The last time I preached at my church I was on fire. Literally. My hair caught on fire. It was during the dramatic end of the Christmas Eve sermon. The lead pastor (from our other site) and I had crafted a creative experience using the John 1 passage “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The message we wanted to share is the hope of the Christmas story- no matter how dark it can feel, God coming into the world through Christ is proof that there is a light that cannot be snuffed out. At the end of the sermon I dramatically spoke about being people who were in darkness and began to blow out all the candles including the advent wreath. Meanwhile my amazing visual arts director made sure that the sanctuary went gradually dark, and we as a congregation sat in total darkness. Following the time in darkness I spoke about the light of Christ- slowly I relit the Christ candle (the candle in the center) and from that lit the other advent candles. After the advent wreath was re-lit a star machine came on lighting our sanctuary in tiny star lights as I shared that each of us is like one of these lights capable of lighting the world. Each of us is a small reflection of the light of Christ. Needless to say I was excited about the prospect of creating this moment for my congregation at both services during our time together Christmas eve.
During the first service it went off seamlessly with the expected gasp from some of the people in attendance. At the second service I was just as eager to share the message and corresponding light show. As we got to the dramatic moment I leaned over and blew out the Christ candle the crowd seemed just as attentive as the first. I continued to read the John scripture and leaned over to blow out the second candle the room was getting darker people seemed expectant… as I leaned over for the third… my long hair fueled by hairspray caught on fire. I was able to snuff it out quickly with my hand, but not before most people had a moment to gasp- and not at the stars that were appearing above their heads. I was able to keep going and the service had its desired affect, or at least I hope it did. As I drove home I was thinking about how hard of a year 2014 has been. If there ever was a year that I would catch on fire publically it was going to be this year!
After an exhausting evening, and still smelling a little like burnt hair, I woke up early and traveled to my parent’s home Christmas day. My parents live in Mississippi. Every year after the rush of the Christmas season I look forward to a little time of slowing down. This year I was a little more anxious to head home than unusual. A dear friend of mine from Mississippi, Keith, had suffered a massive heart attack and I was eager to see how he was doing. Keith has been a mentor of mine, and someone who has always supported me in ministry. In my first position as a youth leader Keith was first to volunteer to help with transportation and anything else needed. We quickly became friends. When I felt my call to ministry one of the first people I shared it with was Keith. His support helped me believe in my own call. He declared in his thick and amazing southern accent “Someone like you will disarm people. You are just what people need.” As I headed to seminary I carried a brand new guitar case that the youth had signed including a big heart where Keith wrote Keith loves you!
After seminary he and his wife came to visit me several times. We went on a couple of adventures even going wine tasting on a farm here in Southern California. It wasn’t long before the winery owner had decided that he and Keith were best friends and the two of them shared some cigars while the rest of us laughed that Keith made friends everywhere he went. It was hard not to get along with the fun loving, loud mouthed Keith. Keith and his wife Paige were such an inspiration to me. They had both been through a lot, but had found each other and together they were an amazing team. They are some of the most generous people I have ever met. From mission trips to feeding the poor these two lived to serve others. I cannot imagine two more other focused individuals. Their table was always set to welcome anyone who needed a big meal and a listening ear.
I was happy to see my family Christmas day, but one of the first questions off my lips was how is Keith? They shared from what they heard not very well. I spent the next couple of days enjoying my family, but my thoughts were never far from Keith or his wife Paige. I was overwhelmed by how many people on social media were also concerned about Keith. There were hundred’s of Facebook messages and people praying for a miracle. I prayed a lot and kept saying “God this year has been hard enough.” I knew his chances of recovery were slim. Sunday when the call came that Keith, as young and full of life as he was, had passed I was devastated. In my heart I cried out. This was the tip of an already tough year. After I mentally catalogued all the injustices of 2014 something inside of me told me to search my text messages for the last one I had received from Keith. Not surprisingly his words are the words that bring me hope in 2015, they have given me the sense that there truly is a light in this world that darkness cannot overcome. After I had shared with him a frustrating situation he responded in typical Keith wisdom, “When it feels like life is closing in on you is when the opportunities present themselves!! Just know that you are loved and realize that is all that truly matters- the rest is just “stuff”!!! In 2015 I cling to the truth of his message- you and I are loved by God in a way that we will never understand. Even when it seems the darkest, and things aren’t going our way there is a light within us. Keith lived the kind of life I have always hoped to live, one that inspires and risks. He lived a life that got every last drop of goodness out of it. Keith understood that within him was a great light. He never spent long lamenting the past, but looked to the future with hope and expectation. That is what I plan to do tonight as the ball drops- look toward 2015 with hope and expectation that’s what Keith would have wanted me to do. So happy New Years friends, and may you enjoy every last drop!
To read more about my friend Keith click here to read his unusual obituary perfect for him!