Forward by Faith

Service on February 4, 2018
by Kat Becker

Listen to our service and sermon below:

“Forward by Faith”

By Stacey Simpson Duke

Or, download the sermon as an .mp3 file

Entire February 4th Service

By Stacey Simpson Duke

Or, download the service as an .mp3 file

A little more than three weeks ago, after many months of planning and preparing, renovation work on our house finally began. We had looked forward to this for so long – the day when all our dreams would finally start taking shape. But here was the startling thing – when we came home that first night, what we saw was not construction, but destruction.

We had known, of course, that the first step in this process was going to be demolition. They kept calling it “Demo Day,” which made it sound a lot better. So it was a surprise, when it actually happened, to see that it really was “demolition” and not some exciting “demo.” We left that morning with our house all intact, and we came back that night, and it looked like half our house was just gone and a bunch of junk was in its place.

At the same time, something new stood in our front yard. It’s the sign for the contractors who are doing our renovation. Their name is “Forward.” So while the backyard bore witness to destruction underway, the front yard proclaimed to the neighborhood: Forward!

This is how things have continued to go since then: there will be a fast, messy disorienting demolition followed by a slow, methodical construction. And every morning that sign stands out there reminding us: Forward. A constant reminder that sometimes, moving forward involves first looking back at what needs to be torn down. Moving forward sometimes involves demolishing and clearing, in order to build.

This is true not just for construction projects, of course. Our culture is one that places a lot of value on relentless upward progress – there is a sense that we should only ever move up and up and up and up in life, always only looking ahead, always only determined to be more and more successful, always happier and happier still, each year another chance to have our “best year yet.” Our cultural values of success and progress make little room for focusing on demolition, or clearing, or setbacks, disappointments, inevitable declines.

The prophet Isaiah, speaking to a people in exile, knew a thing or two about the life of faith in the midst of destruction. In the gorgeous bit of prophetic poetry we heard a little bit ago, the promises of God offer to lift us forward no matter where we are on the spiritual path.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even young people will faint and be weary, even the young will fall exhausted; but those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:28-31

Did you notice that the promise does not end up in the sky with the eagles, but down on the ground with people just struggling to put one foot in front of the other? It’s an interesting little reversal. We might expect (or want) the poem to end on a high note, building the promise, going along with the narrative we prefer of only ever up and up – the people who hope in the Lord will walk and not faint, and then they will run and not be weary, and then they will fly like the eagles. But the prophet flips it. He starts with flying and ends with walking. He knows that, over time, we wear out. He knows that even the young among us get exhausted. As much as we might wish to soar like eagles, the truth is, we get worn out, we get worn down. Our energy starts to fail. Even our faith may falter. We can’t always fly. We don’t always have that choice. It may not be the time. But we can keep putting one foot in front of the other. We can keep trusting that a powerful, loving, limitless, creative God will supply the power, the strength, the energy, the love, we need for wherever the journey takes us.

In three weeks, our Tierra Blanca Mission Team will be going on a journey of their own, to Nicaragua, to work with our mission partner, AMOS Health and Hope. The work of AMOS in the poorest communities of Nicaragua over these past ten years has not been a work of relentless upward progress. Trying to meet enormous human need with limited material resources, their work is about, first of all, building relationship in order to build a future of health and hope. This work of relationship-building, of community-building, of hope-building, of health-building, this work is slow work. It involves setbacks. It involves disappointments, which is where we usually go. There have been setbacks there that made it not possible for us to work with them this year. The work continues, just not always in a linear, upward way. But the work moves forward, step-by-step, sometimes with a little work of demolition or clearing. But still forward, by God’s grace. Every now and then, the work in Nicaragua involves doing stuff that feels like soaring on eagles’ wings, but mostly – it’s a lot of walking.

A lot of walking. When this mission team goes to Tierra Blanca later this month, they will literally be walking side-by-side over rough terrain, sometimes for hours, to partner with the people there in the work of community health and community empowerment. This morning, we have a chance to walk with a few of them. A few members of our team want to share with you their testimony about moving forward in faith to participate in this mission.

