The Passing of Karen Miller (Pastor Amanda Garber’s mother)

Dear friends at RISE,

On Tuesday, January 5th, Karen Miller, the mother of our pastor, Amanda Miller Garber, passed away. We all grieve this deep hurt and loss in the Miller family. Having someone dear to us die is so incredibly difficult and it has certainly been very hard for Amanda and her family to journey through the past few days and weeks. We encourage everyone to keep Amanda and her family in your prayers and surround her with all the love and care that we at RISE can muster. Linked below is a beautiful obituary for Karen Miller that details a life well lived and people well loved. We ask you to take time to read it and reflect on the legacy of love Karen has left behind.

If you would like to give a gift in memory of Karen, the family has asked that donations be given to any of the mission programs at Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church, 707 Washington Avenue, Vinton, Virginia 24179. Donations may also be sent to RISE at riseharrisonburg.com or at worship.

http://www.oakeys.com/m/?p=memorial&id=1728647

Grace and Peace - A Reflection from Paula

I am not a morning person. I’m not kidding; I am not really a fully functioning human being until at least noon. I’m not good at faking it either. On the occasions that I do have to be up early, you will rarely find me well dressed, and certainly not prompt. Furthermore, at no point in the day, regardless of sleep or caffeine levels, would I ever consider myself “peppy”. Anyone who has attended a traditional Methodist church service on a Sunday morning can see how that may present an unpleasant church-going experience for me. Even in the most laid-back and progressive churches I have attended, it was expected that you be on time, well dressed, and pleasant on Sunday mornings. One Sunday I staged a rebellion and my mother conceded that I could go to church in my pajamas. I felt victorious for the entire car ride (all of 6 blocks) but upon walking into the sanctuary, immediately felt the unpleased eyes staring at me in judgment.

These things may seem silly to some, but they represent a culture in the church that inevitably turned me away from regular Sunday worship. I never felt disconnected from God, just from “his people.” It wasn’t until I moved to Harrisonburg as an adult and went in search of a new congregation to join that I realized that there was a bigger issue at hand. I would be lying if I said that my primary reasons for attending RISE for the first time didn’t have to do with the buzz words “Exactly 10ish” and “Wear anything you want. Pajamas or a tuxedo. It’s all good.”

Finally, a church where I could saunter in, late and disheveled, in my Nike shorts and a tee shirt I probably slept in without judgement. Hallelujah, indeed. By the way, did you know that the theater seats are really comfy and rock back and forth?

But I found more in that theater than I had ever bargained for….

 The warm, welcoming, and never-judging environment extends far beyond the venue and into the hearts of the congregation. Shortly after I began attending RISE, they began what is now my favorite sermon series – “Stories and Voices.” Hearing so many members of the RISE community share their personal stories really expanded on my understanding of just how accepting this place is. I have truly never felt so comfortable, and so welcome in any other building, or community in my life.

 I believe people come to RISE for a myriad of reasons with no two people sharing the same story; that is one of my favorite things about this brilliantly diverse community.  RISE does an incredible job of creating a safe space for people to be themselves, and to explore how that plays out in a relationship with God and others. Whether that safe space is the theater on Sunday mornings, the RISE mission house, or any of the events in the community RISE sponsors – the mantra remains the same “Everyone Means Everyone.”

These spaces don’t come without cost though, financially speaking. Please consider contributing what you can to help keep the heat on in the winter, and the air cool in the summer – and the lights on every day of the year. Help us to share warmth, and illuminate light in people’s lives – literally and figuratively.

 Grace and Peace,

Paula Love

Be Loud, Be Proud.

I felt confident I could do it.  After all, they had said, “Just show up…hand out stickers…hand out freeze-pops…and no words required.”  “No words” appealed greatly to my introverted self, so Corinne (my wife) and I agreed to represent RISE at Harrisonburg’s first pride festival. 

New to the area, we were both a bit apprehensive with the thought of attending a “pride” event.  It had only been a few of months since we had bid New England farewell and Harrisonburg ado. 

New Hampshire treated us well as a couple, but we weren’t sure of the kind of reception we would receive once we crossed the Mason Dixon line.  It had been five years since the Bible-belt beating we took in North Carolina, but it was still painful and fresh in our minds.  However, due to finances and the promise of a new job, we had no choice but to lick our wounds, pack our fur babies and head south.

Growing up in an extremely conservative Christian home, we taught homosexuality was not only a sin but also an abomination which God hated.  We were also led to believe that the sinful “creepy-crawlies” came out of the woodwork during “pride” events.  And so with these lovely visions in our mind, we got out of our parked car and bravely headed toward the rainbow flags. 

To our astonishment, the sinful “creepy-crawlies” had indeed come but instead of strutting around clad in colorful thongs, they marched around the perimeters waving homemade picket signs.   One of the signs had the words inscribed “Honk for Traditional Marriage”.  I had failed to see this particular sign, and so I smiled a waved at every horn blower, until one of my gay buddies set me straight (No pun intended).  Later I learned the self-righteous homophobes had crawled from the woodwork (church) from somewhere in Washington DC. 

At the RISE booth we began handing out stickers and freeze pops.  The smiles were easily given but, as usual, my introverted self was quite conservative with the words.  However, the more I gazed into the eyes at the other end of the freeze pop, the more I saw myself. 

I saw a child riddled with guilt for keeping a secret from the mother she loved, a teenager confused from her attraction to girls instead of boys and most painful of all someone separated from a God who failed to reciprocate her love. 

My silence no longer seemed important.  I told my introverted self to take a hike, and I began to talk…talk and talk…  I couldn’t bring my awkward self to shut up about the acceptance and unconditional love freely offered at RISE every Sunday at exactly 10(ish).  I wanted everyone to experience the peace I had finally come to know in Christ.  

Later, the following week, I was reading form the gospel of John and stumbled across words of Christ, which ironically, had been spoken at another festival some 2000 years ago.  He was so passionate about the message, John says that Jesus stood and cried out with a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and drink…I will never, no never, reject any one of them who comes to me…Therefore you are no longer outsiders but you now share citizenship with the saints…and you belong to God’s own household”.     

Christ is still standing, and He’s still crying, and He wants us to stand with Him.  He wants us cry with Him. He wants our voices to be so loud they are heard all over the world and begs us not to stop until the voices of hate are overshadowed and heard no more.

Scriptures referenced:  John 7:37; John 6:37; Ephesians 2:19 [taken from the Amplified Bible] 

Written by: Lisa Hardy, a beloved member of the RISE community.


Sunset Prayer: An interview with Shiree Harbick

What makes Sunset Prayer such a great way for the Harrisonburg/RISE community to come together?

Sunset Prayer is an opportunity for us to take time in the middle of the week to spend time with God and each other. Sunset Prayer takes place every other Wednesday in a beautiful outdoor sanctuary called “The Grove”.  Prayer and community time beneath the trees with a view of the setting sun allows for reflection, relaxation and facilitates connection.  Many of us spend our work day inside; and ending a day outdoors with our thoughts on God and creation has become a special RISE summertime tradition for many in the community.

How does this better community?

The structure of each Sunset Prayer time is different depending on who is leading it each week.  Some weeks there are devotionals prepared by community members with reflection time and prayer.  Other weeks involve small group and large group reflection and prayer.  Some weeks explore prayer traditions from a variety of faith expressions, such as use of the Book of Common Prayer.  Every week ends with a campfire and s’mores with friends!

 How have you benefited from Sunset Prayer?

Prayer helps me to refocus my priorities and find better alignment with God’s vision for myself and the world around me. I can always find my way to prayer and reflection more easily when I’m outdoors!

 Where does your passion for Sunset Prayer come from?

“The Grove” was the dream of some friends that I was close to and loved deeply.  It was meant to be a place of worship and I love that I can help bring others to this sacred space to experience connection with God.

