Finding a way back

Many who have left off the church will now find reasons to return and take part, because they will feel welcomed and loved @dunnmichael @fcchouston #OpenWelcomingCompassionate

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A Funeral Message for Lauren Danielle Rocha

January 20, 2017 – Morales Funeral Home, Canal Street, Houston, Texas.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Opening Words of Grace and Greeting

This evening, a hard evening, we remember with joy the life of Lauren Danielle Rocha. It is with overwhelming sadness that we must begin to process our great loss and say goodbye, after only having such a short 19 years’ with her. Lauren was a beautiful spirit in all our lives. She joined our church’s Refuge Youth Group in 2014, where she found a place to belong, and then joined the church in 2015 before she headed off to college. From the moment she started participating, a new energy vibrated through our youth group, and our church, as I began to see others new to the church whom Lauren had invited and brought with her. She always said that the moment she entered our space, she had felt something and knew that First Christian was the place the Lord wanted her to be.

Lauren was a beautiful spirit, intentional about the journey of following Jesus well.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” Jesus says.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

In Lauren’s bedroom are hung several framed pictures, with sayings on them, which tell us much about Lauren’s  heart, what we know were the mantras that ordered her spiritual life, the sayings that clearly guided her relationships:

There is a verse from an old gospel hymn hanging on her wall: “Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace.”

Another one says, “Do all things with love.”

Another one that made me chuckle, “The only running I do is running late.”

There is also, “Love you more” and “Love always finds a way”

There is one with a picture of a Pink Elephant (of course, Pink, what other color was there for Lauren?), with many hearts floating all around, with a caption that says, “Love you tons.”

Perhaps the one on her wall we need the most right now is a verse from Psalm 25 , “The Lord is my strength and my shield.”

To that one every heart here tonight cries, “Come, Lord Jesus. Be our strength and shield.”

And even though we do cry out in great need, with painful hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our strength and shield,” we affirm that indeed the Lord is in this place. Paul says in Romans 8, For I am convinced that neither death nor life … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Indeed, the Lord is in this place. Amen!

Prayer

O Lord, we gather here to remember Lauren’s life. Help us to see the joy that her life brought to many people. We thank you for the life you gave her on this earth. In her short life she blessed so many.

Lord, give courage and strength to those who are bereaved, that they may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope, in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love. Amen.

The Message: Be Brave

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. [And] I will be found by you… (Jeremiah 29:11-14a)

Those verses are also framed and hanging in Lauren’s room. It was actually the one that she placed right in the middle of every other of those framed sayings. And the verses are printed small underneath two words – Be Brave – which are writ large.

Those verses come from the Book of Jeremiah. They express the longing that God has to know Jeremiah the prophet (and indeed all of us). I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. God knows Jeremiah (and all of us). God has plans for him (and all of us). Plans to prosper and not to harm. That we can trust.

That doesn’t magically help us understand this tragic loss, to make sense of what seems so senseless, nor does it remove the anger we must all feel about how Lauren’s death has happened. It is simply a reminder that even in the midst of all that has been stirred up in us, God’s deep desire is to be near us, to be found when we seek him, and to know us most intimately in our broken hearts.

Those words in the Book of Jeremiah also assume that we are people who desire to be known by God, a desire that God has placed in each of us. “You will call on me and I will come. You will pray to me, and I will listen … You will seek me and … I will be found by you…” Which sounds like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “Seek and it will be found. Ask and it will be given. Knock and the door will be Opened.” That we can also trust.

Without a doubt, Lauren Rocha was a person who let herself be known, even while she sought at every turn and in every way and at the same time, to get to know you, her family and friends, and so many others.

One consistent thing about Lauren that we are all aware of is that after meeting Lauren for the first time, you felt like you knew her. She was Open with herself that way, and I think she probably understood intuitively what many of us only learn later in life, that being Open with others – which just came naturally to her – fosters a place where God moves and works to connect people deeply to each other and deeply to God.

