Our Stories

I preached this at Point Hope UMC this morning.  They were very gracious to me and we had a delicious lunch after church that Mike and the kids have raved about all afternoon.  Thanks for being with me on this crazy journey called life.  I want you to share your stories  with me too!  ‘Cause we’re not meant to do this life alone.  Amen?

Psalm 77

1I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me.

2In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.

3I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah

4You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.

5I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.

6I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit:

7“Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?

8Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?

9Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

10And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

11I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old.

12I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.

13Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?

14You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples.

15With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah

16When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.

17The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side.

18The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.

19Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.

20You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Some of you may be wondering what on earth is this preacher doing using a Psalm as her text on her first Sunday.  The Psalms get to the heart speak.  They get down deep, to the nitty gritty.  They’re full of real people celebrating their Good Shepherd and crying out desperately to God.  Both the mountaintops and valleys, the fullness of the human experience, is captured in the Psalms.

Let me tell you a story.  In my previous appointment I went to Costa Rica for a Spring Break mission trip in 2013 with Pura Vida Ministries.  Listen to their mission statement: “We exist to transform lives by providing Christ-centered, life-changing mission adventures.  We believe that following Jesus is Not an Event, but a Life!”  Not an event, but a life.  Not an event, but a life.  I believe that.  You will hear in my messages and hopefully see in my life a fervent desire to live our faith out loud, no matter the storms or challenges.  They had different merchandise you could buy with “Not an event, but a life” so I brought back a mousepad for my office, not knowing then that I would have my second brain surgery later that May.

At a conference in Winchester, VA I had my first seizure.  It was 2010 and I was 30 at the time.  I was diagnosed with a brain tumor that they removed most of two weeks later.  My tumor has a Harry Potter spell-like pronunciation to it – an oligodendroglioma. I had no complications or deficits after surgery.  I mean I had a tube coming out of my head with a blood bulb that I would put in the pocket of my hospital gown when I went to the bathroom but you go through what you have to.  I had the surgery on Friday and I was out on Sunday.  My son Enoch had just turned 3 and Evy was 1;58969_656598733737_2486331_n

so I recuperated at my brother Josh’s house.  I was back home and at work the next Thursday, less than a week later, easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.

I remember writing on the prayer request card from Pura Vida at the end of the trip that I would have an MRI the following Monday.  The MRI unfortunately showed the tumor had grown and so I began sharing with people that I would have a second surgery.  I thought it would be like the first surgery, so I agreed to do a wedding 3 weeks later and was set to do a workshop in Chicago that June and set to preach at camp for a week in July.  Unlike the first surgery where I had no complications, when I woke up I could understand everything the nurses, doctors, and my family were saying but I had lost my ability to speak.  The doctors and speech therapists call it apraxia.  Apraxia is the inability to execute learned purposeful movements, despite having the desire and the physical capacity to perform the movements. Oh, I had the desire in spades.  In other words, the words were still there but the ability to form sentences was broken, non-existent.

The tumor is on the motor cortex, that’s why they didn’t get it all the first time, so I had no feeling in my right arm or hand, and I’m right-handed.  I texted these words to my husband, Mike, with my left hand over two weeks later, “The quickness with which I speak comes back?”  It took me 45 minutes to text that.  I did 30 radiation treatments, 6 months of chemo, physical, occupational, and speech therapy over that year and then I went to the Ukraine to speak at a conference, but that is another sermon.

I’ve learned to rely on God because I HAVE to.  I am an independent, non-conformist person mixed with a perfectionistic people pleaser and I ALWAYS relied heavily on my communication skills.  I didn’t know how much until I couldn’t rattle off a prayer or answer a theological question or explain simple things to my kids or preach without a manuscript, or even the little things.  I used to carry around a small calendar in my purse to jot stuff down in, I used to type x number of words a minute, I used to love to send handwritten notes to people.  The ease and what came naturally to me before was lost and I still sometimes grieve that loss.  It’s okay to grieve.  God is with us when we mourn.  God promises to bring joy in the morning, so I went back to preaching in June.  I could read things and I reused every sermon that I had full manuscripts for that summer.  My oncologist, who I met with more frequently that first year and now at least every 3-4 months, was an older man who was all business and had a wry sense of humor.  Dr. Stahl always asked me if I was still preaching every week and I would always say yes.  He doesn’t know, by him asking me that question every time that I’m just stubborn, bull-headed and tenacious enough to see that as a challenge and with God’s strength, to make it happen!  He wrote this to me when he found out as I was moving, “It has been a privilege and a pleasure to have you as a patient-You have remarkable courage and determination-both of which have you served you well.”

