We Go On: John Onwuchekwa
About the Guest
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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
Disappointment and grief are inescapable on planet Earth. But author John Onwuchekwa knows we go on by finding joy and peace in the unseen.
We Go On: John Onwuchekwa
David: Hi there. David here, President of FamilyLife, joined with my wife, Meg. At FamilyLife, we are driven to be here for all the ups and downs of your family life.
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John: Nothing in life is going to be everything you hoped it would be: not money, not pleasure, not relationships, not friendships, not work, not status, not accomplishments. The garden of your ideal life is going to be littered with disappointment—that’s not meant to make you sad—it’s meant to make you sober.
Dave: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Dave Wilson.
Ann: And I’m Ann Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today.
Ann: It’s not often that we fight over books, as we’re preparing to do interviews, but we did that today.
Dave: You kept stealing my book. I was holding it on the couch, enjoying this read.
Ann: You had had it a long time.
Dave: We’re going to interview the author, John, today. You kept, literally, taking it out of my hand.
Ann: I know. The book is We Go On by John Onwuchekwa. Let me just say the subtitle is: Finding Purpose in All of Life’s Sorrows and Joys.
Dave: It’s so well-written. It’s one of those I couldn’t put it down [for] a couple of reasons: because it’s so well-written and because John is writing about struggles in his own life as he lost his brother. We talked about that the last couple of days. Yesterday, we talked about how that impacts a marriage when you go through trauma or grief.
Today, we get to dive in with John—he’s back with us—to talk about the book of Ecclesiastes because God met him through this book. We’re going to look at that.
What’s really interesting is you discovered this guy wakes up super early in the morning.
Ann: Yes, which I related to; because when I was grieving over my sister’s death, I remember waking up early. Let us ask you, John, since we’ve heard that you wake up early, why do you wake up so early?
John: I started this four years ago by accident. My daughter was one. I was a pastor. Every hour of the day, people were pulling on me for something. One day, I got up at
4 am by accident. From 4 until 7, it was just dark and quiet, and nobody needed anything from me; I felt at such peace. By the time the day started, I didn’t feel tired; I felt rested.
Eventually, it started to be my thing because I get up before the sun rises. It’s just my daily act of hopeful defiance, where I’m reminded that I’m not going to live a life where the state of my soul is dictated by my surroundings. When you get up at 4 am, it looks like midnight; it looks like nighttime. [Laughter] The only thing that tells you that it’s a new day is that clock. You have to say to yourself: “Am I going to trust what I see?” or “Am I going to trust what that clock says and get up?” I’ve learned: “No, no, no; I’m going to trust what that clock says and get up. I’m going to live, and I’m going to wait for my circumstances to catch up. I’m going to be reminded that every new day begins in the dark.”
I feel like just that simple act for the past four years has reminded me that, when grief comes, that’s a dark that I’ve got to lean into. But every new day begins in the dark. The sun is going to come up; I need to wait for it—like the psalmist says—“…like a watchman for the morning.” [Psalm 130:6]
Ann: —“hopeful defiance”; in the last four years, do you think that has affected your marriage and your walk with God?
John: Oh, absolutely—
Ann: In what ways?
John: —hands down. Most of the times, I’m in bed by 9:30 or 10—
Dave: Okay; but you’re up alone.
John: —midnight sometimes—
Dave: And you still get up at 4:30?
John: Yes; when I’m up at that time, it’s helped me because it’s forced me to be with the Lord/be in silence. It’s forced me to process where I am, and to think, and to create, and to get my mind clear, and to unburden myself in certain ways where, when my family wakes up, I’m there with them.
Ann: —you’re ready.
John: Yes, ready to face the day because I’ve done the hard work of fighting for joy, while everybody else that I know is still sleeping.
I’ve been preaching consistently for 15 years. When you do that—you know, [Dave]—you spend each week studying the text. My pattern for the past 15 years, in my own time with the Lord—has not been to have a pen and a pad and study—it’s just been to read large swaths of Scripture/just large chunks, and to think, and to pray. I think that’s helped me to continually gain a sense of the whole. Every morning, I’m reading.