 How would anyone else benefit from Sunset Prayer?

Try it out!  Join in at any level that you feel comfortable.  No “out loud” prayer is required unless it’s something you feel like doing.  Come to be outside, eat marshmallows and melted chocolate; come expecting to make new friends and we will all see together what God can bring from this time.

-Interview by: Savanah Biche, a member of the RISE marketing team

Love Packs: An Interview with Jess Balac and Catie Sumner

Our Love Packs Ministry is teaming up with the Massanutten Regional Library from now-August 6th for a “Every Hero Has A Story” change drive in which every cent goes towards Love Packs. 

With this in mind, we wanted to sit down with Jess Balac (OutReach Coordinator) and Catie Sumner (Coordinator of Love Packs) and ask them about Love Packs and what it means to them: 

Jess, why is it important for not only the RISE community but the Harrisonburg community to help out and/or receive Love Packs? 

Foremost, it is incredibly important that Harrisonburg receives Love Packs because our community desperately needs it.  For example, the first elementary school we started sponsoring, Spotswood Elementary, has a population in the 90th percentile of students who are on free or reduced lunch…this means that, financially, their families qualify for reduced pricing or free food in the cafeteria.  These are Harrisonburg residents, not affiliated with RISE in any way.  Families are struggling in our community, and to truly root one's self in community (which is one of RISE's primary goals) you have to pay attention to its needs.  Particularly, we pack so that students can have food over the weekends when their parents otherwise could not afford to buy lunch or breakfast for their kids. Even if we only provide a few meals a week for these kids, that's financial and mental stress off of the parent and it puts food in a hungry child's stomach.  

I think it's very important for the Harrisonburg community to help out because if you don't invest in your own community, your neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and local culture will suffer.  Hunger affects students so badly…they have trouble concentrating in school, their attitudes suffer, which just creates a snowball effect in their life.  If children in need aren't cared for and served I think the future of our community suffers.

 What do YOU get out of it? Why are you so passionate about Love Packs? 

Personally, children tug at my heart strings very much.  While it's not the field that I work in, I went to school to become a licensed teacher.  At every point throughout my adolescent and adult life I have been doing something in relation to kids…I think it's just who I am.  I love delivering Love Packs and seeing the look on the kid’s faces as I wheel them down the hallway.  They know exactly what they are and many children whisper "thank you" as I walk past them in the school.  They smile, giggle, and squirm because they see me walking towards their classroom to deliver.  If nothing else, I think the experience of delivering Love Packs touches my very basic human desire to care for children.

Why should others be passionate about it?

There are so many reasons I believe people should be passionate and get involved with this program.  Foremost, people should be passionate to help strengthen it…it is doing so much good in the community (as well as other churches/organizations that run similar programs).  I would love to see a community that is so aware and in touch with its own needs that it takes care of its people and invests in the programs that help it.  A self-sufficient community rooted in caring for and being with one another...what a wonderful place that would be…I hope other people want that/are passionate about that for their community.  Love Packs is one way people can start to work towards that goal.  As much as I love Love Packs, it's not just about our one program…people need to figure out what they are passionate about helping with and just go do it; whether it's Love Packs with RISE or another food programs through a different organization.  However, if people are looking to take a first step towards community service, Love Packs is here, and we would love help.

----------------------------------------------------

Catie it’s your turn, what makes the Change Drive so important to the Harrisonburg community?

It binds us in a way!  It helps the community to lean on each other and to care for one another.  It's also important for the community to realize that there are families (here in our own neighborhoods, next door, going to our schools, etc.) that are struggling to put food on the table and that's not ok and there's a way that we can help.

Why are you so passionate about LOVE Packs?

I got the privilege of being part of the team who started Love Packs...it was just 20 back packs, four years ago.  Now, it has grown tremendously and it's exciting!  It's exciting to provide opportunities for people to help a neighbor and to learn from it!  I hope that we can really listen to the struggle and hopefully make a difference so that maybe in ten years, we won't need to fill these bags!

If you have any questions about Love Packs and/or the "Every Hero Has A Story" Change Drive, contact Jess Balac (jshaf89@gmail.com).  

-Interview by: Savanah Biche, a member of the RISE marketing team

To Love, To Be Loved

This is the first week that I have been able to relax and breathe following a really busy semester. I indulged in some self-care in the form of binge watching TV, and avoiding the responsibilities of housework and laundry. I rounded the week off with a hike with a great friend, where we spent 4+ miles sharing our stories and enjoying the comfort ofknowing we're not alone in our struggles. Something we at RISE often refer to as "the healing power of 'me too.'" After a hike, I spent the evening at a local craft brewery with some good friends and good music. 

I came home Friday night feeling this rush of emotions. I didn't know how to sort through them and I still don't. I cried a little bit, but not out of sadness - out of happiness, and a feeling of such acceptance. Saturday was another busy day of receptions and birthday parties, and socializing. The theme remains the same, though - an abundance of love and community, swelling around me. I realized that I was drowning in love. Today was no different. 

There are a lot of changes underway. People are leaving, moving, embarking on new journeys. Jobs are changing, people are getting married, and along with these things, I am constantly growing. It is surely frightening, but love always conquors fear. 

I just wanted to take a moment to thank every single person who contributes to the love I feel embraced by every week. To the people of this beautiful, life-giving community I have found in RISE; to the people of this incredible town that has accepted me and helped me decide to call Harrisonburg home; to friends near and far who lend a listening ear when I need someone to talk to....thank you all. I wake up every day believing that this world is a good place, filled with kind people and it is all because of the love I see in your hearts. 

"Momma once told me - you're already home where you feel loved...” (The Head & The Heart) 

It is all because of you.

"My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us - perfect love." - 1 John 4:11-12 

So, thank you.

-Written by: Paula Love

A Graduates Reflection

The reason I went to RISE the first time is not nearly as important as the reason I went to RISE a second time. You can go to any church just once, or any event really, and never have any need to return. It happens all the time. But what convinces you to go a second time? Well, to be honest I have no idea why I went the first time. As a college freshman and a tired-out Christian, I was looking for any group to plug into and anyone who would help me feel like I belonged. The world was very black and white then, and easy was better. Easy was safe.

Which ironically (or not so ironically if you think about it), is not who RISE is. I have asked more questions with RISE than I think I’m particularly comfortable with, and black and white turned more and more into a gray; a gray which I’m convinced is starting to be the true color of love and forgiveness. Gray is not easy, which I think is why I went back a second time to RISE and many more after that. It was the first place I had come across that didn’t try to explain everything all at once; I wouldn’t find any answers to the universe here. To be honest, it was uncomfortable and fascinating at the same time. It wasn’t what I was looking for, but I know now that these are the people that I needed. With this community I now consider my family, I have grown to live in the fraying gray of here and now.

I am proud of the work we do in our community, and the way we unconditionally love everyone we meet. That’s something I think is really hard to find, inside or outside of a church. I am so thankful for the love I have been given here and the unconditional love I have been taught to show to others. I have never been part of a group that is so aware of every story that walks through our doors. We ask no questions. We make no judgments. One of our sayings is “Everyone means everyone.” We don’t care what you look like or what you might believe. We’re just glad you came and that we got to meet you, because you matter to God and so you matter to us. That makes things messy sometimes and really painful. It’s a big risk to be brutally honest and authentic, but that’s how the most beautiful relationships are built.

This is the place I have come to call home and a family I have come to love. As I’m preparing to graduate and move onto another city, I hope to create honest communities like RISE everywhere I go. As hard as it will be to leave, I can be RISE to those who may never walk through their doors.
I can show the authentic love of God. I know I am a gift to this world, and one by one we are working to mend it together.

