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GOD'S DREAM FOR YOU
FINDING LASTING CHANGE IN JESUS
By MATTHEW BARNETT
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Matthew Barnett
All rights reserved.
"What Am I Doing Here?"
If you knew for sure that God Himself had a dream for your life that predated the birth of the stars, galaxies, and planets, wouldn't it be worth finding out what it might be?
I certainly never thought I would find God's dream for me while I was standing on a stained, littered sidewalk on Skid Row in Los Angeles. But there I stood. And as I watched my dad drive away, I felt more alone and desolate than I had ever felt in my twenty years.
What in the world is a sheltered suburban kid like me doing here—by myself—in the mean streets of central Los Angeles? And whose vision of ministry was I following anyway—my own or my dad's?
In reality, the vision belonged to both of us.
When Dad was a twenty-year-old evangelist—no older than I was when I stood on that Skid Row sidewalk—he had driven through the streets of Los Angeles, passing by the historic Angelus Temple and Echo Park. God whispered to my dad's heart that someday he would pastor a church in that part of LA.
Now, forty years later, that vision was about to be fulfilled. Only the pastor wasn't Tommy Barnett. It was me, Matthew Barnett, his son. If I could stick it out ... which was very much an open question at that moment.
I'd wanted to be a pastor since I was sixteen, and I'd hung around the church with my dad for as long as I could remember. Dad had about fourteen thousand people in the congregation at that time—a megachurch by anyone's standards. Little Bethel Temple was to be my first pastorate even though I had never pastored a day in my life. The fact is, I would do just about anything for my dad, and I had promised him I would try this for three months—just three months—while he looked for someone more qualified.
But this three-month stint really wasn't his idea alone. I too had experienced a vision for Los Angeles.
Four years earlier, on a hot summer night in Phoenix, I was lying on the hood of my car under the stars, thinking about my future. In those moments God gave me a vision of a city in need, and strangely, it wasn't my own hometown. It was Los Angeles. Up until that time, I'd always associated LA with Disneyland, Universal Studios, Beverly Hills, and the Pacific Ocean. I'd never thought about the inner city, let alone ministering to gangs, prostitutes, and people in housing projects, so I knew that this whole train of thought had to be from the Lord.
The vision showed me that someday I would be in Los Angeles, pastoring a church in the heart of the city.
That's another reason I agreed to step into the job at Bethel Temple until that more experienced, better qualified pastor came along, stepped into the pulpit, and allowed me to return home to Phoenix.
Trouble was, no one wanted the job.
Who would want to lead an impoverished church in the middle of this depressed, crime-ridden neighborhood in central LA near Skid Row?
Just moments before he drove away, Dad placed his hands on my shoulders, and we prayed together right there on the sidewalk, with the buzz and clatter of the city all around us. After he said, "Amen," he pulled his car keys out of his pocket and jingled them in his right hand, hesitating.
"Are you okay, Son?"
I had a lump in my throat the size of a golf ball, but I nodded, smiled, and said, "I'm good."
He got into the car, gave me an encouraging little smile and wave, and drove off down Bellevue Avenue. I stared after him, watching his car fade into the traffic.
At least I thought he drove off. What he actually did (and I didn't learn this until years later) was drive a couple blocks down the road, pull over to the curb, turn off the ignition, put his face in his hands, and begin sobbing. He told me later that he cried so hard he thought he was having a nervous breakdown.
"Oh, God," he prayed. "What have I done? I've set him up for failure. I've scarred him for the rest of his life. This is going to hurt him—badly—because he can't make it in this neighborhood. He can't relate to the people in this community! He's the only white guy for ten miles in any direction! He's never been in this kind of environment before! Oh, Lord, what have I done to my boy?"
Inner city Los Angeles was indeed a desperate, dangerous place, and I was more than a little naive, woefully inexperienced, and barely out of my teens. Dad said that leaving me there on the sidewalk by myself was about a hundred times worse than dropping a child off at kindergarten for the first time.
After all, Bethel Temple was located in a high crime area, surrounded by liquor stores, and with a heavy gang presence for miles around. Birthed in the glory days of the Azusa Street Revival in the early 1900s, the church was only a shell of its former prominence. When I stepped into the pastorate, about twenty people showed up ... on a good Sunday. After they got a look at their new pastor, even those twenty stalwarts began to melt away.
Dad might have changed his mind about the whole crazy idea, driven around the block, picked me up, and taken me back to Phoenix with him if the Lord hadn't spoken to his heart in that exact moment. He told Dad, "Tommy, give him his chance. You never know what's inside a person. You never know what a person can accomplish."
