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How do I go on? John Onwuchekwa

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine
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December 28, 2022 4:15 am

How do I go on? John Onwuchekwa

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine

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December 28, 2022 4:15 am

Some moments are so grief-swept and raw, we wonder, 'How do I go on?" Author John Onwuchekwa relays his own story of abject loss and clawing his way out.

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My grief made me feel like a liar, that I'd spent my whole life talking to people about the goodness of God and who he was, and I felt this grief that maybe I lied to him.

Maybe I told people that something worked that didn't actually work because it's not working right now. Welcome to Family Life Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Ann Wilson.

And I'm Dave Wilson, and you can find us at or on the Family Life app. This is Family Life Today. So when you walk through your sister's death and the grief after that, I mean, I'm not even sure I know the answer to this. What would you say was the hardest part of that journey? I think it was living life without her on earth.

It's like you have dreams and visions of your future, even with a sister or someone that passes away. I mean, she was your best friend. And for her not to be there, to not talk to her, to hear her voice crushed me. And I think part of it, too, was because she died suffering of cancer, of trying to get that out of my head and back to the good things and not the horrific things. So those were probably some of my hardest things.

Yeah, and I think we all know this. Walking through grief, trauma, pain, sorrow, I could keep going. That's the hardest thing to navigate in life.

And especially as a Christian, when you have no answers of why. I don't even get it. Yeah. And you have a question in your head. Can I go on?

And we have a book sitting on our table right here called We Go On, and we've got the author, John. Okay, I'm going to try. I'm guessing this name has been mispronounced at times. It's been butchered in ways you can't imagine. Tell me how I do here. All right, no, no, look. Look at it. I'm looking at it. I will take two letters at a time. Dude, I got it.

It's John Onwachekwa. That's it. I've been working on it for like a week. Have you had that thing butchered? Oh, like you can't imagine. What's the worst? So the worst is not trying, right? Oh, there you go.

Yeah, so I've had a lot of people. You were going to walk me through it two letters at a time. Onwachekwa.

Onwachekwa. But, I mean, John, welcome to Family Life Today. Oh, thank you, man. Glad to be here. I mean, we just had a great lunch with you.

It's been an amazing journey. You're a pastor in Atlanta. Yeah.

Tell us a little bit about what you do. Yeah, so nowadays there's a lot of stuff that I do, right? You've got multiple hats going on.

Yeah, so here's the trick. It's not that I do a bunch of things. I do the same two things in a bunch of different places.

Okay, what's that mean? So in terms of what I do, I am a husband and a father to Chandra and Ava. I pastor Cornerstone Church, teaching pastor now of that church that we started seven years ago. I am the co-director of a church planning network that we started November of 2020 called the Crete Collective. And the aim is strengthening distressed and neglected urban communities by planting churches. I'm also the co-founder of Portrait Coffee, a company in the West End not connected to the church at all, but the aim is to change the picture that comes to mind when people think of specialty coffee, trying to bring a sense of economic empowerment to a group that's been marginalized, right?

Not just trying to create jobs in the West End, but trying to create careers. And I'm an author and do a bunch of things. Now, here's what I mean. You do all that to do two things. Yeah, change the world through telling better stories.

What I do is there's two things that I do well, and here's the like hack. And maybe when some of these groups find out, I may lose a few of these jobs because they're like, wait a minute, we're paying you to do what? I love to tell the greatest story ever told, which is the gospel, and show how that intersects with lesser stories. But in my heart, I love to ideate, to create ideas and possibilities, and then to galvanize teams to be able to do that work.

So there's an idea for a church plan in the West End. And I say, listen, I don't know all of what it's going to take, but I know who it's going to take. Let me galvanize that group to come in and to do that. And then that group goes, and church planning, and coffee, and this.

And it's like, all right, I come in and I do that. I'm much more of a team builder than I am a team leader. Well, I can tell you this, you're an inspirer.

I'm fired up right now. Well, it's so interesting, too, because as you share that, I'm thinking, yes, we all want to follow you, you're gifted. And yet you wrote this book called We Go On, and the subtitle is Finding Purpose in All of Life's Sorrows and Joys.

Don't you hear him and think, this guy is all about joy, strategy, he's a creator. And yet you've walked through some really hard things, too. Yeah. And I think what you said is right, but I think the conjunction that you use, right? This guy is all about joy, and yet you've had to walk through. I think we tend to live as if those two things don't go together, but I think that they do, right? And so that's why it baked into even the way that I put the book. It is a book that's all about grief, but everybody that picks up the book is like, yo. But it's so beautiful on the inside, and it's jarring because we don't think about grief and beauty. And I think the way that we really do get to a lasting and a full joy is not walking around grief, but it's a no, no, no, no. When you walk through grief, you realize that you're no longer blinded to the shallow substitutes that life provides, that you really see life for what it is, and you can really lean in and enjoy some of the subtle sweetnesses that God provides.

