oh death, where is your sting?

This is a re-post from my old blog (marychasebreedlove.wordpress.com).

 

Written October 2012

I experienced so much this summer, and I promise I’m going to finish telling the story.  But right now, I just can’t keep this story in my head. I have to share it. It’s too beautiful to keep to myself.

This summer, specifically on June 27 and July 6, my heart was broken. I was wrecked.

And it was one of the best things I’ve ever experienced.

After two very incredible but very exhausting weeks of camp, we ventured to Eagle Eyrie Conference Center in Lynchburg, Virginia. Needless to say, our entire staff was looking forward to this trip. Eagle Eyrie meant three weeks of camp (which means no Ryder loading for a while), a conference center instead of a college campus, and our first large week of camp. When we arrived to the warm, welcoming staff at Eagle Eyrie and the hotel-style rooms and beds, we instantly felt at home.

Once we got settled in, I noticed a lot of mail had already been sent to campers who would be at camp the following week. Box after box and letter after letter were addressed to two girls: Rose and Hope Stanphill. The first thought I had was, “good heavens, those are some lucky kids.” They got more mail that week than I think I have in my entire life.

We set up everything and got ready for a huge week of camp. Some staffers from CK2 joined us that week along with our CK6 angels since the numbers were large (600+ kids) and we began registration.

Camp registration was something I looked forward to doing. I got to meet each church leader personally before the week started. I could hear the kids outside getting excited about the week. Our staff had the best night of sleep we’ve had since I think most of us were on Christmas break, and the weather was beautiful.

After about half of the churches arrived, the group leader from Point Harbor Community Church in Chesapeake, VA came to registration. I recognized Point Harbor because 1.) I thought it was a cool name for a church, and 2.) The mail addressed to Rose and Hope were under “care of Point Harbor Community Church.”

The group leader from the church was a wonderful, beautiful woman named Cathy. As soon as we met, I instantly liked her. She had a large group of kids–one of the largest during the week. During the registration process of CentriKid, there is a time for group leaders to share their children’s special needs with us. “Special needs” mean anything that our staff needs to know about–family issues, food allergies, birthdays, emotional issues–anything that could hinder them from having a fantastic week of camp. Every night of registration, our staff took time to read through every single special attention card, pray for the kids, and delegate staffers to invest in those kids a little extra during the week.

As Cathy was giving us the special attention cards, she stopped and directly told us about two. Rose and Hope Stanphill.

She explained to us that Rose and Hope’s mother was battling cancer. She has been diagnosed in late February/March, and the cancer was aggressive. Through tears held back, she told us there was a chance the girls could lose their mother this week.

I was stunned. Our staff was stunned. We made it our goal to make this week of camp the best week of Rose and Hope’s summer.

Tuesday, or the “first full fabulous day of camp” as we call it, rolled around and was fantastic. Kids were having fun and were learning about the Gospel. Doesn’t get much better than that. Cathy won the honor of Gold Metal Group Leader that morning, too.

Then on Wednesday, June 27, I woke up not knowing that day would be the most emotionally and physically exhausting day of my summer.

During the end of the second hour of recreation/bible study, I got a call from one of my staffers. I had been on the recreation field and heard the phrase “Hey MC, there’s some group leaders in the conference center looking for you.”

Any other day, that would not be a surprise to me. In fact, it would be a surprise if I went a day without group leaders looking for me.  (During the second week of camp, I answered 67 phone calls from 2:30 pm – 1:00 am)

But when I heard my staffer say that, I got the sinking feeling that something was wrong.

I headed over to the conference center, walked in the door, and saw all the group leaders from Point Harbor.

My heart dropped. None of us said anything. Cathy just came over and hugged me, and then tears came.

Rose and Hope’s momma had passed away.

We spent what felt like hours in the conference center. They were reacting to not just the loss of two of their students’ mother, but also the loss of a dear friend. They were grieving the loss of someone they loved deeply.

