Archive for February, 2012

February 28, 2012

God Calls Us to Live in the New

Guest blogger: Jayme Cloninger

On February 19, Washington Plaza Baptist participated in the Baptist Women in Ministry’s Martha Stearns Marshall day of preaching by inviting Jayme Cloninger to preach, a recent college grad who is a friend of Pastor Elizabeth.

Jayme currently serves as a human rights advocate for the Enough Project on the Raise Hope for Congo Campaign in Washington DC. Jayme grew up as a small town girl in Denver, North Carolina, where her heart for global missions and social justice grew in her involvement with local community development work and her three trips to South Africa. After attending Samford University in Birmingham, AL (where Pastor Elizabeth also attended), Jayme followed her passion and vision for faith and human rights to help mobilize the faith community and grassroots efforts to influence US Foreign Policy towards the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jayme is thinking of going to seminary sometime in the near future.

I’m proud to share her sermon here! I know you will be blessed as you keep reading. We all think Jayme has a bright future in ministry ahead!


Thank you for sharing your Sunday morning with me and for this opportunity to participate in a declaration of truth found in Isaiah 43. As Pastor Elizabeth mentioned, in honor of Martha Stearns, a pioneer for women in ministry from the second half of the eighteenth century, this month, Baptist Women in Ministry are inviting young women to preach a sermon at a local Baptist church. And so, here I am, a young female, giving my first sermon. A place I never thought I would ever be.

I grew up in a traditional home, where I was homeschooled for all 12 years, and attended a pretty conservative Southern-Baptist church. Jokingly, I often refer to myself as a recovering home school evangelical.

For my parents, homeschooling was an opportunity for them to raise their children with a “godly education.” As a result, my faith is very much interwoven with my love for academia. Education and faith were seen as two tools for breaking generational sins. Both my parents come from broken homes with alcoholic parents, sexual abuse, poverty and so much more. Higher education was not an option when the reality of life called them to care for their younger siblings. And so, when the time came for them to raise their own children, they looked to faith and education as the gateway to redeeming the generational sins that have for too long tainted our family history.

Reconciliation for a broken past and hope for a better future are two things both my parents eagerly seek after from the Lord. In telling my mom that I would be speaking from Isaiah 43, it shouldn’t have surprised me when she  immediately began to recite the verse from memory, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Following the promise recited, my mother asked, “Jayme, did you not know that Isaiah 43 is my favorite chapter in the Bible? Did you not know that I pray those words for our family everyday and have done so for thirty years?” I couldn’t hold back my tears. In that moment, chills ran down my spine, for I could truly sense the Lord’s renewing spirit in not only my life, but also in the life and story of my family.

As with each of you, my story will continually evolve, a fluid journey of past, present and future. When we look at our past circumstances, we often get caught up in over-analyzing what was, in the hope of creating a solution for the present that will allow us to avoid the same bad situation in the future. In doing so, we allow our past circumstances to define our current situation.

Now, let me pause here and ask a question: Do we really want to be a people who orient our lives according to the past? Is that the hope that we have?

This is where we find the people of Israel in Isaiah 43. A people who allow their former transgressions to determine their lack of present hope, blinding them to the faithfulness of God.  Here Yahweh calls out the promise of deliverance in saying, “I am about to do a new thing.”

The Lord declares that “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In the present moment of despair and exile, God reminds His people of his continual faithfulness. For the presence of God never left, it was continually in the midst of exile and despair.  

If the truth of God’s faithfulness and redemption was true for the people of Israel in their dark season of defeat and captivity under Babylon, how much truer are those words for you and I in our present season in life?

God calls on Israel to adopt a new way of life. A way of life that is not bound by their sins or their transgressions. As the Lord moves through history, from the story of Israel, we witness hope come to fruition in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. Thankfully, with the life of Christ we can actually experience the new. For as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new.” This new creation, this new way of life is a life redeemed. A life bound no longer by death, but by a resurrection.

This morning, I would like to spend the rest of our time together discussing what it truly means to live in the new, to live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ.

Such a conversation is timely with the transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, and for those who has participated in the sermon series God Calls, and the study on spiritual gifts. As you have walked through Epiphany, you have wrestled with its practical implications for your individual lives. This season of Epiphany has been a time for us to celebrate the revelation of the mystery of Christ.

Pastor Elizabeth has walked with you through a large discussion on how God calls each one of us to live out the gifts God has given us. I to have been on this journey with you. Reading and following Pastor Elizabeth’s blog and having numerous follow-up conversations with her and other friends. In the initial sermon on God Calls, we reflected on what it means to care for oneself, and how to glorify God with our bodies as agents of service and love.

From the story of Jonah, we learn that God Calls you and I to “those people.” God commissions you in love and deed to care for all people.

In the study of the Spiritual Gifts and the sermon on God Calls you to Listen when No One Is, we see the life of Samuel and how the Lord developed in his heart the ability to listen keenly to the Spirit and to use his spiritual gifts for the Kingdom. Here we are challenged to use our Spiritual gifts, as did Samuel, to bless others.

In the previous two sermons, there has been an underlying theme of renewal. As Pastor Elizabeth pointed out, with both Israel and our present lives, “because God was God– the ruler of all, the Lord of all, the Creator of all things, even in exile, even in these undesirable circumstances— there is a call for renewal. A call to begin to consider anew the most troubling circumstances in light of who God was and is.”

So what does it actually look like for each of us to live in the new, even in the midst of our own moments of exile?

We may be surprised by the answer.

As God parted the Red Sea and brought Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, in their second exodus, God promises to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” The water in the wilderness is God’s faithfullness to continually redeem and make all things new. God is not bound by the previous exodus to usher in a new act of salvation. As God did for Israel, God will surprise us with his ways for redeeming our past and present.