Friends, RISE is young, ambitious and passionate about mending God's creation together. My life has been transformed because you and others have supported and continue to support RISE; I want others to experience this radical grace and God's embrace, too.  We need your support to continue mending and offering hope to countless young adults and persons throughout our community (and beyond).  Your partnership means more than words can describe.  Thank you for resolving to mend God's creation with us.
 

 -Written by: Jordan Garrett, RISE worship leader and JMU Senior

Walk the Walk: A Day at the Chocolate Walk.

I was fortunate enough to be able to walk the walk (talk the talk?) and volunteer for the Chocolate Walk in downtown Harrisonburg. After eating six of the fifteen pieces that I had obtained from the stations, I was fully energized to hand out vegan brownies at the Artful Dodger. Despite some rainfall and a sugar crash, this event was one of the most fun and enlightening experiences I had this semester.

The experience was fun because those who attended were able to walk the streets of Harrisonburg, explore local businesses, eat delectably, and support a great cause. There was live music, a beautiful breeze, and a disposition of happiness. Many attendees were interested in the Collins Center, what it does, and how the money would be distributed to help their missions, while otherwise they may not have known of its existence. Many strangers would strike up conversation with each other about the food or location, while in other situations, they most likely would have been a passerby.

Humans are meant to be relational beings, so it was wonderful to see people so open to help, talk, laugh, and love during that evening. It was truly special. The experience was enlightening because sexual violence is a topic that many people choose not to discuss. It’s abrasive, it’s uncomfortable, yet it is far too prevalent in our society. Not only does the Collins Center do amazing work to break down the walls of victim blaming and abuse, they put in effort to build bridges of advocacy for survivors and those struggling with mental health. To bring a voice to those who are silenced, hurting, and healing is a cause that is always worth supporting. Luckily, our community of Harrisonburg was committed to providing that support, and people filled streets and stores in hopes of an end to sexual violence.

I plan to carry this experience with me as I continue to promote positive change in the areas of sexual violence and mental health, and I am grateful that the Chocolate Walk is now a part of my story. While the chocolate was absolutely delicious, nothing was sweeter than seeing people of all ages and backgrounds come into the community to mend God’s creation.

Written by: Alyssa Skelly (a dear friend within the RISE community)

Standing on Two.

Two years ago, on the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday, I managed the fragile strength to stand up.

The toilet bowl, in its innocent sinfulness, stands before me as I am seated – full of shame, guilt, and self-hatred – on the bathroom floor. I catch a glimpse of myself in its porcelain body. Vacant, defeated eyes stare back and I am numb. My stomach is tender, my esophagus, burning, and my knuckles, red. I binged and purged…again. Emptiness and depression swallow me up in the tiny bathroom and I become conscious of a profound hatred for myself. I never wanted to binge and purge. There seemed to be a disconnect between who I was and who I had become. I felt powerless and out of control.

Last time was supposed to be the last time. Where is your strength?

In complete defeat, I struggle to recognize the girl on the bathroom floor. I weep instinctively, flush the toilet, and stand to confront the mirror. The tears blur the image slightly but there is no mistaking the pain, brokenness, and fear that reflects back. I fat shame. I spout blame and anger. I hold my breath. I close my eyes. It’s no use, though; the person in the mirror is just as flawed, weak, and hopeless when I open them again. I suppress a sob, twist my face in disgust, turn away, and sit back down on the floor.

It’s too much…you’re too much. What happened to you?

The silence in the bathroom resounds and there is defined stillness. The darkness, unrelenting and debilitating, dissipates for an instant and the reality of the dark, gritty, and wearisome three year struggle with bulimia manifests itself. Behind my piercing gaze, a fear builds and threatens to infinitely hold me prisoner to the cycle of that bathroom floor, as I am forced to acknowledge the heavy burden of a silent struggle. Alone, ashamed, and unrecognizable, I want it to end. Tears of pain mix with tears of defeat and my impending birthday stirs something soul deep.  

You cannot survive this for another twenty-five years. Who will you be?  

With doubt weighing heavily,

With darkness threatening to steal my light,

With recovery seeming elusive,

With shame and guilt diminishing my confidence,

With fragile hope, resilient strength, and sacred promise,

I stand up.

Being honest meant standing. Standing meant living. Living meant loving - and deciding to love - and it is the most radical thing I have ever stood for.

And it’s possible that this could be a lifelong struggle that may shrink but never fade completely in this life. I’m learning that waiting takes longer than I would like and that waiting for something is more difficult when you have no idea when or if it [healing] will arrive. But, I am choosing to open myself up to the reality of the struggle of the healing process, and be honest about where I am instead of hiding in isolation.

And, if shattering the façade means opening old wounds, hurting, relinquishing control, and feeling uncomfortable so that someone else is freed from their own silent struggle, then let it be so.

 

When you see someone remembering even when they want to forget,

When you see someone showing vulnerability even when they want to hide,

When you see someone learning who they are even when they bear a painful past,

When you see someone sharing their story even if it means sacrifice and grief.

When you see someone standing on two,

That will be me.

 

-Written by a beloved child of God who is a part of the RISE movement.

An Important Announcement to the RISE Community

The following remarks were given by Brent Levy at the end of worship on February 12, 2012.

It's become apparent in the last year and a half since our launch that one of the unique constants of this movement -- this community -- is that things and people are always changing. The transience of this community is at once heartbreaking as dear friends move on, but it's also filled with a holy anticipation as we await what God will do and how God will move in the lives of those we've come to love so much.

And so it is, today. Dear friends, it is with great sadness, but also with a whole lot of hope and excitement that I publicly announce that I will be stepping down as Worship Leader for RISE at the end of May -- as Natalie and I prepare to move to Durham, North Carolina to begin the next chapter in our journeys of life and faith. Through a whole lot of prayer and discussion and discernment and tears and arguing with God, I have decided to go to seminary at Duke Divinity School beginning this fall. I gave Natalie the choice of whether she wanted to stay here at RISE or come with me for the next three years, and (thank God!) she chose me ... so I'm sorry about that. I tried. 

What does this mean for you? Well, a couple things. First, this doesn't change much right now. I'm still the Worship Leader of this community (like it or not!) and am still committed to leading meaningful worship that sends us out to love this world and be the hands and feet of Christ to our neighbors here, as well as our neighbors around the world. But it also means that beginning tomorrow, the search begins for this community's next worship leader. We're going through a full-on application and resume and interview process and there's a team in place to work the front lines of this search, but this also needs to be a community effort. If you know anyone who may be interested or who you think might be a good fit, please let us know and be in prayer for this process and this team over the next few months.

A few more things I want to say and then I'll shut up. First, I remember vividly the day that the idea for RISE was born. Amanda and I were sitting in a booth at Mr. J's on 33. And we said, "What if ..."  and started to dream with a holy imagination about what this community might look like. That was a little over two years ago now and even our wildest dreams couldn't have come close to how beautiful this is. And as I stand and look around, I'm so overwhelmed and incredibly humbled when I think about what God has done and is doing here -- how much this movement has grown and how I've come to know and love you -- many of you who I wouldn't have ever had the chance of meeting had it not been for this community. And I stand in awe at how you have latched on to this vision -- this crazy idea -- and made it your own. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And if any of you are asking, "What's going to happen to RISE," well first of all, that's a silly question. And second of all, I want you to look around and you'll find your answer. God's doing amazing things here and that's not going to stop.

And so finally, just for my sanity and for our collective reassurance I'd like us to say this closing prayer together. This has been my prayer for this community and will continue to be. And I think the exciting part for all of us is that, by God's grace, this is the reality that we're living into and will continue to live into as a part of God's dream, so I invite you to say this with me ... 

