John and Sydnee's Stories
One thing I've come to know -
it's simple, but it's life-changing.
On a walk and in prayer (those two things are almost inseparable for me - my tennis shoes are my praying shoes) I said, "Life is better, I like it better when I am following You."
In the good times, in the bad times - it's better.
Sweeter, more peaceful, more purposeful.
Better, not always easier.
As we near Thanksgiving and we turn our hearts to gratitude, may we also take time to see how God takes our hand and walks with us. May we be ever thankful for the Good Shepherd.
Speaking of, I'm honored to share stories of two of my new friends, John and Sydnee. These stories point to the power of Jesus - our Good Shepherd - and the grace and love of the Father we know in His name.
If you were driving through the city or walking through a park or even headed to a Thunder game at some point between 2016 and 2018, you may have seen John. You may not have known his name and you definitely wouldn't recognize him as he is today.
How does a man go from roaming the city, homeless, sleeping bench to bench, in and out of county jail for public drunkenness, trespassing and petty theft, addicted to alcohol and drugs with his belongings held in a couple trash bags to being an associate youth pastor in a local church?
Yep, you heard me.
Talk about radical life change. How does that happen?!
How does a woman go from being blacked out every day for 10 years, addicted to drugs and facing a possible life sentence in prison to leading a street church and serving on a worship team and in youth ministry?
Again, another radical, completely crazy 180 turn. How does this happen?!
We're gonna get there, but first let's take a peek into their stories.
John was born and raised in Clearview, Oklahoma. He's a self-proclaimed "country boy," raised on a farm. His family shared a trailer with his grandparents and their days were spent taking care of the chickens, ducks and cattle. He remembers his grandfather as the preacher.
After 14 years on the farm, his family moved to the city, which he had never seen or experienced before. A big move with even bigger hopes. With his father's alcoholism spiraling, his family hoped a new place would be a fresh start. However, their problems only followed them.
In middle school, John was directed to a classroom where the numbers and letters were bigger than the other classrooms. It was then he realized for the first time, "I'm different." Riding a different bus and attending special education classes, he remembers being made fun of through high school.
His addiction began somewhat innocently with a small taste of hot tea with alcohol added. He remembers his surprise, "Wow! I didn't know I could feel this way."
By his junior and senior years of high school, he was ditching class to ride the city bus around. He started drinking and smoking and stealing - anything in chase of a thrill or high and to escape the anger welling up deep within.
He couldn't numb all the anger. It soon revealed itself as holes punched in the lettuce boxes and resulted in him being fired from his job at Taco Bell. Even then, he took responsibility for his behavior and admitted to his mom, "Mom, it's not you. It's me. I'm the one being defiant, not keeping up with my grades" and such.
The mentality of 'I'm not normal' hindered me from going forward. - John
He had friends getting certificates and jobs, even one starting a welding company at the young age of 21, and he felt held back.
Being the only son with four other sisters, he saw how everyone in his family had a role. He clearly saw his role as "the outcast."
When his mom moved, he ended up moving in with a friend, which became a party house. Soon, he was roaming the city, homeless, sleeping bench to bench, in and out of county jail for public drunkenness, trespassing and petty theft (once from stealing samples in a grocery store because he was so hungry), addicted to alcohol and drugs with his belongings held in a couple trash bags.
Living with substance abuse was no way to live. He was easily influenced and couldn't defend himself from poor situations. Even the hard drugs weren't enough. Prescription pills soon became part of his life and daily routine.
With no appetite, he was losing weight quickly and admits he was becoming one of the people he saw on the streets as a kid whom he was "disgusted with," and he realized,
Nobody's better than nothin'. - John
The beginning of his turnaround happened when he found the lifeless body of his friend on Christmas Eve. On August 7, 2018, he said, "That's it," and went to Jesus House, a center for addiction recovery. Slowly but surely, the chip on his shoulder started crumbling away.