As did Israel, we often fall victim to our own works to live out the new. Our problem solving skills not only burn us out, but as we read in Isaiah 43, we end up burdening God with our self-attempts at righteousness. We often miss the core of experiencing the new, connecting with the eternal.

As Paul Tillich put it,There is something that does not age, something that is always old and always new at the same time, because it is eternal. That which creates the new is that which is beyond old and beyond new, the Eternal.”

In The Shaking of the Foundations, Tillich continues to explain that with the life of Christ, we now have the opportunity to live a life that represents the very thing that transcends the old and the new. Love.

Through the mystery of Christ we are revealed a new kind of love, a love brought through self-expenditure. A love that took on our human nature to overcome our transgressions.

In living out this new, we have each been equipped to carry out this love for the edification of the body of Christ and the service of the Kingdom. With your study of the spiritual gifts, you may now realize that you are a perceiver, server, teacher, encourager, giver, ruler or been given the gift of mercy. May this love become the revelation of the new in our lives.

It is easy for us to talk about using our gifts as we sit in a church and have room to reflect on their meaning. But what happens when we are back in our moment of exile? Our moment of defeat?

As someone who is an advocate for justice and human rights, I daily seek solutions to broken situations within our society. I serve as a community organizer for the Enough Project, an anti-genocide and crimes against humanity organization. Specifically, I focus on the conflict in eastern Congo, a place known to be the home of worst war since World War 2, claiming over 6 million lives. It’s a conflict perpetuated by a corrupt government, struggle over natural resources, where rebel group control and battle the different mines and in attacking other local mining communities, use rape as a weapon of war.

For me, as someone who is far removed from the conflict and who works inside the beltway to make Congo a priority for US Federal Government, I daily battle with the cynicism that there is no hope for Congo.

I started this job in June of 2011, and in the first half of my time at Enough, I was overwhelmed by the history and situation of Congo. When you think you have a solution to a problem, you usually will cause another.

After about six months, I began to finally meet a lot of the Congolese diaspora community here in the United States, opening the door for new friendships to be cultivated. These relationships give me hope.

The Congolese community mobilize themselves around practical solutions for the crisis in their own country. Despite not being able to directly care for their friends and family in Congo, they are using their time here in the US to raise awareness and pressure the US Government to take stronger action on Congo. The diaspora model for us what it means to live in the new, advocating for hope and peace, in the midst of the worst trials and moments of exile.

Just as the Triune God advocated for the freedom of Israel in exile, and his deliverance through Christ, so too are we to advocate for hope and justice in the midst of our community’s darkest season in life. In our new creation, we are to model the same love Christ has lavished us with. For Paul continues to write in 1 Corinthians 5, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

As ambassadors of Christ, we have been given the tools to live out the new and to advocate for God’s continual redemption in and through the world. Adam Taylor, the director of advocacy for World Vision, writes in his book, Mobilizing Hope, “God has made us for a profound purpose. When we sit on our gifts or make a litany of excuses for why we aren’t prepared or able, we block the manifest glory of God that is within us. Trying to tackle injustice based on our limited abilities means playing small. Instead we must tap into the renewing power of faith to overcome the barriers that get in the way of transformed nonconformism.”

And so, I pray that as you transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, that the eyes of your hearts will be opened to the power of the spirit in your life to equip you to live in the New. To live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ. For as Tillich eloquently said, “Love is the power of the new in every man and in all history. It cannot age; it removes guilt and curse. It is working even today toward new creation. It is hidden in the darkness of our souls and of our history. But it is not completely hidden to those who are grasped by its reality. “Do you not perceive it?” asks the prophet. Do we not perceive it?

February 27, 2012

From the Preacher’s Chair

What does joy feel like?

What does a God’s ordaining moment feel like?

What does “this is the gospel incarnated” feel like?

What does a “this is why I do ministry” moment feel like?

For me, all of the questions could sum up how I felt about worship and lunch with our friends at Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church yesterday. We gathered together in celebration of their 30th anniversary in their worship space. Though this was the first time we’d worshipped together at 11 am, it was not the first time we’d shared fellowship together. Past events included shared lunches and a Sunday afternoon black history month program last February.

As I sit at my desk this morning, my heart just beams with joy from what our coming together meant in the larger perspective of why it is that we do church in the first place.

We sang out our hearts out (our choirs even practiced together prior to the service on Thursday night for two special pieces), we prayed, we gave our offerings together and we forgot about the time on the clock. I watched from my preacher’s chair on the pulpit members of my congregation being moved by the spirit to clap, stand and raise their hands too in praise of God. It was good church!

I was invited to preach the anniversary sermon, by MLK Christian’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Jean Robinson-Casey– a very gracious gesture coming out of our shared friendship and belief that the gospel must be lived out in diversity.  It was my first time preaching in a predominantly African-American congregation and I loved it! The feedback from the congregation enlivened my spirit and I  believe that could really preach like this every Sunday if given more response.

Joy for me came in simply being together.

As themes of my own life story have always included paying attention to racial reconciliation, so yesterday felt again like a moment of “this is what you were made to do.” I love building relationships with those who are of different traditions with me and I’m glad when others want to build them back. Friendship is always at the heart of any change. I am proud to call Rev. Jean my friend.

As I said in my sermon, we only really know what Jesus looks like when we are in relationship with ALL of God’s children. So in adding some different faces to our worship and fellowship, it felt like another dimension of the gospel was revealed to us all. It was holy ground. And, when we find holy ground, don’t we want to walk on it as much as possible?

There is so much of what we do as pastors and in church that feels like grunt work– filing papers, keeping lists, sending reminder emails about who needs to take the trash out or when Bible Study starts– that can suck the passion out of us faster than we know it. But, yesterday was a reminder of how powerful our collective experience of church can be when we direct our administrative talents toward the relationships and the reconciliation that really matters.

I believe that the expressions of friendship between the Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church and Washington Plaza Baptist church that continued and overflowed yesterday have only just begun. I look forward to my continued friendship with Rev. Jean and I look forward to WPBC and MLK continuing to partner together for the glory of God.

