Word of the Week

Our National Infertility Week series continues today. (Did you miss the post from Chris Thomas earlier? If so, stop now and read it here). I'm so glad to introduce you to Maren McLean Persaud, my new favorite Canadian who tells a story of hope, longing and loss. Here are her beautiful words-


This past fall, we took all our hope, all our prayer, all our being, and all our money and invested it into the expensive and rigorous fertility treatment known as IVF (in vitro fertilization).

We had been trying to have a baby on our own for almost three years only to find out we had around a 1 to 4 percent chance of that ever happening. IVF was our only option if we wanted to have our own child. 

If you have had personal experience with IVF, I don’t need to tell you anything and I salute you.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, IVF is a medical procedure that drains you emotionally, physically, and financially to “retrieve” your eggs and fertilize them with sperm from your partner, or a donor, to create viable embryos that can be put back into you to hopefully achieve a successful pregnancy and live birth.

The process involves a whole lot of needles, drugs, procedures, anxiously waiting for phone calls and embryo updates (spoiler: not all of them make it) and in the end, you might just end up with nothing to show for it.

So we did all that with the confident attitude that it would work, because, why wouldn’t it? We’re young!

And it did work! We got pregnant and even had one little embryo to tuck away in the freezer for a later date. What a great return on our investment.

Three days before Christmas, on our wedding anniversary, we floated into our fertility clinic for the 8-week ultrasound ready to hear the heart beat and successfully “graduate’ from the clinic.

Not even thirty seconds into the ultrasound our doctor said “I don’t have good news”.

After that it’s all a blur, but essentially our embryo was there and had grown, but there was no heartbeat. I would miscarry soon. That night I slept as though I was playing dead. No dreams, no restlessness, just darkness. The next morning, I woke up to myself sobbing, wishing I hadn’t woken up.

‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

My husband turned into our PR guy, messaging family and friends, letting them know what happened and canceling Advent/Christmas events we had planned to host in our home.

My family rushed in to spend Christmas at our house and they let us be the couch potato, tear-filled slobs we had turned into.

They cooked for us, cleaned for us, looked after us and although we had trouble recognizing it in the moment, brought a lot of light to our darkness.

My husband is a minister and in the days after our ultrasound he had to soldier through services that celebrated a special baby being brought into the world.

Being the bad minister’s wife that I am, I didn’t go to those celebrations with him.

The baby has always been my favorite part of the Christmas story. The fact that God chose to enter our world in that new and hopeful form so full of potential has always filled me with wonder and joy, but not this year.

‘Screw you and screw your baby, God!’

I wasn’t having any of it. How could I hear the ‘good news’ when only days before my Doctor told me there was no good news?

I was literally losing my baby as I rang in the new year.

In the days and weeks that followed I threw myself back into work, almost manically making plans and getting things done.

All the while I was haunted by the exact moment when we heard “I don’t have good news”. I would cry almost every night.

By February every night turned into once a week and by March there was even more space between these “episodes”.

With the Christmas story long behind me I felt like Lent was a good place for me at this point in my life. Focus on the depravity of the human condition while contemplating death on a cross? Yes! Let’s get sad, people!

Lent is coming to an end though and I can feel the tension building in my body as we inch closer to Easter. The Lenten focus on depravity of our sinful nature will turn into celebrating the Love God has for us and death on a cross will turn into resurrection. Ugh.

I’m not pregnant and am still grieving our loss, you expect me to sing Hallelujah soon? I feel like the Grinch, “I must stop Easter from coming, but how?”

Currently, there is hope in the little embryo we have tucked away at the clinic, waiting for us.

There is hope in how even though this experience tried to shred our marriage into tatters, my husband and I have become closer and more tightly knit than before.

There is hope in the stories of infertility and loss that others have personally shared with us; there is hope in that every time I see my psychologist I can honestly tell her I’m doing a “bit better” than last time we spoke.

But ultimately, there is hope because 2000 and some years ago God proved that there is no darkness where God isn’t with us. God will bring all things to a good end, and that is where our hope is.

I will reclaim the doctor's words: “I don’t have good news” and hope that the absence of Good News is not real.

I want to live a beautiful story of hope.

Maren McLean Persaud grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada and pursued her studies in music and theology at Mount Allison University and then Knox College, Toronto School of Theology. Most recently, she worked as Director of Camping Ministry for the Anglican Church in New Brunswick, where she currently lives with her husband, Christian. Prior to that, Maren worked as a ministry student intern in Alberta where she studied the ways that summer camp can teach the wider church to be more creative in community building and spiritual formation. Maren is most passionate about ministry with children and youth and incorporates her experiences in camping and her musical training into that work. She loves spending time outdoors, drinking her coffee black and laughing until she cries.

**If you are looking for another story of loss, hope and healing check out Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility wherever books are sold.***

worship-suggestions-for-holy-saturdayFor years, Holy Saturday was my every day. I knew all too well the death of Good Friday.  Easter had not yet come.

Pain, loss and more pain and loss. Kicks in the gut. No obvious way out. No clear path about the future. Days when I didn't know how to get out of bed. I wondered if my life really matter to anyone or anything.

As much as I wanted to move on to the joy, to the hope to the shouts of affirmation of "The Lord is risen! The Lord in risen indeed!" I couldn't. (In 2013, I even wrote about my depression during Holy Week).

Actually during this time, I didn't like Easter Sunday at all.

Not because I didn't need its hope. Not because it wasn't a good story to preach. Not because it wasn't fun to see the big crowds the Sunday draws.

No, I didn't like Easter because it came too quick. I needed a longer Saturday.

