Devotional – Ephesians 5.14

Ephesians 5.14

Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

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On April 4th, 1742 Charles Wesley, the musically inclined younger brother of John Wesley, was invited to preach at St. Mary’s in Oxford. It was his first, and last, occasion for preaching there. His text was Ephesians 5.14 (“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”), and his message most likely caused a significant amount of resentment among those in attendance.

Throughout the sermon, Charles Wesley interprets the “sleep” from Ephesians as the natural state of humanity; it is the place where we are in light of Adam’s sin that has passed on to the world. But God calls each human to wake up from this dreadful sleep, repent, and live into the fullness of holiness made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In a sense, it did what all sermons are supposed to do: it faithfully proclaimed God’s revealed word in a way that was applicable and approachable to all with ears to hear. However, Charles made plain the point that those in attendance, the religious elite of the day, had fallen asleep to God’s commands and that it was time for them to wake up.

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To paraphrase: “In what state is your soul? If God required you to die right now for the sake of the Gospel, would you be ready? Have you fought the good fight and kept the faith? Have you put off the old life and put on the new? Are you clothed with Christ? Do you have oil in your lamp and grace in your heart? Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength? Do you believe that God is moving in a through you in all that you do? Are you really a Christian? If any of these questions offend you, be assured that you are not a Christian, nor do you desire to be one. The time has come to wake up!”

It’s no wonder he was never invited back to preach.

However, Charles’ questions still ring through the centuries and resonate in our hearts today. Are we alive to our faith? Are we clothed with Christ? Do we really love God and neighbor? Are we Christians at all?

Lent is the time to confront our true natures and ask if we have fallen asleep in our faith, or if we have been raised from the old life into the new. For Christ, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, is calling us to wake up. Christ compels us to leave the old life behind, the life defined by death and sin. Instead, Christ pushes us to clothe ourselves in our baptisms, live into the reality of resurrected life here and now, and wake up!

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The Most Hipster Passage From The Old Testament

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice went down to Durham, NC a couple weeks ago to interview Stanley Hauerwas for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary and Dr. Hauerwas gave us a lot to chew on. If you want to hear the conversation, and learn about the most hipster passage from the Old Testament, you can check out the podcast here: Year A – Lent 4

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Devotional – Ephesians 4.29

Devotional:

Ephesians 4.29

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

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A few weeks ago Gwen Hammer, a wonderful member of St. John’s, came into my office with a gift. She and her family had been on vacation and she said they found something I “just had to have.” So with eager anticipation and excitement I opened up the package to discover one of the funniest signs I’ve ever read, a sign that is now hanging in my office for everyone to see: “Live your life so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.”

Whenever I meet with families and friends to prepare for a funeral, I hear wonderful stories about the person who has died. Without having to ask questions, I quickly learn about what it was like to grow up with the person, how they met their spouse, what it meant to them to be a parent, and a slew of other details. I hear the funny stories that have been told and retold countless times at family gatherings. I start to see how God’s grace developed in the person’s life and led them to live the way they did.

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But at some point, stories pop up that I would not want to share from the pulpit; disappointments regarding a grudge that was never settled, failures to communicate what was really happening, and frustrations over choices with larger implications. I always do my best to sit and listen patiently, knowing that it is important for the friends and family to experience their grief in different ways. But when it comes time to craft the words that will be shared at the funeral, I do my best to include the truth about the person’s life, while emphasizing the details that help to build up the community of faith.

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus about what it means to live in community: “Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” As human beings we tend to emphasize and remember our problems, but as Christians we are called to speak in a way that benefits the people around us. In our everyday lives we have opportunities to share kind words toward others such as complimenting their work or affirming their character. Whatever we can do to live in such a way that we build others up, rather than breaking them down, will allow us to fully live into God’s kingdom.

This week, let us speak in such a way that our words may give grace to those who hear, and live in such a way so that the preacher won’t have to lie at our funeral.

How The Dishwasher Taught Me To Pray – Sermon on Ephesians 3.14-21

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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I loved my college roommates. Some of us knew each other from high school, and others were grafted in along the way, but nevertheless, when we lived together it felt like a little family. We tried our best to communicate needs within the domicile, we kept it quiet when someone had a midterm the next morning, and we quickly learned to share common appliances for the betterment of the entire living situation.

Between us we would come to earn Bachelor degrees in Philosophy, Religion, Biology, Communications, and History. I always kind of imagined that we would be a awesome group Jeopardy team with the wealth of knowledge spread between us. Living together in college was great, but it wasn’t always easy.

