Be Honest with Me this Holy Week


“As a model for Christian discipleship, this passage assumes that we will not always prove faithful. We will fail despite our best intentions and the Lord’s intercession, but the passage is open-ended. The end of the story has yet to be written. What do we do with our failures? Do we let them stand as the final verdict on us, or do we turn back from them and use them to strengthen our resolve in the future and help those who face trials that we now know from the inside out? Peter is the model disciple, not because he never failed, but because he turned back.”

R. Alan Culpepper in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume VIII: Luke and John

Simon Peter: I confess that I have often simplified your story to build distance between us. Your extravagant gestures of faith feel jarring compared to your hiding and denying in the darkness. But Luke 22:31-34 stopped me cold this morning. I kept pouring over the words.

“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your siblings.’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.”

Luke 22:31-34

Jesus prays for you, knowing what is to come. You assume yourself to be strong, knowing not how you will respond when it all goes down. We see your folly and weep at your foolishness. You are our teachable moment of naïve faith, boasting before entering the true darkness where only God-incarnate can endure the raging violence.

This juxtaposition is something that I would want to hide if it had happened to me. I would like to forget this part of the story and hide it away in the basement cellar. I would wrap it tightly in old clothes and cover it with trinkets from the past, which no one would ever find.

But not you. Your history isn’t hidden but takes center stage in Holy Week. Every year, we retell how you denied Jesus in his time of need.

“This man was also with him,” a girl says, pointing as you try to avoid recognition.

“I do not know what you are talking about!

This morning, what shocked me is that this isn’t just a story that the early church told. This story is one that you regularly told. You became an apostle, turning your private testimony into public record: what Jesus warned you, how you responded, the cock crowing, your tears falling. You didn’t shy away from the details of how and when your faith failed. You did what Jesus had prayed you would: you strengthened your siblings with this embarrassing tale.

Conversations with a mentor have got me thinking recently about stories that I hide from myself – the ones that are complicated and messy, best suited for hiding in the basement. Uncovering and telling the stories requires wading courageously through vulnerable waters with faith in something other than myself.

Simon Peter: you turned back and told the truth, even when it must have hurt to expose how your faith failed. You knew that a faith that returns is a powerful one. Your honest truth-telling invites us to join you, remembering the stories of when our faith failed, sifted like wheat. We can connect with you, for we are all like you – both Simon (mortal, flawed, complicated, messy, of the earth) and Peter (called, prayed for by Jesus, forgiven, sanctified, sent out).

This Holy Week, I’m trusting you to be honest about how it all happened. Tell me, again, about your darkest hour, which coincided with The Darkest Hour for our savior. I don’t trust Judas to tell me how the story goes, for he didn’t return and share his truth. He hid from the disciples and feared there would be no forgiveness in this mortal life.

Mince not the words, hide not the reality. Show me what happens when our faith is sifted like wheat. And then teach me how to come out of hiding. Lead me to find the tomb empty and forgiveness emanating from our crucified, risen Lord.

This is a Resurrection Story


When the darkness nearly swallowed my gentle friend last March 14th, it was dawn. The light may have been emerging, but not with any triumphant blast. The sun labored in its rising. 

Drinking coffee in the kitchen in the quiet house, I did not expect a phone call at that hour. I’ve gone back to that moment many times, contemplating how I was sitting in a peaceful home while my gentle friend labored in his rising to escape angry fists.

The news jolted me from sleepy morning thoughts. Adrenaline raced through my body, compelling me to go to my friend and those tending to his hurting body. I knew not what to do or think, but I did know that I needed to bear witness to the tragedy – to name that this gentle friend deserved a steady stream of kindness, not a sudden assault.

I started swimming laps last fall, an act of humility as I transitioned out of congregational ministry. I humbled myself before our kids’ swim teacher, and I learned the freestyle stroke. I’m not very good at it, though I can now last 45 minutes in the pool before getting out to bow in awe before all the swimmers who lap me. 

I’ve found that the pool is the best place for prayer, getting my mind off of worries and keeping my eyes locked on the black line on the bottom of the pool. I’m finding that I believe best when I’m in the water.

One of my worn-out phrases in prayer is an affirmation: This is a resurrection story. Dr. Curtis Freeman once reminded me of this good news when thick in my research on traumatizing theology. The phrase became my favorite swimming prayer when another Curtis came into my life – a lifeguard who corrected me for poor form (an exercise in humility, to say the least)

I roll the phrase around my soul as I swim, “This is a resurrection story.” I bring to mind people, places, and situations, and I speak the blessing over them: This is a resurrection story.

