Hope

Joy Shall Not Escape Me

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

I am writing this post on June 30th, an interesting date in my life.  It was two years ago on this date that my wife of twenty-four years, the one to whom I had pledged to love “for better or worse as long as we both should live” told me that she no longer felt that way and wanted out of her vows.  From my perspective, her decision was sudden and unexpected.  It took me down a very dark and difficult path.  It was a journey that in the making of it I was not certain I would ever get through.  The days were long and the lonely nights even longer.  In addition, I had a crisis of faith that left me unable to do the work of a pastor which I had given myself to for twenty-five years.  Two years ago, June 30th marked the beginning of the most difficult time in my life.  My family fell apart and I was questioning whether or not I could continue in my life’s calling.

                Then, one year ago on this date, my son Christopher and I set out to move to Portsmouth, Virginia.  In between June 30th of 2014 and June 30th of 2015, I had recovered enough of myself and my faith to enter the Disciples of Christ relocation process, which is the way pastors and congregations find each other.  Fortunately, I received a call from a church not far from the eastern shore of Virginia.  When I accepted the call, my son, Christopher, asked if he could go with me.  He had been accepted into two different graduate schools to work toward a Master’s degree in mental health counseling.  But after four years of college, he said he was not interested in any more school at that point in his life.  He wanted to work at a gym and become a personal trainer.  I told him that of course he could come with me and try to do what he wanted with his life.  When we sat out on this journey, I wasn’t sure what the future held for either one of us.  I had not been in ministry for a year and was worried about whether or not my voice for preaching and my will for leading had returned.  Christopher had no source of income, only a desire to achieve a dream.

                Now it is June 30th 2016 and life is greatly different for me than it was two years ago.  I serve a congregation that has accepted me where I am at in life.  I feel very blessed to be with them.  I am continuing to rediscover my voice for preaching and the desire to lead in matters of the spirit.  I laugh with parishioners often and we were all laughing when my microphone was left on for the final hymn a couple of Sundays ago.  I do not make a joyful noise when I sing.  Two years ago I thought my laughter had forever left, but it has returned and I am thankful.  The church and I are looking forward to the future and what it holds for us together.  I have also met someone with whom I am developing a new relationship.  A retired firefighter/paramedic she was at Ground Zero in New York hours after 9-11 working to help save lives.  She’s a hero in my book.  Five years ago, she went through the same kind of marital break-up I did.  That we have found each other at this time in our lives is something for which I am very grateful.   Christopher is also doing well.  Two weeks after we moved to Portsmouth, he got a job at the local YMCA.  He works in the exercise room.  He teaches tennis lessons and exercise classes.  He has some individual clients he works with.  And after a year of study and hard work he became a certified personal trainer this week.  In addition to his work at the YMCA, he has a second job at the General Nutrition Center (GNC) and plans to go back to school this fall to take some business courses with the desire to manage and possibly own his own gym someday.  I heard him tell someone the other day that he loved his work at the Y.  I am happy for him and so very proud of him.

                The move has not been without some struggles.  I miss a lot of my Indiana friends – especially my bicycle riding group.  The pictures from our rides together come up on Facebook and I wish I was still pedaling with them.   I miss being just twenty minutes from my sister and her family.  My sister and I are the last ones from our family of origin and I wish we could spend more time together.  And I dearly miss my daughter, Michele.  She stayed behind in Indiana to go to college.  We text and talk every day, but my heart has a hole in it when she is not around.   Christopher is also discovering what life is like as an adult who has bills to pay and obligations to meet.  He has made some new friends, but I know he has also missed some of his Indiana friends during this time in his life. 

I wanted to write about my personal journey over the past two years for a couple of reasons.  First, I wanted to provide some hope to those who might be where I was two years ago, in the depths of despair.  If they happen across this post, I want them to know there can be a tomorrow that is brighter and fuller than the darkness and emptiness they know today.  I know that it is sometimes a hard word to hear, but it is a true one.  Joy can be found again, laughter can be rediscovered, love can be felt and happiness can be known.  Don’t give up.  Don’t become bitter.  Don’t think the darkness has the final word.  It doesn’t have to.

Second, I wanted to say that I don’t believe that all that has happened to me was part of “God’s plan.”  I don’t think God ever intended for my marriage to end and for me to have a crisis of faith that took me to a place that I had never been and didn’t know if I would make it back from.  I think God’s heart was grieved as deeply, maybe even more so, than my own.  I don’t think there is a divine plan that includes the illness of children, tragic deaths of loved ones or betrayal by people we trust.  What I do believe, is that I had enough residue of faith even in the midst of my pain that my heart was open to the grace God extended in new possibilities and new relationships.   God didn’t plan my journey for me, but God wasn’t going to leave me alone on the path life had dealt me.  With what little faith I still had, God stayed with me and through that sacred companionship I found what life still had to offer.  For that I am grateful.

Sometimes with my [D]mergent posts, or even in my preaching, I wonder if I share too much about my own life and journey.  I know there is so much more to life than my own story, matters of peace and justice and creation care.  Matters about which I care deeply and have given much time to.  Yet it is primarily in my own life and experiences that I find and know the Sacred One.  The One who empowers me to work on matters larger than myself.   I share my story with the hope that others can find that Divine presence in their own lives as well.  Two years ago, I thought my life had fallen completely apart and much of the life I knew indeed had.  But it is two years later and life is much different.  I would rather not have taken this journey, but I had to.  I had no choice. But I have endured and found again the grace and beauty that is Life.  Peace!

