A Necessary Candle

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What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 3-5, NRSV

The gospels give us many metaphors for the Kingdom of God. They come at us like rapid-fire: the pearl of great price, the treasure in a field, the mustard seed, the sower and the soil, the wheat and the weeds. They are often at the center of parables, those enigmatic bundles of meaning that Barbara Brown Taylor says act more like dreams or poems than as a code to be broken.

They are vivid images, some that resonate with our twenty-first-century sensibilities, others that stretch our imagination. And we get plenty of metaphors for Jesus too. He gives us some of them: I am the Vine, I am the Water of Life, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way. Others are ascribed to him, most famously the Word and the Light of the world. They are contact points by which the veiled glory of his life and the courage of his death and the shocking eruption of his resurrection can jump-start our cold, dead hearts.

“To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man,” muses Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. He continues, “One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs . . . A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present.”

When we read the prologue to the Gospel of John, those first 18 verses, they are like ancient tales spoken by bards in firelight. Their language and rhythm and repetition are mesmerizing; they speak of this world and time, and that which is beyond time, and of the creature not recognizing its Creator, and of the one who returns home from across the universe but is turned away by his own family.

Where does the story of Jesus begin? For John, it does not begin with a virgin carrying the divine seed inside her, but farther back and higher up, with the Word that begins all creation, not with a bang but a whisper of supreme delight, “Let there be light!” That Word, that Logos, is now concentrated, distilled down, purified to its essence so that sound becomes light, both a particle in Mary’s womb and a wave that carries everyone who sees: the Light has come into the world and the darkness will not overcome it.

John writes later, after the letters of Paul and Peter, and after the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are well established. John both synthesizes what is known of Jesus and transcends the day-to-day accounts by opening a portal for us to Jesus as the Logos, present at the creation and ever more as the present light that enlightens every person who comes into the world.

John may have known that in Matthew’s story Jesus announces to those gathered around him, “You are the light of the world.” These “lights” were a sorry lot by most standards. They were the lame, the blind, the ragged, the widowed and the orphaned, the restless and the rebellious, the defiant and the dumbfounded, the quarrelsome and the nearly invisible. And Jesus loved them all. Through the prism of eternal forgiveness, Jesus looked on these sheep without a shepherd and saw them refracted into beams of light that carried the eternal weight of glory.

Where do we fit in? We might not have seen Jesus as someone we wanted in our neighborhood. He kept bad company, he was homeless, he had a sharp tongue for the respectable and the wealthy, he made us damn uncomfortable. He drew comparisons to bone-boxes, made allegations of theft and cruelty toward the weak, and gave us slanderous names, like “slaves to sin” and “slayers of the prophets.” It was all too much. Something had to be done. And when it was done and dusted, and we could breathe again, there came word that he was inexplicably alive. The Light had not gone out after all.

Then along comes Saul, the living embodiment of the fanatic who is willing to kill for the glory of God and the sanctity of the Law. Breathing fire and threats, he terrorized those who had begun to carry the Light, taking names and rounding them up for a quick trial and summary executions.

And yet the Lord singled him out, considering him to be a pearl of great price, and broke through his armored heart to the pulsing flesh beneath, to the white-hot love of someone to whom he could give his all, even unto death.

This Paul, then, as sure now of the love of God in Christ as he had been of God’s hatred of traitors to the Law, becomes the apostle of the new, assuring all who would listen that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” And the newness in our human experience is that God is eternally, irrevocably, joyously on our side, closing up the abyss between us and God that we had dug. He is the great reconciler through Christ. “Truth,” says Christian Wiman, “inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms.”

Simone Weil says that “Absence is the form God takes in this world,” a saying that would be devastating if we did not know that against all odds God has chosen to appear to the world through those who carry the Light. “So we are ambassadors for Christ,” says Paul, “since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20).”

We are living in times so full of bile and darkness that we are more certain of bitterness than we are of acceptance. Yet, we have been called, all of us, any who wish to carry that Light, to be that necessary candle. “As people reconciled with God through Jesus,” says Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey, “we have been given the ministry of reconciliation . . . So whatever we do the main question is, “Does it lead to reconciliation among people?”

My friend, Mike Pearson, has given us a ladder of communication, each rung of which leads us to this reconciling work in the world.

  • “Sometimes you have to settle for outcomes which are less than perfect in the name of maintaining relationships and forging community.
  • You have to hope that your trust will inspire trust in others with the real risk that you may appear naïve and be open to exploitation.
  • You have to use your imagination to find some fresh solutions.
  • You have to listen truly and not simply wait deafly for your turn to speak.”

