The Overflowing Love of Christ

Today a few of us from CityPres had the opportunity to join alongside a sister in NE OKC who is feeding breakfast and lunch to 50-75 kids per day from the library at 23rd and Martin Luther King.  We ran into her at the Juneteenth celebration and we talked for hours as she shared with me a story of how she began to feed these kids.  She was a tutor at a local elementary school and was frustrated as her student would come for tutoring and would lay down on the desk and refuse to even lift up his head when she would read.  In her frustration with him, she finally felt like she just needed to listen and as she sat quietly next to him and listened what she heard was this little boy’s stomach growling so loudly that she didn’t know how she’d ever missed it.  She asked him if he’d eaten that day and he admitted that he had not really eaten that day or the day before.  Her heart broke and she decided that she would find a way to walk into that need.  She rented a kitchen and has begun to make breakfast and lunch every day of the summer so far.  

I called her on Tuesday night and she said that she had actually been praying for the Lord to send her some extra hands as on Wednesday she had agreed to take a group of kids on a “field trip” to the splash pad.  So, we agreed and a few of us joined them at Memorial Park on 36th and Classen.  We handed out lunch, played with kids, talked to the women who were with them and learned that all of these kids were children of women who were in a homeless and domestic violence shelter in Northeast OKC.    

When we arrived and began to set up, we noticed a water feature in the middle that looks like 3 hanging buckets.  The buckets sit right side up as water pours into them and as they become full, they flip over and empty refreshing water out upon whoever is in the splash zone.  

As we sat talking, they asked us if we were all related or how we all knew each other and we told them that we went to the same church.  They asked which church and where it was and a few questions about whether or not we were active in “missions.”  It was a beautiful moment to be able to clarify.  We told them that we are actually probably better described as a body of people who are being changed by the love of Christ so deeply that we are understanding our need of one another and of Christ’s call to us to care deeply about reconciling with brothers and sisters whom we have not historically loved well.  This wasn’t “mission work” for us [which often has a one-sided feel to it] but an opportunity to learn to love one another well and share what we have together [resources, wisdom, life] for His glory.  It is a learning to share in each other’s sufferings because “when one member of the body suffers, all suffer.”  So, it has to matter to me that these kiddos don’t have access to food or a good education.  It has to matter to me that to access a safe, cool place to play we had to drive to the other side of town. It has to matter that their moms are in a hard spot and lack safe places to live.  By His grace, it GETS to matter and I actually get to be part of the healing.  What a precious gift.    

And, just like those buckets in the middle of the splash pad the longer we talked the less defensive we were and the more our buckets filled, until the love of Christ truly overflowed.  And it soaked us, it soaked them, all it soaked each of those kiddos.  By the end of our time, we exchanged numbers and sweaty/soaked hugs and blessed each other.  

It was peanut butter sandwiches, playing in the water, chatting in the shade, choosing to embrace the awkwardness of our differences, but ultimately...it was tearing down what divides us so we can build His Kingdom together.  

It was Paul’s prayer for the church at Phillippi and it is ours for the church in Oklahoma City.  As he fills us with His love as beloved children it is for a glorious purpose to be poured out that we could see the demonstration of His Kingdom of love, justice, mercy right here in our midst:

And it is my prayer that your love may be OVERFLOWING, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness [the display of justice and mercy] that comes because of Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. -Philippians 1:9-11-


 

Sharing Stories.

There are countless faces and stories that have deeply impacted us and taught us more than we can possibly express about what the Kingdom of God looks like as it comes into this broken world to bring healing and mercy and justice.  I confess, we were overwhelmed as we sat down to attempt to highlight just a few that have meant so much to us.  We have selected some of our favorite moments and lessons that the Lord has taught us through them in hopes that they might illustrate not only what life has looked like for us here, but also what we are confident that He wants do in our midst in Oklahoma City.  We pray that they would minister to you all as they have us -- we also pray that they are an encouragement and never a source of guilt.  It is Him to causes us both to want and to work toward what pleases Him -- may He cause us all together to want and seek His Kingdom first with all of our hearts, lives, and resources. 

 

Side of the Road -- Part I.

Within a year at seminary, we were offered an opportunity to spend the summer as interns for an international non-profit based in St. Louis.  We joyfully agreed and began to spend time together learning, but also praying for more understanding about how some of the issues that they were dealing with on an international level [specifically sex trafficking] were occuring in our city.  After meeting with the session of our church and sharing a little bit about our desire to become involved, we were encouraged to engage the countless women who walked the street as "prostitutes" right there in the middle of our neighborhood.  And so, with a prayer and a small team of people we went to work in a community garden maintained by our church just off the side of the road most known for prostitution in our area.  To be honest, I wasn't sure what we'd say or do if/when we encountered a woman who might be willing to talk to us, but we prayed and gardened and waited...for about 10 minutes.  