When I met my gentle friend for lunch last month, we talked about the upcoming first anniversary of that awful dawn. I shared how I pray for him while I swim. He is a resurrection story. Darkness threatened to take his life, but evil intent has not had the last word. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over how grateful I am for this fact. 

I resent how resurrection stories begin at dawn. Were I in charge of the cosmos, I would want all resurrection stories to be possible without uncertainty or threat. 

But when I’m courageous enough to follow the path all the way from the start of the day (when all feels lost) to the finish (when all feels found), I marvel that Resilience is our Maker’s fingerprint forged deep down in our souls. 

Bruised skin heals. 
Bones regain their strength. 
Light shines beautifully through stained glass.

We journey onward from dawn to dusk because this is a resurrection story.

Advent Prayer: 1st Draft


“The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.”
– John 1:14 (Message)

“Be near me, Lord Jesus;
I ask thee to stay
close by me forever,
and love me, I pray.”
Away in a Manger

Advent Prayer: 1st Draft

We want You to fix it.
We want You to make everything better.

Advent Prayer: 2nd Draft

We want You to fix it.
We want You to make everything better.

Interlude: A knock at the front door prompts us to rise from all our noble prayers, filled with our good intentions and righteous passions. We had just gotten into the flow to name all the changes we want You to get started on in the new year. We’ve got ideas, and we know You want to hear them.

Low and behold, You’re there. You’ve moved in next door and wondered if we wanted to join You out on the front porch to spend some time together. We sit in the dusty rocking chairs and can’t believe You’re actually here with us. Goodness, You’re well-traveled. Your stories are amazing, filled with beauty, sorrow, compassion, and grief.

We sit together until the sun begins setting and the Christmas lights have turned on. We feel like we need more time to memorize that deep belly laugh of Yours or the way your face lights up when You speak about Your family. But if we’re honest, it’s not just Your stories. It’s the way we feel ourselves beginning to relax in Your presence. Somehow, we feel more at home (in our own home) now that we know You’re just next door.

Advent Prayer: Final Draft

We’re so glad that You’re with us. Could you stay by our side a little longer?

Advent Prayer: To the God I don’t know yet


“Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,

for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” – Isaiah 12:6

“I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” – Hosea 11:9

“The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” – Zephaniah 3:15

To the God I don’t know yet:

This prayer need not frighten. 

It’s not that You’re altogether unknown. 

It’s not that I’ve given up on the You I know.  

It’s just that Advent is changing the way I pray. You are the One who comes in our midst. And my “midst” has changed.  

So when You show up in my midst, it might take me a minute to recognize You. It might take more time for my lungs to release as my soul rejoices, “Oh, there you are.” Once I can see you are in this midst, then I can relax. Then I am free to move and dance, sing and cry with joy.

Tender and gentle, You respond, “Let me be new to you.”

“Let me be the God you don’t know yet. Let me show you how I am the Holy One whose steadfast love endures all of life’s changes.”

“Ok,” I relent. The stiff shoulders soften. “Let me be new to You, too,” I pray.

In the name of the One who is always coming, new to us every time, I pray. Amen.

Pull Up a Chair. It’s Beautiful.


Blessed be the wide-open field spread out before me. Lilies dance in the sunshine. Wind blows life throughout the vast expanse, even as the hours slow and the days pass without counting.

I didn’t know my path would hold this open field. I was as surprised as any, but we know that life comes with no map. The Guide only whispers a steady stream of reassurances: “Behold. This day is one you’ve never seen before.”

The journey has held twists and turns, long paths that stretch for as long as the eye can see, and switch-backs that left me nauseous and confused. The canopy of trees has provided shade and contained mysteries, the horizon hidden from view.

For now, the horizon is infinite. The dirt trail dissipated as I walked it.  I know that trail holds steady behind us, always there when I need to remember how I got here.  All I can see are tall grasses, wildflowers of yellow, blue, lilac. The Guide gets quiet right as we emerge. No more “Keep going.” 

Instead, she pulls up two chairs, and we sit down, a few paces into the expanse. Adjacent, we look out and take it all in.  We consider the lilies, how they grow. There is no toil nor spin. We are as astonished as Solomon would be.