Xan Morgan:

I am excited to be going on this Nicaragua journey – with some who have gone multiple times and others of us who are going for the first time, like Kathy and me. Kathy is one of my dear friends, our kids are school friends and we have gone on many trips together. We went with folks from here to the Women’s March in DC and we also went to Guatemala together on an all-women’s Habitat for Humanity trip. We are going to share a little bit about that experience as we look forward to walking with the mission team to Nicaragua.

 

Kathy Brady:

Thank yuou for having me. I’m visiting from Grace Bible Church here in Ann Arbor, and am thrilled to be joining the Tierra Blanca Mission Team. As Xan mentioned, I have traveled with several of the team members before, and I look forward to getting to know the remainder of the team as we prepare for our service adventure.

In her sermon, Stacey mentioned our culture’s obsession with “relentless upward progress” – the sense that our lives should always be growing happier and more successful. And I would add that for a 21st-century American mom, the cultural obsession includes managing a laundry-list of tasks at once, all executed perfectly, with time-saving efficiency. This is the lens through which I often see my role. This is the lens I brought with me to Guatemala.

But as our Habitat for Humanity team arrived on our rural worksite, it became evident that we needed to leave our “first world” perceptions and assumptions behind. There was no electricity, which meant no power tools or equipment that would help us build this home better … faster … and more efficiently – in line with our U.S. cultural norms.

Everything had to be done by hand, from cutting and assembling columns of rebar to mixing and pouring cement. This felt strange … and slow … and frustrating at times … but in the end, it was beautiful. A beautiful reminder that God’s plan is perfect and never claimed to be “first world.” A beautiful opportunity to come together as a team and build relationship while doing hard work. And a beautiful gift to gain knowledge and respect for the geographic and economic challenges that face developing countries.

We just heard from the book of Isaiah about the strength God gives us to persevere. Martin Luther King, Jr., echoed Isaiah 40:31 when he implored college students to continue to fight for justice, saying, “If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl; but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

I am thankful for the opportunity to serve those in need in Nicaragua. My prayer is that each of us – whether we fly, run, walk, or crawl – that we each seek opportunities to “move forward” the light and love of our Creator.

Xan Morgan:

So Kathy and I are a lot alike. I am type A as well. I like clear expectations, a good plan, a successful implementation of the plan. I love achieving the goal. Mission trips, like the one we’re about to embark on, can be, as a result both frustrating and also incredibly rewarding.

I remember times of frustration as I wondered, How could I have been better prepared? How could I have prevented these blisters? Could we have been more efficient, more effective at our work? Am I seeing things only through my North American lens only? Who is God calling me to be? We kept putting one foot in front of the other.

And I also found many moments to be incredibly rewarding. The joy in the kids’ eyes as we bopped a balloon back and forth. The meaningful conversations with fellow team members as we worked really hard together. And seeing the team accomplish big things, that we never imagined we could, by working together. And the times we did our best to understand one another with limited shared language and hand motions.

It ultimately is the relational moments where the most rewarding work comes. During my week in Guatemala I was trying to connect with our mason, Don Mario. We were working hard when a bachata song came on. I started trying to figure out in my head how to ask Don Mario if he liked to dance. After about 10 minutes I thought I had figured it out so I confidently asked him in spanish, “Do you like to dance?” It got really quiet. Everybody who speaks Spanish is silent. Don Mario looks at me and I look back at him and then the translator said, “Did you mean to just ask him if he would like to dance with you right now?” Oops.

We all laughed. Being in relationship with others is putting one foot in front of the other and it is also what it feels like to soar on eagle’s wings. When Marissa and I spoke with one of staff members in Nicaragua this past week, he said to us, “When you come, this will be God blessing us.”