I made a few calls to people to help come up with a plan on how to handle what was going on–how to tell the girls, how to tell the campers.

Do we send the girls home?

When do we tell them?

How do we tell them their mother is gone?

After an hour or so, we came up with a plan. We would tell the girls after track times. I let the track time leaders know to bring the girls to the conference center before hang time. Ellie and I made a trip to Wal-Mart and bought about 12 boxes of kleenex.

Soon, we were all sitting together in the conference center. I asked a few staffers who had spent time with the girls to come with us. One of the group leaders, a wonderful woman named Bonnie, with beautiful anointed words, told the girls their mother was with Jesus now.

What happened next continues to leave me in shock.

When the girls heard that, the first thing they did was smile.

They smiled. 

They smiled because their mother was with Jesus. She was free from her suffering.

That was the first reaction from a third grader and a fifth grader.

Of course, the tears came. We sat together and cried. One of my staffers, Michael, prayed because none of us adults were capable of speaking. After a few minutes of sorrow, joy came in one of the most unexpected ways.

The group leaders offered to take the girls out to eat away from camp (which is a BIG DEAL when you’re a camper) to celebrate their mom’s life. I left the girls with Michael and Aaron and went with Cathy to tell the rest of Point Harbor about their mom’s passing.

I was so incredibly relieved at how telling the girls went. My stomach had been in knots about it for hours. As we made our way to their cabin, I wasn’t expecting this part of the day to be very hard.

But I was wrong.

Cathy, with beautiful words like Bonnie, explained to the kids what happened. Hope and Roses’ mom died today.

The kids were devastated. They had lost a mentor, a teacher, and an active role in their ministry. They were heartbroken. I had no idea the impact Rose and Hope’s mom had on the children of this church. The kids mourned in their own ways. I found myself in the middle of a cabin filled with sorrow and love for Hope and Rose.

I returned to the conference center, aching and drained and what seemed like years later, to find Rose and Michel in an epic discussion of Pokemon. They were laughing and talking together.

I was stunned.

God used something like a mutual obsession of Pokemon to ease the pain of one of the worst feelings one can feel. Aaron managed to pop a bag of chips in his backpack that had us all in stitches while the girls left for dinner.

We discussed with the church group that worship might be very difficult for the kids that night. We decided Hope and Rose shouldn’t attend, but they had none of it. After their dinner, they insisted on attending worship.

The theme for that night’s worship was “Take a Stand.” Daniel, our camp pastor (and a dear friend of mine), would tell the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s refusal to bow to the false god King Nebuchadnezzar demanded they worship. Daniel 3:18 was a key verse.

“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Our God is able to deliver…but if He doesn’t deliver us, we will still not serve another god.

Wow.

In the time before worship, I sat in my room and cried. I cried until I physically couldn’t produce any more tears.

I thought about how Rose and Hope’s lives changed forever today.

I thought about the pain they’d face when they went home.

I thought about what their father was feeling.

I thought about how God didn’t deliver Helen Stanphill through the cancer, but rather from the disease.

I thought about loss the Point Harbor group leaders were feeling, and how they had to be strong for the broken kids.

While I was pulling myself together, I got a phone call. A camper fell down some rocks and we think she dislocated her knee. Minutes before worship started.

Seriously? Right now? You’re telling me that just happened?

Remember how I said in my previous post that spiritual warfare is real? It’s real.

Two ambulances showed up during worship that night. A worship service with a hurting church and two girls who lost their mother hours earlier. The potential distraction made me physically sick. I probably would have thrown up if I had been able to eat anything that day.

I waited at the end of the road with Ellie to tell the ambulance to turn their lights off, and arrived to see Amanda Kate, our rec leader (and a dear friend) literally holding this child’s kneecap. She was taken to the ER and treated, and was back the next day. Worship happened in spite of the distractions.

The next day finally came, and to my surprise, the girls wanted to stay at camp.

They wanted to stay at CentriKid. They wanted to play OMC. Rose was in the variety show that night.

