Embracing Failure: Why the Church Needs to Quit Worrying about Dying

While on vacation, I thought it might be helpful to revisit this post. Enjoy!


Your pal, Derek

My Dirty Secret

I have a secret fear. I don’t like to talk about it, because I find it embarrassing.

I’m afraid of looking stupid.

I don’t like to be laughed at. As a professor, I operate with a low-grade fear that at any moment one of my student’s will pipe up and say, “That’s not correct, what you said.”

I teach World Religions–mostly the big five: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I’m fine with Christianity, and Judaism to a lesser extent. The other three, though …

I’ve taught the course so many times that I maintain a fair comfort-level. But when I get into a tradition that’s not my own, I realize how much I don’t know. It can get pretty nervy.

I had a student one time who had been a Buddhist monk. I found that out, of course, just as we reached the unit on Buddhism.

Really? It already feels like I’m doing this without a net. Now, you’re going to tell me you know this stuff better than I do? How am I supposed to teach this stuff in front of you?

I told him to jump in if I got it wrong. (I hope my commitment to education surpasses my fear of looking incompetent.)

He was really nice about it—corrected me only a couple of times.

As a pastor, my recurring nightmare is that I show up to church on Sunday morning, everybody’s waiting for the processional—when I realize I can’t find my sermon. I look all over the place, growing more and more embarrassed by the moment. As I scramble around, the panic grows, and I can feel the disapproving looks joining together in some great meta-expression of disappointment, as if to say, “Yeah, we knew it was only a matter of time before he screwed up on such a grand scale.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that dream. After those dreams, I realize how much I have invested in wanting to appear omni-competent. Always ready. Never makes a mistake. Mr. reliable.

Looking stupid is something I assiduously try to avoid. I don’t like to fail.

But it happens.

It’s my dirty secret.

Failing in Church

The church, which ought to be a place where the penchant for failure is readily recognized, often has the same aversion to failure as individuals. This realization seems odd, since the church has traditionally understood itself as a reception hall for failures—which is to say, sinners, those who’ve failed to hit the target. The whole concept of grace centers on the idea that when we sing “Just as I am, without one plea,” whatever else we mean, we most certainly don’t mean, “Just as I am … as soon as I get it all together.”

I find it interesting, then, that the church often operates with such an institutional fear of failure. I don’t just mean failure in the large our-church-is-dying-and-we-don’t-know-what-to-do sense; I also mean failure in a much smaller we’d-like-to-paint-the-women’s-restroom-yellow-but-what-if-someone-feels-strongly-it-should-be-pink sense. On this account of the church, boldness and creativity emerge as threats to an ouchless existence. In fact, decisions don’t even have to be bold or creative to meet resistance, they just have to represent something different.

This paralyzing fear of failure is why the default answer for declining congregations is “no.”

“Should we launch a new ministry to homeless people?”


“The largest part of our congregation works evenings and nights. Could we have a service at some other time than in the morning?”


“There’s a Korean church who’d like to use space in our building. We’re not using it. Should we let them?”

No. No. No.

The interesting question is whether the relationship is causal or correlational between congregations in decline and congregations whose knee-jerk response to anything new tends to be “no.” That is to say, is continually meeting each new opportunity with a “no” a cause of congregational decline, or is it merely the case that congregations that tend to say no also tend to be in decline—but for different reasons? To put a finer point on it, is saying "no" as a default response, at its heart, a disease or just a symptom of disease?

I’m not sure I’m smart enough to untangle that knot fully, but I do think that confronting each new situation negatively suggests a persistent fear of failure. In sports, coaches call it “playing not to lose.”

I would like to suggest, however, that congregations that live with fear always gnawing at the edges hasten the very death that has them in such a constant state of panic. It’s a vicious cycle.

Get Used to It

I want to set down the paradoxical assertion that it’s only when a congregation can endure a load of small failures that it has a possibility of avoiding the largest failure—death. Conversely, a congregation that spends its life avoiding as many small failures as possible will often wind up dying earlier than it might have otherwise.