I hated that Holy Saturday was only one day.

If that. We do such a poor job in the church of teaching people to stay put on Saturday. To sit with the hopelessness of our world. To cry tears for the injustice. To mourn what the world must have felt like when Jesus was gone.  And to remember that our world, even with risen Christ here doesn't always feel like it.

This world can really beat us down sometimes. And in life we're good at avoiding this kind of pain.

For most of us the Holy is taken out of the Saturday because we spend the day running around preparing for a big meal, shopping for new clothes or even dying eyes and hiding them in the backyard.

We start the feast too early.

And for me, during my years of many Holy Saturdays, I just felt so lost at church-- no matter if I were the preacher in charge or not. I can imagine tomorrow there are countless people sitting in the pews of your resurrection celebration that might feel the same way.

They'll be struggling to sing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."

They'll be crying tears for the loss of someone who is not sitting beside them this year.

They''ll not be able to shout about any good news in their life.  

And so, how can we be good church to them? How can we better observe Holy Saturday?

I think we start by remembering that as much as we are a people of the supper of Maundy Thursday and the "It is finished" of Good Friday and Easter to come, we also belong to Holy Saturday.

We belong to that yucky, in between, not sure how the story is going to ever get better club.

We belong to a God who doesn't answer prayers in a timely way (according to us at least).

We belong to a world of so many unanswered questions. And because our faith story includes Holy Saturdays, we must champion those who are stuck there.

As for me, today, I woke up with such gratitude for those who were companions for all of my Holy Saturdays.

I'm grateful for those who were never afraid of my tears, my questions or even my rants on hard days about "How I didn't believe in the resurrection" even as a pastor.

I'm grateful for the pulpit that gave me words to preach my way through these hard days.

I'm grateful, too, that I'm not there anymore.  (I've got SO much to say about Easter that I can't wait to preach soon!)

Here's my word; if you're stuck, see it through. Take all the time you need. I promise you won't be there forever. Sunday is coming! It really is. So keep going.  This is the best Holy Saturday prayer I know. Just keep going.

Recently, I've found myself in circles of people where the word "prayer" is not often used in conversation. No one seems to talk much about actual talking to God or Jesus. They just promise to hold one another "in the light."

I'm not quite sure what it means other than sending good energy toward a person in a difficult or challenging situation or a desire for good things to come. And while I don't think any of us would refuse such an intention in our direction (who doesn't want a good life?), whenever I hear it I wonder where is God? What is the person hoping between me, God and my understanding of the Divine?

I believe such an intention sets up a light vs. dark dichotomy Light is good. Dark is bad.

Good happens in the day. Bad happens in the dark.

We are living close to God when we are living in the light. We are far from the presence of God when we are in the dark.

All the buzz in theological circles I run in these days is Barbara Brown Taylor's book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.

(Here's my 5 second commercial: It's SO good I tell you. You. Must. Buy. It. Soon. It's a book that Christians will have in their collections for years to come because the theology is just SO good, SO fresh and SO timely for so many of us).

According to Taylor, we need not to be afraid of the dark. Dark is not the absence of God.  Think of all of the Biblical characters who encountered God at nighttime or in a cloud of smoke. Remember Abraham, Jacob and Moses?

God is not ONLY found in the light. God speaks and dwells and abides in the dark too.

So as we seek to know the Divine, the dark nights of our soul are not just annoying times to somehow "get through" but opportunities to more fully Know.

Consider these words from Chapter 2:

The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life, shutting half way where it will not interfere with one's bright fantasies of the way things ought to be. . . . Those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprise when our vision goes cloudy, for this is the sign that we are approaching the splendor of God.

So, maybe there are more helpful ways to pray than holding each other in the light. Could we consider holding one another in the dark too? 

And it's true isn't it? Our lives are lived as much in the light as it is in the dark. As much as we know what we know, we also don't know a lot.

So, then to pray for another to live in the light is to keep from one another the possibly some of the best (though painful) experiences of the Divine possible on earth.

What if the next time someone comes to us in crisis we promise to sit with them in the dark?

What if we helped one another embrace the dark by reminding each other not to be afraid, to keep walking baby step by baby step even if we have no idea where they going next?

What if we prayed for the moonlight to be tender and the howls of the darkness to be full of some comfort as our night journeys tarry on?

These are the kind of prayer utterings I want around my life.

Not Pollyanna promises of all will be well. Not pep rally prayers of "cheer up sweetheart." Not even more light send my direction. I don't want that.

But if  the darkness is where I am or where I need to be then come be with me there.  Remind me that God is not absent, even when I feel that way. Hold my hand, keep showing up in body and spirit and let's navigate through this darkness together. Let me tell you want the darkness is like. Be my darkness companion.

Don't let me not miss out on the smoke, the fog, the clouds of what I could behold . . God who shows up in darkness too.

Welcome to one of the darkest days of the whole year— for Christians that is—the day we wait with Jesus in the tomb.

It’s the day that no one visited the tomb of Jesus.

It’s the day when nothing happened in the gospel narrative.

It’s the day that can be summarized in one word: silence.

As if Jesus’ cries from the cross of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” were not hard enough to bear yesterday, today we sit with the reality of our Lord’s death.

And the fact that God’s son wasn't exempt from heart stopping suffering.

Even Jesus once died.

But, in most of our traditions, we have little room for Holy Saturday theology.

Though our Anglican friends often host Easter Vigils—the rest of us have no clue as to why we’d want to go to church on Thursday, Friday AND  Saturday too. What really changes from Friday to Saturday after all?

