Sometimes I wake up to find my arm "asleep." You know, the whole pins and needles kind of stuff. That's the worst. It's like having a 10 pound noodle grafted to your side. I've never been a fan of dead weight, but it's worse when it's attached to your body.
I mention this because I've also noticed a pattern. The prickly sensation of cut-off circulation is what rouses me from my sleep, but as I gain my bearings, I immediately notice my hands are closed tightly into balls of tension. As I relax my fingers, my arm suddenly begins to awaken. The dead weight is gone, and what was a hindrance becomes a help.
Curiosity got the best of me, so I went to Google. I read credible medical sites. No surprise here, but there are countless theories about why people sleep with their hands in fists. It could be a reversion to childhood sleeping patterns (look at babies' hands) or a reflexive response to repressed anxiety. It could be an indication of internal pain, and it could be an outward expression of a desire to cuddle and be close. Lots of sleep therapists suggest exercises to relax those hand muscles -- laying perfectly still and clenching and releasing hands repetitively until the body naturally learns to respond to tight fists with open hands.
It could be a tendency to think everything is a sermon illustration, or maybe I overthink things too much, but I couldn't help but start to think there is a larger lesson here. Either way, I believe Holy Spirit was leading me toward an important truth. Sleepy arms are a result of clenched fists. Said another way, dead weight is a result of closed hands, and life is in open hands.
At times in my life when things feel heavy, like I'm carrying more than I should or can't bear up under things anymore, there also seems to be a pattern. I find I'm living with clenched fists. Holding too tightly to things I believe will make it better or at least keep me afloat instead of letting them pass through my fingers and believing God will supply for my needs. Grasping for dear life on to what feels like it will disappear if I let go.
Followers of Jesus tend to do this with God's love and grace. With His mercy. With His compassion and kindness. We greedily hoard what we've been given instead of living openhanded and letting God provide for our need and allowing the rest to leak out of our upturned palms into the hands of someone else. We clutch a remnant of God's grace for ourselves, not extending it to others, and therefore falsely communicate that He is not enough for everyone. We wrongly believe If we share His love and grace with others, there will be not enough left for us, that His grace really isn't sufficient.
When we are weary, God invites us to let go of our burden (remember: dead weight) and find rest (Matthew 11:28-30). He offers to "trade" our heavy yoke for one that is easy and light. Yet in order to receive something different from the Father, we have to release what we already hold. He invites us to teach our tight fists to become open hands.
There's an incredible lesson of openhanded living in Scripture. Many know the encounter well; it is recounted in all four gospels -- the feeding of the multitudes where Jesus miraculously multiplies a small amount of food to feed 5,000 men (and who knows how many more women and children!). The story is rich with teaching points, but I want to lean into just one. John's gospel (6:1-14) gives an important detail the other accounts omit: a small boy in the crowd has packed a lunch -- 5 loaves and 2 fish -- and it is his food the disciples offer to Jesus to be used for what will be a miracle of epic proportions.
This small meal is not nearly enough for the crowd on the hillside. It would be the equivalent today of a couple of dollar dogs to feed an entire baseball stadium. When the disciples are charged by Jesus to feed the growing crowd, and they begin to search for their options, this lad's lunch is the best they can muster. We are fascinated by the story because of what Jesus does with so little, but I believe another miracle is sometimes lost in its telling.
A little boy gave up his loaves and fish to serve others. He opened his hands.
I recently heard someone suggest this boy was likely impoverished. The loaves were barley -- a poor man's grain -- which means they wouldn't be very large. Maybe the size of your fist (see where I'm going here?). And the fish, which would have had to be cured in order to carry around and eat, were probably similar to sardines. We're not talking baguettes and bluefin tuna. This is a poor child's lunch. No guarantees that he'll have another meal like this one anytime soon. Yet he gave it away.
Open hands yield life.
So many people were fed that day. Fed not just physical food, but the meaty teaching and delicious compassion of Jesus that was nourishment for their weary, wandering souls (see Mark 6:34). Men, women and children were witness to a eucharistic meal for the masses, enthralled by what Jesus did with the little given to Him by the disciples. But don't miss this morsel: an unfathomable feeding was enabled by an openhanded child who didn't selfishly cling to what he had, but surrendered it over to Jesus to do more than the boy ever could have imagined.
