Pouring Out Love

A Sermon for Sunday March 13, 2016 (Fifth Sunday of Lent), John 12:1-8

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the Gospel of John. I will be reading the New Revised Standard Version that we are accustomed to hearing. But I’ll be reading from this slightly battered navy blue Bible, which was presented to me during my installation at Colesville Presbyterian in Silver Spring, MD, the first church I served as a newly ordained minister and associate pastor.

This Bible was a gift from the head of staff, the Rev. Mike O’Brien, and his wife Pam. And on the inside cover, they wrote the following inscription:

 

May God bless you and walk with you in your ministry.

We love you!

Mike and Pam,

In honor of your installation

September 25, 2005

A little over a week ago, Rev. Mike O’Brien died at the age of 64 from the effects of radiation treatments for an aggressive brain tumor that he was diagnosed with in early January. Yesterday, family and friends gathered for a memorial service and burial in Massachusetts (where Mike had recently been serving as an interim pastor) to celebrate Mike’s life and witness God’s love in Christ Jesus. And so it only seems appropriate, as a way of honoring our work together long ago and his life and ministry, that I read the scripture from this Bible that he gave to me:

………………

John 12:1-8

1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Let us pray… (Prayer of Illumination)

……………………….

Since learning the news of Mike O’Brien’s death, my mind and heart has been flooded with memories of the three years I served alongside him at Colesville. I learned a lot from Mike about being a pastor in those early years of my ministry (when I was young, naive and didn’t have a clue about what I was doing). And what’s often popped in my mind are the hospital and home visits we made to church members; as the only two pastors in a congregation of 400, we did a lot of tag-team pastoral care.Photo 1-Mike O'Brien

One of Mike’s greatest strengths was caring for others when they were struggling deeply with something in their lives or when they were ill or even dying.  The amount of empathy, mercy and love this large, jovial man showered on them was generous as well as blind to the person’s faults or grievances they may have held for the church or us. It was always a blessing for me to witness such holy encounters.

I also recall snippets of several conversations we had about the meaning of life and death and the importance of serving God in the short time we have on this earth.  And I remember the central theme of the sermons he preached during Lent and Holy week: God’s call of us to pour out unconditional love on others in the midst of a broken world where Empire puts Divine love on a cross to die.

          In this morning’s story from John’s gospel, Mary—who lives with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus in the town of Bethany—answers this call to pour out love even though it will subject her to much scrutiny.

          During dinner with her siblings and Jesus and his disciples, Mary brings out an expensive perfume. She then kneels before Jesus and pours out the entire contents of the bottle onto Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair. The incredible fragrance lingers in the air long after the act is done, a free gift that is freely received by all who breathe in the air and the moment.

         f215aab6-32cc-4f6b-8da4-141e1e2f332a But in this act of anointing, Mary has broken four social customs of the day:  1) she has let down her hair in a room full of men, 2) she has poured perfume on the feet 3) she, a single woman, has touched a single man and 4) she wipes his feet with her hair.

Unlike the unnamed women in the gospels of Matthew and Mark who anoint Jesus’ head, and the notoriously sinful woman in Luke’s gospel who weeps over Jesus’ feet, Mary has been friends with Jesus for a long time.  She loves him and he loves her like a friend or sibling would cherish one another, which makes the anointing so much more bizarre and excessive and over the top.

            The scene bothers Judas so much that he angrily questions Mary’s extravagance; it is the only time he speaks in the gospel: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Jesus quickly brushes him aside because as everyone was already aware, Judas could care less about giving money to the poor. Judas became angry because he was greedy. He believed the money that Mary spent was wasted on Jesus feet when it could’ve made him a richer man.

Jesus tells Judas that if he truly cares about the poor then he will have plenty of opportunities to care and feed them for the rest of his life. But moments like the one they are currently experiencing are precious and fleeting because soon Jesus will no longer be of this earth.

           Mary knows and understands her rabbi’s fate. As soon as Jesus showed his power by raising Lazarus from the dead (in the previous chapter), Mary sensed that the religious authorities would turn him over to the Roman Empire to be killed. (Because in those days, the emperor Caesar, who considered himself to be god-like, didn’t tolerate those who would usurp his power, even Emmanuel.) In a sermon on this text, The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

“Whatever Mary thought about what she did, and whatever else in the room thought about it, Jesus took it as a message from God—not the hysteric ministrations of an old maid gone sweetly mad but the carefully performed act of a prophet. Everything around Mary smacked of significance—Judas, the betrayer, challenging her act; the flask of nard—wasn’t it left over from Lazarus’ funeral?—and out in the yard, a freshly vacated tomb that still smelled of burial spices, waiting for a new occupant. The air was dense with death, and while there may at first have been some doubt whose death it was, Mary’s prophetic act revealed the truth.”[1]

It’s also worth noting that Mary shares her lavish gift in plain view of others while Jesus is living whereas when Jesus dies, two men who are afraid to publicly express their faith will sneak out into the middle of the night to anoint the body for burial. 

Mary’s humble act also models discipleship. In the next chapter, Jesus will wash and wipe the feet of his disciples, telling them to care for another in the same way that he has cared for them. Mary comprehends what it means to be a disciple before Jesus even gives verbal instructions to the 12 men who have worked closely with him.[2]

          Because Mary knows, she anoints the Anointed.  She honors the gift that is Jesus—the God-in-the flesh that comes bearing mercy and hope for a world that desperately needs to be freed from its ruling powers and principalities. She takes care of Jesus just as Jesus has come to take care of humanity. She pours out love on the One who, in life and death, spills out love onto the entirety of creation.

             As Holy Week and the events of Christ’s suffering and death quickly approach, there may not be a more appropriate story for us to hear on this Fifth Sunday of Lent than Mary’s anointing of Jesus.  And, aside from Christ himself, there may not be a more important figure for us in our current socio-economical and political climate than Mary, who demonstrates what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

              What Mary does—pouring out love—is so intuitive and simple, and yet it is extremely difficult for a lot of people to emulate.

                Sadly, I don’t need to list examples for you of the awful things human beings say and do to one another in this country alone. Turn on the TV, check our social media feeds or walk down the street. We are constantly surrounded by the deep seeded hate and fear that some have for those who are different because of their economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religion, culture, country of origin and race.  And there’s no escape from the vitriol.

            But there’s also no way we can ignore what’s happening or become swept up into the bitterness and hostility. Dismissiveness, silence and meeting violence with violence (verbally and physically) is not an option for us as Christians. The only option we have, the one that God bestows on our hearts, is to love one another—the neighbor, the stranger, the broken, the marginalized, the oppressed—just as God has loved us. We are called again and again and again to pour out love.

That call to pour out love reminds us who we are and to whom we belong. That call inspires us to connect our faith with everyday life and it guides us in our ministry of building the beloved community of God.

                Sometimes acts of pouring out love are displayed in the same manner as Mary, like in 2013 when Pope Francis went to a detention center in Italy to wash and kissed the feet of young people, including two women one of whom was a Serbian Muslim. [3]

Photo 2-Pope Francis

Others are more modest gestures and random acts of kindness that can be found on at StayHumbleandKind.com, a website inspired by the hit country song Humble and Kind by Tim McGraw—stories like[4]:

 

Photo 3-Feeding Homeless

Yoel Correa of Atlanta who, despite living paycheck to paycheck, sets aside money every week so that once a month he can buy food from a restaurant and feed the homeless out of his car.

 

Photo 4-Giving ShirtA passenger on a subway train in New York who gave his hat and T-shirt to a shivering man who was shirtless and looked sick at a time when temperatures in Manhattan were near freezing.

Photo 5-Talking

A young man who bought a homeless man named Chris a coffee and a bagel at Dunkin Donuts and then asked him to share his story. They talked for a couple of hours as Chris explained how folks are usually mean to him because he’s homeless, how drugs ruined his life and how he lost his mom to cancer. When the young man had to leave to get to a class, Chris gave him a note on a crumped up receipt, which said: “I wanted to kill myself today. Because of you, I now do not. Thank you beautiful person.”

Photo 6-Handing out MoneyA man in east Nashville who handed out money at numerous bars, grocery stores and pizza joints. One store employee said, “I know one lady, he put down a $50 before she paid for groceries and she seemed like she was really overwhelmed and a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, it’s just a blessing, this is just like an answered prayer today.”  The same employee also received $20 from the man who they said was in a hurry and didn’t have much to say. “He was just like, ‘I’m giving my money away.’”

             When we pour out love on another human being like these folks have done, we honor Christ and the gift that is each and every person and life is in this world. When we pour out love, we boldly proclaim that the everlasting, sacrificial and faithful love of God in Christ Jesus can never be overcome by fear, hate and violence.

             It is a challenge, of course, to pour out love when we are incessantly worried about the state of our country and world. I’ve been agonizing lately about how we are hell bent on destroying one another and my powerlessness to change it.  But last week I saw a quote on social media that assured me that we can overcome this fear and make the world a better place:

Photo 7-Love Others

“If the state of our nation is terrifying you, PLEASE love your neighbors, befriend someone who you suppose is too different from you, be irrationally friendly to whoever you consider the other.”

             Let us be model disciples of Christ like Mary and pour out love, lavishly and abundantly on our neighbors and anyone who is deemed “other.”  We won’t always do it perfectly or consistently. There will be mountains to climb. But may always stay humble and kind:

Amen.

[1] The Prophet Mary, sermon by The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Piedmont College and Columbia Seminary. John 12:1-8, 5th Sunday of Lent-Year C, March 21, 2010.

