Letter to a Future Me

People keep making the joke “see you next decade” or observing “this is the last time we’ll do this in this decade” and that has made me reflect a lot on the past 10 years. I don’t know what we will call this decade, the tens maybe? But I know this decade has been really good to me.

Ten years ago I was getting ready to graduate college (a year late) and wondering what God would have in store for me. On a whim I was listening to a podcast that lead me to a website that lead me to a job interview which lead me to two job offers (the first one I turned down) to work on a little Bible app that at the time had 500k installs. And when I left it had 5 million installs, which I thought was a lot, and today it has hundreds and hundreds of millions of installs and is impacting the faith of people all over the world. Oh, and I met some amazing friends and leaders who – little did I know – would impact the way I lead and love people for years to come. Folks like Brad, Daryl, Mark, Josh, Terry, Will, Bobby and Craig.

It was this decade that I started a tradition of fasting every year so that God would show me what he wanted me to do. Which directly lead to multiple trips to Uganda to visit Musana, and brought wonderful people into my life like Alissa, Andrea, Haril, Sadiq, Rahim, Richard, Jodi, Danielle and another AJ, Leah, and a couple of Bens.

This is the decade that God called me back into working with high school and middle school students. After telling him you have the wrong guy, and finally relenting to what God has called me to do “but only for a year” — 8.5 years later I wholeheartedly admit that God knows what He’s doing. I watched students come and go from the church. I saw some students who were the good seed in good soil planted and growing and producing a hundred times what was planted. And I’ve seen the seed that grew quickly, and was really excited for what God had in store for them — but the concerns and cares of the world choked it out, and their faith withered and died.

And I’ve seen a lot of students who only came because their parents made them, and at the first opportunity they bolted. Often because leaders like me didn’t show them the love of a Savior that is worth sticking around for.

I’ve met so many great co-laborers who I have learned so much from and so often wanted to be because they showed Jesus’ love so well and lead students so well. Folks like Cary, Zack, Zach, Michelle and Tucker, Nate and Dave, Christie, Brion and Bryan, Lyndsey and Cole, Jeremy and Renee, and Adrian.

And there are too many students to name, so I will stick to the ones who mostly still talk to me even as they still figure out this Jesus stuff: the Kierans, Ethan, Dom, Daniel, Colton, David, Michael, James, Landyn, Jason, Paul, Jaylen, Cheeto, Corbin, Nate, Hunter, Ryder, Caleb and the two Haydens, both Zanes, Backpack, Skittles, the four Conners, Allen and Nick, and Benny and so many others. You and so many other students have occupied so much of my prayer life, my arguments with God, most of my food budget and for many years nearly all of my available free time.

You all were a big investment for me and for some of you I have been amazed at what God has done in your lives with your faith, and for some of you I wonder if it’s my fault and if I’ve done something wrong when you walked away from Jesus. Everything good you ever saw from me—no matter how small—is a reflection of Jesus in me. And everything bad you ever saw was a reflection of me and my own sin.

This is the decade where I became a dad to an amazing foster son Noah. You are beloved even when I don’t know what the heck I am doing.

I got married this decade. I stood up in front of many of the people on this list (and many more that aren’t but should have been — forgive my memory) and stood with some of the best men I am lucky to know in this life — Cary, Jake, Brad, Adam and Adam, Ethan and Zack — to marry the best woman I have ever met. Before that moment I had many doubts it would ever happen, or if God would call me to be a husband or if I could do so faithfully. There were false starts, and relationships I tried to hold on to because I thought like Abraham thought that I would have to make this happen myself. But then Alissa basically fell into my lap at a time I wasn’t looking for a relationship and she carried me away with her love for people, her boundless enthusiasm and her extreme generosity.

I nearly backed out of the second trip to Musana. I only applied on a whim, and when I told people I was going, I got a lot of criticism. But I decided God wanted me there, and He had picked me, so by golly, I was going to do it. And it blows me away that had I acted on impulse in a different direction I may never have met you. What a loss that would have been, and I am so thankful God made me just stubborn enough that didn’t happen. What a blessing you have been in my life the past 5.5 years, and I look forward to decades to come.