Staying With My Religion: Hope

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

This is the last in a series of articles that have been written concerning my decision to stay with the life of faith.  I titled this series, “Staying with My Religion: The Risk and Rewards of Sticking it Out.”  It has been written in response to a book by a former pastor called, “Leaving My Religion: The Risk and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”   After twenty-five years, this former pastor left the ministry, the church and his faith.  He felt that life “no longer worked for him.” His book has become a workshop and he recently led a sold-out session.  I don’t want this series of articles to be seen as a judgment upon this former pastor’s decision.  His story is his own.  I simply wanted to offer a different perspective. 

I have worked in congregations for nearly thirty years, and there have been a few times when I was ready to throw in the towel.  I have also had tragic losses in my own life and been present with many people in their own difficult circumstances.  Times when the shallowness of the simplistic answers offered by too much of the religious world become so easily apparent.  Times in which I have learned that a silent presence with one who is hurting may be the most powerful gift we have to offer.  Yet, neither those tragic times nor the difficulties of congregational life have led me to leave my faith behind.  They have led to periods of deep questioning in which I thought I might walk away, but I haven’t.  My faith is different than it was thirty years ago when I began in ministry, as well it should be.  But my belief in the Sacred and Holy continues to be central to who I am.  My trust that life has meaning and purpose, that there is a Reason behind it all, has only grown stronger over time and through my experiences.  For anyone who was interested, I thought I would share at least some of the reasons why this is so.  Not in judgment of the other pastor, but as an alternative.

I have written about what I call the Sacred Realities of love, joy, hope and beauty.  Realities that cannot be empirically proven to exist, but are the Realities that give life its deepest sense of meaning.  I also wrote about the importance of the community of faith as a place of both comfort and challenge, a place where our relationships help us to understand what it means to be fully human.  In ending this series, I want to point to religious faith as being a word of hope for our world.

In her book, “A People’s History of Christianity” Diana Butler Bass quotes Sojourners founder Jim Wallis:

From the perspective of the Bible hope is not simply a feeling or a mood or a rhetorical flourish. Hope is the very dynamic of history.  Hope is the engine of change.  Hope is the energy of transformation. . . . Between impossibility and possibility, there is a door, the door of hope.  And the possibility of history’s transformation lies through that door.

I believe that the message the church is called to share with our world is ultimately one of hope. Hope that the darkness of the ways things so often are, are not the way things have to be.  Hope that things can be different.  Hope that the people who live as enemies can live in peace.  Hope that the blessings of this world, which are abundant, can be shared with all in need.  Hope that every human being is treated with dignity and respect, for we recognize that all are created in the Sacred image.  Hope that selflessness can overcome selfishness, that love can overcome indifference, that understanding can overcome prejudice.  This is the hope-filled message of the church.  This is the gospel; that in Christ an alternative way to live has been shown to us, a way that shines light into the darkness. 

Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, “The Hunger Games,” has become quite a cultural phenomenon, especially now that the books are being made into movies.  “The Hunger Games” are a stinging critique of our society’s fascination with media, celebrity, and violence. The disparity between the “haves and have-nots” and the insidious nature of power also play a central role in the future dystopian society that Collins has created.   She holds a haunting mirror up to us so that we might see that our ways are costing us that which is most precious, our children.  

In her story about the country of Panem, there is a revolution that is beginning to take place, a dissatisfaction with the way things are is beginning to brew.  The leader and symbol of the revolution is a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen.   In the second book, “Catching Fire” it is decided by the President of Panem, who is invested in keeping things just as they are, that Katniss must be eliminated.  When he is asked why, the President responds, “Because she gives hope to the revolution.  Without her, they have no hope and the revolution is over.”  In this series of books, both highly popular and highly critical of our culture, hope is understood to be that power which can change things.  Hope can make a difference.  Hope can bring down the oppressive structures and create a more just society. 

I understand that the church doesn’t always live up to what it should be.  I know religious doctrines and dogma can often sound hollow amidst the complexities and tragedies of life.  I seek not to judge someone who has experienced the church’s failures and meager attempts to explain the unexplainable and then decided it isn’t for them.   I simply wanted to share another perspective.  I still find the life of faith, and life lived in the community of faith, to be a life of blessing and worth my commitment.  I am deeply grateful to be part of a tradition where we proclaim the hope that the power of love is greater, by far, than the love of power.   

I haven’t stayed with this life of faith because “it works for me.”  I actually find such a utilitarian approach to life to be very dangerous.  I have stayed with the life of faith because I believe in things that can’t be seen, but can experienced – love, joy, hope and beauty.   I have stayed with this life of faith because I believe our most important journey in life is toward becoming a more complete human being and this can only happen in the relationships of a community, a community that is about so much more than just “me.”   And I have stayed with this life of faith because I believe it is through our faith that we provide the hope of different possibilities to our world. 

These are some of reasons that I have stayed at it for the past thirty years.  And I plan to keep staying at it.  I hope that maybe something I have written over the past month has given you some reason to think about the place of faith in your own life.  I encourage you to stay with it.  I believe both you and our world will be blessed if you do.       

Learning Peace Talk Through Human Vulnerability

If you read Dmergent, I hope you also read the wisdom produced by the Raven Foundation.  This reflection is based on the rules of violence that Suzanne Ross wrote last week in her article titled, North Korea, Syria, U.S.: Violence Rules.  I hope you read it and absorbed it, but for those who did not here are the three rules of violence:  “Rule #1: Violence Escalates…Rule #2: Only good people use violence…Rule#3 Violence destroys goodness.”  Well I hope that intrigues those of you that did not actually read the article to go back and review these rules, which yes Rule #2 and #3 are in conflict. 