Failure is not an enemy to be avoided at all costs; it’s a guide to be embraced.

Notice I didn’t say that failure should be embraced because it feels good. I’m not saying that messing up isn’t painful; it is. What I am saying is that success only comes in the midst of a flurry of failures. Failures help you to refine the field of possibilities. This is true for individuals; it’s true for businesses; it’s true for athletes, musicians, people who play Sudoku; and it’s true for churches.

All right, so opening an ice cream store at the North Pole wasn’t such a great idea. So what? If the question is “What do we do next?” you’ve already trimmed the range of possible options by at least one.

Maybe that Death Metal service wasn’t such a good fit for your country club neighborhood. Now you know. If it teaches you something about who you are, and where your gifts lie, and what kinds of things you’re able to do in the context in which you find yourselves—you’re now a smarter congregation. But just as importantly, you also know that you can survive decisions that don’t pan out. What is almost certainly a threat to your survival, however, is having three hour board meetings in which you painfully try to head off every possible failure, then wind up doing nothing.

Sitting on your hands is an option—one that many congregations have employed. But let’s not kid ourselves that the ministry Jesus has in mind requires nothing more than locking the doors and hoping that someone will magically bulldoze the neighborhood and build a sparkling new subdivision, filled only with young professional families.

Living like Jesus, really living like Jesus, is an outrageous act no sane group of people would presume to tackle.  As a congregation of Jesus-followers you’ve already taken a precipitous slide down the ladder of common sense. Get used to it.

Live Courageously

  • Think hard. (Brainstorm. Dream. Embrace the vision of a different future.)
  • Pray ceaselessly. (Why not bring God into the whole process?) 
  • Do something interesting. (There’s plenty of mediocrity out there mass-marketed as “safe for church.” Hint: Throwing out your hymnals and getting a “praise team” was still daring in 1988. Now it just looks like you think that if you wear fishnet stockings you can be Lady Gaga.)
  • Evaluate. Evaluate. Evaluate. (This is the part where you learn from failure. If a ministry flops, factor it in as you get back on the horse.)
  • If the timing wasn’t right, but everything else seemed poised to succeed, be flexible enough to try it again under better conditions. (The same idea may work next month, in the summer instead of the winter, or next year.)
  • If a decision doesn’t work out, don’t make the mistake of automatically shutting out the person who brought the idea. (Monday morning quarterbacking that takes on an accusatory or condescending tone disincentivizes creativity . . . from everyone.)
  • Bring young people into the process. (Let them try some crazy-sounding things. They need the experience, and the church needs the life and creativity they bring.)
  • For denominations: Try letting folks who don't ordinarily get to make the final decisions, make the final decisions. (It's less than helpful to bring Latino/as, AfricanAmericans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Women into the planning process, then just go ahead and do what you were going to do anyway.)

The gospel is first about failure and death—because it’s only losers and corpses who who’ve got nothing left to lose. Why a people who remember the failure of crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.

Embrace failure as a road to success—even God did.

Mary's Courage

By Dennis Teal-Fleming

It always fascinates me how much my church actually misses about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in most of its traditional devotion to her. I always dwell on this when the Feast of the Visitation comes up, as it did last week (May 31), because it's the beginning of a narrative that's been hijacked by powerful and well-behaved interpretive gatekeepers. You can only find this story of Mary's visit to her cousin, Elizabeth, in Luke's Gospel, which makes it suspect as an actual, "factual" event (read Luke's text here if you're interested). But, whatever the facts, the Truth of the story is pretty powerful, despite the way the story's been tamed by our institution of it.

Visitation follows Annunciation, also told only in Luke- the angel Gabriel's announcing to Mary that she will bear a son, the Messiah, and Mary courageously accepting this mission (Annunciation is celebrated March 25--go figure, 9 months before Jesus' birthday!). Something very profound becomes very clear with both of these feasts--Mary's Courage, in taking on a vocation from God that could have likely gotten her killed (having a child before/outside of sanctioned marriage); her courage in taking off, alone, as it's told in Luke, on a journey to see Elizabeth, who is also pregnant (though "legit", by her husband Zechariah), soon to give birth to John the Baptist (whose birthday's then celebrated less than a month later (June 24)).