In all of this, I have emphasized the people. If you are reading this and your name isn’t on this list, it isn’t because I don’t care about you. I care very much about people. What has made this decade special aren’t the trips I went on (I saw some cool stuff) or how much money I made, or the houses I lived in, the cars I bought or the many iPhones and iPads Apple tricked me into purchasing. Those things happened and they are not worth at all discussing. Because none of that mattered, what matter were the people I met, and the relationships I made. And my life has been good because it has been overflowing with Good People.

God has done more than I could think, imagine or dream. He is so very good. I have seen miracles. I have watched God redeem bad situations and make them good. I still don’t know how He does it, but He does it so well. He is just so very good.

As I look back on the past decade, I think about Hebrews 11. In it, the author talks about a whole lot of names that the Hebrew people would recognize, and the authors reminds the reader of all that God has done in history. Sort of like, “Hey, remember Moses?” And everyone will remember the Red Sea and the escape from Egypt, and the establishment of the new nation, and all of that rich and good history that proves God is faithful. That’s what this list does for me. These names matter to me. I can look back on this list and see name after name after name and remember good times, bad times and hard times. Times where I wasn’t sure our friendship would survive. Times where I didn’t want to be friends anymore. Times when I thought this was a name and a life that God had brought into my life to hurt me, not to bless me. And then something changed. And this personal journal helps me remember all the Good that God has done even when I wasn’t so sure.

Anyway. Hebrews 11. There’s so many good things in history. Verse 33 begins a great summary saying that by faith people conquered kingdoms, administered justice, gained what was promised; they shut the mouths of lions, quenched flames, escaped the sword and turned their weakness to strength and women received their dead back raised to life.

Wow! God raises the dead! How much more ultimate can you get in a faith story! Bravo! I’m inspired!

But the author keeps going, and it takes a dramatic turn in another direction. After all of this celebration of victory after victory after victory, all of a sudden we are confronted with all of the history of defeat after defeat after defeat:

There were others who were…

Tortured. Refusing to be released.

Some faced jeers and flogging.

Even chains and imprisonment.

They were put to death by stoning.

Some were sawed in two!

Many were killed by the sword.

Others were completely destitute and poor, wearing sheep and goat skins — persecuted and mistreated.

They wandered in deserts and mountains, they lived in caves and holes in the ground.

This decade — up until verse 33 at least — feels very Hebrews 11 to me. This decade was good to me. My cup has run over with blessing upon blessing upon blessing. I am so grateful for this.

God showed Himself faithful and good. I had many doubts this decade but God always showed up.

There will come a time when I sit down to reflect on a decade or year and will not be able to say that. I may say more things like David, “Where are you, my God?” “Why can’t I see you?” “What have I done to deserve this?”

I hope that decade is far from now. People I love will decide they don’t actually love Jesus. The doctor’s office will call with the worst news. We won’t walk away from the car accident unscathed. Someone we loved did something unthinkable and so hurtful. We and the people we love will be persecuted — l mean really persecuted — for making much of Jesus. And probably much more that I can’t even think of, and shouldn’t use my powers of imagination on.

I can only hope that when that decade comes, I can have the same reaction that the early church had, praising God that He considered us worthy to suffer for His Name.

Jesus gave us a promise we could really depend on: in this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Whenever it is my turn to have trouble after trouble after trouble, I want to look back at the 2010s and I want to encourage future me to keep pressing on. Jesus is worth it. The 2010s are but a shadow of what life is meant to be and will be when Jesus restores all things to Himself, when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Everything will be made right when Jesus makes Himself ultimate and final, and until then we long for it with expectation.

Back to Hebrews 11. All these bad things happened to people who tried to live in faith. Sawing in half? I complain when I stub my toe. But God made those people special, faithful. For after going on for a few sentences about persecution and famine and living in holes in the ground the author comes to a dramatic point in verse 38:
 They Were Too Good For This World.

I love that. The world was not worthy of them. And thus sets the context for famous Hebrews 12: Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, (what witnesses? The ones the world was not worthy of) let’s throw off every weight that weighs us down, and run the race God gave us with endurance.

Let’s run well. Let’s never quit. Let’s never give up.

Future AJ: you’re reading this because you aren’t sure it’s worth it. And you tell me that of course it is easy for me, everything is good in my life. But I tell you that it has always been God who is Good, and whatever temporary (even decadely-long) setback you may be experiencing, this is just a shadow of what God will do in you.