Romal Tune - Redeeming what past pain took from you
Good morning and praise the Lord, George Fox. Good morning, praise the Lord! There we go, somebody had their Redbull this morning! I did not have mine, however I did have three cups of coffee, so I'm still going to move rather quickly through this time. Normally for breakfast I have about two cups of coffee and I chase it with a Redbull whenever I have to do a talk because I can be a little long-winded, so if I talk faster it gets us through faster. But before I get into the time I have with you, because I know that some of you have to go immediately after, I'm going to ask if you would join me in a word of prayer. Is that all right? Let us pray.
God, we come yet again in the name of Jesus, and we come first, God, to worship and honor you. We worship you, God, for who you are and not for what you do. You are the God of our salvation, the God of our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations. God, we give you glory. We love you, God, we thank you for your love towards us. Meet us at our point of need. Minister to each of us where we need it now. Remind us of who we are in you and what you have assigned us to do. Holy Spirit, make us aware of your presence. Fall fresh upon me so that I might be free and unapologetically and authentically me. Have your way in this place, God. We love you. It's in the matchless and marvelous name of Jesus Christ we do pray, and the people of God said, "Amen".
I want to share for this time together from a text in Judges. Judges chapter 11, verses 1-11, and I'll share verse 32. I'm going to give you the Tune translation and paraphrase it. It says, "Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His mother was a prostitute. Gilead's wife also bore him two sons and when they were older they drove Jephthah away saying, 'You're not going to get any inheritance in our family because you are the son of another woman.'"
The Bible says Jephthah fled to the wilderness where a group of scoundrels — adventurous men, some versions say — gathered around him and followed him. Some time later when the Ammonites made war against Israel — you know, the Ammonites, the Jebusites, whatever's bugging you ... mosquito bites — they made war against Israel, and they said, "Who can fight for us?" And they said, "Let's go get Jephthah."
So they go to the wilderness and say, "Jephthah, come and fight for us, be our leader." And he says, "But didn't you hate me, and drive me from my father's house? Why are you coming to me now when you are in trouble?" And they said, "Nevertheless, we're coming to you now. Come and be our leader and defeat the Ammonites, and you'll be head over all of Israel." He said, "Suppose God gives me the victory. Will I really be your leader?" They said, "Sure as God as our witness, you will truly be our leader." Jephthah goes with them. In verse 32 it says Jephthah prays and he goes forward in battle and God gives him the victory.
I remember the first time I read that story. I was actually sitting on my kitchen floor at three o'clock in the morning crying, uncertain about who I was in Christ and uncertain about, quite honestly, if I was even going to stay in the church. I didn't really feel like people cared about me. It was because my mom had died of lung cancer. She was 53 years old, she had been given a year to live, but she died abruptly and I was torn. In order to succeed in life I had hidden a lot of my past story to fit into society and not be shamed because of where I came from or because of some of the things that I had to go through and my mom's issues.
My mom was a substance abuser and an alcoholic for most of my childhood and in her passing I questioned my worth, my value to society. I was uncertain about who I was really meant to be in the world. I remember sitting there, angry with God and upset with church because I felt like the only thing that church was offering me was, "We're sorry that happened, we'll pray for you. Oh, we know you're hurting, we'll pray for you." And that wasn't enough for me, I needed more. I needed someone to identify with my pain, to walk alongside me and say, "You're going to be okay, I've been there too. We'll support you through this." But no one did that.
My friends outside of church offered me a little bit more. They would show up at my home, they would show up with food, they would just sit with my while I cried. And I said, "God, I don't know if I want to go on anymore. Lord, you're going to have to show me someone in this Bible like me. Someone who has dealt with issues of abandonment and rejection. Someone who feels like they're not always accepted because of where they come from or how they look or who their parents were. Someone like me, God, who had to panhandle when I was a kid because we didn't have enough money." It meant that if I went to school and I used that money for bus fare, then I didn't eat. And if I chose to eat, then I had to ask people on the street, "Do you have change?" Someone like me, God, who comes from a household with a mom like mine, with issues like my family.
