Word of the Week

Do you consider yourself a courageous person?

Courage: a word that means the ability to do something that frightens you.

This week I've been thinking a lot about the courage to have hard conversations. It's no secret that hard conversations are in high demand in these times we're living in.

In our polarized everything culture right now, it's so easy to un-follow our "friends" who don't believe as we do. It's easy to worship, work and play only with those in our thought camp. It's easy to turn off the news or ignore today's headlines so to forget the reality. It's easy to think you won't vote in this year's national elections because you don't want to defend your choices to your friends or family.

But if there is anything I know for sure, its conversations that feel difficult or scary are exactly where real good living begins. And that in big and small circles of our lives on all sorts of topics, there are new truths to learn if we can stay in a posture of courage.

Of course, this doesn't mean that every relationship in your life is ready for your courageous sharing, but many are!

Several years ago, I attended an event in New York City at a congregation led by two thought leaders. One was a young African American man with a popular podcast and huge social media following. The other was a middle-aged white woman with a background is sociology with a lot of popular books. They were an unlikely pair but gathered in their friendship the intention was learning for the rest of us. These were the takeaways that have stayed with me since:

Courage looks like showing up.

That night both of them had a lot to lose if they took a misstep in a such a forum but, they still came to the table. They stayed put even when calls for clarification on their views happened throughout the night. They kept showing up for each other as new ideas and personal stories were offered. No one walked away until the time came for the event to end even when awkward moments came. How huge!

Courage looks like pausing.

There were moments in the conversation where one or the other took a moment saying: "I need a minute" or "I'm not ready to respond to that right away. Can you come back to me?" And you know what, it was ok! Often the best thoughts take a bit to form in someone's mind and come out. And they modeled respect in making the talk less like a debate (with right and wrong being the goal) and more about honoring one another's humanity.

Courage looks like asking questions.

Instead of waxing on and on about what they thought on the subjects being discussed, there were many times where simply the words, "Could you tell me more about that?" were uttered with interest in the answer. Empathy emerged so naturally! For asking questions took the "I" out of the experience so that more "we" could be found.

You may think I'm overly optimistic in advocating for hard conversations (let's be honest few people like it), but I wonder, when is this last time you tried?

Show up. Pause. Ask Questions. You can do it!



If there is anything I know for sure about the members of my household-- my girl child and my husband that is -- they are terrified of snakes. Though we live in Georgia now where snakes love the warmer climate, I'm just hoping we never go through the ordeal of finding one in our house. Just say the word snake and this week's word is written all over their face: fear.

Fearan unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger

Let’s face it. we all know fear. To be a walking, talking, living, breathing human being means that we’re all afraid of something. And it’s ok. Fear will always be a companion for our journeys (and don't let anyone tell you otherwise).

But should fear get the last word?

Recently, I was invited to a night out that sounded kind of fun - in theory. Wine. Cheese. Moms like me. I knew I could use a night out of the house. My husband was ready to be in charge of the bedtime routine. However, the one person I knew in the group was going to be out of town.

A great reason to skip, right? Especially when I am so tired at night anyway.

But then, I just said, “What the heck? I’ll go.”

And let me tell you, I could feel the fear in my cute boots (especially picked out for the evening, of course) as I approached the house hosting the party. But I didn't turn around and go home.

Walking in, I felt pleasantly surprised with the conversation that found me. By facing my fear, I felt bolstered to enjoy the night by just being with some new people I was glad to get to know.

I don't know what your version of something that you need to try to do (but are dreading it). Yet, whatever it is, you can know that you will never be alone.

Did you know the word "fear" for example, is found in the Christian scriptures over 500 times? Yet even in all this talk of fear are we ever told that God would leave us. No matter our "worst case scenarios" in our minds, we are always in the bounds of the care of a compassionate God who loves us unconditionally. We are always wrapped in the great mystery of things working out in our lives when we least expect.

You, my friend, you can overcome fear by doing scary things too. Scary step forward, one foot at the time. My guess is that you’ll be surprised as you don’t let fear get the last word . . .



Worst-case scenarios. Planning for the worst. So many what ifs. Have you felt afraid this week? If so, what about? Maybe someone you care about faced a terrible disappointment. Maybe your experience of growing older this month has felt like one big blow to your heart.

Or maybe you know that your boss is getting ready to pull you off a project you love. Sigh.

Let me stop here and sit with you saying, leaning into the reality of hard things stinks. It really, really, does. Don't let anyone tell you that it doesn't. Fear is such a natural response to the hard things in our lives.

YET, enter this week's word: expectation. Expectation defined as a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.

You might be in a hot mess right now, but expectation helps you lift up your gaze from your problems.

Expectation says, "Well, hey, this worst possible thing might in fact be happening, but it doesn't mean all is lost. There will be brighter days to come."

Expectation says, "I am cheering you on. Keep going!"

Expectation says, "I believe in you. Keep dreaming about the future. Keep saying yes!"

Expectation is the medicine you need to get out of bed in the morning on your worst days. Expectation is what keeps you focused your best days too. Expectation can keep you grounded in what can bring you unexpected joy even if it wasn't brought you joy last year.

