I Finally Found God

This was written at the request of The Relevant Christian magazine–I suspect it will form some of what I might say in one place or another… In the meantime, here it is.

found

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr.

That may not mean much to you and that’s ok. In fact, you may have no idea who I am or where I have been. Any news stories you might have seen have long left the airwaves…

And I am good with that.

There was a time not so long ago when my name didn’t mean much to me either. I longed to drown my memories, to forget my existence, and to somehow alleviate my all-encompassing pain.

At this point, frankly, I am somewhat weary of the notoriety of my story—I am weary of some of the things that have become an ingrained part of my new identity. I am weary of the heartache of the past that will always be a part of my present and future.

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr.
I am a preacher’s kid.
The world of church work has been a part of my life since almost as long as I can remember.
I grew up in church.
I came of age in church.
Much of my identity and self-worth has long been tied up in church and service to her. Even when I wanted to be far away, she was always close by, an ever-present attraction or irritant, depending on the circumstances.

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr.
I used to be a preacher and that is a story we are getting to.

In fact, I started preaching for a little country church at the age of 15. It was a predominately African-American church. I say predominately, because there was one skinny white kid who preached there on Sunday mornings. Yes, that was me.

I owe that little group of folks a lot, but that’s a part of my story we will not delve into today…

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr.
I went to Magnolia Bible College and studied to be a preacher. My time at school was divided by a six-year hitch in the US Navy. After the Navy, I began work as a youth minister in Vicksburg, MS and also went back to school. In time, I began a full-time preaching ministry in Laurel, MS and later in Gulfport, MS.

I’d like to think I did good work during some of those years. Certainly I grew as a speaker/ communicator. More importantly, I grew as a theologian and minister. And as compassionate as I’d like to think I was, I had lessons yet to learn that would prove to be the fight of my life…

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr.
I used to be a preacher and then I found myself being one again.

In some ways, it would be easier if I could tell you I suffered a moral lapse or made some huge mistake that necessitated a ministry time out. It would be easier to say I cheated with my time. Or maybe I swindled some sweet elderly lady out of her life’s savings or insurance. It would be so less painful to tell you I embezzled church funds or got caught up in some aspect of illegal drug use. It would be far simpler to just acknowledge some degree of depression or a mental breakdown.

It would be easier and I wish I could, but I can’t.

My name is Les Ferguson, Jr. and the time between having been a preacher and becoming one again was a long hard battle of lost and rediscovered faith.

Preachers are not supposed to lose their faith. Standing all alone atop our pedestal of supposed super spirituality, we are thought to be invincible to the failure of doubt. At least until we aren’t and by then, there is little you can say to stop it.

When faith departs, there isn’t a single religious cliché that will fix anything—not WWJD (What would Jesus Do) and not FROG (Fully Rely On God). And faking it till you make it isn’t a viable option either.

And then there was scripture.

Comparing my story to the story of Job wasn’t comforting; it was obscene. And Romans 8:28 enraged me—there was nothing good about the murder of a wife and son.

And so faith departed. It didn’t happen all at once, but I felt it trickle away and was powerless to stop it.

I am not sure I wanted to.

I suppose I should clarify what I mean by losing faith. In my case, I never quit believing in God. I never doubted His existence. I never doubted His presence in this world. In fact, that knowledge and belief in Him fueled my doubt like pouring gasoline on an already raging fire.

When I say I lost my faith, what I mean is losing my trust, hope, and belief in a God who loved and cared for me. I knew He cared for others. I saw the evidence in a thousand places in a thousand times. I heard the happy praise. I saw the exponential joy. I felt the faith of others as a living, breathing, tangible thing…

I get giving God credit for the good things we experience in life. I really do. But every time I heard someone speak of what God had done for them–curing their illness, getting them a new job, buying them a new house, or making their headache go away… I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs both literally and metaphorically the immortal words of Esau, “Do you only have one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” (Genesis 27:38 HCSB)

The next phrase in that verse says, “And Esau wept loudly.”

So did I.
So did I.

And in my tears, rage, and bitterness, I cried with an impotence hard to imagine…

What about me?
What about me, God?
Don’t I count too? 
Why doesn’t my family matter as much as his stupid toothache or her goofy issues?
Why God, why?
Why can’t I be blessed like all the rest around me?
What did I do wrong?
How did I fail you?
What about me?

In those words are the pain of every hurting, broken, questioner who has wondered where God is and why He hasn’t made a difference so desperately wanted and needed.

In the dark despair of tragedy, in the grip of a destructive evil, those were my words.
They were given birth the day my family was ripped from me.
I angrily thought them the day I was forced to pick out two caskets.
I mouthed those words relentlessly as I stood in a day long receiving line.
I cried those words as the funeral message was preached.
I sobbed those words quietly at night as I tried to comfort a five-year demanding to see his grave-bound mother…

Eventually those words took on a life of their own. In my bitterness and despair–in a dry and weary land–there was no comfort, no solace, no balm of Gilead to soothe my spirit, to ease in even some small way the despair that had taken root in my soul.

In that fertile ground of pain and sorrow grew the sure knowledge that God—real and alive—cared nothing for me. I couldn’t trust Him. There were no bargains to be made; no deals to be had.

Hope was gone and I was alone.
Raw.
Bleeding.
And desperate for something to ease the pain…

In my heartache and anger, I eventually found God.
Not all at once.
But slowly and surely, as life became more than just my pain, God started showing up.

Here’s where the story gets real.

The former preacher, the guy with two theology degrees and a lifetime of ministry, finally found God.