Again, I was stunned.

That Thursday was arguably the best day of camp I’ve ever experienced. In the sorrow, there was joy. Cathy shared with me she was absolutely convinced their mother knew what she was doing. She didn’t want her girls to see her go. She held off until she knew they were at camp.

The day before she died, one of the group leaders had texted the girl’s father with an update about how much fun they were having at camp. Their dad read the message to their mom, and in her coma, she smiled. She died the next morning.

Apparently, I still had some tears left in my body.

Thursday night was the variety show for the campers who were in performance track times. Until the moment it happened, it never occurred to me that Rose was in the sign language track time.

I watched in complete astonishment as Rose beautifully signed “Christ is Risen” by Matt Maher.

Oh, death, where is your sting?
Oh, hell, where is your victory?
Oh, church, come stand in the light
Our God is not dead. He’s alive. He’s alive!

Rose was on stage signing these words the day after her mother died.

Death, where is your sting?

I was, you guessed it, stunned.

The next day was closing. Actually, it was “clopening” for us. Closing and opening. We had a weekend camp following this week of camp.

I didn’t want Point Harbor to leave. I didn’t want the girls to face what was in their near future. Rose and I connected Thursday night over ice cream and a mutual admiration for Star Trek (caveat: Rose is literally the coolest kid on the face of the earth). I wanted them to stay at camp.

But alas, they left, and we began our turnaround. We had a very smooth registration with awesome adults.

That night, while Ellie and I were getting a head start on filling up water balloons for the next day’s OMC, the sky turned black and the power went out. It didn’t come back on for a very long time.

A derecho came that night. I woke up at 5:30 in the morning after we spent the night on the floor of the conference center (it seriously sounded and felt like a tornado) and walked outside. I saw debris everywhere. Trees were down. Power lines were down.

This was bad.

This was very bad.

Remember what I said about spiritual warfare?

With the power out, there was nothing to do except go on. We ran the next (and only full day) of camp completely without power. No lights, no music, no sound, no videos, no air conditioning. The amazing people at Eagle Eyrie did everything they could possibly do to help us out.

The kids loved it. We moved chairs to the rec field and had worship outside, lit by the light of our van headlights. We still had running cold water. The weekend was a great week of camp. Churches who had never attended camp before told us they can’t wait to come back next summer.

Wow.

Since the power was out, we made an impromptu trip to Washington, D.C. for the Fourth of July. We ended up having to cancel the next week of camp because of the power outage. I was so happy to see my staff’s reaction–they were sad. They didn’t want camp to be cancelled. They thought I was kidding when I had to tell them. That was a proud moment for me as a director.

So in light of the darkness, we ventured to Hampton, VA to the home of Amanda Kate. We spent a few days with her incredible family and wonderful neighbors. We took showers, washed our clothes, and charged our cell phones. The people in her community completely showered us in love. It was a fantastic weekend.

It also just so happened that the Friday we were there was the day of Helen Stanphill’s funeral, which would be held at Point Harbor Community Church. Twenty minutes from where we were staying.

Myself and the ones who were close with the church that week decided to attend the funeral. We saw the girls, the group leaders, and the wonderful kids from the church.

Her funeral was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I dare you to read her obituary and not be floored, crying, and/or both.  It’s a good thing I had a few days to replenish tears, because I cried during the entire service. The celebration of her life was incredible. Cathy spoke about CentriKid and how, through the death of Rose and Hope’s mom, twelve of their students came to know Christ for the first time.

Wow. 

The next day, we attended Point Harbor’s night service. We went out to eat together. We had fellowship, laughter, joy, and wonderful memories in spite of the heart-wrenching circumstances.

For the rest of the summer, Daniel told Hope and Rose’s story on Wednesday night of worship. Hundreds of children came to know God through the death of Helen Stanphill at CentriKid.

