Barb’s Message at Living Faith United Methodist Church

July 8

Following God

Hi. I’m Barb. I am going to tell you about how God has led me through my life, through Scripture, tradition, experience and reason. The journey has been beautiful, heartbreaking, and most of all, surprising. But, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

First, I want to read a well-known poem called “Footprints in the Sand.”

One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,

One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.

I’m sure we’ve all heard this poem before. In my case, God added a few lines that fit me best. They say: “Or, in your case, my child, look over there. — You see those drag marks?”

I haven’t always been a willing follower. There have been things that I felt God wanted me to do that I resisted, especially when it comes to people and relationships. I relate to the story of Peter and Cornelius found in Acts chapter 10. (NRSV)

 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18 They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three[a] men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22 They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So Peter[b] invited them in and gave them lodging.

The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers[c] from Joppa accompanied him. 24 The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26 But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?”

30 Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31 He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33 Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”

Gentiles Hear the Good News

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Gentiles Receive the Holy Spirit

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

From this chapter, we can see that Peter was resistant to God’s surprising call to visit a Gentile home, even though that Gentile was a believer. That’s because Peter, like all Jews at that time, was taught from a young age that there were things a godly Jew did not touch, eat, or do. You didn’t touch unclean things. You didn’t eat unclean food. And, you most certainly did not willingly associate with unclean people, like Gentiles. It was a way that God had helped them protect their traditions and customs for generation after generation. But, now God was revealing something new to Peter.

Peter said, when he saw the vision of the unclean animals and was told to kill and eat, “By no means, Lord…” It took God a few more times to get through to Peter, as he said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Thank goodness for this grace that God revealed to Peter, because it was through that grace that we are here, as Gentiles, today. The voice of God was clear then, and it can be now, if we choose to listen.

I used to hear stories about people hearing God speak to them, and I felt a little bit snubbed. I had expected something like this, “Barb, take that job!” “Get gas now, Barb!” “Barb, go be a missionary!”

I had forgotten that God spoke to Elijah, not in a whirlwind or an earthquake, but in a still, small voice. At just the right time, that’s how God has spoken to me, and let me tell you, the voice may be quiet, but it is very clear.

Like Peter, I was invited to be in contact with someone who I believed was unclean. More than unclean, I had been taught that people like her were enemies. God taught me otherwise.

I was working at Fort Jackson in the Public Affairs Office as a civilian journalist. All the other journalists were soldiers. A rumor began to go around the office that a “witch” was coming to the office. They meant that a soldier who follows the Wiccan religion was going to be stationed there in MY office, where I had carved out for myself a nice, cozy little Christian comfort zone. Now, along comes a witch to mess things up. I was not happy.

But, I was also surprised when she arrived. I had expected her to look like Elvira, mistress of the dark. Here she was, a short girl like me, but with glasses and freckles. And, she was scared. She was new. Her kids and husband were in California, along with her car. And, nobody was particularly welcoming to her, not even me.

My heart was on guard. I was annoyed when they set her in the desk next to mine. I didn’t then realize that God was a part of how we two were constantly thrown together.

For example, she needed rides to her newspaper interviews and back because of not having a car. One afternoon, at lunchtime, she called to be picked up, and there was nobody around but me and a soldier who couldn’t leave because he was tasked with answering phones. “Oh great,” I thought. But, I went to pick her up. And, I brought her back to the office, dropping her off. I was getting ready to leave for lunch when God said, “How is she supposed to get to lunch with no car?” Reluctantly, I invited her to lunch. She was so happy and friendly. We had a great conversation as we ate our scrumptious Burger King hamburgers. Yet, in the back of my mind, I was congratulating myself and waiting for my chance to convert her.

That didn’t happen over fries and a Coke. And, I was still on guard. One day, I heard her say something that I felt was insulting to Christians. I was just about to pipe up with an argument when I felt God putting his hand over my mouth. Believe me, I was surprised, as it felt so real. Then, I heard him say, “I don’t need you to argue for me. I’m big enough to take care of myself. SHE needs a friend.”

So it began. We became very close and still are. In fact, we became best friends, surprising everyone. I let my guard down and just loved her, like God wanted me to.

Then, in 2011, two months after Amber died, her son, Logan took his life. He had been struggling all of his young life with mental illness that caused him so much pain. He was a kind, sensitive soul who just seemed to be unable to carry on any longer.

My friend, Tess, told me that she was looking to me to help guide her along the difficult journey of grief. “I’m looking to you, Barb,” she wrote me. It was then that my mind flashed back and I realized that she really did need a friend.

God was not finished with me, however. He had more to teach. He had another Peter-Cornelius lesson for me. Just because God had convinced me that witches were not necessarily my enemy – and definitely not God’s enemies, doesn’t mean I had fully opened my heart to all people. There were still folks I was on guard against, and it took a lot for God to help me tear down that dividing wall.

Once again, I had created a nice comfort zone for myself, where God and I were cool, and I was on autopilot, just happily waiting for Jesus to come back and give me my reward for being so good.

Then – life took a hard turn. Amber died. My world, my heart, and my comfort zone were shattered beyond repair. At least they’d never be the same. In my pain, I reached out – not for the god of the comfort zone, who had deserted me – but for a solid, loving God who was strong enough to bear my pain and carry me over the sand and through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It is a lonely place, but God showed up there in a new, and even beautiful way.

Because I was now raw, emotionally, and weakened more than I’ve ever been, I was open, vulnerable and ready for more guidance from our amazing God and His Holy Spirit. He did not disappoint, but like I said before, he did surprise.

My heart was so soft and pliable then, but the lesson was incredibly mind bending because of the traditions and teachings I had thought were so carved in stone. God did not approve of LGBTQ people, I believed. I could care about them, and love them. But, I was supposed to help them see the error of their ways.

I hadn’t been open, mentally, to the idea that God made them, loved them, and wanted me to just love them without judgment, the way he did. That grace of God! How expansive, revolutionary and amazing it is! How beautifully God works. Praise His name.

For you see, I began to meet people who were gay, and they became friends. I finally saw their hearts, and the pain many felt because they thought God couldn’t love them. Many of their own parents didn’t want them anymore, so how could they ever believe God did? When one of my friends, part of a married lesbian couple, told me about how her heart was broken because her mother and father told her she was dead to them, I had just lost my own daughter, so I cried and said to her, “I would be proud to have you for a daughter.” In my heart I was thinking, “here I have lost my only daughter to death, and these parents have thrown away a perfectly healthy one. They don’t know what they are doing.”

My heart softened more, and my mind opened. But, it was not easy. I still felt that I was supposed to try to convert my gay friends, and that I was never to approve of what I thought they had chosen to be. Hearing their stories, however, and knowing that they had trusted me, and been vulnerable, I could not think of wounding them by judging and pronouncing sentence on them.

Through prayer, study, and more prayer and study – including the passage in Acts 10, I finally yielded my stubborn heart completely. It felt so good to just open up and feel free to love everyone with God’s grace and acceptance.

God’s grace had been made perfect in my weakness, you see. In the utter devastation of the loss of my child, God’s grace met me, and filled in the broken places with so much abundance that there was no room for judging anyone. I had only the capacity to follow two rules – the ones Jesus laid out long ago: love God with everything, and love my neighbor as myself.

My prayer for us is that we will always be open to the Holy Spirit’s surprising lessons. May we follow so closely that we can see the footprints. And, may we believe that when trouble comes, Jesus will carry us in those arms that were stretched out on a cross to save the world.

Love to you all.