Down in My Heart
Down in My Heart
January 22, 2012
by Stephanie Friant
My name is Stephanie Friant. I am the Senior Adult Visitation staff person here. I backup Buck with pastoral care. That’s basically what I do.
Our first reading this morning is from Ephesians, Chapter 2, verses 8 to 10.
8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Our second reading today, I am going backwards, in the Old Testament, Psalm 73, verses 21 to 26.
21 When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast towards you.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will receive me with honour.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that
I desire other than you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, you have led us here this morning for me to speak these words and for all of us to hear them. As you are the ruler of our minds and hearts, help us to hear your word and let it move in us as you will. Amen.
When I was a junior in high school, I found myself as an exchange student sitting in this little German church. I still was not fluent in the language, never quite got there, but I was sitting there trying to make out the sermon and the prayers. Then it was communion. The pastor got up and I did not need to know what he was saying to know what he was saying. As he broke that bread and poured that cup, time and place changed. As we all ate of that bread together and sipped that wine, I wasn’t just in that room, a foreigner in a strange land; I was with Christ at his table. I was with my family across the ocean at our home church. I was here today, for in that moment, God really showed me, brought into my heart, just how connected we are in those simple gestures of love, in that simple ritual that we have been blessed with.
Now we all have our own faith stories. You may have had a conversion experience or, like me, your faith may have grown in stages. For some reason ever since Buck asked me to preach today, God kept tugging at my heart to share my faith story. Let me tell you, this is a leap of faith. I have already told a few of you here. To stand up here and put it all out, well, the short version, is both nerve racking and exciting. Throughout this last week, every time I asked God if I should be doing something else, he would somehow immediately respond and say, “Yes, Do it! I have put you on this path. Keep going.” So in order to keep going I wrote it all down. I will try to go off script, but… So, in preaching classes we learned two main rules in seminary. One, get your sermon from the Scripture; don’t pick your Scripture from the sermon. And two, don’t talk excessively about yourself. But three things convinced me to stray away from those rules. It is O.K. to talk about yourself if you don’t do it all the time and it is appropriate. I got the O.K. from Buck. But most importantly, God told me to do this. And if God asks, we do.
What reason would God have for me to preach about myself today? Well, it’s not just about me. It is about you. It is about us. It is about this church. So I am going to lay it out there and let God open your heart to hear what God wants you to hear. It may be different from what the person next to you is hearing and it might be different than what I even think I am saying; but I know God is in this today.
So, I have always been a Christian. I was raised in the Presbyterian Church. While I was not raised in a particularly religious family, faith in God was an unspoken requirement. My mother loves to tell everyone she meets about one incident when I was a toddler, that walking past the pastor’s empty office I looked in and said, “God isn’t here today.” Yet it wasn’t my family but God who brought the love of him into my life. God’s presence was something I had always felt and searched out. Around the fifth grade I remember looking out my bedroom window and asking God if he showed me the why and the how of all existence, I would do whatever he asked me to do. Well, at ten I could have not known what I would be getting myself into. God took me on my word. My faith journey has not been easy but I am thankful that God gave me the mind to ask for that bargain.
When I was younger I would never have expected to go into professional ministry. I wasn’t religious enough. I was a woman and being a woman in ministry is difficult. I was sinful with little hope of being perfect. I wasn’t smart enough. I hated public speaking. I have a horrible time at memorizing scripture. None of these reasons have really changed, but my relationship with God has. And God working in me has made all the difference. It has not been an easy road.
I was pushed out of a church at the age of fifteen for being competition with the pastor’s fourteen-year-old daughter. I have been lousy at jobs trying to fit into places I just wasn’t meant for. It took essentially failing a seminary class to realize that I just could not handle evacuating from Katrina as well as I thought I could. After commuting to Chicago for seminary and finding essentially the majority of three years apart from my husband, he gets a lot of brownie points for that, my husband and I will be paying off those school loans for decades to come. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Life is never easy and I have never expected it to be. But my life has been easier than most and yet I have still asked God many times for a break; but he hasn’t given me one.
Yet, God has used all these opportunities to guide me and deepen my faith. While I didn’t like being diagnosed with a depression as part of my psychological profiling for the ordination process, it has been a gift from God to go through therapy and self-discovery as I would have never been able to bring an end to a miserable family inheritance. Moving from place to place and job to job has at times been discouraging yet it has exposed me to so much of God’s creation that I will always be thankful. Not knowing if I will ever be ordained, let alone what God has in plans for me, can sometimes be terrifying. I have learned to rely on God and know that God has always plans for me as long as I remain faithful.
While I have never had that conversion experience, my journey has been a series of steps. In the past six months my life has just clicked. God has brought me out of this huge wilderness and I am at peace. Now I am not saying that God is through with me yet, but I cannot, I can hardly describe the change that has occurred in my spirit and the changes in my life. I have been involved in sixteen different churches. I had to count that a few different times. Now my participation ran from a frequent visitor with a family member or a very active member or on staff. Now if you are trying to figure out the math, that is just over one church for every two years of my life. I moved around a lot and at times been active in multiple churches. Only three were non-Presbyterian and one was Presbyterian Methodist. So I have been around.