Open hands yield life, no matter what their size.
How many times has God given me -- or you -- something that seemed small, but significant? How often are we as willing to release it for greater good than we are to clench it tightly, fearful that nothing more will come? Friends, it's easy for me to believe the lie that if I let go of the good God has entrusted to me, I might not ever see anything else again. I don't believe the lie because I think God isn't generous; I believe the lie because I haven't believed God's grace is always sufficient (2 Cor 12:9) and will always supply for my needs according to His riches in glory (Phil 4:19). My hands haven't always been open, but God is always openhanded with me.
As a final nod to the openhanded God we serve, go back to the gospel story one more time. Not only are we front row center to the miracle story, John gives us a final insight about the abundant, generous nature of God which makes the miracle even more masterful. When the crowd had eaten their fill, Jesus instructs the disciples: "Gather the pieces that are leftover. Let nothing be wasted" (John 6:12). Jesus multiplied a poor child's lunch into a buffet for a convention crowd, and then had the disciples save the leftovers, demonstrating how ample God's supply truly is -- exceedingly, abundantly ample. I'd like to think that Jesus then sent the disciples into the town, delivering good food to those who had none, supplying all their needs too. Chances are, if he did, the little boy's mother got a wonderful taste of the generosity of God at her own table, made possible by God's mighty handiwork... and a little boy's open hands.
I want to live openhanded in the Kingdom of God. Closed hands are dead weight. And whenever my hands are full of what I think I can't let go of, I might miss taking hold of something else I need even more. I trust a God who can make so much out of so little. I pray whatever He gives to me I hold loosely, remembering that it might not be for me at all, but for lots of other people. I pray I am willing to lend my lunch even when I'm hungry so that others can be fed. Open hands yield life!
We're currently in the middle of a series at Community Church of God called BELIEF: What We Believe. We're tackling topics foundational to our faith in Christ. While a necessary series for many because of their backgrounds (there are lots of people new to the Church of God and her history, which is both beautiful and admittedly challenging to talk about), it is also a necessary series because if Christians call ourselves "believers," it's important to be able to confess what we believe and WHY we believe it.
After an initial message answering the question "Why Does It Matter?", the subsequent weeks are built around five non-negotiables of our faith heritage in the Church of God. Where did that number come from? When I started prepping for this message series, I compiled an abundance of topics on which I felt inclined to preach and teach, but then remembered I'd recently read an article from CHOG General Director Jim Lyon in the May MOVE Newsletter which helped me narrow the field. He shared the story of asking the Church of God Ministries Council to individually and privately write down what they understood the five theological non-negotiables of the Church of God to be. The next day, after completing their assignment, the Council returned their answers, and Lyon said, "the independent and individual replies were virtually seamless, a voice of unity and allegiance to defining truths shared in common." Lyon explained his request of five items this way: "I imagined that five would be enough to take the pulse of the Movement, that I had five fingers and could easily remember an idea attached to each, and that only the Holy Spirit could narrow the theological funnel so precisely."
I agreed with his assessment, and privately also wondered if those five things alone could descriptively paint a picture of the Church of God, this tribe I've come to love so much. Could I preach these five non-negotiables with equal passion and insight, and both inform God's people of His purposes for us and challenge them to grow in their faith? Challenge accepted.
Thus far, three weeks in, I am both enjoying the series for its important reminders to me, a child who has grown up in this Movement, and the focused study it requires of me to prepare well to explain concepts that, in my experience, the Church has not always taught faithfully or sufficiently. I was raised and taught by powerful preachers who were solid Bible teachers and lovers of God, many of whom helped me cut my teeth on Church of God truths. But as I have matured, I hear less about our non-negotiables and lots more about a lot of other things that, while important to a life of faith, do not provide the anchors or answers we need for bigger questions.
In week one, we began our discussion with none other than Jesus. He is THE Subject. The message title is not only a reflection of an emerging voice of our Movement to solidify and singularize our focus, but it is also the only jumping off point for an authentic discussion about faith in God, the central hub around which all things in our faith experience are connected. Then this past Sunday, I dared to tackle the issue of holiness and sanctification. I say "dared" because holiness is largely the place where much of my confidence in our "tribe" is anchored but also where my personal assurance has sometimes wavered . For those who have been raised in a holiness tradition, you may understand that better than others. Because my experience with sanctification didn't look or sound like that of others from whom I learned and was taught and with whom I studied and grew in seminary, I wasn't even sure it was real, let alone that I understood it well. Were it not specifically for Drs. Gilbert Stafford and Barry Callen and their words of confidence in me and their affirmation of the Spirit at work in me at a critical time in my ongoing faith development, I might still be wondering.