"May the good news grab you, disrupt you, unsettle you and shake you up. May you lose your life and find it, die and be reborn, take a breath, open your eyes, and see things you've never seen before."

I Believe in a Thing Called Prayer

This post was written by Jenn Landrein, a member of the RISE Core Team.

What is it about prayer that intimidates many of us? Are we afraid to express our feelings? Does it make us uncomfortable? Is it speaking out loud? Do we get stage fright? Does prayer expose us? Are we afraid of being honest and, therefore, vulnerable? 

Friends, let me start by saying that there is no proper prayer protocol. There is no right or wrong way to pray, there are no right or wrong words; heck, sometimes there is no need for words. There is no right or wrong place to pray and there is no right or wrong time. 

Prayer alone, prayer with others, prayer before bed, prayer during exercise, prayer in the shower, silent prayer, prayer for 10 seconds or prayer for an hour – it’s not about where, with whom, how or for how long. It’s not always about words, it is about connection.

Prayer does not have to be a “Dear God” statement; it can be an emotion, a touch, an action. Prayer happens when we receive communion. Prayer happens over a cup of coffee, or five. Prayer happens when we fill a backpack with food on a Thursday evening so that a child in this community does not have to go hungry over the weekend. Prayer happens whenever we encounter and feel God’s amazing presence and grace. Prayer is love. And it is important, it’s healthy, it matters – we need it to grow.

Self Prayer

Prayer, for me, has become an immense part of my journey. Like I said before though, I was afraid of prayer, it intimidated me, and I avoided it like the plague. I didn’t know how to have a conversation with God, I didn’t know how to vocally express my feelings and it straight up made me uncomfortable. Prayer made God real for me in a new, and uneasy, way.

I grew up in the Catholic Church and I was always given the impression that yes, we worship God, we praise him, but essentially He’s up there and we’re down here; God is “unreachable,” “unattainable.” What I mean by that is that I got the impression that there had to be a certain degree of distance between God and I. I got that “look but don’t touch” vibe. How do I grow with my faith if I have to keep my distance? How do I live and love like Jesus if I can’t connect and relate to my Maker?

Here’s the thing, I could recite prayers with the best of them in the pews; the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostle’s Creed. I like to think of it as my prayer reflex – I memorized them word for word and when it was time to recite them during Mass, bam, I nailed it. That was the only kind of prayer that I had ever known. Sure I knew the words but I had no idea the content of what I was reciting; I didn’t understand the message. It was rote and, in many respects, it felt superficial. I didn’t experience a connection between God and myself through that kind of prayer.

If there is one thing that I’ve learned though, it’s that this journey is a relationship. And to have a successful and healthy relationship there must be communication; there must be openness and honesty with and through our Creator.

I pray in the morning and simply thank God for allowing me to wake up, to take a breath. I pray throughout the day and thank God for the people I interact and connect with and for the experiences that I encounter. I pray for myself, I pray for my family, for my friends, for strangers, for the RISE community. I pray for unity, forgiveness and love. There is no poetry to my words (my “Dear Lawd,” Long Island accent is pretty angelic sounding though). My thoughts aren’t always complete and I often go off on tangents. There is neither structure nor limit to my prayers; there is only passion, love and an open heart and mind.

Sometimes I find that prayer means not speaking at all. I, often times, find myself sitting in God’s presence and saying ‘Speak Lord, I am listening.’ For me, it is about the emotion, the reflection and the connection. I cherish that alone time with God, I embrace it and I need it.

I need prayer, of any kind, to learn about myself and God. I need it to grow with my faith, to prosper, to serve others. I need it to be the person that I’m called to be.

Prayer With and Within Community

When I was first asked to come to a RISE morning prayer, I immediately thought ‘Oh no, we’re going to be in a circle holding hands and they’re going to make me pray out loud. I’m going to be put on the spot and I won’t know what to say; my words won’t be good enough, it won’t sound pretty, I can’t quote Scripture, I don’t know how to pray.’ In retrospect, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I showed up one Thursday morning at 7 am, simply out of curiosity and of a desire to connect more with RISE. I wasn’t expected to talk and I wasn’t expected to recite the Bible. I was there to experience, to share in community and in God’s love, and that was enough.

I realize that many people want to know what goes on at prayer on Thursday mornings. Basically, Melissa gives us a list, compiled from all the prayers received at worship; just like the RISE report, it is broken down into prayers for the world, prayers for the community, prayers for RISE and personal prayers. The list is divided up among us, so that we are given prayers from each section, and then we each go our own way. We find our own space, sit with those prayers, reflect on each person, each situation, and lift them up to God.

Side note: the RISE prayer team is open to absolutely everyone! We understand that everyone is at a different point in his or her journey and we understand that participating in intentional prayer can be intimidating. Please know that there is no pressure to join us but, of course, we would love to have you! If you are at all interested or if you have questions, concerns or fears (I guarantee there are others who feel the same way) I encourage you to talk to Amanda, Melissa Fretwell or myself. Be where you are, be okay with where you are and know how much you are loved.

So, prayer on Thursday mornings has become a routine for me. It’s become an important way for me to connect with the community and God. Every week I am entrusted with your prayers; your questions; your concerns; your struggles; your anxieties; your pain; the pain of someone you know or love; your joys; your successes.

Every week I am transformed through each person that has, so graciously and courageously, written something down. As I lift up your prayers for the world and the community, as well as your personal prayers, I get the privilege of connecting with you in an incredible way. You allow me to share in your story. I may not be able to put a face to a prayer (all prayers are kept anonymous and confidential) but I know that you are one of God’s beloved, you were made in His image, and it is a blessing and an honor to be able to pray for and with you.

Each week, as I read through the prayer list, I am reminded just how important our stories are. How much we hold inside. How much we want to reach out and how desperately we need each other. Community is a gift. Prayer is a gift. Use them both for all of the love, grace and support that they have to offer. 

“Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man's behalf!” (Psalm 66:5)

I believe that the experience of prayer cannot be put into words, it cannot be defined. The only advice that I can give is this: come and see, come and feel, come and experience and understand the ways in which the Holy Spirit transforms us.

So, what if prayer isn’t something to fear but something to embrace? What if it is a beautiful, raw, indescribable and transformational way of connecting with our Creator, with ourselves and with each other? Come and see.

If you're interested in joining the RISE Prayer Team, email Jenn Landrein: jennlandrein@gmail.com.

2011 in Review: Look What You've Done!

This post was compiled by the RISE Core Team.

Can you believe its 2012 already? 2011 was a year of many dreams-come-true at RISE. Check out all of the ways that the RISE community lived into God’s dream last year.

In 2011, by God's grace, we ...