Ann: Is there any Scripture, even as you walked through your brother’s death/the grieving, that stood out to you?
John: In one sense, there’s some; but in some sense, it’s every Scripture.
Ann: —all of it.
John: A few years ago, [I] and an intern in our church started this podcast called Windows and Mirrors. The aim is: each year, four chapters at a time—we walk through the Bible in a year—four chapters each day; a ten-minute reflection. We start off each one and say this: “We just want to remind you, and us, that the Bible is more like a window than it is a mirror. We come to it to look through it and see God. We don’t come to it primarily to look at it and see ourselves.”
I think, sometimes, the Bible isn’t enjoyable for us because we treat it like a house of mirrors; we read it constantly to pick apart the things that are wrong with us—as opposed to a window that has a view of something beautiful—and we look through it and realize that joy comes, not in fixing what’s wrong with us, but in seeing something beautiful and being caught up into it as I’ve seen that.
After Sam died, I couldn’t read my Bible. Then, I picked it up—
Ann: I couldn’t either when my sister died. I could only read the Psalms—because in the Psalms I could relate—like David’s crying out.
John: That’s good.
Ann: He’s so real; he’s so honest. I could just/I could be in the Psalms, and sink deep into the goodness of God, but also the questioning, like, “Why, Lord? How long do I need to wait, Lord?” I just liked the authenticity of the Psalms.
John: Yes, amen; amen.
Dave: One of the things that you wrote about in We Go On, is just the study of Ecclesiastes. We haven’t really talked—you don’ t need to walk us, chapter by chapter—but as you think about how God met you in that book—I love that book; I’ve never read it—
Ann: You guys, I don’t. Whenever I’ve read this book, I’m thinking, “This is the most depressing book ever.”
John: Oh, my goodness—but it’s not—it’s so hopeful.
Dave: Right. [Laughter]
Ann: Let’s talk about that. Because I can just read it and say, “This guy is just depressed. This is depressing.” But you’re saying, “No, it’s hopeful.”
John: No it’s not; right. We all have a sense that life is broken/that things just don’t work right. But we all have a sense that we can fix the things that don’t work right if we just—
John: —get enough knowledge, get enough money, get enough status, get enough pleasure.
While the rest of the Bible says: “Idols are bad,” Ecclesiastes 1-5 says: “No, no, no, it’s not just that they’re bad; it’s that idols don’t work.” The book leads you in, and says, “Nothing in life is going to be everything you hoped it would be,”—not money, not pleasure, not relationships, not friendships, not work, not status, not accomplishments—"The garden of your ideal life is going to be littered with disappointment,”—that’s not meant to make you sad; it’s meant to make you sober.
The book starts off like that; and you’re supposed to rise up, and say, “That is sad news, but it’s good news in that I’m not crazy. I always felt like this thing was rigged. I was mad that I put in all the right work, but things didn’t work out. I was mad that life didn’t line up with my formula; and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I just need to try this…” or “…this,” or “…this.” The book is meant for: “No, no; wait, wait, wait. It’s not going to be found in money,” “It’s not going to be found in sex,” “It’s not going to be found in pleasure,” “It’s not going to be found in things.”
Then, when we’re calm enough, then he’s like, “No, but this is where it is found…” The book is just this thing: “If you’re looking for ultimate joy under the sun, you’re not going to find it. But if you do take a step back, and start to look for your joy beyond the sun—that there’s something else that’s going to come that’s going to bring meaning to our life—then you’re free to surrender to life as it is and not mourn life as you hoped it would be.”
Ann: Because most of us live there.
Dave: I was just going to say: “Why don’t we believe it?” Because we don’t believe that—maybe, I’m just talking for myself—am I’m the only one here? [Laughter]
John: No, but I think it’s because of this: I think we are, by nature, stubborn and hard-headed. What it takes is us dropping our heads to jolt us out of it. It used to be I would have a harder time convincing people—“Nothing in life is going be all that you hoped that it would be,”—until March of 2020.
Dave: You are right; you are right!
John: Now, what I’ve found—
Dave: —the pandemic.