We at the time had services every Sunday at 11 and every Wednesday night at 8:30 and shared in communion each time and it was a challenge to say the least.  A number of things helped me get through that time great students and other church members, Gator Wesley had been a local church and our older members sent me cards of encouragement almost every day, my speech therapist being patient and pushing me and saying your brain will rewire itself, songs like “Lord I Need You,” movies like “Rise of the Guardians” talking about what is your center and having faith even when you cannot see and “The Legend of Bagger Vance” talking about each of us has one, true, authentic swing, when I didn’t feel confident in my own voice, and y’all’s prayers, cards, and prayer shawls from around the United Methodist connection.  When I didn’t have the strength or the words or even the desire, on the dark nights of the soul, God was faithful.  When my primary care doctor said to me that September, I don’t think this brain tumor’s going to kill you, let’s get you healthy and strong, God was working through her to give me the hope that I needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  God can and does use us to be lights in a world full of darkness.  I knew then and I know now that God is with me every step of the way, continuing to strengthen me for the journey.  How do I know?  God gives us proof.   The little reassurances along the way – the person that says something and God’s speaking to me 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 I happen to read that morning…it doesn’t just “happen.”  It’s a God thing.  Claim it.  Know it.  Trust it.  Be the person that Mother Teresa emulated as she said, “I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”

God is ever present reminding me I am enough even when I don’t have the words.  I am worthy even when I don’t have the answers.  I can claim my inheritance by simply resting in the surety that I am a child of God.  We all can.  We are all worthy and enough.  If I have learned anything over the past 6 years is it’s not enough to just merely have these quick fix Jesus highs, these Psalms of praise alone – no matter how great they are – because they won’t sustain you when the ship hits the sand or when the rubber hits the road and you’re left bereft.  Developing a real, in depth relationship with Jesus will.  Developing a faith that lasts and is rooted and grounded in scripture will.  A verse, a song lyric, a prayer….When the storms of life are raging, I know where my hope is and that is in Christ alone.  We sang the hymn, “In Christ Alone” at Annual Conference in 2011, one year after the first surgery, and we sang it just now before the sermon.  It’s a song that means very much to me, especially the last verse.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

At a retreat a year after the second surgery, the facilitator asked us to write questions on 3 cards.  They were to be questions where we needed the Holy Spirit to intercede, questions that were rolling around our heads but we had never articulated.  Then we were to paint and cut out pictures from magazines for each card without seeing what questions were on the back.  So I went to a place by myself and I invited the Holy Spirit to come by lighting a candle and I wrote these questions:

1.  What do I need more of in my life?
What do I need to embrace? 
Question 1

2.  What obstacles of the joy God wants for me do I consciously or subconsciously allow to hinder me from experiencing that joy? Question 2

3.  What do I need to let go?  Why am I so afraid to share my story?  Question 3

I went through the cards and picked colors and themes as I felt the Spirit leading me to.  Despite my skepticism, this activity ended being one of the most powerful practices that I have ever experienced.  I had gotten so caught up in my designs and cutting anything out that struck me that I had completely forgotten the original questions.

The answer to the first question was this: written in pencil “In Christ Alone, cancer, and colors.   I needed to embrace my cancer.  I was a cancer survivor.  And I need to place my trust “in Christ alone.”  Even the part about the skin was pointing to me embracing myself.  I had the dot tattoo so they could line me up to do my radiation and I had the scars from both the surgeries, but in the back of my mind I was still hiding.Image 1

We had been singing “In Christ Alone” during this retreat and when I shared that piece of my story later when all of us were sharing, we sang that as a closing song, which brought me to healing, relieving tears, like I let go of a burden.  The second question was this picture.  I look at this picture, I feel peace and beauty, and I needed more of that in my life after the year I had so I made a commitment to make room for beauty and positive and calming messages, so that’s why my office and home are decorated in such ways.Image 2

The last question of “What do I need to let go?” was the safe question.  God was leading me to ask what I really needed.  And the Holy Spirit was so loud in me, that I scribbled down the last question. It was surprising to me because I try to be real and authentic in all aspects of my life.  That’s why I created the blog in 2010. I didn’t want to actually talk about my blog or anything that I wrote.  And it was self-preservation and a bit of laziness to be sure because it was a  way to share with my family, friends, students and the communities that raised me and fed me and are praying with me something I couldn’t say out loud.  It was to share authentically with the world what was going on with me.  It was a way to update everyone at once with what was going on inside my head.  I rarely re-read and edit.  So this question was surprising to me.  But Proverbs 3:5-6 says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  It struck me as I was writing this sermon that I use “afraid.”  And I think that is telling.  I admit now I was afraid and I am afraid of being misunderstood, of losing my words, of not being in control…but as 1 Timothy 1:7 says God does not give us a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and love.  God doesn’t call us to be silent, God calls to be bold and step out in faith and God will give us the words to speak. Image 3

Everything.  I needed to let go of everything.  And I felt safe in the arms of Mike in it all, but more than that I felt like God had and is protecting me from the storm.  God was creating the perfect shelter, an eye in the hurricane.  God was also giving me a clear message with these cards.  I needed to share my story, integrating the cancer, no matter how hard, personal, and vulnerable.

