Thursday, December 22, 2011

Light Up the Patches of Darkness

A beautiful live Christmas tree adorns our home. It is work to get it in place and decorated every year but now I can enjoy it. After the initial work of trimming the tree is done I sit back and look at how it turned out and inevitably I will see “patches of darkness”. There are too many lights in one place and not enough in other places. We shift the strands of lights around until the distribution of light is more uniform.

According to the Gospel of John, when Jesus was born, light rushed into the world; that light was the light of all people and darkness couldn't overcome itJohn 1:4-5. (Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus twice refers to himself as light of the worldJohn 8:12; John 9:5.)

The Gospel writer goes on to explain that a man named John “the Baptist” (a cousin of Jesus?) was a witness to the light and went forth to testify about the light so that all might believe through him—John 1:8-9. There was this wonderful new kind of light in the world but it’s the kind of light that’s not obvious to the untrained eye. You have to “learn how to see it,” and you have to “see” to believe.

John the Baptist saw the “God light” himself and then went forth to help others “see”. Followers of Christ are likewise called to see the light of Jesus in our world and be the light of Jesus for our world.

Our Christmas trees have “patches of darkness” and we arrange the strands of lights so that the darkness is overcome. I think that gives us a great image of how the Church ought to function.

Christ’s Body should be strands of “God-light” in our world. The Church ought to spread out across the world so that “patches of darkness” are minimized to the extent possible. Our “God-light” should make this world a brighter place…

Christ told his followers that they were light of the world and urged them to let their light shine among men to the glory of God—Matthew 5:14-16. Jesus made his life a living example for us of how we might do that. Paul called the Christians in Philippi to follow Christ’s example, challenging them to shine like stars in a “dark” place—Philippians 2:5-11; 15. We, the followers of Jesus, need to hear this same call today. The “God-light” is in each one of us but too often it remains “hidden”. We need to let our light shine in a world that desperately needs to “see” the light that only Christ can bring.

Over the mountains
Into the valleys
Crossing the ocean
And through the darkness
To all the hopeless
For all the broken
I'll carry the light

—From Carry the Light, by Mark Harris

1. Have you experienced “God-light” in your life? Do you share it or hide it?

2. What holds you back from letting your light shine?

3. What/who can help encourage you to let your light shine more?

4. What is one way you could illuminate a “patch of darkness” this Christmas?


Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Edge of Glory


A song that was popular a little over a year ago was Lady GaGa’s Edge of Glory[1]. As with most videos today the scenes are choreographed to be provocative as the singer ungulates about in a skimpy outfit belting out the lyrics.

So on one level, the "meaning" of the song seems quite obvious and quite “basic.” A woman wants to be with a man tonight and will stop at nothing to see it happen. It’s time to cut through all the excuses once and for all and follow her heart’s desire—“there aint no reason you and me should be alone tonight.” These lyrics speak to our hearts because they evoke risk, danger, maybe even scandal. We all want to be swept up in a story like this with romance, suspense, and intrigue. As the singer steps out on “the edge of glory,” she hopes to finally experience the deep and abiding love she has been searching for, to finally find that relationship with another person that makes things “right” in a world where so much seems wrong. As the song goes on, one gains the impression that, for whatever reason, this is her last chance and she doesn’t want to miss this opportunity.

But why such urgency and boldness all of a sudden? Why is this woman willing to take this risk now as opposed to before?

When asked about the song in an  interview, Lady GaGa revealed that the inspiration for this song came to her as her grandfather was dying. So there may indeed be another layer of meaning to this song. Someone she loved dearly was about to leave this life—“kiss the other side”. So when GaGa sings about being on the “edge of glory” it might actually symbolize that moment of crossing over from life to death. Perhaps the loss of someone close to her helps her prioritize what really matters. Given this background, these lyrics might be about more than raging hormones and animal procreative instincts after all. 

Maybe the singer in GaGa’s ballad is willing to hang on “a moment of truth” today, because she now has a sobering reminder in her own life that tomorrow might be too late.

These words, especially the chorus, have been rattling around in my brain during the Christmas season.