  • Hosted our first ever Mac and Cheese-Off, which brought in countless canned goods for the food bank and raised over $250 for local organizations doing good work in our community.
  • Hosted more than 30 HARTS guests who experienced homelessness during the winter months.
  • Celebrated the first baptism in the RISE community.
  • Sang our hearts out at our first Flash Mob in Panera Bread.
  • Sent 12 courageous friends to Orlando, FL for a week of gleaning with the Society of St. Andrew
  • Launched Bible Fight Club, an opportunity for anyone and everyone to engage in lively discussion on controversial, biblical topics.
  • Hosted the Buzzkill Challenge and raised nearly $2,000 for Nothing But Nets.
  • Participated in Relay for Life and donated more than $2,000 to the American Cancer Society.
  • Spent Maundy Thursday scrubbing toilets, cleaning frat houses and washing windows.
  • Celebrated Easter with a sunrise service at the JMU Arboretum.
  • Participated in the Out of the Darkness Walk to raise awareness for suicide prevention.
  • Hosted the first ever Chocolate Walk and raised more than $1,800 for the Collins Center.
  • Began our Love Wednesday events, where we shared random acts of love around Harrisonburg in the form of Christmas in July, spontaneous birthday parties and bottled water delivery during the heat wave.
  • Distributed more than 80 dozen muffins to students during the first week of classes at JMU, EMU, Mary Baldwin College and Bridgewater College.
  • Hosted two Stop Hunger Now events, packaging a total of 30,000 meals to be sent to communities in need around the world.
  • Brought on our first team of interns who continue to develop as young leaders and support our various ongoing ministries.
  • Launched Embrace Groups – a chance for friends to connect with God, each other and the community on a deeper level.
  • Launched our Love Packs ministry, which provide much-needed weekend meals for 15 students at Spotswood Elementary School.
  • Celebrated our first birthday!
  • Created the now world-famous Chalk Wall as a way to offer community dialogue. 
  • Completed our strategic planning process (results to be unveiled at our “We Have a Dream” Town Hall Meeting on January 15)
  • Hosted an Alternative Gift Market where friends in our community supported both local and global organizations in lieu of material gifts for the holidays. Nearly $800 in donations were exchanged during this event.
  • Shared in a simple, meaningful Christmas Eve worship service and a delicious Christmas morning breakfast with more than 150 friends in our community.
  • Served 60 children in our community through our Brother2Brother and Sister2Sister mentoring ministries.
  • Distributed over 5,000 hygiene items to 600+ people through our RISE & Shine ministry.
  • Collected food, shoes, winter coats and hygiene items to be redistributed to those in need of such items in our community.
  • Donated $600 to the Healthcare for the Homeless Suitcase Clinic in Harrisonburg.
  • Began a dance ministry with three college students and three girls in our community who bravely performed a liturgical dance on Palm Sunday.
  • Laughed, cried and experienced countless moments of hope, grace and transformation.

Wow, we were busy! Miss something in 2011? We’ll be doing many of these events again in 2012. Click on the links to learn how you can join us this year ...

You are a gift!

The Path is Narrow

This post was written by Kate Anderson and originally posted to her blog. We've reposted it here with her permission.

I'm uncomfortable with the label, "Christian." I hate saying that I'm a Christian, because I know exactly what that means to people who have been burned by the church. It means that I'm judgmental, hypocritical, pompous, selfish, condemning, and isolated from the real world. Maybe that's part of the reason why I've always had such difficulty accepting Jesus; I didn't want the label, and I didn't want to become one of those people.

But then, I found out that my best friend has cancer.

The thing you need to know about Joe is that he and I have had a rocky relationship. We've been friends since first grade, but there were several times in high school when we refused to speak to each other, times that would last for months before one of us caved. He's broken my heart time and time again, but one of my weaknesses (or strengths, depending on how you look at it) is that I'm forgiving of others to the point of being a doormat. So we kept mending our relationship as best we could, ignoring what we couldn't fix, and continued being friends. Few people have made me as furious as he has, or as depressed, but few people have made me laugh so much in my life.

Since we've gone to college, I only see him once or twice a year, and I talk to him maybe half a dozen times beyond that on the phone. I'm just not a phone person. But whenever we do talk, it only takes a few awkward minutes before we feel like KateandJoe again, not Kate and Joe. It was still unusual when I got back from a run one day about a month ago, sweaty and hungry and in a hurry to get to a volunteer gig, and noticed that he was calling me.

"Hey Joe, what's up?"

"Are you busy right now?"

"Well, I just got back from a run, and I'm gonna have to head out soon to go volunteering, but I have a few minutes. What's up?"

"Kate...I have cancer."

After the shock passed and he gave me some more details about what was happening medically, I found out that he would be leaving his college the next afternoon to get treatment from home. I asked if it would be an inconvenience if I were to come visit him that night - his school is about three hours from mine - and after thanking me profusely, I got his address and looked up some directions.

It's times like these when you learn how you really handle yourself in times of distress. My boyfriend had come into my room during my conversation and was sitting next to me. I turned to him, informed him that I was about to cry hysterically, but in ten minutes I had to pull myself together because I had to get to the city as soon as possible. He held me, I cried, then I moved on.

Within four hours I was at his school, surrounded by his friends and their gratitude that I had come all the way up to see him. I was so confused by this - who wouldn't do this for their friend? I've known him for about fifteen years, so why wouldn't I come to see him?

A huge group of us walked about two miles to go to Joe's favorite frozen yogurt place. By the time we got back, my leg was cramping horribly from my earlier three mile run and three hour car ride, and I was limping for the rest of the night. We all played Wii games, and introduced his German friend to The Wizard of Oz. She thought it was strange and didn't understand why we liked it so much. We ate pizza and candy and drank way too much soda, and we all touched each other more than new acquaintances normally would. Joe, another girl, and I went into his room and helped him pack, though the other two often cried and we all kept stopping to share stories. I didn't cry, because I had already done that earlier and I was here to be a support, not to take that support from others.

Finally, everyone drifted back to their own rooms, and I was left alone with Joe for the first time since I had gotten there. We somehow ended up cuddling on his twin bed, him holding me and me curled up with my head resting on his shoulder. We talked about old times, strange stories that his college friends wouldn't really know or understand, and sometimes we talked about what would happen to him now that he was going home, and sometimes we were just silent.

It was during this time, at 4 in the morning, with my cramped leg still aching and us crammed onto such a small bed, that I felt this huge wave of love for Joe. I drove all this way even though I can't afford the gas because I love him. I was curled with him because I loved him. I held back my tears because I loved him. Even though he had hurt me in the worst ways, took all my weaknesses and used them against me to break my heart in the most painful ways, I still loved him with everything I had.

Is this how God loves us? No matter how much we hurt God, or how much we hurt each other in God's name, or how many times we look at everything God offers and turn away from it in favor of embracing hell on earth, does God still love us?

Holding Joe and being held by him, in the most innocent way, just offering comfort in the only way I could once all my words had failed me...that was the first time that I truly felt that I could call myself a Christian, and not feel shame. Following Jesus means loving those who've hurt us. Following Jesus means holding those whom I've never met, like the next day when Joe's van pulled away, and the one person there who loved him as much as I do clung to me and sobbed into my shoulder. Following Jesus means dropping everything and driving through the night just so I can see Joe.

Following Jesus means holding someone who has cancer at four in the morning, and telling them that you'll be there for them, no matter what.

Following Jesus means love.

My Love Story (minus singing woodland creatures and Prince Charming)

This post was written by Jenn Landrein and originally posted to her Facebook page. We're reposting with her permission.

Today was a beautiful day. I started my morning with a wonderful worship at RISE and then drove up to Skyline with my family. Hiking has always been an escape for me; a way to clear my head, refresh myself and spend a few hours in a postcard-esque environment. If I'm ever feeling lost or down, nature is my escape and exercise my release. Today, surrounded by fresh air and changing leaves, my mind was open and my thoughts flowing with the topic and word of the day, courtesy of morning worhship, love.

Love. Simple right? The Beatles tell me it's all I need and that money can't buy it. So, what is it, how do I feel it, how do I share it?

We all "love" things, people, places, feelings. Personally, I love a lot of things: pretzels, 80's music, books, crewneck sweatshirts, football. I love my family, I love my friends, I love senior citizens, I love volunteering, I love to be good and to do good. However, I don't know love - at least not how others know it. I'm 23 years old and I have never had a boyfriend. There's been no magical first kiss, heck, there's never even been a first date. Butterflies? Fireworks? Someone waiting for me at the top of the Empire State Building? Nothing. No, I've never been in love romantically but is that what it means to know love? You're probably wondering, now that I've confessed to having no love life to speak of, why I titled this post "My Love Story." Here's the deal, this is a love story. No, I don't run off with Prince Charming. No, it doesn't end with someone chasing after me an airport ready to confess their true feelings. No, no one is outside my window holding a radio above there head and, no, no one wrote me a love letter everyday for a year. My love story is a story of my love for God and his love for me. So, here it goes...

