Last month, over fifty men from our church, Clovis Hills Community Church, participated in the annual Hume Lake Men’s Retreat. There were over 700 attendees from 26 churches from around the state of California there with us. Our church this retreat each fall either a Hume Lake or Wonder Valley since I began attending in 2003. The first retreat I attended was in October 2003. As I reflect on the seven retreats I’ve attended over these last ten years, I realize how much my view of this event and my life in general has dramatically changed. Each year I go, I return charged up again to meet the challenges of the world that await me as we return “to the valley” from being “on the mountain”. On this Thanksgiving Day, 2013, I want to share with you this story about my first retreat I attended to express my deep gratitude for how much the Lord has blessed my life since that time.
This story picks up where my FIRST story in this blog left off. Though it was a huge burden lifted off me that my wife had found The Lord at the same moment I had recommitted my life to Christ, I still felt unsettled. Knowing the amount of time I had been away from any church influence had been roughly 20 years was very convicting. I never felt more isolated and alone those first 6 months living back in Fresno. As most all of my closest friends at the time still lived elsewhere, it just seemed like I didn’t have anyone to share my burdens with besides Leah and by this point she had grown somewhat weary of my neediness for comfort and reassurance as I adjusted to my new career in a Healthcare IT role in Fresno.
My work situation in Fresno was becoming increasingly stressful as I knew I was not as much a fit in the specific role I had been hired for. My role with my prior employer in San Jose grew to involve my managing engineers, machinists, technicians, networking specialists and other skilled engineering support staff involved in medical device and software development. In my new role in Fresno, I was now managing very seasoned caregivers (nurses, therapists) who were assigned as Information Systems Analysts to ensure our systems considered how clinicians worked not just those who had saavy info-tech skills. The types of temperaments between my prior work and this group and the work each did were considerably different and I was having difficulty adjusting to leading this team. It was a trying time for my new direct reports as well as they adjusted to my style of management honed over years of working for a for-profit medical device company and prior to that as a US Naval Officer. Yet, I attribute this misalignment to be all God’s plan in that (1) I would not have moved back to Fresno EVER if I waited for a Medical Device or other engineering role to open up there and (2) He had plans beyond simply carrying my own sense of self reliance / self worth in work that I had developed in my past two careers.
I had been going to Clovis Hills for nearly 3 months by the time I recommitted my life to Christ. The church met in the gym at the middle school we lived near which was in part one of the reasons we had tried it out. I liked to “hide” in the bleachers as to avoid being spotted by someone spotted me from my past. I forecasted being asked “… where have you been???” and then find myself having to explain the long neglect of my faith. Even after God restored me and my wife through the acceptance of our Lord Jesus Christ, I still had this haunting sense that I had to make restitution for my past neglect.
In this context, my life came to a pivotal turning point the week after that Sunday in October over ten years ago. Knowing I was feeling isolated from my former friends and colleagues in the Bay Area, Leah suggested after church that I consider going to the church’s Men’s Retreat to meet some NEW friends. As I was still feeling apprehensive about meeting anyone I might know or worse exposing my sense of vulnerability to a bunch of men I didn’t know, I meekly acknowledged her counsel saying I would check into it at the retreat info table outside the gym.
Checking out the materials on the retreat felt akin to being in the self-help section of a book store where you hope no one would notice you standing there. It turned out there was a gentlemen behind the table who would not make this experience just a self guided one. While looking at the brochures and the information at the table I tried to look like I didn’t notice him. After a moment of silence, he asked the inevitable question, “… so what is your name?” “Jerry Dickerson”, I answered sheepishly, expecting a cordial if predictable, “Well, it’s nice to meet you…” Instead, his answer was a very emphatic, “… THE JERRY DICKERSON?!” indicating surprise that someone he knew so well went to church here. I looked up and realized it was Phil Dodd, the father of a longtime school friend, Patrick Dodd. Patrick and I had attended the same churches through much of my junior and senior high school years. In fact early in my faith journey, Patrick and I played church basketball together. Knowing Patrick was a young man of great faith during those years, I naturally remembered that having much to do with the influence of his father. And here was Phil at that very moment recognizing me when no one else had for nearly the entire time I had been at Clovis Hills thus far!
