Give Thanks for the Legacies

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.” – Ephesians 3:14-21

What are you thankful for? Over the next days/weeks leading up to Thanksgiving I’m going to try to put some good in the world, some light in the midst of the darkness and bitterness of the world.  I have been slack on my 30 days of thanks for the 30 days of November on social media to cultivate a spirit of gratitude.  I’m grateful for SO very many things.  Like life, breath, my family, a roof over my head, good food to eat, living in a country where I have the right to vote, a calling and vocation that keeps me on my toes and continues to reignite and renew me as the Triune God refreshes my Spirit. If all is grace, then we are thankful.

On All Saints Day, I am thankful for the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. These “saints” that have gone before are not just the heavy hitters like Mary or Paul or Mother Theresa. These saints encompass all of the people that have gone before us seeking to live as Christ. Some of these saints are ones that we read about in our Holy Scripture. Some are ones that we have read back and forth and still dig into their kernels of wisdom – CS Lewis, Jim Elliot, Teresa of Avila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Love Jim’s “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose”). Some of these are saints that may or may not be seen as religious folks – love me some Jane Austen, Joseph Heller and Louisa May Alcott. Others may be the ones that we’ve personally known or been shaped by.

I think about some of the dear saints I’ve known in this life. Mr. Howard and Ms. Evelyn that we sat with as children on Sundays while Dad preached and Mom sang in the choir. Ms. Betty teaching our first and second grade Sunday school class. I still remember the felt board with the Bible characters. Mr. Tim and Ms. Bunny who proved to me that people want to minister to their minister and his/her family and they really care about each of us. They would take my parents out to eat every Friday night and then stop by Dunkin Doughnuts to get us a mixed box of doughnuts among many things.  Ms. Pal Moore who taught the best VBS for youth that I’ve ever been a part of and continues to be an encouragement in my life.  She actually made the stole that I’m wearing.  There are so many that I could easily name, I have been blessed beyond measure by all the saints who lifted, taught, and undergirded me, those who have laughed, cried, and shared life with me and those whose example I try to follow every day.

I think about the saints in our family…and then I start to tear up and laugh. The thing that I love about them and any of our saints for that matter, is that they were real people – flesh and bone and not always perfect. There’s this thing about saints that we build up to be otherworldly with rose-colored glasses, but the thing that I like the most is that they were colorful characters who didn’t just do everything prim and proper perfectly, but they made a splash. They had spunk. They did not go gentle into that good night as the Dylan Thomas poem goes.

There’s always been an interest in connecting with the afterlife.  Mediums are not new.  I think there’s a great big part of us that wants to know for sure and for certain that we’re not alone here. There’s part of us that wants to know that our family and loved ones – both from long ago and now – those who are dear to us – are okay and it’s going to be okay for us too. When I’m channel flipping, even I get sucked into the story and it has me tearing up at parts because of the sincerity of people really wanting to know that we are all connected and we stay connected and that this beautiful network of love doesn’t just stop here, but continues on.

As the seasons in South Carolina start to change for real and things are turning and getting colder and Winter is coming, I’m reminded that death is not the end. Yes, there is grief. Yes, there is change. Yes, there is loss. Yes, there are those we miss dearly. But the great cloud of witnesses surrounds us, spurs us on, and still speak to us in big and small ways. As Dad likes to share – these folks are often our “balcony people!”  Joyce Landorf writes in her book you’re either a basement person or a balcony person.  Dragging others down or lifting others up.  The loved ones that we have lost and still feel a wide, gaping hole for, we have Christ’s promise of eternal life.  We read these words of grace at any United Methodist Celebration of Life.

The Word of Grace

Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life.

Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live,

and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.

I died, and behold I am alive for evermore,

and I hold the keys of hell and death.

Because I live, you shall live also.

