Beloved

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About a year ago a parishioner asked to see me after worship. We went into my office after most people had left and seemed nervous.

I have a lot of respect for this woman. When I first came to the church we met together and through tears she said, “I wanted to be a support to you. I really believe something special is happening and I want to be part of it.”

She wrote me notes through my divorce voicing love and support. In summertime she brings me beautiful flowers from her garden. She feels deeply, and is aglow with the spirit every time I see her.

She also carries struggle and hardship like any of us do. She wears her heart on her sleeve, but privately. She cries or laughs during sermons and I know it’s all genuine.

So here we were, alone in my office and she looks down at her hand. She told me that one day she was in a Christian Bookstore, and checking out next to the register was this small pile of rings. It almost called to her.

She bought this thin piece of silver with “Jesus”printed around it separated by the Jesus fish. It was on her finger and she was fiddling with it.

“I love this ring and I don’t want to give it up, I don’t know why, but God calling me to give it to you.”

I’ve been in this moment, I know what it’s like. God told me to do something but when I speak it out loud I worry that it would seem trite, or the person would reject my gift meaning I got the message wrong.

I took the ring, thanking her, I believed that she had a call to give it to me.

She told me that when she put it on each day she would just do it and walk out the door. Then she remembered that some days she would notice that she really needed God and would observe that “Jesus” was pointed at her so she could read it, and other days it was pointed outward so if she placed her hand out to another, they would be able to read “Jesus” and on these days she would pay attention on where others needed the love of God.

At that time in my life there was no question I needed Jesus. So I purposefully for a while put it on my hand facing me. Then I noticed slowly that I wasn’t paying as much attention in the morning, and sometimes it would face me and other days it would face the world. I remember my friend’s observation.

I would smile.

About a week ago God told me it was time to give my ring away. “no, I told God, I love this ring and I don’t want to give it up.”

I have been wearing it on my left hand ring finger, where my once wedding ring used to sit. I would wear it along with a ring my best friend gave me and it was a reminder that I was not alone, that I was someone’s beloved.

It reminded me, in the loneliest of moments that I belonged and was deeply loved. By friends and a community.

It’s been a week since God wrote on my heart a name of a woman who now needs it. I wish I could give it to her in person, but I will have to mail it, and this morning I asked for her address. I wanted to write this for two beautiful women today. One who God worked through to remind me I was beloved when I felt unlovable and one who God wants to know is lovable and beloved.

I pray she feels the sense of belonging I felt when wearing it. I pray that when she no longer needs it, even though that may not be until her dying day, that God will write on her heart who might need it next.

Thank you Kimbrea, I love you too. Rebecca, here you go sweetheart, I love you.

Answered Prayers

You’ve seen them- the commercials, the YouTube videos, Facebook posts- of the soldiers surprising their families, finally home after deployment. I admit, I can’t watch them. I cry uncontrollably.  I have to change the channel, leave the room, plug my ears. It’s too much.

I’ve thought long and hard about why this is, I’m not sure there is an answer or if there is there are those much more scientific than I to tell you, but here’s what I do know.

About a year ago we laid on hands and commissioned Captain Troy Modisette of the Army for deployment.  We also commissioned and laid on hands of his family- Debbie, Adam (now 17) and Alyssia (12). The Modisettes have been part of our church for a long time, are very active and beloved. Thankfully Troy was being deployed to a fairly peaceful post in Kuwait, but that did not make it any easier on him or his family. Anyone who has experienced or walked a family through deployment knows, there are hardly words to express the sadness and feelings of loss from everyday life.

I admit I did not know Troy well before his deployment, I had met him several times and he worked with our children and youth to send packages to soldiers at Christmas. I admit, though, we did have a special bond, one confirmed when he gave me one of his Beef Enchilada MREs (his favorite). Debbie and I, have become very close. I am thankful, although I could have done a lot more, that she took me seriously when I told her I was there for her and her children. I thought and prayed for all of them everyday of this last year.

We knew Troy’s deployment was ending soon, we knew that it could be anytime, but no later than March. Just knowing that made things a little (stress: a little) easier emotionally on his family, after Christmas we all began to witness the fog begin to clear, a little.  Thankfully Troy arrived home on Saturday. He surprised Adam at a tennis match and Alyssia at a restaurant. The stories, photos, and yes, video is beautiful. I cried, they capture feelings of pure joy and relief.

But the surprises weren’t over yet.

I was looking for Debbie in her Sunday School class last Sunday morning because I had a question to ask her. It was a holiday weekend and she wasn’t there, no biggie I guess (what, people take a day off… what?). Second service started and we were in the middle of announcements when the large doors of the church opened.

I saw Adam and Debbie and Alyssia. Then I saw a man in fatigues. I was shocked to say the least. The congregation’s eyes were forward so I managed to get out, “welcome home soldier!” I will never forget the look on Adam’s face as he knew he had “gotten me”. As they made their way forward (they always sit up front!) I tried to move on but couldn’t. I left the lectern, ran down the aisle and hugged them. The congregation clapped and cheered, I cried. (and am crying now just thinking about it).