It is however this part that intrigues me the most for I know it to be true:

Humans pick violence up by immersion and so we are all native speakers. From Syria to Korea to Pakistan to Iraq to the U.S., the language of violence is so natural to us that we couldn’t recite one of its “grammar rules”.
Sadly, ignorance of language rules does not diminish fluency. The odd thing is that if we stopped to learn the rules governing our fluency in violence, it would actually make us less fluent. Why? Because the rules of violence reveal an unpleasant reality: We don’t use violence; violence uses us. (Erickson)

It intrigues me because it is so true, but mostly because of my experience of teaching language and communication to my son who has profound communication delay as part of his autism.  This makes me think about how we learn things as a society, and I agree that language, be it spoken, written, body, and otherwise, is how we share our human society with the social other.  So it makes sense when Ross suggests there is a grammar to violence and therefore we need to find the grammar of non-violence and grace.

Therefore, a person with communication delay is not simply someone that not only cannot easily ask for their basic needs, they are delayed in socialization which is achieved by the imitation of the social other, (the adult).  We assume the draw to such language of humanity is automatic and thus “[…] take such a draw, such a movement, for granted, though of course it isn’t automatic, as is evidenced by autistic children, who lack precisely the attraction, the draw the movement toward an adult”[i]  This is where I see great hope.  The grammar of violence is certainly not divine, nor is it integral to humans, but somehow a result of the human reaction to desire, which I would add as Rule #1a, that is violence begins because of a real or perceived desire for the same thing, person, position, etc.

However, we can stop this violence grammar by looking carefully at how we learn it, and I believe there are unique situations that occur that can replace the grammar of violence.  I don’t want you to think my son is perfect, nor do I want you to think that as parents we are not frustrated, saddened, stressed, overwhelmed, and even angry at the difficulties of having a child with autism, by sharing stories of my son.  I share these stories because I have learned about the divine through being a parent, not unlike all parents, and yet with a unique situation based around language.  He does not suffer, save from the pressures from society, and at this time he really doesn't get it so he goes about happy with his unique and rudimentary communication.

So last Halloween we were at a party, where my son was known by most of the children.  There were two new children among the group, and I observed this interaction.  A new boy who was 5 or 6 tried to interact with my son, and while all the other children were used to him not responding or interacting much, this boy noticed my son playing with an inflatable pumpkin.  Well the new boy took it from my son, but as usual AJ did not really care it was gone as he was not engrossed with it (it would have been different if it was a book or letters), and it was obvious the fact that AJ did not react was a disappointment to the new boy.  So much so that he held that inflatable pumpkin for almost an hour, even once putting it on his foot as he played a different game.  My son did not understand the grammar and diffused it by not desiring the object.  This may seem small compared to wars between states, but it demonstrates to me that violence is a learned behavior, and my son’s delay makes it clear we can teach children to not escalate to violence over a desired object that could possibly be shared, or like in this case, not actually desired because the social other does.

So again my son is not perfect and he does get angry.  Well, it was about a year ago when AJ hugged for the first time because he wanted to share the emotion of happiness.  He had played hug as a game, but it was very different the first time I took him to a fitness event with his Headstart class, specifically the huge parachute.  I did not recognize it as a bonding hug on the first time, but it was obvious the 2nd and 3rd time.  It was wonderful.  I suspected that sometimes he was hugging based on other emotions as well, and that become obvious at a Labor Day Picnic.  There was a little girl a year older than him, who was playing with him, and she got in his way, so he hugged her.  She said “He hugged me, He likes me!” with great enthusiasm, however it was obvious to the adults that could see his face that he was angry.  Yet he reacted in the same way that he would when he was happy. 

I don’t want to think we should simply celebrate autism as a better way of thinking or being.  Trust me, it is frustrating, difficult, expensive, and yet it allows us to see a more about humanity’s language of violence and the sacred because it allows us to reflect on humanity’s vulnerability.  In this case we see how delayed communication shows us the way toward the grammar of non-violence and away from the grammar that we take for granted and uses us to perpetuate more violence. 

It is in this vulnerability we can know what God wants for humanity, and often the most vulnerable humans can demonstrate that all of us can actually learn a new grammar.  A grammar of a vulnerable communion, where hugs are the answer when you are glad, angry, sad, happy, or mad--for it would demonstrate a language of love and non-violence. 

This is the language Jesus gives us Christians, by demonstrating vulnerability and non-retaliation when he appears to the twelve and says, “Peace be with you,” and I cannot help but think he hugged them with his scarred hands even though they scattered and betrayed him.  

AJ exploring self in mirror. 

[i] Alison, James. The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. New York:  Crossroad, 1998, pages 27-28. 

Hope in Wholeness

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="213"] Photo by Tim Graves[/caption]

Article by Tim Graves

When I get too focused on protesting or on politics, I become discouraged and cynical. I see evil behind every human frailty; I see conspiracies at every turn. I see a battle of good versus evil. Eventually, I become a miserable person. I feel betrayed, impotent, and angry. Hopelessness descends. Despondent, I give up.

Focusing on the One whose love envelopes me and connects me to each grassy blade, each sea anemone, and each human being, results in optimism. I find hope in wholeness. That wholeness -- that for Christians emanates from the Table set by Jesus and manifest in love that overcomes death -- is powered by the extravagant love of the Divine. When I focus and respond to that loving grace, I am compelled to act for justice, love with abandon, and strive to be my best self. 

Attuned to the divinity that coarses through you, me, and all of creation, I see see goodness despite human frailty. Filled with hope, I strive to do my part for the whole knowing that I am not alone. Goodness is within every annoying bureaucrat, murderer, and abusive parent. When I respond in love, love multiplies and ripples powered by the One. 