Part I. My love story begins with a blind date of sorts (cliche, right?). So, less than a year ago I was invited and encouraged by a friend to go to church with him. Now, I hadn't been to church in a long time, except for those select days of the year on Christmas and Easter when I would go to punch my "Catholic card." I was, by no means, an atheist at any point in my life but I was, by no means, a believer either. For 23 years I was raised Catholic but for 23 years I had no relationship with God. When the opportunity to go church came about I was hesitant. Part of the reason for that was because I had a routine of spending my Sunday mornings at Barnes & Noble reading and getting lost in literature. To me, that was my place of worship, my sanctuary. Instead of one God, I had many authors. Instead of one Book, I had millions. However, one day in February I decided to take my friend up on his offer. I went in blind to a service at RISE, sat down for my first date with God, and my life was changed. As I listened to Amanda, the pastor, preach that day, it was as if I was the only person in that theatre and that she was talking only to me. Seriously, at one point I had to turn around and make sure there were other people in the theatre. The message was perfect and it hit me hard. So, many of your first dates might have left you with flowers, dinner, a movie, a hug, a kiss goodnight, but I left that theatre alive and ready to begin my journey with God. For weeks I continued to go to RISE every Sunday. Every Sunday I listened as Amanda told us that we were loved and a gift and everytime my heart banged inside of my chest. Trust me, friends, they are great words to hear, especially when you don't hear them often enough. Somehow, those words have significantly more weight when they're not coming from your parents, a family member or a friend. When a stranger tells you that you are loved it fills you up. I also found myself embraced by some amazing individuals who surrounded me with love and faith. Thank you to those individuals, you may never know how much you have changed my life and how much you have been a part of my journey. My love story truly includes all of you. 

Part II. By the power and grace of God I found myself in the beautiful country of Haiti on a mission trip for 8 days. Still in the early stages of my faith I was nervous about going. I still had very little experience with God, I knew more lines out of a Harry Potter book than the Bible and I was intimidated. How could I possibly be the right person to be going to spread His word? How was I the right person to bring faith to these people when I wasn't confident in my own? The only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to help and I wanted to serve. That trip changed my life (cliche again, sorry). On my second day in Haiti, I was helping out at the New Covenant School of Saint Louis du Nord, doing construction on some of the classrooms. Taking a break from work, I found myself talking with some of the "street" kids when one of the younger boys asked me "Do you know Jesus Christ?" Yes, I said, I do know Jesus. Not prepared for what came next, he looked at me and said "Jesus loves me and Jesus loves you too." World rocked. Mind blown. Jesus loves me? Three powerful words that can only be described as the best punch to the gut I've ever received. Now, when I say punch to the gut I mean that I got the wind knocked out of me when that boy told me that Jesus loved me. But, the amazing thing is in a moment when I felt like I couldn't breathe, God somehow breathed new life into me in that moment. Through that young boy, God spoke to me. Every love story has it's climax, it's breathtaking moment, that moment when everything that's meant to be comes to be; well, in my love story that's my moment. In that moment I decided to give my life over to Him and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior. That following Sunday I was officially baptized in the waters between Tortuga and Haiti.  

Part III. So, there you have it, my very own love story. Twenty-three years into my life and my first relationship is with God. As I've changed this past year so has my perception of love. Do we need love? Yes, I truly believe we all do. Receive love, give love, repeat. What if, though, we not only gave and received. What if we were love? What if love wasn't a merely a feeling or an emotion. What if it was a state of being and action? I will wait patiently for God's plan to unfold and I will wait for love but in the meantime I hope to be love. 

So, I guess the Beatles were right. All I do need is love. God's love. And here's the amazing part, I have it and always will. 

A Collision at Meet and Feed

This post was written by Zack Ayers, one of RISE's world-famous interns and an all-around nice guy.

I have a problem with the word, “collision.”

It’s not so much the word itself, but rather the perception of the word. Oxford English Dictionary (I know, another corny way of using a definition to prove a point ...but hear me out on this one) defines collision as “the action of colliding or forcibly striking or dashing together; violent encounter of a moving body with another.”

Let’s simplify: a collision can mess you up.

And what about the phrase, “mess you up?” Doesn’t that send off a negative connotation as well?

Well, according to 99% of the population (Okay, so I made that number up …), “messing something up” means that whatever got “messed up” probably ended up worse off than it started.

And here’s where my story comes in. A couple weeks ago, I was part of a massive collision that messed me up in a big way. And you may wonder if I came out of this collision okay ...

To tell you the truth – I wasn’t okay ... it was a dangerous collision.

In early September, I had the privilege of participating in a Meet and Feed – an opportunity for folks from RISE to show some love to the Harrisonburg community. There were about twenty of us who would spread out to different places in the Harrisonburg area late on a Friday night to serve free food to anyone who wanted some.

Wait a second ... did I just do that?

Yep, I just put serve and free in the same sentence – two words that we need a lot more of in our world today.

So, back to the story! Our team of twenty was divided into about six or so teams of three to four people – after some time in prayer, we headed off to our assigned locations.

This is when it gets good.

About forty-five minutes had passed since our team had started handing out hot dogs, popcorn, and cupcakes. Those on the receiving end of this act of love would say things like, “Where’s the catch ... there’s no way this is free” or “Is this a joke? I have a feeling someone spat in all this free food – people don’t just hand out free stuff.” And for some reason, I had a lot more people who ate cupcakes say, “This is so good – I want to marry you,” than those who didn’t munch on the cupcakes – kudos to you, Cocolicious!

And in the midst of all this hubbub, someone whom I had never met before approached me – but who was obviously intrigued by what was going on.

“So you all are really just handing out free stuff?”

“Sure are.”

“Wow – that’s pretty cool. You’re making a lot of these peoples’ nights. What organization are you with?”

You can probably guess how the rest of this small talk went – but the conversation didn’t just stop at small talk.

I started telling my friend about RISE and the impact it has had on my life. I shared how Amanda’s constant message of “you are not alone” and “you are a gift” had given me hope during a time when I had nearly lost all hope to be successful in college. This clearly sparked an interest in my friend and we started talking about the difficult times we have both been through. It was crazy how much common ground we had and how easy it was to talk to each other as if we were brothers.

Two hours had passed since my friend approached me with that first question, “So you all are really just handing out free stuff?” We talked about dreams. We talked about life. We talked about hard times. And we talked about hope.

My friend walked away from our conversation saying, “This may have just changed my life.”

Wow.

And that’s when it hit me.

This isn’t my story.

This isn’t my friend’s story.

It’s a story of hope. It’s a story that could have only been scripted by Jesus – the One who defined hope through the emptiness of the tomb.

How much different is the story I just shared with you from the one of God’s love?

Well, like the free food we were handing out, God’s love is freely given.

Jesus didn’t come to Earth with the plans of just having small talk – he formed relationships.

And just like the folks receiving free food, sometimes we think that God’s love is too good to be true.

But it’s not. Nothing is too good to be true for God – because He is all that is good.

So yeah, I had a pretty nasty collision that Friday night – and it messed me up in a big, big way.

But it messed me up in a way that changed my life – just like my friend’s – it messed up my old way of thinking that God only shows up when He wants to.

Because that night.

That conversation.

That moment.

It all made me realize that God is always there. His love is always open. It’s always free.

It’s not a game of chicken where we see how close we can get to colliding and then one of us backs out at the last possible second.

God’s love is so constant and so unfailing. We don’t have to question whether or not He’s with us – He made us ... don’t you think He wants to be with us?

So open yourself up to colliding. Colliding with a love full of hope that will overwhelm all of the pain and suffering that the world tries to burden us with. He’s a pretty strong God - He can handle our problems.