So an unwed, pregnant teenager travels on her own to see her cousin. The courage, the strength that must have been great comfort to hear Elizabeth's praise of her (Gabe & Liz's proclamations make up the first part of the Hail Mary, in all its Eastern and Western variations). The story concludes potently, with Mary's Magnificat, calling on the God that she met through Gabriel, the One who knocks the powerful off their thrones, and lifts up the powerless; the One who dismisses the rich, and fills the bellies of the hungry.

Not the Mary I experience in much of the traditional church around here! Yeah, we tend to dress her up all nice and polite, much like we do with this crazy God we believe in, too. As I usually find in my work, the Truth constantly needs to be resurrected, recognized, again, for the first time....and the God who hides in the midst of all of this needs help to really be uncovered, revealed, to all who will only have the courage to look.

And so we call you, Mary, full of Grace, and Courage....

  • to help us speak, and live, of and by the Truth as we have encountered it, and not some bowlderzied version of it to appease the comfortable and powerful
  • to help us speak, and live, of and by this God that we have encountered, that is not happy with the way things are....that is ready to turn everything upside down....that is waiting for us to play the part He needs us to play, just as you did
  • If we, too, are only ready to have that Courage....

    ....pray for us, sinners, Holy Mother. After living the life that you did for Her, I know that God will hear you!

    Asheville Monastery- a Monastery In Place.... wilderness monasticism in the heart of the city

    Become You (Psalm 139)

    Sermon Preached at Tuesday Chapel at Methodist Theological School in Ohio as part of a three week series entitled “Silent No More” shaped around a re-kick-off of their Gay-Straight-Alliance November 8, 2011 by Rev. Audrey Connor (

    “Become You”

    Psalm 139

    I am not sure of all of the dialogue that went into coordinating all of the worships and speakers this week on campus... perhaps in some conversations, I might have overheard



    Shouldn't we leave this for-individual-churches-and-denominations-to-fight out?

    Why trouble the campus with this topic?



    This-is-not-the-time-in-the-seminary-to-tackle-such-a-thing-we-need-to-think-about...  you fill in the blank.

    Talking about sexuality in church requires all of us to come out of the closet of our own prejudices, fears, questions, and uncomfortableness so that we can say together in this sacred space:

    All of us are created in God's image – no matter our sexuality or identities.

    Dan Savage does not have a “lock” on the idea in his “it gets better” campaign.

    We are also here is because one of the main perpetrators of hate speech against lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and questioning people (LGBTIQQ) comes from us: our religious institutions.

    Some of you might say:

    but I am from a welcoming or open and affirming denomination

    - or -

    I'm open and affirming

    - or -

    or my church is special.

    This isn't my problem – it is THEIR problem....

    We all sit here together in a world rampant with homophobia. With suicides on the rise in the LGBTIQQ community, the institution of marriage still blocked here in Ohio, in a world where to be gay is okay as long as you sing and dance and make us laugh and not point to the sad injustices that exist in our world.

    All of us sit here together.

    Unable to hide from any of it as we listen to this psalm this morning... -------------------------------------------------

    You know when we sit down and when we rise up;

      you discern our thoughts from far away.

    You search out my path and my lying down,

      and are acquainted with all my ways.

    Even before a word is on my tongue,

      O Lord, you know it completely. (Psalm 139:1-4)

    For me, I am here after a long time of hiding -      Thinking I could evade myself -      or that I could evade god.

    C.S. Lewis likened following God’s call to a man in a boat who is rowing seemingly in circles. It is when he sees an arrow and follows it that he has what we might call a “born again” experience.  Lewis makes clear that first arrow is important, but it is not the last. After that first arrow, there are more arrows given that the person in the boat must continue to look for and follow.

