Two years ago when I was being interviewed by your search committee, I was making the usual phone calls, talking to some old friends, and taking a long hard look at your website and newsletters. I heard so many things good things about you from folks in the Presbytery, from David Cameron and of course from Mary Jane. But I think what impressed me the most were two phrases used to describe your church. The first was, “Christ makes no distinctions; neither do we”. The second identified Rockfish as, “The Light in the Valley.” That was the clincher.
The concept of the light on a hill has been used by everyone from Jesus to Ronald Reagan. It is a nice image that plays well in the forum of public opinion. It creates a picture of what the church and its inhabitants should be; a shining example for everyone to see. And yet you set your sights a little lower. You chose the image of a valley rather than a hill. I am sure the casual observer takes your slogan to mean, “The Light in Rockfish Valley”. But you can’t fool me. Our motto goes much deeper than that. The promise of being a Light in the Valley is a radical assertion of transformation for anyone captured by the daunting abyss of hopelessness.
Most churches, for very good reasons, want to be a light on the hill. Most churches want to set a standard, a goal of exceptional behavior. There is nothing wrong with that. We all should set such high standards. But then a problem arises. Meeting Godly standards is not always easy. When others fall short of our expectations, difficult choices must be made. Remember a long time ago when many of us were parents. We wanted so desperately for our kids to have friends. Of course once they started to bring their friends home, we began to narrow our definition of who qualified to cross our threshold. There were certain kids we labeled as bad influences and we did our best to steer our angels away from those malcontents. Then our children started dating. Be honest, if you had a daughter, didn’t you have some fairly high expectations of who would be allowed to take your daughter out?
Churches are no different. First, a church claims to be the light on the hill to everyone with no exceptions made. But then we discover some folks are a lot more desirable than others. More than once in my years of ministry I have had a church member point out a perspective member by saying, “We need to go after them. They are one of us.” That is the exact moment our shining light begins to dim.
In the Middle Ages, hilltops were the preferable place to build a castle. If the king didn’t live on a hill, the next best alternative was to a build a mote around the castle. This made it quite clear that folks inside the castle had no real desire to intermingle with outsiders. Sometimes churches who claim to be a light on the hill build motes to keep from being contaminated by those of lesser spiritual quality. They might sing, “We are one in the Spirit”, but have no real desire to mingle with folks of questionable religious pedigrees. Eventually the “light on the hill” churches formally proclaim themselves as the “real” children of God, leaving anyone else to be satisfied with the role of imposter.
But you choose to be called, The Light in the Valley. From a biblical point of view, a valley is more than a geographical description. It is a state of mind. The Shepherd David wrote, “Though I walk through the darkest valley, you are with me.” David understood the valley as a place of danger. Valleys are filled with twist and turns. A predator could be hiding behind the next rock, rain could turn a gentle stream into a raging river, or one path leading to danger could resemble the path you thought led to safety. David the Poet metaphorically wrote about all the dangers David the Shepherd and King experienced as he lived a life filled with surprises and disappointments. Isn’t this why we are so easily drawn to Psalm 23? We have been in the valley and we know it can be a dark and lonely place.
Many of you have walked the trail around Lake Monacan just below my townhouse. During the day if offers a beautiful view of both the lake and the mountain. If you happen to be near the water spill at sunset, the reflection on the lake resembles heaven.
I like to go down to the lake a little later in the evening. I will often venture out in my kayak after dark and sit in the middle of the lake. You can imagine the glory of this scene when there is a full moon. But I think I like it best when I only have the stars to guide me. Sitting alone, just me and the universe, I am reminded of my insignificance. But perhaps more than that I am also reminded of another astonishing thought; if one desires to see the stars, darkness is necessary.
The world does not lack for darkness. I suspect each of us has spent some time in David’s valley of death for death comes in a variety of forms. It might be the loss of someone dear or it could be the loss of a dream. Sometimes it is the loss of vision, the loss of energy and even the loss of hope. Christ came to give hope to the hopeless and life to those who have given up on life. In order that God’s light might be seen, I believe God commands us to go into the darkness and the valley of others discontent. Hope comes one prayer at a time, one load of wood at a time, one quiet ear at a time, one bag of food at a time, one tear at a time, one back pack at a time, one open heart at a time, one word of hope at a time, one ray of light at a time.
William Temple observed, “The church should be the only organization that exists for those who are not its members.”
Imagine what might happen if a church’s primary objective was to offer light to those who have only known darkness. Imagine becoming a church with the faith to bring its light off the hill and into the valley. Imagine existing for those who lift their eyes to the hills and the skies looking for any kind of help. Imagine who we are and who God has always intended for us to be.
Imagine, and then strive to fully be The Light in the Valley, to the glory of God and for the sake of anyone and everyone we might encounter. Amen.