Collide into Jesus: I did at the Meet and Feed that Friday night – and friends, it was an incredible experience.

Collisions are dangerous – but not dangerous for what is good. They are dangerous for everything that detours us away from the good news – the good news of hope!

Collisions with Jesus sure have a way of messing up any feelings we may have of hopelessness.

You are never alone. Write down on a sticky note. Sharpie it on your hand. Say it out loud. But never forget it. Never ever forget:

You are not alone.

Kingdom of God

Have you ever played Words with Friends?

It's one of the most popular games on iPhones and iPads and Android phones ... and now you can even play it on Facebook! And this Sunday at exactly 10(ish) at Court Square Theater, it's at RISE. We're launching a new series inviting you to come explore "Words with Friends." Because words have meaning and words matter. And the words we use to talk about our journeys of life and faith matter. So we're going to explore some of these words.

And this Sunday, we're beginning with the phrase, "Kingdom of God."

Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God more than anything else. So as we prepare for worship on Sunday, we want to hear from you ... What questions or thoughts do you have about the Kingdom of God?

What is the Kingdom of God?
What did you grow up hearing about the Kingdom of God?
Did you grow up hearing about the Kingdom of God?
What does it mean to us?
What should it mean to us?
Is it a place we go when we die?
Is it a reality?
Is it a really nice idea?
Is it somewhere else?
Is it something we can achieve?
Is it unattainable?
What words or images or thoughts come to mind when you hear the phrase, "Kingdom of God?"

We'd love to hear from you. You can post your response on our Facebook page or leave a comment to this post.

And if you haven't seen it yet, check out the preview video for the series!

 

Surprise!

This post was written by Sarah Kyser.

Birthdays rock! You get cake, balloons, cards from people who love you, and your own personalized song. They are days of affirmation and celebration – you made it one more year. We all get those cheesy cards; you know, the ones that say, “Hoping your day will be as special as you are,” or “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” We all cringe, but secretly, the warm words remind us that there are people who are thankful for us – people who are genuinely glad we were born. Those cards say, “You are loved!”

For those reasons, we decided to give love on Wednesday June 29 – part of our Love Wednesday events – by throwing mini-surprise parties for four unassuming and completely random members of the Harrisonburg community (even though it probably wouldn’t be their real birthdays.) We gathered balloons and party hats, signed cards addressed simply to “You,” bought cupcakes, and headed out to celebrate. Our first stop was Greenberry’s Coffee on South High Street. We were slightly disappointed to find it mostly empty, but we put on our party hats, readied our balloons, and bravely headed in. We approached a group of three men studying in the corner and asked whose birthday was the closest to today. They pointed to the center man and so we sang and gave him his balloons. They were thrilled. Each of the three men had huge smiles and thanked us as we left. One down, three to go.

Our next stop was Kline’s on Wolfe Street in downtown Harrisonburg and we had a much bigger audience this time. We headed for a full table of older adults and met Cindy – our next party recipient. As we sang to Cindy and gave the table cupcakes, Cindy’s face lit up. She couldn’t have been happier to have her birthday celebrated with her friends around her. The group asked us who we were and why we were throwing these mini-parties. We had an opportunity to share that we were a part of RISE and we were there to show love. As it turns out, we had interrupted an end of the year Bible Study and no one had prepared a topic. I’d like to think we gave them something to talk about. We were halfway there.

Our third location was Walmart in the Harrisonburg Crossing shopping center. We stood outside the doors closest to Home Depot and patiently waited for a group we could approach. We’d only been waiting a couple minutes when a lovely family of four walked out and we met the mom, Jennifer, whose birthday was the closest. We ran through our routine to delighted faces. Paul gave cupcakes. Emily gave a card. We all sang. Jennifer and her family thanked us and told us that this was the best idea ever – a great surprise after a shopping trip. Three down. Our next stop was Martin’s. But we didn’t get that far…

Up to this point, everyone had been delighted to have a birthday surprise, but absolutely none of our celebrations compared to the pure, uncontainable joy of Anthony.

As we were pulling out of our parking spot at Walmart with our car windows rolled down, a dad (who was with his wife and four children) asked us what we were doing. (We had birthday hats on so he knew we were up to something…) We told him that we were celebrating birthdays. “See, I told you so,” he said to a bouncing elementary-aged boy. “Really?!” the boy asked as the bouncing turned into jumping. We learned that this very day was the young boy, Anthony’s, birthday. I barked orders. “Stop the car! Everybody out!” We poured out of the vehicle to serenade Anthony. (Note that I did not say our parked vehicle.) Chaos ensued as our fearless driver, Emily, re-parked while we all tried to collect hats, balloons and cupcakes from the moving car, all while another car was trying to pass! But this celebration was too special to care about safety. It was Anthony’s 7th birthday. With a T-rex shirt on, a brand new birthday hat, a bundle of balloons, a card and a cupcake, Anthony was ecstatic. He beamed up at all 7 of us as we sang to him. It was a birthday party just for him – in the middle of a Walmart parking lot, no less! Anthony was sure we had come just for him, and we’re pretty sure we did, too.

Giving love is a gift in itself. Seeing the joy on Anthony’s face was seeing God in the eyes of a child. All seven of us were over the moon that we had the pleasure to make Anthony’s birthday special. I truly believe that God put us in that parking lot to meet Anthony and his family. In Luke, we’re told to receive the kingdom of God like a little child. Anthony offered us a tangible reminder of this child-like amazement and delight we should have when we are given love. We are all God’s children and we are all loved.

You are loved. You are a gift. We are so glad that you were born. Happy Birthday!

Dear Church...

Yesterday (Sunday June 19), we spent some time writing letters to the church. If you could write a letter to the church as a whole, what would it say? We invite you to be honest. It's okay to air your grievances, but also don't be afraid to dream and hope. How can the church be what it should be?

Leave your letter to the church as a comment below.

When Hope is a World Away

A few weeks ago at worship, we shared about our dear friend Katelyn as she traveled to Australia to rescue her sister and her sister's children from the horrors of an abusive relationship. Thankfully and amazingly, they all made it back safely to the United States and we asked Katelyn to share her story on the blog. Here's Katelyn's powerful story - in her own words.

For the past several weeks, RISE has continued a series called “Hope is on the Loose.” Through stories and honest reflections we have been reminded that no matter what stands before us, no matter how defeated we feel in the face of fear and doubt, there is hope. I soon learned that in recent weeks these words would profoundly affect my life – and would become a story and a journey of my own.

Finding a Foothold on Faith

In the past, my experience with church had left me feeling out of place and discouraged because I did not fit the mold of the confident Christians before me. My faith shifted unsteadily beneath the weight of doubt, and the fear that I would never find the deeper connection I longed for. After years of trying to fill a spiritual void with everything else (unsuccessfully), I decided to attend a Sunday service - and thankfully, it was RISE. For the first time, I felt like I’d found a place that offered guidance to all levels of faith and said it was okay to have questions. I admired the way I saw God’s purpose in others' lives, and hoped that one day I could feel God's presence in my own heart.

Still, it was a struggle. I wondered, “Why does it feel like God can’t hear me? Does He really have plan for me? How can I find strength in faith? Really, where is the hope?” Well, sometimes our greatest lessons and gifts arise from the times when we are most vulnerable and discouraged.  

12 Years and 10,000 Miles

Two weeks ago, my family was faced with a terrifying situation. My sister Cecile was living in Australia and is a victim of domestic violence. For years, she endured some of the most unfathomable circumstances and repeatedly tried to leave. Yet, with three young children who were Australian born and a confounding foreign legal system, she hadn’t been able to. Last week, she faced a situation that put her family’s lives at stake, and her only chance for protection from further harm was to return to the U.S. The challenges between passports, custody, and paperwork seemed insurmountable, and we only had a window of opportunity for a few days.