Isn’t the Saturday before Easter all about egg hunts, food preparation and shopping for new Sunday shoes? (well maybe not shopping for shoes this year)

Not that there is anything wrong with these things (and I’m going to be making some deviled eggs today myself). But I believe if we have our eyes already so set on Sunday, we miss out on a important part of who we are as followers of Jesus.

Again, even Jesus died. Part of what it means to be human is suffering and death.

Throughout our lives we will ALL face suffering that is so painful that we think it might kill us and then one day it actually will.

And if you’ve ever gotten to the point when the dreams you once hung your future upon are no more, you know Holy Saturday.

If you’ve ever woke up one morning to find that your child, your spouse or your best friend to whom your life was deeply connected was gone, you know Holy Saturday.

If you’ve ever wagered all your hope on one event going just as planned, only to find it blowing up in utter disaster, you know Holy Saturday.

Holy Saturday is accepting death.

Holy Saturday is embracing grief.

Holy Saturday is most of all -- surrender.

Pope Benedict XVI once said: “To be sure, it was not Easter Sunday but Holy Saturday, but, the more I reflect on it, the more this seems to be fitting for the nature of our human life: we are still awaiting Easter; we are not yet standing in the full light but walking toward it full of trust.”

So, my word for this Holy Saturday is...stand here.

Take in this day. Breathe in, breathe out.

And let us wait for Easter together—both on its date on the calendar to come tomorrow and all the resurrection moments to come.

Some of us are going to be in Holy Saturday for much longer than just one day. . .

It is so easy when life get stuck in rough patches to focus solely on what is going wrong. It is easy to allow the imperfection around you define who you are. It is easy to allow the darkness to over take you.

And this looks a lot like hiding. It looks like crawling in your bed and not wanting to come out for days. It looks like dissociating yourself from the community-- a few good friends-- that can really support you. It looks like believing that your life is over. Really over.

But then there is another way.

And Leonard Cohen lays it out for us.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.”

Several years ago, I was talking with a friend who was going through a difficult time. She was struggling to "move on" from what everyone said she should have been over months before. But, as she made progress through here pain, step by step as I wrote about last week there came a moment when she began to transition toward the light. She began to see things around her differently.

One afternoon she told me over coffee: “I feel like over the course of this year my heart has been broken deeper than I’ve ever known, at a deep, deep level. But at the same time, I’ve felt more seen and loved by a few of you than I’ve ever imagined either.”

She then took a breath and then went on, “So I’m thinking that sometimes the only way that real love can deep down deep inside of us is for our heart to be cracked open. And through the pain, love now has room to seep into me and live where nothing used to dwell.”

All I could say was wow! Breakthrough.

My friend went on: “I hate this pain, you know, but I'm learning to let the light in because of this darkness.”

What truth!

We are all cracked in some way.

The question is: are we are going to keep ringing the bells, even the broken ones?

We are all hurting.

The question is: are we vulnerable enough to be able to say, "I am not well" so that our offering, though how imperfect it is might be used for something greater?

We all know darkness.

The question is: do we believe that love can even transform the parts of us most shattered?

We all have bells to ring. 

As we keep going and keep ringing our bells, the light can get in. Shining beam by beam. Illuminating stride by stride. Radiating moment by moment.

Hope is born and others just might start singing along with us too.

Wait Here: A Conversation with Exodus 24:12-18 & Matthew 17:1-9

Sermon Preached at Broadneck Baptist Church, Annapolis, MD

Today, we are waiting here. Waiting together. Waiting on a word. Waiting on some truth. Waiting on God to show up and help us be different people than we came into this room, right?

Its kind of the point of why we come to church any Sunday, isn’t it?

But this Sunday is different. We call it out by name. We call it as it is listed at the top of your bulletin for this morning, Transfiguration Sunday.

Just as I was talking to the children about this big word a few moments ago, transfiguration is not one of those common vocabularies words that we often if at all put in our sentences. When is the last time you saw something transfigured? For me, I think the last time I even uttered this word, even as a preacher type, happened when this passage came up in the lectionary this time last year. We always mark Transfiguration Sunday as the last Sunday of Epiphany and the first Sunday before we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday.  It’s one of those texts lectionary preachers have a hard time avoiding.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret. This Sunday is Pastor Abby’s least favorite lectionary passage. So while she told you that she is at a training session for the Mennonite publishing company that she writes curriculum for in Indiana, the truth be told, I am really here this morning because Pastor Abby wanted to get out of preaching on the transfiguration. In fact such has been a running joke between us for years, how much she thinks this Sunday is overrated, so I guess such is how you treat your dearest friends. You send them in on weeks like this instead. . . .

But this morning, not only do we find our gospel reading drawing our attention to Jesus’ going up onto the high mountain with the three disciples in the inner circle with his appearance changing before their eyes, his face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling like white—but we also find our Old Testament lesson taken from the book of Exodus also about a transfiguration of sorts. Exodus 24 tells us about the time that Moses and his assistant Joshua were to receive the law of God and go up onto Mount Sinai being filled with the presence of the Lord.

Both are stories that help us understand what the word “transfiguration” is all about—the word Webster’s says is “to change into something more beautiful or more elevated.” Or another way to say this is: the divine coming to earth to dwelling alongside and in humanity.

When Jesus was transfigured, he’d been teaching, preaching and healing for quite some time. Jesus and his disciples were well acquainted with one another. They thought things were going well. But then, recently, Jesus had predicted his death for the first time.  Peter couldn’t believe it and said, “Never Lord!” and Jesus replied, “Get behind me Satan! . . . If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Following Jesus was not for the faint of heart. And six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on an unnamed mountain where not only was his physical appearance change but two guests appear—Moses and Elijah. What? Jesus was not only showing these disciples who he really was, but he was calling on the dream team to help him too—two great prophets. And suddenly a bright cloud enveloped them and the same words that were said over Jesus’ baptism were said again, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” No one was going to leave the mountain unclear about whom Jesus truly was and the validity of his divine nature moving forward.

