The First Day: The Light of God

To say that light is created on the first day is to say that light is at the heart of life. It is the beginning of creation in the sense that it is the essence or centre from which life proceeds. At the heart of all that has life is the light of God.
–J. Philip Newell, The Book of Creation, 3.

Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of the Word,
Through the Passion and Sacrifice saved in spite of their negative being;
Bestial as always before, carnal, self seeking as always before, selfish and purblind as ever before,
Yet always struggling, always reaffirming, always resuming their march on the way that was lit by the light;
Often halting, loitering, straying, delaying, returning, yet following no other way.
–T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock.”

Though many people were (wrongly) disappointed with its ending, I was a huge fan of the show LOST. Ultimately, the show was about a battle between the attempts for good and the distractions of evil that we all work our way through in this life. I thought of the show particularly during Peter’s sermon this week, as he described the unfortunate heritage of “light” and “dark,” which are often described as good and bad respectively. In LOST, the two embodiments of the struggle on the island were visually represented by the physical colors of white and charcoal gray, but neither side was ever thought to be thoroughly good or bad; they simply were the two sides. It was a dichotomous conflict that the show’s writers detailed through six seasons of flashbacks, flash-forwards, flash-sideways, and moral ambiguity. It was difficult to know who was or who would end up being “good.” The characters all had sordid pasts filled with mistakes, missteps, misfortunes, and misunderstandings. But on the island of a million confusing and mysterious questions, they were forced to choose who they would trust and who they would not. In the end–and I’ll try not to spoil too much–the characters found the ultimate goodness, the true ability to “step into the light,” in their commitment to one another. They found love and friendship and community and life together. As Jack Shepherd, the de facto leader of the survivors of Oceanic 815, always said, they could “live together or die alone.”

For me, I resonated with the overarching message of the series because of its willingness to explore the complexity of our journeys as human beings and its insistence that, in the end, the most important piece of who we are, the true light that we can all walk in, is found in our journey together. As a community of faith, I feel that we are continually discovering and re-discovering the beauty of that light. And as we so often walk into the unknown ahead of us, may we carry each other as bright lights into an uncertain future.

I really like this John Mayer song and was reminded of it during these past couple of weeks. As you listen to it, I’d invite you to jot down your own thoughts about light and darkness. If you feel comfortable, share your own thoughts and responses in the comments section as we continue our ongoing conversation through this series.

The Book of Creation

I open the book
and the words
fly out of the page.
            –Scottish Poet Kenneth White

Every once in a while, I have these experiences in which I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the world. I remember vividly the first time I saw an ocean. I stood on the beach, transfixed by the sheer vastness of the open water. I remember squinting to see the horizon, where the water met the sky. It looked like the edge of existence, even though I cognitively knew there were people living on the other side. When I lived in Bolivar, my friends and I would often drive the 2.5 minutes it took to get out of town and into the middle of nowhere. We’d sit in the bed of my friend’s truck and stare up at millions of stars and talk about our relative smallness. Or last fall, when Laura and I went to New Mexico. I snuck away during one session to climb a nearby mountain. From the peak, I was struck by this view:

Thinking back on these experiences, I’m reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. For Thoreau, the ability to recognize the beauty of nature was directly connected to the human ability to achieve self-awareness and art.

Thoreau wrote,

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of [a human being] to elevate his[/her] life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

Celtic Christianity has long seen this same connection between the goodness of creation declared in the Genesis poems and the goodness that exists in each human soul.  In The Book of Creation, Celtic theologian J. Philip Newell describes it this way:

God’s wisdom is born with us ‘in the womb’, as Ecclesiasticus says, or, as St. John says, in us is ‘the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world’. Sin has buried the beauty of God’s image, but not erased it. The gospel is given to uncover the hidden wealth of God that has been planted in the depths of our human nature.

So, what is left for us to do? It is as Thoreau said,

We are constantly invited to be what we are; as to something worthy and noble.