That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  3There are power in those words.  It likens to the Revelation text in its broadening, yet definitive answer.  As I look around my office and home to the things that I treasure – pictures with family, pictures at Ganny’s house, a beautiful picture painted by Robin, a shingle that my Gandaddy made with our pictures on it, Dad’s pottery, a “family tree” my Mom made for me….as I look into my heart to the things I treasure – both sassy grandmothers that neither minced words, had plenty of spunk, and weren’t afraid to use various words in their vocabularies, the amazing integrity and character of both of my grandfathers and their legacy of continuing to love people – whoever they are, whatever color they are or accent they have, wherever their family came from…these are the gifts that the communion of saints continues to give us as we wrestle with their words, their examples, their legacies and their authentic lives of faith.  They leave lasting legacies and as Rafiki tells Simba in the Lion King clip I shared a few months ago, they live inside each of us.  Louisa May Alcott writes, “Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”

Thank you God for all of those that have touched us in such mighty ways!  May we ever remember them and treasure them in our hearts and may we give thanks for their legacies.

Who are your saints? Who has shaped you? What do you hold dear from the ones that have gone on before us?

The flip side is true too.  Who are you being a good example for?  Who are you mentoring?  Who are you showing, by your very life, the way they should go?

I’ll tell you one final story that will transition us to communion.

In fact, you never know the legacies you will leave.  You may not know that Gator Wesley was a local church, University United Methodist Church before it gave birth to Gator Wesley in 2010.  Carmen was one of the older members who never stopped coming.  He always would talk to those sitting around him at worship.  Ali wrote on her facebook page the morning that Carmen died, “If I’ve learned anything from working at a church, it’s that you make friends with unlikely people. One of those friends, Carmen (the older man on the left in the gray hoodie) passed away this morning. I met Carmen before anyone else at Gator Wesley. My first Sunday I sat in front of him, when he preceded to ask me about 10 minutes worth of questions about my life, my plans, and my dreams. Almost every Sunday since, he’s asked me about the stories I’ve done and the people I’ve I’ve done and the people I’ve met. Although he was confused about what I was doing (he was fairly convinced my dream was to be a TV anchor or a talk show host), he kept listening. Every week he told me how he prayed for me. His last Sunday before he entered assisted care, he told me that I was going to go out and change the world. I didn’t know that was going to be the last time I saw him not in a hospital bed.  While Carmen never realized it, the love he has shown all of the students at Gator Wesley has been unending. Although he was stubborn and cantankerous, he was a good man. Gator Wesley became his family. Wesley is much larger than this photo taken on Easter, but it’s nice to see Carmen with his home. Everyone deserves a Carmen in their life. I’m glad that I met mine.”

Carmen smiled and waved to students at the student apartment where he lived.  He touched countless lives.  He wanted his life to mean something.  He was so deeply concerned, that his life didn’t matter, I started to tell him in his last days, that the students were his legacy.  The students are his legacy.  He would light up when “the students” were mentioned.  The hospice social worker saw it and I did too.  He only wanted to see “the students” at the end.  So we piled into his room on a Sunday after church.  Four of the students went with me and our Associate Pastor Ryan to see him the Wednesday before he died.  That Wednesday night we shared the Lord’s Prayer, Carmen’s favorite prayer, and he was able to say some of it with us.  That was the last smile I saw on his face, when he noticed the 4 students we brought.