Not the God who blesses America (even though He does).
Not the prosperity God who delivers wealth to those who contribute (to whatever cause or bank account needing funding).
Not the God we keep all locked up in a box (church, traditions, understanding) of our own making (although He can dwell there too if He so chooses).
Not the God we bargain with and cut deals for (even though I am sure He is interested).

Instead, I found God.
The God who created everything.
The God who wants nothing more than relationship with His creation.
The God who offers grace, mercy, and love.
The God who redeems our brokenness and changes our story.

For me, the redemption of my story was everything. To use my pain to bless others means my family did not die in vain.

And thus, the grace of God has proven to be overwhelming.

I am preaching again and this time I share a message of grace I have experienced; a message of grace I am compelled to share with others.

My faith is secure.

It took awhile, but I finally found God on His terms and not mine…

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Madison/ Ridgeland, MS.

The Power of a Beautiful Story

summerblogtour small

What is Christianity? It is what is good, true, and beautiful. These are the three virtues that describe our faith. God is good. God is true. God is beautiful. God embodies these virtues perfectly, but these virtues do not stop with God. What he creates is good, true, and beautiful. As Christians, we should strive for goodness, truth, and beauty in our own lives. We should reflect the virtues of God. We are shaped by a story that is good, true, and beautiful. The Bible is God’s grand narrative, and we are invited to be a part of it.

Of the three virtues, beauty is the one that is most neglected by Christians these days. We are great at standing up for doctrinal truths. We have no problem doing good in the communities in which we live and around the world. Beauty is another animal. It is not that we are against it, but I think most Christians do not know what is meant by beauty in its purest form. Beauty has been hijacked. The so-called beauty that is pimped on magazine covers and billboards is not the kind of beauty we are talking about.

What is beauty? The psalmist wrote, 
“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4)
Our standard for beauty is God. Everything about God is beautiful. His work, word, and ways define beauty for us. The beauty we see in creation is a reflection of the beauty of the Father. The beauty of a painting, film, or poem is a glimpse of the eternal Artist, who created all things. The beauty of humanity at its finest is a reminder of the greatest human being that walked this earth, Jesus of Nazareth.

We must be careful not to neglect beauty. It has the power to win people over. Often Christians are guilty of shouting truths at a secular world that desperately needs to see the beauty of God. We must never neglect the truth of the Christian faith, but the first thing the world needs to see and hear from us is the beauty of what it means to be a Christian.

God’s beauty is broad. It is many things. At one point in his ministry, Paul pointed to the beauty of the words of a pagan poet to win people to Christ. God’s beauty can even be found in things that deny him or do not know him. The longing for something beautiful is a desire every human has. We may have a difficult time defining beauty, but when we see something beautiful, we cannot take our eyes off of it. Beauty is a necessity, just as story is a necessity. Without stories, our lives do not make sense. Everyone has a story. Everyone is living into a story. Every human being on this planet has been shaped by the stories they have grown up with. Without beauty and story, life is meaningless.

It is important to understand how foundational beauty and story are because Christians have a beautiful story that the world needs to hear. Everyone agrees that there is something wrong with the world. How do we address this brokeness? We address it by telling a beautiful story, a story that is truly good news to the people who hear it. We live into this story, so much so that people recognize that our lives are strangely different. We embody this beautiful story that we are now a part of it, and we proclaim it with every aspect of our lives.

What is this story of beauty? It is a love story. It is a story about sacrifice and what it means to be truly human. It is a story that will bless our lives in more ways than we can imagine. It is a story that recognizes this world is not what it should be. This problem leads us to the heart of the story. Humanity cannot solve the problems of this world, although we continue to try. God alone can make things right, and he did so by taking on flesh and coming to this earth.
Our world recognizes beauty each year at Christmas when it celebrates the incarnation. People are mesmerized and filled with awe because of this mysterious event. Beauty and mystery are close cousins. They go hand in hand. If you explain every detail about something, it is no longer a mystery. We are intrigued by mystery because we do not
understand everything about it. The same is true of beauty. Part of the allure of things that are beautiful lies in our inability to fully explain them. We can try to describe the beauty of a sunset, but our words do not do it justice. Our explanations of what is beautiful always fall short. What is beautiful in the Bible are things we profess but do not fully comprehend. Incarnation, Trinity, atonement, resurrection, etc. are all elements of our beautiful story. They are foundational to who we are and what we believe but they are also shrouded in mystery and beauty.

We have a beautiful story to tell and we must not fail to share it with the world. Often, we are guilty of sharing facts from the Bible as if it is no different from a science textbook. When we do this we are missing out on the wonders God has revealed to us. We are called to woo the world with the beauty of a story. It is the beauty of a God who created all things and said, “It is good.” It is the beauty of a God who is one and three at the same time, a God who dwells in perfect community. It is the beauty of a God who left heaven and came to earth. It is the beauty of a God who took on flesh and ministered to the least of society. It is the beauty of a God who forgave his killers and willingly went to the cross to show us what love is. It is the beauty of new creation springing up from the grave.
This is our story, but it is just part of all there is to tell. When God invests himself in creation, the result is beauty. God has been present in the lives of the patriarchs, Israel, and the early church, and he continues to invest himself in the lives of Christians today. Many Christians have personal stories of how God has worked in our lives. In a world that is longing for beauty and a story to make sense of their lives, we hold the key. We have been called to tell a beautiful story.

Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications. He blogs
regularly at Resurrected Living (http://start2finish.org/category/resurrected-
living/)