In the weeks to come, we'll finish the series with discussions about Unity, The Great Commandment and the sacredness of Scripture. I'm excited and challenged by the opportunity and tremendous responsibility to communicate God's Word effectively in this series. I now truly understand why one of the Church's great treasures, Dr. James Earl Massey, the "Prince of Preachers," called the task of delivering the Word to God's people a "burdensome joy!"
Many in our congregation and friends alike have asked what I'm reading, how I am studying to talk about such challenging topics. I have pored over so many references on my shelves curated during 15 years of ministry. (I confess that the Holiness message was particularly daunting for me, and I probably "over-nerded" in preparation!) I thought I might list some of those resources (beyond Scripture and much prayer) that I'm utilizing which are helpful in this task. While this is by no means comprehensive, it is a compilation of valuable gems that are aiding me in "rightly dividing the Word of God." Here is a short, non-exhaustive list:
Many of these references are books that Church of God pastors or students in the licensing and ordination process may already own; several are still made available by Warner Press. I recommend them ALL! Were it not for the work of these great theological minds and faithful servants of God, I would be at a loss.
If you'd read this far, a few requests: 1) I'd love to hear what gem I may be missing from this list. I'm a student at heart, always ready to read and learn more; 2) I'd love to know you'll be praying for me as I work to finish this series -- the prayers of God's people are buoyant!; and 3) I'd love to dialogue about any of these non-negotiables with anyone. I welcome a conversation over coffee if you live close, a phone call or FaceTime if you're a bit further, or emails or comments to which I can thoughtfully respond.
Lastly, for those of you responsible to challenge God's people regularly with the truth of His Word and our application of it, STAY CHALLENGED YOURSELVES. Stagnant lives are not a well from which to draw water that people will enjoy drinking to quench their thirst. If you're going to teach, be teachable. If you're going to lead, be also a follower. Most of all, listen well. God is always speaking to His people; He may just say something in a way that will surprise you, so don't expect Him to speak the same way twice!
Today, I had the chance to preach a Good Friday message during a unity service in our small community. Matthew's record of the events of the Friday Jesus died hasn't left me this week. Perhaps it will be a Word that speaks to you.
It was in the wee hours of a Friday morning just like this that an angry contingent of people descended in the courtyard outside the home of the High Priest. They’d already been to see his father-in-law, and Annas had been in no mood for any discussion about the rabble-rouser they’d come to talk about. After all… serving as the conduit between God and man wasn’t his job anymore. But it was his son’s.
Caiaphas was no more excited to see them coming. But the wake-up call was more than necessary in his eyes. Sabbath was less than 24 hours away, and something needed to be done with this man. The religious Congress of the day, the Sanhedrin, assembled under the cloak of darkness to discuss the matter, because daybreak was at hand. They made no bones about the need to get rid of Jesus. There was easily enough evidence to convict this rebel prophet from Nazareth on blasphemy charges. He’d audaciously claimed to be the Son of God. But the quandary came in realizing that, though blasphemy was an offense punishable by death in Jewish tradition, none of this would hold water in Rome. Jewish leaders didn’t have authority to execute the death penalty. It would take a civil violation, a capital offense, to make the death sentence stick. Good news was, Caiaphas knew that the Roman governor had a weak spot, and the Sanhedrin were about to exploit it.
When the large group of elders and others marched Jesus into Jerusalem’s Roman HQ before the sixth hour of the day, the governor knew something wasn’t right. He also knew this was the last place in the world he wanted to be. Pilate was stuck. He was always concerned with needing to appease the Jewish people, as they’d threatened more than once to report him to his superiors for his less-than-stellar leadership qualities. He’d taken money from their Temple treasury to build better water lines; he’d ignored their personal worship space and paraded graven images in their presence knowing it was offensive to them. Now, Pilate was on edge; the threat of losing his job loomed large. But neither did Pilate want to do the scut work of local religious leaders who were overly fanatical about their God.