There was the time we discovered mice in the house. We did our best to keep the kitchen clean, and spread mouse traps throughout the house, but during the cold winter months they came back like clockwork.

There was the time a huge snow storm came through, trapping all of our cars, and we ran out of heating oil to keep the house warm.

There was the time that we all contracted swine flu at different intervals. As one person became sicker and sicker, those of us who were well shared the responsibility of caretaker, until we started displaying our own symptoms.

Part of the beauty of living with other people was the sharing of life experiences. We celebrated each others successes, and grew to really rely on one another. Part of the challenge of living with other people was learning how to change our habits and needs based upon the habits and needs of other people.

Ephesians 3.14-21 is a prayer. Paul is writing to this new faith community in the hopes that his prayers will be answered by the Lord of hosts. He prays for the congregation because he knows that he cannot give them what they need in order to grow, but through prayer the church will learn to fully rely upon God.

The beginning of the prayer establishes the main focus: Paul prays for the church to be strengthened in its inner being, from the inside out, by the power of God. He hopes that the individuals that make of the community will see the vital importance of letting Christ into their lives and then change accordingly.

If Christ dwells in the hearts of the people, if they are rooted and grounded in love, then they may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love that surpasses all knowledge.

During college, I was the only person from the house that went to church. While my roommates enjoyed the comfort of their beds on Sunday mornings, I was making my way out the door to worship the Lord. I learned to accept their priorities, and on some level they learned to accept mine.

For instance: I made them pray with me whenever we ate dinner that I had prepared. I felt that if I was willing to go through all of the steps necessary to make a dinner for all of us, then they could bow their heads with me in prayer. So once a week, we would sit in our living room, eating on paper plates with plastic silverware, and they would listen to me pray.

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It is difficult for many of us to hear about God’s unending love, particularly a group of college-age men who just wanted to eat. It may seem so obvious to us that it no longer strikes at the core of our being. We hear “God is love,” and “love is patient, love is kind,” and “Love you neighbor as yourself,” and “God’s love knows no bounds” and instead of that love becoming clearer, it just floats around in the air.

Faithful love is even harder to grasp for those of us who do come to church because we hear about all these beautiful and wonderful things, we look around at a church filled with people who appear to have their lives figured out, when in reality we are all struggling with a myriad of secrets, private disappointments, lost hopes, and frustrations.

It’s hard to hear about love, when we don’t feel love in our lives.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus is all about letting Christ in to change lives: I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

Letting Christ into our hearts is like moving in with a new roommate. At first, we spend a lot of joyful time getting to know one another, discovering common likes and interests. We do a great job putting all the dishes away and keeping the house clean, but then we have to start making compromises, whether we want to or not.

I learned about this type of faithful living the right way through my wife Lindsey. When we were dating, and I was getting ready to ask her to marry me, I dreamed about what it would be like to live together. I imagined the way we would set up our living room, where we would put the record player, and even where we would dance to all of our old jazz 33s.

After the wedding, while we were still giddy from the honeymoon, we decided to tackle the challenge of combining all of our possessions in the kitchen. We debated the value of keeping our plates in one cabinet versus putting the coffee cups near the coffee pot. We worried about the safety of keeping our knives in a drawer or right on the counter top. And we experimented with the location of the microwave in relation to the toaster and whether or not we would blow the fuse if they were both on at the same time.

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The real challenge came to the precipice over the dishwasher. I was of the opinion that it did not matter where dishes and cups were placed in the dishwasher, so long as we could fit as many things as possible. Lindsey was not of the same opinion. For the first few weeks, whenever I put a plate away, she would come behind me and rearrange the dishwasher. It got to a point that I started purposely putting items wherever I wanted because I didn’t think it mattered, but sweet Lindsey would watch me live out my frustration, and then when I left the room, she would bring order to the dishwasher.

I don’t know how long this continued, but I do know when it stopped. Lindsey was working late one night, and the dishwasher was almost full. I saw my opportunity to prove that the dishwasher works fine no matter where the dishes are placed. So with a mischievous grin on my face I rearranged the order into chaos, I started the dishwasher. I couldn’t wait to see her face when she got home, I imagined the apology she would offer me regarding her wrong interpretation of dishwasher etiquette, it was going to be something beautiful.

But when the dishwasher cycle finished, I knew I was in trouble.