And then, in the Exodus reading things get quite personal for Moses’ relationship with the Lord, much like the disciples experienced. It wasn’t that Moses did not have a “in your face” kind of relationship with God going on leading up to the events of Chapter 24. Remember the burning bush. The 10 plagues. The parting of the Red Sea. The cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night to lead them. The thunder and the lightening when Moses had been asked to go up the mountain the first time. But here, we read that Moses is asked to go up the mountain AGAIN and wait on the Lord. Something even more amazing was about to happen.

In verse 14 of our text for this morning we read that, “To the elders [Moses] had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again” and then, “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days.”

Moses, you see gets asked to come up and wait. To wait in a particular place at a particular time, to do nothing else but to be with the Lord, to be enveloped in God’s glory. And scripture tells us that this occurs for 6 days before the Lord even said a word.

Let me repeat that again. Scripture tells us that Moses sat for 6 days before the Lord uttered a word.

There is a term from the Celts that has grown into a popular theological concept called “thin places.” Mary DeMuth in her memoir by such a title defines a thin place “as a place where heaven and the physical world collide, one of those serendipitous territories where eternity and the mundane meet. Thin describes the membrane between the two worlds.” She goes on to say that: “Thin places are snatches of holy ground, tucked into corners of our world, where if we pay close attention, we might just catch a glimpse of eternity.”

As Moses was ushered into the presence of God on the mountain, I believe he was entering a thin place. And I believe such was also true for the disciples as they stood beside Jesus on the mountain that day too. They saw beyond this broken world into the world where things are made right. They saw into God’s great mystery. They saw the glory of God that we so often miss or can’t see when our minds are so caught up in the here and now.

Do you have a thin place in your life? Have you ever experienced such a place?

I was talking with a friend this week about the concept and she told me the story of the morning right before her daughter died. Her child, only 8, suffered from medical complications from cerebral palsy among other things. And while my friend’s focus that morning was on doing everything she could to try to save her daughter’s life—to make her better. Her husband, she said was sensing something deeper. Their daughter was slipping from this world to the beyond. The glory of God was resting on her. And he knew it. Through prodding, he helped his wife slow down and be in the moment too.

Thin place.

I have several Presbyterian colleagues who are obsessed with this retreat center in the mountains of Western North Carolina called Montreat. I am not a Presbyterian so I’ve never been there, but the way my colleagues describe the experience of being there in the wonder of God’s creation among the trees, lodging nestled between rolling hills and chapel experiences that are full of the best kind of spiritual formation out there, I would love to go sometime. In fact when they come home from Montreat it seems that such friends are glowing for weeks. They’ve encountered the presence of God in profound way. They have bright and shinny new plans for their lives.

Thin Place.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to travel in an interfaith delegation of peace to Israel alongside a Rabbi, an Inman and an evangelical pastor. We visited the sites of the region important to one another’s faiths with respect and honor. We walked the holy steps in Jerusalem that had been traveled by countless pilgrims before. We talked nightly over delicious dinners and bottles of wine about our faith and how the Divine was made manifest in each of our journeys.

Thin Place.

Thin places are moments that begin when we recognize the leading of the Spirit to be wait here.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Moses during those six days of doing nothing but sitting and beholding the glory of the Lord. Six whole night and days. 144 hours. 8,640 minutes. 518,400 seconds.

Waiting here. Waiting with God. Waiting in God’s glory.

I don’t know the last time you said yes to some complete stillness in your life. I am embarrassed to say when last I had some in mine. We aren’t really a culture, nor do we live in the part of this country for that matter that has much taste for slowing down. If you are anything like me, there isn’t a lot of room in your life for 144 hours of being in the presence of God and God alone. And how much of our mental and emotional and even spiritual energy do you and I use trying to avoid stillness? And then when we actually get to such a point, we try to control it.

Though I do take a Sabbath now and then—the kind where I (gasp) turn my phone off—I wouldn’t say that those hours are spent sitting in stillness. I get so restless to do something or watch sometime or to solve some problem with all those thoughts rolling around in my head.

I make lists in our head of what I will do when it over. I count the minutes that have passed. I wonder when I can move on to something next. Out of boredom I shorten the time and then shorten it some more. Isn’t that soon?

But will we ever experience a glimpse of the mystery and glory of God this way?

Henri Nouwen in the book Inner Voice of Love writes this about how most of us live: “We like to occupy-fill up-every empty time and space. We want to be occupied. And if we are not occupied we easily become preoccupied; that is, we fill the empty spaces before we have even reached them. We fill them with our worries, saying, "But what if ..." It is very hard to allow emptiness to exist in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen.”

Entering a thin place, you see is embracing the unexpected actually happening to us!

But Nowuen goes on to write about what happens when we give up, when we sit in our emptiness and offer it back to God. He says, we realize this: “God wants to dwell in our emptiness.”

And this morning, I want to offer you the good news that this is what transfiguration is all about.

It’s about letting go of fear—the fear of all of the what ifs?

It’s about letting go of shame—oh what will so and so think of they saw how I was spending my time!

It’s about letting go of what we’ve constructed around us to make us feel safe: comfort foods, familiar surroundings and plans for our life that make lots of sense to everyone we know.