[2]  The ideas in this paragraph and the one preceding come from Encounters With Jesus: Studies In the Gospel of John by Frances Taylor Gench, 2007. Westminster John Knox Press.

[3] The Telegraph, March 28, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/the-pope/9960168/Pope-washes-feet-of-young-Muslim-woman-prisoner-in-unprecedented-twist-on-Maundy-Thursday.html

[4] http://www.stayhumbleandkind.com

 

 

The Force Awakens

A Sermon for Sunday December 27 (The First Sunday Of Christmas), Luke 2:41-52 and Colossians 3:12-17

star-wars-posters-pic1

There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it? The Dark side, and the Light.

Those are the words that the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke says to his young apprentice Kylo Ren, a masked Darth Vader want-to-be, during the latest installment in the Star Wars movie series: Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Three decades after jedi master Luke Skywalker and his friends have shattered the Empire by blowing up the Death Star and defeating The Emperor and Vader in Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, the dark side of the force is rising once again.

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The First Order

And this time it appears in the form of the Nazi-like First Order, an organization led by Snoke and Ren, which is determined to rule the galaxy and extinguish the light side of the force, which is beginning to manifest itself in the life of a young woman named Rey.

Living alone on a desert planet, Rey survives by daily scavenging parts from wrecked space ships to buy meager amounts of bread to eat. Throughout The Force Awakens, Rey displays cleverness, compassion, kindness, humility, bravery and resiliency as she learns the ways of the Force and battles the Dark Side of The First Order.

rey-bb8

Rey and the droid BB8

For Star Wars fans and regular film goers, Rey has become an instant favorite, a powerful heroine for the 21st century. But some of the characters in the film, both good and bad, don’t fully understand her.

Even though these characters are well acquainted with the story of Luke and Vader and have seen the Force at work, they don’t recognize Rey’s unique gifts.

There’s been an awakening of the light side of the force in their galaxy. They have felt it. The light. The dark. They know it has to do with Rey.

But they’re not sure what to with this immense power associated with her. And so they put Rey in a box made of their expectations about how a young woman should act, which of course, she defies at every turn during the film.

 

Similarly, there’s been an awakening of a powerful force in our universe. We celebrate it every year in the seasons of Advent and Christmas:

Carol Aust Nativity medium res

“The Nativity” by Carol Aust

–The light of the peasant child born in a smelly, dirty manger that got the attention of angels, shepherds and magi and frightened a terrible murderous king.

–The light of the child who grew up to be  man who–with only the clothes on his back and the sandals on his feet–would share a whole lot of love and grace with the poor, the oppressed and the sinners.

–The light of Christ that shines in the dark and which the dark cannot overcome.

We’ve felt this awakening. The Light in the dark.

But we’re not always sure of what to make of Christ’s birth or how to respond to this powerful force of Light in our lives.

011-young-jesus-temple

The boy Jesus in the temple

According to today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is 12 years old when he and his family go to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. Biblical scholars point out that a 12-year-old boy wasn’t “just a kid” by Israel’s standards—“he is becoming a man.” Jesus, like all 12-year-old boys of the time, is entering young adulthood. He is learning more about life and the world. He is discovering his purpose and calling.

Unlike his peers, though, Jesus is beginning to embrace his identity as savior and redeemer of all of creation. Jesus, scholars say, “isn’t just Mary’s boy or Joseph’s son. Jesus has a direct relationship with God as his Father, and he knows his life will follow a path of working for God.”

Oddly, though, Jesus’ mother Mary and stepdad Joseph appear to have forgotten about Jesus relationship with God and don’t seem to appreciate that their missing son is in the only place he could be: God’s sanctuary, preparing for his ministry.

And even after Jesus questions them, the gospel writer says Mary and Joseph were still unable to understand him.

Maybe they were so wrought with emotions that all they could think about was getting their boy home and nothing else. It’s a lot of pressure, for sure, to be the caregivers of Emmanuel—God-with-us who is both perfectly human and perfectly divine. And I suppose Jesus could’ve cut Mary and Joseph some slack and not talked back to them when they were clearly distressed.

However, I think there is something more to this gospel passage than a lesson to be learned about the relationship between parents and teens or that Jesus’ family life is a lot like anyone’s with mishaps and misunderstandings.

With no disrespect to Mary and Joseph’s parenting and their genuine concern for their son, I’d like to suggest that this incident says more about their and our desire to make Christ stay within the boundaries we set for him. And assumptions that Christ will stay there.

Mary and Joseph expect Jesus to stay with the caravan of travelers (extended family members and neighbors from their home in Galilee) and to not leave. When they discover Jesus is missing and search for him, the temple is the last place they check. And when they see him inside talking with the rabbis, they feel Jesus has mistreated them.

But it’s kind of silly that they’re acting this way because this is not just any missing Jewish kid. This is Jesus. Son of God. Savior of all.

His question to them, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” makes a lot of good sense.

Where else would he go but to the temple? Why else would he be there than to be about God’s business of building a kingdom where the good news would be brought to the poor and the captive would be released and the blind would recover sight and the oppressed would go free?

None of this about Jesus was new to Mary and Joseph. They knew Jesus was God-in-the-flesh and the One who would conquer the Roman Empire that ruled over them and save the world from sin and death.

But maybe they didn’t know what to do with all that knowledge at the time. It was probably too overwhelming to contemplate on most days and much easier to see Jesus as an ordinary child who would always obediently stay by their side and never leave.

So rather than focusing on Jesus’ true identity and purpose, they chose to cling to a different version that placed Jesus in a box or within boundaries defined by their own view and expectations of him as a regular ole dutiful Jewish son.

Because when Jesus defied those views and expectations, as he so often does in the New Testament and life, Mary and Joseph panicked!

In the moment that they discovered Jesus was missing, they never stopped to consider that he might actually be safe or that he might be somewhere else doing God’s work—the work he was born to do.

They just freaked out.

And the truth is that we’re no different from Mary and Joseph.

We know and feel deep in our hearts that this child is the harbinger of hope, peace, love and joy. This baby laying in the hay, this 12-year-old boy in the temple, is the most creative, loving and merciful being there ever was, is, or will be, and this being, this God-with-us, cares about each and every one of us.

There’s been an awakening. We know it. We feel it.

And yet, we don’t always act on what we know and feel and what we say we believe. The entire concept of Jesus can be so difficult to comprehend, let alone respond to, at times that we choose to keep a much more manageable version of God-with-us for ourselves; we unfortunately put Jesus in boxes and within boundaries of our making.

Maybe it’s the one called home where Jesus is more known, read, talked and prayed about than anywhere else.

Or it’s the location known as the neighborhood where all the good Christians live and raise their families.

Or it could be the state of residence where the most devout believers of Jesus work and pay taxes and vote.

Or maybe it’s the nation where Jesus’ teachings have lived and thrived for more than 200 years.

Or quite possibly it’s the church with the most friendly and welcoming and inclusive congregation.

Whatever the box or boundary may be, when we turn around and realize Jesus is no longer where we thought we put him, we panic. We become frantic and upset and indignant:

Why isn’t Jesus close by so we bring him home and keep an eye on him?!?! What do you mean Jesus is far from here and with people who are so vastly different from us?!?! How could this be?!?!

No matter how accustomed we become to the boxes we make and the boundaries we set, Christ can never be contained.

Christ is always with the people and in the places we least expect. And when we try to keep Christ in, we inevitably shut others out—those whom Christ also calls beloved.

The apostle Paul reminds us to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

 The awakening of Christ’s Light is not a force that we can fully comprehend or always understand in utmost detail. And it’s definitely not something we can keep and manage in our comfort zones.

Instead it is a force that knows no bounds as it connects and flows through every living thing—a force that continually calls us to boundlessly share love and peace everywhere we roam.

We just have to set aside our own expectations and boxes and allow the Light to dwell within—filling our hearts, enveloping us completely and guiding all of our steps.

That, my friends, is not make-believe. It is true…all of it.

Amen.

…………………

Biblical scholar quotes come from editors notes in The Voice Bible

All photos come from Google Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 5 – Go And Tell The Story

[Note: This is the last of five keynotes given at the Montreat Youth Conference Week Five, July 27-July 31. Below is a transcript and the photos/videos used in keynote that aren’t on the SoundCloud audio track]

Friday July 31, Keynote 5 – “Telling The Story”

Go, Tell and Live God’s Story!

Scripture

2 Corinthians 3: 1b-6a “Written On Our Hearts (We Are All Ministers of the Gospel: Your life is a letter, written by God.

When I was 18-years-old, a graduated senior of Shades Valley High School in Birmingham, Alabama, I sat in this exact spot (7th row from the center aisle, back of Anderson Auditorium) on my very last day of my very last Montreat Youth Conference.

And at the end of the keynote, a guest musician stood up and played the inspirational Garth Brooks’ hit: “Standing Outside the Fire” –Life is not trying, it’s merely surviving if you’re standing outside the fire.

Needless to say, I was a sobbing mess by the time the song came to a close.

All I could think about was how much I was going to miss my friends from youth group and the Montreat experience (there was no such thing as College Conference back then) so I truly thought this was the absolute LAST TIME I WOULD EVER BE HERE!!!!! (Bye Lake Susan!….Bye Huck!…Wah, wah, waaaahhhhh)

On top of all that I was scared to death of to college at Auburn University, two hours away from friends and family, my church, etc.,

And yet, I had to leave and pursue a higher education and learn how to be and live as an adult.

I couldn’t stay on this sacred “mountain top” forever.

I had to go.