I'm on the edge of glory
And I'm hanging on a moment of truth
I'm on the edge of glory
And I'm hanging on a moment with you
I'm on the edge
The edge… The edge… The edge…
The edge… The edge… The edge
I'm on the edge of glory
And I'm hanging on a moment with you
I'm on the edge with you

Lady GaGa’s lyrics evoke thoughts of another song, written centuries ago. The two singers couldn’t be more different—one a pop superstar, the other virtually unknown to the world of her day—but both messages, at least at their core, seem strikingly similar.

Mary is Jewish, a teenager, unmarried, a virgin! An angel visited her and told her that God had chosen her for an incredible task. She will become Mother of God. Mary struggles to comprehend this news, as any of us would in her sandals. She wrestles with the implications for her life—her plans for marriage, her dreams. She seeks out her “mentor” Elizabeth, whom she learns is herself pregnant against seemingly impossible odds. From the moment she arrives, Elizabeth is filled with joy—even the unborn child within Elizabeth seems to be rejoicing in the presence of Mary. “What an honor to be in the presence of the Lord, and of you, Mary, the woman God has chosen to bear his Son Jesus. Blessed are you and your son!”

Just like Lady GaGa, Mary seems to realize that this is “a moment of truth” for her. Until now, she’s been able to keep this pregnancy under wraps. But soon she’ll have to “go public”. If she’s going to carry out God’s plan, she’ll soon have to tell the rest of the world—not to mention her family and fiancé!—that she’s expecting. Mary has to decide what she will do. Elizabeth seems pretty excited; in fact, her attitude is downright contagious. Mary has had many concerns; but here, in this place with Elizabeth being so supportive, for the first time she dares to believe that things might just work out okay. Mary finally lets her heart burst forth in praise to God.

Mary essentially says, “God, I confess that I’m afraid and uncertain about my future right now. From my perspective, it doesn’t seem that hopeful right now. But because I’m with You, I will trust that things are going to turn out okay for me—perhaps even more than okay. Even though so much seems wrong about this situation, I’m committed to seeing it through and going where you lead. Even though I don’t understand, I choose to cling to the promise the angel gave me. I said I was your servant then and I reaffirm that choice now. Let it be as you say… Then she begins to sing her beautiful song. I imagine it starting a bit timid at first, and growing in strength as Mary gains confidence:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
And my spirit exalts in God my Savior
For He has looked with mercy on my lowliness
And my name will be forever exalted
For the mighty God has done great things for me
An His mercy will reach from age to age
And holy, holy, holy is His name
He has mercy in every generation
He has revealed His power and His glory
He has cast down the mighty in their arrogance
And has lifted up the meek and the lowly
He has come to help His servant Israel
He remembered His promise to our fathers
And holy, holy, holy is His name[2]

I think a modern summary of Mary’s Magnificat could be: I’m on the edge of glory, and I’m hanging on this moment with You. I am on the edge with You!"

Theologian N.T. Wright says that glory is what happens when a creature does what it was created to do. (The Eastern Orthodox speak of “living up to our logos.”) For Mary, her calling was to be theotokos—the God-bearer, the literal Mother of God. Likewise, for each of us, our calling is to “birth” the God-given potential (or if you will, the miracle) within us. We are each unique creations of our Creator; both our gifts and our limitations are custom-designed for us.

We are each called to step out on the “edge of glory,” whatever that may be for you.  We are to embark on our own quest to discover and become that which God created us to be. When we finally rub up against, “the edge of glory,” in our lives, when we find that place where, “our great joy and the world’s deep needs intersect,” then we will live like we’ve never lived before. We will understand why St. Iranaeus could say: “The glory of God is [human beings] fully alive.” 

 “I’m standing on the edge of something final we call life tonight.”—Lady GaGa

Jesus frequently talked about a kind of final life too.  He called it the life of the ages—or eternal life. In the only true definition he gave of eternal life, he said simply that it was found in "knowing God as revealed in himself, the Son of God"John 17:3.