The churches have been in a variety of contexts and demographics. They have been in trouble; they have been going through change; and they have been growing. Mostly by chance, these churches have been predominantly theologically center or progressive. Then for college I graduated from a program where most of the professors saw religion as simply a myth and a tool for manipulation of the masses.
Then due to a number of circumstances I went to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, a progressive seminary where I soon learned that I wasn’t as progressive as I had thought. See, in my language, the words I use in prayer, the heart I open to all those I meet with through my position here, is a person who has lived all over the place and stretching beyond the box that I was born into, but the same time predominantly using and hearing the language of liberals and progressives. My husband can attest to this because he is from a mostly Republican family.
Why am I sharing this? Trust me I am not exactly sure; but, it is to give you a little more background for what I am going to say next. See prior to the birth of my daughter, I was finally ready to accept that God’s message to me was that I needed to leave my job at another church. God had wanted me there but I had experienced what he had wanted me to experience and it was time to move on. I took the leap, leaving a job that both allowed me to continue to work in ministry and help bring home a bit of additional income just as another child was coming into our life. In my search for what was next, I went to speak with Pastor John Ward. He was gracious enough to speak with me. After talking about my situation, he said I should go talk to Buck. I don’t know what Buck thought of me that first meeting, but I am sure it wasn’t that bad since I am here today. From my side, I was impressed. I saw somebody who was real, who is faithful, who is tall, and someone who I felt God was calling me to get to know better. Yet from recent experiences I doubted if he was really who he seemed to be—you know, a little too good to be true. Plus, I wondered if a church like Faith, whose religious language on your website was so different than what I was used to, would accept me. I was hesitant but I felt God tugging on me to try it out. One Sunday I came to worship here leaving my husband and kids at home so I could check out the nursery first. Now I have been part of fifteen churches before this and visited over one hundred in my life, so when I walked into this church last spring, I knew this was the place I needed to be. A place God was calling me to. I felt a sense of peace, a sense of joy, of excitement, of caring. I felt the breath of the Holy Spirit entering in those doors, swirling around these hallways, and moving into the sanctuary. But even before the first note was played or word was spoken, before I actually even took a step into the sanctuary, I knew I was supposed to be here.
We soon started attending regularly as visitors. I had little thought of Buck taking me up on my offer to help but did think that somehow I would get involved. Then at the beginning of summer Buck asked if I would come on to assist him. I jumped at the chance. I am just so glad, so glad that I am here. Now first, Buck is just who he shows himself to be. I am so thankful to be inspired and encouraged by him and the bonus of working with all the other great staff and volunteers, and can I tell you this is one of the most organized churches that I have ever been to? Even if you think that’s unique, trust me… Oh, and that language on the website that I was scared of, well now I have been around it more and I am thankful for it. As we have mentioned before, the language of the conservative and progressive sides and what they focus on is rather far apart and they end up talking past each other. I can identify with that. Now that I have learned much more of the conservative side, I am so thankful to be able to articulate my faith in ways I had previously not been able to put into words. I can admit to still being in the process of integrating the new spiritual language into my vocabulary and having to ask for some clarifications but it is natural to me. In fact I find that I was often using it without knowing it. Yet, the most meaningful part of being here is you. I am so blessed to be able to get to know so many of you and there are still many on my list. To be able to be in ministry with people who have Christ in their hearts who are walking hand in hand with God is amazing. The wide ranges of experiences here in this congregation, the deep faith and thoughtfulness, the caring and discernment. I just do not know how to express it.
I do not understand God’s full plan for me and I do not even hope to understand all of it but I do know I am experiencing something new as I am coming home to who I am. But at this place in my life when nothing and everything has changed, when my heart is exploding with the Spirit, and you know that children’s song “Jesus Deep Down in My Heart” over and over and over in my head. I am a new creation in Christ and I am certain that this stage in my life would not have been born so easily or as completely had God not led me here to be among you.
So, why these texts today? The texts are rather straight forward and honest.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
“I was stupid and ignorant… Nevertheless I am continually with you. You hold my right hand, you guide me with your counsel and afterwards you will receive me with honor.”
Our life, our faith, comes from God, not because we deserve it but because God created us for good. We were created to be with him. We can be stupid and ignorant. We can take the wrong path. If God is with us and it is through us that he will work. We just need to be open and honest with him, with ourselves and with each other so God can use us, guide us to fulfill his will. I am in complete awe. My whole life from teenage fights with my parents, to hiking up Mt. Sinai has been a journey, a God-blessed, God-directed and God-accompanied journey that has brought me to a place of unimagined spiritual beauty. I will say it again that God is not finished with me yet; in fact, I feel God working in me now towards something even more amazing. Yet I stand before you as I am—an undeserving, sinful, frail and limited human being with the love of Jesus down in my heart. Amen.