So I went.  (move toward Anderson Aud stage)

And the journey took me through four years of college in which I graduated with a journalism degree and back home to Birmingham to be a newspaper reporter. I also started volunteering as a High School Youth Group adviser at my home church, which….

LED ME BACK TO MONTREAT!!!! WOO HOO!!!!!

And I spent the next three summers taking youth to MONTREAT!!!!!! DOUBLE WOO HOO!!!!

However, in the middle of these MONTREAT experiences as an adult volunteer,

I started hearing God’s call of me to make a career out of youth ministry.

More specifically, I felt a desire to become an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who proclaims:

“Go and tell the story! Go and tell the good news!

And yet, I had to take a break from summers at Montreat for a while to attend seminary for three years to learn how to tell and live God’s story so I could teach others to do the same.

I couldn’t stay on this sacred “mountain top” forever.

I had to go.

Since becoming a full-time employee in God’s storytelling business a decade ago, I’ve experienced Montreat numerous times with High School youth. Each one has been memorable. Each one the refueling I needed for ministry. Each one a faith-shaping encounter with God.

And yet, I’m unable to ever stay here for weeks and weeks because I have a family and church I’ve made commitments to in Georgia.

I can’t stay on this sacred “mountain top” forever.

I have to go.

We all have to leave this place at some point. We all have to come down the mountain with the lessons we’ve learned about the story of God that we’re called to proclaim to the rest of the world. Storytellers can’t stay in one spot. And if we are to live our calling as tellers of God’s story…

We’ve got to keep moving. We’ve got to keep living. We’ve got to keep telling.

And, trust me, when we do our job as storytellers, something extraordinary will happen, along the way.

Excitement will grow as we pass the stories

of our encounters and adventures with God

to the next person

and the next

and the next

and the next.

Now you might be saying to yourself:

“Ok Andy, that’s great and all, but I’m not an ordained minister. I’ve never been to seminary much less college. Heck, I don’t even know the Bible that well. I’ve only read a few passages here and there, and I’m not sure I get it. So how in the world can I tell God’s story if I don’t fully understand the Bible.”

Maybe the words of the author and pastor Frederick Buechner can help us to comprehend what the Bible is all about. Buechner says:

I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety,The Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated:

God creates the world, the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which he created it.

That means that the Bible is a book about you and me, whom he also made and lost and continually seeks, so you might say that what holds it together more than anything else is us.

You might add to that, of course, that of all the books that humanity has produced, it is the one that more than any other-and in more senses than one-also holds us together.

Or put another way, the Bible, the story of God and humanity, is about a God who in Christ

–claims each of us and values our unique lives and stories

–meets us in the messiness of our stories and offers love and grace

–intertwines our stories with others, especially the silenced and oppressed

–appears in surprising ways, promising to never abandon us and encouraging us to keep writing and living our stories.

–calls us to go and tell the good news of an unconditional, sacrificial, redemptive and divine Love that transforms our lives and shapes our stories for the better

And every single person here is capable of sharing this story about God and humanity. In his 2nd letter to the early Christian church in Corinth, the apostle Paul writes:

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant.

Paul says that all are all called to be ministers. God has chosen you…and you..and you…because “you are the special”…

You don’t actually need a seminary degree or have the Bible memorized or be perfect to heed God’s call.

You don’t even have to be the most brilliant or the most popular or the most wealthy person in the room.

It’s not about that.

You just have to believe that you are “special” and that you are capable of making a difference with the gifts you’ve been given.

God has written a call on your hearts, not in ink but in the Spirit, to live out loud the story of God and humanity.

In case you still have doubts about being called to tell the story and make a difference, let me share a few real life examples of teens like you who are telling the story in their own unique way and inspiring others to do the same…

KP Book--Catlyn and Addison

In 2010, High School students Addison Pointer and Caitlyn Watkins started a simple canned food drive that sparked them to want to do more.

“It opened our eyes to the bigger need in our own community” says Addison. And so the friends created Handy Lunches—a once a month program where they and their classmates go into the west side of the Florence, AL community and serve a free meal to anyone who is in need.

“Handy Lunches is an organization that feeds the body and the soul,” Addison says. “Handy Lunches is no where near reaching its end. We plan to continue to grow and serve the community and anyone in need.”

KP Book--Sharon Li We Care Act

Sharon Li of Texas remembers the harrowing images from the television in 2008, when the earthquake in China devastated Sichuan province, which killed tens of thousands of people and razed buildings.

Sharon, who was 10 at the time, was haunted by an image of a mother who was killed by falling rubble but was able to shelter her baby with her body. “That was really the first sadness I felt as a child,” she says.

Sharon and her siblings were moved to do something, so they with just began walking around their neighborhood and collecting money to send to victims in China.

“We came back and we decided this couldn’t be a one-time thing,” she says.

But it wasn’t. Some months later, Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area, and the Li family went to a Gavelston school to donate books and winter clothing, among other items.

However, Sharon said the most meaningful action came in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan.  Instead of the traditional disaster-relief monetary and goods collection, Li and her siblings decided to do something more personal:

they gathered between 5,000 and 6,000 letters sharing condolences and stories from around the world as well as origami cranes, sending them to schoolchildren in Japan.

From that project, Sharon, now a recent High School graduate, co-founded the non-profit group “We Care Act” which distributes donated items to disaster victims around the globe.

Li estimates that the organization has collected

$220,000 worth of donations since it all began.

…………

Addison, Caitlyn and Sharon—

they’re not ordained ministers or Bible scholars or celebrities or people who have a wealthy of resources at their disposal.

They’re just ordinary people who wanted to do some good in the world.

Even if they never say a single verse from scripture, they are still telling the story of God’s love with their lives! There’s a quote that is often attributed to the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, which says:

St. Francis Quote

This is a philosophy that we adhere to at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian where I serve as an associate for Youth and Misison & Outreach. It’s a way of believing and living and telling the story that we are constantly teaching to the youth (as well as the congregation.)

And the greatest gift I am regularly given as a pastor for Youth and Mission is seeing the young people at Pleasant Hill preach the gospel through their service to God and others in need.

Earlier this month, a group of 10 High School Youth returned, for the second consecutive year, to the community of Consuelo in the city of San Pedro in the Dominican Republic.

DR Trip 2

DR Trip 1

DR Trip 3

 Serving in the DR was such an incredible, faith-shaping experience. And these youth worked hard and gave abundantly and loved fully as they complete the building of a new church for a Pentecostal congregation, led Vacation Bible School for the children of Consuelo and helped out at a medical clinic for the community.

The youth at Pleasant Hill inspire me—not only through this trip in the DR—but in every aspect of their lives. They make me a better minister, a better husband, dad, and human being.

They enrich my story in ways I can barely describe. And often its with few words and lots of laughs

Or it’s an incredibly sweet gesture like making a 4 hour-drive from Atlanta to come (and driving 45 minutes back and forth from Hendersonville, NC) to hear my keynotes (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) this week.

I am grateful that their stories are a part of my story and that they model (for me) the telling and living out …of God’s story.

 You see, it’s not always about praying the right prayers out loud or being able to articulate every aspect of Reformed Theology and Presbyterian beliefs.

It’s about speaking the love of Christ Jesus through actions and seizing the opportunities to act-to make the world better than it is.

Three of our Jeremiah Project youth will now share how they are going to seize opportunities to go and tell the story—to go and tell what they’ve discovered this week at Montreat…Listen to the Sound Cloud Audio to hear their incredible stories

God created you to be patient, courageous, and loving (among other things) and God creates opportunities for you to use those gifts to serve and help others.

You don’t need an advanced degree in science or a wad of cash.

You are special. You are creative and you are capable of changing the world. And God places people in your life to create alongside you.

Whatever you do will have an impact on people’s lives and stories.

I want to personally thank each and every one of you for sharing your stories this week, whether in your small or back-home groups or while sitting in these pews before keynote and worship or as you hung out at the Huck and Lake Susan.

Thank you to those youth who personally shared their stories with me during the conference and who lovingly affirmed the stories that have been told from this stage.

In the words of gospel musician Morgan Harper Nichols who sings “Storyteller”:

Oh the mountain where I climbed

The valley where I fell

You were there all along

That’s the story I’ll tell

You brought the pieces together

Made me this storyteller

Now I know it is well, it is well

That’s the story I’ll tell

For years and years and years I’ll tell

That’s the story I’ll tell

 What is the story you will tell when you leave this place?

What is written on your hearts as you go down from the mountain and back into the valleys of the world?

(The song “Let Us Love” by NEEDTOBREATHE plays as members of the Jeremiah Project form two lines and pass spray paint cans and pantomime what they want the two people at the head of the line to paint on the large canvas)

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As you go, let me share this final quote from the book When Jesus Came to Harvard by Harvey Cox (which a Back Home Leader told me the day before when I passed him in Anderson Lobby)

Some people tell stories. Some people are the type about whom stories are told. Rabbi Jesus was both.

Let us love and tell the story of him, like him and for him.

And all God’s storytellers said…

AMEN!

 

Our Stories Are Intertwined

A Sermon for Sunday, September 6, Ephesians 4:15-16 and Luke 6:19-31

(A shorter version of the third keynote I delivered for the 2015 Montreat Youth Conference, Wednesday July 29)

During my last sermon in July, I preached about how God meets us in the mess of our stories, life and world with love and grace, and how God reminds us that we are more than our messes and that our stories aren’t over.

In that spirit, I’d like to take us one step further by saying that God continues to call us to live out and to share our story with others as well as listen to other people’s stories, particularly the messy and difficult parts.

God calls us to show compassion to others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.

God doesn’t intend for us to disregard other people and their stories; to duck our heads, close our eyes and walk away from the messes; to avoid opportunities to see the face of God in another.