How could this have happened? Whenever Lindsey ran the dishwasher, everything came out all nice and clean and ready to use. But this time, there was still food on a few of the dishes, and some of the utensils looked worse than when I put them in!

I was wrong, and I learned to change. Now I will freely admit that sometimes I still place something in the wrong place, but after my passive-aggressive experiment, I have learned to alter my focus because Lindsey was right.

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The incident with the dishwasher taught me that prayer is about change. When I forced my roommates to pray in college, was I doing it because I was concerned about them, or was I doing it because I thought I was better than them? Did I earnestly pray to the Lord during that time, or did I just want them to hear the sound of my voice?

The beauty of prayer comes to fruition when we let Christ in to change us, and when we are willing to give up some of our space for the Lord. The dishwasher taught me that if prayer is only about myself, that if I am only concerned with my thoughts and actions, then I am neglecting to let God in to make some important changes.

Faithful living is about giving up those habits and behaviors that are no longer fruitful, reprioritizing and reorganizing our lives, so that God can make us clean.

In a few moments we are going to end our service not here in the sanctuary, but outside on the front lawn. We are going to gather in a group and we are going to pray.

First we will pray for God to give us the strength to give up some room, and let Christ in. That instead of focusing on just our needs and wants that we will begin to comprehend the love of Christ and the fullness of God.

Then we will face the sanctuary and we are going to pray for our church. So many of us, myself included, get caught up in such a tunnel-visioned view of prayer that we neglect to pray, like Paul did, for the community of faith.

And finally we will turn to face the community around us and pray once more. Prayer is not just about you and me, and it is not just about the church, prayer is about communing with the Lord about the very fabric of life.

If we want our lives to change, if we want our church to change, if we want to let God’s love reign, then we have to be willing to give up some space. We have to learn to rearrange the dishwashers of our lives so that everything can be made clean.

Amen.

Devotional – Ephesians 3.16

Ephesians 3.16

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.

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Pre-marital counseling is the best. It is one of the few places where I am actually allowed to ask the questions I have racing in my head: What was your last fight about? How do you feel about your soon-to-be in-laws? Why do you deserve to marry each other? Similarly, it is one of the few places I feel comfortable being completely candid about the church’s role in marriage and how the covenant is not just between the couple, but it also incorporates the gathered body and the Lord.

At some point during the pre-marital counseling, I challenge each couple to go back to scripture and pick a passage that reflects their relationship for the wedding ceremony. My one caveat is that (unless they can demonstrate how necessarily important it is to them) they are not allowed to pick the part in 1st Corinthians about love being patient and kind, nor are they allowed to pick the part from Ephesians about wives being subject to their husbands. So it is with those few directions that couple have been forced to go back to their bibles and find something indicative of their relationship.

A few months ago I had the privilege of bringing together Chris and Chelsea Frumkin into the joy of marriage. I challenged them to pick their scripture and they quickly replied with Ephesians 3.16: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.” This verse had a particularly special meaning to the couple, because Chris has Ephesians 3.16 etched into the inside of Chelsea’s engagement ring.

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What a dynamic and perfect scripture for a wedding ceremony! When we stood together before their family, friends, and the Lord I made mention of the fact that their relationship had led to such a beautiful wedding precisely because they had prayed for one another. As a couple they were not content with the status quo. Instead, they consistently went to the Lord to discover renewed strength in their relationship.

The longer I spend time in ministry, the more I realize that scripture no longer holds the great value that it once did. Instead of a people defined by the Word of the Lord, many of us are content with knowing a handful of verses that make us smile, or would be worthy of a print that we could hang on our wall or Facebook page.

As we prepare to take steps into a new week, let us reflect on the great gift that scripture is for us: What stories from the bible have shaped who we are? Is reading the bible a priority in our lives, or a last resort? If we had to pick a verse that defined our character, what would it be and why?

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You Cannot Save Yourself – Sermon on Ephesians 2.1-10

Ephesians 2.1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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Our series on “Back to the Basics” continues this morning by looking at the topic of salvation. We started this series in light of the fact that many of us are deeply rooted in our faith, but some of the basics have perhaps become so routined that we no longer understand what they mean. We began with a call to return to the basics, then we looked at the Ten Commandments and today we are talking about salvation. Here we go.

My friend Josh loved the Christian camp. Every summer he looked forward to returning to the familiar space with young people all growing in their faith. From tubing on the lake, to hiking around the compound, and even just praying at night with his friends, the camp was a place unlike any other; at camp he could be fully Christian without the world judging him for his discipleship.