Jessica walked up and sat down eager to share a cup of coffee and a muffin and talk.  She shared a small part of her story, and more specifically she shared that she had been drugged the night before and had her belongings stolen by a man who intended to hold onto her legal documents and medication so he could be her "boyfriend."  She told us that she had just been praying this morning that God would send someone to her that would help her out of this life.  I looked at a friend and we looked back at Jessica and told her, "well, I am pretty sure that is us and while we don't really have a clue what the next steps look like for you -- we will walk with you through them."  She wept and threw her crack and pipe in the middle of the street and went back with us to the church office where she rested on the couch while I called through every drug rehab facility in the state that would take an uninsured woman.  We found one finally, but it wouldn't take her until the next day.  As we made plans for the evening, she gathered with a small group of college volunteers who were staying with us for the week.  As they sat down with her she shared with them how the night before she had opened a Bible as she was praying for God to send her a way out and the Lord had given her Psalm 18 which she read it out loud to us:  

1  I love you, O Lord, my strength.
2 The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
  my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge [this means something different to a crack user who has depended on false "rocks" of refuge, she explained.  *You buy crack in "rocks" for those of you who don't get that.]
    my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
3 I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
    and I am saved from my enemies.

4 The cords of death encompassed me;
    the torrents of destruction assailed me;
5 the cords of Sheol entangled me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

6 In my distress I called upon the Lord;
    to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
    and my cry to him reached his ears.

Shortly after that, the withdrawal effects of crack came on strong and we headed to the ER where she spent the majority of the night.  The next day, we picked her up and drove her to Farmington, MO to a rehab facility.  We dropped her off with a few belongings and some money on her phone account to be able to touch base and pray with her each night.  We hugged her tight and said "goodbye" -- she stopped me on the way to my car and said she had one question before we left.  I then listened as she explained to me how the nighttime was a place of deep fear for her as she was often tormented by voices and Satan who would tell her over and over again that she was worthless and ugly and would never get free and should simply take her life.  "What do I tell him when he comes?" she asked.  It was a profound moment for me to see just how real the enemy seeks to devour and destroy and so we prayed together and I encouraged her to spend some time in that Psalm before bed.  We decided that if he still came then she would tell him, "I am a daughter of King Jesus and you have no authority over me, not over my body, not over my mind -- I belong to Him and He loves me and in His name I command you to leave me alone."  She claimed a peaceful night followed and many after that.  Then, at some point near the end of her time in Farmington, MO a man came to rehab who "triggered" her trauma.  I recieved a call from the social worker in Farmington, MO around 10:00 who simply told me that she had been walking between group therapy sessions and then suddenly began to run from the treatment facility toward the interstate.  I sat stunned and longing to know if my friend was safe, and it would be nearly 3 months until I saw her again.  

Read more about that at Part 2.  

 

Bringing the Family Together.

After we'd lived in the community for about a year, I was told about a job opening for a low-income housing ministry whose office was 2 buildings down from our home.  I nearly didn't apply because I wasn't sure that I had anything to offer, but after much convincing -- I tossed in my application.  As I spoke with the board during the interview process I was able to articulate that I really knew nothing about the practical side of running a housing ministry -- I was handy-ish, but not exactly Bob Vila and my major was history.  And, while I was excited at the thought of bringing restoration to some of these turn of the century homes, I was mostly excited because 80% of their tenants had become my actual neighbors.  For several months, we had been walking with a young tenant next door to us who moved out of an abusive situation and had almost no belongings.  We worked with our church to get her some basic furniture and gave her our microwave so that she could cook some food.  I helped her hang some curtains and will never forget how excited she was about red, velour curtains that were 2 sizes too big for her windows.  From there, "E" pretty much became a part of our extended family -- we let her do laundry in our home so we could sit and chat together.  Through these laundry sessions, we got to know her and her story.  She had a job that the bus line didn't run to, so she had purchased a car through a sleazy car dealership.  Almost immediately it needed major repairs that she couldn't afford, so to be able to afford to fix her car she sold the title to a Title Loan place who charged her almost 200% interest!  What I found out really quickly was that while housing was an incredible opportunity to meet a basic need, perhaps the real opportunity came as we established a relationship of trust from which to speak into and walk with people in the various realms of injustice that often entangle the poor.  

