Sanctity of Life

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This past week I picked up a man who needed a ride. As we were talking, we only had a few minutes, so I went straight for the jugular. I asked him if he had an addiction issue. There were some indicators, and he was beautifully transparent and said, “yes.” And we talked about that. We talked about the hope in Jesus and how Jesus changes us from the inside out and then the practical help that’s there for him. But he just seemed to have that look like, “That may work for somebody else, not for me.” And I said, “Hey, I know you feel that way, but let me give you one example. This week in our church, we’re having a man who’s going to be speaking who was right where you are — opiate addictions, no hope, bondage, future gone — and this month, he will begin as the CEO and President of one of the largest nonprofit ministries in our community.” And he’s looking at me like, “You’re telling me a story.” I said, “No, it’s really true.” I got to pray with him. But it is really true.

I first met Ryan Duerk the last couple summers. He has been gracious enough to jump on our little minibus full of college interns and to be our tour guide as we went all over Greenville to many of the Miracle Hill Ministry facilities. And the whole way he’s (police officers, close your ears), he’s standing up telling us stories of how God changed his life, how God answered prayer, how God empowered ministry, and you could just see all the college interns just super encouraged to see a man who knew what it was like to be a guest in one of these facilities. He speaks with compassion each time we would meet a guest in one of the facilities. But yet God has empowered him, equipped him, and called him now as of this month to lead this ministry, Miracle Hill Ministries.

Many of you know, Reid Lehman has been leading Miracle Hill, aside from a little break, for over 30 years, and he retired at the end of December. I asked Reid what he sees in Ryan that gives him confidence that Ryan can take over in and lead into the future, and he sent me two pages. I won’t take the time to go through all that, but God has given Ryan an ability to set goals and really hit them in remarkable ways. I know it’s all by his grace. Let me give you a couple of examples. When he started, he was set free from addiction, started working for Miracle Hill. While he’s working for Miracle Hill, while he’s married and having children, finished a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree. He told me he had to stop running marathons during that time because, for obvious reasons, timewise. But the Lord was through all those years, and then as he served as Vice President of adult ministries for Miracle Hill, God was raising him up for such a time as this.

And this is a huge deal for our church because from the very beginning, almost 30 years ago, one of the first things we did, (Nestbergs, remember this) we were down at Miracle Hill at the Rescue Mission Ministry. The very first Christmas, before I was even there, we were part of volunteering and serving and partnering with Miracle Hill. We thank God for this ministry. And therefore, we are really excited to have Ryan come with us, to be with us all day today, to share a bit of his story. And then also we want to pray for him at the end as he assumes responsibility for this massive blessing in our community, Miracle Hill Ministries. There are many ministries that we would start but don’t because they’re doing them really well and we get the privilege of just jumping in and partnering with them. And it is a beautiful partnership. So, give a big, warm welcome to Ryan as he comes.

Good morning, North Hills. Peter introduced me the same way in the first service, and he makes me sound superhuman, so let me make a clarification. Going to school and going to work and marathons is one thing, but you start popping out some kids, and it monkey wrenches the whole thing. Something’s got to give. Can’t do it all at the same time. I am honored and blessed to be here with you this morning and to share with you as Reid exits. And he’ll still be mentoring me some. But as he walks away, and I assume my new role, I’m on kind of a tour of getting to speak with some amazing churches. And one of the first ones is your church, which is fitting considering the long-term relationship that we’ve had. With our time this morning, I want to accomplish a couple of things. I want to tell you a little bit about myself, because my story is a Miracle Hill story. It’s much like many of our guests in our facilities. I want to tell you about what’s going on at Miracle Hill and what we’re looking to do in the future. We’ll jump right in with an awesome picture of my family. A couple of things that you need to know about this picture. Number one, the best thing about it is my amazing wife, Lauren, up there on the left. Second thing, embarrassingly, I think I’m wearing the exact same outfit. I promise that picture was not taken this morning. Number three, my daughter is a happy child. She just refuses to smile for pictures. And lastly, it is a miracle that that picture exists. There was a time in my life when I didn’t think I was going to survive, much less that God would bless me with an amazing marriage and some amazing children.