So, driving out Interstate 10 toward Phoenix, Dad did his best to give his doubts and fears to the Lord. By the time he got to Palm Desert, he began to relax his death grip on the steering wheel. Something great could happen in that place even if I don't see it now, even if I don't feel it now. Maybe there's something more going on here than I realize.
* * *
Later that day, which had actually been my first day on the job, I was in the church's little office trying to get organized. Suddenly several loud pops sent me running for the church's front door. People who have never been around gunfire always say the shots sound like firecrackers, and they're right. Throwing the door open, I was just in time to see a young teenage boy murdered outside the church doors. The acrid smell of gunpowder still hung in the air.
I remember crying out to God, "Lord, what am I doing here? What am I doing in this place? How can I ever hope to make a difference here?"
One night a few days later, I found myself suddenly wide awake in the middle of the night. I felt like God was speaking to me, telling me to walk to Echo Park, over near Dodger Stadium. It certainly wasn't a safe thing to do. At that time Echo Park was populated by gangs, prostitutes, and the many homeless people who had nowhere else to go. But I knew that since God was calling me, He would also protect me.
Out in the darkness of that place with the sound of the city all around me, the city that never sleeps, the Lord spoke to me. I seemed to hear Him say, "Matthew, I didn't bring you to the inner city to build a great church, but to build people. These people. You build the people; I will build the church. I don't ever want you to think about success again. Think about being a blessing. Success is obedience to your calling. I've called you to bless people. Love them. Heal them. Help them. Serve them."
It was a tall order for this unlikely and very green young man who had just entered a strange new world, but I went back to bed that night with a new flame of encouragement flickering in my heart. The Lord Himself had brought me here. Hadn't I just heard Him say so? And He hadn't brought me to this place to be a famous pastor or walk in my dad's huge footsteps, but simply to be a blessing to some hurting, desperate people.
With His help, I knew I could do that much.
* * *
God had a dream for my life, a dream that was so much wider, higher, and deeper than I had ever imagined. And I still can't imagine where it's going, because I'm up to my ears in it even as I write these words.
Please believe me when I say the same is true for you: God has a dream for you this very moment.
When King David came to that realization, he found himself filled with wonder:
You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can't even count them.
Psalm 139:16–18 NLT
So, back to my initial question.
If you knew for sure that God Himself had a dream for your life that predated the birth of the stars, galaxies, and planets, wouldn't it be worth finding out what that dream might be?
You can find out by starting at the simplest level of all: Just ask God. Ask Him to tell you what His dream for your life is. Cry out to Him.
Who knows where it will take you.
Wherever it does, you can be sure it will be the place where you truly belong.
What Is Your Dream?
It's the one question they never expect.
You can see their eyes widen when we ask them. They suddenly look up as if to say, "Did I hear you right? Did you really just ask me what I thought you asked me?"
Most of the time, when a homeless family arrives on our Los Angeles campus, they've lost just about everything. They have their car, whatever they've been able to cram into it, and nothing much else except the clothes on their backs.
Someone on our staff takes them into a room and sits down with them. They're expecting all of the usual questions they'd get from most social workers. Here we go again. Another person with another pen and another clipboard. I know the drill: "Name? Marital status? Children? Ages of children? Previous address? Previous employer? Previous occupation? Health status?" Etc., etc.
But we don't do that kind of intake here. We have a different first question, and it almost always takes people by surprise.
"What is your dream?"
The question stuns them. Confuses them. Then often their eyes narrow a little with a flash of suspicion. Is this a joke? Is this sarcasm? Is this person mocking me when I'm down?
What is my dream? Are you kidding me? Coming here isn't about dreaming! It's about surviving. It's about staying alive and keeping body and soul together. I didn't show up on the front porch of a place like this because I'm chasing my dream. I've ended up here because I don't have anywhere else to go. I want to keep my family together. I want to keep my marriage together. I want my hungry kids to be fed. I want to get off the streets! I don't want to end up in prison like some people I know. I don't want to live with abuse or threats. And I don't have the energy any longer to fight the alcoholism, drug abuse, and the prostitution that are all around me.
And you ask me, "What is your dream?" Why do you even ask me that when I'm just trying to survive?
* * *
But "What is your dream?" is no idle question. It pertains to life and death. In Proverbs 29:18 we read: "Where there is no revelation [or vision], the people cast off restraint."
