Illumination (A Mid-Week Homily)

IlluminationLectionary Text: John 1: 6-8, 19-28
I love Christmas lights. When I was little, my family would pick at least one night right before or immediately after Christmas and drive around and look at the Christmas lights. Later, as a young adult, I several times drove my Grandmother around to look at them. My Grandmother Reue seemed to have as much of the childlike appreciation of the lights that I had always had. Many of us are like that. There’s something about Christmas lights—full of wonder and awe, a sort of call to the season for us. These lights are comfortable for us. They are reassuring. From a practical standpoint, they’re virtually useless. But you know as well as I do that they are a sign of the season.
The Gospel passage that we read for this week uses that image of light also. For the writer of The Gospel According to John, the Logos was the light of humanity, the true light. There are no announcements here of Jesus’ coming and there is no birth story. But this is essentially the equivalent: the coming of Jesus, the Incarnation, is the coming of the true light, which enlightens everyone and illumines everything. But where the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke use an angel to proclaim Christ’s coming, this writer uses John the Baptist. Now whatever you have to say about this camel hair-wearing, locust-eating, wilderness wanderer, he took his job seriously. John understood himself as called by God to point to the light as well as to that which is illuminated by the light. He didn’t get lost, as many do, in the rhetoric about Christ as the light without realizing the purpose of the light itself. And sometimes John’s words were not very popular. He went around like some wild man in the wilderness preaching repentance, preaching that we needed to change, preaching about the one who was coming after him, preaching about the light that was just around the bend, a light such that we had not seen. “John,” we want to say, “Shhhh!…you’ll wake the baby.”
That’s where we want to be—at the manger, kneeling before our Lord, basking in the illumination of the star above, and yet we still want to hold onto those shadows in our life. For there is familiarity; there is safety; there is that which we can control, there is that place to which we can retreat when life is just too hard. And the light…We would rather the light be allowed to remain in our thinking depicted as a warm and comfortable place to be. Just let us sit here awhile with this sleeping baby, the Christ child, there in the manger while the North Star dances overhead. This is a sign of the season!
But John the Baptist was right. This light is not a twinkling, intermittent light like those that light our houses this season. This is not a warm, glowing, candle-lit light that makes us feel comfortable even as we sit in its shadows. And it’s closer to us than any star in the universe. This light is different. This light is so big and so bright and so powerful that sometimes it hurts to look at it. Sometimes it is just too painful. This light is so pervasive and so encompassing, that it casts no shadows. The light of Christ, this light to which John pointed, is not a warm glow but is rather a radical illumination of everything around it. Because you see, Christ did not come into the world just to be our personal guiding light so that we could see where to go on this journey. The Christ light is also a light that shows us what needs to be done while we’re on that journey. Christoph Frederick Blumhardt says that “a light has a purpose; a light ought to shine into our lives so that we can see what needs to be done and set our hand to it and clean it up.”[i] That is the Light of Christ.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, it will show us things that we’d rather not see, things with which we’d rather not have to deal. I’ll make a confession here. You can tell when I get too busy in my life by looking at my house. Right now, my house is atrocious. If you walked into it, you would experience the worst housekeeping that you can possibly imagine. In my kitchen, I have these really bright overhead canister lights. I also have these wonderful, warm, under-cabinet lights that I absolutely love. I realized the other night that I like my kitchen better right now at night when I turn off the canister lights and turn on those under-cabinet lights. They are beautiful as they reflect off the granite and project a warm, delicate glow to the kitchen. But the real reason is because with them, the kitchen looks clean. How easy it is just to forget about those things we need to do when we can’t see them!
The Christ light is not a warm, delicate light. The Christ light is this incredibly bright, all-encompassing light that enables us to see the world differently. It is a light that illumines not only the present, but also the future. The Spiritual Masters would refer to this illumination as a type of liminality, a way of existing in two worlds, betwixt and between. We are standing in the world in which we live, but the light is illumining the world to come. And when we learn how to see with that light, the world in which we live will look different. We will finally see that some of this is just not right. We can then no longer close our eyes to what the light has shown us. It will be impossible. Because, for us, all the shadows will finally once and for all be exposed. We will no longer be able to live with hunger and homelessness, with destruction of people’s lives and waste of our planet, with violence and war, or with the exclusion of any of God’s children from the light. The light in our lives will find those things not just sad, but unacceptable, inexcusable, incapable of being.
How, then, do we prepare ourselves to look at this light. How do we turn our eyes, so shielded by all the shadows of this world and look at that bright illuminating light without it being uncomfortable for us? Well, you know as well as I do that the way to prepare yourself to look at light is to look at light. And as uncomfortable as that may be, there is no other way. In her book, Lighted Windows, Margaret Silf tells the story of when her daughter was born and how one of the first problems that they encountered was light. She said that “to make sure that [our daughter] would always experience the presence of a gentle, comforting light if she awoke during the night, we installed a little lamp close to the nursery door. It also meant that if she cried we could grope our way to her even in a half-asleep state.”[ii] But they soon realized that even the little nursery light burned their eyes, especially after the third or fourth time they went into the nursery during the night, groggy from sleep with eyes burning. “So,” she says, “we went to the local electrical shop to ask whether they had any bulbs lower than 15 watts!” “It’s strange,” she comments, “how light that is so needful for growth and life can also be so hurtful when we are unprepared for it.”[iii]
In this Advent season, the way that we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Light is by looking at that light. That is why God came and burst forth into our humanness—to show us what full illumination looks like and to call us into the light. Do you remember that bumper sticker a couple of years ago? I haven’t seen it in awhile. “God is coming…look busy.” It’s funny but it’s wrong. God is here…get busy. God has come. The baby IS awake and now it’s our turn to wake up, rub our sleep-filled, groggy eyes, and with every intentional part of our being, look into the light and see what we are called to do. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth. THAT is the sign of the season—all of Creation in full illumination so that we may get a glimpse of what is to come.
In the Name of the One who said “Let There Be Light” and then brought the light to earth that we might see the world the way it was created to be. Amen.
So, go and be light!
Grace and Peace,
Shelli
[i] Christoph Friederich Blumhardt, “Action in Waiting”, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing, 2001), 11/24.
[ii] Margaret Silf, Lighted Windows: Advent Reflections for a World in Waiting, (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2004.), 101.
[iii] Ibid