What I’d like to do is read through a passage out of the book of John, John chapter 5 if you’ve got your Bibles, and then I’ll pray and then we’ll talk some.

So, John chapter 5, starting in verse 1.

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’ ‘Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’ At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was the Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.’ But he replied, ‘The man who made me who made me well, said to me, “Pick up your mat and walk.”‘ They asked him, ‘Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?’ The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.’”

Father, we love you, Lord, and we thank you for waking us up this morning and giving us yet again another opportunity to serve you, Lord. I thank you that you’ve given us the strength to get here, to gather together, to worship who you are. Lord, I pray that as Miracle Hill and North Hills continues to try to line up with your will that you would continue to create an amazing relationship between this church and Miracle Hill as an organization. Lord, thank you for what you’re doing in each one of our lives. And I pray that as we go throughout the rest of this day, Lord, that you would give us something so that tomorrow we wake up and we are more like Jesus than we are today. We love you. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Let me tell you a little bit about my life and how I got to where I’m at. I grew up in a normal middle class household in Mauldin, South Carolina, and have two brothers and had a mother and a father. And in third grade, my parents divorced, which is not uncommon in our society but certainly is hard to deal with when you’re a part of that equation. My dad pretty quickly got remarried. And then in fifth grade my world just kind of shifted on its axis. My mother had a series of heart attacks in the night, and I found her. She survived, but she survived with traumatic brain injury from loss of oxygen to the brain. She went to go live in a home for people with brain injuries. And I saw her about 2-3 times over the next 15 years before she died.

As a young kid, I had no idea how to cope with that. My family was a Christmas and Easter church family. We occasionally would go to church when it was either convenient or it was socially appropriate to go. But my family worshiped at the altar of children’s sports, so each weekend was taken up with time with sporting events. I don’t remember hearing the word Jesus in my household, nor do I frankly remember hearing the word Jesus in the churches that we went to. I certainly wouldn’t say that I was an atheist growing up, but I was agnostic, and I was very angry with God, or at least my perception of God. I kind of thought of God like a little boy with the magnifying glass burning ants, and I was one of the ants.

As I went through elementary school and then into middle school, I didn’t know how to cope with many of these hard situations in my life. Through many situations, I wound up turning to drugs and alcohol. I drank for the first time in sixth grade off a stolen bottle of brandy, and I smoked weed for the first time the next year. Throughout the next six years or so, through middle school and high school, that became much more of a prevalent part of my life to the point that by the end of high school, I had kind of maintained my grades a little bit, but I’d been arrested several times, I’d been suspended from school several times, and I had progressed from one drug to the next. By the end of high school, my father had had enough, and he put me out of the house and appropriately so. I was completely out of control.

I wound up going up and down the east coast, doing harder and harder drugs, graduating from one crime to the next until 2002. On a chance phone call with my brother, I found out that my mother, who’d been in hospitals this whole time, was dying. I went to the hospital and got to sit with her as she passed from this planet, which just made me angrier and angrier. My brothers knew I was completely in crisis, so they tried to talk me into going to a recovery program. They gave me several suggestions, but I wasn’t ready for that. After her memorial service, I get arrested, and I wind up in jail for about another six months. I get out of jail and I go to Charleston for a geographical shift to stay sober. Note: If you’re struggling with addiction, Charleston is not the city that you want to try to stay sober in. It didn’t work. I tanked back out, and I finally really got to the end of myself. I had several suicide attempts prior to this and knew that I wanted something different. I only remembered one recovery program that my brothers had suggested, and it was the Miracle Hill Greenville Rescue Mission Overcomers program. I had never been to Miracle Hill. I had never seen the Overcomers or the Rescue Mission, but I had someone drop me off. This is kind of the moment in time that God gets a front row seat in my story. Now, looking back on it, he was there all the time, as the hymn says, but I didn’t have the eyes to see it.

