Finding Purpose Here, Now: John Onwuchekwa
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John OnwuchekwaJohn Onwuchekwa is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Church, a church in one of Atlanta's oldest inner-city neighborhoods, and he currently serves as a council associate for The Gospel Coalition. John frequently speaks at colleges, conferences, and churches across the country and internationally. John holds a masters in Christian Education from Dallas Theological Seminary and is currently pursuing his Doctorate in Church Leadership and Community Witness from Emory University's Candler School...more
Grief, author John Onwuchekwa understands now, doesn’t have an expiration date. But in his darkness, he learned to rise with defiant hope, finding purpose.
Finding Purpose Here, Now: John Onwuchekwa
David: Hey there, David Robbins here, President of FamilyLife; and I’m joined here with my wife, Meg.
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John: I was at the lowest point in my life then. I’ve never been suicidal—but where I was there—I imagine that I was standing at the edge of the cliff, with my toes off the cliff.
Ann: —and you’re a pastor/—
John: Yes, I’m a pastor.
Ann: —a believer.
John: —a believer, who loves the Lord with all my heart.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: If you want to test a marriage, or family, it’s how they respond to what?
Dave: Yes, I think any—
Dave: —trauma—it’s the valley—when a marriage has to walk through a valley.
Ann: —which they will.
Dave: News flash: [Laughter] “Every marriage is headed toward a valley, whether it’s in the first six months—which ours did—or six years, or even fifteen years, you’re going to go there.
Ann: Every family will face that.
Dave: And many don’t make it; you know, there’s not enough strength there. But when a person or a marriage goes through a trial, you find out what’s really there.
We started a conversation yesterday with John Onwuchekwa. John welcome back.
John: Yes; thanks, man. Glad to be back.
Dave: Yes, you’re just smiling because I got your name, without blanking.
John: No; I’m just genuinely jolly person. [Laughter] I love to smile.
Dave: You’re a teaching pastor at Cornerstone in Atlanta. You’re really like/are you really like in the heart of the city?
John: Yes, it’s about a mile southwest of downtown. We live in a neighborhood that actually predates the city of Atlanta.
John: You talk about—
John: —Atlanta: the West End predates the formation of the city of Atlanta. So we’re in Atlanta, Atlanta.
Dave: One of my first experiences in Atlanta: Detroit Lions are playing the Falcons at the Georgia Dome. It’s Matt Ryan’s first NFL game. On the third series, he threw a 60-yard bomb, and blew us off the thing. [Laughter]
Anyway, I couldn’t fly with the team; I was preaching, so I had to come in on my own. I got a rental car, and I’m driving over. In the backseat of the rental car—to the Georgia Dome; we’re like two blocks from the Georgia Dome—we stop at a light. Some guy opens the back door and jumps in the backseat of this rental car with me.
Dave: Is that Atlanta?
John: That’s never—
Dave: “Who is this guy?!”
John: —happened to me. [Laughter] It’s—
Dave: That’s my memory of Atlanta. I was scared to death; I’m like, “What are you doing?” He wanted some money.
John: Huh, I’ve never witnessed it; but it doesn’t surprise me. Right; it’s like: “Yes, that could happen; that very well could.”
Ann: John, why did you want to start a church there?
John: —in Atlanta?
Ann: Yes, because you grew up in Houston.
John: Yes, and spent some time in Waco and then Denton.
As we started to see and be burdened by, maybe, some of the need that lay outside: the relationships and the friendships that we had took us to Saint Louis, and Philly, and Chicago, and Memphis, and LA. We started to see communities that looked like the ones we grew up in—that it felt like they longed for gospel communities, kind of like the ones we had come to experience—and we just saw certain voids in places. Our hope was: “Lord if You give us the grace, we want to help to meet that need”; right?—we want that need to be something that we give our life to trying to solve.
There was a group of us—a group of 25 of us—that moved from Denton to Atlanta to help start this church. The aim was we wanted to be in a city of influence—where, if we could really plant this church in the way that we feel God had laid on our heart—that it could reverberate, not just through the city, but the nation. It could be our little acorn planted in the ground there that would birth into an oak tree that would plant other acorns that would do the same thing.
Atlanta also has a strong college presence; you know, six major universities in a ten-mile radius. We’ve just seen how something like that, when it’s combined with a large metropolitan place, can just produce thinkers, changemakers, people who want to invest and cultivate—not just their community—and their world. We thought like all of those roads intersected perfectly in Atlanta.