To not recognize how we are connected and how our stories are intertwined would be un-Godlike and inhuman. To attempt to live solely unto ourselves conflicts with God’s design for us to be in relationship with our fellow human beings.

In Africa, the people ascribe to a philosophy known as Ubuntu, which means “you are human because you participate in relationships… A person is a person through other persons.” Or put another way: “I am because we are.”

ubuntu

This concept is reflected in the scriptures, particularly Ephesians 4:15-16 in which the apostle Paul writes:

Ephesians 4 Quote

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

God created us to be together, and God wants us to maintain our connections with one another. And it is our connections and our sharing of one another’s stories that remind us we are bound together with God.

Paul sees our connection with God in Christ and one another as a functioning body. Christ is the head and we are the various parts “joined and knit together” to ensure the body is working properly.

We are connected to other human beings, and we are connected to God who creates and fuels those connections. When we sever a connection, we are going against God’s purpose for creation.

This idea of ubuntu—of connectedness and intertwining—is obviously counter cultural. There is much emphasis in society on individualism and fending for oneself.

However, our faith demands that we live a different way. God’s command to love the mistreated and to seek justice for the downtrodden is essential to discipleship and a common thread throughout the scriptures. And it was one of Jesus’ main teachings.

Let’s consider the parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 about “The Rich Man and Lazarus” This version of the story comes from The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia Partners, an interracial farming community in southwest Georgia. (Btw, The Cotton Patch Gospels were written in plain Southern speak and therefore it must be read with a thick accent)…

 Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man’s table scraps. On top of this, the dogs came and licked his sores. 

It so happened that the poor fellow died, and the angels seated him at the table with Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. And in the hereafter, the rich man, in great agony, looked up and saw from afar Abraham, and Lazarus sitting beside him at the table. So he shouted to him, ‘Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I’m scorching in this heat.’

Abraham replied, ‘Boy, you remember that while you were alive you got the good stuff (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses, etc.) while at the same time Lazarus got the left-overs. But now, here he’s got it made, and you’re scorching. And on top of all this, somebody has dug a yawning chasm between us and you, so that people trying to get through from here to you can’t make it, neither can they get through from there to us.’

The rich man said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Abraham, will you please send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers; let him thoroughly warn them so they won’t come to this hellish condition.’

Then Abraham said, ‘They’ve got the Bible and the preachers; let them listen to them.’

But he said, ‘No, they won’t do that, Mr. Abraham. But if somebody will go to them from the dead, they’ll change their ways!’

He replied, “Well if they won’t listen to the Bible and the preachers, they won’t be persuaded even if someone does get up from the dead.’

The rich man had everything one could dream of having. He had the finest education, the best job, the most delicious meals and the biggest mansion in the most luxurious neighborhood. And like any good Jewish person of the time, he was intimately familiar with the scriptures and God’s commands to be welcoming to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor.

And yet with all that wealth and power and opportunity to do some good, he chose to focus solely on himself instead of recognizing another person suffering outside the gates of his home.

That mistake—that sin—burned him. The problem wasn’t that he was wealthy and fortunate. The issue was that he refused to see and help someone in his midst who was hurting. He refused to reach out to Lazarus and hear his story.

 Even when the man is enduring the scorching heat in the afterlife, he still views Lazarus as someone who is beneath him—a poor, lowly being who is meant to do his bidding.

You see, when we ignore our connectedness and view someone else as inferior, as the rich man does, we also ignore God who is present in those ties that bind.

When we snub the connections and our need for them, like the rich man, we tend to become more selfish, more bitter and more resentful.

When we refuse to help out someone who is hurting in our midst and get to know his or her story, we end up crafting our own living hell.

We become less and less human and more like monsters with sharp claws that slash out at those whom God means to be our brothers and sisters.

We become more destructive and less creative; more hateful and spiteful and less loving and merciful. And we end up forming a deathly and expansive chasm between God, humanity and ourselves.

Therefore it is vital to our existence as human beings that we live and thrive together in the mutuality of God’s wondrous and transformative love.

It’s crucial to our well being that we become aware of our connectedness and that we do what we can to let the world know that another person’s story matters to our own.

The wise retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the oppressive system known as apartheid in South African more than 20 years ago, reminds us that:

Desmond Tutu Quote

 You can’t be human all by yourself. And when you have this quality—ubuntu—you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.

 What you do—good or bad—affects the world, even the smallest corner of it. Maybe not right away and sometimes when you least expect it. But trust me, it makes an impact.

So make sure that what you do affects the world in a loving, grace-filled way. Stand up for what is right and show compassion to the Lazarus’s of the world who are being mistreated and pushed to the margins of society. Don’t overlook them.

Open your eyes and see them for the unique and beloved creations and stories God has created them to be. See them the way God sees them.

 When you do so, you will be amazed at how much it changes a person’s life and world for the better. It’s a lesson the folks on Atlanta’s hit radio morning crew “The Bert Show” learned several months ago when Davi, the show’s producer who is in her mid 20s, found her childhood journal.

While perusing through it, she found “MULTIPLE entries spelling out this sad dislike for herself and how she looked.”

And then she remembered that when she was a teen, the girlfriend of her older brother had a “PROFOUND impact on her self-esteem and stuck up for her.” Davi knew right away that she needed to find this woman and thank her on the radio show. And so she wrote the following letter which Jillian Zinn will read for you now:

 Hi, Kelly.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have only shown me respect in the short time we once knew each other and I want to do the same for you. I completely understand your wishes and am so grateful to have the opportunity to write you.

 It was nearly 20 years ago when our paths crossed. I was somewhere around the age of ten. Perhaps you don’t remember me at all! Maybe you hate thinking back on this time in your life. I doubt you look back on the relationship you were in fondly. I get it. (Seriously. I’ve met the guy.) If that is the case, I truly apologize for stirring up any negative emotions. Personally, I have many bad memories of that time. But I remember you. And I remember your kindness.

 I also remember that you were strong. You walked proudly with your shoulders back. You seemed like the type to not put up with any B.S. – hence why you got rid of my brother. You were nice. And so cool! A twenty-something body builder putting herself through college. Inspiring!

 I need to explain myself a little bit more just to adequately express how much your presence in our home was needed at that time in my life.

 When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you’re flawed. That’s the best part of being a kid! Kids don’t see the stress-inducing magazines of supermodels in the grocery. They only see the comic books. Kids don’t know that things about them are weird or disproportionate. They just want to play!

 “As long as my sneakers light up- I’m happy.” Right? Kids don’t think “I’m odd” or “I’m ugly” until someone else plants that seed in their head. Then a few more people say it. I happened to hear it again and again.

 Before long that’s all I saw in the mirror. A monster. Put together all wrong. I was subject to that kind of abuse at school from other children. Boys and girls. Kids that don’t really know any better. But the cut downs were worse within the walls of my home.

 We weren’t an affectionate family. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger or disappointment. And instead of board games everyone collectively got their kicks from picking on each other. And when the abuse is happening, no one speaks up to defend for fear of becoming the target. And if I was present, I was always the target. I heard horrible names, everyday –

 Ugly

Idiot

Crypt Keeper

Praying Mantis

Bug Eyes

Ratface

 just to name a few.

 So many insects and rodents, right? Those creatures you don’t want in your home. Why would family say these types of things to each other? I was always so sad and confused. I cried. A lot. My diaries are filled with pages of monstrous self-portraits and wishes. But not your average childhood wish.

 “I wish I could hide my face,” or “I wish I didn’t exist.”

 One day, we were all gathered in our living room to watch television. My father started the name calling. My brother joined in. You said that they should be ashamed. You stood up for me. You made me feel good about myself at a time when I never did. Yours was a strong female voice that I desperately needed to hear at that time. As an adult, I find we concentrate so hard on the negative comments that we don’t ever hear compliments. But long ago, you told me I was

 “beautiful” and that has always stuck with me.

 You made me realize that the ugliest thing in that room was not me, but the people firing shots. It always had been. Those words and that atmosphere was ugly. That attitude is ugly. I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t have to put up with it forever.

 After that, I stood up for myself. A lot. My parents even threatened to send me to juvenile boot camp a few times. I got teased more – but I fought back.

 I’m not weird. I’m an individual! After awhile, I would see myself in pictures and not be totally repulsed. Because I valued myself. I studied hard. I worked even harder. I grew up. I got out of there.

 This all sounds quite trivial as adults, right? Because we know now that being “pretty” is not the point.

 We’re not on this earth to look nice.

We’re on this earth to BE NICE.

Stick up for one another.

Stand up for what is right.

 And ultimately, that is why I want to write you so many years later. You may not remember this moment as well as I do – but you taught me a wonderful lesson that day.

 I have always wanted to thank you for that lesson in humanity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you.

 Kindest Regards,

 Davi

Kelly received the letter and responded a couple of days later with the following message to Davi, which will be read by Kristen Ching (8:30 am worship)/Amy Lewis (11:00 am worship):

Dear Davina,

I read your letter, and I must say it left me verklempt.

 Your spirit of triumph and courage surely compelled you to share a very personal experience—

 a contribution that clearly touched many lives and not only with the young girls who are at the age of learning those mean girls tactics that evolve into grown women ruthlessly tearing one another apart.

 Your story has also undoubtedly reached some young girls who suffer emotional trauma and abuse at home.

 And even reaching just one is enough to change or save a life.

 How amazing is that?

You’ve also unknowingly paid it forward by touching a little girl I know and love with all my heart, and I must personally thank you.