February 26, 2012

By Faith We Go On

By Faith We Go On: Hebrews 12:1-2, 8-12

Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church 30th Anniversary Service & Joint Service with Washington Plaza Baptist Church

Now, I know that some in the congregation this morning, get to hear me talk more than they might like– as I preach every Sunday– but for the rest of you all gathered today, you probably don’t know much about me other than the kind words that Pastor Jean shared with you earlier (thank you). So, there is something I really need to share with you about my past in order for you to get where I am coming from this morning.

As a child, on countless occasions, I desperately wanted to become my dog. Yes, my dog, named Trevor. Trevor, became a member of our family when I was in 4th grade so that my younger sister Emily would stop screaming bloody murder every time she was in a room with a dog. Though a moody and hyper pup, I loved Trevor from the start. And so, regularly, I asked my mom if he could ride along with us as she took me to school in the mornings.

One particular morning, fearing the worst day ever– a spelling test I did not study enough for, meeting up with some potential bullies on the playground, and having to sit through an extra math class on long division– I remember voicing to my mom just as I was about to get out of the car that I wished could become Trevor, if only for a day.

“Why?” she asked looking surprised at my request. “Why would you want to be Trevor?”

“Well,” I said, “Trevor has such a good life and he doesn’t even know it. He eats. He sleeps. He plays outside and we love on him. Never does Trevor have to worry about fights with other dogs or teachers giving him bad grades or even what his friends will think of his lunch. I wish, Mom, that I could be Trevor right now! I wish; I wish!”

Of course, you know how well my wish of transformation into a dog went over. I did not get to have a one day vocation of eating kibbles and bits and barking at cats.  But while a silly wish, isn’t it true that it would be a lot easier to be dog than a living, breathing, worrying, stressed out, commuting to work in traffic every day human being? (They don’t call it a “dog’s life” for nothing!)

So, I ask you: anyone come to church with any worries today? Anybody come to church with any heavy burdens? Anybody come to church today with cares weighing you down that you’d just like to disappear from right now and become your dog (or better yet your rich neighbor’s dog) for the day?

Well, welcome to the human plight of the hard life we live in, most of the time.

Dr. Tony Campolo, champion of social justice and professor at Eastern College, PA, once shared a meditation on the difference between human beings and the rest of the members of our mammal family, saying: “Human beings, as any social scientist will tell you, are unique among all the creatures on the planet. We are the only ones who are capable of imagining the future; of looking ahead.”[i] 

In contrast to the carefree nature of a squirrel gathering acorns, or a horse eating hay, or a lion searching for dinner as their singular daily purpose– we as human beings have the reasoning capacity to fear the future, plan, and to anticipate death. Unlike our furry friends, our days are easily— just as we brought to mind a few minutes before– filled with anxieties about what is not and what might be.

But, this is not the whole story, Dr. Campolo said. Because we do have the capacity to imagine the future and to be filled with forward directed reason– we also have the capacity for faith. We have the ability, unlike any other creature, to see the world from a greater perspective and to join our lives into what God is already doing in the world.

Therefore, hear this: faith, as an emotion and a state of being IS a uniquely human gift. For even though we all know death (like taxes) is coming, we do not have to be trapped in fear of what we don’t understand, what is not yet, and what might be generations from now.  Faith helps us face our future– even if we know not what it will be. In this hard, hard world with all its challenges and sufferings, it is faith that God has given each one of us as how to get through!

Furthermore, faith is what God gave you and you and you and me, so that we could be in relationship with the awesomeness that is the Creator of the universe. God’s gift of faith is how we even have the chance of knowing the One who is the ultimate good.

In our Hebrews lesson for this morning, we hear a good sermon proclaimed to a discouraged people, a people who faced sufferings and a people who really wanted to give up on  their spiritual lives. And in this sermon they are given words of hope. These hope filled words began with “by faith.”

Look with me at verse one of Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”

By faith, we have the promise, of God’s dwelling in what we simply cannot see or  get our minds wrapped around with impossible odds of accomplishment.  And, as we read on beginning at verse 8, this preacher reminds us of the story of Abraham– a man who knew a thing or two about being asked to live in faith.

Notice with me some key points from the Hebrew preacher’s retelling of Abraham’s story.

First, by faith, Abraham– obeyed. When he knew that God had asked him to set his direction toward a particular task AND Abraham simply did what God wanted. Not what he wanted.  And in obedience there was no whining. No complaining. No, “Well, God, maybe there could be another way”– no, we read that Abraham obeyed.

And, second, in this path of obedience, some unusual behavior was required– to set out for a journey not knowing where he was going (stupidity by our modern standards of a GPS for everything, right?). But, on this unknown journey, Abraham had to be ready for whatever came, even if this meant going to a foreign land.

Not a land he knew anything about. Not a land that was comfortable for him. Not a land where he could drive by his old neighborhood every day and wave with a grin on his face of feeling secure. No, a land that was completely unknown– with unknown people and unknown food and unknown smells and you name it: it was the unknown!

And, third, by faith, Abraham found himself without the security of permanence as he went on.  Look with me in verse 9. Where does it say that Abraham lived? “in tents.” 

As much as Abraham hoped his journey with God would bring him fortune and wealth and a big plot of land to call his own with lots of little Abs running around– God never gave him more than a home of a tent.

And more so, it wasn’t even until the last act of his life, that God blessed him with a son, a miracle boy named Isaac. Isaac, a son that came by a promise that Abraham’s descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky (but again made no logical sense). But, in all of this, by faith– Abraham lived.

As I was reading over Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church’s history this past week, I recognized quickly that this body of gathered believers, like Abraham knew a thing or two about the journey of “by faith.”

For “by faith” in July of 1981 (I won’t tell you how old I was on this day . . .), a small group of neighbors of parents of good citizens of this new community gathered and shared a crab dinner and began dreaming about being called a church together.