In "E's" case, it meant the opportunity to connect her with the deacons at our church and an attorney from our church who volunteered his time to go with her to sign over her car and get out from under the oppressive title loan.  For another woman, "G" it meant seeing individuals from another church each personally donate a portion of her security deposit so that she could get out of a shelter with the grandchildren she is raising.  For "T" and his family, it has meant watching a former tenant turned police officer see a homeless family at a bus stop and refer them to us while other officers took it upon themselves to raise the money needed to cover their deposit and first month's rent and help them to find a job.  

So, as I took the job and began the massive learning curve [building codes, rehab 101, volunteer management, board relations, and perhaps most importantly toilet repair...a lot of toilet repair], what I have mostly learned is how deeply we need each other.  I am daily amazed at the opportunities I get to witness where the people of God from all over the city get to meet these beautiful friends and use their God-given gifts to do mercy and seek justice alongside them.  To those of us that are used to having resources and cultural power, a few legal volunteer hours or a $100 investment probably seems like a small thing.  But to "E" or "T" or "G" it means having a home, freedom from debt, having their kids off the street in time for winter -- and most importantly it means belonging to a bigger "family" to whom they belong and matter.

 

 

Sista Girl.

A year ago lost month, I lost a dear friend.  I met Michelle at the home of a widow named Ms. Lovie in the inner city community where we regularly gathered to encourage and support women trapped in prostitution and addiction. Michelle had encountered a team of volunteers working in the community garden who shared God's love with her and invited her a way to walk out of this lifestyle with the support of a family.  She rejected them initially, but that afternoon she walked back to Ms. Lovie's house having mulled over the words of love shared with her earlier.  She asked Ms. Lovie to call us and tell us she was ready and wanted out.  We picked Michelle up that evening and drove her to a safe place for the night.  She stayed there until she could get into an outpatient rehab group home and we began our friendship.  The first few weeks were sweet, we learned a lot about one another.  I learned that she was abused as a child by a "stepdad" figure when mom worked nights.  She recounted being 7 when he first stumbled drunk into her room.  She also recounted how she felt when she saw him turn toward her twin sister's bed instead of hers and her split second decision to go put herself between the two of them and take the abuse so that her sister could be spared.  She told me how she hated that one of her eyes was lower than the other, and how she liked her glasses because she noticed it less.  I told her I loved that about her because it reminded me how she saw the world a little different than most of us do and how much we needed that "sight" and she smiled for real at that moment right in the midst of her pain.  She told me about how her mom refused to believe her about the abuse and how when she turned to the streets to search for a solution to her pain how they locked her out.  She told me how much it sucked that her sister, who faithfully attended a prominent black church in town, judged her without ever knowing what Michelle had done for her.  We wept together over this and read the story of the prodigal son --it was a moment of liberation for Michelle.  We spent a lot of time laughing together and joking and a lot of time praying, and a good amount in tears.

Michelle had survived all of that backstory and gone on to graduate college and work for the Urban League.  She was a faithful and loved worker and had never intended on leaving until she went to the doctor for a check-up and learned that she had colon cancer.  She was recently divorced and the news of cancer combined with the doctor's report that the initial chemo treatments weren't working like they'd hoped sent her running to the streets again in search of a way to numb the pain and the fear of facing something like this alone. 

She and I made her first oncology appointment since she'd been "clean" together and we went together.  I'll never forget that first appointment when I asked if she'd like me to wait outside the doctor's room or come in.  She invited me in.  It was a profound moment for me in every way as she trusted me to sit with her in her pain.  In my soul I knew she had allowed many people to use and abuse her naked body, but this was perhaps a first invitation into her true nakedness -- the kind that longs to be fully seen body and soul without fear because it is rooted in His beauty and love in, for, over her.  We sat there and listened to the doctor report, her in her gown and I in my clothes from the chair and we heard it together.  And, for a few months she and I and another church friend named Kim sat through her chemo treatments with her and prayed like crazy. 

At some point along the chemo journey, she was horribly attacked and the trauma coupled with the cancer's unrelenting advance ultimately sent her back out to the street looking for a way to escape the pain.  This season of silence from a woman who had become my friend was hell for me.  I could still hear her voice saying, "HEYYY sista girl" and wrestled deeply wondering whether she was alive or dead and whether we would get to see her again or if her life would ultimately end amidst the chaos of the streets. I’ll admit, there were many days that I felt hopeless and defeated by her absence.