The students are his legacy.  I’ll never forget when I had finished a sermon and Carmen stood up quick as I’ve ever seen him and said, “Gator Wesley IS going to change the world!”  I’m so glad I got to hear and see that.  You see Carmen was a deeply spiritual person and a follower of Jesus Christ.  He had been raised in the Catholic Church, but he didn’t like what he called the “rules” or what he thought was the earning of salvation.  He struggled with the concept of grace. Don’t we all do that?  He was just honest enough to say it out loud.  He joined the baptism class my first year here and he would read the Bible and all of the handouts and he wanted a copy of the Baptism service in the Book of Worship and so on and so on.  He wanted to be prepared and he was excited more about the United Methodist Church that I haven’t seen.  I would tell him over and over again and again, any time he came up to me after the service, and in his last few weeks.  You’re a child of God.  You were made in your mother’s womb.  God’s grace was given to every one of us.  You don’t have to earn it.  There’s nothing you can do to earn it.  It’s a gift.  You’re ENOUGH.  I would say it over and over again.  One of our students says it was meaningful to her, “To see his face light up in a group when he was told that God loves him no matter what.”  “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  And in this table we celebrate that.  We are all enough.  We are loved by the Great God of the Universe, that came to Earth Emmanuel, with an abundant, passionate, ever seeking, ever reaching love.  We remember our saints, our great cloud of witnesses, as we try to be “balcony people” for others so we too can leave a legacy.

Amen.

As we celebrate this meal…

 

PS – Anytime I preach on legacies, I’m reminded of this Nichole Nordeman.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ah1COE39ARs

saints

Being a Disciple Takes Sacrifice

Luke 9:18-26

18 Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” 20 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”

21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

23 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 26 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

 

On September 11th 2001, I had just started my senior year at Winthrop.  I was student teaching at Saluda Trail Middle School for two days a week, but it was a class day so I went to my 8 am class.  I watch The Today Show every morning, so I must have watched it that morning.  Towards the end of that class I remember hearing about it somehow.  We didn’t have smart phones back then.  We all thought it was an accident.  In my next class at 9:30 am with Dr. Silverman he had turned on the tv in the classroom, by then we all knew it wasn’t an accident.  I remember vividly when the South Tower fell at 9:59 am because someone was holding my hand out to see my new engagement ring as I stood watching in horror as the smoke and debris billowed.  We had gotten engaged on September 10, 2001, little did we know that the next day would be etched into our brains forever.  Winthrop cancelled class at that point.

I immediately walked over to Winthrop Wesley to watch the coverage with Mike, who was the Director of Tuesday’s Child Learning Center, an after school ministry for homeless and at-risk kids, and Jerry, the campus minister at the time.  They were talking about evacuating Charlotte because of the nuclear plant and at the time it was the second biggest city for banking.  I worked at Tuesday’s Child and I was also a youth minister and in the coming days, we struggled to find the words to say to the children and youth.  However, the afternoon of September 11th we had an education colloquy that was mandatory for all student teachers and the education professors decided not to cancel it.  I don’t remember what they covered, but I do remember this.  They said that the terrorists want to disrupt our lives and they were not going to give the terrorists the satisfaction of impacting our lives because that’s what the terrorists want.  As I’ve remembered the anniversary with students over the years, I got a sense of the chaos that ensued.  For example, one student was in the elementary school and one student was in middle school in the town of Blythewood, and one school was on lock down and one they requested parent pick up.  I have since taken students from all 3 campus ministries to St. Paul’s Chapel where the first responders stayed.  They have created a peace exhibit and saved one of the pews were the first responders slept.  One of the students’ uncles had died in one of the towers and we found his name on the memorial.  It was my generation’s Pearl Harbor or shooting of JFK.  We all have stories of remembrance and sacrifice.  As well as struggling with theodicy, in other words, why bad things happen to good people.

This story gave me comfort in the days after 9-11 and it represents a critical, crucial truth to me.

Meet Me In The Stairwell by Stacey Randall

You say you will never forget where you were when you heard the news On September 11, 2001. Neither will I.

I was on the 110th floor in a smoke filled room with a man who called his wife to say ‘Good-Bye.’ I held his fingers steady as he dialed. I gave him the peace to say, ‘Honey, I am not going to make it, but it is OK..I am ready to go.’

I was with his wife when he called as she fed breakfast to their children. I held her up as she tried to understand his words and as she realized he wasn’t coming home that night.

I was in the stairwell of the 23rd floor when a woman cried out to Me for help. ‘I have been knocking on the door of your heart for 50 years!’ I said. ‘Of course I will show you the way home – only believe in Me now.’