We wait in such a place with our emptiness because we believe in a God who can make all things new.

We believe in a God that can shine light into the darkest places.

We believe in a God who will take our deepest restlessness and channel it into what is heaven come to earth.

We believe in a God who is lover and giver of grace—we become receivers of what we don’t deserve.

We enter into the Divine life when we wait like this and God’s glory stops being a churchy word good for a choir song, but something that we’ve seen, experienced and felt with our own flesh.

If there is anything I am sure of when it comes to God it is that God is a mystery. There is so much about our Lord that I do not and will never understand. I doubt in our lifetime we’ll see another transfiguration of Jesus or even we’ll be asked to go with God up on Mount Sinai. But I do believe that “thin places” on this earth are real. They find us when we might least expect. And they begin in waiting. They begin in setting our life on a different path than the norm so that we have space to receive. They begin in allowing silence to fill our space, even when we think we are going to go crazy and can’t take any silence anymore.

So, as we look ahead to a week that will ask us to gather and repent and remember that we are dust and will return to dust one day—how good it is to start with the invitation—if only we have room for it in this worship hour—to wait here.

To sit in stillness. To bring our brokenness. To open our hearts to whatever awaits us. It’s scary stuff but there’s a reason we’re asked to wrestle with these same stories year after year—because we all need more of God in our lives. But the only way we’re going to find more of God that all of us are looking for, no matter if we know it or not is to wait. To wait here and to trust God to do what is beyond all our imagination.


This Sunday, I began a month-long series in what congregation members have identified as their favorite scriptures. Anything was a possibility, really anything. Of course I was a little afraid as to what I might get as suggestions! But the responses I got were actually pretty tame (thank God!). First up, Matthew 5:13-16. Thanks for reading:

I don't know about you, but if someone asked me to proclaim that I am the light of the world, my spirit might cringe a little.

"Who me? A light? Me, the light of the world? No way. Can it be so?"

We might say that we are good at this or nice in this way or even pretty or handsome in this way or that way, but a light almost sounds extreme doesn't it?

And I don't think it is about a sense of false humility. Being called out as a light--  a presence of being whose essence is to do nothing but shine-- can be overwhelming to our sensibilities. For everything about most of our upbringings and the messages we've all received about ourselves since birth has NOT been about bright illumination or drawing attention to ourselves.

We're told over and over again: be normal. Fit in. Don't stand out of the crowd. Do what you are told. Pick out  your clothes based on trends of what is in.  And when in doubt, always color inside the lines whenever you are given a sheet in which to color.

Furthermore, we are prone as human beings to think (and be encouraged to think) the worse about ourselves, especially when it comes to what religion tells us to think about God. Professor David Lose in fact says this: Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary-aged children hear about themselves, they need to hear ten positive ones to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. (Frankly, I don't know if anyone has studied this in groups other than young children, but I suspect that number doubles during adolescence and then recedes to about 10-1 again by adulthood!)[i] We are a people who live in the negative.

But such sentiment stands in contradiction to the words of our gospel text for this morning, words of Jesus that were chosen among some of you as your favorite scripture passages you all submitted last month. 

"You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid."

What was Jesus up to as he laid these very direct words on the crowds gathered? What was he trying to say to this gathered community of disciples-- those in his context and those communities he knew would gather together in the future in his name?

In most interpretations I've heard of this beloved passage-- dear to the hearts of many Christians and part of popular cultural rhetoric in productions such as Godspell, for example-- have usually directed my attention to the potential negative aspects of Jesus' words here.  When Jesus says, "No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house." And the interpretation goes in this direction: "Yeah, you are a light, but it is your job to keep it going. You could mess up your job of being a light. So, God is warning you-- don't mess up. Don't put your light under a bushel basket. So it will go out and you'll lose it forever. And you wouldn't want that would you?"

But, such harsh, self-condemning words are not what I think Jesus is up to here. This is not another time in scripture when we are reminded by Jesus to feel bad about ourselves. Notice with me the direct nature of this declaration. Jesus says, "You are the light of the world."  

It not something, we are told, that we have to work up to. It is not something that we have to learn to create. It's not even something that only the select chosen ones get to claim. No, rather, it is simply what we are. We are told by Jesus that we are the light of the world, not just some of us. All of us.

We all have the light of God within us. It was the ultimate Jesus pep talk to his disciples. Remember who you are my friends. You are light and there is not a thing you can do about it. These are words of sheer blessing from the Divine to us.

Sure, a case could be made that there are times in life that each of us could hide our light (hide it under a bushel if you will), but it doesn't change the fact that the light in us-- given to us by God and shown to us by Jesus-- is there.  All we have to do is just stand and let it shine!

Look at someone sitting close to you this morning and say to them, "You are the light of the world" and then have them say it back to you.

How did that feel? Strange? Comforting? Calming?

If this is where you are today-- in need of some self-confidence after coming out of a life damaging situation or relationship, then I say stop with me here and receive this bountiful blessing from our Lord. You are called a light, just as your neighbor has shared with you. And Jesus calls you very good. Can I get an amen out there about this?

But, if you are able to hang with me for more-- hear this, all you light bearing friends of mine. Being light comes with a responsibility (not burden) but joyous responsibility.  When Jesus says to us, we are the light of the world, we are asked not to just keep it to ourselves. We are asked to share it. Again, not something that my raise flags in our heads from our more conservative traditions of door to door bang people over the head evangelism.  And, not something that we have to work at or achieve, but simply and courageously being willing bear in vulnerability our light to others.  

Light that comes in speaking aloud the name of Jesus as our Lord.

