Barry Lopez tells a story in his essay, “Landscape and Narrative,” about a hunter who follows a wolverine’s tracks for miles. This hunter occasionally spots the animal over a rise, but once the hunter reaches that rise, the wolverine is just out of range. As the hunter continues to follow the wolverine, he is met at the top of a new rise by the wolverine bounding towards him. Before the hunter can do anything, the wolverine flies across the front-end and the windshield of his snowmobile, and hits the hunter square in the chest. The wolverine knocks the hunter to the snow without scratching or biting him. The hunter scrambles wildly, trying to get the wolverine out of his lap, and as the hunter gathers himself, he realizes the wolverine is standing there, staring at him. Then the wolverine walks away.
When I read this story, I couldn’t help but think the wolverine was giving the hunter a warning—a warning that if the hunter didn’t stop going down the trail, he was traversing then certain death was another rise ahead.
For twenty years I served as a pastor. I worked in all kinds of churches—from mega churches to tiny churches, from hundred-year-old churches to church plants.
It all started at a small church plant, where my family and I worked for five years. It was at the end of that time when we started to feel a nudge to sell everything we owned and moved to the middle of America to attend a small Bible College. We were a young family of five back then, full of passion, innocence, and enthusiasm.
I received some of the best theological and ministry training money could buy. I became well versed in scripture, Christianese, and North American church culture. Our ministries became bigger and more influential as I traversed the ministry ladder to success. Opportunities presented themselves in the form of larger ministries at prominent churches, speaking engagements, and even writing gigs.
During all this, I believed the more influence and prominence I got, the more I pleased God. I wanted to be a good son—a son that made God proud and one who didn’t take Jesus’ death for granted. My desire to please God morphed into me working harder, longer, and for bigger opportunities—I worked as if my life and faith depended on it.
Sometimes the warning signs of an unhealthy life come at you like a wolverine flying across the front end of your snowmobile, barreling right into your chest, knocking you flat to the ground, but without mauling you. It jars you to awareness, stares at you for a moment, and then walks away. It’s warning you to pay attention, because death is on the next rise if you keep going down the path you’re going.
Twice, I spotted the wolverine over the rise.
The first time, the wolverine was actually thirty high school students on a mission trip to Oklahoma City. We partnered with an inner-city missional community. The way this community was living out their faith was something out of the Acts of the Apostles. They shared all they had with each other and their love for Jesus unified them. It was a simplistic form of being church. Everything they were as Christians was contrary to the performance driven Christianity I had unknowingly come to believe and practice.
We finished our trip and went back to our church community broken-hearted and questioning everything we had been doing for the past fourteen years. I buried these feelings deep inside my heart, ashamed and angry at the way I was feeling.
The second time I spotted the wolverine was about three years after the Oklahoma City mission trip. Major flood waters devastated several communities along the Front Range in Colorado, and our city was one. Our church became an evacuation center and a recovery center. Several of us pastors on staff at our church became very involved in leading the coordination of relief and recovery efforts. Many of us were spending our nights and days at the church, and I became exhausted and burnt out. During this time, I got an offer to take a lead pastor position at a restart church in another state, and I accepted the new job.
Hindsight is 20/20, but what I didn’t know at the time was that it was the wrong place at the wrong time. I was not physically or spiritually up for the challenge and neither was the church. We weren’t culturally or racially a match for this church or the community. This became clear when a few years into the ministry the presidential election happened. I couldn’t say the things people in our church wanted me to say or support the candidates they thought every Christian should support.
Everything I had believed in and had been wrestling with for the past twenty years was crumbling all around me. I wasn’t sure if I could believe in a God whose grace demanded me to become dried up and used up—a grace that sought the sacrifice of my family and myself, because his Savior sacrificed everything for me. I was at my wits end. I woke up every morning at 3:00 a.m., begging God to do something about my situation.
My dream and the calling I believed God put on my heart was falling apart. I wanted to quit it all—God and life. And it was thoughts of quitting the latter that kept me up at night, tossing and turning.
Then the wolverine struck me right in the chest.
In August 2016, I was forty-three years old when I survived a Proximal LAD Lesion—also known as the “Widow Maker” heart attack—and two more heart attacks, which required two surgeries and three stents. I had a ninety-three percent blockage in one artery and a hundred percent blockage in another. As the nickname implies, few people survive this heart attack, and I was forced to step away from paid ministry after twenty years.
Not too long after, my daughter posted a photo of me on Instagram that became my lifeline, which kept me from sinking to the bottom of the bottomless sea. It was a photo capturing one of the best weeks we’ve ever had as a family. The event in the photo took place only a few weeks before my heart attacks. In the caption of the photo she wrote, “Glad this guy is still around.”
I wish I could say that I have it all figured out, but honestly, I’m hurting. I feel lost and empty and struggle to go to church sometimes. But God is showing me things about him that keep me grounded: like his unconditional love, that I don’t have to prove myself or sacrifice for God’s approval. Through it all I am learning a ton, but most of all, I’m learning to be thankful for wolverines.