What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these thing we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I sat in the back of a room filled with sweaty and smelly teenagers. Between the superabundance of Axe Body Spray, the overly-exaggerated expressions of trying to outshine everyone else, and the constant hum of giggling, sighing, and hair flipping, I finally realized what I had gotten myself into: A middle school mission trip to Raleigh County, West Virginia.
We left immediately following worship last Sunday; after talking about Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat I changed out of my robe, rushed home to grab my bags and eat lunch, to return to our parking lot to disembark for West Virginia. Standing by my car I was less than thrilled to discover that our youth were limited in their enthusiasm for our week of service and prayer. Then again, who could blame them? We were about to leave the comforts of Staunton, our families and friends, to sleep on the floors of an old elementary school, preparing all of our own meals, leaving for the bulk of the day to serve the needs of the community, and then to gather every evening in a room full of hormone wrestling middle schoolers.
“Jesus is our demonstration” was the theme for our week. The first night we read about Jesus’ final evening with his disciples when he knelt on the floor and washed their feet. While our youth were nervously creating new friendships with the 60 other youth in attendance, we discussed what it meant for Jesus to do something like that for his friends. As we learned about the conditions of the first century, how dirty the disciples’ feet must have been, I scanned the room to see how the information was being received. Honestly, most of them weren’t paying attention. It was our first night, many of us had been traveling all day to get there, and the idea of washing someone else’s feet can be terrifying to a middle schooler.
The evening concluded with individual church time as we further elaborated on the ideas we had discussed that evening. When it became clear that the evening’s theological reflections were not completely cemented in our minds, I decided to change the subject and ask a question of everyone from our group: What are you most excited about and what are you most nervous about this week… Our kids were all excited about serving God and neighbor, but almost every person in that room expressed reservations about mixing together with the other churches; our group was much smaller than the others and our kids were mostly introverted. In their responses I heard, beneath their words, a fear that even with their desire to help, God might not be with them. So, before heading to bed we prayed together for the coming week and for our ability to be in ministry with others.
If God is for us, who is against us?
That first night, it really felt as if God was not with us. In the boys’ room the smells and sounds were already becoming nauseously palpable when I finally had to shout, with vigor and volume, that it was now time for bed. I learned in the morning that the girls’ room was just as bad if not worse; between the gossiping and giggling our females were unable to sleep through most of the night.
However, throughout the first real day of work that question of God’s presence quickly moved from our limited perspective, to the reality of the people we were serving. Where was God in all of this? As the boys helped organize a Salvation Army Thrift Store and the girls sat with underprivileged children attempting to help them read, we all experienced moments of wondering about the goodness of God. I saw youth stand in silent and frightening awe before a warehouse filled with trash unlike they had ever seen before, I saw youth watching the people who filled the Thrift Store the moment it opened to examine the new items that had come in during the weekend. Were these people really blessed by the grace of God?
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
As the week continued and we spent more time with people in the local community it became harder and harder to see God’s love in their lives. My group, ironically named Mountain Mamas after a line the John Denver song about West Virginia, served a man named Robert whose house was situated in an abandoned neighborhood surrounded by houses that were being taken over by the local vegetation. The first two days we were unable to spend time with him as he had many errands to run but he nevertheless trusted our youth to paint his interior walls and ceiling. Would any of you trust a group of 12, 13, and 14 year olds to paint the inside of your house?
Robert had fallen on both hardship and distress. After years of a seemingly decent marriage his wife had abandoned him to live a life of solitude in a house paradoxically filled with pictures of his entire family. When we finished the ceiling in his kitchen, and began to paint the walls of his living room, Robert was finally able to spend some time with our group as we worked in his house. He often quietly observed from the corner letting the kids do their own thing, but at certain moments he would remove himself from the work space and retreat to his yard.
On one such occasion, toward the end of the week when I felt that I could leave the youth with the paint cans unsupervised, an act of immense trust, I followed Robert outside. I discovered him standing in the front yard looking at the patchy grass between his feet unaware of my presence. “Robert, is everything okay?” I asked. He slowly looked up from the ground and I saw tears welling up in his eyes as his lip began to quiver. “You all don’t know how much this means to me,” he began, “I feel like I’ve been given another chance. It hasn’t always made sense to me, but it seems like I had to fall to the very deepest pit before I could see the light again. You all have given me hope, a new claim on life, and I am so thankful.”
