The Grace of Dark


Romans 7: 14-15

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 

I have a never-ending fascination with light.  All it takes is one tiny splash of sunlight on something and I can’t stop staring at it.  If I have my camera handy, time ceases to exist as I capture whatever is being graced by the light for as long as the moment will allow.  I especially love it when I encounter a single leaf in the woods touched by a tiny ray of sunlight – I’ll often wonder, now why did that leaf get picked out of all the other leaves?

But – and this is interesting – I am only spellbound by light that is illuminating something that would otherwise be dark.  I am not in love with light for the sake of light, and more light is never better.  A sunny day can be made up of a lot of harsh glare, and in that case the light loses a significant part of its appeal.  So what this tells me is that the best light is light that is defined by darkness, and when shadow and light work together, that is the sweet spot.

We struggle to do better, and to be better people.  Yet sometimes we go dark.  Sometimes we go really, really dark; and it’s scary and perplexing.  We don’t want to do the things we’re doing, but we seem powerless to stop.  We spiral out of control, and like Paul we question, why is this happening?

For me it’s helpful to think of that single leaf in the woods receiving its very own ray of sunshine.  We don’t know why everything goes dark around us sometimes, but I do know that catching a ray of light is about the most grace-filled thing that can happen; and after all is said and done, the confusion of the darkness is worth the grace of the light.


Why Christian?


I entered the universe through the Christian portal by luck of the draw. I was born into my time, place and circumstances, and to the best of my knowledge I had no say in the matter. I left the Christian path as soon as I did have a say in the matter, and believed that was the end of the story. Yet, despite my best intentions, my baptism left its mark on me; it sort of gave me an address that I could always return to if I wanted, and know that I was home.

Christianity is perhaps the most treacherous road to travel by; it is peppered with land mines that are filled with the shrapnel of false certainties, buried and waiting for the unsuspecting traveler. After reaching a certain level of familiarity with the practice, I have come to both fear and treasure it’s teachings, some of which honor creator and creation, while others hold in contempt the wisdom of the very messiah that they profess to follow. I have experienced both the agony and the ecstasy of Christianity – sometimes simultaneously –  convincing me that the two reside in equal measure as part of the one great whole where I too, often stand in contrast to myself.

As a pastor, I am called to interpret and teach two millennia of our best theological thinking that is sadly mixed in with our worst theological thinking. I am not a rock star theologian.  I have not been gifted with the capacity for eloquent expression to draw in or captivate my audience. Sometimes I manage to strike a chord, but as God is my witness, I do not possess the elasticity my ego would require in order to contain my ambition. I do not seek to be a star, although I do spend a lot of time trying.  For nearly 20 years, I held Christianity and all things Christian in contempt.  I do not have a lifetime of wisdom to draw on – at least not Christian wisdom.  Nevertheless, despite my recalcitrance, there came a day when God showed me a level of grace that brought me to my knees, captivated me, and permanently changed me forever. I have spent all of my remaining years seeking the face of this gracious and loving entity which led me to the ministry where I hoped to be able to live up to the story of my own salvation.

While I have learned a great deal about Christianity, and I have somewhat honed my ability to think theologically, I still have yet to stand unflinching in the presence of the great I AM. You see, I always flinch, and my thinking takes over, and I end up worshipping my own thoughts rather than experiencing the divine presence of a love so pure that I don’t believe I could possibly be worthy of it. That’s hard stuff and it is so much easier to rationalize than it is to just be who I am, full of flaws, yet loved so purely and deeply that nothing else matters. Life doesn’t work that way, so how could eternity? And that is exactly how we regulate and control each other from realizing our true potential. While I cannot speak for other religions, or other people for that matter, I can see that the inhibitions and shame imposed in some Christian circles have become shackles on the human ability to connect with creator. It is human nature to want to be the best and the brightest; the disciples even argued over it. We truly don’t want equality; we each want to stand out – to be special. But if I am to be special then that means you cannot be special. So now we need rules to define who is special and who is not. Who’s in and who’s out, because we can’t all be special. And that is the same pitfall we all eventually land in – every religion – every person.