And God said, "Look at it again." And I found Moses who had abandonment issues, who was let go by his mother, who had issues of low self-esteem, but God got a hold of him and made him a great leader. I found Joseph who was rejected by his brothers and even his dad for having a dream. It's interesting how when you're asleep no one bothers you, but the moment you start dreaming, people have an issue with you. Hagar, single-parent mom, wondering how she was going to provide for her kid. Ishmael, a young man with anger management issues, didn't have his dad in his life, felt rejected. Esther, raised by her uncle, lost her parents when she was young, but God made her a great leader and a woman of power and authority. Rahab, who was always labeled because of her mistakes, but she was also an amazing woman with great leadership potential and loved her family so much that when the opportunity came, she said, "Take me and my family with you." Her moment of redemption.
And I realized that there are people in the Bible like all of us. People who know our stories and God knows our story. And I said, "God, there are people like me here." I looked at the Bible and realized that what God did then, God is not finished doing now. That the Word became flesh and showed up in our stories, and I thought about Jephthah and I said, "I know what it's like to be this kid, to be misunderstood and rejected." "You're not going to get any inheritance in our family because you're the son of another woman." And he fled to the wilderness.
I remember what it was like being mistreated by people, being labeled because of where we lived and judged because of how much money we did not have. I remember those mornings when my mom said, "All I have is three dollars," and I had to panhandle after school. I remember watching the faces of people who would turn away and ignore me. I remember the people who would cross the street. I remember the people who would cut their eyes in resentment, as if to say, "How dare you ask me for money."
But I also remember those people who would look me in the eyes and smile and ask "How much do you need to get home?" "Just a dollar and fifty cents." I knew what it was like to be Jephthah, to flee to the wilderness because no one else wanted me, no one else understood me because of judgment. But then in that wilderness, it's interesting, the Bible says that when he arrived a group of adventurers were already there. Other people who didn't fit in, who were isolated, who felt alone. And they gathered around him and followed him. Yeah, I could relate to that.
I remember those days and my story. When I would hang out after school and play basketball, and the kids who would come and play basketball with me who were gang-affiliated. They never asked me to join. They played basketball with me, they asked me if I was hungry, they hung out with me. We shared our stories. The thing was, our poverty was not the thing that we had in common. What we really had in common was our pain. All of us were hurting, all of us felt left out. We had been either verbally abused and for some of us physically abused. We had been rejected and all of us were wondering, like me, with my mom's addiction, "Why does she want something else more than me? Why is she choosing that over me? Why am I not good enough to come first?"
We wrestled with that: why was it that the people who loved us, who were supposed to love us, were not putting us first? So we grow up with these abandonment issues, and we live a life wondering, "Why was I never first, why? Why did I not matter enough?" We're in a wilderness together. We cared for each other, we loved each other. And it was in that place we knew that no matter what, we will never be alone again. So, yes, we made some mistakes. In the wilderness you do a lot of things to survive, but it's only because you are determined to survive and take care of the people who love you, when you weren't loved by the people who were supposed to love you. And we end up growing up with abandonment issues.
I learned something in life, that abandoned people abandon people. It means that whenever you are in situations in life and you've been rejected in your growing-up years, it becomes your story. And there's a thing that happens: we get to choose our story now. You see, when growing up, you did not have the ability nor the authority and the power to determine your own path. But the people in our lives who nurture us, they "code" us in a sense, and they shape us based on how they treat you and what they say to you - and also what they don't say. The things they do, but also the things that they do not do when they should.
And all those things begin to shape who we believe we can become in the world. They create our memories, our confidence, our self-worth, our values, our ability to dream. They also create our doubts, our fears, our anxieties. And then we have to ask, "Who do I believe that I'm meant to be in the world? And who has shaped my belief in who I can be?" God says, "I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." "No weapon formed shall prosper and every tongue that rises in judgment God shall condemn it." "You are a chosen people, royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that you might declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wondrous light." That's who God says I am.
But if I'm honest, sometimes we have doubts because of some of the things that were said or were not said. Some of the things that were done or were not done, and they haunt us. They're the things we don't like to remember. As Peter Rollins says, "They become our ghost." He says it's like walking through a cemetery. You will see the words "Gone, but not forgotten". But in our lives, it's really "Forgotten, but not gone". And there were so many things in my life that I wanted to forget.