Light that comes in sharing kindness, even when we are tired, because we feel God has asked of us to go the extra mile of compassion.

Light that comes not in just "being a good person" for the sake of being good or avoiding punishment, but for the sake of the name of Jesus who is our teacher of all things that are good.

This week, I graciously had the opportunity to spend some time learning about the practice of spiritual direction in interfaith setting-- from those who very much cared about being attentive to the light of God within them, but not explicitly from an Christo-centric tradition. Though interfaith work is nothing new for me, when I showed up in Berkeley on Monday ready to learn, the experience I received was not exactly what I expected.

My first shock came when we were asked to break up into partners and share in two minutes to our partner what the practice of spiritual direction meant to us.

I went first sharing something to the effect of "I feel spiritual direction is in my experience the practice of sitting with another person who serves as the deep listener to my stories, who helps me pay attention to the presence of God in my life, sensing movements, patterns, feelings of God's working all around me."

Then, my partner shared. Moments later when the teacher call us back together as a group in attention to what we noticed in the exercise, my partner was the first to speak. She mentioned how strange it was that I wanted to used the word "God" -- not a word that she uses anymore. Saying that she much prefers the word "divine" alone for all things God.

I went home the first night and sounded off to a friend or two on the phone, "I am in a program to learn about God and I can't even say the word God?"

As an act of resistance the next morning, I was careful to use the word God and Jesus when I came to describe my own faith. (Who knew saying God's name could make you such a rebel?) Though I could have easily done otherwise. I didn't have to say I was a Christian pastor. I didn't have to say that I actually believed in Jesus.  I am a Baptist after all where we believe in the priesthood of all believers, nothing in my dress (or your dress either) says anything about the nature of faith. It would have been much easier to become what was most acceptable to the group.

Yet, Jesus says, "You are the light of the world."

As an aside, I am happy to say that I continued to be in dialogue with this colleague and our understanding of one another got better. We were not as far from one another as I first might have thought-- just with different baggage around language.

But this one encounter reminded me that showing the light that God has asked us requires courage to speak up from time to time-- to show with our words and our deeds that our light comes from Christ. And, yes, calling God by God's name is a non-negotiable for us. We worship the God who says, "I AM who I AM."

But what does this look like in our daily lives-- when we aren't at Interfaith training or spiritually focused dialogue groups? I believe we must be ready to stand out.

Not blending in-- showing what we believe.

Not going with the flow of acceptance of everyone and everything-- saying what we believe.

Not being politically correct all the time-- when truth needs to be spoken.

Not just doing the same old things the same old ways-- open to the new.

Instead, remembering that because we are the light of the world, we've got FIRE within us. Fire from God that is constantly molding us, reshaping us, growing us and asking us to give voice to the fact that the light of God comes from within.

One my Baptist colleagues and I were having a conversation about this passage this week-- my colleague a former pastor of a church much like ours-- of the liberal Baptist flavor. And, we were talking about how most churches like ours aren't so comfortable in our practice of being light. For after all we've come from places in our journeys as individuals who make up this larger body which that are often of abuse, frustration with the institutional church and it is just now that many of us have wandered back into a faith community. We've got enough of our own stuff to deal with than to CHOOSE to stand out.

But, when we consciously or unconsciously make this decision to leave the "being the light of the world" business to someone else, we my friends-- are robbing God of the process of using some of the only hands God has (ours) to be the people God created us to be.

For after all, wasn't the mission statement of this congregation, when it was visioned out several years ago to be "The Light of the World." Weren't there leaders and faithful members including some of you still around today who took seriously Jesus' words here and said, "Yes, we have purpose to be a different kind of church. To welcome the un-welcomed. To not judge the stranger. To always make room for one more to feel the love of God in this place."

So where are we today? I fear sometimes that we are somewhere between the great fervor of the congregation of the past, "We want to be a light in our community" and those who have forgotten that the light of God is within us as individuals and as a body at all.

It has been said that the greatest sin against God of all is forgetfulness.

So today as we soon will approach the table. I invite you to remember again your light and dream with me for a moment what it might mean to have this light brilliantly shinning in our midst. I invite you to remember.

If we were Christ's light here in the Northern VA area, in our Lake Anne home, what would be the fruits?

Might there be more AA classes offered during the week? A place for unconditional acceptance and love for those working through their own recovery journeys.

Might there be more hours when our sanctuary was open for prayer and meditation? So that our building was truly God's house-- not just for us Sunday worshippers, but for everyone who needed a place of peace.

Might there be more of us writing about our experience of God in this congregation-- spreading the world of the good news of a welcoming and loving church-- to ALL those, in every nook and cranny of Reston, Herndon, Manassas, Sterling, and the list could keep going on and on-- that there is a church for them, a Baptist church where that can worship Christ and grow in their faith in him?

I hope that as I've been sharing with you my "might" list, in your head you are making a list of your own-- of your own dreams for where our light will shine, how it growing brightness will touch exactly the folks that God wants to use us to reach.

And that as we together come to the table, we remember the source of our light-- our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This little light of mine. I'm going let shine. This little light of mine. I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.


[i]  "Dear Working Preacher" http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=451

I don't know when is the last time you sat in complete darkness? How did you feel? What did you sense? What did you notice about your body, your fears or even your surroundings?

These are all questions that I want you to consider-- as we sit together in as dark of this room this evening. I invite you to clear your mind, relax and simply be in the dark as we turn all the lights off now. (Pause for 5 minutes)


Church: in these moments of dark, what did you notice about yourself? What did you notice about this room that you did not play attention to previously?