By the time I met Josh, camp was long in the past though he remembered most of it fondly. Having never gone to a specifically Christian camp I was fascinated by the idea of being immersed in an intentional faith community with other young people and I regularly asked him questions about his experiences. After all, it was at camp where he met his future wife, and it was years later that he made a scavenger hunt at the camp in order to propose.

As a young Christian my faith was largely formed and nurtured by my home church. I was blessed to grow up around a number of people who took their commitment to raising me in the faith seriously. Josh, however, learned a lot about what it meant to be Christian from the counselors at camp, which, like many things, can be a blessing and a curse.

The young adult counselors embodied how you could still be cool and Christian. They made faith so appealing because they regularly demonstrated what God had done for them in their lives. They made efforts to make faith approachable and were able to share the love of God with campers every summer.

Yet, some of them deeply believed it was their chief responsibility to save others and did whatever they could to make that happen.

It would come at the end of an incredible week of building new relationships and ideas when one of the counselors who begin talking about the Roman Road and I imagine it went something like this:

“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Your life might feel pretty good right now, you might have a kind family and some nice friends, but what about your eternal life? Do you want to spend life after death burning in the fires of hell? Or do you want to be saved?

“Imagine that you are standing on the edge of a cliff. Being a good person isn’t enough to save you. You can see salvation on the other side of the divide, but the only way you can get there is through Jesus Christ. Try to picture the cross being a bridge for you to safely get to the other side. You have the power to decide your everlasting fate. What’s it going to be?”

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When Josh explained these experiences to me I could sense the amount of manipulation that went into the dialogues. As the summers passed at camp, the conversations remained the same only the stakes became higher: What are you doing to save the people around you? Have you explained the Roman Road to your friends?

My friends, we are now alive though we were dead. Until the great gift of God in Jesus Christ we existed like lifeless bodies wandering around. Part of this came to be because we were guilty of sinfulness though we were also victims of our environment – people and organizations who told us we can save ourselves. But God, rich in mercy, saved us.

In the early church they did not spend their time going around trying to convince people with the Roman Road argument. They did not waste time going through the in and outs of theological proofs of Christ’s divinity and resurrection. Instead the church pointed at itself to prove the miracle. Want to know about death, the cross, and the resurrection? Here they are.

The budding Christian community grew not because it’s leaders were particularly articulate in their ability to save others through words, but because they believed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. With the new family that was created in community they experienced a new kind of life with God at the core, a new opportunity that came with the Spirit.

While the early disciples went throughout their surrounding regions, their cries of evangelism did not begin with “Save yourselves!” Instead they, like Ephesians, triumphantly declared, “God saved you, come live your new life!

If we are anything we are a people of resurrection. Not a country club of like-minded individuals, not a political organization, not a club of devoted fans, but a people of resurrection.

Since the time of Christ, those who followed him have found new life, resurrected life, with God. New life has come by many ways – repenting for the wrongs of our lives, being forgiven by God and our friends, experiencing an assurance of the eternal dimension of God’s love and care, and by a number of other life events, even hearing about the Roman Road from camp counselors. However, we must be careful when putting too much emphasis on our power in salvation. Yes, God has opened the door and we must be the ones to walk through it, but the greater act came in the opening of the door and not our power to go through it.

Resurrected life is something that will come when Jesus returns but we can also experience it here and now. Whenever I’m asked about miracles I can quickly describe some of the incredible things I have witnessed, events I attribute to God’s grace. But some of the most powerful miracles, to me, are right here in our midst. I can look out from this pulpit and see people’s lives who have been turned around through Christ’s love. I see and remember stories about things that have happened to you, sinful desires that suffocated your ability to live fully, when God offered you a new resurrected life.

I heard someone once describe their days as lifeless. They went through the familiar motions but it all felt repetitious, pointless, and directionless. This went on and on until someone invited them to a church community. Suddenly people began to care about him without knowing anything about him or his past. It was like he was being seen and treated through God’s perspective. Through a simple invitation and a new opportunity he felt resurrected from the dead, and began living again. 

Salvation is not about receiving a perfect grade that allows us to make the cut into God’s heavenly kingdom. Who among us fulfills all of the laws from the Old and New Testaments? Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, giving away our possessions? Even the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor with our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths is incredibly difficult.

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If salvation was about getting the right grade, I’m sad to say that most of us would be failing. It’s as if the closer we get to visions of God’s glory, the more we realize our unholiness.