I wanted to forget the night I saw my mom getting high on drugs. I wanted to forget the times that she told me I was not going to amount to anything and that I was stupid. I wanted to forget the times that I spent alone wondering what I was going to eat for dinner, wondering when is she coming home, is she coming home. I suppressed it, and it was this fracture in my soul. I tried to cover that fracture with success, with ego, with pride, with money, with prestige, with things that I wanted to purchase in life, with wanting to be noticed because I went unnoticed as a child. So I bought a big home, I bought a nice car, bought a lot of stuff and all of it was stacked up on top of this fracture, and it didn't heal my brokenness.
And I realized, God, I want what you want for me. I really want joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. That's what Jephthah wanted, that's what we all want, but it means we have to deal with those stories that haunt us and become our ghost. We have to deal with the fracture, we have to confront our ghost. As Peter says, "You will know your ghost, and your ghost will set you free."
The people in the Bible, when war came to them, they said, "Who will fight for us? Let's go get Jephthah." They said, "Wait a minute, didn't we push him away? We told him he would not receive anything, that he wasn't good enough." But they were like, "Well, there's a fight coming and we don't know how to fight. We were not built for that, we're not about that life. He's been living in the wilderness, he's been doing some wild things, I think. If you don't want to fight, we should get someone who could fight." And they said, "Let's go get Jephthah." They go to him and he says, "But didn't you reject me? I remember what you did to me." They said, "But we need you now."
I could relate to that because I remember when I decided to change my life and I didn't want the life that I was living anymore. Sometimes you have to decide that the people who hurt you do not get to define you, that they do not have the power to determine who you get to become in the world. We have to find ways to redeem the power that past pain took from us. Because whatever those hurtful experiences were, they had no right to take the power from you to be confident, to be loved, to be valued. But you have to look at those places that hurt and understand what they took from you and take it back, redeem what past pain took from you.
So I started doing that. I served my country in the military, ended up going to college. I had a girlfriend in high school who went to Howard University. Howard University is in Washington, D.C. It's a historically black college. I grew up in California, we didn't know anything about historically black colleges. I thought she wanted to break up with me because she said, "Look, I'm going to this historically black college in Washington, D.C." I said, "Well, I've never been to Washington, D.C." She said, "You should see it, it's pretty much this predominantly black city." I was like, "Yeah, whatever." I grew up in San Francisco Bay area, Oakland. She said, "And it's an all-black college." I said, "Stop right there! Stop lying, no such thing. You're trying to tell me that there's a college full of all black people?" She said, "Yes." I said, "I bet they even have black professors, huh?" She said, "Well, yeah." I said, "And their mascot's probably a unicorn since we're making stuff up." She said, "No, you should come visit!"
So I go to visit, and I take a break. I was in the military at the time right before Desert Storm, and it was an amazing experience. I saw people who looked like me. I saw kids who didn't look like me, but they were just like me. I said, "I've been bamboozled. I thought everyone in college was better than me, was smarter than me. They're not, they're just like me. They just made different choices." And, see, this wasn't a Christian school, and I went during homecoming and they were making "drinks". And I said, "I even know how to make better drinks! I can go to college!"
I remember we left homecoming, and we decided we were going to college. Started going to night school, ended up with a 3.8 GPA. War broke out, I had to spend seven months serving in Desert Storm. I come back here because I was accepted to Howard University. They let me out of the army three months early to start school on time. Four years later, magna cum laude, all-American collegiate scholar, Who's Who in American Colleges and Universities. The same kid who used to panhandle, who did a lot of not so good things hanging out with the wrong crowd.
Who do you believe you can become in the world? And when you're serving the poor, who do you believe they can become in the world? Do you believe the people that you serve who are in need of your gifts and talents, could actually be empowered to be just like you? Or do you believe that where they are is as good as it gets? We're just going to make them comfortable here, so we'll shelter, we'll feed, we'll hang out, we'll build some homes, but I don't know that they could live the life that I have.
Sometimes we aim too low when we're trying to serve God, serve an awesome and amazing God, and the same thing he did for you he can do for others. Who do you believe people can become in the world? We've raised the bar, and the only way we can do that is to believe that we're worthy of God, what God wants to do in our lives. It simply means that sometimes when we are asking God to move in the lives of others, to do amazing things in their lives, to heal their brokenness, I believe sometimes God is wondering, "Why won't you let me do that for you? Why is it that you're asking me to do things in the lives of other people that you won't even let me do for you?" Raise the bar.