He nearly found a way out. On learning Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate sent the case to Herod Antipas, the Galilean tetrarch with primary jurisdiction in the matter. But, after making Jesus his court jester, Herod sent the problem right back to Pilate with a verdict: not guilty. Still, the chief priests, rulers and the people bought a bevy of trumped up charges against Jesus: tax evasion (because He opposed paying taxes to Caesar), treason (He said He is the King of the Jews) and troublemaking (He caused riots around the city), so Pilate heard the case. On multiple occasions, Pilate stated he found no basis for the charges against Jesus. He even reasoned with Jesus in private: “Don’t you realize I have power to either free you or crucify you?” Jesus remained silent. And Pilate, with all his perceived power, wanted none of it, so he made his final move in the critical chess match of life and death. Hear again how Matthew’s Gospel (27:15-26) tells the story:
Now it was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him." But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!”
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Perhaps you’ve heard this story so often, you missed the incredible tension Pilate faces in answering the most important question of his life. Perhaps you’ve heard the story so often, you moved right past the question that holds the tension to whether you can call this Friday Good. How do you answer the question:“What shall I do, then, with Jesus?”
Pilate’s paranoia held him captive from answering this question personally. He was trying only to answer it professionally. How, as a ruler, should I deal with an innocent man who everyone else wants to die? Fear caused Pilate to respond in a way that protected his public position, but cost him his personal peace. He chose to deal with Jesus by literally washing his hands of the whole situation. Yet in trying to excuse himself and make no decision, Pilate’ answered his own critical question by choosing to let someone else choose for him: the crowd.
Pilate’s response led to Jesus’ crucifixion at the cries of the crowd. But how do you respond to this question? What DO you DO with Jesus? And why does it matter?
Because the question still rings out through the ages. What shall I do, then, with Jesus? The Jewish leaders, the Council, the Sanhedrin, the High Priest, all the most respected leaders entrusted with knowing God the best and making Him known to others… they condemned Him without seeking to understand. Jesus threatened their existence, their livelihood, their reputations among the people. Rather than be exposed as frauds to the world, they connived to have their biggest problem solved by someone else — today we call that “putting out a hit.”
Centuries of people have wrestled with the question of what to do with Jesus. Atheists respond with refusal. Zealots respond with extremism. Every version and denomination of evangelicalism responds with a message that their interpretive flavor of Jesus is the “right one” and everyone else is missing the boat. Regardless of where others landed in the past, the question is a present day prerequisite for every person. Because it is not a collective question, it is an individual one. A personal one. What shall I do with Jesus? Everyone of us is Pilate today, reconciling what we do with the One we call Jesus.
The question must be answered because our answer frames how we live. What shall I do, then, with Jesus — Who loved His enemies and prayed for those who cursed and persecuted Him, who turned over temple tables in the face of the “church leaders,” who won’t always give me what I want, but always gives me what I need? What shall I do, then, with Jesus — Who ate with the most undesirable, who spent His last days pursuing the unseen and unloved, who turns our understanding of all things upside down? What shall I do, then, with Jesus — Who calls me to deny myself daily, surrender to suffering and give myself away in order to receive eternal life, who said that in being first we are actually last, who in moments of greatest pain asked His Father to forgive those who tortured and wounded Him most? What shall I do, then, with Jesus — who suffered and bled and died?
What shall I do, then, with Jesus? He is not neat and tidy, He isn’t a personal god you can put in a box and dole Him out as you see fit. He is not dispensable or disposable. To embrace Jesus as He came and lived and taught and showed us God’s love is messy. It’s confusing to the world around us. Sometimes even to us. But we must decide what we do with Him.
The choices seem to be these:
What shall [you] do, then, with Jesus? If today you haven’t answered that question in the way that leads to life, then this Friday is just another day to you, an extra “vacation day.” If you cannot answer the question, then Friday is just Friday, it’s not Good. It’s not Good News. It’s not God News. It’s just News.
Is He a story, or is He is a Savior? Is He someone you cheer for, or is He someone you live for? Is He a great figure in history, or is He the greatest gift God gave to make His story known to all of man? You must choose today. You must answer.
As he faced making the decision that would alter the course of human history, Pilate could not know he was asking the question that shapes every life today. What shall I do, then, with Jesus? Pilate made his decision. Today, the God who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” is asking you to make yours.