    One of the first significant arrows in my life was in the decision to enter divinity school. It led in a fantastic experience where I was also able to see many more arrows along my journey.

    My first time coming to a seminary happened when I was about five or six. After working with youth at Northwest Christian Church in Columbus, my mom decided to take a couple of classes here at Methesco to be a better youth minister. She realized God had different ideas for her after a semester or so and was soon a full-time student and then ordained into ministry.

    You can imagine that since I had already been to seminary with my mom = attending Peanuts plays, going to her graduation, and playing with her classmates kids (those are my main memories here!), I felt I had already been there and done that!

    Ok – not entirely true, but I will say that the choice to enter seminary/divinity school was hard -- making sure I was not doing what everyone said to me: “i see you are going into the family business”....


    I did not want to follow anyone anywhere, but I did have this nudge…  And after much discernment and conversation prayer and more conversation… I ended up at Vanderbilt Divinity School – a good place for anyone still wrestling with a “nudge” from God. I fell in love with the course work, the ministries I participated in including summer missions, CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), congregational internship, and working in a congregation abroad. The arrow to serve the church seemed bright neon after my experiences as a student in Nashville.

    During my time there, I also fell in love with another woman.  I say “another” woman because she was not the first and she would not be the last.... I had found women attractive first when I was in high school. It seemed unnatural and I tamped down those inconvenient feelings and tried to stay away from women I might find attractive. Then, in college I met another woman who I felt attracted to again. Once again, a terribly inconvenient thing as the friend was very straight and I was not about to ruin that friendship. Since then, I had avoided close friendships with women. But as I began to take myself more seriously, I began to take all parts of myself more seriously – even the ones I did not want.

    The psalmist writes....

    You hem me in, behind and before,

      and lay your hand upon me.

    Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

      it is so high that I cannot attain it.

    Where can I go from your spirit?

      Or where can I flee from your presence?

    If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

      if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Psalm 139:5-8)

    Experiencing intense feelings about a woman while also living into my vocation helped me to see that those feeling were not bad. In fact, the intense love I felt was helping me to understand love between God and humanity …

    Even the darkness is not dark to you;

      the night is as bright as the day,

      for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:12)

    And as I wrestled with the darkness, in the darkness, I began to trust those feelings.  I stopped hiding or running. Maybe this is what “normal” people experience when they fall in love, I thought. Perhaps this is not a problem.  Maybe this means I am not straight at all and that is okay....

    It was a scary thing to think and even scarier thing to say aloud. I found a trusted counselor who listened without prodding or poking and then a friend who just reaffirmed her love for me... And instead of the world collapsing, I began to feel more happy and alive – not less.

    Maybe this is not something to run from.

    For it was you who formed my inward parts;

      you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

    I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

      Wonderful are your works; (Psalm 139:13-14a)

    My frame was not hidden from you,

    when I was being made in secret,

      intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

    Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

    In your book were written

      all the days that were formed for me,

      when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:15-16)

    When the Christian Church in Ohio ordained me into Christian ministry – three and a half years after the start of following a wonderful arrow from God at Vanderbilt, I did not have all the answers figured out but was confident God would be with me as I lived through them. I found myself on the steps of First Christian Church Bowling Green, Ohio promising to love God’s people and serve in the entrusted role of minister with the help of God.  I remember many things about that special day. One that stands out was when my mom presented a stole and said to me that she had been so fortunate in her ministry, and she hoped I had as many wonderful years in ministry in the church.

    With so many amazing ministry experiences directly in my rear-view mirror, I could only see possibility and adventure in the church that raised me up and taught me how wonderful it is when you work with others for the glory of God.

    I already accepted my first call as an associate minister in Knoxville, Tennessee – three hours east of my Alma Mater and close to recent grads and friends. The church hired me in large part because of my strong mission focus.  They wanted to be better at reaching out to those on their doorstep who were homeless and those in their neighborhood who were different than them.