From here, I can see what is beyond the field – new canopies of branches interwoven together. It entices my curiosity, but I am in no hurry. To run ahead would be to abandon the Guide. If I have learned anything along the way, it is this: I have no interest in traveling without her. The Guide’s eyes see what mine fail to notice; her ears tuned to the wild; her compass points to places I yearn for but cannot articulate. She knows The Way while I live on the cusp of even imagining it all.

Blessed be the Guide who sits with me. She is kind and gentle, and her fierce sense of adventure is as ethereal as corporeal. “Here is where we shall dwell for a time. Now we catch our breath,” she says, with birdsong accompanying this season’s instructions. She might be the wise one who heard there is treasure here, selling all that she has to buy the field that holds it.

Knowing that resting after a long season of travel can be as discomforting as relieving, she assures me as the hours pass. “Fear not the stillness, even as other travelers call out from their path in the woods. Begrudge not the time and its passing. When the sun goes down on the field, we’ll tune our senses so that our ears can pick up what our eyes cannot.  Here is where some tomorrow will begin. The beauty we witness here will transform into the very muscle and heartbeat which will carry us on when the time comes, for the field is the birthplace of our next adventure.  But for now, bless the chair which holds you. Bless the beautiful field which is ours to behold. Bless the beholding as your new job, for which you were ordained all those years ago.”

Dear friend, know that I am spending my days lost in wonder. The field is neither mine nor the chair in which I rest, but I dwell with the Guide as she dwells with me. It might take a lifetime before we begin again – blessed, rested, and ready to rise.  Until then, you’re welcome to come to visit. Pull up a chair and join us as we pause and give thanks for the dirt trail behind us, the field before us, and the horizon beyond us. Blessed be the friends who sit with me and declare, with grins on our faces: It’s beautiful.

A Blessing of Assurance


Written for Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, for my last Sunday with a black robe

Come on, Family of God. Lace up your shoes and link arms. Whether this blessing finds you curious or complacent, stubborn or sick, melancholy or melodramatic, wounded or weary. Rise as one on your feet: forgiveness has changed the landscape. 

The impossible journey has become possible.

Let this collective assurance sink deep enough so that our bodies know this to be true: this very breath is enough taste of the Kin-dom come as we need to get going. Let’s be in on the secret and breathe together.

In the quiet, hear it: the roar of the saints who have gone before us, reverberating on the stone walls. The intensity of their voices need not frighten us. They are cheering us on, fully invested in our every twist and turn.

Now that we know each step to be a gift; now that we know ourselves to be surrounded, we rise eagerly for all that God has in store for us – the places that will come to define us, the people who will amaze us, the obstacles that will call forth courage not our own, the dreams outrageous enough to fit the promises we carry.

Side by side, let’s take it slow, remembering that it’s hard to witness The One Whom We Hallow when we sprint through our days.

Patiently and expectantly, Go boldly as God’s people on the move. Sing hymns in full voice. Ask good questions. Pause regularly to lean in and say, “Tell me more.” Develop the daily practice of accepting forgiveness as you offer it to others.

When you feel alone, remind each other: No matter the road, we walk it together.

Blessed be the Journey forgiveness makes possible.
Blessed be the Holy Companions with whom we watch for the morning.
Blessed be the Cloud of Witnesses who sound the trumpet, telling us it’s time to rise.

Blessed assurance all along the way.

A Blessing for Pastor Mary Alice


Upon the Occasion of the Installation of Rev. Mary Alice Birdwhistell as Highland’s 17th Pastor
Inspired by Mary Alice’s benediction, her favorite phrases, and Highland’s Hymn (“Look You Saints, the Cloud of Witness” written by John Dickson)

May God’s Love Surround You

When the way twists and turns, surprising you with the unexpected, worry not, Pastor Mary Alice. You are moving through your days surrounded by the Family of God in this place. You take brave steps alongside fellow travelers, moving as one with our God, as those of old. Whether preaching to empty pews, greeting the church behind a mask, or working alone in your office, you are encircled, encompassed, surrounded. With you, before you, behind you, beneath you, God’s love is ever present, ever near, ever real.

May Christ’s Mercy Astound You

When the way grows tedious and tiresome, wearing you down, prepare yourself, Pastor Mary Alice. Great Surprises are God’s specialty. We know this for sure: when One Body moves surrounded by God’s love, we are always on the verge of stumbling onto Christ’s Mercy which changes how, what, and who we see.  As the sun rises with each day, so, too, does God, the Great Surpriser, sow in us seeds whose fruit will feed generations to come. For all the unknown beauty yet to be revealed, the stories yet to be lived, we sound the trumpets as you lead us in taking big brave steps, following the Author of our faith.