In other words, without a dream, people don't exercise self-control. When men and women have nothing to live for, they "cast off restraint."
So right up front we ask the people who come to us, "What is your dream? What do you want to see happen in your life? What do you want to achieve? Where do you want to go?"
"Well," they may say, "we're just trying to survive."
And we answer: "But what if we took survival off the table? While you're here, you won't have to worry about that. This is a safe, clean place, and we will give you the food and shelter you need. So let's start thinking about your potential."
The fact is, when you've been disappointed again and again, you become afraid to dream. After all, how could you bear another disappointment? But in the power of Christ, you can begin to dream again.
Even in marriages, there comes a point where people lose hope. A husband and wife may be committed to staying together for the rest of their lives, but as they imagine the years ahead, it looks to them more like running an endurance test or slogging along on an endless marathon under gray, rainy skies. Life looks more like grim survival than anything else. The idea that they could ever thrive in their marriage seems so far out there that it doesn't even seem real.
Asking people "What is your dream?" is almost like lifting them to a whole different plane. We've found that most people really do have something in their heart they would love to do or pursue, but they have suppressed that dream for so long that it doesn't seem like a possibility at all. Maybe the dream is getting free of addiction. Maybe it's finishing high school or going to college. Maybe it's being trained for a certain occupation or specific career. The desire is still there, but it's buried so deeply beneath their setbacks, pain, and loss that they've forgotten they ever had any aspirations.
But once we hear their dream, we tell them, "We're going to help you get to your dream"—and they can hardly believe their ears. Maybe they expected to have to prove themselves first or completely clean up their life before we would start talking to them about their future.
* * *
This "What is your dream?" interaction is based on a concept that the Lord has impressed on us through the years as we've worked with people in crisis. We call it "belong and believe." In the Gospels, Jesus said to a number of men, "Come and follow Me," and at that point these men were in no way ready to be disciples of Christ. They were just regular guys. Some of them fished for a living. Matthew had been a tax collector for the Romans, a traitor hated and resented by virtually everyone. But Jesus called each one of them, inviting them to be close to Him, to walk with Him, to get to know Him better, and to serve Him.
That's what Jesus did, but that's not what religion usually does. Instead religion will say, "When you believe what we believe, then we'll let you belong and be involved in what we're doing." But Jesus allowed people to belong first, to see what He was doing, find themselves drawn to Him, and then believe.
I love how the apostle John captured this order of events in his gospel:
The next day John [the Baptist] was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, "Look, the Lamb of God!"
When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, "What do you want?"
They said, "Rabbi" (which means "Teacher"), "where are you staying?"
"Come," he replied, "and you will see."
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon. (John 1:35–39 NIV)
That is so like the Lord. He says, "Come, and you will see." In the Psalms He says, "Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him!" (Psalm 34:8 NLT).
Jesus allowed people to belong first, before they believed. Then, as they walked with Him, they began to believe. For some of them, coming to faith in Jesus took a long time. Two disciples didn't believe until after the resurrection when Jesus directly confronted them and said, "How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" (Luke 24:25 NIV). He didn't justify their lack of belief or make excuses for their behavior while they were learning, but He allowed them to belong in order to believe. They didn't have to clean up their lives first.
And then, maybe sooner, maybe later, as men and women see Christ and His followers up close, they realize that God Himself has a dream for their lives. Belonging encourages believing.
* * *
Manuel Ramos was seventeen when he came into our teen discipleship program. (This is a major program at the Dream Center where teens who have been kicked out of their home and kicked out of school are raised in a Christian environment.) Manny's father was an alcoholic, and as a young boy, Manny himself became heavily involved in alcohol and drug abuse. He has been hospitalized more times than he can remember, he once accidentally burned down his home, and he drifted from trailer park to trailer park staying with friends until he ended up on the mean streets. He was probably as lost and broken and lonely as a young man can be.
When Manny finally came to us—thanks to the help of a concerned family friend—dreams were the last thing on his mind. All too real was the horrific nightmare from which he had just emerged.
"I had no idea I even had a dream," he says. "I shouldn't even be alive! At one point in my life, I was so messed up I thought it was all over. I couldn't remember what I had done that week because I had never been sober. I was homeless, no one cared about me, and I didn't care about myself. I didn't take care of my body or try to stay clean. I just didn't care."
Excerpted from GOD'S DREAM FOR YOU by MATTHEW BARNETT. Copyright © 2013 Matthew Barnett. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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