For “by faith” on January 15, 1982, a group of 12 committed Christ followers gathered in the home of Adelle and John Author Jones and selected a name for this new movement of the spirit and called it, Martin Luther King, Jr. Church.

For “by faith” on February 7, 1982 the group gathered again, this time at the Southgate community center to fellowship and celebrate their first worship experience together.

And, “by faith” the first interim minister,  Rev. Dr. Joseph Dancy , Jr. was called to serve and lead this growing group of believers.  And the word “Christian” was added to the church’s name.

And, “by faith” later on Rev. Dr. Clinton D. McNair was called as pastor and lead the church alongside of you to begin to recognize that this new movement was not so new and so it needed a better “tent” to call home for the long run. “By faith” in 1987 2.3 acres of land was purchased through the sacrificial giving of so many of you at 11400 North Shore Drive in Reston.

And, the “by faith” story and it many twists and turns through the years could go on and on and I’m sure if I stopped my sermon right now and asked for testimonies, we’d be here until midnight recounting the good works, the impossible victories coming through and the lives in this community changed by the witness of this church. For, if there is anything I know about the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church is story of “by faith.”

You story has been one  much like the Shel Sliverstein poem of not letting what others say about you determine you future when he wrote:

“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”  

You’ve, church, let God say to you throughout the years, “Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”

But is this enough? Should we pat ourselves on the backs and go home now?

As much as today is a celebration of the past, of the love of Christ that has been shared with the community through your hands and the hands that have gone before, today is also a crossroads of this “by faith” journey, for you, my Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian friends.

What will the title of the next chapter of your story be? In whom will you trust? And in whom will you follow? How will you choose as a church chose to move on?

And while there are countless perfect good ways that any of you could suggest for this fill in the blank statement: “We will move on by______” I suggest to you this morning, as one of your cheerleaders among many of us down the street there is only one way to move forward as a church and that is “by faith.” Dr. King in fact once said: “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”

You know I told you that I read more about your history as a congregation before I prepared to preach today and I couldn’t help as I read to pay close attention to the section of your history which highlights the tenure of my friend, Rev. Jean.

I have the utmost respect for your pastor and her leadership here. In fact, my Washington Plaza friends, it was she who gave me some of the best advice in the first couple months of my ministry in Reston when I was having one of those difficult days that come to any new pastor. She said to me, “It’s going to get better. By God’s help.”  And, “Yes, Rev. Jeanine, by God’s help, we at Washington Plaza are having some good days together.”

But, again, as I was reading, I noticed something unique about the focus of your current pastor, highlighted specifically about her time here and it was this sentence:  “A focus area for Rev. Jean is the building of a diverse worship community that welcomes all races, creeds, and colors.”

I dare say, we, the Washington Plaza Baptist community, would not be in these chairs today, if it wasn’t for this faith conviction of your pastor. She’s led you to claim the gospel, the whole gospel which means we’ve got to have people around us that don’t look, think or even talk just like us to truly see the face of Christ.

And, in light of this, I can’t help but think as I dream together today with you, my Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian friends that the next 30 years is going to look different from your first thirty years– if you keep following by faith.

I might be wrong, but I can imagine that what you see today (look around the room right now) — people of all races, creeds and colors worshipping the one God gathered here together– is going to be a part of the what the future holds.

Sure, this congregation was founded on the need of doing church in a rich, worshipful  tradition and passing down stories from one generation to another of a particular kind. But, 1982 is not 2012. And, what God needed from you, church in 1982 might not be what God needs from you faith believers of God in 2012 and beyond.

This is the reason why our movement must always be in faith. Because yes, while we know there is a future and we could very well be anxious about it (especially if we start comparing it to the past), we have a God who continually whispers in our ears the truth the Apostle Paul long ago taught us, “With God’s power working in us, we can do more than we could ask for or imagine.”

Because of this promise,  I say dream church! Give church. I say grow church.  Study church. I say give church. And in all of these things, live and move and have your being by faith.

After all, Dr. King once said: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

I’m excited to see where this by faith journey takes you and I even dare say takes us, as brothers and sisters in Christ, as friends, as partners in ministry together only blocks away from one another.

Can the church say Amen to our calling to “move on in faith?”


[i] “Trusting in God in the Days that Lie Ahead” Program #4604

February 23, 2012

Ash Wednesday Reflection: Sitting in the Darkness

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 21, 2012

No Fear in Love

How hard it is for us strong, “can do anything types” to not be afraid of love! Love given and acknowledged always  holds a level of vulnerability that sometimes we simply aren’t willing to show. But, that our souls truly need.

This week has been a happy one around our house in particular. In October, there is the week of Kevin as less than a week separates Kevin’s birthday from our dating and wedding anniversary. And in February, we celebrate the week of Elizabeth as a week separates Valentine’s Day and my birthday. These celebration weeks became an intentional decision between the two of us when we planned our wedding date (and also the farmer’s almanac said it wasn’t going to rain the town of our outdoor wedding, so we went with a October date– important too ) . In these two special weeks, we’ve thought of ways to remember and enjoy life together such as mornings of breakfast in bed or dinners cooked at home (all you city busy folks know what I mean when I add this on the list of a special treat) or sometimes a overnight get-a-way.

In this being “my week” including a special trip together last week (a writing retreat for me), dinner out last night and my super surprise gift this morning: an IPad this morning, I’ve felt the love.  And, I’m grateful. How did I find myself with so many amazing people in my life?

Sometimes, though, we want tangible expressions of love, but we also don’t know what to do with them when they arrive. I remember a fabulous birthday several years ago when I was literally on cloud 9 from all the gestures of support around me and felt paralyzed all at the same time. I think if I got one more birthday card, that year, I would have exploded. And, I know I am not the only one who has been in this place of bewilderment.