Several years ago, I found myself in a hard patch of life that seemingly wouldn't end. You know what saved me? I put some things on my calendar to look forward to with people I loved. I silenced my self-censoring voice protesting "You don't have time for that" or "You shouldn't spend money on that" to give expectation space to work its magic.

It was a simple practice that worked its magic on my mood. And even if I didn't actually do these things when the time came, my calendar was filled with hope!

So in whatever you are concerned about in your life right now (and I bet there is something) know I am also believing that expectation is there perching its way into your soul. And since it's there, listen. Listen to hope. Lean into hope. It's got a good word for you of what to do next.

Here's hoping you are surprised this week with something good-



When is the last time you knew you were supposed to do something but were afraid?

You felt the nudge. You heard the call. You saw the first step clearly.

But then your mind rushed with what if questions. You heard all the naysayers’ opinions clouding your head. You knew the obstacles you’d face if you kept going.

So much in you said stop! And so much in your felt like go!

To this enter this week's word: courage. Courage: the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain without fear; bravery.

Talking about growing in courage might just seem like one more thing that is too much of an ask.

You’re tired.

You’re overwhelmed with LIFE.

You cannot absolutely cannot do ONE more thing that is not on your already weird daily schedule.

But I am not talking about one more thing the way that our dentist reminds us to remember to floss or our doctor tells us to eat more vegetables . . .

I am talking about a way of living where our lives are in alignment with who you really are. I am talking about taking steps in the direction of YOUR voice that God has given YOU to use to bring light and hope to the world.

As terrible as it feels to do that _______ thing that is on your heart and mind as what you know the Spirit is nudging you to do next—I tell you THIS IS THE MOMENT WHERE YOUR LIFE GETS SO GOOD.

Recently I had an experience where I had to chose between an opportunity similar to what I've always done and on the other side a chance to stand up for myself in a way that feel really right but risky.

In being courageous, maybe I'd loose a friend?

Maybe I'd loose the chance to do something I love for a very long time.

Maybe people would think (insert bad things here) of me. But I knew what I had to do even if it hurt . . .

I think you know what you need to do just as I did. God is with you. God is guiding you. So, my friend, gather your courage and take the next step soon.

Cheering you on now and always-



When's the last time you did something just because you enjoyed it? When's the last time you made something or shared an idea just as it came to you? When is the last time you allowed yourself time to create?

Create our word for this week that means to bring something into existence or to birth something out of nothing.

Yet, today I'm wondering about the excuses we offer about our lack of creating. For, how many times have you heard someone say: “I’m not a creative person.”

I love what author Elizabeth Gilbert offers in her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear about excuses we all give for our lack of creativity.

But this is what I believe about you: you were born to bring beautiful things into the world.

Art. Music. Cooking. Sewing. Woodwork. Organizing. Photography. Leadership. Writing. And so much more!

You have unique gifts to share that no one else can. NO. ONE. ELSE.

In fact, my soul needs you need you to create. Everyone around you needs you to create. God, the ultimate Creator made you to create. We are truly missing out if you hold back.

What’s one creative thing that brings you joy? Move toward that thing this week. Protect your time so it doesn't get written off the schedule. Your soul will thank you.



P.S. Interested in thinking more with me about the creative process? Here's a wonderful TED talk you can watch on YouTube also from Elizabeth Gilbert.

Ever found yourself stuck and unable to act?

I have!

There have been multiple moments in my life, even some last month or maybe even last week that I felt afraid. I didn’t want to act. I stood on the edge and looked down for a long while thinking of all that could go wrong if . . .

And it took someone saying to me: “Elizabeth, go! Take the first step” so that I knew I could. I am indebted to the voices who have said through the years, "We believe in you!" Aren't you?

Isn't it true, are often those first steps toward meaningful things are those we take on the shoulders of someone else?


This weekend our nation has thought much about the birthday of a man who changed the course of our history as an American people—a man who was willing for his gifts, his graces and even his own life to be offered up as a sacrifice for freedom for all people, no matter the color of their skin.

We've remembered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his strong, steady and God-centered leadership that taught us that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

But, I dare say, weekends like this one would not exist if it wasn't for those who encouraged him first.

For Martin Luther King wasn’t a man looking to change the world. He was just a preacher. A preacher in Montgomery, AL, straight out of seminary, seeking to lead his own congregation in the best way he knew how under the laws of the Jim Crow South.

But, then some brave folks came along. There were many who sought to say enough is enough in Montgomery, AL. These unfair laws have to change!  But then Rosa Parks is the protestor whose name we know best. On that December 1, 1955 she spoke a thousand words by saying no words at all by NOT moving to the back of the bus. And what came from her one-act was a big push.

Once Rosa Parks was arrested, the movement had momentum. Preachers within the black community in Montgomery got together and formed the “Montgomery Improvement Association.”maxresdefault

A spokesman was needed and the ministers' group nominated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pastor of Dexter Ave Baptist Church first. Though new to the community and only 26 years old, this quiet but smart man seemed like the perfect choice. History tells us that Dr. King was hesitant to the minister's first requests but that in the end he just couldn’t say no.

Four days later, The Montgomery Improvement Association asked Dr. King to address the 5,000 folks gathered at Holt Street Baptist Church—his first major address. And from this point on, Dr. King preached to a larger congregation than he ever could have imagined, traveling constantly, and protesting through non-violence.