May the Spirit Abound in You

When the way reveals unmet needs and hungry crowds, get creative, Pastor Mary Alice. The Spirit’s abounding has been at work since time began, nurturing gifts within the Family of God that, when invited to share, can feed a world in need. Spend your days calling out the gifts you see within us.  Set aside the scarcity that strangles and lead us on the journey, swift of foot and brave of soul. Live with wide-open eyes that can see the Spirit at work, transforming our loaves and fish into a story our grandchildren will pass on to the next generation – for stories of courage, surprise, and love are the ones that endure the longest.

With the cloud of witnesses gathered ‘round this sacred place, we bless Pastor Mary Alice.
We rise as one to take brave steps forward as the family of God,
Surrounded by God’s love, Astounded by Christ’s mercy, and Abounding in the Spirit.

No Place But Here


“There is no place you need to be but here” has become a centering phrase for me over the past few months. Gretchen Ziegenhals from Duke Leadership began our past two “Seek the Welfare” cohort gatherings with the words. Each time her gentle voice said it, voices in my head tried to argue with her. I was sitting on Zoom for four hours, three days in a row. Of course, there were other places I needed to be. But I would repeat it back to myself until it settled in. There is no place you need to be but here.

It’s a phrase that evokes active patience. It takes courageous endurance to be right here.

This week has been one of the strangest weeks of my life. We flew to South Dakota for vacation last Friday, and then on Sunday, while we rode a train into Keystone, my letter went out to the congregation sharing the news that I’ve sensed God’s call to close my chapter as associate pastor at Highland Baptist. It was a decision that came to me at the end of June, whose timing to come out to the congregation coincides with our already scheduled vacation. There were moments this week when I felt like I had blown up my life and fled for the Black Hills. When I described that feeling to a friend, she texted back, “It was always going to be awkward.” She was right – it was always going to feel strange.

With each morning’s sunrise, I stole out to our front porch for a few moments alone, and I spoke it aloud to myself: There is no place I need to be but here.  Trusting God’s voice on this internal journey, I know that there is no place I need to be but here at the beginning of an ending.  Here is the beginning of in-between time.  Here is the threshold moment, when I have initiated change, the news has reached the congregation, and a new relationship with this people of God is on the horizon.

I have had this unique gift of serving the church in which I grew up. Highland began calling forth my gifts at the young age of 22, just out of college. Highland shaped me over the past 15 years in ways that it’s going to take time to know fully. This beloved community of faith and I have been knit together by both task and salary, identity and story, full-voice hymns, and honest story-telling.  

Six years ago, during a time of vocational discernment, I received the sense that God has called me to a people rather than a position. Specifically, God called me the people who gather at Grinstead and Cherokee within the stone walls of Highland Baptist Church. I moved from a position as Minister to Youth into Associate Pastor of Faith Formation and Congregational Engagement. Now, I move from one of Highland’s pastors to one of Highland’s priesthood of all believers.  

When I told our kids over dinner on our cabin’s front porch surrounded by the Black Hills, they started using the language of “retirement.” A few years ago, our senior pastor and senior associate pastor retired, so it’s the only language they have for a moment like this. Clearly, I’m not retirement age, and my vocational life isn’t over at age 37, but there is a real sense that something sacred is coming to a close.

As this change approaches, I am moving through the present moment with vulnerability and tenderness. Emotions and thoughts fill me – many of which coincide even as they appear to contradict. I grieve initiating an ending to this sacred work alongside the people, both laity and staff, who provide my life with shared meaning and joy-filled connection. At the same time, I rejoice that I have been more at ease than I have been in years, as the mantle of ministry at a church so embedded within my soul and life story has been both gift and labor to carry. There is no place I need to be but here – here in these muddled feelings, present to even this sacred season that hurts and releases.

I’ve got a lot of personal work ahead of me as I process the ending of this season. I have no idea what comes next, which is, peculiarly, a piece of why I am leaving now before seeking another job. I discerned this summer that my ties with Highland are so vast, deep, and wide that I cannot imagine a next vocational call until I enter into a season of vocational stillness. This fall, I hope to begin my in-between time by reflecting upon these fifteen years, processing through my memories, discerning the lessons, gifts, and stories that I will carry into the next chapter.

I am sure of this truth, even amidst a foggy South Dakota morning: what matters most is that what remains even after the ending. I cannot rush this season, nor do I want to. There is no place I need to be but here.