(Sermon for Good Friday, 2018. Rev. Joy L. Sherman)
I love to people watch. It’s completely fascinating. Besides being a wonderful way to see the uniqueness God placed in every person, it’s an interesting investigation of human behavior. Once in a while as I watch, something greater happens. I witness the beauty of empathy and compassion unfold in unassuming expressions of genuine care. Today was such a day.
Having moved to a new city, and entering my first lead pastorate, one of the dreams I’ve had is to “set up shop” locally and make my “office hours” in public places. In a larger city like Columbus or Nashville, this could happen in hundreds of places — Starbucks, Panera, Cracker Barrel. In my town, there aren’t as many familiar haunts to choose from… at least not the ones that would hit your radar. Mom and pop shops, drive ins and pizza places are in supply, but no local coffeeshop (at least, not yet!) or more commercial location to call home. The nearest Bob Evans is 15 miles away.
But there is a place along the river, and it’s a local favorite. Open at 5:30am, the heart of my new hometown beats here. I’ve been told the restaurant has flooded 3 or 4 times, once on the inside and several outside; even on stilts, it occasionally succumbs to the conjoining rivers flood stages through the years. Yet the owners wait it out (or dry it out!), open back up, and the locals call it home.
Now it is my home, and I get it. For the second week, I’m at table D1, between two large pane windows where, from my view, I see the intersecting waters of the White and Wabash rivers move along. I see a few friends in Carrharts and billed hats gather over biscuits and gravy for a morning pause before they go back out into the work of the day.
And today I saw the ministry of knowing. Today, watching people, I witnessed a work of God in the normal routine and attitude of my waitress. If you live in my town, you already know her, or will know who I’m talking about shortly — but this woman has the gift of “knowing.”
Let me explain. Every customer in this room today my waitress calls by name. Every. Single. One. Including me. Whom she just met two weeks ago. I wanted to be here last week, but a family emergency kept me away. So we’ve only met ONE TIME. But when I walked in this morning, she called me by name. And I felt “known.” As did all the others.
But names were not the only thing. A greeting was followed by several questions, mostly asking for updates on family stories, health or general well-being. This was not the act of a person who can memorize faces. This was the act of a person who wanted to really know someone, and demonstrated that want by asking, investing, going DEEPER.
Names are important. A valuable lesson I learned in my college years as I listened to a leader say to a youth group about working with the homeless, “When you call people by their name, you restore a measure of dignity to that person. They’ve lost so much, but they haven’t lost their identity. Remind them that who they are is important.”
Today, I was reminded I was important. So much so that a relative stranger — though she and I are clearly past that stage! — would remember my name. We talked about our families, and in two weeks, I might know more of her story than others whom I’ve known for several months. This relationship, and I pray the multitude more that are formed at table D-1, is important.
I couldn’t help but hear the echo of a worship song in my head as I marveled at this “ministry” taking place, the physical embodiment of how God loves and knows us: He knows my name. He knows my every thought. He sees each tear that falls, and hears me when I call.
Today, the Father reminded me I know you. And He did so through my waitress. I know her name: Sailin. Beautiful name. Beautiful spirit. Beautiful gift.
So I’ll keep sitting and watching and praying and waiting for the chance to really “know” people here. Not just their names, but their stories too. So that one day I might be a reminder that the Father knows someone else’s name too.
Why is it we live life looking backward with regret more than forward with hope? Why is it we are so easily able to reflect and grieve the "I should haves" than to jump and grab hold of the "I'm going tos"?
I'm not the only one that feels this way, I know. Most of my friends would admit they've had some smidge of regret or disappointment over a step not taken or a risk avoided that ultimately would have been a blessing in disguise. That's real life. We're human. We calculate the cost of every choice... how much time, effort, money and everything else before we commit. And all too often, our manipulated math moves any measure of moxie right out of the picture.
Case in point: my friend Beverly Frazier. Last year at Meadow Park COG in Columbus, we challenged the congregation to try reading through the entire Bible in one year. Bible.com has some great plans that enable a person to do that a little chunk at a time each day. Still, the whole Bible in a year seemed like a circus-sized elephant to many, and lots gave up before they even started. But Beverly took the leap. She attempted... until she nearly quit. Her words: "I accepted the challenge - I fell behind, [and] fought giving up but finished the plan. For the first time in my life I have read the entire Bible and it has made a difference in my life."