Studying about this time in history this week reminded me that sometimes it takes someone, anyone, calling us out, preparing the way so that we can take those first steps.

We all need encouragers who speak truth to our hearts! And MLK was no different!


A couple of months ago I sat at a lunch table with a new pastoral colleague. My new friend shared with me that while she attended and graduated seminary and was active for many years in her local church, she never presented herself for ordination. Opportunities abounded around her to serve but in her mind ordination was out of the question because “it was that big thing out there, not for her.”

But then she said it all changed one day when a pastor she’d worked for many years alongside said:

“Girl, you need to stop messing around. God wants you to be ordained. When are we going to start the process?”

That moment, my friend said was a wake-up call for her. It was her time to fully embrace her calling. It was time to say yes. And thank goodness her pastor had the guts to call her out!

My friends, no matter if you are a pastor, a church leader or someone who’s skeptical about the whole church thing altogether—God is calling you. God is calling you out, wanting to usher you to use your gifts and graces so that all the entire community can be blessed.

Even if you are afraid, even if you think now is not the time or somebody could do it better, God is asking you to say yes.

If I know anything about the Spirit of God and how God works in this world, I know there’s always something you and I have to do.

So this is my prayer—may this week be a week of moving forward. And if you need someone to encourage you along the way, find a friend. Or email me. Let's all continue to be voices of encouragement, shoulders to stand on for each other!

When people say my name, the word "adventurous" is rarely the first association.

I'm the girl who doesn't like to ride roller coasters or bungee jump off of platforms or even play paintball. I'm a great purse holder and picture taker. We all have to know our strengths right?

For all of these reasons and more I was never going to be a long-term youth minister (but that's another story).

Yet I'm also the person who doesn't like to be left out-- as much as something makes fear rise up in my belly, I'll try it.

I've ridden some of the world's longest and fastest coasters (all the while my prayer life simultaneously grew).

I've stood on some of the world's tallest heights (ok, maybe one day I'll jump).

I've gone paint balling with merciless group of teens (coming home with the bruises to prove it).

And so, when Kevin and I spent a couple of days in Costa Rica for a mini-vacation/ attending a friend's wedding this weekend, I knew there was one thing I needed to do before I left the jungle: zip lining. Especially after a couple with us for the wedding went the day before. AND, they couldn't stop taking about how much fun they had.

I was sold. "Kevin," I said, "we must sign up for tomorrow!" Though I'm sure Kevin would have enjoyed one more morning sleeping in and didn't even have proper tennis shoes (luckily found a friend with the same shoe size to borrow from), we set out the next day for our 8:30 am tour. All was well and exciting as met our jungle guides and put our safety gear on. All was well and exciting as we made our trek up the mountain in a cart pulled by a tracker. But when I saw the first zip line with nothing but jungle and more jungle below my feet, all was no longer well or exciting.

Soon my speech became a smattering of words like, "I don't know what I thinking, Kevin. Oh my goodness. Can you believe this height? What was thinking? Why did I sign us up for this?? Why didn't you stop me? You should've stopped me!"

Kevin, with his white safety helmet sliding down his face began to reassure me with stories of the one time he zip lined before in West Virginia, "Oh it will be ok. You'll soon love this! I did."

But, I wasn't convinced. I knew there was a world of difference between West Virginia and the middle of the Costa Rica rainforest. I saw no safety nets. I saw no end to this course down the mountain.

Seeing the fear in my eyes the guide reminded us all: "There's no way getting down this mountain now than by going down on these lines." (The tracker was long gone, sigh!). And, I knew I was stuck, for better or for worse. I knew I had one thing and one thing only to do next: face my fear.

One of my favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quotes came to mind, "Do one thing every day that scares you." And simultaneously thought-- I hope this fulfills my quota for days!

photo-1There would be no turning back. And with a push, down the line I went. And went. And though Kevin later summed up the activity by saying on twitter that "the monkeys in the rainforest might need therapy after all my yelling," I did it and even have this picture to prove it.

Fear is just like this-- in the end it is just fear. It's just an emotion that screams CAUTION so loudly in us that we never take the leaps in life that we're met to take. A good dose of fear is healthy, of course. There are leaps in this life reserved for the trained professionals. But, facing our fears can in turn be one of the most spiritual things we do in our days.

For when we face the things that scare us, we leap figuratively (and sometimes literally) into the hands of a God who says no matter what, I will never leave you alone. In fact, as we leap, we might just find ourselves soaring with joy we'd of never known-- just as I did by the 12th (and final) zip line on Saturday morning. Mission accomplished. I was thrilled.

Back by popular demand is a blog post that I wrote in February of 2007- an experience that was my first year as a full-time pastor. Please laugh along with me (though it wasn’t funny at the time).

As a means of background, Ash Wednesday fell on my birthday this year: a day which should be a joyous celebration of life but instead I was in charge of the prayer meeting service about this occasion – a day to remember our mortality. This was troubling to begin with, but whatever. Secondly, the senior pastor of our congregation was in Hawaii celebrating his birthday (the same day as mine) during Ash Wednesday; thus, leaving me in charge of the service (totally not fair, right?).