John: It used to be I could say that—and people, who were 40-plus would say, “Oh, yes; because I’ve lived through some things,”—but now, I say that, and I’ve got 16-year-olds, who say, “Yo, I know exactly what you mean. I put my hope in all this stuff.” People have seen, “Wait, wait, wait; everything that I’ve thought was sturdy is not.” And they’re saying: “Is there an anchor?” “Is there something I can hold onto?” “Is there a way that I can get contentment and joy without getting all the other things that I had?”
They’re seeing: “People,”—Ecclesiastes is going to say—“here is the greatest curse: somebody that has all the money in the world, and they have everything, except for enjoyment”; right?—they’ve seen: “There’s somebody, who has all the possessions, and they don’t have enjoyment.” But then, in the person of Jesus, it’s like: “Wait, wait, wait!”—but then, you’ve got somebody, who had none of the possessions, but He had an enjoyment and contentment, not just that He possessed, but He passed on—“Maybe there’s a better way to life and to joy than in the way that I’ve been chasing.”
Ecclesiastes, I feel like, is the greatest apologetic for: “No, no, no; listen. All this stuff you thought worked—it didn’t—and now, if you can learn to lean into the life that you have, you can start to live the life of your dreams by enjoying the life that you have.”
Dave: I remember, years ago—I was at our church 30 years; we started it from scratch—but I think year 15 or so we had a consultant come in, looking at what we were doing on our different campuses. He was sort of an expert on: “Here’s your first impressions,” type deal. I’ll never forget—he said this; tell me if you agree, as a pastor—he said:
“When a new person comes to your church, one of two things have probably happened. You can approach them, knowing this: ‘They are either desperate—life isn’t working—and they’re like, “I’ve got to find the answer. I’m going to try church,”’”—or just what you said—“They’ve reached every goal they ever dreamed of, and they’re empty; and they’re like, ‘This wasn’t it; maybe there is this something/this God-thing.’”
He’s like, “You could walk up to almost any person, and ask them, ‘Are you struggling right now?’ They might go, ‘Yes, I really am,’ or [you ask] ‘You just got the house”/“You got the promotion, and it’s empty?’”—“Yes.”
What hit me is: that’s true, if somebody comes to your church; but it’s also true in your neighborhood.
Dave: You can start a conversation with your neighbor, and bring the gospel in there, because probably, the reality—it’s Ecclesiastes—we are all living it at one level or another, right?
John: Absolutely. People are used to being depressed in a valley. People are thrown off when they’re depressed on the mountain top; they’re like: “No, no, no; wait, wait, wait. Depression is for people, whose spouse walked out on them—who are wearing all black, mourning the loss of that—depression is not for people who got the promotion, got the house, got the wife, got the family/got the that.”
Then, when they get that, they think, “Maybe there’s something that I missed.” But what do you when there’s no other goals to chase? Then, you say, “Oh, maybe, I was filling up on the wrong stuff.”
Dave: How did study of Ecclesiastes walk you through, out of your grief, or with you, in your grief, really?
John: When you experience such dramatic loss, you start to feel like, “I need to fill up on things; I need to busy myself.”
My brother was an achiever, right? He walked on/played ball, D1; graduated college in three and a half years; was getting his master’s, lecturing at the school he was playing ball at; teaching classmates in his class—that was Sam—investing in real estate at the time—all of this—he was just running.
John: I thought, “Alright, Sam’s gone; I just need to do that.” I just tried to achieve and to do things. I’m great with creating “To-do” lists; I’m terrible with doing the things that are on my “To-do” lists. I was chasing, and I couldn’t climb to the heights; and even, when I did climb to the heights that I chased after, it wasn’t fulfilling; I’m like, “Maybe I’m crazy; maybe there’s something wrong with me.”
It’s—everybody has heard the phrase: “Misery loves company,”—in Ecclesiastes, I find: “Oh, no, no, no; my misery needed company.” It was vindicating to be like: “Oh, wait! There’s somebody else, who’s already done this, and he’s come to the conclusion.”
It’s like: “I’ve got a choice: I can sit back and say, ‘Maybe, he missed something,’—or I can say—‘Maybe, I’ve missed something.’”