At its core this is the Good News, love always wins in the end. It is more powerful than death, conspiracies, or greedy politicians. When we respond from the divine love within us, justice will "roll down like waters, and righteousness an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5: 24 NRSV Read this passage in context.

Identity Crisis

I have not been back to my alma mater’s campus in 13 years. The year I graduated college, the school was gifted more land and some buildings from a closed plant and since my graduation the campus size has grown to more than twice its original size. Buildings have changed functions and many have been remodeled and renamed. In talking with a few alumni today, including family members, the first thing everyone said was “My, how it has changed,” and expressed some disappointment. As I walked around campus and recalled some wonderful memories, I realized that most of the greatest memories were not specifically about the place but about the people I was with at the time, friends that I have kept in touch with as well as friends who have slipped away. Professors who have since retired and staff who have moved on—all the relationships I made in the four years I was there.  It is not the same, but the experiences and memories will stay with me.

I also visited the church I attended during my four years of college.  It, too, has changed—there was a building expansion and remodel after I graduated.  The sanctuary has added a stage and things have been moved around.  It is different.  Many of the people I knew have passed on, but there are still familiar names.

We all know we have mistaken the church for the building, and we continue to do so in mistaking the church for the institution.  People complain about change. Things are different. They aren’t how they used to be.  The truth is, they never will be the same, things are always changing, and most of the time, things were never exactly the way we remembered them, anyway.

In order for the church to truly be transformed—or be the church, the body of Christ that Paul experienced—we have to get away from building and institutional identity. The church is the ecclesia, the gathering of people. It is not the building. It is not the four-board structure with a moderator.  It is not the Pastor’s Bible Study on Sunday morning.  It is not the Fellowship Hall or the kitchen or the sanctuary.  Church happens in those places, but they are not the church.

In order for the church to continue to exist we must move away from this mistaken identity.  Otherwise we will always complain about things changing, especially when our roles within the institutions change and the building is changed.

Relationships, however, are things that are always changing every time we interact with someone. Friendships change and grow, sometimes they grow apart. Families change and grow. We expect this. We expect people to grow up and grow old. We expect friendships to change and strain and grow.  We take this for granted. At times we are surprised when a friendship grows cold or a relationship ceases, but I don’t know anyone who expects their relationships to always stay the same. We know that people change and grow.  However, we have put this expectation on our churches to stay the same.

Our relationship with God changes and grows.  We all experience transformation in relationship with Christ and do not expect to remain the same after we encounter God.  We hope to experience lifelong growth with God in our journey of faith.  But again, we put this expectation on our churches, to stay the same.

It is time to for us to let go of our identity as a place or a particular structure.  We are the church, ecclesia, the gathering of people.  When we remember this, we know that change will always come, and that it is welcome, it is familiar, and it is what is necessary for us to continue to grow.  Otherwise, if we remain committed to keeping our identity as a structure or building, we will continue to be disappointed, continue to sigh when something new happens, and continue to wish we could go back in time to the way things used to be.  We can be stuck, or we can grow.

Invisible Scars

Here is the last post in our series of “best of” articles for 2011, which first appeared on September 1.  It was written by J.C. Mitchell.  Enjoy!

I was walking my 3 year old boy, Anselm John “AJ,” into Headstart the second week of his program.  Another family was just paces ahead of us and I overheard the young boy say to his mother, “that boy is in my class,” and he turned back to say “Hi AJ”  and we kept walking. I knew that the young boy knew AJ would not respond.  I then heard the mom say, “I don’t think he is in your class” and the boy said “he is” and then she said sternly, “then why did he not respond?”  I came to that little boy’s rescue, “AJ does not communicate, that is why he is in this program.”  She responded, “oh.”

AJ is well loved by children.  There are those in church who always try to engage him and my favorite are those on the playground who met him for the first time and follow him around.  Often, they ask why he doesn’t talk and I would respond “he is two” (all the way up to his last birthday) and I should add AJ is quite tall for his age.  I feel the children understand that he is a very loving and fun boy.  He is bright as well, but he does not use words to communicate.  He is not great at eye contact or pretend play.  If you want to know a letter, he’s your boy.  There are also a growing number of words he can spell and he will count up and down, and ignore everyone in the room.  Nap time is a chore for the aides for he would rather recite letters and spell words and not do so quietly.

Many tell us not to worry, and I am pretty sure we the parents are not worrying, beyond the normal worry parents do, right down to checking on them before going to sleep ourselves.  A lot of people, who don’t know him well, tell us he will grow out of it, and I am sure he will, but it may take some special help.  I had special help for my dyslexia.  This week he is being tested by numerous professionals to determine if he is autistic.  I assume he will be “on the spectrum.”  I am fine with that, and I know he is fine with it, especially if he has a book with letters in it.

Church needs to be a place where we understand differences, especially differences that make us uncomfortable.  I realize from the numerous conversations I have people either want to ignore and deny it, or they want me to be confident it is going to be fine.  Both make me feel angst.  I want to scream, but I don’t--I am the preacher.  I would scream that we the parents mourn the loss of the idealized child and every parent will eventually have that experience (or at least should) let us have that experience.  It’s normal.  Or we know there is something different--we live with him, he has had some tests, let us have our new normal--yes it is fine, and he is himself.  The children are the ones who get it; AJ is different, but he is their friend.  The children see him as part of their group, even if he doesn’t talk to them, or play with them.  They are happy even if he only engages for a moment.  I remember one older child who never heard AJ say something, come running to my wife to tell how he said something, and they know to celebrate his progress and encourage it.  They are his best teachers.