And so I've found that being able to walk through grief is actually the pathway to that deep joy. And that's why I wrote the book. I didn't want people to be as afraid of it. Yeah, you're right, because we try to avoid it, and you don't see and you don't want a picture.

Oh, I run around it, if at all possible. I see it coming, but as I open your book, I mean, you start with you're in grief. You're walking. I didn't even know if you were feeling any joy at that point. Yeah, take us there.

Yeah, so the book starts off in 2016, and it was the spring of 2016. I just got through doing chapel for the Texas A&M men's basketball team, and I drive back to a mall in Atlanta to return some shoes. Yeah, you got some shoe game going on. You're probably exchanging the shoes.

You know, the YouTube stuff isn't on here, so we all can't see, but we'll send you some screenshots. Man, and I'm waiting on a parking spot, and none come up, and so I'm waiting and waiting and waiting. One finally comes up, and a car of like three girls zooms past me, and they head right into the spot. And I call out.

I'm like, hey, I've been waiting on that spot. Oh, you said that to them. Yeah, hey. And they said, no, no, no, we're just going to move in here and turn around. And so I'm like, all right. I start to pull up, and they're sneaking out of the back of the car to go into the store.

No way. I rolled down my window. All right, this is 2016. I rolled down my window, and I think I was surprised by the fluency at which the cuss words flew out of my mouth. I strung them together like a macaroni necklace, like they just came.

And as soon as I did it, I stepped back, and it's like, what happened, right? It's 2016. I planted a church in 2015. I'm a pastor. This is Saturday. I'm going to preach the next day.

And here I am for the first time in 15 years cussing people out for a parking spot. So as soon as I do it, I call my wife on the phone. I call Tripp. I call Richard. And I tell him, and I just say, I'm not okay. In April of 2015, six weeks before we started that church, my brother passed suddenly. 32 years old, the best shape of his life. Five-year-old, three-year-old, one-year-old pastor.

Sam never said a cuss word. He was just that guy, and he passed. And in trying to move past grief to just do God's work, I avoided dealing with it like the plague. And I found out that, yeah, you really can't outrun grief any more than a dog can outrun its own tail, right?

Like, go as far as you want to, and it's still there, and it caught up to me. What happened to him? How did he pass? So we had lunch and talked, and I didn't even know that about your sister.

It's strange how, regardless of how somebody passes, regardless of the way that it takes place, it always feels like the wrong way, right? You're right. And so with Sam, it was nothing. He did a premarital counseling appointment for people that weren't even a part of his church. That was the guy that he was.

Leaves out of the Starbucks, sits in his car, opens up his Bible to Acts to just read briefly, to prepare for what he's going to teach this next week. And he goes to sleep, and he doesn't wake up. What? So, yeah, the autopsy is inconclusive and all of that. But this is what I mean, like, no way of losing somebody feels like the right way.

Yeah. Because it's like, I didn't have anybody to be mad at. There was nobody that took his life, no sickness that now I could, like, run 5Ks for, like, nothing. It really felt like, no, I believe that God is completely in control. I believe that. And as Sam passed, there is no response, no sickness, so for me, like, my anger went straight to God.

There was no connecting flights, right? It's just right there, and it's puzzling and frustrating and heartbreaking, and I didn't take time to process it. I just felt like, maybe if I move on and just try to work, right?

Maybe if I go around this fog of grief that I'll get to the destinations that I want to go to. So, is the parking lot moment defining, like, okay, we've got something here we got to address? And what did you call the people that were most important to you in your life? Yeah. And you said, I basically am not doing well.

I said, I'm not okay. And they had walked with me, so they were like... They knew. We knew. So they had seen this before you could see it, but you finally saw it.

Yeah. And that was January of that year. By March, my church granted me a sabbatical. They're like, hey, John, for the next month, you're at home. No responsibilities, no nothing. And so it was at that point that I picked up Ecclesiastes for the first time in years, and I was already feeling the sense of meaninglessness. And I felt like that because I lost it all.

And here I pick up the words of this book and it starts off and the words are... First verse. Meaningless. Yeah.

Meaningless. But what was jarring, it was that, wait, wait, wait. But the guy who wrote this book, he had it all.

So wait a minute. If I feel this way because I lost it all, and he finds himself at the same destination, but he has it all, maybe the circumstances that I'm in, maybe that's not my biggest problem. Maybe if there's a way that both of us, I've lost it all, he has it all.