I was at the base of the building with the Priest ministering to the injured and devastated souls. I took him home to tend to his Flock in Heaven. He heard my voice and answered.

I was on all four of those planes, in every seat, with every prayer. I was with the crew as they were overtaken. I was in the very hearts of the believers there, comforting and assuring them that their faith has saved them.

I was in Texas, Virginia, California, Michigan, Afghanistan. I was standing next to you when you heard the terrible news. Did you sense Me?

I want you to know that I saw every face. I knew every name – though not all know Me. Some met Me for the first time on the 86th floor.

Some sought Me with their last breath. Some couldn’t hear Me calling to them through the smoke and flames; ‘Come to Me… this way… take my hand.’ Some chose, for the final time, to ignore Me. But, I was there.

I did not place you in the Tower that day. You may not know why, but I do. However, if you were there in that explosive moment in time, would you have reached for Me?

Sept. 11, 2001, was not the end of the journey for you. But someday your journey will end. And I will be there for you as well. Seek Me now while I may be found. Then, at any moment, you know you are ‘ready to go.’

I will be in the stairwell of your final moments.

-Jesus

Our scripture this morning asks, “Who do people say that I am?”  I would answer, Emmanuel, God with us, through our suffering, through the terror, through the pain.  The One who gives strength and courage both to the first responders on 9-11 and on United Flight 93 and gives us all the power and audacity to lose our lives in order to gain something far greater.

There’s this story from the Vietnam War that my dad told in every church he was appointed to when I was growing up, and I would look forward to it each time.  During the war, some stray artillery rounds landed in an orphanage, wounding several children.  One was a nine year old girl who lost a lot of blood and was barely alive.  Nearby there were some American forces who dispatched a Navy doctor and nurse to help the children.  They went to work first on the young girl who was in shock and needed an immediate blood transfusion to save her life.  To get a donor, the doctor and nurse called together a group of unharmed children and in their broken Vietnamese and limited French they explained to the orphans that someone would have to give blood to help save the little girl’s life.

At first nothing but stares came from the frightened children.  Then a small hand went up in jumpy hesitation, then down again, then up again, it was the hand of a ten-year-old boy. The nurse asked him his name and he said, Heng.

He was immediately placed on a cot; and his blood drawn for a compatibility test.  For example, O positive, O negative, A positive, A negative, etc.  They amazingly were a match.

Then the transfusion started from him to the little girl. Heng soon broke into crying that grew into deep sobs.  “Is it hurting, Heng?” asked the nurse. He shook his head no, but went into deep sobs and began to shake. Soon he was a flood of tears.

The medical team became nervous and thought something was wrong.  At that moment a Vietnamese nurse arrived on the scene. She quickly spoke to him in his own language. After answering several questions between sobs, she whispered to him and he became calm and the crying faded away.

Turning to the American medics, the nurse said in a low voice: “He thought he was going to die.  He was under the impression that you needed all his blood, and that he would have to die to help save the little girl’s life.”

The amazed doctor asked, “How could he possibly have the guts to do that?”

The Vietnamese nurse turned and asked the little boy.

He simply said, “Because she is my friend.”

Great sacrifice doesn’t come without risks.   Risk we must, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.  The person who risks nothing does not live.  Because to LIVE – fully, richly, abundantly – you have to risk.

My family loved to play RISK, the game of world domination, pre-kids.  The last time we played my mom had to keep Enoch who was 6 months old at the time, from eating the pieces.  My favorite RISK story was from my parents in seminary.  As Dad told it, he was up late playing RISK with a group of seminarians and this one guy stood up from the table and said, “What does it profit you if you gain the whole world, but lose your souls?” and slammed the door.  That must have been some game!