It was 6:10 p.m. before prayer meeting/ the Ash Wednesday service began at 6:30. I was on the phone with Kevin on my way back to church. I knew I was running late and trying to get back to church as fast as I could. Yet, in the course of our conversation I remembered I had forgotten one important element for the service: the ashes!

Kevin offered a suggestion. He reminded me that it wouldn’t take very long to burn some more ashes. All I would need to do is go outside with a metal trash can and burn some paper in it for a few minutes. While I could see the logic in this activity, Kevin’s idea sounded a little risky to me. (My vision of what could happen is much like the picture to the left!) I thought I had a brilliant idea. Our fellowship hall has a fire place in it. I decided I’d just burn some paper in there. No big deal, right?

Wrong, because I forgot to open up the flue. Before I knew it, smoke began to fill the fellowship hall. It was just my luck that the smoke sensor was right beside the fireplace– so the church fire alarm began to immediately sound. That awful loud noise began to fill the walls of the church along with the smoke.

I quickly began to pour water on the paper burning I had begun (not thinking that I was in that moment totally defeating the point of exercises as I was soon to have soggy ashes). I thought if I could get the smoke to leave the fellowship hall, then all would be well and the fire alarm would go off.

In a few minutes, the fire alarm did indeed go off thanks to my fabulous pastoral colleague, Lonnie. He had just walked in the building when the alarm sounded and soon thereafter began calling the security company telling them that everything was ok as well as doing crowd control for me upstairs. But the first person I saw after the event was one of our most faithful deacons, Tom.

Tom, an older gentleman who came bursting down the stairs trying to see what was wrong. With panic in my voice, I admitted that I was the one who had started the fire. Yet, everything was ok; the fire was out. I felt bad for making Tom run through the church with such a sense of panic.

By the time that I cleaned everything up and make my way upstairs, I found that the fire department had already made its way to our church. Thank goodness Lonnie was there to deal with them– taking them to the fireplace downstairs, letting them know that all was well because by this time I had lost it. I was so embarrassed. I didn’t think I had it in me to go and lead the service. I wanted to go home and find some joy of this 27th birthday of mine.

But, I knew I was a professional and professionals must act as they must, not as they feel. By some grace, I wiped my tears and headed for the conference room to begin talking about the symbols of Lent, including the wet ashes. I told everyone the story of what had occurred earlier that evening and a roar of laughter came from those present (If you don’t cry, you laugh, right?).

Somehow the Joel 2 lectionary passage for the day had a whole new meeting for our group that evening: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming.” For our alarm really did sound! What a day!

Kevin did treat me to a nice dinner afterwards. It was the best part of this crazy birthday.

As you might imagine with my days in local church pastor land drawing to a close, I've had a lot of packing to do. I've been sorting through books, papers and sermon files over the past several days. And in doing so, I've discovered all sorts of treasures, as you usually do when you begin to pack. Books I forgot I had from seminary. Extra copies of book studies to send to friends who might enjoy them. A letter from my grandmother lodged in the jacket cover of a book (who has been deceased over 7 years!). And also several CD and DVDs of ministry related files and activities.

I've been tempted to stroll a bit down memory lane this afternoon as I've tried to figure out exactly what these DVDs, in particular are of. Who cared if I was behind schedule on the packing!

ordinationAnd, I'm glad I did. For, what I jewel I found in re-discovering my ordination service on DVD from November 2006. A shout out to Michelle Mesen for recording it! It took place at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC with important contributions from Amy Butler, the pastor, several seminary friends including Anna Kate Ellerman Shirley, Abby Thornton and Sarah Jobe as well as head of the DC Baptist convention at the time, Jeffrey Haggray, my colleague from my first church, Charlie Updike and my parents too.

As I watched this service (which I hadn't viewed in many years), I couldn't help but notice the look of terror in my eyes as words poured over my life and call to ministry.

I was excited yes, about FINALLY being ordained. But, I wasn't quite sure what I was getting into. I came from a ministry family. I knew the toil would take on my life, my schedule and any future family members I added to my household. I knew I wasn't really as holy as everyone made me out to be that day. I wasn't sure how to keep pace with this emotionally draining vocation. Yet in spite of myself, I knew, though, I wanted to be in a church more than anything.

I remember the morning of my ordination I had a long talk with several seminary friends about my concerns: "I'm afraid my life is now over. I'm getting married to God today," I offered with tears in my eyes.

My friends were great, reminding me that indeed my life was not over. There's still be time for fun and holidays and new adventures even though they agreed, ordination is sort of like getting married to God (though not like our Catholic priest colleagues thank goodness!).

And so for the past six years, I've dutifully labored. I've supported two churches in associate and solo pastorate roles. I've preached a lot of services. I've planned a lot of funerals and wedddings. In doing so, I've learned much about myself, people and the role of the church in the world. People have loved me and I've loved them too. My theology has shifted and shifted some more. I've been brought back to center time and time again through the gift of colleagues.

In all of this, I wouldn't go back and change a thing. These first six years of ordination have been about serving the local church and the church has served me along the way too.

ordination3But, in January things will be different.

I hear folks commenting around me (when they find out I'm leaving my church), "I can't believe YOU are giving up your church." Or, "What a waste that you aren't going to be in ministry."