I love my friend's candor, especially the part about giving up. Most of us, if we even agree to try something bigger than us, and then we don't meet the expectation (either one we "made up" or one we believe someone else has for us), we get discouraged and want to quit. Beverly fell behind in reading. Per her telling, waaaaaay behind. So far behind that her mental calculus told her she couldn't finish.
BUT. SHE. DID.
What was the difference-maker? Friends. Encouragers. People who told her what was possible when the enemy of her soul said it wasn't. The author of lies didn't want Beverly to finish; truthfully, he didn't even want her to start. But voices of truth, Godly friends who spoke confidence and capability into Beverly's heart and mind, wanted her to press on, and she did.
Two important things to note here: 1) The journey is better TOGETHER. Reading the Word solo could have been tough for Beverly. No one there to root her on, to walk with her, to remind her she could do it. But forging ahead with friends, she was able to get it done. She took captive the thoughts that said impossible, and put her faith in the God of the Book who said "All things are possible!" God created us for community -- to need each other as well as need Him -- and Beverly found that, in community, she could accomplish what she hoped to do.
And 2) Whether you finish or you don't, trying to do something bigger than you is possible when you do it with the One bigger than all of us. Beverly said, "I really wanted to complete this. I mean I was beating me up... but I really wanted to honor the Word. So I just started to read, at least 2 [readings] a day and by the last week of the year I only had one reading. I read it ALL. God would bring to mind what I read regularly, He was so loving to me." Beverly recognized that she was in community with the Father, and God was guiding and speaking to her each step of the way, leading her and loving her while she faithfully got back on track.
But even if she had not... even if she, like me, didn't get every reading done before December 31 last year, God loves her still. He loves me. His love isn't "earned" by dutiful Bible reading. It is given lavishly, abundantly, freely, without reservation. And certainly without the expectation that anyone make it from Genesis to Revelation in 365 days.
Having said all this, want to give it a go? This year, I'm reading through the Bible chronologically. I want to hear the story as it happened in (what most agree is) scholarly order. Here's what I'm sure of: 1) The journey is better TOGETHER. I've invited friends via FB, Twitter and now here to join the plan on YouVersion with me. YOU ARE INVITED. Let's do it! And 2) Whether you finish or you don't, trying to do something bigger than you is possible when you do it with the One bigger than all of us. God is with us on the journey, and that's the most important part. Finish or not.
Did you catch the biggest bonus of all? The spiritual benefit to Beverly because of her boldness. "It has made a difference in my life." Beverly hears more clearly and sees more readily God's work and will in her life because she took Him at His Word. That is the best reason of all to take the journey.
So seriously, will you join me? What have you got to lose? As far as I can tell, nothing... except the chance to look forward with hope at what God might lovingly teach you along the way!
Fourteen years. We lived in that little house for fourteen years. Almost to the day... and in the middle of all the boxing up of possessions and much too much stuff, we've been boxing up the memories that go along with it.
So much life in that one tiny space. Nearly 100 years old, the house had its own stories before we moved in, two shiny newlyweds and very green pastors. We opened the doors at all hours of the day... and night. Bible studies turned hangouts turned Xbox-athons. Our couch became home to sleeping guests and weeping friends, too rowdy and rambunctious indoor stadium seats for hotly contested football games and, eventually, a mini-tramp for toddlers.
Two bedrooms seemed enough, yet didn't have the revolving doors we needed to accommodate everyone that would -- and wouldn't -- pass through. Just across the hall from our own room, first a guest room, the "spare" got a fast repaint when the baby booties hanging from our pickup truck mirror became more than a prayed-for miracle. Preparations were made... until they stopped. A miscarriage disrupted our small but sacred utopia in town; I couldn't walk in the bedroom for a couple months after that. Until we learned that another little was on the way, and we needed to make room for 10 fingers and toes and diapers and tears and sooooo many onesies and toys galore.
The sweet moment when the front door opened and we walked in as a family of three after walking out just days before as a couple with wide eyes and a truthful mix of excitement and healthy fear. The high ceilings closed in a little bit as we learned to swaddle and snuggle and hold close the treasure of a child we'd been gifted. The walls narrowed too... especially the day he hit the doorframe going 90 miles an hour around the corner without watching and ended up with a goose egg on his noggin so big you'd have wondered if his brain swallowed a golf ball. (There's still a scar... on him AND the wall.)
