Friday, September 25, 2015

God’s Holy Presence

ESR student Deb Geiger shared the following message during ESR worship on September 8, 2015.
(A picture of the group, with Deb second from the left on the bottom row)

My name is Deb Geiger, for those of you who don’t know me. I am from Michigan where I attend the First Congregational United Church of Christ in a small farming community. We have been going on mission trips to Appalachia for the last 5 years. It has been a great pleasure and we now have many friends down there with whom we enjoy connecting year after year. We believe that prayer and time spent opening up to what God has for us on this trip, as well as working on self -awareness prior to heading off, leaves us open and tender to God’s presence. Thus we spend a lot of time preparing to leave, which we believe is crucial to the success of our trips. We pray ahead of time for who will be able to join us. As the group begins to form we ask them to pray for one another and the journey itself, as well as the people we will be working with when we get to Tennessee. This includes the Morgan Scott Project through whom we work in addition to the homes and hearts we repair. Our congregation is also praying for us as we go on this journey, then they too are part of the mission trip – we remain connected through prayer. I think that one of the reasons we particularly felt covered in God’s Holy presence this trip was the addition of my Call and Discernment class praying while we were gone.

We have two preparation meetings before we leave where we begin our time of bonding, as we connect with one another and with God. We read scripture, pray and work on self awareness – in particular about being non-judgmental guests in a culture that is different from ours. (Although truthfully we find Deer Lodge, Tennessee to be very similar to the small farming community where we all live) By naming our judgments, as well as judgments we think they might possibly have of us, we own them and then work toward decreasing them so that we can do a better job of bridging any gaps between them and us. We also learn what we can about the area and poverty, which also helps decrease our judgments – knowledge is good for that. We talk about what it looks like to be a good guest and ways that we can be respectful and flexible. This helps us open our minds and our hearts to God, as well as the people we will serve and the wonderful opportunities God has in store for us. It benefits all of us because this rubs off on how we treat each other within our group. Also in the pre-meetings we focus on scripture about being hospitable to strangers and how God wants us to love neighbor as self. All these activities help us become more aware of who we are, what we are thinking and how we can be more open so that we can find God to a greater degree and love everyone equally. We also worship every night during the trip where we re-visit our day, talking about where we saw God in addition to worshiping this God we love and adore. We had another fabulous mission trip, filled beyond imagining.

I want to focus first on the words from Paul in the scripture that you just heard this morning – “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Saints refers to everyone, which refers to you too - hopefully when you hear that about yourself it makes you stretch up a bit and try to fill those shoes. Yet in this passage Paul is referring to strangers – people we don’t know. These are words that we need to live by, but it is not an easy task. Going on a mission trip is not an easy task, loving strangers is not an easy task. But we know that when we place our lives and renew our minds in God, we have more courage to step out and do those things that God is asking us to do. We Practice our faith and we grow in faith when we extend hospitality to strangers – sometimes we are on the receiving end of this and sometimes we are the givers. But in doing either, everyone reaps the benefits of a stronger faith in God as we love neighbor and stranger alike. By welcoming the stranger we make a statement that all are made in the image of God.

Repeatedly when we go to Tennessee we meet strangers: the people on whose homes we work and often new crew members and leaders, in addition to others. On our trip we extended hospitality to others and we also experienced people extending hospitality to us.

Opal was our biggest saint on this trip. We had the pleasure once again of watching someone blossom under love, respect and care. She changed from someone who distrusted us to someone who loves us and now misses us. To watch what can happen in the intensity of 5 short days is nothing short of amazing. But, our God is all about miracles.

Often we think of hospitality as someone who is good at welcoming people into their homes – I’m sure you can think of people who are good at that type of hospitality. But here our hospitality is extended in someone else’s home. The dictionary definition of hospitality is: given to generous and cordial reception of guests and welcoming spirit…offering a pleasant or sustaining environment. Sounds life giving doesn’t it? This can be challenging in someone else’s house because it requires getting our judgments and ourselves out of the way so that we can do the work God has asked us to do. In Opal’s house, we worked to be respectful, gentle and kind with her belongings and with her. We worked absolutely as hard as we could, sweat dripping from our faces in 96 degree temperatures. We wanted to make her house safer and more beautiful for her. We wanted Opal to know that she was loved and cared for with nothing attached. She was the person God gave to us for the week and so we gave our all to her. We sawed, drilled, hammered, measured, cut paneling, threw out tons of bent nails that wouldn’t go into that blasted hard wood, (and brainstormed a better way!) ripped down wallpaper, put together beds, moved furniture, placed flooring down, lovingly removed, washed and replaced ALL her 210 angel figurines, painted outdoor furniture, purchased cushions for the outdoor glider and chair, ripped up the old porch and then created a new porch complete with banisters, handrail and an amazing new gate. WHEW! All in 5 days! What a pleasure it was.