He remembers walking into a local church where everyone was hugging one another and reaching out warmly to him, and he thought, "I might like this church." After Jesus House, a ministry birthed from this church, Ignite405, was there to help him get on his feet and offer him hope as he transitioned to the life he was meant to live.
At church, he went from sitting in the back row to slowly making his way to the front, to being involved in the Last Supper reenactment, and now serving as an associate youth pastor!
I'm a walkin', breathin' testimony and I have a passion to help others and be a part of something bigger than myself. - John
Starting off on a vulnerable note, Sydnee takes a sip of her smoothie and tells me, "It's hard to tell my story because I don't ...remember it. I was blacked out every day for 10 years."
I looked in her eyes, silently prayed for her to feel safe with me, and simply said, "Just tell me what you do remember."
It started young. She was kicked out of high school as a sophomore and in over her head in addiction. At 23, she found herself standing in a court room facing a potential life sentence. She knew this judge's reputation. They didn't call him "Hang Man" for nothing. He was known for handing out life sentences.
Yet, it was this very judge who she recognizes "put the fear of God in me." Instead of a life sentence, he appointed 25 years in prison.
They arrested her, and as we can imagine, she was afraid she would die in prison - even began thinking of ways to die. Her sentence was longer than age, and instead of this becoming crippling, it motivated her to become a model prisoner.
She remembers attending every church service for every religion. Looking back, she sees how God was protecting her as she was searching for meaning and purpose. She refused to accept a life in prison. She'd go to class and even attend college prep math classes. Celebrate Recovery played a pivotal role as well as AA and NA, Bible Study, time spent praying, anger management classes, and workout classes.
She met another woman who would tell her Bible stories and "actually make it fun." Looking back, she believes God's hand was in this, leading her heart to faith.
With the Faith and Character Program, she was able to live in the same pod, the safest pod on the yard, with other women who were also trying to better themselves.
At her one year review, she was freed from prison and held close the scripture,
...the Lord disciplines those he loves... - Proverbs 3:12
Prison was a supernatural turning point for Sydnee. This was God's mercy reaching out to discipline her - all because of love.
After prison, she tried a new church and "just kept going." Soon, she was able to transition to housing within Ignite405. She explained, "You know it's possible to want good and still not do good. You have to have support."
I smiled, thinking of Paul's words,
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me... making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! - Romans 7:18-25
With the support of Ignite405 and the community of believers in her local church, she is facilitating on a prison fellowship team and returning with purpose to the same place she was once imprisoned. She also leads a street church, serves on the worship team, assists with sound, and serves with the youth ministry!
She said, "I was a prisoner at Mabel Bassett and now I don't live for myself. I don't live unaware and uncaring. I have conviction. I have purpose. I have a reason to want life."
Sydnee recognizes there are natural consequences and the choices she has made causes some things to be harder, but she believes "God will use me how He wants to."
You know, all of our stories look different, but we are all sinners in need of a savior. Like John said, "Nobody's better than nothin'." There's not one of us above sin nor is there one of us too deep in sin that God's love cannot save.
As I hear their stories, I'm in awe of the love of God that runs after the one. John was the one. Sydnee was the one. You are the one. I am the one. He's the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to come save me and you.
We all have a rescue story.
Although it's a story we may not have wanted to endure, it is our story. As we share, others are helped and encouraged through their walk. After all, it's God's story - we just get to be a part of it.
Someone may come in your path today or this week, maybe someone at your table, who needs to hear your story. Speak with kindness, humility and a dose of vulnerability. Let your human-ness shine through and let God get the glory.
Let's find strength in remembering the grace of God. It is in His grace alone that we are saved. Let's find joy in surrendering to His way, the way of Life. Let's find peace in times of discipline, trusting it is from a heart of love and mercy. Let's find rest in the presence of our Good Shepherd.
Click here to learn more about Ignite 405 and how you can support what God is doing through this ministry.
The good life, well it starts with a good day. Then another. Then another. Let's choose to live #TheGoodDay one day at a time.
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