When he felt abandoned, when the hardship and distress had brought him to the lowest time of his life, God sent us to serve Robert. God sent a bunch of crazy young Christians to Raleigh County, West Virginia so that we, like Paul, could triumphantly declare a resounding NO. In all these things, in the tremendous valleys of life, when we feel abandoned and alone, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For a few brief moments, we got to be Christ’s body for Robert reminding him of his worth, his value, and his importance.
Paul wrote to the church in Rome to remind them that God is for us. Whatever happens to us that we might imagine as God’s rejection – trials or tribulation, persecution or hunger, hardship or distress – have lost their power to mean that, because God is for us.
Suffering and destitution are not God’s last Word. God raised Christ from the dead reminding us forever and ever that death is not the end, we are not abandoned by the God who breathed life into us. God’s care for people like us is shown in the power he gives, through his love and grace, to overcome all dangers, all feelings of loss, and all loneliness.
It was our privilege to be Christ’s body for Robert this week. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity we had to serve his needs, to serve the needs of the children in the reading program, and remind all of them of their worth.
However, a strange thing happened during our trip. Even in the midst of helping love on the last, the least, and the lost, I discovered that some from our group were wrestling with some of these things in their own lives. Every evening while we gathered as a church group I was given glimpses of the struggles and valleys in the lives of our people. They might not have the same physical struggles as the people we served, but it was clear that they were unsure of God’s love in their lives.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
On our last evening together our church group gathered in a small conference room, sitting in a circle on the floor with the lights dimmed while contemporary Christian music lightly played in the background. A chair was placed in the middle of the circle with a basin of water waiting near the legs. One at a time I invited every member of our group to sit in the chair and we took turns washing one another’s feet. Truly I tell you, there are few things in life as humbling and life-giving as washing, and having your feet washed, by a brother or sister in faith. One by one every member in our group sat in the chair and after their feet were washed we surrounded them and placed our hands on them and prayed for them.
Almighty God, thank you for the gift of Chris in our lives. It has been a tremendous joy to see the way you have moved through him this week as he lead and guided us. For the many ways that he serves you as a father, a husband, a teacher, and a friend with give you thanks.
Great God thank you for your wonderful disciple Luke. We praise your name for this young man that you have shaped. His faith is so real and tangible that it gives me hope for your kingdom. He is a blessing to my life and I give you thanks for sending him here this week.
Father of mercy, thank you for your loving servant Tucker. He has so selflessly served the needs of others this week from scrubbing the floor of Robert’s house to befriending some of the outcasts from other churches. He lives out his faith in wonderful and amazing ways. This week could not have been as incredible without him and we are so thankful for all that you are doing through him.
God of grace thank you for Courtney. As she has served the needs of this community we have seen you at work through her. We are blessed by her honesty and willingness to address the truth of our lives. She works hard for the needs of others and so faithfully lives out the call to love you and her neighbor. What a blessing she is to me and my life, thank you for calling her to lead the life that she has faithfully followed.
Most merciful God thank you for the gift of Willow. As a young woman she has so captivated our hearts this week through her commitment to your kingdom. She is so full of light and vibrancy that she changes every life she touches. Our lives would be so dim and lifeless without her and it has been a joy to watch you work through her this week. Thank you for sending Willow into our lives.
Great God thank you for Grace. She is so clearly not a weed but a wheat of faith. Firmly rooted in your love and mercy she has been your Son’s body this week for others and for us. She is a constant reminder of the way you love us, because she places other people’s needs in front of her own. What a joy it is to call her my friend. We are so thankful for all that you have done and will continue to do through her.
It was through tears, through the water of foot washing, and through the faith of prayer that we told everyone in our group what Paul was trying to tell the people in Rome: You are magnificent and God loves you.
Do you know how magnificent you are? Have you ever been able to see yourself the way God sees you? Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not our doubts, not our failures, not our shortcomings, not our sins, not our disappointments; we are stuck with God’s love.
You are wonderful and unique, full of grace and glory. God has done, is doing, and will continue to do marvelous things through you. My friends I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You are loved, you are wonderful, and you are magnificent.