As we have for a few years now, my family and I spent the better part of the month of June with family in Northwest GA and Southeast TN. This is always an amazing time filled with cousins, swimming, day camps and food…we always seem to be eating. And I love this area of the country because it’s so familiar. I love the views of the mountains and the valleys and even the way the clouds roll in quickly before a thunderstorm; which seems to happen almost every summer afternoon. The crazy thing is that this familiar view also greeted us as we rolled back into Odessa a week ago. As we came in on the highway from Midland we could see lightning in the distance and the familiar cloud formations rolling in as Odessa was blessed with much needed rain. And luckily for us, we were able to get our car unloaded before the deluge hit.
There’s a verse in scripture that alludes to what the presence of a cloud might be in our own lives. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us , fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith.” – Hebrews 12:1-2 I love the imagery played out in the the text. I recently was flying from Odessa back to Atlanta before our trek back into town and our entire flight was dictated by the presence of clouds (albeit storm clouds) in Atlanta. After we boarded, an hour later than scheduled, we then had to sit on the tarmac for an extra hour. Once we did get clearance to take off, most of the flight was smooth…until we began to descend into Atlanta. I guess the only way I can describe it is by the rides I seek to avoid at the amusement park i.e. it was a roller coaster of a landing. It was crazy how these clouds effected everything we were a part of even from a distance.
This Sunday I will begin delivering my last series of sermons for the people of Odessa First Church of the Nazarene. This has been a roller coaster of an adventure and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I wasn’t terrified and excited all at the same time. But I do know one thing. When I step onto the stage on Sunday it is only through the power of God and the presence of the overwhelming cloud of witnesses that go with me that I am able to do so. This cloud has gone with me from Rossville, GA to Nashville, TN, by way of Yulee, FL while building up strength in Flint, MI in order to serve for over three years in Odessa, TX. And this cloud continues to grow as we prepare to serve alongside the families of Nashville First Church of the Nazarene in a few short weeks. This cloud is filled with families and loved ones who have cared for my family, invested in my ministry, prayed for me daily and loved me beyond words. Even as I type this your faces flash before me as my eyes fill with tears and I thank God for him bringing us together. It is only by the grace of God and your presence in my life that I can even call myself pastor. And I am both humbled and challenged by your cloud-like presence in my life. So I will continue to run with perseverance the race marked out for me. And I will boldly proclaim the love of Christ to a world that so desperately needs it. All the while knowing that I am surrounded by a cloud that is a testament to the love and faithfulness of the God we all serve.
The year was 2005…at least I think it was. And my wife and I were attending a youth conference in good ‘ol Nashville, TN. We were returning to the exhibit hall after lunch and had some take-out from the restaurant with us when we saw a homeless man on the sidewalk. I approached him and asked him if he might like my half-sandwich and fries and he was very grateful for it and then he asked if he might give us a hug. How could we refuse him? He then proceeded to hug my wife and I for no less than 3 or 4 minutes. It really was rather uncomfortable for the both of us…my wife really isn’t a hugger. But there we were, caught up in this embrace that for a moment made us feel incredibly uncomfortable, incredibly vulnerable and incredibly human. We both came away wondering how long it had been since that man had received any human contact and it floored both of us to think that it might have been ages since he received a hug.
I don’t know how many of you reading this frequent concerts and/or musical festivals. I myself really enjoy them, I just can’t always afford to go. But there was this weird phenomena that started to occur around the turn of the millennium that kind of creeped me out at first. You would see people walking around with signs that simply read ‘free hugs’. And people would walk up to them or visa versa and receive a free hug. Sometimes these would be full on huge embraces and other-times quick little side hugs but it just seemed to me to be the weirdest thing until I understood the power of an embrace.
You see, there is this amazing focal point in the Christian story that is central to who we are that I think we miss sometimes. The writer of the book of John puts it this way, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” – John 1:14 The most basic and fundamental truth of the good news that we as Christians base our entire existence around is that God became like us and lived with us to show us love. Divine love was best exhibited by God putting on flesh and living among us. We have a fancy word for this in the church and that word is ‘incarnation’. The greatest way that God knew to show us his amazing love and grace was to put on flesh and live with us…be with us…share space with us…
This morning I was given a simple reminder of the power of a hug. Without word, warning or invitation my 5-yr-old daughter walked up and gave me a big hug. In that moment I was reminded of the fact that there is something so powerful and assuring about the touch and presence of another. I reminded our church last week of our role as “Christ’ ambassadors” in the world today and I think that if we truly ’embrace’ this calling we might find ourselves handing out a lot more hugs and being present with a lot more people. We really never know what people are going through, what kind of assurances or judgments they are receiving in life or what things are weighing heavy on them. And truthfully, you never know what a hug might do.
Last week for much of the country was spring break. That hallowed time when college students humiliate themselves and families exhaust themselves trying to cram a vacation into a small break that you need a vacation from after you return. As to the Arp’s plans; we packed the car up and drove south over six hundred miles to our ancestral home just south of Chattanooga, TN. The amazing thing about this part of the country is that it is home to my wife’s parents, my own parents and much of our extended family. The tiresome part about this part of the country is that it is home to my wife’s parents, my own parents and much of our extended family…I jest. The only reason this trip is exhausting is due to the fact that there are so many loved ones we want to see and so little time to do it in. But it’s home. And yet, when I pointed the car north to Michigan I was also excited…because it is home. In ten years of marriage my wife and I have made our home in north Florida, Nashville, TN and Flint, MI. And every time those places have come to represent home. And I grew up in Rossville, GA under the shadow of Lookout Mountain and for me that is also home. It amazes me how the human heart can link home feelings to so many different places.
I think about the passage of scripture midway through Jesus’ sermon on the mount where he says, “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Now I know we often think about heaven being ‘way beyond the blue’, but I can’t help but feel like we are also called to bring heaven to earth. And if we are bringing heaven to earth, what treasures are stored up in that action? I have come to believe it really is about community…family. The reason that home exists for me in Northwest Georgia, North Florida, Middle Tennessee and Flint, Michigan is because my family lives in these places.
In John 14 Jesus paints a beautiful picture of heaven and the Kingdom of God. In verses 2-3 we read, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Jesus was speaking of an ancient near east dwelling known as an Insula. The insula was a way for families to be grafted together. Whenever a young groom wanted to take a bride he would have to build a room onto his father’s house in order to bring her into the family. When the room was ready he could go and collect his bride.
And I think that is what the church has allowed Christ to do in and for me. He has built room upon room for my family. And this family stretches out across the entire world so that when I am in their presence, I am home…And one day we will all really be home together.