    It was not an open and affirming church, but I reasoned that I was not entirely open and affirming either…  Well - I was affirming, but not open.  I remember sharing with the senior minister, Scott Rollins, my topic for my thesis at div school: “Why the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) should become Open and Affirming” in a one on one interview.  He did not flinch.  Instead, he shared with me how he had been taking the congregation’s spiritual leaders, the elders, through our denomination’s discernment process on that issue.

    I had no idea what was ahead, but all directions pointed to ministry. And all ministry I knew did not point to focusing on issues of sexuality.


    I came out to my associate regional minister that first year in Knoxville while seeking advice about how to integrate my personal and professional life. More specifically, I wondered how to do church camp with integrity. I did not want to feel like I was putting the camp in a bad position as a lesbian pastor in a camp system that had no policy about LGBTIQQ counselors. She told me not to worry about church camp – just be myself and come!  And she offered her friendship for the journey acknowledging there were no clear answers.  “The road is made by walking, my friend,” she said.

    I was outed to my senior pastor after six months in Knoxville and his response to this knowledge was a tongue lashing for not having shared earlier. Immediately, he tried setting me up with women, giving me advice on women, and be my most firm emotional and spiritual support throughout my time there.

    It was these friendships and more which supported me when I wondered why I was putting myself in a situation where I needed to date in secret, when I listened to church leaders share that our church was not ready to be O&A or that homosexuality was against the bible (they were always the minority).

    I could keep those people and those thoughts at a distance during that time in my life. And it worked on me.

    In those four and a half years of ministry, I learned a lot about transformation in a congregation as we worked with the Center for Parish Development.  I saw small progress being made with the Tennessee Commission on Ministry for LGBTIQQ ministerial candidates going through the process as I sat on that committee – in the closet.  I worked hard at my job doing Bible studies with the homeless and members of the church, starting two annual mission trips and local missions with the church, and developing a youth and children’s program.  And I learned to spend time in retreat and prayer through a Lilly funded program for new ministries: the Bethany Fellowship. Often, I heard through prayer on those retreats a nudging from God to stop hiding.

    And I chose what messages to receive from God.  And which to send back. I found myself talking back to God in silent retreats-

    Not yet. This isn’t the time.

    It could destroy your church

    It could destroy me

    It could destroy my best friend and mentor, Scott.

    Not now God

    Not yet.

    And I waited.

    And I learned.

    And I listened.

    How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

      How vast is the sum of them!

    I try to count them—they are more than the sand;

      I come to the end—I am still with you. (Psalm 139:17-18)

    I reasoned that the church I worked for was not O&A and neither was I. The denomination of which I was part was not ready to confront issues of homophobia and neither was I.

    And life kept on.

    Finances for an associate minister in my church were dwindling due to no other cause but long-standing attrition and perhaps too much reliance on past savings. While I continued to grow and slowly felt myself become more and more O&A as a person, I also grew more and more discord within in my calling in Knoxville. I began interviewing for the perfect job where I could be an “out” minister and continue this vocation in the church.

    And I would be patient.

    Then, on Sunday, July 27th, 2008, a mentally disturbed man walked into the Unitarian Church in Knoxville with a shot-gun in his guitar case, he took it out, and began shooting people while yelling hateful things during the children’s performance of Annie.  This particular morning, I was preaching and my partner opted to hear me instead of attending her regular service at that very Unitarian church where two people were killed and several injured before a member and hero wrestled the shooter to the floor. The man with the gun, Jim Adkisson, planned on being shot by the police and left behind a manifesto that he was motivated to kill by hatred of Democrats,  liberals,  African Americans, and homosexuals.  Apparently, his food stamps had been discontinued, and he blamed the liberals for the problems with the government not working as it should.

    O that you would kill the wicked, O God,

      and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—

    those who speak of you maliciously,

      and lift themselves up against you for evil!

    Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

      And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

    I hate them with perfect hatred;

      I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:19-22)

    There are things that happen in life with results that we cannot see without time. I could not see it then, but this event in our community had a profound effect on me.  I remember anger surging through me for the lack of solidarity with the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. How could this tragedy not move “moderate” churches to stand in solidarity with those groups who are marginalized? Is not the entire church charged with standing with the oppressed – why is only the Unitarian Church sharing boldly with the public its love and acceptance for LGBTIQQ people (The United Church of Christ congregation too!).  Adkisson was obviously disturbed, but the literature he left behind was common place in many homes: books by Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage. Adkisson's logic of hate as a response to social problems and his homophobia was not bizarre in a society with media that perpetuates drama, debate, and divisiveness between groups. His extreme actions were.


    At the same time, my attempt to find a church as an “out” minister was feeling futile. The church I served loved me but did not have enough money to support me. I was ready to leave as well as I outgrew their own brand of homophobia. But where would I go?

    Interview after interview pained me more and more as I tried coming out at various stages in the interview process.

    I also started to reach out the local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter in Knoxville and got to know the adults who were making a real difference in the lives of LGBTIQQ youth growing into themselves. I was so impressed with these kids with more courage than I had. And I heard over and over again stories echoed by these youth. Stories of violence, fear, hatred... The more I heard, the more I understood the misguided actions of Adkisson were being repeated over and over again all around us – through bullying at school, parents kicking children out, and churches connecting all the violence against LGBTIQQ to sin of LGBTIQQ persons, and churches just being church... had been silent...

    I had been silent.

    Search me, O God, and know my heart;

      test me and know my thoughts.

    See if there is any wicked way in me,

      and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

    I waited to hear God's call when it was convenient for me. I expected the church to keep homophobia at bay so that I could have the career that I thought God wanted for me.

    I had been silent.

    As we gather together, celebrating new hopes here in the Methodist School in Ohio for all the church to be one and to share the good news for all people through a re-formation of a gay-straight alliance, I have nothing to share with you all but my own prayer of authenticity and hope for us – the faithful - that we might have the courage to own those places in our lives and in our churches where we continue to struggle with homophobia and that we may have the bravery to do something about it.

    If you are here today because you are struggling to come out or not to come out or to go into ministry or not, know that you are not alone. There is no place you can run from God and you are fearfully and wonderfully made. While I am by no means a person with any answers, I am along for the journey. And I would be happy to walk with you.

    If you are here as one preparing for the ministry in whatever congregation or denomination, know that I am not alone. We are everywhere. We are in your churches, we are children, we are silent adults, we are elders, deacons, and we are often just outside the church, peering in and we are hungry. We are hungry for words of hope and encouragement and we are hungry for the knowledge that this is a safe place for us.

    In the last year, finding an open and affirming church allowed me to do other kinds of ministry that I could not do “in the closet”. I organized congregations to speak out for people who are lesbian,gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, questioning, and queer so that they know there are welcoming faith communities in my current city of Lynchburg, Virginia on National Coming Out Day this year and last. My personal belief is that many churches understand all sexualities and identities are welcome in God’s eyes, but they need help in proclaiming it so the LGBTIQQ can hear the Good News. It is slow going - this year our list expanded to a neighboring Lutheran Church, the local synagogue, and parts of Lynchburg College including the spiritual life center.  This has been a great joy to me personally and a wonderful way of building solidarity with those in the church most vulnerable to messages of self hatred.

    This is something that I can do as a clergy in the community and as a person who likes to organize things! Other people in our community started LGBTIQQ Bible studies and still others hold monthly gatherings at a local Unitarian church for all people looking for safe space.

    My friend Scott was not able to make our church in Knoxville open and affirming after I left for work in the non-profit sector. I never came out to the congregation while in ministry there, and with me gone, he tried hard. But most of the leadership disagreed that it was a good time to make those changes.

    He did not stay there much long after . There were many reasons, but this was a significant one. ------------------------------------- What I know about all of our churches is that there are no easy answers. When I hear anything that pretends that there is, I usually have trouble listening. People will say:

    It is a gay problem – or a straight problem.

    Or it is the problem of regions or conferences

    or congregations...

    its a lay problem or a clergy problem.

    Or a theological problem or cultural or biblical or whatever else.