You see, my 11-year-old daughter was recently involved in a mean girl incident which actually rose to the level of a mom participating.

As you might imagine, I contacted the mother about the horrific behavior she was modeling for these young girls.

But still my heart aches for my baby who wants to eat lunch in the office every day at school because it feels safe.

I played your story for her from the Internet yesterday, and her beautiful little face lit up.

You connected with her in a way that my offerings of support and affirmation has not.

It was a remarkable thing—a moment in a developing girl’s life that offered hope

 (And by the way she says both of your pictures on the website are pretty.)

It make me so sad to hear the thoughts and feelings that were thrust upon that beautiful little girl you were some years ago.

What an injustice!

I’ve been a guardian in the courts for abused and neglected children and fought for people who had their world turned upside down by other people with more power.

For as long as I can remember I have not walked away from a fight for the underdog.

That is who you are too, my friend.

I am proud to have been part of your life, and you’ve added indelible meaning to a time in my life that I previously tucked away.

 You may not make a history book or maybe you will.

You are still young, but either way you’ve made a change in the world.

Thank you for that. Please call me any time. I would love to talk to you.

Kelly  

 Our stories affect one another for the better in ways that we can’t even fathom.

But that’s how God made us.

We’re not meant to live alone and ignore others.

We are meant to live together and love one another.

Our stories are connected, and we are called time and time again to build those connections, recognize how we are intertwined and strengthen our relationships with another human being—

the suffering and downtrodden as well as those we disagree with or those we consider enemy.

We are called as the church to be the hands, feet, eyes, mind, and heart of Jesus who helps bind people to one another…every ligament knit together for the purpose of building up love!

We are called as the church to be the body of Christ—

a community of faith that reaches out to others, regardless of who they are, and says:

Welcome. Join us. Be loved. I am because you are.

Let us always take the time to be and become and grow the body of Christ.

Let us always make the effort to see and cultivate the connections and stories that are all around us.

And as we go into the week, let us never take the connections in our lives or the chance to be a part of someone’s story and life for granted…

 And the body of Christ said:

 Amen!

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 4 – God’s Story Is Still Being Written

Thursday July 30, Keynote 4 – “God’s Story Is Still Being Written”


God is with us no matter where the story takes us!

Scripture

Jeremiah 29:11Jeremiah’s Prophecy to the Exiles” (God does not abandon us. )

John 20: 19-23 “Jesus Appears in the Upper Room” (God often enters our stories in unsuspecting and surprising ways.)

Some of the Jeremiah Project Youth and Omayra Gonzalez (conference theme assistant) come out on stage. They do an interpretative dance to the song “Brother” by NEEDTOBREATHE feat. Gavin DeGraw. Music fades about 2 and a half minutes in. The Jeremiah Project Youth freeze in position on stage and Omayra steps forward to share her story:

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Omayra:

When I was 2-years-old, my father died, and my mother and siblings moved from a big house to a smaller one. 

A few years later, at the age of 5, my big sister got really sick.

Since we lived in a small town that was literally in the middle of literally nowhere and no access to medical services, our family moved three hours away to the capital of San Juan so my sister could be seen by a specialist and receive care in a large hospital.

For some of you, three hours is nothing. But for our family it was far and difficult without a reliable car or public transportation.

Over the course of the next few years, my older brother Omar and I moved from one house to another while my mother and sister stayed in the hospital.

My brother and I were exiled from our own rooms to live in my grandparents’ house to live with my aunts or uncles homes. We never had one permanent place to call home.

It was strange not having what other kids have: a complete family and a home. It felt lonely, but we were not alone. You see, when my father died, the first person to visit my home was a Presbyterian pastor. And the pastor’s visit inspired us to regularly attend church.

You remember when Andy talked on Monday about people in the church who make promises in baptism to care of others? Well, the pastor and congregation comforted us as we grieved my father’s death. And after my sister got sick, church members, young and old, would visit us, help us with our schoolwork and even provide us with food.

You might be thinking: “That’s the church’s job to take care of people who are grieving and hurting.” But it wasn’t just a job to them. They weren’t helping because they had to help. They were helping because they truly loved and cared for our well-being.

Some of them were youth just like you. The could’ve ignored us or viewed us as those “poor kids with a sick sister and a dead dad.” But they didn’t. The treated us like we were part of their family…because we were family.

Song begins again at 2:38. Jeremiah Project return to the center of the stage, clapping and singing together with Omayra:

 Brother let me be your shelter
Never leave you all alone
I can be the one you call when you’re low
Brother let me be your fortress
when the night winds are driving on
Be the one to light the way
Bring you home
Be the one to light the way
Bring you home

……………………………..

 There are times in our lives—moments in our stories–where we are abandoned, rejected, isolated or exiled by others.

Maybe it was a time when your family was forced to move into an apartment and wear thrift-store clothes because of cutbacks at your parent’s place of work.

Or maybe it was that time when the minister of your church preached that homosexuals were going to hell and your stomach twisted up in knots knowing that your family would have to leave because you were gay.

Or maybe it was that time when the school jock intentionally, who thinks your nerdy and weak, dumped a tray of food on you, prompting everyone in the cafeteria to howl with laughter.

Or maybe it was that time when you walked into a store and several white clerks looked at you suspiciously and asked you repeatedly if you were in the right place simply because you were black.

Experiencing exile is a difficult and disorienting time because you suddenly discover that you don’t fit in anywhere.

You are not welcome.

You are not worthy.

You are not like everyone else.

And in those moments, it seems as if there is no chance of being treated like the unique and beloved creation that you are…no way of returning “home” to a place where you are unconditionally loved and accepted.

It seems as if the despair of exile will last forever and forever and forever…

The ancient Israelites knew first-hand of what it meant to be exiled.

In the Book of Jeremiah, the Babylonian Empire, run by the ruthless King Nebuchadnezzar conquers Jerusalem, destroying the temple and burning the city.

And soon thereafter, Nebuchadnezzer orders several deportations of the Jewish people to Babylon. The first deportation included the Jewish prophets like Jeremiah.

Babylonian Exile 1

It is Jeremiah whom God calls to be a messenger to the Jewish people who are suffering at the hands of the oppressive Babylonians. And Jeremiah speaks an encouraging message from God:

Babylonian Exile 2

Babylonian Exile 3

“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.”

When all seemed hopeless,

when exile and despair appear to mark the end of the journey,

God tells the people that the story isn’t over…

There is more to be written. There is a future with hope.

The troubadour Manola learns this lesson in the animated film The Book of Life. Manola, tricked by Xiballba the god of Death and facing exile to “The Land of the Forgotten,” begins the long and arduous journey to return “The Land of Living” (via the Cave of Souls)…

 “You are not living the life that was written for you,” the Candlemaker tells Manola, “You are writing your own story!” (Kapoosh!)

 And you are writing that story with others. The connections we have and the connections we make lend to the shaping and continuing of our stories.

We are not alone. There are other people who are with us  in our ongoing stories of exile and despair—people from our present and our past, including those who are no longer living.

As the writer of the Letter of Hebrews tells early Jewish Christians living under Roman occupation:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

The hope that exists in exile is that our story continues because of the people who walk alongside us and the people whom we carry in our hearts push us onward.

 Our culture often teaches through story that in order to survive, the main character must persevere single-handedly and emerge as the sole victor or hero.

But that’s a false notion. We are not alone when we experience exile and despair.

We are not alone because there are others who are by our side and within our hearts.

We are not alone because God is with us. And God never abandons us.

Yesterday I shared with you the story of the Selma Marches and Bloody Sunday. As you might remember from the film Selma and your history books, Dr. King and his fellow Civil Rights activists were no strangers to exile.

The unjust laws of Jim Crow and segregation that permeated the South pushed blacks to the furthest edges of town into remote rural areas.

And blacks that lived in town were exiled to their homes where they would lock their doors out of fear of lynch mobs and the Klan. Civil Rights activists—deemed thugs, animals and agitators by white authorities—were exiled to dark jail cells for non violently protesting and standing up for their dignity and rights.

Being carted off to jail in chains like an animal was an dehumanizing experience that took its toll on those activists, including King himself:

Feeling great exhaustion, doubt and despair about their fight for equality, Martin Luther King Jr considered giving up and disbanding the movement. King wondered if maybe the story of the struggle for black freedom was written, was over.

But then God reminds King through his good friend, the Rev. Ralph Albernathy, that there is hope.

God has not abandoned King or the activists or the black race.God is with them and God tells King not to worry, not to fear because like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, the Lord will take care of them. 

The Lord will deliver a suffering, oppressed people from exile just as God eventually did for the Israelites and later for the first Jewish Christians.

The Lord God, King realized, will deliver the people from the violent system of segregation and racism. And King also learned soon after that fighting non-violently for a future of equality could result in great injury and death from those who don’t follow God’s plan to do no harm.

During a peaceful protest, a young black activist, Jimmy Lee Jackson is chased into a local diner and killed in cold blood by the police. 

Upon hearing the news, King goes to the morgue to meet with Jimmy Lee Jackson’s grandfather:

God, King tells Jimmy’s grandfather, was the first to cry.

Even in the exile of grief over a life that was cruelly and unjustly taken from the world, God is with Jimmy Lee’s grandfather and King and all those who know they can be killed because of the color of their skin.

Even as violence and death surrounded King and black citizens in Selma, the South and the entire nation, every minute of every day,

God was with them and God was saying:

“I have a plan for you, a future with hope.”