Then we heard word from another woman on the street who went by "black".  She just so happened to be the only person Michelle had ever prayed for the Lord to deliver and she prayed for her by name.  It was from her that we heard Michelle was close to the end and in hospice care and she gave us a phone number.  I wasn't sure what to expect when she answered.  Would shame win and she refuse to see me?  Would she want to talk or even be able to at this point in the dying process?  But she answered with tears and invited us over.  Something in my spirit knew it was urgent.  We went, prayed over her broken body, wept with her, held her near.  When we left I knew it was a "goodbye" and in fact, she passed into a coma moments after we left and died a only couple hours later in the presence of another friend from our church family.  How tragic, and yet what a crazy profound gift of the God who sees.  I will never forget the night of her funeral, I laid awake with a very sick daughter in our guest room so that Josh could get some sleep.  My little girl was burning up, Michelle was gone, and it honestly felt like anger and grief would swallow me.  At that moment, the Metrolink train went over the road near our home -- it did that a dozen times a day, but in the stillness of the night and my soul I heard it's echo and it sounded like a stadium full of people in full celebration.  The roar.  And I knew.  It was the sound of heaven breaking forth, Michelle's entrance to he place of perfect justice and perfect mercy. 


I was a blessing, for sure, and that is awesome.  But there is no way to articulate how profoundly blessed I was by this woman.  This is the confounding nature of His Kingdom-- I see Jesus differently because of Michelle.  I know that I will hear her say, "HEYYY sista girl" again in the new heavens and I cannot wait.

Michelle.jpg

Sista Girl, Part 2.

There were many of us who were a part of "Team Michelle" and so I also wanted to share with you a reflection from another friend who walked with Michelle that ministers so deeply to me still about what it looks like to choose love instead of fear.

Out of the Third Row
October 27, 2010
I walked into church smelling like Bath and Body.  I made my way to the third row on the left. My family moaned, "Can't we sit somewhere else?"  

They pointed out that we had sat in the third row on the left for ten years in two different churches.  I smiled, ignored them, and took my seat.  

I noticed her directly in front of me and since I knew some of her story, I leaned forward and politely asked of her recent hospital stay.  As she updated me on the progression of the cancer into her lungs I pulled back slightly, her suffering too raw. She represented a world I could not comprehend: black, inner city, sexual exploitation, and addiction.  And now, a diagnosis of cancer just as she had begun to seek out a new life.  I patted her shoulder.  

A worship song started.  I was rescued.

After a few songs, I sensed that she was crying.  During previous songs, she had been clapping, singing, raising her hands in praise. When I realized she was upset, I reached a hand of comfort to her shoulder.  It was meant as a sign of love, but it also kept me an arm's distance from her pain.  

My eyes glanced down the row. A fellow worshipper caught my eye and motioned for me to go around to stand next to the weeping soul.  As I did, and she sensed my nearness, she almost collapsed into my arms.

I had never had an adult woman cling to me and sob so hard.  The words in the song seemed to give her permission to feel the pain, suffering and brokenness of her life.  I was not comfortable.  I didn't know what to do to "fix" this for her.  

Still holding her with my left arm, I put my right hand up on her face and head to cradle her.  I wiped her tears with my thumb; stroked her cheek. The more intimate my touch, the harder she sobbed.  My own breath caught in my own throat.  My own chest heaved a sob of sympathy. To hold such brokenness against my chest ripped it wide open.

Worship continued, "If your heart is broken..... just lift your hands and say....I know that I can make it...."  I realized she didn't need me to fix anything, but just to help her worship.  

I had never raised my hand in worship. Her delicate black hand in mine, raised in the air, is something I will never forget.  Without words, with our simple gesture, she testified her faith in Jesus would carry her through.  

As we sang the song a second time, her sobs increased, but so did her grip on my hand above our heads.  I think this is how I would like to picture a Christian's walk - giving testimony to Christ's sufficiency in the gentlest way possible through the moments of deepest pain.

I walked out of church smelling like cigarette smoke.  Holding her had replaced my body spray with her scent, and it lingered on my shirt.  

I liked the reminder of her pain entrusted to me.  

Her weakness, her transparency, her need, her cigarette smell - she shattered my Christian facade. By letting me scoop her brokenness into my arms, she revealed the similarity of our hearts.  That revelation cost me everything.  

I had to move out of the third row.

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After this moment with Michelle, Kim went on to be one of Michelle's favorite people in the world.  Their friendship was incredible to witness as they sat together, prayed, encouraged one another and pushed each other to keep striving after their goals.  Kim and Rich even got to take their guitar to Michelle's house during her final hours on earth and sing over her -- I'll never know for sure, but I can imagine it was this time of worship that gave her the peace to finally stop being afraid to let go.  I am so thankful for the many team members along the way who believed when I couldn't and who daily display the courage to choose love instead of fear. 

P.S.  If you are hungry for more of her incredible writing [that is a reflection of their beautiful hearts and story] head on over to her blog:  kimrankin.com