I took the advice of a mentor that I had years ago; he said, “Experience isn’t the best teacher. Somebody else’s experience is the best teacher, because you learn the same lesson, and don’t have to experience the same heartache.”
It was using Ecclesiastes as my clock—that I can trust what I see or what I feel—or I can say, “No, this is what the clock says: ‘I think there’s a way to find joy and peace, apart from seeking it in achievements or relationships.’”
Ann: I think we do that naturally without even realizing it. I’ve seen, in my own life over the years, when I take my eyes off of Jesus. I think that can be just that natural flow of being busy—our life’s demanding; our kids are demanding—there’s a lot going on, and there’s this gradual drift. I’ve done that with my walk with God in the past: “Oh, I don’t have time to read, or listen; or I don’t have time to just...”
John: Right, right, right.
Ann: What can happen—without me knowing it, as I’ve had my eyes on Jesus all these years—I think what we can naturally do is we put our eyes or our hope somewhere else. It’s what Ecclesiastes—for me, it’s—and I think for a lot of women—it’s relationships. Then I look to Dave, and I think, “Why aren’t you meeting my needs?” I don’t know that I’m doing this; I don’t know that my marriage is now becoming an idol. I’m thinking, “Why aren’t you meeting my needs? If you would meet my needs, I would be happy.”
But the truth is, no matter how great Dave was—and he was the greatest husband in the world—there would still be that ache in my soul. I know some listeners are thinking, “Eh, I don’t think it would be that great,”—the ache. But there is because there’s only One who can fill that void.
Ann: I remember I had this defining moment, as a 19-year-old girl. I went into a nursing home, and I saw this woman in her 90s. I remember looking at her; as a 19-year-old, I’m this driven young woman; I’m thinking, “I’m going to change this world for Jesus. I’m going to have a great marriage.” I’m just thinking all these things are going to fill me up, as well as Jesus. But as I started talking to this woman—she’s incredibly frail; she couldn’t walk any longer; she was in a wheelchair—and I had never in my life seen so much joy on someone’s face.
I sat beside her. She didn’t know me, and she took my hand; she said, “I’m so glad to meet you, Ann.” I said, “That’s so nice of you. Thank you.” [Laughter] She goes, “When I opened my eyes today, I knew, ‘Jesus, You must have a reason why I’m on this earth. Let me know why You have me here today.’ She looked at me and said, ‘You’re the reason.’”
I’m looking at her—and I’m thinking, “Of all the things that…”—she had lost her husband she had told me; she had lost many of her children already; she doesn’t have much family; she’s lost her looks. As a woman, you try to find some sort of identity—she doesn’t have/she can’t even take care of herself or take care of her own needs—she can’t walk. The only thing she can really do is she has her voice, and she has her mind. She said, “With that, every single day, I will minister to the people around me; because isn’t it amazing that I’m alive today, and God wants me here?”
I’m thinking, as a 19-year-old, “What is happening?!”
John: Right; right.
Ann: This is breaking all the molds of what we think we’ll find success, and hope, and contentment in. She’s lost all of those things, and the only thing she has is Jesus. I do remember walking out, thinking, “I pray, God, that I’m that woman—that I will always have my eyes on You—because You are the fulfiller of our soul and our destiny, really.
Shelby: You are 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 it; or you can call 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Shelby: Yes; sincerely, thank you. This is it; today is the last day you can give and have your gift go double the distance, thanks to some generous Ministry Partners, who will match your gift, dollar for dollar, until we hit $2.3 million. That’s for a one-time gift; or if you become a monthly Partner right now, your monthly gifts will be doubled for the next 12 months. Again, you can give today at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Okay; next week is going to be special. Dave and Ann Wilson, and all the other podcast hosts within FamilyLife, will be linking up and going through highlights of the last year. It’s a great time to catch things that you’ve missed and to hear from the other hosts. I may or may not be one of them; you’ll just have to listen for yourself. I hope you’ll join us because: [whispering] I’m definitely going to be there.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. Have a great New Year’s celebration this weekend. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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