We are people who straddle two worlds. We have one foot in the physical realm that is saturated by sinful human nature, systems, and institutions. As Christians, we have another foot in the unseen kingdom of God, where we claim that our true citizenship lies in Christ our King. The call of discipleship is to be willing, as much possible, to sacrifice our foothold in this world. That includes our status and position, and the worldly treasures of all kinds that we’ve amassed of ourselves. Jesus’ invitation to take up our cross means being willing to take on the absolute lowliest position in the entire empire in opposition to the sinful powers that be.

Sacrificing our place in the world also includes sacrificing our worldly sense of identity or self. Jesus’ description of losing one’s life to gain it can be translated, maybe more accurately, as losing one’s self (Greek is psyche which in the ancient world was the difference between a living person and a dead one — the soul/spirit/self). That means we no longer identify ourselves and our value by the way that the worldly empire defines those things. Instead, we search for our true selves whose value comes from Jesus’ body and blood sacrificed for us. Being a disciple means continually trying to cut the ties we’ve built with the empire of the world.

When you cut those ties, whether of addiction, consumerism, ambition, or the other world-enticing sins, don’t get discouraged or dismayed when the Enemy attacks.  All you have to do is to call on the name of Jesus.  Ann Voskamp writes that she sings hymns, “When the enemy attacks with lies, when I feel alone and scared, when I fear the future and whispers in the shadows. It’s what my mother-in-law, a Dutch farmer’s wife and mother of nine, godly and with these big calloused work hands, said to do. What she told me once hunched over this row of peas we were picking out in a June twilight: “It’s what my mother said, Ann: When it is hardest — that is when you sing the loudest. The devil flees at a hymn.” At the last, when the cancer wound tighter, folks would ask how she was — and my father-in-law would say, “Good! She’s singing all the time.” And we knew how hard it was — and how good she knew He is.”

Indeed, God is good and our God is a God that is with us, who took on flesh in the form of Jesus.  Jesus warned us especially in this passage that we would have to deny ourselves and take up our crosses.  BUT WE DON’T DO IT ALONE.

I love the poems in Alive Now by Roberta Porter. This one is called simply “Gift.”

It is no small gift to be a faith community,
to worship, to witness,
to walk the way of love
in the name and strength of Jesus.
And in community,
When brokenness and sorrow come,
those in need are surrounded
with prayer and compassion.
Our caring goes beyond ourselves,
and the stranger, in many places,
Is touched
by the healing love and grace of God.

In our failures, in our busy forgetting,
we are forgiven, renewed
to continue to be the hands and feet of Christ –
no small task,
no small gift.

The world will see our Jesus by our witness and by our community.  It’s imperative that we take up our crosses every day AND show the world God’s tangible love for them.  We have to let it bleed and infect all of our lives.  Nothing is off limits.  James 1:22-24 says, “22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, ongoing away, immediately forget what they were like.”

Be authentic.  Be real.  Be honest.  Say and know, you’re not perfect, and invite them into your life so that they see the little reassurances God gives us along the way – the person that says something and God’s speaking through their voice, the song that happens to come on the radio or the itunes shuffle at just the right time, the passage of scripture we happen to read…it doesn’t just “happen.”  Be the hands and feet of Jesus.  Go and take it to the world and rock it. Claim it.  Let your life of faith be a testimony.  Live your faith out loud.  And remember to be grateful not only to our first responders who put themselves in harm’s way for each of us, nor for their families, but the One who gave the greatest sacrifice, Jesus, so that we, and those lives lost, could have eternal life.

I will close with these words of Mr. Rogers.  “When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.”  To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”  Jesus says come, take up your cross and follow me.  John 15:12-13, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Do we love the world that much that we’re willing to lay down on our lives?  God did.