We started it; and then, my brother came down. We started in ’09; my brother moved to Atlanta in 2011 through 2013. Then in 2013, he moved to pastor a church in Memphis.
Dave: And you mentioned yesterday: so then, your brother passes—
John: Yes, passes away—
Dave: Yes; we talked yesterday about your grief; but we didn’t talk about this: “How did this affect your marriage?”
John: It affected it in every way possible. I think the clearest story that I had, with Shawndra walking out, and me saying, “I’ll help you pack if you want to get out.”
Ann: How did you come to that point? Were you in a fight?
John: Yes, we were in a fight; it was an intense fight. If you ask me about what, I don’t remember. [Laughter]
Ann: And how long was this after your brother had passed? Because yesterday, we talked about—
John: Five weeks.
Dave: Five weeks?
Ann: So it was fresh.
John: So April, the 14th, is when he passed; and May the 30th [we fought]. But I mean, we had gone through two weeks of a funeral in Memphis; and then Houston; and then Dallas, where we buried him.
The week before my brother passed, my wife and I were going to meet a baby girl, whom we had been trying to adopt for a year, after eight years of infertility. April 10th, that falls through. April 14th, he passes—which is frustration upon frustration; disappointment compounded—and it all came to a head.
Ann: So she says, “I’m out!”
John: Yes, it was the type of thing, where most times when we fight, or when we argue—I say this with all sincerity: “I’m right and she’s wrong,”—most of the time. [Laughter]
Dave: —"all sincerity.”
John: This time, she was right. She was trying to help. My grief had just put me on the wrong side of every door; right? When she pried, and said, “How are you?” I would feel like, “You’re prying; leave me alone. You just want me to get back to where I was. I’m not going to go back.”
When she gave me space, I’m like, “You don’t care about me,” “You don’t want to be…—and so—
Ann: There was no win for her.
John: —back and forth, no win for her. She just got to a point, where she is just like, “I just can’t.”
It’s like, “Let me help you pack.”
Ann: Did you say that?—“Let me help you pack.”
John: I said those words: [Laughter] “Let me help you pack.”
Dave: And then, what happened? I mean, that’s/those are like: “Okay, I’m out.”
John: Yes, so she leaves.
Dave: She did leave?
John: Yes, so she leaves the house; and instantly, right? This is where the “We”—in We Go On—comes from.
Ann: And we should say that’s the name of your book: We Go On; the subtitle is: Finding Purpose in All of Life’s Sorrows and Joys.
John: Yes, I was at the lowest point in my life then. I’ve never been suicidal—but where I was there—I imagine that I was standing at the edge of the cliff, with my toes off the cliff.
Ann: —and you’re a pastor/—
John: Yes, I’m a pastor.
Ann: —a believer.
John: —a believer, who loves the Lord with all my heart.
After she left, in God’s grace, the first thing that came to my mind was not: “What do I need to do?” The first thing that came to my mind was: “Who do I need to call?” I texted the other three pastors, who were in our church, who are all close friends of mine: Rich, Moe, and Trip. And this is where it was like, providentially, in God’s grace—when we were trying to plant this church in the West End, we said, “Hey, let’s all move into the same neighborhood,”—so we all owned homes in the same neighborhood, blocks from one another. After I text them, less than five minutes,—
Dave: —they were at your house.
John: —they are at my house.
Dave: Of course, they are; that’s great.
John: This is why I feel like it’s so important: because when you’re at the lowest point of your life—waiting five minutes and waiting thirty minutes—is the difference between suicidal thoughts—
Dave: —could be life and death, yes.
John: —and suicidal attempts. I feel like, at that point, God’s grace was: they were there within five minutes. I was eager to sit in my stubbornness and stew in myself, loathing and tear my family apart. And the reason why my family’s not torn apart is, not because of my diligence, it’s because of theirs; right?
Ann: So take us back to your house when your three friends walk in the door.
John: They walk in the door. The first thing I do is I seek to explain why she’s wrong and why I’m right; because I feel like, “Y’all got to know”; right?
John: “Y’all are here; I’ve got to give you context.” They listened to me; and then, they just sit me down, and they say, “John, you’ve got to look at this through her eyes.” I remember like Trip just sat down and, “No, no, no; John, you’ve changed.” He’s one of my best friends in all the world; and he says, “No, no, no; you've changed. And if I see it, how much more can she see it?” and “She lives with it,” and “She’s been patient.”
