This morning we are concluding our series of messages based on the theme Your Life. Our final message is Your Life Is A Gift.
Tuesday was All Saints Day, celebrating saints known and unknown. Saints are not just people who are profoundly spiritual or people we think of as more holy or spiritual than others. Saints, in reality, are most often people who are special and influential in our lives. Using that definition, therefore, my life – and yours – is full of saints. The apostle Paul sometimes addressed his letters to the saints at particular churches. In his letter to the church at Philippi, he begins by writing to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi…(Philippians 1:1).
Our Scripture text for this morning is Philippians 1:3-11, and you can follow along as I read –
3 I thank my God every time I remember you.
4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy
5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,
6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.
8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,
10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
There are two phrases in that passage that I especially appreciate – I thank my God every time I remember you (verse 3), and I have you in my heart (verse 7). Those are beautiful phrases, and they speak of the importance of the saints who in habit our lives. The writer of Hebrews famously echoes the sentiments of Paul by writing, we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). I’m not sure what that phrase means, exactly, but this is how I interpret it – in some way, the people we love and who have loved us, even though they might be gone from this earth, continue to have a powerful influence over us and in some way continue to watch over us. I find that to be a very comforting thought.
I want to spend most of my time this morning sharing stories that some of you shared with me about the saints in your life, and also to share about some of the saints in my life, and I want to begin by putting all of it in this context –
You are a gift to someone and have received the gift of others.
Because you are important and influential to someone, you are a saint as well. Some of you shared stories with me about the people who are gifts in your life. With their permission, I am sharing a few of them.
Referencing a very difficult, abusive upbringing, one person wrote of one who was very kind and also a neighbor who demonstrated faith –
Our neighbor…took us to church every Sunday. Very Christian people, she talked about God to us every day, her knowing what a life we lived! She had a crocheted curtain she made that was the 23rd Psalm…her faith was something we all wanted!
I started working for (him) in hay, tobacco, etc. (He) felt so bad for the life I lived he would pick mu up here at home before I left, said…I will pay you just to ride around with me! Surely a nice man...he taught me respect, work ethic, and meeting very influential people in the country. He knew about my life at home. I loved him like a father, he said…you came and live with me and my wife. I didn’t want to since he had just married…I said I will live in that old house on your lake, it had no windows and I was 16, I and others put wallpaper up and the rats came through the walls that night and tore all the paper off…I opened my clothes drawer and there laid baby mice! The only heat I had was an electric heater that I had to keep up under the covers to keep warm, wonder I had not burned up.
Out of all these things…without these people I have mentioned I would never had made it without Jesus Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit saved me, and there (are) not many days that God does not talk to me.
And from another –
As I thought about people in my life I consider to be true gifts, the list seemed endless. I am so very blessed by people who have given so much of themselves, and their hearts, to enrich my journey, support me, encourage me, but most of all, to love me with such an unconditional and undeserved kind of love. I am forever grateful and humbled by their presence through the years. And many of those people stepped into my life at my early age. My parents divorced in the early 60’s, late 50’s, at a time when not having both a mother and a father at home working together to raise their family was not common. I seemed to be about the only one of my network of close friends and schoolmates who lived at home with a single mother. But...I was more than blessed, as a youngster growing up and even to this very day with several true “Father Figures” whom I so respected, admired, and loved. They were always near to guide me, advise me, steer and support me, occasionally scold me, and always love me. I had the best kind of grandfather any child could ever expect to have who lived just across the street from us. My grandparents were such a major part of our daily lives, and I often wonder what path my journey may have taken had it not been for our supportive, devoted grandparents. Then the father figures just continued, thanks be to God, as I grew up…my brother and I had a step-father who had no children of his own and loved us as if we were his own. The fathers of some of my closest…friends I grew up with in school were always near for me, and a couple of those dear gentlemen still touch my heart today in such caring ways. Mind you, all these “fathers” had plenty to do raising their own families, and yet they always had the time and the hug, and often the much-needed advice, for me…God truly blessed me and gave me some of the finest “gifts” ever in the form of the “other fathers” I have had in my life. Thank you Heavenly Father, thank you earthly fathers.
The next one comes from someone who had a sibling with special needs and was eventually placed in what we would now call a group home.
After taken there…it was a solemn time in our lives…we made the trip every Sunday after church, plus her birthday and holidays. She adjusted and so did we. When we visited, we always had a pocketful of change to buy treats for the residents. We also took nail polish and hair accessories and “did” hair for the gals. We’d toss ball, swim, and participate in activities with the ones who were able, while (she) sat in her wheelchair on the sidelines…we were never ashamed, we learned to be grateful at very early ages, we learned empathy…(two) sisters because Special Ed teachers, (one) became a speech therapist, and our brother is a very compassionate man. We learned to stick together nurture each other, and not take anything for granted…she passed away…just before her 54th birthday. She had a profound effect on many. We hope to see her laughing and dancing when we meet again.