We board our plane momentarily for home, where I will enter into a month where I will transition tasks to others, find space for my black robe in my home closet, clean out my office, and turn in my keys. Then in September, the real work begins: pausing and giving thanks for the love that remains.

There is no place I need to be but here. Thanks be to God.

A Blessing for Your Rising


Written for a Lenten Live-Stream with Highland Baptist. Inspired by Isaiah 35 and the Tanzanian Guides who told us over and over again as we climbed Kilimanjaro in 2010: Pole-Pole.

Was it just yesterday that you fell down?
Or was it a thousand years ago?
Both feel true today.

Look! The crocus blooms stubbornly in the wilderness.
Now is the time for your rising.

Go slowly, dear friend.
We’re not in a rush.

Feel every ripple of hope as it comes.
Give your eyes time to adjust, for everything looks different now.

Patiently, gently you rise.
Strength surprises you.

Joy is on the horizon.
A familiar tune comes to mind.

Take this rising quietly.
We’ve got forever to make it.

Move at tortoise pace and trust that
the momentum is the miracle,
not the speed with which you rise.

Before you,
Surrounding you,
Within you,
Beyond you,
Right here
The Holy Way is emerging.

This is where you will practice resurrection,
In the rising.

Weak hands push against the ground.
Feeble knees bend and stretch.
Wounded heart beats loud in your chest.

Here you are, rising stubbornly,
Blessed with resilience in the wilderness.

Remembering Our Baptism


I shared these words with Highland this Sunday morning as part of our marking of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1. May you remember your baptism with compassion for your former self, your present self, and your future self – all of which are immersed in the grace of our baptismal waters.

In your home today as you worship, I invite you to remember your baptism. How did the water feel?  Warm?  Cold?  Flowing?  Stagnant? What thoughts filled your mind? How fast did your heart race? Was it conviction that led you to the water?    The Holy Spirit nudging you? Or custom?  Tradition?  The desire to escape the flames of hell that your pastor described with spit flying out of his mouth every Sunday? Is that what conviction looked like back then to you?

What were you hoping was going to happen in the waters?
Were you expecting to feel different when the pastor lifted you up?
What were the lunch plans to follow?  Gifts you anticipated coming along with this moment?

For many of us, remembering our baptism causes us to recall our ignorance – just how naïve we were. There was so much we did not know.  There was so much we did not understand.

I want you to return to the waters with me this Sunday as we pray. As I pray, I want you to imagine getting back in those baptismal waters alongside that former self – the one you were when you were baptized.

What would you want to tell him or her or them?
What embrace would you offer? Words would you say?
What would you want to say to the pastor who baptized you?
If you didn’t feel safe with that pastor, you may need to ask him to leave the baptistry before we pray.

Let’s begin our prayer with a moment of silent reflection.

God who holds all of time together in divine harmony – smoothing out the edges with grace, mercy, understanding that is beyond our capacity to hold,

  • Show us how to love our former selves with tender compassion –
    • admiring our courage to publicly proclaim faith and get drenched in public
    • forgiving ourselves for all we did not know
    • wrapping ourselves with the grace that became our birthright in these waters.
  • Strengthen us to love our present selves with tender courage.
    • Dare us to quit again whatever new self-saving attempts that we have adopted over the years.
    • Dare us to accept forgiveness and live in humble recognition of You, surrendering over all we cannot control and realizing that the world is better for it.
  • Prepare us to love our future selves with tender devotion –
    • imagining our future selves standing with us in the baptismal waters,
    • forgiving us for all we do not know today,
    • wrapping us with the grace that is our birthright all the way to the end

We pray to You, for we know now that we cannot will You into being but that You will us into being – filled with grace and truth – and we are free. We declare our faith: Jesus Christ is Lord – our crucified and risen Lord.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we baptize and we pray, Amen.

Be assured, baptized community – those who have been baptized before and those whom God is calling even now to enter the waters. Here in the waters, we are buried with Christ and raised by the Spirit to walk in the resurrection life of the new creation.

We are baptized into the mystery of God’s drenching presence. God smiles as we let go of the burdens we bear on our shoulders and choose again to follow Jesus – going where we would not go on our own, loving people we could not love out of our own goodwill, defying powers and principalities that cannot be defied by human willpower and strength alone.

God smiles as we embrace our identity as we rise from the water – new creations, belonging to Christ, who practice resurrection daily. We are one body – the baptized family of God – whose past is healed, future secure, present wide open and wild with resurrection hope. Let us sing our faith.