When lovely people do lovely things, it is easy to be stopped in our tracks and just not know how to respond. Sometimes we shut down, in the pain of the joy. For, we don’t have the room in our hearts to take it in. The act of stretching our hearts to open to others can feel as painful as a long work out at the gym. When our souls have never felt loved in our deepest caves, sometimes love’s arrival can actually sting a little. In fact, being loved, just as we are, by others can often be one of the scariest emotions in life.

While watching an Oscar special this week featuring the wonderful actress, Viola Davis, it struck me how authentically she described her own struggles with receiving love. Watch a portion of this interview here. Saying, how much of a radical transformation love became in her as she began to trust the man for the first time who would become her husband. Something as simple as allowing him to drive her somewhere became a symbol of abiding love– love that was without fear.

I John 4 talks about love’s relationship with fear in this way:

16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. . . .  18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love

This is what I am learning about love– there is no fear in love when it begins to truly seep into our hearts. But, such a fearless stance requires practice and people who are willing to stay in your life long enough that you actually believe them when they say to you, “I love you.”

I’m just so amazed that I get this week every year to practice feeling loved and wish the same kind of experience for others too. Everybody has somebody who loves them. Everybody has somebody that they need to tell that they love them. The question on our shoulders, then is: will we love? Or will we be afraid? I want to love.

February 19, 2012

Whitney Houston Took Us to Church

Today, Whitney Houston took me to church.

This afternoon from 12 noon- 4 pm I watched the entire Whitney Houston funeral via the life stream. By the end, as her body left the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey while Whitney’s version of “I Will Always Loved You” played, I was in tears. I couldn’t believe how moved I became or how not restless I was through the entire service.

Initially, I sat down to watch the service out of pure vocational obligation– when religion holds a promote place in the public square (i.e. a church service is featured prominently on national tv) I feel it is my pastoral responsiblity to watch. But, I kept watching because of the poignant, faith-filled words and that the most unlikely of preachers and speakers brought to the gathering.

Though I am a child of the 80s and grew up dancing around the house with a hairbrush singing, “I Want to Dance with Somebody,” I wouldn’t have not considered myself a die-hard Whitney fan. In fact, have been among the folks who have stood back during the media spectacle of the past week saying under my breath, “What is all this fuss about? It’s not like we knew her personally.” But, maybe all of us just thought we did.

The bright light of fame begins to convince us, with any well-known celebrity, that we are their friend too. It is easy to believe that we too grew up on their same street as a child, shared a coffee meeting with them last week or in some cases, or that we’ve read journals of their deepest thoughts. With such a bright light, it’s true, I like millions of others, I believed too, that I knew Whitney (even though such is of course false).  Even with all the illusions of a celebrity’s passing, death is death. And, death evokes sadness. When death comes too soon, when mothers bury daughters, when teenage daughters face life without their mothers, and when the future seems spoiled in the questions of “what could have been?” we cry.  What a daughter, what a mother, and what a voice that we’ll never hear in this life again!

In this grief, all of us went to church.

As the sermon began, Rev. Marvin Winans, a family friend, commented how much he respected Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom’s) leadership in bringing the funeral to her childhood church. While pressure in the planning process intensified to include a large public concert or memorial service, Mama Houston (as they called her) stuck to her gut. Knowing that her baby was brought into the world in church, she’d need to go from the world from it too.  And, Marvin Winans, went on to say to Cissy directly, “You were responsible for bringing the world to church today.”

And for the entire four hours of non-interrupted television on CNN, we, as onlookers, sat with grief of a music icon gone with God’s hope of resurrection given at the center. 

From Tyler Perry really getting into a message about grace leading us our life through, as it did for Whitney to Kevin Costner describing their shared Baptist upbringing and abiding friendship, to family members and other business associates highlighting Whitney’s spiritual compass and love of scripture, even with all of the demons she went to battle with: it was church. The funeral was authentic, life-giving, straight talking, love filled, church. For me, it was four hours well spent of  spirit filled connection with God with other faith seekers– nevermind how famous, affluent, poor or unknown they may be. Together in person, on cable news, or via the internet, we went to church.

In this trip to church, the spirit from which this service flowed represented for me the best of what this place can be:

  • People of all backgrounds, races and nationalities joining together in community
  • Deep grief finding a place of expression for it is good not to cry alone
  • The gospel of hope shared even in the darkness of death. Like Bishop T.D. Jakes said, “we are a people of Sundays . . . death does not win; love does!”
  • People for whom this place is not normally “their thing” being welcomed with open arms: politicians, newscasters who experienced a worship service the first time in their lives, and those whose ambitions have long left regular church attendance behind (well, maybe not Bobby Brown, but that’s another story)
  • Those who have made some bad decisions in their life (i.e. Whitney) being celebrated for the good within them, not the bad because hey, we have all messed up in one way or another! (Who are we to throw stones?)
  • Compassion filled truth talking. Cissy Houston being told by her daughter-in-law, “You did all you could to help Whitney. There are some people for whom even Jesus couldn’t heal if they didn’t want it. You did all you could. You should be proud.” And, Kevin Costner sharing a story about some of the deep insecurities and fears spoke aloud by Whitney to him. Costner saying, “Whitney always wondering if people loved HER or image of her?” And Costner making things clear: “No people didn’t just like you, Whitney; they loved you!”
  • And, above all, praise of God grounding all things. The service began in praise, moved in praise of God (one of my favorite moments being when CeCe Winans leading the congregation in “Jesus Loves Me”), and ended in praise of God as the choir sang, “Let the Church Say Amen.”

Thank you Whitney for taking us to church today. The spirit of the life you lead, the legacy you left behind, and the faith that carried you (even when life seemed like too big of load to carry you sought to keep going and learning from your mistakes) uplifted our hearts. And, though we will miss you in this life, we know this after church today: your spirit soars on praise of your Creator. Can I get an Amen?