God enters our stories in unsuspecting and surprising ways, even when we are fearful, worried and grief stricken as those twelve disciples were following the death of their teacher centuries ago…

 The Jeremiah Project Youth re-enact a modern version of John 20:19-23 “Jesus appears to the disciples in the Upper Room post crucifixion” Jesus suddenly appears or photo bombs a group selfie taken on an iPhone. 

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 The disciples are in exile.

They are frightened and they are hiding inside a house with locked doors, likely huddled up together in the dark.

Any moment, the religious priests and Roman authorities could find them, charge them with treason and kill them like Jesus.

But then suddenly, when all seemed lost and hopeless, the risen Christ appeared before them and said: Peace be with you. …Receive the Holy Spirit.

 And they did. They received God’s peace and God’s breath of grace.

And they lived out that peace and grace with every fiber of their being.

Their story wasn’t over.

They clung to Jesus’ promise for their lives, God’s plan for a future with hope.

They, with the help of God and one another, continued to write their story.

 King and many black people, during that turbulent time of the 1960s, clung mightily to God’s promise that they would receive a “future with hope.” And they faithfully held tightly to Jesus’ promise of peace and grace.

They knew their story wasn’t finished. And with God, one another and many more standing alongside them, they continued to write their story.

Fifty years later, African-Americans still believe fervently in those promises of God.

Now, that might sound peculiar to many of who us who are white. 

Have we not moved past segregation, racist laws, lynchings and the burning of black churches?

 Have we not become post racial and started living into a hope-filled future?

 Haven’t we as a society done enough to bring about equality?

Sadly, no.

Certainly, many strides have been made. Institutional, legalized segregation is non-existent, and color barriers have been broken in every aspect of life.

Things are definitely not the same as they were half a century ago.

But that doesn’t make us post-racial.

We are, in fact, deeply entrenched in matters of racial injustice. The stories have constantly flooded our TV screens and social media feeds for more than two years.

Stories that we must not forget or turn a blind eye toward:

Race 1

–The shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice (and) Walter Scott, and the chokehold death of Eric Garner

Race 2

–The shooting death of Michael Brown & the protests in Ferguson

— The death of Freddie Gray in police custody & the protests in Baltimore

Race 3

 —The racially charged Charleston shooting which left Rev. Clementa Pinckney and 8 church members of Emmanuel AME Church dead. 

WCPO_Sam_DuBose_1438198094464_22090998_ver1-1.0_640_480

–The July 19 shooting death of Samuel DuBose.

Race 5

–Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP chapter president, who pretended to be a black woman for much of her life.

Race 6

–The fiery debates about the Confederate flag that led activist Bree Newsome to temporarily remove of the flag from the South Carolina State House “in the name of Jesus” before it was immediately hoisted back up.

And if those stories aren’t troublesome enough, there are the daily realities of inequality. For instance:

–The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households. And the black-and-white income gap is about 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.

–In 2004, professors at the University of Chicago and MIT, conducted an experiment in which they sent out 5,000 identical fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Some of the resumes had traditional white names like Brendan and others had traditional black names like Jamal.  Applications with white names were 50 percent more likely to get calls for interviews.

I don’t share these examples of racial injustice to make whites feel guilty or insinuate that all whites are racists or that all law enforcement officers are bad folks. (There are many dedicated men and women in blue who daily risk their lives to do what is right.)

But I mention them to raise consciousness (mostly among white society) that we still live in a system where African-Americans are mistreated because of the color of their skin.

I bring up the problem as a reminder to white Christians that we called by God to value and appreciate another person’s race because of the unconditional love of God that binds us as the body of Christ.

We can’t sing “Justice Flow Down” or dance to the energizer “Revolution” (by Kirk Franklin) with any integrity if we don’t actually believe in the words of those two songs; if we don’t actually believe in doing what the songs suggest—which is

standing alongside and hearing the stories of those who are hurting, those who are being oppressed, those who are being exiled.

standing alongside and hearing the stories of our black brothers and sisters who are suffering from the stings of racial prejudice every day.

White folks can’t turn away from the racial upheaval we see in numerous communities and say “It’s not my problem.”

Because, frankly, it is our problem.

When one of the members of Christ are hurting, the entire body of Christ hurts.

When an entire race of people is living in exile (right among us, no less!) we must walk alongside them and give encouragement as they continue to write their story—a story that is to be heard and received and respected.

And regardless of who is in exile,

regardless of who is hurting,

regardless of who is being oppressed,

we must all put our trust in a God who shows up in our midst

and who calls us to share a vision

of hope

of peace,

and grace.

 

Toward the end of the music video at approximately, 2:45, 17 people, Jeremiah Project Youth and Small Group Leaders, appear on stage and around the inside of Anderson, holding up signs with the following messages:

 “I Want A Better Day!!!” 

“When We All See Justice…” 

“We’ll All See Peace.” 

“I Am The Change” 

“Love One Another” 

“See God In the Other” 

“Listen to the Cries of the Hurting” 

“Be Compassionate” 

“Talk About Race” 

“Lift Up the Oppressed” 

“Welcome the Stranger”

CLK1DmNVEAEy4Vy.jpg-large

 

This afternoon in Small Groups you will be asked to take pictures while holding signs of God’s plan for you (“a future with hope”)—which may be very similar to the signs you are seeing now in this auditorium—and you’ll be posting those photos to Twitter & Instagram. ….

Your story is still being written.

What will it look like?

Go and find out

with God

with one another

with hope

with peace

Amen.

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 3 –Our Stories Are Intertwined

[Note: This is the third of five keynotes given at the Montreat Youth Conference Week Five, July 27-July 31. Below is a transcript and the photos/videos used in keynote that aren’t on the SoundCloud audio track]

Wednesday July 29, Keynote 3- “Our Stories Are Intertwined”

Our stories—even the ones that are silenced—are intertwined

Scripture

Luke 16:19-31 – “Rich Man and Lazarus” (What happens to the “other” matters to us and God)

As we discussed yesterday, our stories, our life, and our world are messy.

Yet God meets us in our mess with love. God reminds us that we are more than our messes and that our stories aren’t over.

God loves us all. God doesn’t prefer one group to the other.

And God also calls us to show compassion to others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.

We’re not meant to disregard others and their stories and simply live unto ourselves.

We’re not meant duck our heads, close our eyes and walk away from the messes.

We’re not meant to avoid opportunities to see the face of God in another.

To not recognize how we are connected and how our stories are intertwined is un-Godlike and inhuman.

ubuntu

In Africa, the people ascribe to a philosophy known as Ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the oppressive system of apartheid in South Africa more than 20 years ago, says ubuntu means “you are human because you participate in relationships… A person is a person through other persons.” Or put another way: “I am because we are.”

This concept is reflected in the Bible, specifically Ephesians 4:15-16 in which the apostle Paul writes:

Ephesians 4 Quote

 

God created us to be together, and God wants us to maintain our connections with one another. And it is our connections that remind us we are bound to God.

Paul sees our connection with God in Christ and one another as a functioning body. Christ is the head and we are the various parts “joined and knit together” to ensure the body is working properly.

We are connected to other human beings, and we are connected to God who creates and fuels those connections. To disregard or even severe a connection is to go against God’s purpose for creation, God’s design for us to be in relationship.

This idea of Ubuntu, of connectedness, of intertwining is counter cultural in our world. There is much emphasis in society on individualism and fending for oneself.

And yet God’s command to love the mistreated and to seek justice for the downtrodden is essential to our faith and a common thread throughout the Bible. And it was one of Jesus’ main teachings.

Let’s take a look now at the parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 about “The Rich Man and Lazarus” This version comes from The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia Partners, an interracial farming community in southwest Georgia. (Because it is written in the language and colloquialisms of the time, the passage must be read in a Southern accent and I’ve invited a youth, Catherine Jones, to read with me.)

Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man’s table scraps. On top of this, the dogs came and licked his sores.

 It so happened that the poor fellow died, and the angels seated him at the table with Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. And in the hereafter, the rich man, in great agony, looked up and saw from afar Abraham, and Lazarus sitting beside him at the table. So he shouted to him, ‘Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I’m scorching in this heat.’

 Abraham replied, ‘Boy, you remember that while you were alive you got the good stuff (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses, etc.) while at the same time Lazarus got the left-overs. But now, here he’s got it made, and you’re scorching. And on top of all this, somebody has dug a yawning chasm between us and you, so that people trying to get through from here to you can’t make it, neither can they get through from there to us.’

 The rich man said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Abraham, will you please send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers; let him thoroughly warn them so they won’t come to this hellish condition.’

Then Abraham said, ‘They’ve got the Bible and the preachers; let them listen to them.’

 But he said, ‘No, they won’t do that, Mr. Abraham. But if somebody will go to them from the dead, they’ll change their ways!’

 He replied, “Well if they won’t listen to the Bible and the preachers, they won’t be persuaded even if someone does get up from the dead.’

The wealthy man was familiar with the scriptures and God’s commands to be welcoming to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor. Yet he still chose not to recognize someone suffering outside the gates of his home.

And that was the man’s sin—not that he had all the finest things one could dream of, but that he did not see Lazarus.

 Even when the man “sees” Lazarus later in the afterlife, he still views Lazarus as someone who is beneath him, a poor, lowly being who is meant to do his bidding.

We can’t ignore the connections with other people: people whom we know, people whom we pass by, and people whom we only know in the history books or in a news story.

 Ignoring the connections ignores God who is present in those ties that bind.

When we snub the connections and our need for them (like the rich man in Jesus’ parable) we tend to become more selfish, more bitter and more resentful.

We create our own living hell.

We become less and less human and more like monsters with sharp claws that slash out at those whom God means to be our brothers and sisters.