So with that in mind the question still remains, why Christian?  Well why not?  It is my destiny.  I did not choose it, it chose me.  Yet at the same time, it is not my destination, it is my transport. It is flawed beyond belief. The motor is rusty and the vehicle is so old that replacement parts are hard to come by. Sure, I could change rides, go for a newer, slicker model; but it’s just a ride and there are no guarantees regardless of which model you hop on board. I follow Christ because I am compelled by the one who said “blessed are the poor in Spirit for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.” You see, I am the poor in spirit – we all are. There is no such thing as special because we are all so incredibly special it cancels itself out. From the scant knowledge I have of Jesus, I hear the truth. I hear his voice beckoning, saying “come and see.”  I keep moving forward, hoping that what lies around the next bend will be the one I seek. It always is; the tricky part is my capacity to recognize it.

Christianity has as many flaws as it has followers who are filled with flaws of their own. How could it be anything else?  The trick is to stop kicking the tires and searching for the right vehicle, and just get in and go. Seek first the kingdom of God and the rest will follow. I have no idea where it’s going, no one does…but I’d rather be on the road seeking than not.  That’s just me, and that’s why Christian.

It’s a God Thing…


Four and a half years ago I felt myself being called to the ministry.  On the surface that doesn’t sound too terribly odd, but I had only just returned to church after a twenty-five year hiatus, so that kind of made things a little more interesting – and a whole lot more challenging.  Tomorrow, I preach my first sermon as the called pastor of two wonderful churches here in Wisconsin.  My name is even on the sign out front: Pastor Joylynn Graham…I look at that and I am rendered nearly speechless in my gratitude.

How does one go from being adamantly opposed to the church, to seminary, and then the ministry?  I don’t know…that’s a God thing; all I know is that it happened.  I can tell you that it took a whole stack of miracles – miracles that I could not have dreamed up had I wanted to.  Nothing about my preparation was easy.  In fact, every step of the way was like walking on hot charcoal and broken glass.  Every day my nose was rubbed in a whole stinking pile of just how little I knew about things.  I had to give up everything; my home, my pets, my assumptions and even my embedded theologies that I was sure I did not possess.  It was a leap of faith straight into a rudderless boat on a stormy sea with Jesus appearing to be fast asleep.  Most days I hung on, quite literally, by the skin of my teeth – thankfully I was too ignorant to know that’s what I was doing.

And transformation took place – the kind of transformation that could never have taken place outside of the church – at least for me.  You see I had avoided the church like the plague because IMHO I thought it was full of nothing but a bunch of messed up in the head hypocrites.  Wherever I saw Christians, I saw people who did not practice what they preached – even though I never really bothered to ask each individual just exactly what it was they did preach.  So I went rogue; I was a classic SBNR, who by the way did not practice what I preached – whatever that was…

In many ways I was right about the church; we are a bunch of messed up people, but that was all I could see.  What I could not see was that we are a bunch of messed up people like everyone else just trying to be faithful the best way we know how – together.  We do it together because we know that we cannot possibly do it alone, and we learn to love, support and care for each other despite the fact that we are a bunch of messed up people.  And that is what is at the heart of the gospel.  That is the essence of the two greatest commandments…Love of God and Love of Neighbor.

Tomorrow I will preach my first sermon on the Pharisees and the Scribes who got ahead of themselves and did not practice what they preached.  It seems rather fitting doesn’t it?  To preach my first sermon on the very thing that kept me from attending all those years?  It is not a new problem.  In fact the text makes it clear that it is a temptation that we all fall prey to from time to time.  But there is hope, and there are miracles – miracles that we could not dream up if we wanted to.  In a time when people are abandoning the church in droves, there are some of us who are returning – driven by a miraculous impulse.  I don’t know what it means…it’s a God thing after all.