I was once kind of a big deal for my age. Or at least I thought I was. God however had other ideas about me, he saw me in a different light. It turns out that He was right, and I was wrong. (Big surprise there…) I want to share a bit of that story with you today, some of it you have already heard, but there is something here in these lessons that I am revisiting today, something that I need to be reminded of.
And so I am going to write some of my story for you…
I stood from my chair in the back of the large auditorium and started to make my way down to the front. All around me nearly one thousand people were cheering and clapping. The announcer had just introduced me with a long (and somewhat embellished) list of accomplishments
“Levi Benkert, at only 25, has already shaken up the California Real Estate market in a way that has never been done before. He is proving day in and day out that the old model is truly finished and that the world is ready for something new! His blog was voted Best In Sacramento by the readers of the Sacramento News and Review this past year, and his company has won numerous awards for their groundbreaking work in the area of Green Urban Planning, Construction and Design. Will you join me as I welcome Levi Benkert to the stage!”
I walked to the microphone with a prideful swagger, and got started. The topic they had asked me to speak on was the recent 2008 stock market crash, and how I and others should be responding to all of this terrible economic news, and more importantly if iI believed it would trickle down to our local real estate market.
“Have you ever seen Chicken Little?” I asked, my tone condescending and belittling to the people who had come to hear me speak. I continued for a half hour to tell them how the greatest fortunes that were ever amassed came from those who kept their heads about them during the Great Depression. “It was back then, when the world was falling apart that a few great minds prevailed and their legacy still stands today” I continued, claiming my next great victory just months before I was to loose everything I had. I was a self absorbed mess of a person, and I had no idea what was coming.
“The sky is falling” I mocked in a cartoon voice, as I wrapped up my talk, chuckling at my own off sense of humor and hubris…
Thankfully God was there, in spite of who I had become, desiring my heart, furiously longing for my soul, right in the middle of what was going to be the biggest season of disappointment I had ever met.
It started with the business, I had built a model that required us to find new sources of capital to keep the overhead paid while the projects we were in development. Yes we had over 400 homes in the project pipeline, over thirty-million dollars invested and what the experts and newspapers were calling “vast potential”, but it all amounted to nothing when we could no longer find new cash sources. With the market crash came a rapid decline in values on our holdings and a timidity on the part of investors that overnight stopped the flow of new cash into our accounts. We could no longer keep up with interest payments, salaries, office rent. My entire world, the whole thing was dissolving-and fast. I met with employees one by one, letting them know that we were done, letting them know that I had failed them. I even had to meet with Jason, my best friend, the mastermind behind all the amazing marketing that had gotten us so far, the one who I had moved 800 miles with his wife and kids to work with me. “I am so sorry” I said, squeezing his hand across the massive steel conference table in our office that we would soon be evicted from. “I just don’t know what to do”
Then my phone rang, it was early in the morning so I knew something was wrong, but I ignored it. I left my dad on the other end, going through the worst hell he could ever imagine, and continued on with my terrible day for a few more hours before calling back. “What is it” I asked, still enveloped in my tornado of a life for another few seconds. And then, in an instant I was sucked into a new kind of horror. “Its Jonah” He said. “He killed hims….” the rest of the sentence cut off by the knot that tied off his throat. My dad never cried, he always held it together. Loosing a son, my brother, it was enough to rip tears from him. I stayed on the line, emotionless, too stunned to even think. “Sorry” I said, my heart pounding in my chest. He just cried quietly on the line, letting the raw emotions flow, we both knew that words would do no good.
“We are going to have turn around and go home” I said to Micah, the construction manager in the failing company, one of only three people left down from 16 only two months earlier. “My brother committed suicide” I said, the words stinging as they left my mouth. I quickly turned the car around and sped off towards my house, to stunned to cry. “What!” He shot back, unable to comprehend what I had just said. “Yeah” I answered. “Pull over and let me drive” He said, motioning to the side of the road.
I listened, and sat out the rest of the ride in near silence, uttering only the occasional question that seared inside me.
Only three weeks later another call came. “Jason passed away last night, his liver failed and he is gone” The phone slid from my fingers onto the floor, I was not sure I could take any more of this.
I headed home, this time the house was empty. Jessie and the kids had gone out for the day. I stood at the foot of my bed, tears welling from deep inside me, and let my body fall onto the mattress, pressed my face into the blanket and screamed out at God, wondering all the while if he even existed, if he had ever really been there. All of it was more than I could handle. Each passing moment brought the aching feeling that I was alone, that I was screaming at nothing, yelling into the abyss.
My brother dying. I thought I could have prevented that. Three months earlier he had asked for a job, he came to my crying, begging me to give him a reason to hope so that he might stop the drugs and fix his life. “No” I had replied, emotionless. “I don’t need your mess” Justifying my answer through the many times he had blown my offers for help, proven that he was not really willing to change. But what if I had said yes this one time?
Jason dying. I thought I could have prevented that too. His liver had been acting up for years, it always got worse with stress. If I had only not grown the company so big, or maybe grown it bigger, we would have been able to stay in business through this mess and he could have kept his job. Any just maybe kept his life…
It was all my fault, and no god, no matter how big or loving or kind could tell me any different. That is if there was even a god anyway, his standing by and allowing all of this to happen just confirmed what I was beginning to suspect.
Maybe He was not even there.
The world was for the first time in my life a mess, a failed place, a dark reality with no creator, or purpose.
It took me almost a year to finally believe that God may still be there, and another two years to finally come to a place of peace in Him, to rest in His love once again.
I became able to understand that this world is a failed place, it’s people have free will and a battle rages around all of us for our souls. God is in charge. But he is also beautifully removed. Both here in everything, and aside watching it happen. He does not force this place, he does not drive our will but rather longs for our souls.
He is furiously after our hearts.
Jonah died because of the choices he made, and yes I may have been able to help, or maybe not. Jason died because his liver failed, just like this world we live in. This world is a failed example of the love that God wants for us. Imperfect as promised. But still God is perfect, his will for us is that we thrive, and love and live in community with him, be that on this earth or later in heaven with him.
He wants character for us, he wants growth for us, he wants us to live as examples of his love on this failed earth. But he could care less if we have material blessing.
If this earth is all there is, if after this we are gone, done and forever forgotten, then death is the worst we could imagine. Yet if we open our eyes to the more that God promised, that heaven is real and we were meant to spend eternity with him, death and life becomes but a blip in eternity.
It took me going bankrupt, loosing every worldly possession I had and facing death close up, to shake the fog from my eyes. To realize that all I truly deep down wanted God for was material blessing.
God wants for me to develop character and to stand up and be his plan for love on this earth. He does not care that I had millions of dollars, all that did was stand in the way of our relationship, he did not care that I was well respected, that only made me think I did not need him, he did not care about my accomplishments, those only made me think that I could take the next mountain without his help.
When he created this world he called it good, but when he made us, when he made people he called it “Very good” everything else is just bland creation, we are the only thing he longs for.
I want to learn to be loved by him, to hear his voice calling out to me, and to give him my life so that he may build character in me.
I know that all that happened was not about me, and that I was not the only one going through pain in this time, countless others were affected by these tragedies, but I am responsible for the lessons that I take away from all that I have seen in this world, I am the one who decides if I learn something from the roads I walk down or if I am going to leave my faith in God because of the human failings that I see around me.
There are lessons here, things that I have learned, and today I want to revisit those lessons, and remember where God is in this world and why it is that we stand and love those around us.
When I wish to explore how faith works, I usually sneak in the back door of doubt, for I best learn about my own need for faith during its absence. Philip Yancey