Resurrections and ruptures

This Eastertide, our conversations will focus on the reverberations of the resurrection throughout our tradition. The story of Jesus has inspired a global religious movement that has a wide-range of diverse beliefs and practices. Though they are so diverse, these different pieces of our tradition all trace their origins to the story of Jesus. As we continue to discern where God is leading us as a community of faith, we’ll be looking at some aspects of these traditions and searching for the hidden kernels of resurrection that have inspired those who follow in the way of Jesus for such a long time. Some of these thoughts might make us uncomfortable, but we may also be surprised to see where life shines through the many strands of the Christian history.

So join us for the next few weeks as we explore our past(s) and discover our future together.

Times of pain

Lent is often associated with a wandering in the desert. Occasionally, we have our own deserts to face. Often we encounter others on our journeys who, though they only intend to help, seem to offer more pain than comfort. For example, I’ve heard people offer condolences to a young family who had lost a child by suggesting that “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” I’m sure these people were struggling to find something–anything–to say, but I couldn’t help but wonder if what they managed to come up with did more harm than good.

This week, we want our conversation to come from our own voices. We’re asking you to respond and to give us your feedback.

What is the worst thing someone has said to you during a time of pain?

Ashes to Ashes . . .

. . . we all fall down.

This week, Christians all over the world began their annual remembrance of the season called Lent. I noticed earlier this week that “Lent” was actually trending on Twitter, meaning there were a lot of people talking about it on the internet. All in all, most people were outsourcing their Lenten commitments and relying on their social networks to determine what they ought to give up. To be honest, it all sounded like noise to me.

But I was struck last night by the last phrase of the Scripture reading in our Ash Wednesday service. After Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days, he was left alone in the desert. The quietness of those moments must have been a welcome relief. I was also reminded of the stories about Jesus calming the storm. The disciples were so caught up in the dangers of the storms, and Jesus simply speaks a word and peace settles over the surface of the waters.

Lent is a time of thoughtfulness in which we re-examine our old assumptions, look closely at our lives, and pursue meaning in unexpected places. This year, may we find the peace and comfort that comes in the silence of self-reflection and discovery.

Join us for worship at 10 am on Sunday as we embark on this Lenten journey together.

Graceful argument

In the patchwork quilt that is my spiritual journey, grace was a piece of the design I didn’t understand. I heard numerous preachers extol the miracle of grace from the pulpit. But what did it mean?
My confusion mostly stemmed from the fact that most faith traditions don’t exactly agree on what grace is or isn’t. I’ve read a number of books and scoured the web to get a handle on it. The simplest, most straightforward definition I came across was by Mary Fairchild at About.com: “Grace is kindness from God we don’t deserve.”

As virtuous as we try to be, our human frailty leads us astray. Sin is at the very root of our nature. No matter how hard we try, at the very least we’re going to covet or blaspheme along the way … probably without even realizing it. Grace is the gift that redeems us from our transgressions. Christ died for all the sin humans have committed and will commit. Here’s where the arguments get hot: does this mean we get a free pass to party like rock stars because Christ died for our sins?

There are an infinite number of answers to that question. Which of those answers is actually correct is part of the Divine mystery. Depending on your concept of Hell, all but a select few of us will end up in eternal damnation … or all of us, no matter how large our sins, will ascend to the Pearly Gates. But it’s even more complicated than that! Casting aside those who either do or don’t believe in Hell, we still have to factor in the varying views of Purgatory. For some, Purgatory IS Hell. For others it’s the waiting room between the two places … while still others view our earthly lives as Purgatory. Our life on earth is simply marking time.

Where does grace fall in all that?