Such sentiments sting a little because they aren't true-- though of course my landscape of ministry is changing.

Hear this: I still am a big fan of the church. I still believe in its purpose in the world. I still will call myself a Rev. and seek to use my life in gospel pursuits.

Of course it is all going to look different soon. My calling has changed. I won't wear a stole and rise to a pulpit every week now. I won't plan worship for Lent this year. I may not make as many hospital calls.

But, I am going to still be a minister. I don't know if I could ever stop.

Someone asked me the other day, "Are you afraid of the future?"

And the answer is no.

It took me a LONG time to get to this place. But with every book I pack today, I really feel ok. The details of the ins and outs of the future life I will be creating with Kevin are sparse (I can't even tell you where I'm going to live in six months), but I realized today that I'm not afraid. I feel the gift of calling.

And in calling, I know we'll figure it out (though of course I'll have those days like everyone else when I'll cry about it). In due time, I know the Spirit will make things plain. I know I'll keep studying, learning and preaching somehow. And, most of all I will live into writing as a vocation in the upcoming season. In fact, what I get into next might just be more fitting of the person I was created to be-- who knows?

Above all, I no longer have the fearful look in my eyes I projected at my ordination service six years ago-- even though several in my life think I should be MORE scared now. God's calling is messy. Yet, it is also one of peace. This I know.

I'm glad I stumbled upon the DVD of my ordination service today. What a gift to remember and gain perspective.

Excuses, Excuses: I’m Afraid  Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

As we end our “Excuses, Excuses” sermon series today and thus our discussion on what can hold each of us back from relationship with God—I think we’ve saved one of the most important excuses for last, an excuse that all of us struggle with regularly. And this is it: we are held back from the new horizons, possibilities and dreams that God has for us because we are afraid. We are afraid of the unknown. We are afraid of losing what we had in the past. We are afraid of what we cannot control in the future.

We all know about fear because fear is something that each of us deal with if not every day, regularly.

Albert Hitchcock in fact once said, “Fear isn't so difficult to understand. After all, weren't we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It's just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.”

No matter who or what is the big, bad wolf in your life, this fact unites us: we all have fears that keep us back from God’s best for our lives. We won’t start new relationships because we’re afraid of getting hurt.  We won’t apply for new jobs because we fear we won’t get them. We won’t get out of bed on some days because we fear it won’t be better than the day before.

We fear losing the approval of those we love. We fear being exposed for who we really are. We fear making really big mistakes. We fear loneliness. We fear poverty. We fear fear itself, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said.

In our Old Testament lesson for this morning, we encounter a woman who like us wrestled with fear but courageously preservers—modeling for us a different way of being with our “I’m afraid” excuses.  Esther is this woman’s name. And although her name might sound familiar or at least maybe sometime you’ve seen it in the table of contents of your Bible—few of us really know the story of her life and why this particular tale ended up in the scriptures in the first place.

As the story goes, Esther was a young girl, an orphan of Jewish descent who was taken in by her older cousin Mordecai when her parents died. Her adopted father, Mordecai was a descendant of those who were captured when Jerusalem fell to Babylon (and thus went into exile) about 100 years before.  However, since the Babylonians fell to the Persians, Mordecai, Esther and the other Jewish people are now living under control of this new king, Xerxes.  And life isn’t easy living for the Jews as a member of the religious minority in the primarily secular culture. If life wasn’t bad enough under the Babylonians, now they were controlled by the Persians. And in this environment, we know nothing else about Esther other than what chapter 2 of Esther tells us that she “had a lovely figure and was beautiful.”

But, change is brewing in the nation. Much like the tale we might know from British history—where King Henry VIII gets tired of his first wife and divorces her for no good reason other than he wanted more children from a younger virgin wife, so goes the days of their lives in the Palace in Persia. King Xerxes divorced his wife, Vashti and seeks a new bride. The king makes quite a show out of the affair, welcoming a contest to see what young woman attracts his attention the most.

Mordecai encourages young Esther to participate and also forbids her to tell anyone at the palace her true nationality. Esther was to just blend in, not overly mention that she was of the tribe of Benjamin.  And, as Esther goes through the vetting process, she rises to the occasion, attracts the favor of the King and wins the contest. Soon she’ll be made to be the new Queen!

Meanwhile, Mordecai begins to get into some trouble, especially with Haman, the grand vizier to the king.  Mordecai finds out that two of the men in the king’s court are plotting to kill the king and sends word through now Queen Esther about the plot. The king executes the two men and Haman is furious.  He feels that Mordecai, a common man has superseded his position as right hand man to the king.

The best way I can describe it is this: you ask your supervisor’s boss for something instead of going directly to your supervisor and then your supervisor has a chip on their shoulder forever more about you. But, instead of getting over his attitude—and taking a time out for a reset, Haman takes matters into own hands. We read in chapter 4 that he gathers together a group of people to take not only Mordecai’s life but the lives of his tribe, the Jews.

So, what a quandary Esther and Mordecai find themselves in as they learn about Haman’s plans.