I wish I had a way to sum up this experience, but I’m at a total loss for words. The power did come back on, and I will resume in the stories of our adventures (first, backtracking to Campbell week), but I wanted to share this experience with you all. It changed my life. I think about it every single day.

find joy here

One dreary, rainy morning, I was driving down the infamous Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. (Not to be confused with Peachtree Road, West Peachtree, or the other 500,000 variations in the metro area.) It’s easy to lose yourself in the sea of cars and seemingly endless windows reflecting in towering skyscrapers. I always notice the old brick churches housed between the illustrious skyscraper landscape–they can’t help but stand out. There’s one particular beautiful church I notice every time I drive down Peachtree. On that rainy morning, I saw the sign in front of the building said “Find Joy Here.” As soon as I read those words, I noticed two homeless people sleeping outside on the front steps, all of their possessions being soaked in the rain.

This image was a kick in the chest. For one thing, it was real. It wasn’t some photoshopped image used for ignorant Facebook propaganda. I was hurting for the two people trying to find rest and a place they should be able to find rest. I don’t know if the church has a homeless ministry; I don’t know if the doors were locked; all I know is what I saw. And it hurt to see.

There are a lot of people suffering in Atlanta. I don’t know their stories, I don’t know if they’re addicted to drugs or just down on their luck, but I hurt for them. Earlier this summer, I saw a guy in a truck go out of his way to drive on a patch of water on the side of the road to drench a homeless man. I was literally speechless.

Ask yourself this: How do you react when you see homeless people asking for food? What goes through your head when you see someone using food stamps?

Do you feel angry that someone would have the nerve to ask you for money and not just go get a job?

Are you disgusted that your hard-earned money is being taxed to assist people who, perhaps, don’t deserve it?

People are suffering everywhere. Right in your hometown, people are struggling to make ends meet. Barely making enough money for food. There are people actively seeking jobs and simply can’t find employment. There are people who work hard every day, but can’t afford proper healthcare. And these people aren’t in some distant hypothetical place, they’re in your own backyard.

I think a lot of today’s Christians are severely lacking compassion. I think our desire to be “right,” our selfish human greed, and the manipulation of how information is presented clouds our judgement and dries up our compassion.

I’ve personally encountered people who live in crummy apartments, can’t afford a car so they rely on MARTA or walk, are on Medicaid or have no health insurance at all, and live paycheck to paycheck they receive from the jobs they work hard to have. I know it’s hard to imagine, but there are people in this country who can’t work. They can’t find employment. They have disabilities. The list goes on.

Since I google things like “how to pass car emission test” and “how many movies has Kevin Spacey been in”, I figured I’d try out googling “what does it mean to be a Christian?” I’d like to share two of the top responses:

“Being a Christian means that you are changed on the inside, not controlled from the outside.  It means that your heart has been changed by the presence of God.”

“Christians are people who follow the teachings of Jesus.”

I also found ten adjectives to describe Jesus, in no particular order (and there are many more adjectives out there to describe Him).

1. Compassionate
2. Merciful
3. Good
4. Caring
5. Submissive
6. Honest
7. Patient
8. Loving
9. Humble
10. Sacrificial

After a little more digging, I came across a rather interesting blog post addressing the 7 marks of a stereotypical American Christian. Let’s take a look:

1. You love to fight, argue and attack.

“…There’s nothing quite like flooding people’s Facebook feeds with posts about the sins of gay marriage, abortion, and the Democratic Party or the volleyed claims of bigotry, hypocrisy, and self-interest. American Christians seemingly love to argue with people and engage themselves in various culture wars. Whether it’s about the existence of global warming, prayer in schools, evolution, gun control, or homosexuality, you love to let people know that you’re RIGHT and they’re WRONG. Oh yeah, and if you don’t agree with me —You’re going to hell! Literally….”

2. You Practice Christianity Through Groups And Institutions

“Without structured, regulated, and organized religious affiliations, your faith would be radically different.”