 I’ve claimed the words of Isaiah 41:8-10 (NRSV) But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; 10 do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

Bob Goff in his book Love Does says, “I once heard somebody say that God had closed a door on an opportunity that they hoped for.  But I’ve always wondered if, when we want to do something that we know is right and good, God places that desire deep in our hearts because He wants it for us and it honors Him.  Maybe there are times when we think a door has been closed and, instead of misinterpreting the circumstances, God wants us to kick it down.  Or perhaps just sit outside of it long enough until somebody tells us we can come in.”

God wants us to dream large God-sized dreams.  God wants us to sometimes kick doors down.  God wants to give us a future with hope.  As Jeremiah 29:11-14 says, “11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”  Or as it is in 1 Corinthians 2:9, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  Or as it is in Ephesians 3:20, “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.”

We’re not meant to walk this road alone.  I want to walk with you and hear your stories so that in the mountain tops and the valleys, we can share with one another, come alongside one another, praying for each other, being church with one another.  It’s a crazy cool relay race in the United Methodist Church’s system of itineracy.  Joe passed Walter the torch. Walter passed me the torch and I am ever grateful for that torch and the care in which he handed it off.  In 1 Corinthians 3:6, “Paul wrote, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”   The earth is fertile here at Point Hope and God is indeed in your midst making things grow and making all things new.  I trust God to rock our socks off!  That’s the beautiful and crazy gift of having life in Christ.  You follow where God has called you, no matter that you’re too old to have kids, like Abraham, no matter if you’re a prostitute, like Rahab, no matter the speech impediment like Moses, no matter if you don’t want to, like Jonah, no matter if you’re left in a foreign land with your mother in law, like Ruth…and that’s just the Old Testament.  The Bible is chock full of stories about God doing extraordinary things with ordinary people.  God didn’t stop writing stories two thousand years ago.  I’m reminded of the Big Daddy Weave song that weaves in the hymn “This is my story, this is my song.”  The lines are

 If I told you my story
You would hear hope that wouldn’t let go
If I told you my story
You would hear love that never gave up
If I told you my story
You would hear life but it wasn’t mine

If I should speak then let it be

Of the grace that is greater than all my sin
Of when justice was served and where mercy wins
Of the kindness of Jesus that draws me in
To tell you my story is to tell of Him

We all have a story and when we take a moment in our busy lives to catch our breath and let the God that came and dwelt among us have room in our lives, we create room for God to share with us.  If you’re thinking you don’t have a story, ask God and God will reveal your story.  Or if the problem is not you not knowing, but getting it out or just not telling it, than Marianne Williamson says it this way, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be.  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”  Let your light shine that the world may see and know.  If we all share our lights together – we will – with God’s strength – rock their socks off!

I had no idea before the age of 30 that my story would include a brain tumor, but I know I have life, indeed abundant life in Christ.  Not just surviving but thriving. Too often I hear that we’ve just got to get through high school or college or grad school or we have to get our first job or get married or have children or retire to figure out what in the heck to do with our lives, but God doesn’t want us to let life pass us by so that we’re only barely surviving. God wants us to thrive.  Jesus didn’t come so we could have a complacent life.  He came for us to have abundant life.

I want each of us to be a part of God’s larger. Broader story, in our own particular way, with our own spiritual gifts, strengths or weaknesses that God works for good.  Look under your chair, some of you might have peeked already, and that’s perfectly okay.  This is to basically sum up my sermon and it was made by one of my favorite artists Suzanne Vinson.  Here’s the full quote from Frederich Buechner.

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

I would like you to take this with you.  Keep it in your wallet or in your dashboard or on your bathroom mirror.  Let it be a reminder that nothing can separate you from the love of God and God’s abundant grace, and though beautiful and terrible things will inevitably happen, we are not to fear, because we know the One who spoke things into existence, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen.  Let us pray.