Over the course of the next forty days, a season in the church we call Lent, our worship theme will ask us to consider again the darkness. Not only the darkness of our own souls-- the ways that we each fall short of God's best for us-- but simply to pay attention to the darkness in our world. Where are there places without hope? Where are there places without God's light? Where are there people hurting because they feel God has abandoned them?

The funny thing is about darkness, is that the more you sit it in, the more sensitive you become to any spark of light, even if just a crack through a window.  But, only if you sit with it.

One of the first times our power went out in our current home, right after we first moved in, with boxes still strung everywhere-- piled in the hallways, blocking doors and by the staircase-- I felt immediately paralyzed.

Being new to our home and not being able to "feel" my way around and furthermore not knowing where the candles or matches or even flash lights were, I quickly began to stumble around hoping not to injury myself too badly (You know, I'm not too good at sitting still).

But, I had never been in this kind of darkness before. Everything in my surroundings felt out-of-place without any memories to guide me. So, hoping not to break a leg, I stayed put on the couch and tried to enjoy the quiet. Luckily, the power came back on within an hour.

By the next time that we experienced a power outage at night, Kevin and I were well settled into our current address. We knew the drill. All of the important boxes were unpacked. The journey upstairs to find the flash light didn't feel like so much of a risk of life because we'd journeyed through the darkness to the space before-- we knew how high to raise our feet in climbing the stairs, we knew where the walls divided rooms and we could feel our way around the bed and find the candles and lighter on the nightstand.  Darkness didn't seem as scary because we'd previously experienced this space as safe.

Darkness, with practice wasn't as bad as we thought.

In our gospel reading for tonight taken from Matthew 6:1-6, we are asked to commit ourselves tonight to a different way of life than the norm. We are asked to prepare our hearts through waiting. We are asked to fast. We are asked to pray. We are asked to consider serving God in ways that might feel new to us.  But, we are asked to all of these things without drawing attention to ourselves or making a big fuzz about how wonderful we are to be taking care of our spiritual lives.

In fact, Matthew's gospel tells us in verse 5 that "when we pray, we must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. . . . but when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father in heaven who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Which is another way of reminding us of the benefits of sitting in darkness. While it may be more fun or more pleasurable to our egos to say our prayers or do our good deeds this Lent for all the world to see, we are asked to sit in darkness. We are asked to do in the shadows, not the limelight.

For some of us, this season of sitting in the darkness may taste like one of those disgusting flavored cough syrups our mother forced in our mouth as child. In fact, we've never been one to sit in the darkness at all. We run from it. And, what I'm asking you to do "this whole sitting in the darkness bit" could seem as scary as the day I was alone in our home in the dark for the first time.  Without resources for light-- you are simply afraid.

If this is where you find yourself this Lent-- unfamiliar with this spiritual darkness-- then I say, just sit. Sit and know as you do, you might just recognize more light around you that you could not have noticed any other way. And, what a gift this Lent can be for you as you wait. 

But, if you are a person who knows the shadows of the dark night of the soul-- who has been in dark season before because of some personal circumstances of your own choosing or even just because life's cruelties-- I invite you too to this season of Lent too.

This is your promise tonight: just as a space called a home can become more familiar over time, the same is true for darkness as you continue to experience it. For, as we sit in darkness, as we cleave to our prayer closets of grounding our hearts and souls in Christ's light for our life, darkness can become a friend. We know that it won't kill us to sit in darkness-- eventually the light will come. We've seen it all before and lived to tell of the surprising joys of the darkest times.

So, as we receive these ashes tonight and commit as a church to the 40 days of darkness, cling to the hope of the promise. Return to your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love.


Let the Light Come: Christmas Eve 2011

Isaiah 9: 2-7

What are we celebrating tonight? (Christmas? Anyone excited about Santa? And still some of you might say it is Jesus' Birthday?)

Jesus' birthday is the answer I learned as a child growing up in Sunday School. Christmas was all about Jesus' birthday.

Tonight is not Jesus' real birthday (hate to burst your bubble on that one) because no one really knows for sure. However, tonight was chosen as the occasion for the Eve of celebration because of its correspondence on the calendar year with the season of darkness, at least in Northern hemisphere. In the year 350,  December 25th became the official Christmas day by a decree from Pope Julius on to correspond with Winter Solstice-- the longest and thus darkest night of the year.

And though the words "presents" "joy" "mistletoe" or even "baby" sit as the centerpiece of what we think about this time of year, especially tonight-- we'd be completely off track on this holy night, if we didn't start our conversation together about scripture with the word: darkness.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined."

I don't know the last time that you found yourself in complete darkness-- where you literally could not see what was right in front of your face, where you were putting one step in front of the other hoping that you would not fall or run into a wall. It's a rarity in our days of electric everything in the city in which we dwell and emergency readiness kits and flashlights at our bedside. City lights and guiding light posts are nearly everywhere, even in the most remote parts of our land.

Professor Karoline Lewis tells a story of being with her family in the Black Hills of South Dakota on a tour of Jewel Cave-- a place where she experienced darkness in a dramatic fashion. 

After travelling down roughly forty flights of steps deep into the cave, the lights guiding the tour are extinguished, plunging those walking into total darkness.  “Of course,” Lewis writes, “this is not just to show you how dark it is. We all know that. Rather, it is a reminder of that oft-forgotten fact that without light, even the smallest speck of light, our eyes will never adjust to the darkness. We could be down in that cave five minutes, five hours, five years and still never see our hands in front of our faces. This is what darkness does to you.” (Thanks Abby Thornton for sharing this great story with me!).

And, such was the situation described in our Isaiah text before us this evening. Though not literally in physical darkness, everything metaphorically around the original hearers of the text was dark.