The next one is from someone I will identify because her story has been shared in very public ways, including an article in Shelby Life magazine.
It is a few days before Christmas, there is snow on the ground, there are decorations everywhere and the temperature is in the single digits. Families are getting together, playing cards, and enjoying the holidays. That sounds just like Christmas. There were two sisters that decided to have a family night. They were each married and each had one kid. They got together, laughed, played cards and had a wonderful evening. The younger sister, her husband and the 2-year-old baby left between 1 and 2 am to head home. It was about a 10-mile route well traveled between the sisters. Now remember, it is just a few days before Christmas, the temperature is in the single digits and there is snow on the ground. Well, they didn’t make it home. There was a blowout. The baby was thrown from the car. She landed in a snowdrift. The car continued just enough off of the road that no one was suspicious of it.
It was six hours before someone decided that what appeared to be an abandoned car should to be reported to the authorities. It was about 8 am when the accident was finally being investigated. The love and grace of God came in the form of a fire fighter that was retracing the car’s tracks. The love and grace of God allowed the firefighter to see a tiny shoe in the snowdrift. That tiny shoe belonged to a 2-year-old baby girl that had been laying in the 9° weather for at least six hours. It had been approximately 6 or so hours from the time the little girl’s family left relatives to head home. It was 6 or so hours before God’s love and grace brought a firefighter to the scene looking close enough that he found that two-year-old little girl’s shoe in the snow bank. God’s love and grace told that firefighter to investigate that little shoe so that he could find the two-year-old little girl that had been laying there in the 9° weather for at least six hours. The firefighter quickly discovered that that little girl was still alive. Now remember, it is 3 days before Christmas when this family left to head home between the time of 1 and 2 am, it is now 8 am. The two year old was quickly rushed to the hospital. When she arrived to the hospital her body temperature was a dangerously low 74 degrees. Her hands and feet were severely frostbitten. The doctors were very concerned with her left hand. While the doctors were monitoring the little baby girl, making sure her heart responded to the body returning to normal temperature, the families of the baby girl’s parents were being notified that the little girl was now an orphan.
This pain bestowed upon the families could have been worse. The firefighter could have missed noticing the tiny shoe in the snow. The fire fighter could not have listened to God guiding him in the necessary direction. The love and grace of God that came in the form of a firefighter that discovered a tiny shoe in the snow drift that belonged to a 2-year-old baby girl that was laying in 9° weather for at least six hours. God's love and grace sent that firefighter just in time, God's time, to find that little foot in the snow. God’s love and grace told that firefighter to investigate that little shoe so that he could find a two-year-old little girl that had been laying there in the 9° weather for six hours. Thankfully God’s love and grace came in the form of a firefighter named Robert Coogle. With this firefighter investigating every speck of the scene, this rescue, this victim, has a victory! This firefighter saved little Baby Tara from the brink of death.
Now, back to the hospital. The doctors and nurses closely watched over (the) little baby…(the) baby quickly returned to a spunky two year old but one with sore hands and feet and a touch of pneumonia. After several days she was allowed to leave the hospital. The court awarded…(the) maternal grandmother guardianship but custody was with her Aunt, the Aunt that she had been visiting just before the tragedy.
Now(the baby’s)…Mom and Aunt were raised in church, always attended church so, (she) went to church, all of the time. The (baby) grew up. (She) still went to church. (She) went to college. (She) still went to church. (She) got married, had a family and still went to church. (She) became a Granny and she still goes to church. (She) is one blessed Granny because her family attends church as well. (She) has always gone to church. God has always been a part of (her) life.
As each day goes by, Tara Shaver, a member of our congregation, who was that baby, says, “I become more grateful for God’s grace and love. Especially the grace and love God sent in the form of a firefighter. I know that I am only here because God has a plan for me. I know when my time on this earth is over…I will spend eternity with the One that sent the fire fighter to discover the tiny shoe in the snow drift on that 9 degree morning just 3 days before Christmas.”
Those are moving stories, aren’t they? And before I share the stories of some of the saints in my life, remember this –
Sometimes the best gifts come in badly wrapped packages.
How many of you have received a gift at some point in life – perhaps from one of your children when they were young – and it was wrapped rather badly? Perhaps the paper was wrinkled and torn. Perhaps it wasn’t even wrapping paper, but some old newspaper or a paper bag. When you looked at it you knew it could have been wrapped much better, but when you opened it you found a homemade gift and exclaimed it’s the best gift ever! It was the best gift ever because it was a gift that truly came from the heart, and as it was, we are more than happy to overlook the packaging that was so unattractive.