This was a providential moment as my drift from faith began my senior year in high school. My not having a regular mentor to hold me accountable as I went on to the Naval Academy, however, was a big reason I stopped viewing that going to church as important. In fact, I started to coin the phrase “… MY church is wherever I go…” to suggest I didn’t need to be at a single church to be faithful. I think this is a trap that most college age Christians fall into. At this age, we tend to think our ability to reason things out amongst our intellectual peers is indicative of “enlightenment” and that “religion” is for those who have less capacity to think things out for themselves. The way we rationalize (read ‘rational lies’) during these early college years is a subtle but common tool that Satan uses to encourage our self-deception thus making us less impactful to the Kingdom of God for this period of our lives. Worse, not only does our self-deception hinder our own spiritual growth, it influences those who once looked up to us for our faith in God. I personally know of several friends who observed my walking away from faith my senior year in high school as in part a rationale for their own drifting.
… yet God had a plan even in this! For the moment Phil Dodd saw me at the Men’s Retreat table that fall Sunday afternoon, I felt “found again”. For such a Man of God to still recognize me had to be God’s hand! For the next half hour or so, Phil and I talked about all sorts of things. He showed genuine interest and compassion for me personally and spiritually, something that I hadn’t felt for some time. He never judged me for the past as I had feared might happen and in fact made me feel like it was just yesterday the Patrick and I had just graduated from high school. As I reflected on the profound spiritual influence he had on Patrick and the reality of the loss of my own father seven years prior to that meeting that afternoon, I immediately viewed Phil as someone who could mentor me in a father-like way. Longing for the conversation not to end, I helped him pack away the Men’s Retreat table materials and talked with him all the way back to his car long after everyone else had left church. He had clearly made it seem very reasonable to get over my apprehension about going to the Men’s Retreat and so I signed up that afternoon!
At the Men’s Retreat the following weekend, I spent the couple days trying to meet and get to know other men who went that year to Wonder Valley. This is where I met Patrick Vance and Doug Griffin, two great Men of God, and in a later Retreat, Tim Henry all of whom would later have great influence in my spiritual walk. The main friendship that was deepened that weekend, however, was with Phil. It was an experience I will always mark as the ‘low water mark’ in my descent into spiritual irrelevance and a deep depression about a life that seemed to have become inconsequential. Feeling my life was ‘in the weeds” and very vulnerable, I asked Phil to help me find what purpose God had intended for my life going forward. I did this in writing on a feedback card I think was meant to give to the Men’s leadership team for the retreat but I chose to give it directly to Phil instead. He kept this card in his Bible and showed it to me again later this card as I think he cherished the sincerity in which I wrote it.
Phil’s response to my card was to invite me to go “…on a journey” together using a study called Operation Timothy (OT) as our guide. Phil had been inviting many men on such a journey successfully in the past though I was unaware of it at the time. He was known around the church as “Obi Wan” after the Jedi Knight who mentored Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. I could not have chosen a better partner for this study as it turned out that Phil was the ministry leader of OT with 85+ men he’s taken through it to date! He holds the title of “Elder Emeritus” for Clovis Hills Community Church having helped the Senior Pastor, Steve Davidson, along with their wives found the church over 20 years ago. Phil was Steve’s original high school church teacher and mentor in Dos Palos many years ago. Like me, Steve sought out Phil’s mentoring early to start the journey they are on together at Clovis Hills to this day!