This is my prayer, that our time in Nicaragua will be filled with moments of laughter, hard and good work, maybe some dancing, and new and deepened relationships. Because it is in these things that God does indeed bless us, all of us.

 

Marissa Alaniz:

Walk with us to Tierra Blanca, Nicaragua, where we walk with the strength only God can give us. Not everything is expected, not everything is understood, not everything is perfect, but it is real. Through this strength, we transcend cultural differences, transcend language, and transcend the boundaries often set for us in our daily, “first world” lives. Walk with us to Tierra Blanca, Nicaragua, where we walk together, simply and powerfully.

In just over two short weeks, we will walk together for the work of AMOS and the health of the people of Tierra Blanca. This trip, I will walk together with five people for whom this will be their first trip through AMOS, and I will walk together with four people for whom this will be their third, or like me, their fourth trip. We’ll walk together to various houses in the rural community each day to help install 35 water filters for people who don’t have clean water and don’t know anything different from that. We’ll help the community members repair the roof of their health clinic, and we’ll lead the kids in activities to teach them about health and hygiene. We walk together to Tierra Blanca in pursuit of justice and equity, in seeking to create change.

About two years ago, one of the most strenuous mornings of my life began eating breakfast together in the community of La Danta with our mission team of ten. Our team split up and began walking to check on some of the community members’ water filters to be sure they were functioning properly. Anjali, Lester, and I went walking with our guide up into the hills of La Danta. After we crossed the bamboo bridge that stretched over the river, we walked up hills of thick, wet mud, through fields of grass spotted with holes, through pathways of rocks, and up more hills of grass. The terrain was varied, and the sun was hot, and twenty minutes quickly – well, slowly – turned into two hours.

And then, we stopped for a water break, and together we sat down and looked at how far we’d come. The landscape so vast and green, sprinkled with bright yellow trees, white clouds outstretched in a blue sky overhead. Together, we saw how far we still had to go, to get to a house, a family, toward the community’s health, and well-being. And in that moment, that pause from walking together – together, we saw our strength beyond ourselves, we saw beauty, and we were at peace. We walk together for peace, for peace in our world and for the peace that service to others brings.

This trip, we walk together for Stacey. I have never known a mission trip without her. She radiates light and emanates community wherever she goes. And I know she’ll be walking with us – she is walking with us – in every step we take. We walk together to support each other on our journeys, moving forward.

Together, we can look at how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go. Together, we can see strength beyond ourselves, we can see beauty, we can be at peace. More than ever before, we are a community here and now. Take that feeling of community, seek it further, and embrace it fully. We walk together in laughter, tears, prayer, and communion. In being. We walk together in radical hospitality and radical generosity. In welcoming and affirming. In connecting.

Walk with us in mind and in spirit to Tierra Blanca, Nicaragua. We invite you to walk with us to share in our experiences and reap the rewards of our community. Reflect with us in gratitude for what we have. Join us in purposeful action. Seize with us the opportunity to help transform our world. And we will all walk together, in our shared strength, to bear witness to God’s limitless love. Will you walk with us?

 

Stacey:

The nine people going to Tierra Blanca will be stepping out on faith, trusting God’s limitless love and power to give them all they need to do what they need to do. They go with our love, and our blessing, and our prayers.

But this journey is for all of us, not just the nine who go to another place. So the question is: what about you? Our call is not only and always to a happier, more successful, more “together” version of ourselves. Our call is still to faith, to hope, to love. Maybe it’s your time to fly, maybe it’s your time to run, maybe it your’ time to walk or even crawl. Whatever time this is for you, the power of God is there for you. God will give you everything you need – for whatever you face. Each step forward can be a prayer. Each step forward – no matter how scary or painful or slow – can be an act of trust. Each step forward can become a connection to God’s grace, to God’s love.

Stacey: Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Kathy: Those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength,

Xan: They shall mount up with wings like eagles,

Marissa: They shall run and not be weary,

Stacey: They shall walk and not faint.

ALL: Amen.