As I’ve said, the connection between Opal and us grew as the week went on. We got so we laughed and told jokes with her – we really enjoyed getting to know her and she enjoyed getting to know us. The Spirit of God is felt in connections. Opal one day said to Amber, “why do people like you come to help people like me?” We pondered this at worship that night – sorry that anyone even thinks people like me and people like you. But we hope that we were able to bridge that gap to a degree with the grace and love of God. 

(Deb on bottom left, with Opal above directing the work)

As far as being on the receiving end of hospitality - one night the Presbyterian Church near Deer Lodge, Tennessee served us a spaghetti supper. They didn’t know us, but because they were thankful that we were in their town and serving their people, they wanted to do this for us – to show their gratitude to complete strangers. We were blessed.

Another night we invited our Deer Lodge friends (who 5 years ago were strangers to us) to eat supper with us – enjoying laughter and chatter for a few hours. We wanted to feed these saints for whom we are thankful and to demonstrate our gratitude.

My pastor and I sat in the living room and chatted with a family for whom we rehabbed their entire home in 2011. They invited us once again into their home to enjoy a few moments of reminiscing. It was wonderful to see them again, in addition to the work that we completed on their home when they too were strangers. But because our lives connected in 2011, as we extended the hospitality of God – we are no longer strangers.

In addition to hospitality moments, we had a number of great God’s Holy Presence moments on this trip. We were laying Luan down on the uneven floor as a subflooring in Opal’s bedroom. We measured very carefully and then measured again, before we cut. But when they all fit seamlessly - we rejoiced – it was such a Holy moment. God was present because we could not have done that alone. We felt the help of the Spirit of the Lord. This happened over and over again. Just after that I needed a 27” piece to fit into the closet space and so I went outside in search of a scrap of Luan. What did I find? But a 27” piece of Luan that fit perfectly into the closet. All for Opal. The people in our group that were out front working on the porch had similar experiences. Only they were dealing with stacks of cement blocks that needed to be level and straight and they kept fitting perfectly. We were blessed. Our focus was Opal – we wanted it to be good for her.

We also learned a lot about God’s Grace on this trip. Another stranger in our midst, if only for the first morning… was a gentleman named John. He was one of our crew leaders at Opal’s home. He works for Morgan Scott Project through Americorps, which means he has an income, but not much of one. He also works in the evening at a horse farm in an attempt to make ends meet. He talked often and proudly of his 17-year-old daughter and his wife whom he supports. We began feeling connected with him as many of us have children as well and we know all about the desire to take care of them. Eric, one of our group members, enjoyed talking with him while ripping down the old and building up the new porch. He learned that John had a bad tire, which he couldn’t afford to repair. Then later we all learned that John was currently homeless – we were all shocked with this news. Eric began thinking that he would purchase a new tire for John so that getting back and forth to work was not a problem for him. (One less thing to worry about) When Eric ran this by the head of Morgan Scott, he learned some things about John that weren’t so good – of times when he wasn’t very responsible or even downright irresponsible. Eric began questioning whether buying him the tire was the right thing to do? He shared this w our group one night and so we all wrestled with this issue. In the end, we all got o the point of saying, have we not all been there? Have we been perfect on our earthly walk? And anyway, what would Jesus do? Why, just because he has made some bad decisions does he not deserve this particular gift of grace? After that we decided to pool our money so Eric could buy him 4 new tires for his vehicle, which is really what he needed. He took John on Thurs afternoon to get these on his car – the trip was fraught with difficulties, such as those that people in poverty deal with on a regular basis. The car didn’t’ have all the lug nuts and so they wouldn’t put on the new tires until he had those. So off they went somewhere else to purchase the lug nuts he needed. Eventually, after a long fashion, John had all the tires on his car. This would enable him to get to work as needed. One of my friends stated, we are building more than just ramps and porches, we are building hope.

When we complete a mission trip we are intentional about doing God’s work and being God’s people. Believing that God lives in each of us and that God loves everyone exactly the same. Unconditional love, grace, hospitality to strangers and being intentional in God becomes much harder in every day life. Life sometimes gets in the way, we are busy, and as humans it is hard to maintain that intentional focus. But still we must try every day as we work to know God more intimately in prayer, worship and staying open to God and what God has for us each day. On the mission trip we grew in our faith as we loved and were mindful of others. We grew in faith as we experienced God’s Holy presence and gave grace where it was needed.

As people of God we are called to do things that aren’t necessarily in our comfort zones…things that are challenging – journeys that stretch and grow us. Going on mission trips can be challenging and risky. Loving strangers can be challenging and risky. Letting go of our judgments and letting God open our hearts can be challenging and risky. But at the end of the day, the nitty-gritty, blazing hot, sweaty, extremely hard work is completely satisfying. That is the presence of God. In the end we all benefit from contributing to the needs of the saints and extending hospitality and grace to strangers. By doing this, the kingdom of God on earth grows a little bit more. God Bless each of us as we work to find this God of the universe more and more deeply in each of our lives and in the lives of one another. And continue to serve and be “doers” of the Word, to the best of our abilities. 

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