LIFE at Wheaton Bible Church

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Many Steps—One Amazing Journey

Shawn Azam at work (Get Fresh Produce), Friday, February 12, 2016, in Bartlett Illinois. (Jon Langham-for Wheaton Bible Church)

When Shawn chose sobriety in 2012, that was only the first step on a radical, life-altering journey that over time would change him to the core of his being.

Forced to face the reality that his life was caving in all around him, Shawn agreed to enter an inpatient rehab program. Legal troubles related to alcohol abuse, massive debt that far exceeded his income, broken relationships, and other wreckage—all the result of years of self-destructive choices—had left him, at the age of twenty-six, with no other option than to abide by his family’s wishes and get help with his addiction.

So over the next two years he was on the path to overcoming a crippling dependence on alcohol, a process that began with a twenty-eight-day stay in inpatient rehab. Next came a stint in an extended-treatment facility, followed by two years in a “sober house,” because he didn’t yet feel ready to make it on his own.

Rehab

During those months of treatment, Shawn came to recognize how he had used alcohol, along with money and prestige, to try to fill the holes in his life. But the alcohol brought only more problems and pain, which caused him to drink even more and pushed him deeper into his addiction.

As part of his rehab, Shawn was introduced to the Twelve Steps taught by Alcoholics Anonymous and followed by many on the path to recovery. In the context of learning and following those Twelve Steps, Shawn began to think about a “higher power.”

“Even before I knew who God was, I had begun to pray to Him,” Shawn says. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I got on my knees and started asking God for help and for direction in my life.”

As Shawn talked with some of the others he met in the program, he asked them, “Who is your Higher Power? Is it God?”

One friend said, “My Higher Power is Jesus.”

To Shawn, the son of an Indian Muslim father and a Ukrainian Jewish mother, Jesus was a complete mystery. When he was growing up as the youngest of six siblings, his home life was the epitome of ethnic and religious diversity, and while the family was close, there was little discussion of his parents’ beliefs, and the children received no religious instruction.

“My mom’s religion was never pushed on us,” Shawn explains. “Her family loved me as if I were a devout Jew. And while my dad’s family was Muslim, they would never say, ‘Why don’t you come closer to Islam?’ It never came up. As kids we just weren’t religious, and no one judged us for that.”

So when Shawn’s friends talked to him about Jesus, he wasn’t really interested. “I think I almost had a prejudice against Jesus because I really knew nothing about Him.”

Even so, when those friends told him about The Table, a young-adults group they attended at a church in the area, he was intrigued and agreed to give it a try.

The Table

“I was interested in learning more about Jesus and who He is,” Shawn says, “so I went with them—and I really liked it.”

With a work schedule that kept him on the job most Sundays, the Thursday-evening meetings of The Table became the place Shawn began to learn about Jesus and about what it means to follow Him.

Young Adult Pastor Scott Murray remembers that Shawn was an eager student right from the start.

“He told me that the only part of The Table he didn’t like,” Scott recalls, “was that he had to wait a week to come back!”

An Eager Student

Not long after Shawn began to attend the meetings, he and Scott had an opportunity to talk. Scott quickly realized that Shawn had little or no understanding about God or the Bible. He asked Shawn if he would be interested in meeting once a week to talk, and Shawn loved the idea.

The two met over a number of weeks, and as their meetings continued, rather than fade, Shawn’s enthusiasm only grew—something, Scott says, “that feeds my own heart and gives me new energy to pour into others.

Shawn with his mentor and friend, Young Adult Pastor Scott Murray

Shawn with his mentor and friend, Young Adult Pastor Scott Murray

“I’ve been doing ministry for years,” Scott said, “creating lessons—meals—to share with the people I’m ministering to. And what I’ve seen over those years is that if I prepare that ‘meal’ for a group of students or adults, they might eat it. But with Shawn, whatever I put in front of him, he devours. He’s always telling me how much he loves our time together.”

Giving Shawn a modern-language Bible, along with weekly reading assignments, has formed the structure of their time together, and over the months they have talked through several books of the Bible.

“Shawn didn’t have Sunday school as a kid,” Scott says. “He didn’t have Christian teaching of any kind, so his Bible knowledge was very limited—almost nonexistent.

“One day he asked me, ‘How is it that I know exactly what I’m supposed to do but I do exactly the opposite?’ And I said, ‘It’s like what Paul said in the book of Romans.’ And he said, ‘Who is Paul?’ He’s just never been taught until now, but he’s really eager to learn.”

Discussing a reading assignment from Galatians, Scott told Shawn the story of Paul’s conversion and how he had been on his way to another town to arrest Christians when he had an encounter with God.