The remnant of Israel left in Persia—the people said long ago to be God’s beloved people—soon are about to face a genocide, unknown to them. The only two folks who know about it are Esther and Mordecai. And the only person who can do something about it is truly Esther, the Queen. So, you think she should just go talk to the King about this, don’t you think? But there’s a catch. Yet, let’s remember what happened to the last queen, Vashti. When the King was angry at her and found out she’d deceived him, Vashti was fired on the spot via a royal decree. Esther had not come this far in life—rising from orphaned girl to life in the palace—to throw it all away right now!

I can imagine there was much fear as Mordecai and Esther began to talk through all of this resting on their shoulders. Something needed to be done, but what if it cost them their lives? What if they couldn’t come up with a plan that worked? What if what they tried to do made the situation worse? What if?

Fear, at this juncture could have easily robbed Esther of her place in history, her moment to shine, and her opportunity to be God’s instrument to protect a group of people in need of someone to watch out for them. Fear could have kept Esther locked into a position of deceit. Fear could have stopped God’s light from shinning forth in this dark situation.

But it didn’t.

Esther, laid down the excuse of “I’m Afraid.” And, instead she embraced the opportunity to do her part, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to recognize that God had given her this moment in time to be fully herself.  For though we know that while there were apprehensions on Esther’s part, Mordecai encourages her in chapter 4, verse 14 with these famous words, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Do you, get it, Esther? Do you really get it? God has put you in this position for such a time as this!

One of my favorite books is The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom.  It tells the courageous story of Corrie and her sister and father, living in a small town in Holland during the time of World War II, taking the great risk of hiding Jews in their home knowing that these acts could one cost them their own lives.

In describing her upbringing and what brought her to this point in her life of feeling as if such an “I’m not afraid” type of attitude came over her, Corrie tells this story from her childhood:

Corrie, as young child, was upset thinking about her father dying someday. It made her quite upset as it would any child who loved their father very much. As was his habit, he sat down at the edge of her bed to tuck her in.

“Corrie,” he began gently, “when you and I go to Amsterdam – when do I give you your ticket?”

Corrie sniffed a few times feeling overcome with the emotion but gathered up enough courage to answer her father’s question, “Why, just before we get on the train.”

“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t rush ahead of Him. When the time comes…you will look into your heart and find the strength you need – just in time.”

So also was true, I believe of Esther at this juncture. At just the right moment she knew what she had to do.  And, though the word “God” is not mentioned anywhere in the book of Esther, making it the only one of its kind in all of scripture—we clearly see the leading of the divine at work. God is preparing and leading Esther for exactly the role that has already been prepared for her to play in this story.

Look with me at chapter 7. The plan is in motion—Esther seeks the perfect time to speak on behalf her people to the king, throwing a party in his honor. And at this party, look with me at verse 3 to see what Esther says to the king, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people.”

Without backing down, without letting her fear control her, Esther boldly stands up and uses her position to ask for mercy not only for herself but for everyone else whose lives were in danger.  The king grants her request, and the gallows that were originally built by Haman for Mordecai were now used for all those who plotted against the Jewish people, unfairly.

Sigh. What a relief! The king showed Esther favor! All was well.

As we process this story, what I think is most remarkable about Esther is the fact that freedom for her and many others comes in the telling the truth. What? What did this sweet little girl need to tell the truth about?

If we go back earlier in the book, we realize that Esther was not this young woman’s given name. Her real name was Hadassah—a Hebrew word connected to the meaning “darkness.” Esther became her royal name which scholars say is related to the Hebrew verb “to hide.”  Thus, by taking on the name “Esther” she was choosing a life of deceit.  She was hiding her true identity. She was hiding hoping that no one knew where she came from. She was not fully being herself. She was Jewish, a foreigner, not being honest about being an outsider leading the king to believe that she was one of them.

Scholar Amy Oden puts it like this, “Ultimately deliverance comes through claiming Jewish identity. Esther takes a great risk in revealing her true Jewishness, through Mordecai points out that she is sure to die either way. Nevertheless, once reveled, the king responds favorably and the Jewish are saved.”

Ah! The story is making more sense here, isn’t it? Esther is a girl who many of us certainly could understand. For we often don’t tell the truth about who we are either. We make up that we were little league champions when we only got a trophy for being on the team. We make up the fact that we were born to a mother who graduated from Harvard, when she only completed Harvard high school. We make up the fact that our boss gave us a promotion last year when what we really mean by last year was 10 years ago. And we say all of these things out of fear!

But, Esther, changed the course of her life. How? She told her truth. “Hey, everyone, this is who I am. I’m Jewish!” And, God blessed it.

And doesn’t this just cut to the heart of what our fear is really all about. We are aren’t truthful in our words, in our actions or in our intentions because we are afraid if people knew us, if they really knew us then, our lives might radically change. We might not be so highly regarded. We might not win this award. We might not advance in our career. We might never find anyone to love us as we hope someone special would.

But, the witness of Esther and the countless other stories we’ve studied together this fall, encourages us all otherwise. Because what has been the common theme throughout this entire series?  We can lay aside ALL our excuses because to God all of them don’t amount to much. We are loved in our questions. We are loved in issues with organized religion. We are loved in our negative impressions of ourselves. We are loved in all our deficiencies. And today, we are loved in our fears, or even when we’re trying to hide the truth. But, instead, we are invited to come out from behind whatever bush or tree we are hiding behind and come into the light of God’s love for us.

