Table

IF:GATHERING…all my hopes

IF:GATHERING…all my hopes

One week from yesterday I will join thousands of women as a part of IF:Gathering.  I will be at IF:Austin with over 1000 women and we will be joined online with thousands from all over the nation and the world at  IF:LOCAL.  I am so honored to be a part and I have to tell you that I’m also a little apprehensive.  I’ll be honest as to why.  Let’s back up for a second…

9 years ago, while I was a part of the group, Avalon and we were joining platforms with the largest women’s conference in the church world.  We were the first artist that they selected to join on their platform for their entire year.  We ended up actually doing this for almost 2 years.  It was wonderful.  I met some amazing women speakers, worship leaders and other artists.  I was on the “inside” not because I was an artist on the stage but because I shared the same ultimate convictions, the same theology, and the same ideology. That one conference was representative of all the conferences I attended or was a part of.  I easily fit in there.
Without really setting out to, over those next 4 years, as life came and challenged me I changed little by little.  It was never drastic but a slow stretching, questioning, and owning of my own beliefs not only of God but of my views of God’s beautiful world.  I found such peace and joy in the actual process and also where I landed on each step of that journey. But I realized that I was also now on the “outside”.  I was not there because people didn’t love and care for me, I was on the outside because I now didn’t share the same ideology and the same worldview as the majority of my friends who are also professionals in the Christian industry.
So a year ago I was approached by Jennie Allen and Lindsey Nobles to talk about IF:Gathering (which would be so much more than a conference but none the less included one)and joining their leadership team, I was honored that they’d ask me to even be involved.  But I knew from past experience that maybe I wouldn’t fit here. The who’s involved are major – the most successful, beautiful, wonderful, and talented women in the industry who just so happen to believe differently than I do on some theological issues.  But IF was not going to be issue driven, if was TABLE driven. Now if you know me well at all, I’m all about the table – the shared space – the inclusive nature of pulling up a seat to bring not only your whole self to the equation but ALSO opening up your whole self to listen, to be filled, challenged, encouraged, and stretched by the one across from you.  For me the TABLE is the beauty of the kingdom.  So I jumped on board.  I am a part of a leadership team who is “seemingly” filled with those who fall on a different side of the majority of theological places that I do.  Which, I have to add, has NOT been a problem for me nor I think for them.  IF is supposed to be the coming together in order to partner and effectively make a difference in our world together.
TOGETHER.
So this time I’m coming to this major Christian conference feeling as an outsider and I think there will be a lot of us.
I don’t say that with a chip on my shoulder about this but in the transparency that comes with the reality of the situation.
So I am apprehensive not because I don’t feel welcome or loved but because I come knowing that maybe this time am the minority… maybe.
But I am hoping…
That in coming to this table, in participating in IF as the leadership and the conference, in actually focusing on the doing that so desperately needs to be done in this world that we can erase those lines of in and out that we draw both for others and for ourselves.
That we can diminish the exclusive circles where only those that agree can belong.
I am hoping that the majority doesn’t overwhelm the minority and that neither side uses our time to convince the other to change.
I am hoping for a move of God’s Spirit.
A move that balances us as individuals and as the Church.
A move that allows God’s spirit to guide us FROM the wars we focus on and fight internally in our Church TO standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder in effort to move out and heal the world that needs to see and know love.
So I come.
Because I believe in both God and humanity. I believe in us.
I push through being tentative to trusting so that we can be more together.
If God is real… then unity without uniformity can happen.
I believe and I hope you do too.
Look forward to meeting, joining, listening, talking, eating, worshiping, learning, and toasting wine with all of you at the table.
Best, Melissa
I believe…once again

I believe…once again

It had been a while since I had experienced a thin place, a moment where heaven and earth seemed connected and there was no doubt but to believe.

I was asked last summer to get involved with the ministry of Timothy’s Gift (www.timothysgift.com).  TG is a ministry to inmates offering relief, hope and redemption through friendship, entertainment, and seminars.  I was originally asked to help put together a “U.S.O. style” Christmas program -for a 12 day tour.   T.G. wanted to take talented artists in to lift the spirits of the prisons during the most depressing time of the year for inmates, Christmas.  The task seemed difficult. You could not sing anything too nostalgic, nothing that reminded them too specifically of going home or loved ones, it needed to bring laughter and funny songs, songs that they would be familiar with and then also remind them or tell them the story of Jesus, the story of LOVE.  After recruiting the talent from GracePointe Church (which is FULL of talent I might add) I began the specifics of the program.  By the Fall, I had resigned myself to the fact that I needed to go on this tour as well.  We turned in our information to Ron Miller (founder and organizer of TG), which then of course had to be background checked and screened.  Finally we were all approved and set to leave.  12 days, 19 prisons, 9 people (3 of us rotating in and out).