As I reflect on the beauty of the moment I wonder if that family knows what they were saying to me and more importantly the church community when they included us in the surprise of welcoming Troy home. Some people don’t always understand why a church community is important, but Sunday morning the Modisettes witnessed that the love of God and the prayers of the community make us family. A family of God.

We care for one another, we love each other, and we hold each other dearly through pain, sorrow, and pure- overwhelming- ecstatic joy. Troy left his family in the care of our community and we answered the call- for him, his troop, and his family. For a year we have prayed for this family to be reunited. Any and all problems will not disappear or melt away, there is still a journey ahead and I will continue to hold them in prayer. But for now, I give great thanks and praise for answered prayers.

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Child of Blessing, Child of Promise

Last week was unco West, which meets at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Just like all other uncos (which is short for unconference) it was amazing, and I met people I wondered how I ever lived without and spent some time with the people that feed my soul.  At the end of the last worship we decided to give each other a blessing, with water. We remembered our baptism, washed away our shame, and blessed each other with abundance and permission. As a worship leader the bowl was started near me and I was privileged to be one of the last to be anointed.

So it’s my turn to go forward and I have been holding a 2 year old little girl. We do this at unco, rely on the community for everything, including entertaining each other’s children. It is church and community in the truest form. She and I have been playing for a while now and her mom is in front of us.  Kath turns around and anoints her daughter, a beautiful moment for everyone, but then this precious girl dips her fingers into the water and touches my forehead.

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I have baptized many children- all special, all sacred moments, all a privilege, but never have I received an blessing from a child. Not this way.

I have experienced the grace of both of my children, I have been anointed with bath water, spit-up and snot. I know that this little girl was simply mimicking what her mother did, but she did it. She touched my forehead with her tiny fingers and wiped that cold tap water on my head. She blessed me.

I have a lot to atone for in my life, enough shame to last 10 lifetimes- but in that moment- there was purity of joy, there was innocents in my arms and on my head. God came in that moment in the hands of a child and pushed me out of myself. Love is like that. That sweet girl through her fingers blessed me with innocence and grace.

May she (and I) grow to be a strong woman of faith and wisdom. In the name of all that is good and holy. Amen.

Can I get a Witness?

This sermon was preached on July 28, 2013 at Ashland Presbyterian Church, Hunt Valley, Maryland. I admit, I get lost when I write a sermon in narrative form (I usually preach from an outline). Actually that’s not true, I write a narrative or an outline and then I ignore them completely. So I tried to record it but somehow didn’t get it… So I’m posting the narrative because it was an important sermon in the life of our church and community, an opportunity to BE the Body of Christ in the world.

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Daniel 6:1-28

We don’t know much about the book of Daniel in all honesty.

We lift up Daniel and the Lion’s Den as something we teach our children, mainly. The bad King through Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Daniel prayed, and God saved Daniel.

Sound about right? Okay then, thank you…

Now, if we’re really good, we might know a little more about Daniel, that three chapters ago he and three friends refused to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar and were sentenced to deal by fiery furnace.

Daniel, got a stay of execution, but his friends- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not so lucky.

They were thrown into the furnace but were not consumed and as the king watched he saw 4 figures and the God of Israel is credited at saving them.

Daniel is found in our Bible in the section of the Old Testament called prophetic literature, but the style of the book of Daniel is actually what’s called “apocalyptic”. Think the book of revelation.

The stories take place during the Babylonian Captivity, although now scholars agree it was actually written in the 2nd century BCE (200 years before Christ).

And if you’re REALLY you might have remembering hearing chapter 7 with the vision of the great beasts, which comes up in lectionary every 3 years but no one ever reads it because it’s weird.

So let’s talk a little about what’s going on, the Book of Daniel is split into two parts, the first (ch. 1-6) is a narrative, story of Daniel, his friends, and relationships with the Kings.

The second (chapter 7-12) are a series of 4 visions Daniel has about Babylonian captivity.

The story begins with a brief reference to king Nebuchadnezzar robbing the Jerusalem temple and carrying its treasures back to Babylon.

It goes on to describe how some young members of the Judean nobility, including Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are inducted into the king’s service.

The book teaches the Jews in captivity of a foreign king, that it is possible to remain faithful to the God of Israel all the while serving an earthly king that is not sympathetic to your faith.

Which brings us to the story of the Lion’s Den.

Daniel has climbed the ranks in the Babylonian Empire; in fact he is now the third most powerful person in government position. He and the king have a good relationship, Daniel has proven himself not just politically to the king but also personally.

This cannot be said for the rest of the royalty of the Babylonians.

The other princes and persons in power to not look favorably on Daniel’s success, him being a foreigner and all.