The kitchen -- the room that sold that home to me -- with skylights and tile and wide counters and room to layout the smorgasbord was always full. Friends and fondue and pigs in a blanket and Iron Chef moments. New Year's Eve gatherings with more eats than the local grocery. The place where I prepared my first Thanksgiving turkey (and thankfully near the deck where my husband smoked a turkey breast just in case and fed the many at our table when the bird in the oven wasn't done)! Everything I wanted in a place to cook the comfort foods of my childhood... it was what I'd hoped for and more. Especially the day the new refrigerator came.
And those are just the obvious spaces. The ones you see without looking too hard. It's all the extra, hidden, known-only-to-us spaces that have flooded back with every piece of cardboard and packing tape. Moments in the hallway, on the living room floor, at the dining-made-boardgame-table, behind the curtain up to my chin in bubbles in the bathtub. The front porch, the back deck, the garage. The tiny fenced in backyard... especially the year we tore it all down with a sledge one slat at a time.
As I've been remembering all these things, it echoed to me a more powerful reminder; it was as if I heard God whispering "Don't forget to see Me."
I'm convinced that our "looking back" is rooted in the God of Scripture who constantly calls His people to build memorials to His faithfulness so that, even after moving away, when they look back at the road, at the places they've been, the battles they've fought, the obstacles they've overcome, they will know that God was there, making a way where there is no other way.
At Community Church of God, we've been working our way with Israel into the Promised Land from one bank of the swollen Jordan to the other. God was leading a new generation of Israel into His best for them -- Canaan, the land flowing with milk and honey. Trust was necessary. Restoration of covenant living was essential. Faith was paramount. But even after God parts the waters of the Jordan and some 2 million people find their way to the other side, before they can "receive the promise," God presses pause and asks them to return to the site of the miracle and gather stones. He wanted them to build a memorial to the place, the day, the moment when God showed His power to His people. Twelve rocks for twelve tribes. They gathered the boulders at Gilgal (which means "circle of stones") and Joshua said to them: "In the future your children will ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' Then you can tell them, 'They remind us that the Jordan River stopped flowing when the Ark of the LORD's Covenant went across.' These stones will stand as a memorial among the people of Israel forever" (Josh 4:6-7).
This past week, we built our own memorial. We believe that here, in Mt. Carmel, Illinois, population 7300 or so, that God's best is yet to come, that we are coming into a new season and land of promise, that every where we set our foot will be territory He has given us to serve Him and show His glory. But we can't go forward before we look back. We have to remember. To testify to all the times He made a way where there was no way. To remember His promises to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did. To remember when He helped us, like Samuel did with the Ebenezer stone. To recall the stone that was rolled away that proved Jesus the victor over death. Each stone tells someone's story where God provided and we promised to remember.
Last week I was a Buckeye, living in the home of the Wright Brothers and 4-H. Today, I'm sitting in the Land of Lincoln. A lot has transpired along the way. The memories of our first home are sweet, but nothing will stand out to us as much as this: God was there. In our sorrows when we miscarried, when we lost Steve's father, Jehovah Shammah was there. In moments of sickness and anxious nights, Jehovah Rapha, our healer, was there. In seasons of leanness, Jehovah Jireh the provider was there. In times of joy, when things we hoped and prayed for were realized, El Shaddai was there.
No matter where I live, I will not forget. I will confess with the psalmist, "I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living" (27:13). Some say “Don’t look back.” God says “Don’t forget to remember!” I will set His faithfulness in stone - by my testimony and by my life.
I don't know what stories our new home will hold. I pray there are large gatherings like before, that our couch will still be a place of refuge, consolation and celebration. (Maybe not that our walls will incur dents from a too-fast teenager, though.) I pray our kitchen will still be a pass through where food and fellowship go hand in hand. But more than anything, I pray our home will stand as a memorial to God's faithfulness.
The next time you're driving through Southeastern Illinois, look closely. I bet that small pile of rocks you see might be mine. God is still working, so I'm still building. Will you?
Jesus follower. Wife. Mom. Daughter. Friend. Pastor. Learner.