I cannot help but think about how Thomas needed to see the scars to know the resurrected Jesus.  The theologian and sociologist, Nancy Eiesland, who died at 44 on March 10, 2009 was what we often label “disabled” from a congenital bone defect.  She would state that she would hope she would still be disabled in heaven.  "The reason, which seems clear enough to many disabled people, was that her identity and character were formed by the mental, physical and societal challenges of her disability. She felt that without her disability, she would ‘be absolutely unknown to myself and perhaps to God.’”(NYT March 21, 2009)

When Jesus appears in the locked room, He displays his scarred hands and His side to identify Himself. The disciples would have known Jesus' face and voice as this was their teacher, their friend, their Lord, yet Jesus displays his wounds. It must be important. He did not erase those wounds even though He conquered death itself. He comes to the disciples to identify himself as scarred and perfect, and us today as well.  Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon the disciples directly.  The church was created and "called-out” with this breath.  Thus Jesus is telling us who we are with His scarred hands. We are the Body of Christ with our own scarred and perfect bodies. We participate in the resurrection with our differently able bodies, though not all of our differences are visible.

For my son is perfect even if he struggles with eye contact and communication, even if he ends up “on the spectrum.”  There may not be a physical scar, but he is differently abled.  How as a church do we recognize that our Lord not only showed His hands to show who He was to Thomas, but who we, the followers, are as well.  Like I said above, I came to the rescue of the little boy, who knew AJ was in his class, who knew that AJ would not respond, who said hello with the hope AJ may engage him, for the boy that will probably, among others, help teach AJ to communicate better.  I rescued this boy who was being questioned by his mother by being blunt: “AJ doesn’t communicate.”  I did not come to the rescue of my son.  He will be perfect, if we as a church and society can understand what children understand.

Vocabulary & Grammar Is Important for "Grace"

"Hopefully" in Irish is “le cuidiú Dé;” directly translated it reads, "with the help of God."   I do not speak Irish fluently, but I do have some sayings, and there are some I say regularly to my son.  For instance, when I put him to bed I say “Oíche mhaith, codladh sámh,” which means “good night, sleep well.”  He has heard it often in his three years.  I am confident he knows it as a blessing for sleep, but honestly, as he is delayed in communication and has autism, we truly do not know when he understands English, Irish, or Choctaw (he attends Choctaw Headstart). We concentrate on his English, but it is wonderful that he is exposed to the language of our ancestors and the language of people native to this area (well, the “relocated” area).  I know he is delayed in communication, but vocabulary is not his issue.   He can certainly learn words in multiple languages and transfer between them, why should the primary colors be only known as “red, yellow, & blue,” they can also be known as  “dearg, buí, & gorm” or “humma, lvkna, & okchvko.”   Communication is not simply vocabulary, and that is what my son’s teacher, aids, speech therapists, and parents are teaching him.

The church, on the other hand, needs vocabulary and grammar lessons.  We use some very religious words, but we use them incorrectly (I am talking to pastors here).  Atonement, justification, faith, and sanctification are four words that come to mind.  Across the theological spectrum I hear pastors use words in such a way that undermines the meaning of the great word “grace.”  When that word, “grace,” is used everyone seems to know it is the love of God that we receive even though we do not deserve such a gift.  That is good news; that is the Gospel.  However,  when we (and I am certainly not immune) use other religious words such as justification or faith, we are not always clear what we mean, and we fail our vocabulary quiz.

We preach that God is the only one that saves us; God’s grace justifies us.  Simple, but then I hear someone point to actions one may do to be right with God; however, that is not as common a culprit, for they will make it clear that the good acts are in response to God’s Grace.  The most common culprit I hear is, “justified by faith.”  No longer does the word grace have any meaning.  If justification is determined by one’s faith, it is determined by human action, not the free gift of grace.  This may seem subtle, and I know that most who say “justified by faith,” preach grace and God as the only source, and thus will call this issue semantics.  That is the point--we must be aware of our vocabulary, our grammar, and our semantics when we talk, and especially, preach.

I believe that Joe Jones offers an important alternative, “I prefer to avoid the expression ‘justification by faith’ and use instead ‘justification by grace through faith.’ It is the grace of God that justifies, and it is through faith that we say ‘yes’ to that prior justification and begin to live on the basis of that justifying grace.”[i]  Hear the difference?  We maintain the meaning of grace, justification, and faith.

My son may need to learn to communicate, but as church we need to remember our grammar and vocabulary and how they work together. Once we get our vocabulary and grammar straight, I hope we can join my son and work on our communication.  Hopefully (le cuidiú Dé ) we will  remember that it is all done with the help of God especially our justification and salvation by grace, through faith.

[i] Jones, Joe.  A Grammar of Christian Faith; Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine. Volume II Rowman & Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.  2002.  p. 518.