 

Phonic Books & Flash Cards

I don’t hesitate where my kids’ education is concerned.  I will buy any amount of Fancy Nancy or Dick and Jane or Pinkalicious or Star Wars phonic books  on Amazon Prime.  I will buy any sight word flash cards.  ANYTHING to make Evy a strong reader.  I have heard since we were married that when Mike moved to South Carolina from Alabama, the South Carolina schools were a year behind. It’s clear that the schools here in Mt. Pleasant are a little further ahead than the schools our kids were at in Florida.  When you move to a different school, sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes you’re behind.

Mike and I help them both with their homework and it takes patience to work with either of them.  They go too fast and make careless mistakes, or get tired and don’t try, or get frustrated and don’t try, or give up and don’t try, or make excuses and don’t try, or get tired and feel like they can’t try anymore.  We give them all the tools and resources and they KNOW they need to learn it.  They know they need to practice.  They know they need to keep trying.  They know there’s no playing indefinite hooky.  We’ve explained that very extensively.  But it’s hard to learn to read.  Its hard to learn multiplication. They both have to practice, practice, practice to catch up and it’s a hard thing not to give the answers to them, not to sound it out for Evy.   It’s hard not to give the answers to her, not to sound it out for her.  For our children, we would move heaven and earth to do anything for them.  There’s nothing more frustrating/heart wrenching/miserable to a parent than not being able to help their children.

As I teach her about walking with Jesus, I told her on Sunday night that you can talk to him any time you want, when you’re frustrated or embarrassed at school, when you’re feeling alone or misunderstood, he can help you.  I then told her what so many of us need to here.  You’re enough.  You’re kind enough.  You’re smart enough.  You’re enough.  She buried her head in my shoulder and began to cry.  She needed to hear that.  She needed to know we’re always in her corner no matter what and she matters to the great God of the universe.  Mostly she needed to know she was loved.

It’s a both/and.  God must be so frustrated with us, God’s children, when we don’t learn, when we give up and don’t try.  Because obviously we want our children to not only to succeed, but to flourish.  The definition of “flourish” is to “grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment.”  God wants all of us to flourish.  God wants the best for us.  God wants us to know from the tops of our head to the tips of our toes that we are enough.

But, we have to practice.  We have to practice loving people that are different from us.  We have to practice taking that extra couple of steps to help someone.  We have to practice reaching out as a church to a world that’s hurting and busy beyond their means.  We have to practice being salt and light, in the world, but not of it.  Just as Evy has to practice her reading and Enoch has to practice his multiplication, we have to practice living as followers of Jesus Christ.  Phonic books and flashcards may help, but we have to DO.  Knowing and trusting that when we fail, God’s grace is enough.  But we have to TRY.  Or we’re selling ourselves short and not reaching out and stretching ourselves to be who God created us to be.  God wants us to reach our full potential just as we want Enoch and Evy to reach their full potential.  How is God calling you to practice your faith?  What is God calling you to practice?  It sometimes will be hard.  You may fall and scrape your knees, but God’s going to be right there when that happens and we as your community will be right there with you to pick you up and dust you off.  God doesn’t want us to suffer or struggle.  God wants to give us good and abundant gifts, as we as parents, but we and God can’t do it for our children.  God gives us the free will to choose how we spend our time.  God gives us the tools and the resources but we have to make the choice to ACT for ourselves.

I’m going to close with this “Prayer for Empowerment” by Kathleen Fischer.

Creator and Healer, you dwell closer to us than the air we breathe, yet far surpass all we know.

We bless you for the stunning beauty of your cosmos, the gifts you unendingly give.

Forgive us our failure to be grateful and to trust you.

Fill our hearts with your courage, and our minds with your vision of what we might become.

Free us from fear of the dark unknown spaces where you give birth to new possibilities.

You are a God of adventure, and you took a great risk in creating us.

Empower us to become the community of which your heart dreams.

Amen.

Are you there God, it’s us…

A beautiful picture by Robin Morren
When I was growing up there was a popular book called “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” by Judy Blume. It’s a classic. Seriously.