Let me go back to our passage, and let’s walk through it and kind of use that as the building blocks for our story.

“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.”

Here’s what’s happening. There is a pool that really existed. And every day dozens of people would come down, and they would park beside this pool. And they believed that periodically an invisible, angelic creature would come down and would stir the water. And if you are the first person to get into the water, you would be healed. There are a couple of problems with this scenario. History has shown us that the pool was on top of an aqueduct system. The stirring of the water was actually water and other debris making its way through the aqueduct system. More importantly, the next descriptive says, “In these lay a multitude of invalids — blind, lame, and paralyzed.” But what’s the problem? If the water stirred up, and you’re blind, you can’t see it. If the water is stirred up, and you’re paralyzed, you can’t get to it. What the pool represents is misplaced faith. It’s this idea that something external of ourselves, but not God, can fix our life and our circumstances.

You know, in my life and with many of the guests in our facilities, you’ll see this misplaced faith. They’ll say things like, “If I can just get this job, everything will be okay. If I can just get this relationship, everything will be okay. If I can get $3000 dollars to pay off my probation, everything will be okay.” None of those things will fix their life, much like the pool. I see a comparison in my own life metaphorically with these descriptives. Right? Blind, I was blind to the truth that was going on around me in the world, and I was blind to the truth of God. I was lame. I was unable to function in regular life. If your phone rings this afternoon, you will just answer it. When I was in addiction, my phone would ring, and I would have a panic attack because I wouldn’t know who’s on the other side of it. And then the voice mail light would go off, and I’d be terrified to answer it or terrified not answer it. Or if somebody knocks on the door, God forbid I might have a heart attack not knowing who’s at my front door when you would just go to the door to answer it. I was paralyzed, paralyzed in fear, not knowing how to change. Not knowing where to turn, thinking that everybody was out to get me. And much like many of our guests, the group that I was probably scared of the most? The church. I perceived the church as being a place with perfect people, and they didn’t want anything to do with my brokenness. I think that’s true in a lot of churches across America. The people that need to be in church don’t come because they’re scared from the perception of the church.

The Scripture says, “One man was there who had been an invalid for 38 years.” I used for about 15 years. But before I go on, I want to try to indict the rest of you. I want to make the rest of you as guilty as me. I’ve got a list in my hands of the top addictions in America. These are in no specific order.

First one on my list, coffee. Make no mistake, caffeine is a drug. When you can’t get your coffee in the morning, and you have a headache, that’s called withdrawal. You’re laughing, but that’s a real statement.

Number 2, food. We’re the most obese country in the world, 38% of our population. 2% of our population has eating disorders.

Number 3 on my list, gambling. Somewhere around 4% pathological gamblers. And let me clarify. When I’m saying these, this is not all of society minus the church; this includes the church.

Number 4, shopping. 17 million Americans cannot control their shopping.

Number 5, sex or pornography, probably the biggest killer of men and pastors in the church.

Number 6, alcoholism costs the United States $170 billion a year. Then you have heroin. Then you have marijuana. Then you have nicotine. And this is where I get the rest of you.

Last thing on my list. All right, let me ask you a question, and I want you to be honest. This is a moment of transparency in the church. How many of you the last thing you put down before you go to sleep is your phone? Get those hands up. How many of you the first thing you pick up in the morning is your phone? What should it be? It should be the Word of God, right? That is an idol, and it is scientifically turning into an addiction, and its starting with our kids now. This is a dangerous thing in our society. My point is that this guy was an invalid for 38 years. I struggled with addiction for some period of time. But the majority of us have sins in our life that are misplaced faith. It is something that we are turning to outside of the Lord. Scripture goes on to say,

“When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’”

Very specific question. Jesus heals a lot of people in a lot of different ways through the Scripture. He makes mud and puts it in a guy’s eye. He makes a statement and someone’s healed. But in this particular instance, he asks a question that is not about just having a little bit of change, but it’s about complete and total heart change, right? He doesn’t say, “Do you want to feel better?” He says, “Do you want to be healed?” It’s this idea of “I was once was blind, but now I see.” I once was paralyzed, and now I walk. It’s about complete and total change.