On the Audacity to Hope

This article originally appeared on The Relentless Theologian.
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I remember back when Barack Obama was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination and his book The Audacity of Hope came out. Just the title alone interested me; plus I wanted to learn a bit more about this candidate.  I went to a library and put my name on the waiting list for it and then was able to check the book out.  Unfortunately, like I have a habit of doing, I checked out too many books at once and didn’t actually get to read the book! Yet the title alone has continued to reverberate in my mind.
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The Audacity of Hope; audacity means bold, daring, brave, and courageous.  In the phrase, audacity describes and gives further meaning to the word hope.  Hope is bold, hope is daring, hope is brave, and hope is courageous.
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Think about the word hope.  We name our daughters Hope; we hope things work out; but do we know what it means to really hope?  I really like the name Hope for a potential daughter (are you reading wife?).  And of course, Hope Solo is very attractive, but beyond a name, what does it mean to us?  We often use the word hope as a synonym for “wish.”   I hope I’ll be able to make it; hopefully I plan on being there.  Hope is an aspiration or an expectation.   I don’t think those words reach the depth present within the word hope.
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When I think about the audacity of hope I also think about the audacity to hope.  Hoping is bold, courageous, daring.  Somehow saying “I hope I'll make it over tonight” cheapens the word.   I’ve come to understand hope, and the audacity to hope as something deeper, something stronger, something that reaches the very core of our being.
The capacity to hope is something most of us take for granted; many of us are optimistic and our culture certainly encourages us to think things will “work out.”  I think many of us take hope for granted; we assume hope will always be there, except when it isn’t for some of us...
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You can’t understand the preciousness of hope, the pricelessness of hope until hope doesn’t come--when hope isn’t there.  How can one describe the absence of hope?  Be it uncertainty, fear, indecision, the dearth of hope can often manifest itself in ways much deeper and harder to describe.  Just as hope can reach the very core of our being, the lack of hope can shake us to the core, shake us to the point we no longer know which side is up or down.
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How can you put this feeling into words?  How can you explain the sheer terror and apprehension of risking, of putting oneself out there? How can one portray feelings that convince one that meaningful relationships will always end?  How can one illustrate what it’s like to grow up in utter poverty?  How can one give voice to the feelings of despair that one falls asleep to at night and wakes up with in the morning?  How does one share what it's like when simply existing seems like a constant struggle?
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Perhaps the most difficult thing about hope is that it’s not a commodity; it can’t be bought; it can’t be achieved; it can’t be acquired; it can only be earned. And when one has lost such hope, it takes real audacity, flat out crazy, bold, courageousness to even begin to gain it back. This is where the audacity to hope fits in; for one must be bold, one must be courageous, one must be relentless.
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Regaining hope can only be gained in small steps, in risking, in being vulnerable. That may look like getting out of bed some mornings, or smiling, or just simply keeping on.  It may be sharing ourselves when we really just want to close ourselves off, it may be doing something that scares the shit out of us and causes our insides to quake, and it may be living like love is possible and love can be for a lifetime.  Hope is daring, hope is bold, and hope is courageous. Even taking small, infantile steps are in fact signs of enormous audacity.
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Perhaps the only good thing about lacking hope is appreciating the sheer value of hope.  It’s something I wouldn’t take away from my worst enemy and that I would wish for everyone in the world to have.   If we can learn anything, it is that hope is precious and of immense value, but it can also be fragile, breakable, even losable. But we must remember, hope is bold, hope is courageous, and hope is daring. And for those among us who have been lacking in or perhaps even completely without, we must remember that when we choose to exist, we choose to go on, we are being utterly, fantastically, immensely hopeful; and these audacious, ridiculous, daring, courageous acts will only strengthen the resolve of the hope within each one of us.

Kegger at Jesus'!

When I was in high school, I lived for someone's parents to leave and for the house party to go off. I was part of that group that played the music or threw the parties. I was not musically inclined outside of the random hardcore and punk groups I got to front. I was a really big fella. So, I got to bounce all the parties. When someone's parents were planning that weekend getaway, we were playing that weekend's kegger.

I get butterflies just writing about it now. So and so would inform someone that their parents were going out of town and that they would be left 'home alone!" That someone would call another person and soon the bands were organized, the kegs procured and the buzz spread. This was how our emerging suburban Los Angeles scene flowed.

That Friday after school we would show up to the "abandoned" house with sound equipment. We would set up and do a sort of silent sound check. Folks would arrive with the kegs (The funny part is that we used to buy Near Beer cause it was cheaper and we made more money from it. Nobody knew the difference.) The kegs would be iced and we would set a perimeter for security.

Then as evening approached the car loads of teenage boys and girls would park and walk up to the party. I would collect money from them and mark their hands with a marker. We could make a couple thousand of dollars from the five-buck admission we charged for Near Beer and "decent" angry youth music. Every once and a while I would let a cute girl in, hoping that would better my chance of her thinking I was cool and I could ask her out.

The backyard would fill up. Every nook and cranny would be filled and they all awaited the stage to light up and the band to play. We were kings of our little fiefdom fueled by punk and hardcore, all of us looking for something to be angry about or someone to listen to our anger.

The band would take the stage and unleash a massive wave of shock and awe upon the Near Beer soaked crowd of kissy-faced teens and macho shirtless, mohawked man-boys. We would storm our anger in to the pit and smash each others faces as we fought the changing world around us. Gone was the safety of Big Wheels and comic books. This was the post-Reagan era in an area roughed up by cuts to the Military Industrial Complex. We knew a few of us had a future; we just were not sure of who those few were. Our dream was to graduate high school and maybe get a job at SEARS fixing washer and dryers. We might be considering college as a way to escape the uncertainty but tonight we had the "pit."

Then, just as we really started getting in to it and that cute girl I let in for free was going to give me her number the COPS showed up. A neighbor had called the police and demanded they break up the party. There was a mass exodus from the backyard. Sweaty mohawked teens jumped fences carrying their teenaged angst with them. The "drunken" teen girls sat dazed and confused, only to be pulled up by their friends and make a mad dash to the other door. The police, almost lovingly, flashed their flashlights on the exiting crowds making sure they dumped out the beers and walked home.

The band tried to pack up really quickly so their gear would not get confiscated. The someone whose house it was cried inside as they saw their social life waver. I was gone when we saw the police pull up and shouted out to the others, "POLICE!" We were already a block over before the mohawked kids jumped the fence.

The parents are called and the someone is reprimanded. That someone has the potential to be legend. The parental fears are stoked and they never go on another vacation again.