There are those who believe you are only granted God’s grace if you take a vow of poverty, donate every cent you make to charity and devote your life to Christ’s mission. There are those who believe as long as one person suffers none shall be granted eternal life. Still others believe so long as you say God and Jesus are A-OK in your book, your place in heaven is waiting. But who is right?
Seems like a cruel guessing game, doesn’t it? But this isn’t some Diving game of Clue, we’re talking about our eternal souls here, right? We can all argue about grace until we’re blue in the face, but the answer to this mystery isn’t going to reveal itself until each of us is unable to tell anyone else what the true answer is.
All we have are human beliefs and convictions about what God’s message is. The piece of that message that was always most clear to me was love. Love one another regardless. No matter differing ideologies, religions, race or creed God is pretty clear that he wants us to love and care for one another. While we bide our time on this mortal coil, I think that’s one of the best things we can do … if only to make a worthwhile endeavor out of this whole mystery.

The Tenth Anniversary

We all remember where we were that day, that terrible day ten years ago.  I was staring stupidly at the Today show, I had just watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center.  Academically, I knew what was happening.  Emotionally, I was refusing to believe my eyes and ears.

I already felt horrible.  The afternoon before, I’d had an asthma attack.  I was home in bed waiting to go see the doctor about adjusting my medication again.  I remember blurting out to my empty bedroom, “We’re under attack?”  It was a question, not a statement.  My mind still reeled from the images and sounds coming from the 19 inch television on top of my bureau.

It seemed so small.  It seemed so far away.  Then it all came crashing in so very, very close.

Reports were chaotic.  We heard a bomb had gone off at Times Square, then the Capital, eventually those would all be unconfirmed.  But then one of the local Washington stations reported a plane had hit the Pentagon.  I heard the news anchor say, “Can we confirm … Ok, yes, we have confirmation that a plane has crashed into the Pentagon.”

I felt my throat start to close, I was freezing cold despite being under the bed clothes.  I yelled to an empty room, “Daddy!”

Every morning from 1993 until 2008, my father traveled up I-95 from Woodbridge, VA to Rosslyn, VA where his office was.  It’s about a 28 mile drive.  The commute took him through the wind of spaghetti like roads surrounding the Pentagon.  Having done the commute with him several times myself and knowing the time he left, I knew that he’d be heading  into that area just about that time, just about the time that plane crashed.

I must have dropped my phone three times trying to dial my father’s cell phone then my mother.  When she picked up, her voice was tight with panic, “Hello!”

“Mom, have you heard from Da – …”

“No, I thought this call was him.  Get off the phone, I haven’t heard from him,” she hung up abruptly.

As, I hung the phone up it rang again.  I snatched up the receiver only to find my doctor’s office on the other line asking me if I could come in earlier than my appointment.  They wanted to close early.

I drove the five blocks to my parents’ house, shaking the whole way.  I sat with my mother on the couch, watching the images of the plane hitting the Trade Center over and over again.  We also both warily eyed the cordless phone on the coffee table, willing it to ring.

It didn’t ring for three hours.

As I had feared,  my father had been right at the Pentagon either as the plane hit or shortly after.  He dialed 911 furiously on his cell phone, but to no avail.  Circuits had been overrun or shut down.

It took him over an hour to go the seven miles from the Pentagon to the parking garage at his office.  He didn’t say much when he called.  Just told my mother he was okay and that his office was closing early.  He was going to do a few things and then try to make his way back home.

My family has always been the stiff upper lip sort.  None of us are big huggers or criers.  My father spent 35 years of his professional career as a journalist.  From the short time I spent as a journalist, I know the profession numbs you to many of life’s tragedies.  You form a hard outer shell around your tender emotions and don’t get too close to anything, simply out of self-preservation.

When he got home that afternoon, for the first time in my life I saw my father cry.  He hugged my mother and I very tightly.  Then he sat for several hours, staring dumbly at the television.

The fear we all felt that day was horrific, worse still was the bitter anger.  So many of us felt the need to lash out and often in totally the wrong direction.  Worse still, so many us either lost a loved one or knew someone who did.  There was a constant need to feel like we were doing something about this, but precious little to do.

That Friday, a group of us booked the large conference room at the office.  Everyone brought candles and at 3 p.m. went up to that room, turned off the lights and lit the candles.  One of the women in the group began to quietly pray.  Slowly, we all joined in saying the Lord’s Prayer.  It wasn’t much, but we were finally doing something.