Because we need not use the excuse of “I’m afraid” because we don’t have to fear; we just don’t. Freedom comes in just laying ourselves out for God to use, even in spite of ourselves.

So, my friends, what is the story of your life that you need to tell today? What is the secret that you need to bring forth to the light?

Let us simply not be afraid anymore to tell the truth. Esther wasn’t. And we don’t have to be either.


When the World Doesn't Look the Same

Easter 2012: Mark 16:1-8

I don't know if you are like me, but when I make my choices in entertainment, especially in movies, one of my favorite weekend pastimes, there is only major requirement I have.

And that is: I like a good endings. I hope for  loose ends tied up. I want an ending where I feel like the story I've invested my 10, 12 or in some cases $15 was well spent. The alternative to this often is frustrating isn't it?  Investing hours of your time into a storyline, only to be disappointed in the end that you don't know what happens!  Stories that don't end in the imprisonment of all the bad guys, kissing and making up for all the "they are so perfect for each other couples" and the most hopeless of characters coming to their senses and making some good choices: I simply don't like them.

We go to movies to escape the drudgery, the monotony and the unsettling parts of our lives and so "happy endings" in somebody else's life seem to be such a big part of it. Without all plot lines settled in the end, we feel gypped.

In the same spirit, if we came to church this Easter morning hoping for a proclamation of the gospel where all was well in paradise, where we get the 100% perfect happy ending that we've been waiting for throughout the Lenten season, I have sad news for you.  In Mark's account of the resurrection story, we don't get it. We are left with a cliff hanging end of unforeseeable proportions. Without some further exploration of this text, we might feel like we are missing our Easter ending too.   

Though we read of the stone being rolled away, Jesus not being in the tomb and the angel appearing to the women saying, "Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here" which calls for us to shout words of joy, "Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed" Mark's account gives us no tidy ending. In fact, we are left with response that most preachers like to avoid at the end of verse 8.  The women, who heard, the news, "went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

Though there's this amazing, all-inspiring story of Jesus not being in the grave and an angel, yes dressed in a white robe telling Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome that Jesus was not there.  . .

And though the good news that Jesus had been predicting all along in his years of teaching and preaching-- that yes, I'll be crucified but on the 3rd day, I'll arise from the grave-- is coming true . . . Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed).

And  though the women are told specifically in verse seven, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you" and are given everything they need to take the next step . .

Scripture tells us that the women do nothing. They do nothing. For it is in terror and amazement of what has happened that these women say nothing.

Jesus does his part. The angel did his part. And the women were given the opportunity to respond and follow the orders. But they don't.

And for this reason, all seems lost. All seems ruined. How about this story for a happy Easter, celebration! It is a real downer, right?

Seems like a complete sour kind of ending doesn't it?

Such is why countless translators through the years have sought to insert an alternative ending to Mark chapter 16. If you have your Bible with you open it to Mark 16 now (or if not make a note to do so when you go home today). What you will notice is the presence of section of scripture that is known as the "alternative ending."

And though most of Bible translations contain these sections, almost all Biblical scholars agree that the addition of Jesus' resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, to the two believers traveling along the road, the giving of the Great Commission and the ascension story were all most likely added 200 years later. For none of the earliest gospel manuscripts contain them.  In fact, if we study the original Greek as it flows from verses 1-8 and then verses 9-20, we find distinct changes in tone and tense of verbs. All in all, in all thoughtfulness, we can assume that Mark meant to end his gospel at verse 8.

But what a shame! It would be so much easier to have verses 9-20 to get the happy ending that we all crave.  It would be nice to have the later commentary on the story because it wouldn't force us to talk about resurrection in terms of how the women experienced it-- in terror and amazement.

It seems so un-church-like doesn't it to think about Easter in this way? Shouldn't have the women been shouting, "Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!" to all their friends? Shouldn't they been overjoyed to share Jesus, their teacher wasn't dead? Shouldn't have they been able to recognize in an instant how this proclamation was going to change their lives-- for if Jesus had conquered death, didn't that mean something good for them too?

But none of this was clear. None of it.

And although some Biblical commentators want to stop us at this point and make parallels between the response of the male disciples (all of those guys who fled the scene and didn't stay with Jesus at the cross) and the female disciples (saying, hey the women messed up too-- see women weren't up to the task of following Jesus either)-- I believe all of this thinking completely misses the point.

Because, really the resurrection was a lot to take in. More than these women could have ever imagined on the adventure of following Jesus.

I ask you this morning-- have you ever had an experience in your life that surprised the heck out of you? I mean, really, really surprised you in a mind-blowing, "I never saw this coming" kind of way?  An experience that maybe you hoped for or even prayed for but never thought in a million years would actually come true?

Well, if you have, then, I believe that you understand how truly bewildering it was for the women to find the empty tomb that early morn.

Sure, they'd heard Jesus mentioned this was going to happen. Sure, maybe even they'd been around at the home of Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus was raised. But, deep in their hearts, it was hard to believe that such was going to happen to their beloved teacher and friend. No, Jesus couldn't rise again. No way! Resurrection wasn't natural. No way. Death was a final event after all. We are born, we live and we die. It is just what human beings do. How could Jesus not be in the tomb?