When I say the best gifts sometimes come in badly wrapped packages I am of course, using it as an analogy to refer to us. But in doing so I am not commenting on anyone’s wardrobe or casting aspersions on anyone’s character. What I mean by a badly wrapped package is that we are flawed and incomplete people, but that doesn’t mean God cannot and will not use us, or that we cannot be a gift to the life of another person. Indeed, the saints who come into our lives are influential and meaningful to us precisely because they are badly wrapped packages. It is their flaws and shortcomings that all them to be used by God to influence us and to set an example for how we should live.
When I speak of the saints in my life I would begin with my parents. The great gift given to me by my parents was the gift of faith, for which I am immensely thankful. But there are other gifts as well. From my mother I inherited her sense of fairness. Our home was a hub of activity for many of our friends, and they were always welcome in our home and often stayed for meals and overnight. My mom was very gracious in tolerating the loud, raucous behavior of a bunch of teenage boys. But she had her limits, and one of her limits was that everyone must be treated fairly and decently; that was a rule not to be broken, and when it was, the offending party was sent home and could return only when they learned to treat others fairly and kindly. From my father I inherited a sense of determination, or, as my mother might say, his hard-headedness. Whichever it is, it has served me well over the many years of ministry when I have, at times, wanted to give up.
William Norris was another saint in my life. Reverend Norris came to our church as the minister when I was in the fifth grade, staying into my college years. He was a great man and was my primary role model in ministry. Reverend Norris (in those days it was “Reverend Norris,” never Bill, or even William. We would never have dared to be so casual in how we addressed the minister! I still remember my shock when I heard his wife address him as Bill. She would call Reverend Norris by his first name? To my young ears, it seemed rather scandalous!) was a very gregarious man, active in the community, and possessed a loud laugh that you could hear a block or two away. I was in college when his family moved from our church, and I was incredibly sad that they were leaving. I happened to be home and I went to their home to help load the truck moving their belongings. While we were loading the truck one of our town characters came down the street. If you are a fan of the Andy Griffith show you will remember the character of Otis Campbell. This man was our town’s Otis, although there was nothing at all humorous about his life. There is nothing funny about the kind of addiction that had all but destroyed his life. I think he was often homeless, generally unkempt, and smelled bad. Most people would stay away from him when he came their direction. When Reverend Norris saw him he went quickly to him and gave him a big hug, said he would miss him, and that he loved him. I had no idea that Reverend Norris had a connection to the man but I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Reverend Norris ministered to everyone in our community. To see him embrace this man with such compassion was a tremendous example to me. Reverend Norris’s wife, Judy, passed away only a few weeks ago. As a young person, I was one of several who often made her life very difficult, as she tried to prepare us for the annual Christmas program. I still have on my bookshelf a devotional book she wrote many years ago, and inscribed a personal message to me on the inside of the front cover. I wrote her a letter a few years ago, thanking her for the influence she and her husband had on my life, and she kindly wrote me a reply.
The next saint was Bob Mack, who was the director at the Elkhorn Valley Christian Service Camp in eastern Ohio where I attended church camp as a young person. Bob did not come from a church background and had lived quite the adventurous life before having a rather dramatic conversion. I worked a lot of weeks for Bob at camp, and I still remember on a Saturday morning, before going home, when he took me aside to talk to me about the fact that I had broken a camp rule, a rule that should have required that I be sent home. Bob talked to me about it and told me he did not want to send me home and he offered me grace. I would have done anything for Bob after that day. When I was ordained to the ministry in May of 1979, after graduating from college, Bob gave the sermon at my ordination service. He is gone now also, and I miss of him, and have thought of him often over the years.
I would also mention the churches I have served, which have been sources of many saints in my life. As I am now beginning my eighth year here at First Christian, I am grateful to say this has been my best and most enjoyable stretch of ministry in my three-plus decades of ministry, and it is because of the many saints here who have loved me and been so gracious to me.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention my family – my wife, Tanya, and our sons Nick and Tyler. I won’t say much about them, because I don’t want to embarrass them (and they would prefer that I not say much) but I must say one or two things. When Tanya and I first met, she was actually interested in one of my best friends, and thought that by hanging around with me she might have the opportunity to go out with him. I’m very pleased to say that I won her over. But as we began dating, she reminded me on several occasions that she never dated anyone over six weeks. Again, I won her over. But then she told me should could never marry a minister. Once again, yes, I won her over. Tanya, Nick, and Tyler have been such wonderful gifts in my life, and they are saints for being so patient with me and for loving me in return.
I could go on and on, speaking about the many saints in my life and the cloud of witnesses that have, and continue, to surround my life. They have been such a blessing to me that I could never adequately describe what an impact they have had upon me.
Your life has been blessed with saints who have been tremendous gifts to you. But don’t forget that you are a gift to others as well; you are a saint to someone. Your life, indeed, is a gift!