If both of us can arrive at this place where we feel like it's worthless, then maybe there is a way that I can arrive at joy even if my circumstances never change. Jon, take us back to that day that you opened Ecclesiastes. And if you had to describe yourself, here's who I am right now. Give us a picture of who you are and what you were feeling in those days. Hollow. Nothing on the inside. All of who I had known myself to be. It didn't just feel like it leaked out. It felt like it gushed out. I felt like a pretender.

I felt like a stage prop, a papier-mâché rock that looked solid on the outside, but it was light. I felt just a deep sense of grief, not just at the fact that my brother was gone, but my grief made me feel like a liar that I'd spent my whole life talking to people about the goodness of God and who he was. And I felt this grief that maybe I lied to him.

Maybe I told people that something worked that didn't actually work because it's not working right now. And I cringed at the fact that I ever tried to convince somebody to believe in the goodness of God in the hardest times. And I feel like even though I was hollow, I felt like I was honest. So it's like I was an empty cup, and before picking up Ecclesiastes, I was an empty cup that was face down, where I was empty, but there was no way that I could be filled up. And then I think picking up Ecclesiastes said, no, no, no, I'm still an empty cup, but I'm going to turn this face up and I'm going to see if the Lord has anything to pour inside. I mean, when I hear you say that, I may be wrong, but I think a lot of listeners right now, if they were honest, would go, that's me.

They may be doing all the right things, their family looks good, their marriage, but if they were really honest, again, I can't speak for somebody, but I'm just thinking, I've felt that. And it's like you're living a lie, but you never really go there, so you just keep living. But you're hollow, you're empty, you're soulless. Well, especially that cup upside down, that's such a great visual. Because I remember feeling like that too, questioning, God, are you good?

I've been telling people for years that you're good and now I'm wondering, are you good? Like, I don't get it. Why would you allow these four kids to be raised without their mom? Like, that just makes no sense. And so, I'm thinking too, a lot of people have the cup upside down.

How did you turn it right side up? So, I didn't. And I think very intentional is the plural pronoun on the front of the book, we go on. The book is not a testimony of what I did to overcome my grief. At every point where there's some radical or drastic change in the book, it comes as a result of an interaction with somebody else. I feel like I was blessed and it was a gift to God for God to surround me with people who, despite my strongest attempts to leave my cup face down, they slowly just sat with me and pressured me and turned the cup up.

And even when it was a little full, they said, no, look, there's something there. And so, for me, it's less a testimony of what I did in terms of I did this, now you do this. It's no, no, look at what God has done.

And the good news is God doesn't have any favorite children, right? So, if God did it for me, then he can do it for you. And I think sometimes people just need to hear an alternative story to know something is possible.

Yeah, well, you mentioned earlier, you know, when you were in that parking lot, you called your wife. Yeah. But you mentioned two other guys, I think. And maybe there are others.

But my first thought when you said that, I thought, I wonder, because you said they knew before I knew what was wrong with me. Absolutely. When you said that, I thought, I wonder if we have the guts to ask our good buddies, what are you seeing me? Yeah. That I'm maybe not seeing. It's a scary question.

It is. Because we don't really, we're afraid of the answer, but they see it. Oh, yeah. And if you don't have them in your life, you're in trouble.

But if you have them, I would encourage a listener even now, like, give them a call and say, okay, is there anything I'm missing that you see that I need to hear? If you could tell me anything, and you knew that I wouldn't get mad, and I promise not to get mad. Yeah, right. Here's your hall pass. You guys, that is scary.

That's scary to do, and yet it's so important. Well, I used to say, you know, when I was preaching, when I travel with the Lions, or even at a home game, to get on the sideline, and you probably know this, you get a pass. Yeah. And there's security everywhere. Right. And there's different levels of passes. Right. And I had an all-access, because I had to be in the sideline locker room.

Yeah. And it just, you know, the security guy would look at it, and you're just passed, and he'd stop other people. And I always used to say to men in my church, you need to have an all-access pass that you give to another guy. Amen. You give it to 10 guys, or 50. Right, right, right, right.

As a pastor, you're not going to give it to the congregation, although they think they have all access to your life, like, no. But if you don't have three guys in your life, and women, same thing, or couples that have access to go, dude, I got to ask you something. I see something. I know.

Are you struggling with this? And you just, you can't lie. Or they have the freedom to go, I see something in you, I'm not sure you see this, but you're really struggling with your brother's death.

Or whatever it is, that can bring healing to an area that, you had that. What were some of the things your friends said to you, or your wife? Yeah, so one of the things that my wife brought up back then, and my friend Richard, so my best friend, we've been at this 20 years, seven years since Sam died.

And I just found out that Richard knew this when we filmed a docuseries to go along with the book. And me and Richard said the same thing, but we weren't in the same room. So after my brother died, most times when you lose somebody that you love, it makes you want to draw closer to the rest of your loved ones. So it was my mom and my dad. I had four brothers and sisters, Sam passed, and Sam was the closest one that I had. Most times when you lose somebody, you want to draw close.