This was very much the case in the turbulent year of 1965 when, despite constitutional law, black people in the South were denied the right to vote by local governments as is depicted in the award-winning film Selma:

Cruel, unjust incidents like these prompted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights activists to come to Selma to champion for black residents’ legal right to vote.

King decided that the best way to push for federal legislation to prohibit racial discrimination in voting would be to conduct a non-violent march from Selma to Montgomery.

The first march took place on a rainy March 7, 1965 (50 years ago), however the Civil Rights activists barely made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

la-na-spider-martin-photographer-selma-bloody-sunday-20150308

State troopers and a group of angry white citizens armed with billy clubs, tear gas and whips immediately confronted the peaceful marchers.

The marchers included a young John Lewis (now a long-time U.S. Congressman for Georgia who spoke on this stage for the 2010 Montreat College Conference). In the photo, Lewis is the man in the long trench coat.

The head of the state troopers gave an order for the marchers to disperse to their homes. The marchers kneeled on the ground to pray and that’s when the troopers and the mob began attacking them in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday 2

Law enforcement fractured Lewis’ skull before he and the other marchers were able to flee back across the bridge to safety at a chapel.

The events of Bloody Sunday spurred hundreds of more people (white and black) from all over the country to come to Selma to march. They believed they needed to stand with their black brothers and sisters who were being denied their right to vote and to be treated with dignity—brothers and sisters who were being mocked, beaten and killed.

All those who fought for civil rights for African-Americans believed as many do today that our stories are intertwined as the body of Christ, and that all parts are needed to help seek justice for and show compassion to the oppressed.

Five months after the marches in Selma, on August 21, 1965, Dr. King spoke at the Christian Action Conference of the Presbyterian Church held here in Anderson Auditorium. During his speech, King told the conferees:

MLK Quote at Montreat 
It’s vital to our existence as human beings that we live together in the mutuality of God’s love.

It’s crucial to our existence that we become aware of our connectedness and do what we can to let the world know that another person’s story matters to our own.

And that often means becoming more in tune to the ways in which we are disconnected.

For all the amazing ways it can link us, social media can also break our connections.

They  can quickly become petri dishes for cruel and abusive comments about another’s race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and economic status. And it even occurs while we are sitting here in this auditorium or hanging out at the Huck. Even in this sacred thin place, there are some who try to tear down someone else and make him or her feel worthless.

Mockery and ridicule is not limited to social media, of course. There are some who will make disparaging comments to a person’s face.

During Week I of the Youth Conference, the Pleasant Hill and Trinity Pres of Atlanta youth groups invited the youth from two immigrant congregations in the Atlanta area—newcomers to Montreat—to join us for an ice cream and game party in the parking lot of the Winnsborough one evening. One of the immigrant congregations was made up of people from various Latin American countries.

As some of the Latin American guys were walking past Lake Susan on the way to the Winnsborough they passed by a group of young white males who immediately hurled racist comments at them.

The Latin American guys didn’t respond to the insults and they kept on walking.

But upon their arrival to the ice cream party, it was clear that they were deeply hurt and saddened by the sudden encounter with racism.

And no matter how many youth and adults—including their own back home leader and pastor—offered them encouragement, love and support, the boys refused to go past the bottom steps that lead to the parking lot and join the party.

They were too hurt, and angry and filled with fear.

Their connection to other human beings was severely damaged in that moment. They were made to feel as if their lives and stories didn’t matter.

The wise Desmond Tutu reminds us that:

Desmond Tutu Quote

What you do—good or bad—affects the world, even the smallest corner of it.

Maybe not right away, and sometimes when you least expect it.  But trust me, it makes an impact.

 

So make sure that what you do affects the world in a loving, grace-filled way.

Stand up for what is right and show compassion to those who are suffering. Don’t overlook them.

Open your eyes and see them for the unique and beloved creations and stories God has created them to be. See them the way God sees them.

 When you do so, you will be amazed at how much it changes a person’s life and world for the better as the folks on Atlanta’s hit radio morning show “The Bert Show” learned a few months ago.

Davi, the show’s producer who is in her mid 20s, found her childhood journal. While perusing through it, she found “MULTIPLE entries spelling out this sad dislike for herself and how she looked.”

Davi remembered that when she was a teen, the girlfriend of her older brother had a “(huge) impact on her self-esteem and stuck up for her.” She then knew that she needed to find this woman and thank her.

After some searching, Davi found Kelly’s contact info and she wrote her a letter that was read on air and which Omayra (our conference theme assistant) will read to you now:

Hi, Kelly.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have only shown me respect in the short time we once knew each other and I want to do the same for you. I completely understand your wishes and am so grateful to have the opportunity to write you.

It was nearly 20 years ago when our paths crossed. I was somewhere around the age of ten. Perhaps you don’t remember me at all! Maybe you hate thinking back on this time in your life. I doubt you look back on the relationship you were in fondly. I get it. (Seriously. I’ve met the guy.) If that is the case, I truly apologize for stirring up any negative emotions. Personally, I have many bad memories of that time. But I remember you. And I remember your kindness.

I also remember that you were strong. You walked proudly with your shoulders back. You seemed like the type to not put up with any B.S. – hence why you got rid of my brother. You were nice. And so cool! A twenty-something body builder putting herself through college. Inspiring!

I need to explain myself a little bit more just to adequately express how much your presence in our home was needed at that time in my life.

When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you’re flawed. That’s the best part of being a kid! Kids don’t see the stress-inducing magazines of supermodels in the grocery. They only see the comic books. Kids don’t know that things about them are weird or disproportionate. They just want to play!

“As long as my sneakers light up- I’m happy.” Right? Kids don’t think “I’m odd” or “I’m ugly” until someone else plants that seed in their head. Then a few more people say it. I happened to hear it again and again.

Before long that’s all I saw in the mirror. A monster. Put together all wrong. I was subject to that kind of abuse at school from other children. Boys and girls. Kids that don’t really know any better. But the cut downs were worse within the walls of my home.

We weren’t an affectionate family. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger or disappointment. And instead of board games everyone collectively got their kicks from picking on each other. And when the abuse is happening, no one speaks up to defend for fear of becoming the target. And if I was present, I was always the target. I heard horrible names, everyday –

Ugly

Idiot

Crypt Keeper

Praying Mantis

Bug Eyes

Ratface

just to name a few.

So many insects and rodents, right? Those creatures you don’t want in your home. Why would family say these types of things to each other? I was always so sad and confused. I cried. A lot. My diaries are filled with pages of monstrous self-portraits and wishes. But not your average childhood wish.

“I wish I could hide my face,” or “I wish I didn’t exist.”

One day, we were all gathered in our living room to watch television. My father started the name calling. My brother joined in. You said that they should be ashamed. You stood up for me. You made me feel good about myself at a time when I never did. Yours was a strong female voice that I desperately needed to hear at that time. As an adult, I find we concentrate so hard on the negative comments that we don’t ever hear compliments. But long ago, you told me I was

“beautiful” and that has always stuck with me.

You made me realize that the ugliest thing in that room was not me, but the people firing shots. It always had been. Those words and that atmosphere was ugly. That attitude is ugly. I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t have to put up with it forever.

After that, I stood up for myself. A lot. My parents even threatened to send me to juvenile boot camp a few times. I got teased more – but I fought back.

I’m not weird. I’m an individual! After awhile, I would see myself in pictures and not be totally repulsed. Because I valued myself. I studied hard. I worked even harder. I grew up. I got out of there.

This all sounds quite trivial as adults, right? Because we know now that being “pretty” is not the point.

We’re not on this earth to look nice.

We’re on this earth to BE NICE.

Stick up for one another.

Stand up for what is right.

And ultimately, that is why I want to write you so many years later. You may not remember this moment as well as I do – but you taught me a wonderful lesson that day.

I have always wanted to thank you for that lesson in humanity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you.

Kindest Regards,

Davi

Kelly received the letter and a few days later responded with the following message to Davi which Marci (our conference preacher) will read now:

 Dear Davina,

I read your letter, and I must say it left me verklempt. 

Your spirit of triumph and courage surely compelled you to share a very personal experience—

a contribution that clearly touched many lives and not only with the young girls who are at the age of learning those mean girls tactics that evolve into grown women ruthlessly tearing one another apart.

Your story has also undoubtedly reached some young girls who suffer emotional trauma and abuse at home.

And even reaching just one is enough to change or save a life.

How amazing is that?

You’ve also unknowingly paid it forward by touching a little girl I know and love with all my heart, and I must personally thank you.

You see, my 11-year-old daughter was recently involve in a mean girl incident which actually rose to the level of a mom participating.

As you might imagine, I contacted the mother about the horrific behavior she was modeling for these young girls.

But still my heart aches for my baby who wants to eat lunch in the office every day at school because it feels safe.

I played your story for her from the Internet yesterday, and her beautiful little face lit up.

 You connected with her in a way that my offerings of support and affirmation has not.

It was a remarkable thing—a moment in a developing girl’s life that offered hope

(And by the way she says both of your picture on the website are pretty.)

It make me so sad to hear the thoughts and feelings that were thrust upon that beautiful little girl you were some years ago.

 What an injustice!

 I’ve been a guardian in the courts for abused and neglected children and fought for people who had their world turned upside down by other people with more power.

For as long as I can remember I have not walked away from a fight for the underdog.

That is who you are too, my friend.

I am proud to have been part of your life, and you’ve added indelible meaning to a time in my life that I previously tucked away.

You may not make a history book or maybe you will.

You are still young, but either way you’ve made a change in the world.

 Thanks you for that. Please call me any time. I would love to talk to you.

Kelly

………………………

Our stories affect one another in ways that we can’t even fathom.

But that’s how God made us.

We’re not meant to live alone; We are meant to live together.

Our stories are connected, and we are called time and time again to recognize those connections and to strengthen them.

Let’s continue to discover those connections throughout the conference experience this week. Those connections and stories are all around; you just have to be willing to see and cultivate them. We’ll even help you seize a special opportunity today to make and recognize your connectedness with another by setting up a rec station on Anderson Lawn called “Take A Seat, Make A Friend” Ball Pit

We invite two random people to come by, stand or sit in the ball pit, pick up a ball and ask questions one of another for a few minutes. We’re not asking you to become best friends or agree on everything. But we want to encourage you to take a risk by reaching out to someone else and seeing them with God’s eyes.

You will be amazed (maybe not right away or weeks or months from now), by the affect your actions have on the other person…and the world!

As you embark for the rest of your day, don’t take the connections in your life or the chance to be a part of someone’s story for granted…

More than 25 High School Youth members of the Jeremiah Project performed a “Pay It Forward” skit set to the music of Greg Holden’s “Hold On Tight.”

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During Week Five, due to not having enough Jeremiah Project members, we showed the music video to “Hold On Tight” instead. 

And the body of Christ said Amen!

 

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 2–Our Stories Are Messy

[Note: This is the second of five keynotes given at the Montreat Youth Conference Week Five, July 27-July 31. Below is a transcript and the photos/videos used in keynote that aren’t on the SoundCloud audio track]

Tuesday July 28, Keynote 2 – “Our Stories Are Messy”

We can be assured that God enters into our lives and meets us where we are–even when our stories can get messy sometimes.

Scripture:

Genesis 25: 19-34 and Genesis 32:22-32 “The Saga of Jacob” (God works through the messiest of family systems. And in our struggles, we see God face to face.)

Within certain Christian circles, it’s often said: “The current generations are corrupt and messed up; our country and world is doomed! And the only way to fix it all is to get back to the good ole family values in the Bible!”

That viewpoint always makes me wonder if those particular Christians have actually read the Bible that closely—have they delved deeper into the context of the scriptures they present as examples of perfect families, relationships and living?

Because when you step into the stories of an ancient people in an ancient time and begin walking around, you soon find yourself ankle deep in the muck of their lives.

There’s so much dysfunction, pain, suffering, weirdness and plain ole crap within the pages of the Bible that TV reality shows and Shonda Rhimes primetime dramas look tame in comparison! Take the story of Jacob and Esau for example… (as told from The Brick Testament here and here.)

 The Bible is not a collection of tales about perfect people always getting things right. Nor is it a guidebook that offer step-by-step instructions on how live a flawless life. And it’s certainly not a rule book that if followed perfectly will guarantee you a first class ticket on Heaven Airlines.

 The Bible is full of messy stories about messy people doing messed up things and finding themselves in a whole heap of mess, right there in front of God and neighbor.

And we explore this scrappy book again and again, but not because the stories give us examples of how to live a perfect existence, but for the exact opposite reason.

 We return to these scriptures about messy, flawed people to be reminded that—regardless of how messy our life gets and how broken our world becomes—God is with us in the muck just as God has been with human beings throughout time.

We return to the Biblical stories to be reminded that—no matter how much we muddle things up—God meets us in our mess and loves us unconditionally.

The Bible is messy because life is messy and thus, our stories are messy.

And yet despite it all…

God keeps calling us to show love and mercy to the most messed up among us.

God keeps calling us imperfect people to heal a broken and chaotic world.

God keeps calling us to work with and through the imperfections instead of asking us to be perfect all the time.

While I had a mostly stable and grounded childhood, a loving family and church home, it wasn’t without its messes. I morphed from being a cute baby with chubby cheeks to becoming a dorky kid to a an awkward, skinny, zit-faced, nerdy, big-eared teen.

Childhood Andy 1

Childhood Andy 2

Childhood Andy 4

Childhood Andy 5

I wore large thick rimmed glasses for a few years, had a nice cow-lick in the back of my head and wore my pants near my armpits. I loved sports but I was uncoordinated and not very good at playing them.

I also was too naïve and nice for my own good, which meant I often didn’t get the locker room jokes & classroom sarcasm, and I was occasionally picked on my classmates.

The teasing left me feeling grossly inadequate and unsure of myself.

Home was a refuge from all of this but only part of the time.

My father was prone to losing his temper and yelling at me, my younger brother and mom over the tiniest of things. He would get mad about my lack of coordination and not doing my chores exactly right—accusing of me of not listening, being lazy and purposely trying to undermine him.

And if he wasn’t raging, then he was critical of me about the movies I liked, the music I listened to or the pictures of cartoon characters that I would draw. I continued to try my best to please him and stay out of trouble but usually without much success.

One evening (when I was 16-years old and in the 10th grade) I decided that I was tired of the mess. And I began wondering if it would be better for me to not exist at all.

Just to see what it might look like if I were to end it all, I took off my belt, wrapped it around my neck and looked into the mirror.

It scared the crap out of me!

 And I instantly flung the belt on the other side of the room, shuddering at the image of God that I saw staring back at me.

I was so shocked to think I could destroy what God created.

But even though I decided my life was worth living, I still chose to become a master at bottling all of my feelings, all of the mess—the insecurities and fears—down inside.

Over time, I became more anxious, more depressed and less self-confident about my gifts and capabilities.

I relied on a lot of affirmation, assurance, guidance and attention from others to get from one day to the next.

Although there were friends, mentors and pastors who helped me discard a bit of the mess away at a time, it wasn’t until I was 25 and met Elizabeth in seminary that I began to eliminate a lot of the mess I had collected over the years.

Elizabeth, who was experienced with counseling and depression, encouraged and loved me into getting help from both a counselor and psychiatrist.

I’ve been seeing professional therapists and taking medicine for depression and anxiety for a decade now, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

The therapy and medicine is not a cure-all, of course: I still have to make a conscious effort through prayer and meditation to step back, take deep breaths and decide not to let the messiness of life—the inner voices which tell me I’m unworthy or inadequate—consume me.

I continually carve away or eliminate the mess to become whom God calls me to be in this life.

In his film and book Drops Like Stars, (author and pastor) Rob Bell says:

Rob Bell Quote

Jacob causes quite a mess when he steals Esau’s birthright and then manipulates his father Isaac into giving him his brother’s blessing.

Many years later as Jacob is passing through a territory belonging to Esau, he realizes that he no longer likes the man he has become, and he struggles to make amends.

It took an all-night wrestling match of the soul and the cracking of a hip for God to get Jacob unstuck.

The struggle  made him wiser and more tuned in to God’s presence in his life.

It’s always the messy struggles of life that leaves us with a scar or a limp and shapes us forever:

But from the mess, we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals like 23-year-old Dezzie who ran away from an abusive situation at home to live on the streets of L.A…

Although Dezzie has suffered and is homeless (as the result of choices she and others made), she still aspires to greatness: to be a musician and to make better choices in her life.

Dezzie even gives money to others whom are in worse shape than her.

Dezzie’s mess has affected her, and she has chosen to

become better instead of bitter, open instead of closed and more aware than ignorant.

She has become tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every singe day.

Dezzie has wrestled with God, and she has seen God face to face.

God knows the messy parts of Dezzie’s story, and God meets her in the mess.

From the mess (whether it’s created by human choice or something beyond our control), we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals like the three Jeremiah Project youth (Nicole, Virginia and Jeff) who will share their messy stories with you now…(Listen to the Soundtrack Audio above to hear their courageous stories)

………………….

Thank you Nicole, Virginia and Jeff for sharing your messy stories…

God knows the messy parts of our stories, and God meets us in the mess.

There’s a great line in one of the most beautiful messiest books written in the last five years called The Fault In Our Stars about three teenagers who are struggling with their cancer diagnosis. And the line is:

“Pain demands to be felt.”

Pain demands to be felt.

Pain demands to be expressed.

Pain demands to be wrestled with in the long dark night of the soul…

In healthy, constructive ways.

Cutting, drinking, doing drugs, etc., may seem like a great idea at the time, but self-harm only masks the pain and keep the feelings inside.

They don’t bring healing or wholeness. They only make things messier.

A healthier way to express pain is by

breaking some plastic sports trophies,

making art out of junk

exercising,

going to the Spirituality Center at Montreat, or

turning up the music really loud and dancing like a wild person!

But honestly, the absolute best way to deal with your mess is to tell someone about what you are going through—someone you trust and who loves you unconditionally, i.e. a friend, a parent, a teacher, a youth leader, or a pastor.

Don’t keep the mess bottled up.

Don’t try to deal with it on your own.

Share it with someone. Get it out.

And for those of us who aren’t dealing with a mess in a particular moment, it’s our calling and responsibility to tell those who are in pain and in the muck that

they are worthy of a whole mess of God’s love and grace.

It’s up to each of us to say to the mistreated and outcasts: “You are not a mess.”

Even when we’re in the middle of chaos—whether it’s our own doing or another’s or something we can’t control—the mess can never completely define us.

We are much more than our messes because we are beloved, unique children of God.

We are beloved creations who have a unique story to tell, including all the messy parts.

But the messiness is never where the story ends.

There are still surprise twists to come and one of them is that

God will show, will clean us off and make us whole…

Co-music leader Jerry Chapman plays “You Are More” by 10th Avenue North while the three Jeremiah Project youth from earlier, Nicole, Virginia and Jeff paint on a white canvas and then peel back a middle portion to reveal a message for the conferees:

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