February 14, 2012

I Love . . .

Today is Valentine’s Day . ..  a day that I know many of my friends hate. I even saw someone recently wearing a t-shirt like the picture to the right. I totally understand. It can be a rough world out there in the commercialism that we call American holidays especially for those who don’t have what our culture says is a “must have” (i.e. a happy romantic relationship).

But, though I am happily married (and I know this means that some of you will stop reading here), I need to tell you that I love Valentine’s Day.  I have loved this day even in my “I’m sad to be single years.”  For me it has never been about the special someone in my life. It has been a day about love, something we all know something about.

I love this day because it is a wonderful excuse to tell the beautiful people in my life how much I love them. I love the beautiful people who make up my congregation who model for me the faith calling of simply being themselves! I love the amazing people– though the number is small– who still keep in touch with me from college and high school who remind me who I’ve always been. I love the faithful saints of friends who are in my every day life– who make every day trips to the grocery store or out to dinner a major event of laughter. I love the colleagues that I have in ministry who are all across the world who challenge me and encourage me to keep going even when I feel like quitting. 

I love this day because I am one of those people who often feels like the intentional ways I like to show my love to others on other “normal” days of the year can be too much. You know, authentic expressions of love can be intimidating for some not accustomed to receiving. So for me, Valentine’s Day is perfect. It’s a day all about showing and telling those in your life that you love that you do love them. So, I do a lot of it!

I’m sure some of my affection for this day comes from the fact that I grew up in a household where Valentine’s was one of our most celebrated days. While in grade and high school, my mom always hid presents in our chairs at the breakfast table with Vday gifts. Neither of us were big chocolate or candy eaters (I know weird) so we always got small gifts. Usually I found a new red t-shirt to wear to school or new pj pants. We’d always be served heart-shaped toast . . . a tradition I still keep up with whoever is in my household on Vday.

Then, my Vday love started to get out of control when I made that last-minute visit to Duke Divinity School in exploration of a call to go to seminary there on Valentine’s Day 2003. It was the day I met with the admissions director, Donna Claycomb and also met three folks who would become some of my closest friends in the journey of seminary ahead: Abby Thornton, Jenn Brown and Clark Williams. At the end of the day, Donna gave us all cookies on a stick in the shape of hearts as her pastoral way of saying, “Thank you for coming.” She wanted to show her love to us as we were in this scary time of trying to figure out what would be next in our lives. It was on that cold Friday, Valentine’s afternoon that I left Durham knowing that Duke was the seminary for me.

The next year, when Vday came around again and Abby, Jenn and I were hanging out (maybe studying?), we made cookies on a stick (thanks to directions from Donna) in thanksgiving of being friends for a year. Now, every February, I make heart-shaped cookies on a stick and continue to celebrate with these folks and new friends too. Now as a pastor, I often go visiting to shut-ins and widows on Valentine’s Day– taking cookies and saying a word to them about how glad I am to have them in my life, even on a day that might bring up memories of sadness.

Today, I am not able to keep up the shut-in visitation or the heart-shaped toast part of my Vday tradition because I’m taking a couple of days off to spend with my husband in the Midwest. I’m tagging along on his business trip because we both really wanted to be together on this day. I love him so much to suffer through some really cold weather and the piles and piles of snow on the ground :) I’m of the belief that if you have something good in your life (and Kevin is one of the really goods for me), then it needs to be celebrated and celebrated big.

So, what’s the point to this personal ranting “I love Valentine’s Day” blog?

Maybe I can not win you over to my level of Valentines love, but I hope I can encourage you to get out there and tell someone who you love them. It doesn’t have to be a spouse, a boyfriend or a partner, but  someone. No matter who we are, we all have people in our lives that we love and hopefully love us in return. What a great day to just do something for one of these folks, so there is no doubt in their minds how we feel about them! Spread the love, my friends. Spread the love. It really can be a great day.

February 13, 2012

Wordless Monday

My beautiful church: family God gives us in each other!

February 12, 2012

This I Believe

This week on Monday and Tuesday, I gathered at a retreat for Baptist pastors in the Northern Virginia and DC region on the topic of narrative leadership. The center point of this retreat was stories and the idea that we only know who we are as leaders and as congregations is when we tell and understand our stories. So, over the course of three days, this small group of 15, shared a series of personal narratives with one another hoping to figure out how these stories spoke to the larger themes of our lives and ministry.

One of the pastors in my storytelling group was Rev. Kendrick Curry, the pastor of Pennsylvania Ave Baptist Church in DC, a colleague I have much respect for.  When we were asked to share a story about an ordaining moment in ministry– a time in our lives when we knew that we were in the right place and that God was using us for something greater than ourselves– this is the story that Kendrick told and gave me permission to share with you this morning:

Several years ago, the Curry family was preparing anxiously for the birth of their second child. Finding out that they were having a son, after already welcoming a baby girl in their home two years prior, he said they elated with joy. A name for his soon-to-be born son was already chosen: Kendrick, Jr. The only thing left was for the son to make his grand appearance in the world.

However, around 35 weeks of the pregnancy, Kendrick’s wife faced birth complications and was admitted to the hospital. The bed rest prescribed seemed to make everything better and Kendrick along with the rest of the family hoped that everything would be ok soon. 

And the day came finally: the day when the hospital scheduled the birth. The doctors induced labor and the cries of his newborn rang out throughout the delivery room. But,  Kendrick, Jr’s preemie size meant that he had to go straight to the NICU for observation and tests. Meanwhile, the post-delivery condition of the mother soon worsened.  Rushed to ICU with internal hemmoriging, things weren’t looking good for Mrs. Curry. Running back and forth from the NICU to the ICU, in his despair, Kendrick felt his heart torn between the bedside of his wife and his son. It just so happened that in between these two places, there sat a chapel. Kendrick would stop each time to pray.