In that sense, Lauren was an angel. She was God’s messenger, God’s bearer of the good news. Without a doubt Lauren took her relationship with God very seriously and deliberately. It shown in so many areas of her life. She loved the Lord.

And let’s also be honest. Lauren is no different than any of us. There were days when it could be said of her, “She was no angel.” She could give you the silent treatment. Like any of us, she had her off-days.

Lauren also loved all kinds of music. Robbie Seay, a Christian worship musician wrote a song titled “You Have Loved Me Well.” He wrote the song in reference to God, God who loves so well. But I think the lyrics for me tonight get all co-mingled up in my mind and heart to also be speaking of Lauren, Lauren who loved so well. The song in one part goes like this:

I will not forget

How You loved me.

And how You’ve known me

Better than anyone.

So let it be said,

Death is not the end;

And though our bodies fade away

It is love that remains.

I don’t know if Lauren ever knew that song, but I think she would have said, “Amen!”

And then the chorus repeats the same phrase:

You have loved me well.

You have loved me well.

You have loved me well.

Better than anyone, You have loved me.

I can hear hearts saying that to God tonight. I can hear us saying that in prayer about Lauren, such a precious gift, tonight. I can hear Lauren saying that to God, even now, tonight. And I can hear Lauren singing that back to us, who are gathered here in this place, with the Lord who is here tonight.

I learned something about Lauren that I didn’t know. She had all her life a fear of homeless people. I imagine that fear is not too uncommon, really. From her youngest age she had always had that fear. When she was a little girl, she would tell Shannon to roll up the windows and lock the doors whenever they stopped next to a panhandler.

But one night just this past Christmas Season on the way home from making a whole bunch of handmade tamales with her “Wella” and her “Aunt TT”, she stopped at a convenience store. When she walked out of the store, a homeless person approached her. As Lauren was later to tell it to her family, she talked to him and gave him some of the tamales to eat. She gave him a delicious meal of those tamales made with love and joy.

The man thanked her, and then quickly added, “Thanks for not looking at me with judgmental eyes.” And Lauren said (and I can so hear her saying this), “Of course. No judgment here.”

She came home and told what had happened to the amazement of everyone who knew her. Lauren finally mastered her fear of the homeless, which I imagine was the final piece of the work of God in her life.

That Robbie Seay song, “You Have Loved Me Well,” which speaks of God who loves so well, but which perhaps in all our minds and hearts tonight, also speaks of Lauren so well, ends like this:

I will not forget

How You shine;

Like the sunrise

Steals the dark of night.

So let it be said,

This earth is not my home;

As God is drawing close

I will shine, I will shine bright:

Shine bright

O shine bright

O shine bright

O shine

There will be yet many tears ahead, and I imagine not a little anger to work through. God does not forbid that. God actually joins us in that broken heart of ours. See him as Jesus approaches Mary and Martha in the moment of grief at the loss of their brother Lazarus. See Jesus as he weeps, and his tears fall down his cheeks and dry in the warm heat of Palestine. See him as his calm voice reassures them, I am the resurrection and I am the life. He who believes in me, although he died, yet shall he live (John 11:25). Jesus wept with Mary and Martha, before his powerful voice commanded, Lazarus, come forth! And he who was dead came out of the tomb.

Yes, there will yet be many tears ahead. But we can do so without fear, without dread, without trouble in our hearts, for the last word in this place may be death. But death is never the last word of God.

Death is swallowed up in victory.

O Death, where is thy victory?

O Death, where is thy sting?

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ

(1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

And so Shannon and Nick, Fernando and Daniel and Jasmine and all you family who are gathered here, and Dhakaya and all you friends who were so close to Lauren:

The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you.

The Lord lift up his countenance and give you peace.

(Numbers 6)

Closing Prayer

Lord, help us, we pray, in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe and trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to eternal life.

Grant us peace to entrust our dear Lauren to your never failing love; receive her into the arms of your mercy, and remember her according to the favor you bear to your people.

Grant also, Lord, that increasing in knowledge and love of you, Lauren may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in your heavenly kingdom. Amen.