I fear that the church looks at the younger generations with this kind of dread. "If we leave, they will mess it all up." True, we are excited and do not look at the world with the same kind of eyes. We are uniquely ourselves. We have different values. We have different priorities. We have different dreams and hopes for our lives. We have different pressures and woes. We are different.

Almost 20 years later, if left with an empty house I am more likely to got to bed early than throw a kegger. My youth is fleeting. I am nearer to 40 than I am to 30. In my youthful sunset I hear "We need young families/young adults/youth in the church" a lot. It seems to be all over the church profiles out there.

Every church is looking for a 30-something pastor. He is white, tall with a nice build. He has a beautiful wife that studied music in college and they have three lovely, well behaved children that angelically glide around church without a sound.

He is great with youth, can preach like Craddock, tell stories like Hemingway, is the best counselor, can fundraise blood from a turnip and will get butts in the seats to continue the ministry of the church just as it always has been.

The problem is that that guy no longer exists. No one can do everything.

There are countless folks out there searching for a place to serve. Every year we graduate another class of hopeful ministers in to a system with no room for them to serve. As the church wrestles with what to do many creative, young ministers leave ministry for "a job." They leave the church.

These are folks that our institutions have invested time, money and hope over a three to four year period. We have encouraged them to follow a discernment process towards a vocation that may or may not be able to embrace them. Our system is broken.

The brokenness of our church institutions and the slow moving process towards change has disabled our efforts to be the pioneering voice we once were. We exist primarily for ourselves. If your operating budget exceeds your mission budget you are inward focused. Jesus calls us to go out in to the world and make Disciples.

Have we abandoned this work? I hear "I love your ideas but we don't have any money." as much as I hear "We need to do something." What are we going to do? The angry, punker inside me demands more for this community I have aligned myself with.

You promised to walk with me in community and support when I took my vows of ordination. When I was baptized you as the church promised to raise me in the ways of Christ. I am weary of the inward focus. Who will stand up and be evangelized by the Millennials? Who will answer the call to receive the missionaries from Gen X?

There is a better way to be "church" in this world. The brick and mortar spaces we lovingly tend to may be hedging us in. How do we liberate ourselves from yesterday that we may die and be born again for tomorrow?

Who will join the party? Our parents are out of town and there is a raging party set to go off! Who is going to be there? All are invited. All are welcome. You just have to show up, be willing to rage and clean up afterwards.

The Way of Peace -- A Lectionary Meditation

This second Sunday of Advent is known to many as Peace Sunday. Peace is, of course, difficult to come by. The world is certainly not at peace, and if truth be told the same can be said of our communities and even families. Peace is in the minds of many a utopian dream that will never see fruition. The realist in me recognizes that peace is not something that can be easily attained and that perhaps there will be interim measures to keep order, if not peace, in the land. But that’s the realist in me, but that realism must be tempered by God’s vision of peace. It is a vision that is clearly espoused in Isaiah 11. But even if a direct appeal to peace is not as clearly present in the Romans and Matthew passages, what all three share is a vision of the Way of the Lord, which according to Matthew, John the Baptist has been called to prepare for.

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A Candle of Hope -- A Lectionary Meditation

We begin the Advent journey by lighting a candle of hope, and hope is in the biblical scheme of things more than wishful thinking. The hope that the season of Advent holds out to us as we light this first candle is rooted in the promises of the God who is ever faithful. It is rooted in the covenant relationship that exists between God and humanity. Therefore, we can gather and sing with a sense of purpose the final stanza of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”: O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!” (Chalice Hymnal, 119). And so as we begin the journey we do so in the company of Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew’s Jesus. Each of these texts for the first Sunday of Advent speak to the hope that is present in us, and reminds us that we should continue to stay awake and live according to the promises of God.

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Envisioning the Reign of God -- Lectionary Meditation

There are very few true monarchs left in the world. Most are of the sort that “rule” in England. They’re mainly figureheads who are trotted out on special occasions. True power is held by someone else, whether Parliament or the Prime Minister. Americans don’t very much like monarchs, whether constitutional or not, though we seem to have an interest in things royal, as long as we don’t have to support them with our taxes. So, for moderns, the idea of proclaiming Christ the King Sunday might seem rather odd. Yet, this is the Sunday in which we proclaim Christ as King, as the one in whom and through whom God creates, sustains, and rules the universe. In observing this particular Sunday, we conclude another liturgical cycle. When the church gathers a week later, it will begin the cycle once more with a season of waiting, a season waiting for a king to be born. These two realities – the hope and the fulfillment can be found present in these three texts that hail God’s king, the one who according to Jeremiah will execute justice and righteousness. One of the things that we must realize as we observe this particular event is that God’s idea of a realm or a kingdom often differs from what we might have in mind.

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Stand Firm -- A Lectionary Meditation

We hear complaints here and there that Christians in the United States face persecution. Usually the complaints center on rules prohibiting crèches or Ten Commandment monuments on civic property, or maybe the inability to have Christian prayers at high school football games. Most of these complaints have to do with loss of power and market share. Rarely, if ever, do Americans face true persecution. That is, their lives are not on the line, in the way that, for instance, the Chaldean Christians of Iraq are facing persecution at this very moment. In the lectionary texts for this week, believers are called upon to stand firm and to keep true to their faith in the midst of difficult circumstances. The passage from Isaiah speaks to post-exilic Jews who are facing difficult prospects for the future, while both the epistle and gospel speak directly to the reality of persecution. Where then does faith fit in this equation

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Being Persistent in the Faith -- a Lectionary Meditation

Jeremiah 31:27-34 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Luke 18:1-8

Being Persistent in the Faith

“In those days,” is a phrase that sticks out from Jeremiah’s vision of God’s intention to bring into being a new community, one that is bound together not by a covenant written on stone tablets, but on human hearts.  “In those days” carries a future tense, a sense that God is up to something, and that God will bring this “plan” to fruition.  Theologians call this kind of talk “eschatology.”  Eschatology has to do with so-called “last things,” but it entails much more than wrapping up things at the end.  Instead, it is a conversation about the promise that stands out front of us as people of God.