And the guy’s response to him,

“‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’”

The guy makes an excuse. How often do we do that? We have some kind of issue in our life, and God gives us a route of escape, and we make an excuse on why we can’t take the route. Jesus says to him,

“‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”

Here’s that command. Here’s Jesus telling him, “Get up, take up your bed and walk.” People often misquote the Scripture to say that God helps those who help themselves. It doesn’t ever actually say that. But in this passage, you have this idea that Jesus is saying to him, “If you want change, if you want your life to be different, I will give you every bit of energy and strength that you need to change. But you have to get up and pick up your mat and walk.” This is the truth of overcoming addiction, that Jesus is there and will provide the route of escape. But it is our responsibility to walk.

You know, in my own life, I got to this broken place that wound up at the Rescue Mission surrounded by amazing godly individuals who told me all this truth about Scripture that I had to then decide what I was going to do with. God was melting my heart in this process. He was melting all this anger and resentment away from me until I got to a place where I had no more doubt that I saw what Christ wanted for my life. On July 18, 2003, I walked down to the chapel in the middle of the morning, and I gave my life to the Lord. I’d love to say that that’s the end of the story, but like with so many other people, I decided to do about 80% of what Jesus told me to do and about 80% of what recovery told me to do. And 80% got me right back to the bottom of the bottle in about a year and a half. I tanked out, and I struggled for another couple of years.

The really interesting part is that once you come to know the Lord, he takes all the joy out of getting high. I tell that to the new overcomers and our guests all the time. I say, “Listen, if you want to get clean, if you don’t want God to ruin it for you, you might want to go back out there and keep getting what you’re going to get, because once you come to know Jesus, he is going to shift your life. Because he loves you, and you’re a part of his family.” This is what our guests go through each day. They have this opportunity to meet a living God, but they’re often struggling with what that looks like.

In 2007, I came back and I agreed to do 100% of what God asked me to do. And so ultimately, God called me to work in the ministry in a job that I didn’t want. And then he asked me to go do a different job that I didn’t want. And fast forward 12 years and I get to stand up in front of you and tell you how faithful and amazing Jesus is if we will just let him have the reins.

There’s a quote by John Piper that says,

“Is Jesus your consuming addiction or a convenient addition?”

It took me years to see this, but years into my sobriety I realized, praise the Lord for my addiction. I’m not saying he’s responsible for it, but I’m saying that he used it, and it is through my tendencies that I see the need for a loving God in my life. When somebody else might be, you know, addicted to, let’s say pornography secretly for thirty years and nobody ever knows. If I go back to doing what I want to do, I destroy my life really quick. God has actually given me a better tendency than some other people, although society would see it differently.

We are so blessed at Miracle Hill that we get to share in God’s story every single day with 600 or so adults. Our mission statement is that Miracle Hill exists that homeless children and adults receive food and shelter with compassion, hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and move towards healthy relationships and stability. What that means is that Miracle Hill exists as a parachurch ministry, a ministry to come alongside the local church. Our job is to be the hands and feet and provide healing to all those individuals that come in our care. And when they get to a place of healing, to pass them back to the local church. We serve to do what the church wants us to do. Each day we get that opportunity with hundreds of people, with hundreds of foster families. When the temperature drops, an extra couple hundred individuals might come into care.