During those moments in the chapel he cried in anger to God, “Why are you doing this to MY family?” He prayed as hard as could ever remembering praying in his life for the health of these two dear ones in his life. But, as he prayed, it became apparent to him through the still small voice of the Spirit that one of his beloved would not make it. And though he didn’t know with one– he still prayed for the health of both, hoping that this word he felt in his spirit was not true.

And in dramatic fashion that only a story that tells like this could offer, Kendrick relayed that hours later his wife died. Instantly he became a single father to a 2 year old girl and a newborn son.

Such a huge loss could have set Kendrick running to the hills for days– locking himself up in his house, taking care of his own, not coming out for nothing and no one would have blamed him. I know I wouldn’t have.

But, Kendrick relayed, that the following Sunday he was slated to preach at a special church service that he’d said yes to participate in months prior. As much as he could have said no, “I don’t feel like preaching this week,” Kendrick told us something in his spirit said to him again, “You need to preach. You need to preach” even though everyone in his life encouraged him to stay at home.

During that Sunday’s sermon, as Kendrick ascended to the pulpit, as he had done on countless occasions, he did so on different terms. Everything about his life had changed in those moments running between the NICU, the ICU and the chapel. His beloved was gone.

But, there was something huge that had not changed. God was with him. He felt God’s Spirit raping loving arms around him and his family. God still called him to bear witness to the good news, even in this dark, dark hour of his own story.

And, so there was a word he had to preach. This word was, “I believe what I preach. I believe what I preach.” He needed his congregation to know that he believed what he preached. The faith of the Jesus story was his own, even at this juncture of sorrow.

 There are a couple of things that you are taught in seminary about preaching that could go against the preaching plan of Kendrick did that day. First of all, in times of great personal crisis, we were encouraged to find someone else to fill the pulpit. “You don’t have to be superman or woman,” we heard over and over.  Furthermore, I can remember clearly the lecture when my preaching professor warned us not to bring too much of ourselves into the pulpit. “The sermon is not story time with the pastor,”  my classmates and I were told, “Each sermon you give is the proclamation of the word of God.  So, leave your cute stories at home. The word of God will be better for it.”

While in later reflection, I agreed with this, (as I have been in situations as listener of sermons, probably like you have too, where you feel abused by the preacher simply vomiting for you their stories on you about nothing helpful or anything found in the Biblical text), I also know there is something powerful about the connection between the preaching moment and personal testimony.

Because at heart, sermons that we feature prominently in the order of worship each week, are a product of the proclaimer wrestling with God in such a way through personal reflection and study so that the listeners are too encouraged to wrestle with the texts too.

When people ask me– often who are not familiar with all things church as to what I do on a weekly basis– I say I write and preach sermons that are product of my own spiritual journey with a word for the greater congregation in mind.

Though there are some pastors who do the alternative, I just don’t know any other way to preach than to have it overflow out of my own relationship with God as I seek to make sense of the joys, failures, and disappointments in my own life.  I do this all in the hope that you’ll see me model this publically and then be encouraged to enter in a similar process too.

One of my preaching mentors, though we’ve never met, is Lillian Daniel. Lillian is the pastor of First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn in Illinois. In response to her own experiences of pastoring, encouraging her people to have real experiences of God and then do the crazy thing called “share them” with the community Lillian writes the book, Tell it Like it Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony.  

And this is her basic challenge to pastors: make sure your people know that you wrestle with God, just as you ask them to do every Sunday.

 Lillian hypotheses that while pastors are often eager to talk about themselves– which my seminary professors warned against– they are not so eager to talk about their own relationship with God. Why?

Because she writes, many either don’t have one that they’ve touched on in years (sobering truth) or our fear and/or lack of practice gets the best of us.  

So, here we arrive at the reason for this different kind of sermon for this morning. Though I assume that you know about your pastor, just as Kendrick’s story illustrated, that I “believe what I preach” this morning I feel called to make it explicit for you. That I too believe what preach and never bring you any less than something that I have wrestled within, struggled through, shouted to God about– because this is what the gospel is all about.  And, though I had a sermon all outlined for our lectionary readings for today on the topic of “God Calls Us to Be Well” I just couldn’t preach it. I felt the tug on my heart to preach to you my own story of “God Calls me to Be Well.”

And, this is my journey of being made well:

There is a misconception, I believe, that if you go into ministry as a pastoral leader, you like being a professional Christian. That getting paid to pastor means that you always are eager to read your Bible every morning, that you are always eager to pray when people ask, and that living a life guided by the spiritual disciplines is what you just adore.

But, while, yes, most pastor types, myself included are wired to be more spiritually sensitive than most, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t human. It doesn’t mean that we don’t go through our own spiritually high and spiritual low moments. It doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle to care for our peeps when the burdens of our own hearts seek to keep us paralyzed in a space of “it’s all about me.” It doesn’t mean that pastors never feel abandoned by God when our prayers for ourselves and on behalf of our congregation just aren’t answered in the way we like.

Furthermore, there are times in every pastor’s life when reading the Bible is really the last thing we want to do. And, though I heard in an interview recently that Joel Osteen, the famed tv preacher, said he never doubted his faith– I’d be worried to be part of any congregation where the pastor hasn’t doubted his or her faith from time to time because I think doubt is just a part of what it means to believe.

And, so what is it that I believe about God as I seek to live out my Christian journey and calling in such a public way in front of you all?

I believe that resurrection is real. Yes, resurrection, the concept, the action and the moment in Jesus’ life that our Christian faith is based upon– is real. Why? Because I’ve experienced it in my own life. And in particular, I received a fresh experience of it this week.

The past two weeks for me have been a time of lots of personal reflection. It’s been a time that a set of outside circumstances orchestrated outside of any control has caused me to pause and put some puzzle pieces in my own life story back into different places. It’s been a time when I’ve come to realize that as dark and as lonely as certain seasons in my life felt, I was not as alone or unseen as I thought. And, most of all, I’ve experienced a work in me I know could have only come from God.