I remember after Howard University, I thought I was going to medical school, so I was working as a clinical research associate in a Phase III pharmaceutical company, and I received a call to ministry. One day I'm in my office working on a Phase III study and I'm preparing Bible study lessons and I'm working on research, and I said, "I really love ministry, so I'm going into ministry instead of going to medical school." That was absolutely devastating to my ghetto family because I went home and I said, "Look, I'm not going to medical school. I'm going to go to divinity school, and I'm going to be a minister." And, you know, they always thought, "Romal is going to be the one to get us out of the ghetto. This is it, he's the one!" And they were like, "You're going to study religion? And be a preacher? Ahh, we're stuck! We're never getting out of here now!" Please pray for me, I'm still trying to get them out.
So I decided to go to seminary. I get out of seminary, and I go back to my home church. Like Jephthah, they said, "Come fight for us, come work with us." I said, "What do you want me to do?" They said, "You're urban, you're going to do urban ministry. Go outside and be urban." I said, "Fine." So one day I'm at church, and we used to bring the homeless to church because I figured, I'm going to go find the people that I can relate to. We'll bring them to church on Sunday, we'll feed them breakfast, and they'll worship with us. Well, some people at church had a problem with the homeless coming and eating breakfast next to them. In fact, one situation, the deacons came to us, and they said, "You know, Tune, we're so grateful you're bringing the homeless to church, but some people are a little uncomfortable. Maybe we should feed them separately." We fought through that, and they still ate with us. Then they started coming to worship, then they called another meeting, and they said, "Tune, you know, we're really grateful for this homeless ministry, but we think the homeless are a little uncomfortable. We make them a little uncomfortable, so maybe, to make them comfortable, we'll let them all sit together in the balcony." I was like, what the heck?! This is segregation! This is economic segregation!
One day, a situation happened that changed my life. I'm at church, it's a Sunday, it's like, summer. Nice day outside, and it's a communion Sunday. I'm United Methodist, back then I was Baptist, had my robe on, because we used to wear these black robes with these plush velvet crosses on them. I was in there with my Starbucks coffee and the deacons came running to my office. "Reverend Tune, Reverend Tune, you've got to come outside!" I said, "What's happening?" "There's a homeless guy in the fellowship hall taking all the food." I said, "Well, do something about it!" They said, "No, you're urban, you come do something about it."
So it's communion Sunday, I've got my robe on, I have my coffee, I've got to go deal with this foolishness. I go outside and there he is. He's holding four bags of breakfast. I could smell the bacon. People are coming into church, he's standing out there, he's waiting on me. I said, "Look, man, you don't have to take the food, you're scaring the people. We'll give you anything you want." He says, "Rev, what are you talking about, I've got to feed my family!" I said, "Man, I've been working with you for a couple of years now, you don't have a family. You don't have a wife or any kids. You don't have to lie to me, we'll give you what you want." He says, "Rev, what you going to do? I will slap you." I thought, "Oh my. This is a first for me." All these years of hanging out in the ghetto, nobody has ever extended me the opportunity to be slapped. Now all of a sudden, I'm in church, and people are just asking, "Would you like to be slapped today?"
I didn't know what to do in this situation. I was shook. It's Sunday morning, I'm in my church robe, and he just offered to slap me! So I'm thinking, OK, this could get a little serious. Now I'm having hood flashbacks. I don't know if I should give him a thug hug or if I should brace myself. So, I set down my coffee. They send over church security. Well, here's the problem with church security: church security was about 5'5", seventy years old with glasses on and a hat that said "Church Security". He comes running up, he looks up at me, and I look at him, and I'm thinking, "Lord, I've got to save both of us."
So I set down my coffee, and the homeless guy realizes, "Oh, the preacher, he think he ‘bout this life." So he says again, "Rev, what you going to do? I'll slap you." And it's like it echoed, "I'll slap you, I'll slap you, I'll slap you." And my mind is playing tricks on me because now I'm having flashbacks. I'm like "I'm not getting slapped today. Tune don't get slapped." You know how you start talking to yourself in the third person? "I don't get slapped. Nobody slaps Tune! Nobody's slapping Tune today!" Then I'm trying to be holy and Christian, and so part of my brain is like, "Lord, forgive him for he knows not what he's doing. Holy Spirit, clothe him in his right mind right now." And then the other part of my brain is like, "So if he slaps you, are you turning the other cheek?" I'm like "No, that's not what I'm saying today." So I come into myself, he steps forward, long story short, the deacons come running over, they pull me off the guy. Yeah, it didn't go well.