    All I know it is a big problem – it belongs to us all

    It is not enough to be silent

    It is not enough to preach tolerance from the pulpit from time to time.

    It is not enough to simply SAY you are welcoming...

    I want to close with a prayer for us all as we listen for how God is knitting us together in secret so that we might come out as one people – God's people of love for all the world

    Search us, O God, and know our hearts;

      test us and know our thoughts.

    See if there is any wicked way in us,

      and lead us in the way everlasting.

    Take Courage

    Theologian Paul Tillich believed that courage and being were inextricably related. He writes: Courage as a human act, as a matter of valuation is an ethical concept. Courage as the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s being is an ontological concept. The courage to be is the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation. (Tillich, Courage to Be, Yale University Press, 1952, pp. 2-3).

    Tillich’s definition may sound a bit abstract, but he reminds us that courage is something that is expressed from the very center of our being in the midst of trying circumstances. We go on with life, despite the realities that press against us. As the Spiritual puts it: “Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved.”

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    The Darkness Has Not Overcome

    Jeremiah 31.7-14Psalm 147.12-20 Ephesians 1.3-14 John 1.1-18 ________________________________________________________________________

    When I was a child, I was terrified of the darkness.  I can’t remember when I first realized that darkness was terrifying, but I know that up until I was in junior high school I could not sleep at night unless I had a night light.  I can’t tell you what it was about the darkness that terrified me so.  We didn’t live in a dangerous neighborhood; we lived on a farm far from the violence we saw on the evening news.  We didn’t leave the doors unlocked at night.  My parents were always very intentional in bolting the doors as we went to bed.  There was nothing in the darkness that could harm me, yet simply the fear of the unknown was enough to keep me scared of what I could not see.

    I remember when I was about 12 years old I happened to be visiting the older boy who lived near us, since he was the nearest neighbor who was around my age.  He wanted to watch a horror movie, and though I was not a fan of horror movies, I wanted to be cool and accepted by an older peer more than I feared the violent images of a horror film.  We watched the film, and before it was over I was physically ill.  I spent several minutes in the bathroom as my body wretched in fearful agony and expelled my dinner.  I was crying as I walked home to my parents that night, in the dark, mind you.  It was a fearful journey, but I didn’t stop long enough to be scared by the darkness.  I only wanted to get home as fast I could so that I could be safe in the arms of my parents.

    I’m not sure I left our house for several days after seeing that film, and if I did, I was as skittish as a frightened animal.  If serial killers wearing hockey masks lived outside of my neighborhood, then I certainly had no desire to ever leave my neighborhood.  And so, I became a prisoner in my own home.  A prisoner held captive by fear.

    It’s not only children who are held captive by fear; institutions can have fears as well.  The church, like a little child in so many ways, is afraid of the darkness.  We are afraid of the world around us.  We are afraid of being rejected by those around us who might think that we’re religious nutcases.  We’re too scared to speak up when others are maligned and abused for fear we might also face such violence.  We are afraid to stand up against oppressive regimes and proclaim the truth of the Prince of Peace—that violence is never redemptive.  We’re too frightened to stand up for what is right, and good, and true, in a world that is becoming ever darker because we are afraid of the consequences.  We allow fear to take us prisoner, and in so doing, we fail to be the light of the world Jesus has called us to be.

    We cower in fear, while the Spirit of God dares us to move in faith.  The Spirit commands us to shine as light in the darkness.  And why shouldn’t we?

    We are children of a God who called creation into existence with but a word.  God spoke a word into the darkness of the primordial world and brought forth light in all corners of the universe.  We believe in a God who created a people from an aged, barren couple and through them blessed all the nations of the world.  We follow a God who heard the cries of God’s children anguishing under the oppressive hand of slavery in Egypt and raised up a ruler in Moses who led God’s people through the waters of the sea into a land of freedom, hope, and promise.  We listen for a God who spoke words of challenge and indictment through the prophets to the leaders of a nation who didn’t give a damn about the poor in their midst; a God who reminds us always that there are consequences for our failure to care for those in need.  We have been healed by a God who brought comfort those exiled in a foreign land; a God who moved kings and queens to restore a people to their land.