“I started tearing up,” Shawn says, “when I heard how God stopped him and how God said, ‘Why are you persecuting Me?’ And I thought, Wow! This is amazing!

“Another day,” Scott says, “we were reading together in Psalm 139, where David says something about his enemies, and Shawn asked, ‘Who would be an enemy of David?’ He didn’t know anything about David’s story—not even about David and Goliath!”

Over the weeks they’ve been meeting, Shawn and Scott have covered a lot of ground, but there is still so much to learn. Shawn admits that he’s “not much of a books guy,” so Scott suggested he supplement his studies with some videos, including The Passion of the Christ, The Bible videos, and A.D. The Bible Continues, that Shawn has been able to watch on the Internet.

“He’s finding out all these new things,” Scott says, “that are becoming so much a part of his life.”

A New Creation

Along with gaining a general Bible knowledge, Shawn points to a particular conversation with “Pastor Scott” that brought a whole new clarity to his relationship with Jesus.

For him, Shawn says, coming to Christ has been a process, one that began when he first heard about Jesus from his friends. Then as he grew in his understanding, Jesus became more and more a part of his life.

But one day, as he and Scott met in a local coffee shop, what it meant to “become a Christian,” took on new meaning for Shawn.

“I used to hear a lot of people talk about how Jesus died for our sins,” Shawn says, “but I really didn’t understand what that meant.

“That day, Pastor Scott used the analogy of a paycheck, and he explained to me what Romans 6:23 talks about: that the wages—the paycheck—I earned for my sin was death. But Jesus, because He was perfect, was the only one who could pay the price I owed,” Shawn said. “And as I came to the realization of what Christ has done for me, I knew that I wanted to live a life utterly and completely for Him.

“That day I understood that becoming a Christian means accepting what Jesus did, when he paid the ‘wages’ I had earned for my sin,” Shawn added, “and it got really personal for me.”

The Old Is Gone

As Shawn continues in his new life as a follower of Jesus Christ, he is thankful that God has removed his obsession with alcohol.

“I no longer wake up wanting to drink,” he says, “and if I start to think about drinking, my second thought is, Why would I ever do that?

“Feeling that way would have been an impossibility at one point in my life,” Shawn adds.

He’s also seen God remove some old friends from his life so He can add new ones. “Some of those guys respect me for getting sober, but it’s not a benefit for me right now to be hanging out with them. They’re still making the kinds of decisions that I have walked away from.”

It was after he prayed and asked God to “put the right people” in his life, that Shawn started coming to The Table, where he’s begun some amazing new relationships.

The New Has Come

What Shawn points to as his biggest help in his walk with God is an everyday time of Bible reading and prayer. “Incorporating Scripture on a daily basis is so important to keep me from straying away from God’s Word and following my own ideas. So every morning I am consciously putting my dependence on God,” he says, “and that’s also at night and all through the day.”

A devotional journal, a gift from a friend, has been really helpful to Shawn. The journal presents a Scripture portion and a devotional insight for each day, along with a place to write down his thoughts. “I get my day started with that,” he said, “and then I pray.”

A Step of Obedience

Last fall, Shawn made the decision to be baptized and publically declare his new life in Christ. When he first brought it up with his mom, she wasn’t too sure about his decision. But just a couple of weeks later, Shawn says, she changed her mind. “By late October, my mom said she was ecstatic that I was going to show my love for my heavenly Father by being baptized.”

On the night of the All-Church Baptism Celebration at Wheaton Bible Church, Jewish and Muslim relatives—including Shawn’s mom, two brothers, a sister, a niece, three cousins, and more, along with several friends—came to support his decision.

Shawn Baptism

“They knew where I had come from,” Shawn said, “and they were so happy for me, that I had surrendered my life to Christ.

“My mom, who was heartbroken as she watched me make so many bad decisions—who saw all my past mistakes—was there that night as I
was baptized and proclaimed my love for Christ and my commitment to live for Him.”

As he looks back over the past twelve years, Shawn sees many things in his life that he regrets. “But God used some of those bad things to bring me to Him,” he says, “and now He is directing my life—and that has brought me the peace I’ve been looking for my whole life.”

As Shawn deals with some of the baggage from his past, he continues to be an inspiration to Scott as he grows in his understanding of the Bible and the foundations of Christian faith.

“Shawn just doesn’t shut off his faith or run hot and cold,” Scott says. “More and more he’s quoting Scripture—occasionally misquoting,” Scott says with a smile, “but always eager to learn.

“His relationship with God is fresh and it’s real.”

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This entry was posted on April 1, 2016 by in Spring/Summer 2016.

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