Eyes crusted over. Hair uncombed. Shoes on but going through the motions of walking yet not quite sure where they were going.  Tears stains still on their cheeks. Tears in their eyes ready for water works to pour at anytime as the simplest of words of memories ever-present to set them off again.  The flood of shame, of uncertainty, of anger of loss: why did this happen to their Jesus?

They were lost in a sea of unanswered questions, of last words that should have been said, that needed to be said. They were caught up in the power of grief as it came to strike them and sought to bury them too in pain that was more than they knew how to bear.

Of course they were in shock. So of course they were afraid.

One commentator even unofficially diagnoses the women with what we know in modern times as post traumatic stress-- both from the trauma of the crucifixion and of the jarring news to their tear stained faces that indeed Jesus was not there. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.  It was such good news that they just couldn't take it all end. The women were speechless.

If you happen to be a fan of YouTube, you might already be familiar with a video of Sarah Churman that has gotten millions of hits since its posting in September of last year. Sarah was born with a rare genetic deformity that means she’s missing the hair in her inner ear that transmits sound to the brain. She was fitted with her first hearing aid at age 2, but even with that technology she could only hear some vibrations and loud noises. She compensated throughout her life by becoming adept at reading people’s lips. She’d worked so hard to compensate in other ways; the thought of being able to hear just seemed out of the realm of possibility

But in late 2011, Sarah was fitted with a device called the Esteem Inner Ear Stimulator, an implantable hearing aid for the specific kind of hearing loss Sarah suffered. On the popular YouTube video, you can see a video of Sarah Churnam hearing for the very first time at age 29.

I have to say that it is quite moving to watch. As Sarah hears for the very first time her own voice: her laugh, her tears, the sounds of others around her, it's a reality she never could have imagined, not under any circumstances, not in any amount of time.  Not in her wildest dreams did she ever believe such would come true, but it does. And in response, she weeps. And weeps and weeps.

Imagine hearing for the first time the sound of her husband. Imagine hearing the chatter of your child for the first time.  Imagine all of this.

And when it happens, Sarah is stuck dead in her tracks for minutes, upon minutes. Smiling. Full of joy but paralyzed to move toward anything at first. Sarah's life would never be the same.

And, likewise, paralyzed in their tracks too the women who heard the news of the resurrection were overwhelmed too. Everything they knew, believed and staked their lives on? changed.

Resurrection of their Lord begged them to consider.  What if Jesus was the real deal: God with us? What if Jesus' healings all those years had really come from God?  What if the kingdom of God, the abundant life they'd be hoping for was real?

Resurrection clouded their view from what had always been. Resurrection shifted their gaze from their own pain to what God could do in their pain, how God could restore their broken spirits. Above all, resurrection meant they were going to have to spend some time re-learning the stories on which they'd based their life.

What if the end was not the end?

What if new life could come from the most unlikely of places?

What if God could be trusted to care, and protect and guide them their entire life through and beyond too?

And, what if God trusted them so much and all of the Christ followers to come-- like us-- to keep the story going?

What if the ending was not about Jesus saying or doing this or that, but people like us being a part of the world not being the same?

Then, if resurrection was real,  everything was going to have to change.  No more shrinking into the back of the crowds. No more taking the worst news at face value. No more being a second class citizen. No more being exclusive of people who looked just like them. No more.  In resurrection the world did not look the same.

And, though the ending of Mark's gospel is still an unresolved cliff hanger, so we want to ask ourselves, what did the women do next? How long were they afraid? How long did they not say anything to anyone? With our 2000 year plus perspective,  history tells us the rest of the story. And the rest of the story is that we know the story.  We know the story because eventually they did tell the story. And upon each telling and re-telling of the good news: "Christ is risen; Christ is risen indeed" the world never looked the same. We are living the story now.

I know this morning, I'm telling most of you a story that is not unfamiliar to you at all. In fact, you hear it every year. You've sure got Jesus is risen thing down. You know it well. You could recite it to a friend easily, just like I did with the children sermon this morning.

But, what I wonder is resurrection real for you, more than just a word that floats off your tongue in the spring time? I need to tell you today that resurrection, my friends, is not a noun and just an excuse to have a holiday celebrate, but it is a verb that asks of us action. And it is a verb that is meant to be inserted into the sentences of our lives not only on days like today but throughout all the moments of our lives.

We are called to action because of the gift of the resurrection. We are called to the action of being storytellers of the change. To be active bearers of this good story to our families to our friends, to our communities, to anyone who will listen.

At times, this story as each and everyone one of us experiences it, is going to overwhelm us. Sure, we might just have to be quiet for awhile in awe of what life altering news might do to our plans. Sure, we might even have to do some running away from time to time to get the  enormity of emotions out of our system so we can begin to act on what we see and feel.

But, regardless our call is to tell. Our call is to be the story. Our call is to keep writing and writing the chapters of the gospel tale so that the goodness of Jesus Christ that we've experienced it can be experienced by others too.   

Today: I tell you because of the resurrection, we've got chapters to write together, we've got a story to finish. Come again next week because we've got to live out resurrection together.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed!