Today I Saw God
One day when I was eight-years-old I was walking through the kitchen and there on the counter was a full size Hershey's chocolate bar, not one of those little miniatures, a full size candy bar. I wanted that candy bar. A lot. So I looked right and left, around the corner and behind me to make sure no one else was looking, and I took it. I went into my room and hid it in this little red and white lunch box that I played with sometimes. That night at dinner my mom asked my brothers and me if any of us had seen that chocolate bar. We all said no. One of us was lying. You'd think that I might eat that chocolate bar, but no, I just opened the lunch box from time to time and looked at it. Big, whole, beautiful and full of chocolaty goodness. Later that week my mom decided that it was time to clean my room and she was going to help me. Before I could do anything she was picking up the red and white lunch box. That's when it happened, my fervent prayer. I shut my eyes and prayed with all my eight-year-old worth; "Please God, please, please, please, make her not open that lunch box." Then as her hand moved towards the clasp, "Please God, please, please, please, make that chocolate bar disappear!" There was silence in the room. I finally opened my eyes to see my mother looking at me with that mother look and holding the chocolate bar in her hand. And I shut my eyes again and said to God; "I'm so disappointed in you."
Fast-forward several years. I was in college and my friend Mary was in a terrible car accident and I prayed and prayed, please God, please, please, please, make her be okay. But she wasn't. And I shut my eyes again and I said to God; "I'm so disappointed in you."
But of course that disappointment was so much deeper. I was older, wiser; I understood that we lived in a broken world and that sometimes bad things happen. I knew in my head that it was not God's fault but my heart was so sad. I had hoped that Mary – bright, loud, cheerful Mary, might live. And now it felt like I was living in a world that was only full of sorrow and sadness, like there was no longer any color or brightness to be seen.
I remember driving to Mary's funeral with a friend. We had to drive from college to her hometown and we ended up being a little bit late to the service. We had to sit upstairs in the balcony. I remember walking up those stairs thinking that this was going to be awful. But as I rounded the corner from the stairs to the place where I could see the front of the church, the singing started. It was the chorus of a song we used to sing at camp; alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. I walked forward to my seat and looked down at all the people, at the flowers and Mary's family and the empty cross. The music swelled from the floor and rose up to the rafters of that church, filling the space with song; louder and louder, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. I could see Mary's mother singing in the front row. She was smiling, her head up and her eyes fixed on that cross. That empty cross that rose above everything else in the sanctuary. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. And in that moment, at that funeral, we celebrated Easter. We celebrated that in spite of death and sorrow and sadness God was present with us and for us. We celebrated because Easter is not just a time for flowers and eggs; we celebrated the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We celebrated Jesus' triumph over sin and death.
I drove to Hampton, Virginia for a meeting the other day. I left early, a little concerned about the high winds, but as I drove the winds calmed down, the sun came out and it became a beautiful day. I felt just great, driving down the road, music playing, sun shining, anticipating a good meeting. I decided I would reward myself with a little treat at Chick-fil-A on the other side of Richmond. After all, I was early, the sun was shining and I was prepared for the meeting.
It's funny how things can quickly change. I swung into a parking space, opened my workbag, the one with my computer, glasses, notes, walletonly there was no wallet. No worries, I figured it had shifted around somehow and was underneath something.
Before long the entire contents of my bag were on the front seat of my car, and it was becoming very apparent that my wallet was not in my bag. That means no license, no credit cards and no cash, and I was over three hours from home. Still, no need to panic, I'm a resourceful woman.
I pulled back onto the highway thinking through what this no wallet situation really meant. The good news is that I wouldn't starve. I had the Starbucks app so I could have coffee and expensive boxed lunches until the money ran out, and even then I could remotely reload the card. Perhaps this would even lead to someday writing a book about the new Starbucks diet.
As I thought through what was in my bag, I remembered I had seen my checkbook in the bottom. I don't even know why it was in there. I rarely use it anymore, but for some reason it was with me. "Great," I thought, "I'll use it to buy gas." Gas was the one thing I was really worried about. It was possible I could make it to and from Hampton on one tank, but the last 30 minutes could get really exciting.
You've probably already figured out the problem with a check: ID. And of course my ID wasin my wallet. In Herndon. Every solution I considered for my gas problem ended up needing something in my wallet. There was no way around it; I was going to have to ask someone at my meeting for help.
You may wonder why I was so hesitant to ask for help. It's very simple really. Pride. I was going to a meeting with my boss' boss' boss and three other people who are much more senior than I in the life of the UMC. I was thrilled to be going and wanted to be at my best. I wanted to be competent and smart. Let's be honest, I really wanted to be the most competent one there and to be so wise in my conversation that everyone would look at me and realize how amazing I was, and so humble too. This would be hard to accomplish after confessing I had traveled the entire way without my wallet.
I hate to admit this but it is true. Maybe some of you have dealt with this particular sin as well. There are positive types of pride. Taking pride in our work helps us do the best job we can. Having pride of ownership in our homes helps us to make wise decisions about upkeep. The positive side of pride expresses dignity, honor and respect.
But the shadow side of pride is selfish pride. Selfish pride leads to disrespect of others, believing you are better than they are. Selfish pride makes us believe we can live well, independently of God. We begin to believe we are enough, that we can fix any problem.
I was so tempted to not ask for help in Hampton. I almost decided to get in my car and pray that my gas tank would not hit empty. That may be the ultimate definition of pride: praying to a Holy God to support my selfish desires. I was almost willing to risk running out of gas at night on I-95 rather than ask for help! I saw the irony in that situation.
I did ask for help, and my very nice colleague, without even blinking an eye, reached into her bag and handed me money. No questions asked. No teasing. No judging. Just kindness and compassion. My ride home from Hampton wasmuch more enjoyable knowing I would not be stranded in the dark on I-95.
If you suffer as I do from this particular sin, may I suggest that during Lent you spend time acknowledging it before God? Ask for God to show you when you are prideful. Then ask for help, from God and from others.
And once you have done that, take a moment to laugh. There's an old saying, "Blessed are they that laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be entertained." I've discovered it's hard to be prideful when you are laughing at yourself. I hope you do too.
Several years ago I woke up one morning to the sound of a chicken clucking. This seemed odd as I lived in a residential neighborhood, and as far as I knew, there were no chickens living near us. I decided I must have been dreaming. We did live near Frying Pan Farm Park but not that close.
As I was getting breakfast I heard it again, very faint and kind of pathetic. But again I dismissed it. Still later that morning one of my children came to me and said, "Mom, I keep thinking I hear something that sounds like a chicken, but that would be crazy, right?"
I decided that both of us could not be imagining chickens so we went out to the deck and looked around. We had a small grove of trees in our backyard, and we checked that out. Nothing. We were about to go back inside when "Buuuuck, buck, buck." It was the saddest little cluck you have ever heard. About that time my son came running from the side of the house and said, "Mom! There's a chicken in that big bush at the side of the Livesey's house!" Sure enough, there she was, sitting hunched over, looking miserable, about halfway up this huge bush.
I looked at her, and she looked at me with her little beady chicken eyes. She seemed to say, "I was just taking a little run around the barnyard, and one thing led to another and then there was a really big dog and cars and cats, and somehow I ended up in this tree and I need help. Can you find me a safe place?"
The good news is that it's not hard to help an unhappy chicken find a safe place. I called Frying Pan Farm Park, and before long a farm worker came and took our new friend home to the safety of the chicken coop. There she was welcomed home by the other chickens, given clean hay to sleep in and warm mash to eat and enjoyed the safety of the hen house. She found sanctuary.
We all need a place to feel safe and accepted for who we are. Life has a way of coming at us fast and hard, and it often feels overwhelming. In those times it doesn't matter how much you have or what you believe, you need a place of sanctuary. It's more than a place of physical safety, as important as that is. It's also the idea of sanctuary, a way of living with others. It is community.
When you hear people talk about times they experienced sanctuary they will talk about warmth and walls, but deep within their experiences are stories of people. People who provided hands to hold and food to eat, people who were present to listen when life became heavy and burdensome, people who stood beside one another in the midst of chaos and people who were willing to step outside of their comfort zone to try and understand a point of view different from their own.
As a Christ follower I am called to provide sanctuary for others. This is something I have in common with my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. It is a central tenant of all of our faiths. Each holy text has example after example of the importance of caring for one another in our most vulnerable times. We are united in this belief. It is my hope that when we hear a cry for sanctuary, we will not hesitate to respond with compassion to those in community around us, regardless of their chosen faith.
The Quran has a beautiful verse that captures not only their own faith but speaks to the reality of other faiths as well. "The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil" (9:71). We are called to be protectors of one another, acting with compassion and justice as we learn to live together, holding on to our own Christian faith even as we interact with other beliefs.
The morning was dark. I realize it's not surprising that it was dark at 6:30 a.m., but somehow it seemed extra dark that Sunday. Maybe it was the fog that seemed to roll down over my car and encircle me so that I could just barely see through it. My headlights created short pools of light on the road in front of me. Other cars would just sort of appear in a white glow and then disappear as they passed by.
I must confess, I grumbled. I wish I hadn't. After all I was going to lead worship at three services that morning. I wish I had been that person who embraced the fog and the dark and claimed excitement about the possibilities of the morning ahead. But instead, I grumbled.
It occurred to me that I should be grateful for the day, fog and all, but somehow it felt difficult to offer a prayer of thanksgiving when it was so dark. But I did it anyway. I spoke somewhat testily into the gloominess of my car, "God, it's dark and foggy and that's how I feel this morning, but I would like for my heart to be bright on this day of worship. So even though right now I don't feel terribly grateful, I want to say thank you for this day."
It was not a prayer to be proud of, but I had enough self-discipline left in me to know that offering it was a good idea. And here is what astonishes me about God. My attitude was bad that morning. I woke up in a grumbly mood. I had no real reason to be cranky or complaining. I had enjoyed a warm bed, clean water, a car in which to drive to work and a husband who made me hot tea. I offered an imperfect prayer of gratitude.
Yet as I sat at the stoplight, I felt the Holy Spirit say; "I am all the light you need. I can burn off fog and I can lift the darkness." I deserved to be ignored, but instead I was blessed. I find it remarkable that God would offer me comfort and hope given my attitude that morning.
Here's what I think. God knows us. God is not surprised at our cranky, self-focused moments. God appreciates our attempts to step outside of ourselves. So even my pitiful prayer of gratitude was met with God's usual boundless love. I certainly did not deserve it, but it was freely offered, and I gratefully received the gift. I was changed for the better.
Gratitude has power. More than just an expression of thanks, it can transform the giver. The reminder of God's presence made me nicer that day, more open to the possibilities of worship and actually eager to cut through the fog and darkness so that I could greet the day.
As I was getting out of my car and enjoying the feeling, I realized the Holy Spirit wasn't quite done. Added to the warm fuzzy feeling was a distinct prod. It wasn't painful and it didn't feel like a 'gotcha' moment, but it was a clear word. "Now that you've remembered you are not alone and that I am enough, stop for a moment. Look at where you are and what you have and take time to be truly grateful, not grumpily grateful or minimally grateful but truly grateful."
That's just like God, helping change a poor attitude and then reminding me to take the next faithful step toward deeper gratitude. Not because God needs my gratefulness but because the more grateful I am, the more aware I am of God. When I'm more aware of God, the less chance I have of allowing darkness and fog to win. I'm hopeful that when the next dark morning comes, instead of sitting in grumpiness, I remember God's closeness and offer a prayer of thanksgiving.
The world suffered a significant loss last week. A great man passed away, and his death has left an empty space where once there was a substantial presence. You may not have heard about it, this was not a banner on Google. Matt Lauer did not interview a family member, and world leaders did not gather to pay their respects. Rather, a small group of mourners came together to glorify God and honor a man who lived a quiet life of simple faith. His name was Charles, and he was a man of very few words. He rarely spoke in his small group, but he attended every week. He served faithfully at GRACE Ministries, serving as a quiet runner and on the cleanup crew. He attended worship every week, always sitting in the back left of the sanctuary, in front of the sound booth. He would speak to you if you spoke to him, but he did not want to chat. You might even call him meek. Jesus spoke of the quality of meekness in the Sermon on the Mount. "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth." Many of us Northern Virginia, Type A, fast-moving people have a hard time understanding that meekness is not weakness, rather it's a sign of surrender to God.
All authentic Christian congregations have people of meekness. Their presence among us is an indication of God's blessing and a reminder to all of us to conform our life more and more to kingdom values. A truly meek person reminds us that Christianity is not just a system to protect ourselves from illness, reduce stress or solve problems. Christianity is a way of living based on the firm and sure hope that meekness is the way of God, that we really don't need to be in complete control of our lives and that the here and now is enough. God is present right now and loves us as we are, this minute.
Charles embraced this life. Shortly after I learned of his death, multiple people came to me and said, "Charles was so sincere." "Charles was so caring." "Charles was so faithful." "Charles served with such diligence." "Charles was so reliable." And on and on. This quiet man, who rarely spoke to anyone, is going to be terribly missed. He practiced his faith, and that diligent practice led to a life of blessing and community that did not come easily to Charles. But Charles figured it outhe kept showing up.
My favorite image of Charles is of him coming forward to receive communion. He would cup his hands and instead of just holding them relaxed and at waist level, he would stretch them out toward me at chest level, almost as if he were pleading for just a small piece of grace. He never looked directly at me; rather he would turn his head slightly. I think it was an act of daily courage for him to come forward but he could not not come forward. For Charles believed that this small, simple act would fill him to overflowing with the grace of God. He could not stay away. I believe that his faith became simpler the longer he practiced it. He simply served. He simply attended worship. He simply attended small group. And as a result of this simple faith, he embraced the community of the church and lived a life devoted to Christ.
I am sad that Charles is no longer on this earth. I will miss him on Sunday nights at worship. And I am not alone. He will be missed at GRACE Ministries and at his small group, and the world will miss his faithful presence. But I also rejoice that he is experiencing the blessedness of heaven and learning firsthand the truth of God's promises.