3. Your Theology is Burrowed

4. Your Online Faith Doesn’t Reflect Reality

“You post Bible verses on Twitter, claim ‘Christianity’ as your religion on Facebook, and proudly put inspiring quotes about God and faith on your Tumblr account. But in reality you never pray, read the Bible, or practically live out your beliefs. If only your faith was as strong as it appeared on Social Media.”

5. You Love Labels

“When you meet a fellow Christian, you immediately classify them. Are they a Liberal, Conservative, Calvinist, Open Theist, Pacifist, Methodist, Egalitarian, Complementarian, Premillennial, Postmillennial, Lutheran, Charismatic, Catholic, Dispensationalist, Literalist, Universalist, or Annihilationist?”

6. You Crave Efficiency Over Spirituality

7. You Need Entertainment

These seven stereotypes are the expressed views of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect my personal opinion–but he’s got a point. And like I said earlier…stereotypes exist for reason.

So how can we, as Christians, find a way to make sure our stereotypes match the adjectives of Christ?

Here’s five points of my rough draft:

1. Stop judging others. I long for membership in a church body that would welcome anyone with open arms and genuine love. I want to see a drag queen walk in the doors and be greeted with a cup of coffee and intentional conversation. We have GOT to stop thinking we have everything figured out and that we understand the lifestyles of people we clearly do not. We can’t preach hour-long sermons about how gay people are an abomination to the world (I’ve been through one, it was awful). Sermons like that aren’t constructive or correcting; they’re destructive and condemning. You know what? They’re no more of an abomination to the world than we good ol’ Southern Baptists are. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can begin to actually show people what Jesus was like. There’s a distinct difference between compromising your own convictions and following Jesus’s command to love and serve everyone–not just the people who believe the same way as you. Don’t use the first as an excuse for the latter.

To quote Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?”

2. Get your hands dirty. We need to get outside our comfort zone. Talk to people who are nothing at all like you. Get to know the people who are so easy to judge. Get to a place where you don’t feel uncomfortable investing in people who believe differently than you.

3. Have compassion for the people you can’t stand. Do you get angry when you see homeless people? Take them to dinner. Hate the President? Pray specifically and lovingly for him every single day.

4. Stop relying on other people to meet the needs of others. If you sit in church on Sunday and talk, as a congregation, about how “we need to reach the people around us” and do nothing, STOP IT! Don’t talk about doing something. Do something.

Mom and Dad, don’t freak out about this next part.

I, like any other sinner, am of course guilty of things I write passionately against. I’m an imperfect human being. But I’m trying.

Who doesn’t enjoy their comfort zone? Does anyone actually enjoy being uncomfortable?

A few weeks ago, my husband and I broke out of our comfort zone tremendously. After church one Wednesday night, Christopher and I were leaving a restaurant when a woman flagged us down in the parking lot. We stopped to talk to her. In tears, she begged us for a ride home.

My mind, of course, went directly into “Law and Order: SVU” mode. The entire ride, I was praying that we wouldn’t be assaulted by a group of gang members or have our car stolen or be stabbed.

I was thinking about me.

Meantime, the woman named Lisa was weeping in the backseat and repeating over and over, “I just want to go home.”

I’m not encouraging all Christians to drop their common sense. Use the brain God gave you. If something seems dangerous, don’t do it.

Lisa wasn’t dangerous at all. She was hurting and lost. She just wanted to go home.

I did get her phone number and have tried to check on her, but I can’t help but think about the opportunity I missed to pray for her, with her.

Don’t be like I was. Get out of your comfort zone.

5. Be a source of joy. Forgive easily. Love tremendously. Err on the side of grace.

quotes from the Pope that rocked my non-Catholic world

Christians, non-Christians, anyone and everyone:

Please take a few minutes to read this interview with Pope Francis published in America Magazine.

I don’t need to write a blog post explaining my thoughts on this or why I think it is crucial for the church–regardless of denomination–to soak this in.

Instead, I’ll share some of my favorite quotes (emphasis added by myself):

“I ​​do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

“…the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.”

“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner…preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing.”