The day before we left Haven was diagnosed with the flu.  She was horribly sick and I fought myself all day about leaving her for 5 days while I went on my part of the tour.  After many conversations with Ben, my mom and Ron, I decided I needed to go.  We left the next day.  During the 7 hour drive to FL, I second guessed myself for most of the trip.  Should I have left my family???  After frequent calls to Ben and my mom, Haven seemed to be recovering slowly but doing well.  Finally on WED morning we went to the first prison.

I will give you the average scenario of the prison.  We pull up to chain link fences and gates with 3 rows of barbed wire lined top and bottom.  To say these were highly secure prisons, is an understatement.  We would punch in our codes and scan our fingers and then wait for the guards approval to enter which could take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.  We’d enter after they had thoroughly checked each one of us individually and all of our equipment.   We were given body alarms to attach to our belts, just in case of emergencies.  Once inside, we’d head straight to the chapel and were usually greeted and offered help by a select few of approved inmates.  We’d set up in about 30 minutes.  Finally the 150 or so inmates would enter.   Some of them were rugged looking, some weary, some young, some old with need of canes, some clean cut, some laughing… but all dressed in blue.

We would begin with a welcome and a familiar song.  Most of them, because they had volunteered to be there, were enthusiastic to sing along, to clap, to laugh. Others had to be won over but it seemed after 30 minutes or so,every time, it worked.  The first half of the set was light, playful and even funny.  The laughter that filled the room was infectious and healing.  They seemed to know that we were there for THEM.  There was an attitude of level ground instead of the usual looking down on to them that they are so often used to.  Then we introduced our resident Artist, who shared her story of doubt and questioning God and finally the reassurance she found that God will cover her – all of her, including her questions, anger, and doubt.  She told them that she would paint an angel that God had placed in her heart and that she would leave the painting with them to remind them that they too are covered.  We then moved into sacred Christmas songs.

Finally,  I sang the song “love me” (by JJ Heller) over them and it was in this moment that I knew I had made the right decision in coming on the tour.  If you don’t know the song, you can listen to it fully here http://youtu.be/PgGUKWiw7Wk.  The lyrics describe a young boy  alone and also a woman who’s husband has left her, both desperately searching for someone to love them for them…

I tried my hardest to find each and every one of their eyes as I sang the last verse…

He’s waiting to die as he sits all alone.  He’s a man in a cell, who regrets what he’s done.

He utters a cry from the depth of his soul, “Oh Lord, Forgive me.  I want to go home.”

Then he heard a voice, somewhere deep inside and it said, ” I know you’ve murdered and I know you’ve lied.

I have watched you suffer for all of your life.  Now that you’ll listen, I’ll tell you that I

Oh I love you for you. Not for what you have done or what you will become.  Oh I love you for you.  I will show you the love, the love that you never knew.”

I quickly tried to tell them that this is exactly why we’ve come but I was cut off completely by a standing ovation of applause accompanied with weighted tears.  They probably had not heard these words since their mistake or if they had, from very few.  But this is why we came.  We came to tell them and remind them that they are loved.  I told them of the idea of the Kingdom of God being like a table and that they are still welcome and have a place waiting at that table.  That they are not their mistake and that they have a future they can step into.  A better future.  We had prepared 2 stations to administer communion.  I would invite them to come, because Jesus invited them to come.  I asked (as I have learned from my friend, Ian Cron) them to hold out their cupped hands in order to receive the bread we will break. I wanted them to receive instead of take and to be reminded that life, all of life and their life is a gift.  Then they would dip that bread into the wine.

They started to come quickly, needy for love, for a gift, some more broken than others, but every last one of them comes on their own and receives.  It’s the first time, maybe in all of ministry, that I recognize the truly sacred gift it is to share the good news that YOU ARE LOVED to someone who so desperately needs it.  It was holy moments, with tears shed, wine spilling, bread broken, life shared.

I remember one man specifically.  He was very tall and muscular and reminded me of Michael Clarke Duncan’s character in the movie The Green Mile.  This man walked into the chapel looking very hard and intimidating.  Eventually he cracked a smile and I knew we had him captive when he threw his head back in laughter at one of the songs and then proceeded to clap along.  He came to my line of communion.  He towered over me and cupped his very large, strong hands… hands that may have raped, or murdered, or stolen… he looked into my eyes as I looked up into his tear stained face, “His body broken for you” I said.  I used one hand to place the piece of bread into his hands and cupped the underneath of his hands with my other.   As I looked into his eyes I BEHELD innocence trapped deep inside.  It was in that moment that I looked and beheld not a 40 year old criminal, but a child.  I feel I saw a glimpse of how God sees us, beautiful and broken but with the hope and promise of redemption through LOVE.  I will never be the same and I hope I can say the same for that man.

So, now I believe more than ever before.  I believe that we are all made in the image of God.  That we are all the beloved.  That we are all broken to varying degrees. I believe that we all have hope.  I believe that the CREATOR is LOVE and that LOVE will never fail.  I believe that I am to tell all with my life, my work and my words that poignant truth.  You are loved.  You are of great worth.  You have a place at the table.

My life is changed.  My ministry renewed. My focus is steadfast.  I believe again.

Here’s to an impactful 2013…  peace to you, Melissa