So they scheme together and make a plan to get the king to declare a month of celebration and prayer to him, the king.

Now in polytheistic cultures, royalty and kings were considered god-like, so as the people prayed to multiple gods, this month of prayer devoted to the king would make it illegal to pray to any other God.

Including the God of Israel.

Daniel is aware of the decree, and was probably there when the king signed it into law. He is not ignorant, he knows exactly what this means.

Yet, Daniel does what a faithful follower does. He goes home, opens his window that faces toward Jerusalem and prays.

What’s interesting to me about this is that Daniel doesn’t go ingot the streets and protest, knowing for sure he would probably be killed. Daniel, as far as we know, doesn’t try to stop the law. He simply follows in his routine, following God’s will.

A trap has been set of course and those that wanted Daniel caught now have their proof. They run and tell the king that someone has broken his law and they should be punished.

“Absolutely, says the king, throw them in the lion’s den”

“Great, they say, because it’s Daniel”

This week we had a profound experience in the life of the church. For the last 6 months we have been praying for Rob, his recovery, and what might happen in court regarding his future and jail time.

Finally on Tuesday we would have our answer (and in case you are wondering, yes, I do have Rob’s permission to talk about this, although he asked permission not to be present).

Several of us (about 20) gathered at the District Court House in Towson to show our support and to show a judge that Rob had a strong community. What happened was amazing.

The king was ready to throw whoever had broken the law into jail, or honestly a fate worse than jail, the lion’s Den, certain death, and a slow and painful one at that. Until he found out it was Daniel.

The text tells us that the king spent the rest of the day trying to get Daniel acquitted because they were friends, he was a good man. The king didn’t want to hurt someone as good and faithful as Daniel.

Knowing Daniel, his story, seeing his humanity made all the difference to the king.

As we filed into the courtroom on Tuesday the judge was in recess. It was a small room and we filled the seats. I was standing off to the side with the Rob’s lawyer. And I started to pray.

I prayed that the judge’s heart would be softened. I prayed for love to surround Rob. I prayed for the spirit to move in this place.

When the judge entered everyone came forward and where I was standing I realized that the judge could not look at Rob without looking at me.

Now, those of you who were there were there were commenting because not only was Rob in a tie (Katie walked right by him) but I was in my collar! Which of course never happens.

I was very aware of my feelings at the moment and the prayers continued. The judge felt cold, harsh, as if decision had already been made. Or maybe that’s what I was simply anticipating.

The king was unsuccessful in trying to get a stay of execution for Daniel and the time came for him to enter the Lion’s Den. The king’s only words were “May the king you so faithfully serve deliver you!”

This was indeed the king’s prayer.

Daniel was thrown into a cage with a starved lion and left for dead.

The next morning the king reappears and tentatively called out for Daniel. And he answers. The text tells us the Lord had sent angels causing the lion’s mouth to close so he would be unharmed.

Something amazing happened on Tuesday in that courtroom. The proceedings lasted about a half hour, and it was a pray without ceasing moment. The judge was moved by the presence of community, we humanized Rob for the judge.

As the proceedings went on not only did the mood in the room lighten, but we could feel the spirit moving, grace and mercy were abundant.

There is no doubt that the judge was impressed and moved by the community and our being there made all the difference. The judge decided no jail time was necessary.

In the end when Rob thanked the judge he said, “thank your pastor, and these people.”

Now there is no doubt in our part in all this, but saying ‘we’ saved Rob is like thanking the lion for Daniel’s life. No, it was the will and the call of God that we responded to.

We responded in love, love which scripture tells us, all love- is from God.

All that was needed was a chance to witness to that love.

Daniel did it through prayer, discernment, and life. The king does it through advocacy, and even when he couldn’t change the other’s minds, he believes and is respectful of Daniel’s God. Even to the point of undoing an unjust law.

Through the Spirit, King Darius decrees:

“For he is the living God

and he endures forever;

his kingdom will not be destroyed,

his dominion will never end.

27 He rescues and he saves;

he performs signs and wonders

in the heavens and on the earth.

He has rescued Daniel

from the power of the lions.”

God is moving in this place, in the lives of others, and we pray to follow that spirit wherever she may go. We responded this week by witnessing the love of God in a courtroom, and it was a beautiful and profound experience for us all.

So how will we continue this week?

God delivers us from a fate worse than death, God delivers us from the mouth of the lion, and the cages- real or imaginary- this world puts us in. We cannot save each other, only God can do that.

We can stand up and be the love of Christ in the world for each other, we can witness to the world that God is love, that every one of us has a story, that God created us unique and we deserve the respect to have our stories heard.

So, where and to whom is God calling us next? It is not us who brings salvation, but the one, true and living God. And for that, we are truly thankful. Yet how and for whom will God call us to witness to next?

For Daniel it was to a king, for us it was to a judge, where else might the spirit lead? Friends, the possibilities are endless.

May it be so for you and for me… And all God’s people said, Amen.