It’s been one of those days where you want to ask something along the lines of – is this ever going to be easy? Is there ever going to be a catch up day or a normal day? Why are we all here? What is this God-thing or Gospel that we believe and we’re to share with the world?

Two veins have been turning over in my mind. The first is that of theodicy (why bad things happen) and Providence and God’s will and the second is looking at the crud and muck of life and why sometimes we get so much flack and have to “battle” through to another day.

I wasn’t going to write a blog in the midst of this pondering, but when Casting Crowns “If We’ve Ever Needed You,” Natalie Grant’s “Held,” and Laura Story’s “Blessings,” come up in a row and you’re wrestling with these questions, you begin to feel a nudge saying maybe I should pay attention to this.

This summer I watched the Gamecocks win their second National Championship in baseball and I listened to them throughout the season and especially in that series say the word “battle” about a gazillion times. They talked about the battle that you have to go through to persevere and get through to the other side. They talked about all of the challenges and adversity they faced. They talked about the faith they had even in the midst of the really tough times. If you’re a Gamecock fan you know the battle of which they speak. If you’re not one, you probably think the rest of us are the most masochistic fans ever.

Sometimes it truly feels like one step forward and three steps back. Sometimes that one step forward is huge and it could have been the hardest thing you ever did. Sometimes it feels like you’re talking to God and you’re trying….praying, reading, listening, crying out, and it seems like no one’s there. It’s an “Are you there God, it’s me….” moment. It’s like – are you with me, God? Do you see this? Do you feel this? Do you know what’s happening? Do you know how hard, frustrating, angering, devastating, debilitating this is? Are you with us???

And there are days when we just don’t feel it. There are times when we may want to throw in the towel and say I’m done. There are times when I want to shut down and just not do or be or think or plan or respond to anything. There are times as a pastor and hearing people’s questions and doubts and worries and fears that even I’m gut checking to see what this whole faith thing is all about.

Because that’s the thing. No matter how much battle there is, no matter how much crud the world tosses at us, we have claim and know that God is there. God is here. God knows our heartache and our fears. God doesn’t just hover in a distance but God rejoices with us and also mourns with us. God is there in our suffering. God is there when we cry out. God is there when we’re tired and we’ve had enough. And God brings people and places and songs and sights and sounds and emails and telephone calls and shooting stars and silly jokes and lightning bolts into our lives when we need them so that we draw closer to God and we know for sure and for real that God is with us.

In a week where so many have experienced tragedy, where so many are struggling with friendships and classes and life questions and broken relationships, it’s sometimes hard for us to trust and to hope and to see any rhyme or reason. And sometimes it’s not yet the time or the place and we are shoving fingers in our ears because we don’t want to hear it. There’s such anger and grief and feelings of abandonment that a loving and merciful God could let such things happen. As there should be. The thing about the God we serve – the God of the scriptures is that God is a big God and can handle our anger, our tears, our crying out – all of the words or screaming that we want to use. The Psalms are chock full of people crying out. There aren’t too many Bible stories where someone didn’t question God somewhere along the way. Always in the midst even when we don’t feel it, God is faithful.

It’s not always the time or place to bring up verses about “beauty from ashes” and “for such a time as this” because that can sound trite and cliche and not helpful at all at the time. Sometimes the most loving and grace-filled thing to do is just sit and be present. To listen and love. To care and comfort. Not always with words but with love – tangible, real – prayers and presence. We may not understand why. We may not know the answers. We may not have the perfect thing to say. But we trust and pray and hope that God will continue even in the midst of the most terrible of circumstances to continue to bring mercies anew each day. We rest in the hope that we have someone we can always run to and someone we can always cry out to. We believe and feel the grace knowing that this life and this world is not the end but that the kingdom of God is alive and well in the already and not yet and that nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

May God answer us. May when we seek, we find; we knock, the doors opened; we ask, we receive. May we know and reach and grasp and cling to the love of God that is right there for each of us.

Romans 8:38-39 “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”