We pray to God before our meals and while we look out on the feast before us we are reminded of the many who have no food to eat. We kneel in a makeshift structure in Guatemala being served food by people who have nothing in terms of our materiality but have faith that we could never imagine. We sit on the stoops of a front porch in West Virginia after painting all day and we realize we could be doing so much more.

We were dead through the sins of our lives and we have been victims of our environment. The good news amidst this unholiness is that, by the grace of God, we have been saved. That through God’s incredible act of selflessness, our sinfulness has been forgiven.

Not a forgiveness as a nice plus added to a grade for our performance as Christians, but forgiveness as a completely unearned gift – a gift extended to a prodigal son who squandered his inheritance, a gift extended to a tax collector who only cared about himself, a gift extended to a thief who hung on a cross to die, a gift extended to you, or to me.

By grace we have been saved. 

Grace is like friendship. Josh, the one who shared with me his experiences of Christian camp, is my best friend and was the best man at my wedding. I did nothing to earn his friendship.  If it had been initiated over an exchange of goods (I will be your friend if you do this for me) it would never have become the true friendship that it is today. Friendship, and I mean true friendship, is an act of faith. Learning to trust the other knowing that they could hurt you.

I know that Josh will be there for me at a moment’s notice. He will listen to me and do whatever he can to help. I also know that he doesn’t expect anything in return. That is the meaning of true friendship; a willingness to give because the well-being of someone else matters more to you than your own. My friendship with Josh is an act of faith, but one that I am remarkably thankful for.

Salvation, for us, is the beginning of a covenant of friendship between us and God; between the divine and a sinner. Grace is another way of describing an incredible love story between God and his creation.

We cannot save ourselves. We cannot save other people. No matter what the commercials, advertisements, and camp counselors tell us. Only the Lord has the power to save. Thanks be to God that he came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ to open up the gates of heaven to people like us.Thanks be to God that we are not called to save others, but merely help them to see what God has already done, and continues to do, in their lives.

We were dead but have been made alive through the greatest gift ever given. The question for us, then, should not be, “Am I saved?” Instead we should be asking, “What am I doing with this resurrected life?

Amen.

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Devotional – Ephesians 5.10-14

Devotional:

Ephesians 5.10-14

Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

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As I sat here this morning typing the devotional scripture out on my computer, 5006 customers lost power in Staunton, including St. John’s UMC; a particularly fitting moment for reflection on a scripture that discusses visibility, light, and darkness! Everything in my office, the hallway, and the entire church shut off except for my laptop computer (on battery power). Though light was coming in the window, the only thing illuminated within the office was God’s Word staring back at me on the screen: “everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.”

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Instead of staying in my office to write out some narratival reflection on light and darkness, I made my way down the halls to the other part of the building in order to check on our secretary, our teachers, and students in the Pre-School. 

The 4 year-olds thought the power outage was the funniest thing in the world (thats because they think anything can become the funniest thing in the world) and I was greeted with a uproar of laughter when I opened the door to their room. Sensing that my presence was not needed, I went across the hallway to the 2 year-old room; they were having a very different experience. 

The room was silent and dark with the students all huddled together with their teacher in the middle of the room. Because the blinds were drawn, a very limited amount of light was streaming through and it was clear that some of the kids were on the verge of fear. “Pastor Taylor,” one of them began, “Is there a storm outside?” 

Darkness can be a frightening thing. Even though those students had been outside only minutes before, walking in with their parents, the darkness that entered the room brought forth a sense of fear for them. Darkness can envelop us. Darkness can pierce through the deepest core of our souls, because darkness is the unknown.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he cautioned the gathered body to expose the darkness, and do what is pleasing to the Lord. For you, the darkness might not be as obvious as it was to the 2 year-olds this morning, your darkness might be entirely different and difficult to discover, but the darkness is something that waits for each of us. The unknown can instill in us a sense of fear, often appearing insurmountable; the loss of a job or loved one, the inability to communicate with your children, the loss of independence as you grow older, falling short of parental expectations, etc. 

But friends, Christ’s light shines in the darkness. When the power came back on in the building, the lights in the Pre-School shined brilliantly, bringing a sense of calm back to the students. In the same way, Christ’s light brings brilliance to our lives, reminding us of who we are and whose we are.

So, as you go forth into the world today, I encourage you to try and discover what is pleasing to the Lord, pray for God to deliver from any darkness in your life, and know that Christ’s light shines on, and through, you.