One thing is certain; today is the only chance we have to make an impact... the only chance we have to know God and love God and others. We can’t go back to change the past… we can’t control the future… however, our actions can help to shape the present.  Just as Mary did in her own unique way in her specific time and place, we can say "yes" to God, and help him "give birth" to the future with hope [Jeremiah 29:11] that God dreams of—for us and for the whole world.

Friends, today just might be our “moment of truth.”  As with Mary, God has issued a personal invitation to each one of us. The only question is: How will we respond?   Are we ready to take a the leap of faith and step out on the “edge of glory” with God?

I hope we'll all be willing to say "yes"; I hope I'll find you out on the edge of glory with God.


[1] Full lyrics easily obtained via Google search on “Edge of Glory lyrics”. Interpretations shared herein are solely mine and might or might not have been the author’s intent.
[2] The song is called Holy is the Lord, written by John Michael Talbot, and is based upon the words of Mary’s Magnificat found in Luke 1:46-54. For a beautiful interpretation of the song (verse 1 only) with accompanying liturgical dance please visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkOoeyzLlac. The song starts around minute 3:25; however, the earlier portion is worth listening to as it sets the context.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Embracing Our Christmas Stains

I have been reading a book called Christmas is Not Your Birthday recently. One of the points that author Mike Slaughter makes is that we try so hard to sanitize Christmas. Every year, we engage in a futile quest to clean up and create the perfect Christmas.

As I was reflecting on this idea recently, I thought of the line below from a 1973 episode of Sanford and Son. It’s an exchange between “entrepreneur” (a.k.a., junk dealer) Fred Sanford (played by Redd Foxx), and his bible-thumping, purse-slinging sister-in-law, Esther Anderson (played by Lawanda Page) that takes place when she comes to bail Fred out of jail.[1]

Esther: Fred Sanford, I’m glad my sister didn’t live to see the stain you’ve bought on this family.

Fred: Esther, I didn’t put no stain on your family. Your family was stained when I met y’all... Every time a baby was born, they had that ugly stain on them. That’s right! That ugly stain! Even AJAX couldn’t do nothing for it.

It struck me that Fred’s sentiment, while somewhat irreverent, could be describing our annual preparations for Christmas. This time of year we get out our “AJAX” (whether literal or figurative) and “scrub and scrub” and try to get everything looking pristine and perfect for Christmas. But no matter how hard we try, we can’t attain the perfection we seek. By the end of the season we are exhausted in every way.

We even do this in our churches. Nativity scenes are ubiquitous this time of year. They seek to create the perfect Kodak moment at the end of the Christmas pageant. We “clean up” the Christmas story and present a perfect image of Christmas. All of the characters are neatly arranged around the manger. Everyone is well-groomed and smiling. But the fact is, if you study the details of the actual stories (contained in the first two chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels) you realize the Christmas story is a whole lot more grittier, messier and complex than what we present on stage on Christmas Eve—it sounds much more like real life.

The fact is, we can “scrub and scrub”, but we can never get all the stains out of the real Christmas story—nor, I would argue, should we.

It’s been said: The perfect is the enemy of the good; I think it’s true. If we get caught up in trying to make something perfect we might very well miss out on something that has the potential to be good. For example, we can become consumed with trying to have a perfect Christmas and fail to appreciate what is so good about the Christmas story. If we try too hard to scrub Christmas clean, we might end up scrubbing Christ out of the holiday that bears his name.

What if the whole point God is trying to make in having the Christmas Story unfold precisely the way it did is that things don’t have to be perfect for them to turn out very good? What if the presence of a few stains in our lives or our dwelling places doesn’t bother God nearly as much as they bother us?

There is an old hymn called There is a Fountain Filled With Blood whose chorus says: “sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains”. This line of theological thinking maintains Jesus’ blood does what no amount of our own scrubbing can do. Because of what Jesus did on the cross—and only because of that—we are now cleansed of our stains and made perfect before God.