There’s a book written by Tim Keller called “Ministries of Mercy” and in it he describes two different ideas for a helping ministry. On one side, you’ve got people that say, “In order to help people in poverty, you’ve got to change the systems that are interacting with their life.” On the other side of the argument you have people say, “If you want to help people in poverty, you’ve got to get them to make better decisions.” All right, those are the two extremes. At Miracle Hill we believe it’s a combination of the two. We know that these are real people that come in our doors, that need relationship, that need love, that need friendship, that need help fixing the brokenness in their life. But they also need help dealing with this system that has rejected them and provided a very difficult opportunity to dig themselves out of the hole. At Miracle Hill we try to do that by presenting the gospel and being the hands and feet of Jesus and meeting people at their lowest possible points.

There’s a map of our service area, which is the upstate of South Carolina. We very specifically feel that God’s called us to this region of the state. We don’t have any intentions of becoming a national organization. What that means is not that Miracle Hill is going to have a facility in every county, but that Miracle Hill wants to make sure that there is adequate homeless and protective services for our most vulnerable in those counties, which might mean that we have a facility or it might mean that we serve an existing ministry or program in another county, which we currently do.

We know that there are gaps in our future that we need to address, that it’s not just about giving somebody a handout for help, but it’s about giving them a hand up. We’re trying to figure out where all the gaps are so that when somebody comes into our care, we can help them from that moment until they truly reach stability in their future.

The question that I’m asked more than anything else over the past two months is, Ryan, what is your vision for Miracle Hill? And I think people ask me that out of fear because they’re scared that we’re going to change. We have a motto at Miracle Hill that says: “If you can’t find a friend in the world, you can find one here.” My vision for Miracle Hill is that we continue to do that. I’ve been blessed to be part of the senior leadership team for years. The vision and the strategy that we have going is what we’re going to continue to do, which is “Be a friend to someone that needs one,” whether it is a child coming into our residential care or our foster families or our thrift store customers. That’s what we’ve been called to do, and that’s what we are going to continue to do.

Three things that you can do to help us. We need your prayer, we need your time and talents, and we need your treasures. What’s cool about coming to North Hills to speak on this is you guys are already doing that. I got a list of all the amazing things that North Hills has done just over the past year. North Hills (the church) gave enough so that we can supply a foster care worker in our foster care program. Let me give you a fact. Try to break your heart really quick. If every church in South Carolina fostered or adopted one more kid, DSS would cease to exist. We have 1500 needs for foster care or adoption, and we have way more than 1500 churches. Every church only has to do one more, and the need disappears. Isn’t that amazing and shocking all at the same time?

On top of this amazing salary, you guys invested hundreds of volunteer hours over the past years. You sponsor graduations. You’re fully dug in with our Renewal program. The Renewal ladies are here every week. We have staff members that go here. We’ve got Jeanie and Nate are over here somewhere. Jeanie and Nate Jackson, they work with us. And there were 2-3 staff members in the first service. You guys are greatly represented in our mentor programs. Maybe our longest standing mentor, Len Stemann, was in the first service this morning. You guys have already showed up and showed out with Jesus. We’re just prayerful that the relationship continues, that we continue to find ways to partner as we serve on behalf of you, for you and with you. We are so thankful for the ways that you partner. We pray that you would continue to pray for us, you would continue to send people our way that we can help so that we can continue to work together for Christ. Thank you.

We can start with step 1 right now.

Our Father, in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, we thank you so much for this man and for the ministry for which he is standing right now. Thank you, God, for transformed lives. We heard about them from the beginning of this service to the conclusion. Whether you’ve taken a slave out of a quarry, rescued a child from potentially being killed, healed what would have been a parent from the devastating memory of an abortion. You’re healing, your transformation, it’s all your power. So, we pray your power for Ryan as he leads. He needs your wisdom. He’s a man, like any of us, desperately needing your wisdom to lead and guide a large organization. And it’s our privilege to pray for him and for Miracle Hill. And we ask, Lord, would you help us not to forget? You’ve stirred us up to prayer right now. Help us to keep that going, not just to leave here and forget, but to keep it going. And we thank you. It is by your power, in Jesus name, amen.

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