And then I said back/I said, “Well, she just doesn’t know all the stuff we have to go through. The church is getting ready to launch in eight days, and I’ve got to prepare and preach for church in the park tomorrow, and I’ve got to do all of this stuff,”—and every weight that I put on what I needed to do—Richard, Trip and Moe were like: “Alright.” Trip was like, “Yo, I may have to stay up all night and work through this.” Trip has chronic fatigue, and he has for years; and he’s like, “I’ll take that. You’re not going to preach. If it requires me staying up all night, I’m going to; that’s not on your plate anymore.” “Well, I've still got to do this…”; Rich is like, “I’ve got that.” Moe and they, literally, took—not just every burden off my shoulder—but they took every excuse that I had to reconcile with my wife. [Laughter]
The only task or job that I had after that time was the weightless responsibility of apologizing and asking for forgiveness, which feels like such a lighter task when you’re not weighed down by thoughts of letting the rest of the world down. I still think back to that day fondly, because I think—if it wasn’t for them—I would have messed up one of God’s greatest gifts to me in Shawndra.
Dave: So she came back?
John: She came back. [Laughter]
Dave: I mean, did you have to go get her?
John: Well, when she left—she didn’t think of: “What…” —she thought of: “Who…” She called her best friend, who also lived in the West End, because we were getting ready to plant this church. Her friend encouraged her, and said, “Hey, you know, John has changed; but he’s been through an incredible trauma.” She helped her to, maybe, understand or grasp a little more what was at stake. It wasn’t just because I had a bad day; it was because my whole world turned upside down.
It was strange, because I don’t remember what we fought about. And when it came to reconciliation, I don’t remember it being a long drawn-out process. It was—we came; we said our “Sorry”s—and it was like, as quickly as we were torn apart, I think we were back together, starting to rebuild our marriage.
Ann: It is interesting how much grief affects our marriage, because it affects us personally. I do remember, when my sister was dying—she was in a hospital in Atlanta, actually—she wasn’t doing well. She was in the end stages of lung cancer; I was in the hospital with her, had flown there from Michigan.
I remember one of Dave’s best friends called me while I was in the hospital. I was in the midst of grief, realizing I’m going to lose her. His friend called, and said, “Hey Ann, I know that you don’t plan on going to this wedding in Colorado, because your sister is dying; and you guys have been invited,”—it was a pastor friend of ours/a really good friend—Dave was planning to go—you remember this Dave?; he said—“I really think you need to go with Dave, because he’s really hurting right now.”
And John, I’m just going to tell you: I was like: “He’s hurting?!
John: “He’s hurting?!” [Laughter] Right; alright.
Ann: Dave’s hurting?!” I was so mad, like, “I’m sitting here with my sister—I may not have weeks with her—I—
Ann: —“I may have days, and my husband’s hurting?” And he’s—and I said that to him on the phone—like, “Dude, do you know what’s happening in my life right now?!” Because you become so—you’re just drowning in your own sorrow—and I hadn’t considered Dave’s.
I think our friend guilted me into it; [Laughter] because I thought, “Dave is my priority.” I did end up going to this wedding—
Dave: —which I think was the wrong decision. She should have—
Ann: Do you think it was?
Dave: —stayed. I’ve probably never said this in 20 years; but yes, you should have stayed with your sister. I didn’t know my buddy called her.
Ann: But I will say, Dave—the time that we had out there at that wedding, I do remember—because we were with our best friends.
Ann: I can remember I was in the depths of sorrow and grief; and yet, our friends are funny, man.
Dave: Right. [Laughter]
Ann: I remember laughing, thinking—
Dave: We’re laughing—and yes, that was a good part of it—but there’s/it brings up this: “When you’re going through grief, in a marriage or in a family—and you’re at different places in that grief—
Ann: —and even depression, Dave, there’s—
Dave: Yes, yes.
Ann: —so many; yes.
Dave: —any one of those—that’s what you’re talking about: We Go On. “How do you go on? How do you navigate that?”—because your wife may have been in a different place. It wasn’t her brother; it was yours. She was—
Ann: And yesterday, we talked—and even today, we’ve been talking how friends—how that’s so necessary. You’ve taken this all from the study of Ecclesiastes. So take us through that—more of that—so as a spouse is struggling, “What do you think?”
John: I think it’s an interesting point that you bring up, as well, too. Most of the times, when our world thinks of living with depression, and somebody says, “Hey, I’m living with depression,”—we assume that it’s their depression. But when you’re married, and you live with a spouse, who’s depressed, you can also live with depression vicariously through them. That starts to affect you and to weigh you down.