    We are the children of a God who has never been content to be separated from God’s creation; a God who violated the boundaries between heaven and earth, becoming part of the creation itself in the form of a tiny, fragile, vulnerable baby.  We follow a Savior, who though he was a humble carpenter from rural Palestine, dared to challenge the height of power and domination in the Roman Empire.  We worship a Lord who gave up his very life as a common criminal, crucified on a cross, in order to teach humans a better way.

    Knowing all of this, we still allow our fears to keep us from shining as light for a dark world.  We come to church every Sunday and sit in our pews, lulled into complacency by the familiar rituals of our faith.  This is familiar, this is comfortable, this is safe.

    We worship a God, however, who inspires not only warm sentimentality, but also awe.  Annie Dillard, one of my favorite writers, has written: The higher Christian churches—where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.  I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.  In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger.  If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.  But in the low churches you expect it any minute.  This is the beginning of wisdom.

    I am always reminded of Lucy’s question to the Mr. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when she was told that Aslan was a lion. “Is he safe,” she asked. Mr Beaver replied, “Safe?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”

    We are a bit like the people who were always asking Jesus for a sign to prove his identity.  Jesus reminded them that they had Moses and the prophets, what more did they need?  We, like them, want an assurance that if we’re going to risk something, that it won’t cost us anything.  That isn’t really risk is it?  I suppose it isn’t really faith either.

    Aslan, the great Lion King, could teach us something about the meaning of faith.  He offers his life to the White Witch in stead for Edmund, knowing that she will kill him.  He does so, dimly aware of a vague promise from before the dawn of time that when a willing, innocent victim gives one’s life in place of a traitor, death itself shall be denied.  Faith is stepping out and acting, uncertain of the consequences, but convinced that it is better to do something rather than set on the sidelines.  Faith is something which we lack in the church today.

    Think of the faith that was required for Jeremiah to speak the audacious words of hope we have heard today.  The Hebrew people had been in exile for decades, and yet Jeremiah dares to promise that God will gather them up and take them home.  Think of the faith that the author of Ephesians demonstrated when boldly proclaiming that God had blessed the church with every spiritual blessing under the heavens.  The church was a tiny, heretical sect of Judaism at the time; hated by both Jews and Romans alike.

    Our faith is a faith of bold, daring hope.  Our tradition is one of people who dare to look beyond the darkness of the world, and see a light shining in the midst of it all, and dare to proclaim that one person, one small band of committed followers can, and will make a difference.

    We cower in the shadows, fearing what the powers that be in the world will do to us, and yet we claim to follow One who has defeated the ultimate evil of an unjust death.  Our Savior boldly proclaims that he has the power over life and death, no more shall death separate God from God’s people.

    And yet, John dares to say that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  Here at this table, the Word that brought creation into existence, that became the light in the darkness, stubbornly shines still.  Here at this table, with an extravagant welcome to all, the Word continues to take flesh and dwell among us.  As Christ’s life was a beacon of hope in a world dark with oppression and despair, so our welcome of all to this table shines as an example for all the world.  This is life as God intends it to be lived.  When all people are invited to sit down at a table where each will have enough to satisfy the hunger within, then, and only then, will the reign of God come on earth as in heaven.

    May God give us the courage to step out and extend that welcome to all people, that we might be the light shining in the darkness of this world.


    --The Rev. Wes Jamison, 2nd Sunday After Christmas, January 2, 2005

    The Rev. Wes Jamison lives on a farm near Pulaski, Virginia, and is a minister-at-large for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.  He currently chairs the Open and Affirming Ministries team for GLAD (Gay, Lesbian, and Affirming Disciples) and serves on the Renewal and Nurture committee for the Virginia region.   He also works as a counselor with a social service agency.  He has been in the search and call process for almost four years now and has yet to receive a call.  In spite of the frustration and pain, he continues to believe that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot and will not over come it.