And this is what is important for you to know: there was a desire, a hope and a characteristic in me that I thought was long dead, that I thought was long past, that I thought I had moved on from and was simply over only to have God’s presence through tangible examples show this:, “No it is not dead. No, you don’t have to settle for less. No, you don’t have to be afraid of seeking out more. Yes, ask for more.”

This movement has left me surprised, amazed and thankful. What an adventure it is to be on your journey of faith, going along, all is going just fine, only to realize that there’s this whole other beautiful horizon just waiting for you to jump into. This horizon called abundant living, even as the trials of daily life come and go and seek to knock us down. In Christ, there’s really more! This is what resurrection is all about.

Such a breathe of resurrection for me has meant I can’t help but throw my hands up in gratitude to God and say thank you to the Lord like I’ve never said before. It’s a joy that I know that could not come from any other place than the Lord because many to an unspiritual outsider it really doesn’t look like much if anything has changed. But, it has. It really has. Resurrection found me.

This, my friends, is part of what I wanted to exhort you to if I spent the whole time with our gospel lection this morning– that when the leper, the outsider, the one who didn’t believe that anything about his community repelling skin condition was ever going to change– Jesus shows up and chooses to do a new work in his life.  And, resurrection came to him to– in the most untame of ways.

And, such a journey of discipleship is waiting for you and me too– a calling if we choose as well to accept it.

So while we all walk through seasons of deep loss, of deep pain, of the bewilderment of having the most joyous days of our lives then morph into our worst, as happened to my colleague Kendrick, I believe we are never a people without hope. We are not without hope because we are a people of resurrection. We are a people where no story is ever finished, no dream is ever dead and gone, and no horror story is ever without redemption.

This is what I believe and it is what I try hard to believe during my most defeated moments too. This is what I believe about God’s calling for us to be well. This is what I believe is happening in my life right now. And this is what I believe God wants to do in your life too– whatever your fill in the blank circumstances might be too. 

I believe that it is so sweet to trust in Jesus and just to take him at his word and just to rest upon God’s promises and just to know thus saith the Lord. Sure, there are moments of doubt of this promise for all of us– but thank goodness, we worship a God who is always in a relentless pursuit of us: a God who loves us so much that he wants us to be well.

What about you? Do you believe what you are about to sing? If not, don’t sing it. And, I pray, one day you will. But, if you do, sing out my friends, sing loud, for we have some praising of our Lord to get to. This is what I believe.


February 9, 2012

Blessed Are They That Mourn

How many times has it be said about grief: “It’s not a big deal. Why can’t you just get over it?” Or, “Time heals all wounds.”

It is easy for us to say or want to say these words because in doing so we separate the emotion from our participation in it. Grief,  when let loose is confusing. It is consuming and can be all-consuming. Grief always has a life cycle of its own. To be a friend of grief, hard work is required. And, if we are honest, often we really don’t want to work this hard, especially when we see others on what looks like much easier paths.  It is a lot easier to throw up our hands and say, “Life is unfair” than to do the work grief lays out for us. Grief is a messy, very messy process, no matter how trained we are in its “stages.” 

For the past two Wednesday nights, a group of us from Washington Plaza began a study called, “Sowing Tears, Reaping Joy: The Bible and Brahm’s Requiem.” This study involves the study of scripture texts that appear and inform the words of the requiem as well as listening to sections of the music in a reflective posture. We’ve also taken moments throughout the sessions to pause and share with one another our experiences of grief. Together, as a small group, we are wading in the waters of deep community. It’s not easy to talk about grief, you know!

Besides observing how real and deep and experienced many in this small group are with the study of and process of grief, I’ve also noticed how eager each of us in the class are to sit with the depths of grief together in new ways. (What an unusual gift!)

Part of this re-examining process includes revisiting some of the great mourning texts of the scriptures. We started with some words of Jesus.

When Jesus says in his great Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are they that mourn; for they will be comforted” it seems like a completely wacky paradox, we observed. How could Jesus say such a thing? Especially to our natural human tendency to want to explain away grief with simple answers that seem to make it better as soon as possible . . . so how could we believe such? How could mourning be good for us?

While many psychological experts might jump in and answer our questions quickly, from a spiritual perspective, we’ve talked about grieving because we have to.  In fact, our willingness to embrace grief has a lot to do with what we feel about God. Grief teaches us to sit long with such questions as: “What is God’s plans for this world? How is it that we know God? Who can ultimately be trusted in the midst of our dark moments? Why do good things happen to such bad people?”

Such grief questions do not even have morsels to offer us if we don’t wait. And, wait some more.

Ellen Davis, a professor of mine from seminary said this in a sermon given in 1993 at Berkeley Divinity School, about grief: “From a Biblical perspective, living well with sorrow means dwelling on it, lamenting it before God, allowing-no, committing yourself to search the sorrow, to explore every corner of it, to ransack the emptiness until it yields its treasure, the hidden blessing on those who mourn.”

I can’t think of a more beautiful way to describe the process of “blessed are they that mourn.” For if we refuse to make a friend of grief, both within us and our immediate community, we are also going to also miss out on its great gifts. Again placing the word “grief” and “gifts” in the same sentence sounds wrong to me, doesn’t it to you? But, more and more I am learning that the pain of grief is not diminished if we have open hands to what only grief can bring us: joy. Joy, yes, even in grief and all its pain, there might be joy a coming . . .

Joy in the companionship of friends who love us at our worst.

Joy in the ability to keep going when we have every reason to give up.

Joy in the knowledge that we are seen and known deeply by our Creator.

Blessed are they that mourn– for those who cry, walling, lament, and angrily shout at God for as long as it takes to get it all out–  for in mourning space hope has a possiblity of breaking through.

Any are welcomed to join us on this grief journey for the next five Wednesday nights!

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