For me, the opposite took place. I didn't want to draw close, I pushed everyone away, not intentionally, but instinctively. Because what went on in my head was this, if it hurt this badly for me to lose Sam, I don't want to increase the future pain that's going to come by getting close to them and then knowing that one day I would have to say goodbye. And so I was trying to protect myself from future grief.

Put a shell around yourself. But I realized that I wasn't protecting myself from future pain. I was robbing myself of present joy. And my wife spotted it out quick and she talked to me and she told me and she was like, John, you don't have to talk to me, but you need to talk to somebody. And I kept on saying, no, I'm fine. I'm good.

I'm fine. Did Richard see it too? Everybody saw it, right? You've got something on your face and no mirror, right? So it's like everybody sees it and it's clear and apparent, but you don't.

And I didn't. And it took me breaking down and then I'm like, maybe they do see it. And then from that point on, I think I've just tried to think of it like I think of like driving a car with no side view mirrors or rear view mirrors. I mean, you can make your way, but there's just so many blind spots that eventually you're going to wreck your life or somebody else's. You need those other vantage points. And that's what a good spouse, that's what good friends are. They show you those blind spots. They call those things out. Now, what would you say to, let's say there's a husband right now who's literally gone, John is me. Yeah.

When the cup was upside down and it was hollow. I'm there. Yeah.

Could be a husband or wife. Yeah. You've walked through it. Yeah. Talk to that guy.

What would you say? Yeah. I would say you have to let go of the notion that you know yourself better than your spouse knows you. We have never physically unassisted, seen the backs of our own heads, right? Like we are not built or created to have a 360 view of our natural selves. What would make us think that we were built to have a 360 view of our souls, right?

But being in such close proximity with a spouse or a friend, you'd have to sit back and trust they've got a better vantage point of me, right? I'm existing within my grief. They see me swimming in my grief. There's an ancient Chinese proverb that says if you want to know what water is, don't ask a fish because they just live in it. If you want to know how grief is affecting somebody, don't ask somebody that's swimming in it.

You've got to ask somebody on the outside that can observe them. And I'd say the main thing is to trust them. That's what marriage is. I've already entrusted my life and my soul to both God and you, and now I'm at a point where I desperately need for you to speak back in. So I think it's important to say, even to that guy or wife or woman that's listening that feels that, when you made the call to say, I need help, that's a humble step. And hard. A lot of times we don't make that call because of pride.

Ah, that's good. You know, it's like, I got this and I may even feel this for a minute, but I'll get through it. I think it's just pride.

We're afraid to reveal weakness. Like, I'm in trouble, I think. I'm not even sure I am, but man, the way I just responded, am I in trouble? And they're going, yeah, you're in trouble, dude. We've seen that. It's an invitation to say, I need help. That's where I think we're afraid.

We are too arrogant to go there. And I know guys, I can't speak for the wives, but I know husbands and dads who are like, I got this. And I just want to say to that guy, you got a friend, call him. If you're struggling and you're connecting with what we're saying here, even John Sandy felt that. Because when you said that, I'm like, I'm there. Right.

Right now. You know, there's times in my life like, ah, man, I felt that. And it's hard to admit to God and to a brother and we need to. And that's where it starts. And also, if you're the friend listening that thinks, I can see my spouse or another person I'm close to, that they're living that, to gently say something like, hey, I'm here for you.

I see you're struggling and I want to help you. Right. So will you just end with praying for that person?

Yeah. Father, we are grateful that you are not a guy that sent a message from the skies, that you embodied, Lord, your heart for us. Jesus, Lord, is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

Would you remind us that as we feel these feelings, we aren't the only ones, we're not the first ones, and we're not the ones that feel it with the greatest depth. Lord, we pray for our brothers and sisters right now that may feel like an empty cup turned upside down. Father, I pray that you would give them the grace and the strength not to try harder to turn themselves up, but maybe just to cry harder and ask for help. Lord, give them the grace just to cry aloud, to ask you and somebody that they're close to for help. And I pray that their cry would be met with grace and compassion. It's in Jesus' name we pray.

Amen. You're listening to David Ann Wilson with John Onwachekwa. His book is called We Go On, Finding Purpose in All of Life's Sorrows and Joys. You can get a copy at

Just click on today's resources to find your copy, or you can call us at 800-358-6329. That's 800, F as in family, L as in life, and then the word today. And you know, we're in the last days of our matching challenge here at Family Life Today.

It's such a great opportunity to have your gift go further than ever. Right, Ann? Thanks, Shelby, and you are so right. We are in the final stretch of our matching challenge, and it's coming down to the wire.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-28 15:35:30 / 2022-12-28 15:47:45 / 12

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