My parents had tried for years to help bring her home and for twelve years had been unsuccessful. Immigration, family law, custody issues… all in a complex foreign government; coupled with the power and control that is ever-present in abusive relationships. It would take a miracle to bring them home.

It’s so painful to see a loved one suffer and it's downright defeating to know that ten thousand miles of ocean stands between you. I felt helpless and I knew that Cecile needed prayer and faith beyond what I could give. So, I met with Amanda to find some spiritual guidance and ask for her prayers. She reminded me over and over to hold onto hope – because God was here for us and God would guide my family through this journey.

In desperation, I booked a flight to Australia and within hours I was at the airport. After all the years of waiting and all the disappointments, I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her again. I decided I was going to Australia and not returning without them… and that was the extent of the plan. Everything else was left to the power of prayer and the hope that things would fall into place in the next 72 hours.

When I got to Los Angeles, I was already exhausted. I had a 10-hour layover until the next 21 hours of travel commenced and it was the first time I’d had a moment to process all that was happening. With the exception of my parents and members of RISE, the entire “rescue mission” was being done in secret. I was traveling to the other side of the world to try and save my sister and I had no idea what to do when I got there. I was determined, but I was scared and felt overwhelmed. I needed hope now more than ever.

The Kindness of Others

One of the countless gifts I received was the unyielding support of friends. Amanda had brought together the RISE Leadership Team and members of the community to gather in prayer for our family. On the verge of tears, I turned on my phone and found it filled with texts and emails from RISE members and others I had never met. “You are loved… your family is in our prayers… God is with you… we are with you… hold on to hope”. I was speechless. It was humbling to see that so many had reached out to pray for our safe return and gave encouragement when I needed it most. Along with promising words, a dear friend sent scripture to give comfort and guidance for the days ahead. By the grace of God and others, I received strength and hope when I could not find it within myself.

After forty-eight hours of travel due to delays and missed flights, I finally made it to Australia and embraced my sister with tearful joy. I held my niece and nephews in my arms again, and couldn’t help but smile each time they said “Auntie Katelyn”. We had no guarantees of the days ahead, but we had each other. Even more, we had the gift of prayer, support, and faith that spanned oceans. Though we were a world away from everyone, we were still connected by hope. 

On Saturday evening after we’d given up waiting for a call that was due days before, the phone rang. It was the head officer of the U.S. Consulate in Australia letting us know that he had just received word from the State Department. An hour later, he unlocked the doors of the U.S. Embassy just for us, and printed emergency passports and approval papers on the spot. Cecile’s children were now officially U.S. citizens with U.S. passports. They could leave the country and didn’t have to return. It also meant that the man who brought so much suffering and tragedy to my sister’s life couldn’t stop her from leaving anymore. Finally, they could be free.

When we called my mom, she immediately booked their return flights and was already decorating rooms for the kids to be welcomed home to. In our last few hours, Cecile parted with beloved pets and she packed up family photos while the children chose the few favorite toys they could bring. I was awed by the courage she showed in walking away from twelve years of life and belongings – taking only four suitcases, faith in God, and the hope for a better life.

The Journey Home

We made it to the airport by 3 am, and caught our flight from Melbourne to Sydney. Just when we thought the chaos was over, Cecile was stopped by federal police at the Customs checkpoint. I had gone through the line beside her without delay and waited for her to be waived through as well. Instead, my heart sank as I sat on the other side of a glass wall, and watched as she was met by officers and pulled aside. How could this be happening? We were so close… we’d done everything right… she had all the legal paperwork. The officers refused to let me join them, so I watched from a bench as Cecile sobbed and handed over pages of court orders.

After an hour of panic and confusion, the immigration officers confirmed a paperwork error on their part, and let her through. By this time, the gates had been closed on our flight and I had been taken off the standby list for my ticket. Still, we ran through the terminals like our lives depended on it, and in seeing our desperation, the calls were made to let us board.

I was going home - and I had my sister, niece, and nephews sitting all around me. I gazed out the window at the land and broken life that had kept my sister trapped for so long… and I thanked God as I watched it all fade away into the distance.

A New Beginning

We’ve been home for just over a week now, and I still have to convince myself that it’s all real. I spent almost half of my life praying for this day to arrive. To have the laughter and memories of sisterhood… to be an aunt, and watch her children grow up… to see the joy in Mom’s heart for finally having the chance to be “Grandma”. 

At first, it seemed like God showed up at the last moment for a ‘grand finale’ of miracles, but I know now that God was with us all along. From the community of people that reached out to help, to my weariest moments of doubt, we were never alone. I believe hope opens our eyes to faith, and faith opens our hearts to God. From this journey, I’ve learned that He guides us every step of the way – even if in a sense beyond our own understanding.

Though long awaited, our prayers have been answered, and with greater blessings than I ever could’ve imagined. My sister will never have to suffer from the hands of abuse again. She’ll no longer have to live in a world of fear, poverty, and brokenness. Her children can grow up in a loving and peaceful home with the promise of a happy future – and for now, they can enjoy the carefree days and innocence of just being kids.

This journey has created a new foundation for my life in so many ways. I experienced the work of God through His grace and will. I have seen the beauty of the church living to its purpose, through the power of prayer, compassion, and seeing others who live and love as God would. Now, what once was a source of heartache has become the greatest gift of my life – and transformed into a story of hope. 

Words cannot express my gratitude for the love and kindness everyone has shown. Together, your prayers have brought a miracle to our family and given my sister the opportunity for a new life. Thank you for opening your hearts to us and sharing in faith and hope.

Love to all,
Katelyn 

The fish asked for full immersion, but that doesn't mean it was baptized.

We love dogs. And cats. And birds. And fish. And even hedgehogs. God does, too.

But we don't love rumors. In fact, I believe it was Lassie who once said, "Woof woof, woof ... arf woof." Loosely translated, that means, "I love frisbees, fetch, chasing squirrels and having my belly scratched, but I can't stand rumors. The only thing I hate more is when Timmy falls in that stupid well. You'd think he would learn."

We agree, Lassie. We agree. And so now, we feel that it's finally time to respond to a certain fowl rumor we've heard about RISE. Maybe you've heard it, too. We want to (cat) nip this potential cat-astrophe in the bud. And if you've heard this rumor, we're not saying your friends are lion; rather, they're probably just misinformed. We're out to set the record straight. So here goes:

We don't baptize animals.

Last October, we held an event called the Blessing of the Animals. There are a couple things you should know.

  1. The Blessing of the Animals is typically held on the feast day of St. Francis (October 4) who was the patron saint of animals.
  2. The Blessing of the Animals is meant to give God thanks for our furry four-legged (or two-winged) friends and celebrate the beauty of creation.
  3. Many faith communities from many traditions hold Blessings of the Animals. Our brothers and sisters in faith communities in the Catholic tradition, the Episcopalian tradition, the Presbyterian tradition, the Lutheran tradition, the Baptist tradition and the United Methodist tradition (among others) all hold similar events. This is not unique to RISE.
  4. A blessing is not the same as a baptism. We've heard chirps and barks and meows throughout the community that we baptize animals (especially dogs.) This is not true. We merely offered a short prayer that said, "Hey God, we're grateful for the gift of this animal. What you've done and continue to do within creation is pretty amazing." We did not baptize them.

What's that, you ask? What about the pastor's kid who just got a fish which is now fully immersed in water? How do we respond to that?

Well, we think you're barking up the wrong tree.

If you still have questions or would like more information about the Blessing of the Animals, email our pastor, Amanda, at ajmgarber@gmail.com.

Note: No animals were harmed (or baptized) in the writing of this post.