Back then, I was really in the early phases of working out my salvation. They did find me in the wilderness after all, and they told me to be urban, right? They grabbed me and take me to the pastor's office. The pastor was like "Tune, what happened?" I said, "Pastor, the man said he was going to slap me. What did you expect me to do, you told me to be urban." So they put me in anger management class. Yeah, true story, true story. So I'm in anger management, here's where the blessing comes. My therapist says, "Tune, you're never going to get your life right until you deal with the challenges in your family, with your mom." So I said "Fine." I call my mom. By then my mom's off of drugs.
Real quick story, I have like, five more minutes. I get a letter from my mom one day, and I hadn't talked to her in over a year. And it's a thick envelope, and I'm like "Lord, this woman wrote me a ghetto dissertation. I don't know what's in this envelope." I called some friends to meet me at church. I said, "I got this letter from my mom, and I need some help and support because I don't know what's in it." My friend Larry opens the envelope and he reads it. He says, "Romal, you got to read this letter." I started reading, and she says "Romal, I want you to know I'm proud of you." She said, "I heard that you're becoming a minister. She said, "I want you to know that I've been clean for six months through a rehabilitation program at church, and I've included in this letter my Bible study, and I was wondering if maybe one day you would give me a call and study the word of God with me." Never give up on the people in your life. God will do anything but fail. God can do amazing things. I got my mom back.
Fast forward, I'm in therapy because of a church fight. So awkward. And my mom says, "So what are you doing fighting at church?" "Mom, it's a long story, but I need you to come to therapy with me." And we're sitting there talking about a lot of the fractures in my soul, the things that hurt, and she said the thing that began my process of healing. She said, "Romal, I never meant to hurt you. I'm sorry." And that opened the door to a lot of healing.
I would fly her in for the holidays and Christmas. We had the life I always wanted. And then she got diagnosed with cancer. They gave her a year to live, that was my chance. I bought a new home, I remodeled it. I was going to fly her to live with me for that last year of her life. She called me one day, and she said, "I need you to come home now. The doctor's given me a year to live." I flew in on a Monday, we met with her doctors on Tuesday, she died Wednesday, I buried her Saturday, and went back to work on Monday. And I found myself in the kitchen at 3 o'clock in the morning crying, saying, "God, I don't know anymore."
I went back to therapy, and my therapist was like, "What's wrong?" And I said, "I'm angry, and I'm hurting. I didn't get a chance to change my mom's life." She said, "Romal, are you familiar with the middle passage?" I said, "Yes." She said, "During the middle passage, there were times during rough seas where they would throw woman overboard with their babies. These women would hold their babies over their heads. Those women knew that they wouldn't make it, but they knew if someone took my baby, that my child would be okay." She said, "Romal, maybe your mom knew she wouldn't make it, but she did the best she could to hold you up so that someone else would take you." I think that's what happens to a lot of us in life. That helped me heal.
For many of us, your life wasn't like mine, but it had its imperfections. There were some people who were supposed to love you and they were imperfect, but they did the best they could to hold you up so that someone else could take you. And that's how we ended up here today, because other people did take you. They took me, and they took over where other people messed up. We have to tell ourselves, you have to tell yourself the story differently. Take back the power that past pain took from you.
A friend of mine said, "Every morning (I'll close with this) you have to prepare a table, a banquet of grace for yourself. At this banquet, you sit at the head of the table, and all the parts of you are invited to the banquet. The successes, the confidence, the high school graduate, the student who's in college. Everything that you love about you." But he said, "Outside in the cold and in the rain, with their faces pressed against the window are the things you don't like about you, and they want to be invited to this banquet of grace too. And you let them in. The eight-year-old, discouraged, the afraid part of you, the uncertain parts of you. All of you is at this banquet, but the present you who's made it through it all, you sit at the head of the table and you offer grace to all of you. You love all of who you are, everything that has brought you to this point. Because everything that got you here is strong enough to keep you here."
You're a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God knows the plans he has for you, plans to prosper you and give you hope and a future. You're here to be great, because God said greater things. Here to be amazing. Redeem what past pain took from you, and be great. God bless you, George Fox.
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