hit me: I don’t have a clue what love is.
At The Father’s House, we passionately believe in listening to Jesus: reading his words, believing them and putting them into practice. When I first took up the challenge to read only Jesus' words, I got a shock. I suppose the first shock was how unfamiliar I was with what my teacher actually taught. The second was how much of his teaching I wanted to explain away. Jesus said enough desperately challenging things to fill several articles, but one that stands out appears three times in the gospels:
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23 – NASB)
I’m beginning to realize that following Jesus doesn’t just mean believing He is my Savior. It means doing as he said and living how he lived: copying him just as his disciples sought to. It means following him into selfless and sacrificial giving, even into suffering. And this radical discipleship is not optional; it is not an afterthought for the especially spiritual. Jesus said we must.
So what is our reality? In our ‘ordinary’ western life of easy comfort and constant, deceptive busyness, our perception can so easily become clouded. We can fail to recognize the cosmic battle that surrounds us. Living in Southside, the veil is lifted. I’ll never forget the first time I watched someone choose death over life. Her name was Janet. She had been homeless for decades, an alcoholic in an abusive relationship, but after a month with us she was sober, well-dressed, surrounded for the first time by people who loved her. She was very shy but her gentle, kind personality was beginning to shine through. Then one day she heard word that her boyfriend, the one who used to beat her, might be in the neighborhood. She walked straight off our campus and onto the street. I remember people running after her, trying to reason with her, but it was no good. I still see her from time to time, once more homeless and drunk. Her boyfriend died of liver failure a few months ago. She knows that if she doesn’t stop drinking, she’ll soon follow him.
In this life or death battle, there may be many defeats, but there in one final victory. Last Sunday, our church celebrated something amazing: two Graduations from our year long addiction recovery program, Life Recovery Ministries (LRM), signifying two lives that have been irrevocably changed by the love of God. Both men struggled to hold back the tears as they shared how destruction and despair had been replaced with healing and hope. It was one of the moments that make any amount of hard work worthwhile. Pastor Steve asked the congregation if they had one sentence to describe who they were before and who they are now. After a pause, someone spoke up: “I was a dope dealer, now I’m a hope dealer”. Everyone laughed. Then someone else shouted out: “I was a junkie, now I’m a son”. Suddenly, everyone wanted to share: “I was desperate, now I feel loved”; “I was a liar and an excuse-maker, now I tell the truth”; “I had religion, now I have relationship”; “I was living under a bridge, now I’m a bridge for others to find hope”. Sitting in that service, I recognized that, as Jesus promised, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
Our reality is clear, if we would only see it. We are embroiled in a fight to the death that has already been won; surrounded by an inconceivably good God who passionately loves us; within touching distance of a Kingdom of incredible power; charged with the awesome task of demonstrating who God is to the world. Perhaps all we need to ask ourselves is this: is Jesus who he says he is? And if so, does that truth determine how I live? For me at least, it’s time for a reality check.