But I’m not sure I believe that exactly. I’ve been a follower of Christ my whole life (41 years) and there are some stains that are just as stubborn as ever! I think perhaps reality is actually closer to Fred Sanford’s “theology”: “You can scrub and scrub but even AJAX won’t get rid of those stains.” That is to say, I think maybe we’re meant to keep some of our stains for eternity. (If that sounds strange, consider that Jesus, after the resurrection, still bore the marks of the nails that held him to the cross. Why weren’t those wounds healed?)

What if the blood of Jesus doesn’t remove our guilty stains altogether, but rather redeems them? What if the real Christmas story—not the sanitized nativity scene version—is meant to remind us that stains are an inescapable part of life on Earth—and that’s actually a good thing. What if stains are actually the flipside of giftedness[2]? What if the only way we can become all that God created us to be is to fully accept and embrace our stains?

No, you and I aren’t perfect people, and we never will be; but the good news we celebrate at Christmas is that by God’s grace, we are good people! We are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of our Creator and there is much good God can accomplish through us if we will simply follow Mary’s example and say, “Yes,” to God’s initiative in our lives. If we open ourselves, God can use us—stains and all—to “birth” our own unique Christmas miracle just like he did with Mary.


[1] For those unfamiliar, this YouTube video gives some context .

[2] Thanks to Parker Palmer for this idea—see Let Your Life Speak, Josey–Bass (2000).

Friday, November 4, 2011

Remembering Hope: Three-and-a-half Years Later

Today is exactly 3.5 years since we lost our daughter Hope Marie. Sometimes "anniversaries" make you stop and think about things.

Hope is certainly still—and always will be—part of us. We never want to forget her precious life that was so short this side of eternity. We want the children to know they had a sibling. But, although I suppose it can sound cliché, it does seem true that time really does have the capacity to heal wounds. Memories still surface and when they come, they sting... but life and living goes on... and I think I can say it has for the Wards.

There is a kind of "separation" as Becca grows into a very vibrant and spirited little girl and we remember Hope as a two-day old infant slipping away into God's arms. You can almost forget for a while that she was "supposed" to be here. (I'm sure most outside our family have mostly forgotten about her accept when someone or something reminds them; it's only natural to focus most on those actually physically present with us.) We have our two children and we love them dearly. We live our life together and the family seems "complete". But then we'll be doing something together, maybe I am struggling to handle the two children, and it will hit me -- "There were supposed to be three...", or I will see Becca doing something and think that Hope isn't here to experience it.

To this day, when I see a set of twins, I confess it's difficult—and sometimes it seems like those darn double strollers are everywhere! I want to ask parents of twins: "So what's it like to raise them?" (Once in a play area at the mall I am pretty sure that there were two sets of identical twins present at the same time. I'm like, "Okay God, enough already! Oy veh?!")

The grief I feel the most is the sense of our family being "robbed" of experience—and there's nothing I as dad could do about it. Laurie and I missed out on in knowing Hope in this life, raising our first-born daughter (Hope was born first), and getting to be parents of twins. Likewise, Brady and Becca also suffered loss, even if they didn't know it -- they may feel it more as time goes on. They both lost the opportunity to have another sibling in this earthly life, and Becca lost the unique experience not just of having a sister, but an identical twin sister. I'll always wonder how the two girls personalities would have been similar or different? (I suspect they would have looked the same but had different personalities, but I will never know...) What kind of special bond would the two of them would have had? What kind of bond would I as father have had with Hope? (I know I have a special one with Becca.) What does Becca sense she is "missing"?

The kids know about their sister, "Baby Hope." From time-to-time they ask questions and we pull out a memory box with what few things we have left from her brief life. We visit the cemetery at my parent’s church in Calvert County where she is buried occasionally but we certainly don't go often. (I suppose it helps that she is buried over an hour away.) We know Hope is not there... but it is a place where we can pause to intentionally remember that she was real, mattered very much to us, and we miss her presence with us.

Keep us in prayer on this day. This Sunday they have a memorial service at Franklin Square Hospital (where the girls were born) for those who have lost a child. We go to this every year and it is a good thing. Laurie is actually giving the short “meditation” this year—she felt ready to do it this year. The kids always enjoy going outside and releasing a " balloon to Jesus” for Hope at the end of the service.