Operation Timothy is a study designed to take two people through a spiritual walk together with the intent to have the typically older and wiser ‘Paul’ disciple the typically younger ‘Timothy’ much as the original two apostles did together helping plant churches along the way. When I accepted Phil’s invitation to go on a journey with him, he became my ‘Paul’, and I became his ‘Timothy’. For the next 18 months, Phil stepped me through each of the four books of the study, each going succeedingly deeper into scripture and how to apply it in one’s life.
During this 18 month journey, I began the transition out of the work role that was not working out and into my current role of Project Manager (PM), a role I truly God designed me for. Fortunately, God was also looking out for me in my work setting for he brought around me a couple very capable executives who had tremendous capacity to mentor me professionally, David and Darrick. Both of these men had served in Chief Information Officer roles prior to coming to Community Medical Centers. They both saw I would be a far better fit as a PM then a manager directly of Clinical Analysts.
David at the time had been a contract Project Manager himself, taught me how much more influence one can have through projects without necessarily having the authority one has with Direct Reports. I am very grateful to David particularly for having taken a chance to hire me out of a Medical Device engineering role straight into Healthcare IT largely on the basis of finding out I had graduated from Annapolis. It turns out David, a former Army officer himself, lived and commuted from Annapolis, MD each week in his contract role with our hospitals. He not only admires the Naval Academy for what it produces in future Naval Officers, he also sponsors midshipmen to visit his home as part of a program to give those far away from their families a home away from home. It is by God’s hand I am certain that I met David, as I’m sure anyone of faith knowing my story would agree that my resume would have likely been overlooked if David specifically not made that connection.
Later, I met Darrick who took over as the Director of our Clinical Systems team and became my Manager as David returned to the Project Management role he was originally hired for. Darrick, a man of faith and deep conviction himself, had a long successful career in Healthcare IT and helped me adjust to this new role of Project Manager. I am very blessed to have had his support during this tumultuous time in my life. His affirmation was a huge reason I didn’t simply give up and quit during this transition. Between Phil’s spiritual mentoring and the professional guidance of these two men at work, I have landed well in my work, ministry and other roles in the community.
In quick summary of these past ten years, I found work life balance at last which in turn has permitted me to focus on my marriage and my role as father to two daughters who have personally witnessed my life change in becoming a dedicated disciple and follower of Christ. I view the life change of my wife and daughters, in turn, as the VERY BEST demonstration of God’s plan to redeem my past life. For you see, God has purpose even in our deepest most troubling times in life as evident when you see those you love come to find the same hope you have in Christ. My return to Christ is living proof that fathers/husbands can and often do have the greatest influence in the spiritual walk of the rest of their family.
This story of the prodigal son is a timeless one and I believe my story is a retelling of it. I saw recently a post by a dear friend who shared a link about why millennials are leaving the church in increasing numbers. The statistics are pretty sobering… Over 90% of our youth leave the faith for a time as I once did. Fortunately a similarly high percentage ultimately return to that faith. This return happens at some time in life… some sooner, some later (… after 20 years in my case), but the key is that it happens quite often as Grace makes it all possible. We are all in need of a Savior who doesn’t care as much where we’ve been but where we are going. Fortunately, Jesus Christ came to save the world not condemn it (John 3:17 NIV).
I am VERY blessed that I re-learned the nature of my personal relationship with Jesus. To prove that HIS Grace was real, I truly believe He arranged the circumstances which I would not only recommit my life to him but that I too would be refound by my friend and mentor Phil Dodd. “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me… Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14 NIV).
Phil remains my mentor and dear friend to this day. Each year, we take a driving trip to either one of the wildlife preserves on the valley floor or to the foothills near Fresno in the early Spring to reflect on what God has done in our lives the past year. Seeing the birds thrive in the wetlands, the flowers bloom and the normally brown foothills green at this time of year is a great reminder that our Lord grows things quite well after a long cold winter. There are other stories of my desire to ‘press on’ that stem from this providential meeting with Phil at the Men’s Retreat Table in October 2003… but I’ll save those stories for later. Until then, I encourage you too, to reflect on what you are most thankful for and PRESS ON…