Corrupt leadership was in power. Terrorist driven enemies were at the nation's doorstep. Spiritual leaders were no longer valued for insight they could provide. Mothers worried about their children's futures. Fathers worried about seeing their children grow up in a free and fair land. And, the rich were getting rich and the poor were getting poorer.

Virtues like hope, peace, joy and love that we've been talking about all Advent season-- were not on the main stage of community life and interactions with one another as the prophet Isaiah spoke these words of the Lord.

Sound familiar at all to life in 2012?

For as much as we gather this evening in the cheer of our holiday colors and sweaters, for as much as we gather with the warm fuzzies that we get from singing the Christmas carols in community that we've known since childhood, for as much as our stomachs are full of Christmas cookies, special pies and holiday bread-- we also understand Isaiah's words of what it means to be a people who are living in a land of darkness.  For just as we've experienced the drudgery of short days for the last several weeks-- going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark-- which psychologists say is their busiest time of the year (the darkness seems to depress all of us more than normal it seems), many of us have also approached Christmas season this year, very well aware of the emotional and spiritual darkness that surrounds our lives.

Beloved ones will no longer be around our dinner table this year and we miss them more than words can say.

We've found our jobs cut our hours, pay us less and expect us to be happy about it anyway.

We've faced new realities about our own lives that have left us confused, disappointed and lonely.

Beloved friends and family members have endured suffering after suffering, seemingly unable to catch a break and in journeying alongside them, our hearts have broken too.

Darkness looms over us, often no matter if we want it or not, no matter if we know it or not and hides from us, all of us, the life that we were born to live, the life that we were created for by God.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined."

And it to this state of darkness, that all of us know something about, Isaiah speaks a word of prophecy saying: "Listen up, all of you who know you are in the dark, all of you who can't see even a shimmer in front of your faces-- a GREAT brightness is about to shine, a light is coming."

Yet, as the passage goes on, what is indeed strange about this gift of a light is that it was foretold to come in the most vulnerable, most innocent, and most unassuming of package: a baby.

For Israel, the light was not going to come through a triumphant new king who would just appear on the scene and slain all those who ever said a word of harm against them as they hoped. It wasn't going to come by anything they'd seen before and could predict logically on a spreadsheet. And, it most certainly wasn't going to come on their timetable.

The gift was to be called as verse six tells us: Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (anyone hear Handel's Messiah playing in the background as I read these words?)

Biblical scholars go on to burst Handel's and our bubbles again here saying that Isaiah in fact, was not envisioning Jesus when the words were penned-- many think they were prescribed about the prophet were about Azaz (the corrupt king ruling Israel at the time)'s son, Hezekiah-- that he would be the spiritual leader that Israel needed next to be saved from their enemies.

But, regardless, this is what we know as we continue reading in the second testament, in the gospel narratives, that hundreds of years later, another child is born. And, this would not just be any child, not just a child who grew up to be a just leader, or a skillful teacher, or even a boy who grew into a man who would make his momma proud-- though this child would be all of these things.

This child would be the one who took on the yoke of the burden of his people, who would take the bar across his people's shoulders, who would take away the rod of their oppressors-- and not just for the nation of Israel, but for the whole world. And, such would be because this child would be not just any light, but THE light.

 This child would be the GREAT light that forever broke the bonds of life-crippling darkness, whose life would say to future generations: "No more let sins and sorrows grow nor thorns infest the ground: I come to make God's blessings flow far as the curse of darkness is found."

And the world would forever be different, why? Because the light came. The light shone. The light brought hope that there was more to this life than the darkness all around. 

And, this would be the hope: for all of us, past present and future who have found our lives walking in darkness, that in Jesus, we can be in the light too.

As many of you know that in January, Kevin and I had the opportunity to travel to Israel with several leaders of other faiths from the Reston area. And, one of the highlights for me of the trip was to spent a couple of hours one day in Bethlehem, the city we are told in gospel reading for tonight is the place where Jesus was born.  While visiting the Church of the Nativity, I was awestruck there unlike any other place of among the Christian sites we visited of the holiness of the location said to be the birthplace of Christ. Though again, no one could prove without a doubt that this was the exact place of this historical event, but I didn't quite care. 

After descending the stairs into a small chapel named for Mary and placing my hand on a spot designated as the spot of the birth-- I felt the light. Maybe it just was by sheer connection to the thousands of Christ seekers and skeptics alike who had placed their hand on the same spot too. Maybe it had something to the do with the spiritually charged trip I was already having. Maybe it was because I had already visited countless Jewish and Muslim sites already and I was thrilled to final be in a place that was important to my faith. Yet, regardless, I tell you the light was there. It was a powerful moment of faith for me.  Call me a CathoBaptist, but I was ready to walk the aisle of faith all over again in the middle of this Catholic church. For there just is something powerful in thinking about the light... the very face of God come to earth.

He's the light that can make the most sarcastic of us this Christmas open our heart to believe again.

He's the light that can break through the coldest of hearts, the most horrid of circumstances-- stuck right in the middle of what the carol calls the bleak mid-winter.

He's the light that can give us all hope that what we see or can't see right in front of us is not all there is.

He's the light that says to our overwhelming and oppressing of circumstances-- rejoice for a new joy is here.

Calling all dreamers . . . calling all wonderers . . . calling all grieving friends . . . calling all those who want a life different from you see right in front of you right now. Come, to the table this night. Come and receive the very life and blood of our Savior and Lord. Come, and receive what you are most longing for this Christmas: a light has come. Darkness will be over soon. And, hope is born anew!