(You can read more of his writing here)

“We are not sent to the world to judge, to condemn, to evaluate, to classify, or to label,” says Nouwen. This sounds almost impossible, given that the way of the world is anything but nonjudgmental. “Only when we fully trust,” he says, “that we belong to God and can find in our relationship with God all that we need for our minds, hearts, and souls can we be truly free in this world and be ministers of reconciliation.”

Bearing the Light in this world begins with us “accepting that we are accepted,” in Paul Tillich’s phrase, an experience so simple that it is difficult to grasp. It is the foolishness that leaps over the logic that would keep us in the dark.

Photo: Joanna Kosinska, Unsplash.com

An Attitude of Gratitude

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment.” — Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

GratitudeWoman:cristian-newman-277738.jpgGratitude doesn’t appear on Aristotle’s list of virtues nor does it show up in St. Paul’s fruits of the Spirit. You won’t hear it mentioned much, if at all, in politics, except during victory or concession speeches, and almost never in the entertainment industry except for Oscar night.

I’ve wondered why we find it difficult to utter the words, “I’m grateful for. . .” or “I have gratitude for . . .” Perhaps it’s just awkward to speak the words or we find ourselves slightly embarrassed to be uttering them because one never knows where emotions such as these will go.

But it’s more likely, I think, that gratitude is seen as weakness or even a craven kissing-up to those who wield power over us. Who wants to be seen as being in debt to another, especially if that person is someone for whom we also feel resentment? Having to call on someone else for help is embarrassing; it taps into our fears of becoming redundant and it might allow others to see our incompetence.

There are days when I walk out of the classroom absolutely convinced that every student there sees me for what I am—an imposter. What gives me the right, I rage to myself, to imagine that my pitiful scraps of shared knowledge will be of use to anyone? Where do I get off thinking that my explanations and descriptions are clear, that my logic convinces and my credibility isn’t fragmented by a well-lobbed question? The dark magic of pride, hypocrisy, and self-doubt combine to become a catalytic converter for resentment. What begins as an opportunity for reflection sours into excuses: If I had better students . . . . If I had more time . . . . If they’d pay more attention and actually study the readings. . . .

It’s all a dodge, a pitiful attempt to salvage some self-respect on the barest of pretenses. Other professors make it look so easy. Their discussions flow like cream, their questions are simple and yet profound, their students cannot help but be enlightened. In Kurt Vonnegut’s vivid phrase, “They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” Do I forget those who have helped me over the years? No! But in moments like these I remember them with shame and embarrassment and shame finds it difficult to be grateful.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Catholic priest and author of some forty books. In his commentary, The Return of the Prodigal Son, both a meditation on the parable of Jesus and the painting of the same name by Rembrandt, Nouwen says, “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”

There is in ungratefulness a rough shouldering aside of others, a terseness of speech and a looming sense of denial. In his multi-layered biography, John Lennon: The Life, Philip Norman comments on Lennon’s frequent callousness toward those who had served him without complaint, in some cases for decades. Employees were dropped without warning, the prodigious artistry of the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, was dismissed by John as “production shit,” and lifelong friendships jeopardized by his impatience and insecurity. Yet those who knew him best and loved him most could cite many more instances of his kindness and thoughtfulness than of the cutting remarks and cruel comments.  As his self-confidence waxed and waned his gratitude did so also. At times his vulnerability was achingly apparent such as in the lyrics to Help!:

But every now and then I feel so insecure/I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.

In the last years of his life, before he was murdered outside the Dakota on December 8, 1980, he reached out to people he had hurt over the years and thanked them for what they had done for him. Spending so much time with his infant son Sean taught him patience and brought out in him a paternal instinct that he was not at all sure he had. As he took less and gave more his need to impose his will on others diminished and his generous nature became more evident.

So perhaps that provides a clue to gratitude, that it is there to be drawn upon when we relax our grip and learn to open up to others. Nouwen says that gratitude is a spontaneous response to our awareness of gifts received, but also that gratitude can be lived as a discipline. “The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”

I’d like to think of gratitude as both a virtue to be practiced and a gift to be received. In receiving there is re-cognition, a rethinking of who we are and how much we have been given. In the practicing of gratitude there is constancy and commitment. How much we could transform our world through such simple acts!

(Photo: Cristian Newman on Unsplash.com)