As I read these three texts together, seeking a sense of what they might have to say to us today, the word “persistence” stands out.  You will find the word explicitly used in the 2nd letter to Timothy, a letter written by an experienced pastor to a younger one, seeking to offer a word of encouragement to someone who is struggling with the demands of guiding a community of faith in the direction he (I’m assuming the pastor is a male due to the times) believes God is leading.  Jeremiah has a similar job – announcing to a people living in exile that God is with them, and that God is going to do a new thing in and for them.

God will, Jeremiah says, “sow the house of Israel and the hose of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals” (Jeremiah 31:27).  Yes, the God who plucked up and destroyed will replant the houses of Israel and Judah.  But, the time is not yet present, because the message remains “in those days they shall no longer say.”  The time is coming, but is not yet.  The unstated request is that they remain persistent, until that time in which the new covenant is established, and then they shall again be God’s people.  Then, they’ll no longer have to teach one another to know the Lord, for everyone will know the Lord and their “iniquity” will be forgiven and they shall sin no more.  The time is coming, but is not yet, and yet, that the word is announced is suggestive that the recipients of this word should start living as if the promised age has already been established.

In Luke’s gospel, we have this parable, in which a woman comes to a judge seeking justice against her opponent.   We don’t know what the issue is.  Perhaps the opponent is seeking to evict her from her home, because as a widow with no visible means of support she’s unable to pay her rent.   Maybe the opponent is a family member who has taken control of her assets and is robbing her.  The judge, whose tenure on the bench seems so secure that he is unconcerned about how the public deems him, sees no point in acting on her request.  After all, she’s just a widow.  Why bother?  But the woman is persistent.  She keeps knocking on his door, perhaps even camping out in front of his office, until the judge finally relents and grants her requests.  The judge doesn’t act because it’s the right thing to do or because he’ll gain greater respect from the community or even God, but so that the widow will go away.  Well, Jesus says, if a judge will do such a thing due to the persistence of this widow; then surely God, who is just and merciful, will grant us justice without delay.  Of course, there’s a caveat at the end – one that again points to the future – when the son of Man arrives, will he find faith present in those who claim to be the children of God?  In other words, is their persistence in the things of God?

All of this leads to the text I’ve decided to focus on in my preaching this coming Sunday – the piece from 2 Timothy.   In this passage, the older pastor, the mentor of the younger pastor, writes a word of encouragement to one who is struggling to lead a beleaguered community of faith into God’s future.  The word is “be persistent whether the time is favorable or not.”   Indeed, the pastor writes that the younger leader should keep in mind the impending appearing of God and God’s kingdom, and so in that spirit be consistent in proclaiming the message of God, convincing, rebuking (oh a word that we’d just as soon leave out of the conversation), and encourage the people – with patience!  Persistence is needed because not everyone is ready to hear the word that the pastor had learned from the scriptures, a word passed on not only by this pastor, but others who understood the things of God, and had offered this guidance, so that this young pastor might be proficient and equipped for every good work.

Yes, be persistent in the things of God and carry out your ministry fully.  Do so knowing that God is at work in the world, bringing into existence the realm of God, the place in which people will in due time know God and thus no longer need instruction (including those rebukes mentioned in 2 Timothy).

By Bob Cornwall

Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November.  Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.

 

Lost and Found -- A Lectionary Reflection

Is there any hope for me? For the world? Or, is all lost? Has a word of judgment been written that cannot be undone? Or, is there the possibility of a second chance? It always grieves me when I hear stories about a young person – usually a teenager – who has committed a gross and heinous crime, and thus deserving a severe sentence, receives the sentence of life without parole. To think of this young person, usually a young man, sitting in prison for the rest of his life is mind boggling. Surely there has to be some word of hope, some opportunity to be set free?

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Shaken and Stirred Up -- A Lectionary Meditation

We don’t have much patience for people who stir the pot and shake our foundations. If you make statements that don’t sit well with the “majority” you could find yourself in a difficult situation. Such is the role of the prophet, a role that few preachers dare to take up. But in each of this week’s lectionary passages we have a word that shakes and stirs things up.

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The Wages of Sin

It has been said that AA and 12-step recovery programs are the biggest development in western spirituality since the Protestant Reformation. Luther rejected the Pope; 12-steppers rejected religion in all its trappings, including the priesthood. It's truly a priesthood of believers in a Higher Power that goes unlabeled, peer-to-peer ministry, sinner-to-sinner therapy. If you want to talk spirituality with Boomers and X-ers, you'll find common ground with more people quoting the Big Book than quoting scripture.

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There’s Still Hope — A Lectionary Meditation

There’s Still Hope Persistence – that is the message of Jesus’ parable in Luke 11. Just after teaching the disciples an abridged form of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells a parable about a man who wakes up his neighbor at midnight so he can feed a friend who has dropped by unexpectedly – in the middle of the night – and is now hungry. In that culture, if someone drops by, you feed them, but what do you do when the cupboard is bare? You go knock on your neighbor’s door – sort of like Sheldon knocking on Leonard’s or Penny’s door (Big Bang Theory). The neighbor might not get up and help out from friendship, but if you knock long enough, well then perhaps the neighbor will give in, get up, and get the bread. Of course, God isn’t like that neighbor who has to be pestered into helping.

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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.

AMEN.

--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.