One of the things that I learned in our time was—what made it so hard for us is that I was comparing our grief—and negating her grief because I felt like it wasn’t as much as mine. Sometimes, we have a tendency to judge the reality of somebody’s grief by our perceived quantity of grief.
Sam was my brother—and I’m hurting and all of this—“So my grief is more than yours; therefore, mine is more real than yours; and yours is less real.”
Ann: —“And you need to be nicer to me,”—
Ann: —that’s what I would say. [Laughter]
John: Yes; but the whole time, Shawndra is like, “No; wait, wait, wait, wait. I’ve known Sam pretty much as long as I’ve known you. I’m grieving that I’ve lost him; and I’m grieving, because now I look at you, and the way that it’s changed you.
Ann: —"I’ve lost parts of you.”
John: “There’s parts of you that I’ve lost.” So there’s ways in which her grief was just as real.
What hurt us the most—or what can hurt you the most—is spending time, deciding what to do with grief, by comparing it. It’s not a contest; it’s not meant to be compared. It’s saying: “No, no, no; both of us have very real grief that is doing very real things. In what ways can I help you carry yours?” “In what ways can you help me carry mine?” and “In what ways do we need to get resources, outside of our marriage, to help us carry?”
Dave: Yes; and for me, there was also—I hate to admit this—but there was a part of me, at times, that would be—because it wasn’t my sister—
Dave: —and I was grieving; and it was really a hard, sad thing. I’ve got four nephew sons now/her boys that are motherless. But at some point, there were moments, where I was, “Okay, girl,”—to Ann—"are you not through with this yet?”
Dave: You know, I was like: “It’s been a year and a half,”—it’s like I don’t know if I ever said it out loud—but there were times when my patience was like, “You’ve grieved long enough; can I get my wife back?”
Ann: I’m really glad you never said that out loud; that could have been disastrous.
Dave: That would have been horrible, [Laughter] but it was a real feeling.
“[John,] what do you say to that?”
John: So what I say is: “That is a common misconception that folks have.” The one thing that I’ve learned through grief/the most important thing that I’ve learned through grief is that grief doesn’t have an expiration date. Grief doesn’t expire. We tend to think of grief like a loaf of bread, like: “Alright, it’s fresh for a bit; but eventually, it’s supposed to mold/crumble, and you’ll be done with it.”
John: Grief is like a nonperishable can of beans, that’s been sitting in the back of your granny’s pantry since World War II. You can pop it open, right now, and it’s fresh; right?
People, who haven’t lost somebody in this way, they look at the grief as a past tense event: something that went on at a certain point in time and, now, it’s done. But when you lose somebody that close, it’s not past tense; it’s present tense. Because every time you go to sleep, and you have a dream about them that’s real—and you wake up, and you realize that they’re not there—you rediscover that they’re gone, and you grieve once again.
It makes it tough to sleep—because when you have nightmares, you can wake yourself up out of the nightmare—but when you lose somebody, waking up feels like the nightmare. And so—
Ann: Did you start waking up a lot?
John: All the time, crying in the middle of the night, finding myself—like I wasn’t scared of the nightmares; I was scared of the good dreams—because I would have a dream of my brother; and I’d just want to hug him, and I would see him; and then, at some point in the dream, I would realize: “This is a dream; I’m going to have to wake up.” Waking up is the nightmare, and it’s ongoing.
I think, once we learn grief doesn’t have an expiration date, then I don’t think we get sucker-punched by it as much.
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with John Onwuchekwa. His book is called We Go On: Finding Purpose in All of Life’s Sorrows and Joys. You can get a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com; just click on “Today’s Resources” to find John’s book; or you can call 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, we’re in the last days of our matching challenge, here, at FamilyLife Today. As we are, I went through and looked at a couple of reviews that people have left as they have listened to this, both on the radio and as a podcast. One of the reviews said: “I keep coming back to listen because Dave and Ann constantly offer hope through the gospel of Jesus. I need to be pointed to Him, and they do this all the time. This podcast encourages me to hope in Jesus. Thanks, FamilyLife crew.” Well, thanks so much for writing that. And thanks so much for listening; we are encouraged by the fact that you are pointed to the gospel every day.
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Tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson are joined, again, with John Onwuchekwa, who shares the rest of his story of how he overcame the trials he faced and finally saw the truth of Jesus in the midst of his suffering.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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