*  Music that I was listening to while I wrote this sermon.  TobyMac “Move” Hawk Nelson  “Drops in the Ocean” “Lord I Need You”  Lauren Daigle “Trust In You” Sidewalk Prophets “Prodigal” Ryan Stevenson “The Eye of the Storm” Aaron Shust“Ever Be” Hollyn “Alone”

 

 

 

 

 

Tears

Annual Conference this year was both a whirlwind and a marathon.  Busy-ness or business was everywhere and it was both challenging and inspiring, a call to action and a test of will as we waited/persevered to the end.

I’m starting to think I’ve become more and more emotional as I grow older.  There were several times over this past week when I felt tears come to my eyes.  Some of those times were times of happiness and thanksgiving – feeling the Spirit move as Telley preached at Annual Conference, Josh’s ordination, the prayerful and powerful way our South Carolina delegation laid hands on Dad and prayed over him after unanimously deciding he would be our episcopal nominee.  There were so many great moments from the teaching to the preaching to the videos shared like this:

It was also a great time to camp out for Imagine No Malaria and to train some amazing Students In Mission (SIM) to commit their summers to being in mission = ministry with.  Much to be joyful about!

Sometimes the tears were both thankful and a little bit of just overwhelming gratitude.  It was surreal being back at Annual Conference this year.  Last year, I came in for two days right before the brain surgery and although some probably thought I was insane for coming, for me, it was my church.  The conference – both lay and clergy – are our people and that’s where we as a body share our joys and concerns.  I didn’t realize going into this how much being back at conference would bring up for me in terms of last year’s struggle.

We sang the song, “In Christ Alone” during the opening worship and those words and all of us a large body singing together was such a powerful witness and testimony to the love and providence of God.  (A video and lyrics are below.)  I’m glad we also sang this song during the ordination.  What a powerful song for our commissioned members and ordinands.

My mom’s birthday is June 11th and the brain surgery (left frontal craniotomy) was on her birthday last year.  There’s a part of me that would love to forget that date and not have any mark or reminder of it.  There’s another part of me that knows that it was everyone’s prayers and the grace of God that brought me through and it should be celebrated.  Don’t know which one is winning yet.  The jury is still out.  I get teary just typing about it.  Does that mean I haven’t fully dealt with it yet?  Could be.  Too soon?  Maybe, but not entirely.  Does that mean that was a mucho grande big deal and it’s still crazy to me that all of that happened a year ago and wasn’t just a bad dream?  Yes.  It’s hard to believe that that was me and if I didn’t have my lovely scar that I worry about getting sunburned, I might forget.

It’s hard to process things.  There’s a certain grief and emotion that swells up when you least expect it sometimes.  And it happens to all of us.  I was sitting in the Memorial Service for ministers that have gone to be with God over the past year on Mom’s birthday on the anniversary of my brain surgery and I just couldn’t do it.  I got through the sermon but the slide show of the pictures just did me in.  It’s always been a powerful service to me since in my mind the South Carolina Annual Conference is my home/my church and I know that one day there will be a service for each of us.  And there goes a Sandi Patti song and slides of the pastor that helped during my Gandaddy’s funeral and I have to head on out.  Even in the midst of the thanksgiving for life, even in the midst of the joy of the swelling of the Spirit, even in the midst of realizing that nothing can pluck any of us from God’s hand – there’s still both the realization that something really scary and really serious happened and a something that’s even beyond the word thanksgiving that describes that depth of feeling behind all that could have been and is now.

As I think about those that have faced such devastation in the storms and floods this year, those that have lost loved ones, those that are facing moves and transitions, those that are searching for hope and a rock to lean on when it feels like the walls are closing in around you – I know that the great Comforter is at work in our world and is blowing, inspiring and surrounding us every step of the way.  I am grateful that it is in Christ alone our hope is found and that we will never be turned away from it.  It’s available to each of us.

What are you grieving today?  What are your struggles?  When’s the last time you felt that ground swell of emotion?  How do we see the Spirit at work in our world?  What are the fears and frustrations that we’ve held on to and not given over to God?  What are those buttons of grief that can be turned in to sources of joy in our lives?

We are given songs or videos or movies or sermons or scriptures or friends or emails or a beautiful tree or the melody of the ocean or the stillness and quiet to claim as our promise from God.  It’s there waiting for us.  May we open ourselves to the Word God would speak to us this day.  May we claim it and know it and feel it to the depths of our souls.  May we know and trust.

In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm

What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand

In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless Babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save

Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live, I live

There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave He rose again

And as He stands in victory
Sin?s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From a life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny

No power of hell, no scheme of man
Could ever pluck me from His hand
Til He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I stand

I will stand, I will stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground, all other ground
Is sinking sand, is sinking sand
So I stand