Making Room

In my somewhat arduous journey into full-time pastoral ministry from a fairly lucrative career as an accountant, I have changed homes twice. Now, to some, that may not sound like a big deal. But I grew up in a family that almost never moved, with the exception of our moving into a new house when I was in Kindergarten that was a whole two streets and two blocks from the first house. (We haven’t come that far, I guess!) But each time I moved these last years, I had to shift and actually get rid of some things. This last move was one from a parsonage that was WAY too big for me (even living WITH the 122-lb Black Lab) to a small, 1920’s cottage in one of Houston’s oldest neighborhoods. My only choice was to downsize.

I have realized that downsizing is a spiritual experience. Downsizing is about making room; it is about making things fit into a life that is different; and it is about finding yourself having to very intentionally cast away those things that you do not need. And what I found was that there are really not THAT many things that I need (contrary to what I thought before). In fact, if one is serious about downsizing, one will even make room for future things that mean something! Making room means that you find what is the most important in your life and you make room for it, perhaps by ridding yourself of things that have cluttered your pathway before.

This season of Advent, too, is about making room. It is about preparing for Christ’s coming into your life by clearing space and ridding yourself of things that clutter and distract. It is about emotionally downsizing so that you can spiritually fill up. What do you need to do to make room this Advent? After all, it would be a shame if the Christ child had to sleep on a fold-out sofa! Don’t you think God’s coming calls for something more permanent in your life?

So go forth and make room!

Grace and Peace,
Shelli

This Season of Preparing

Advent is a season of preparation, a season of making-ready. But lest we get lost in the frenzied shuffle of tree-trimming and gift-buying, cookie-baking and party-planning, present-wrapping and card-mailing, we need to remember that those things are not all Advent preparation is. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us…The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.” (1) After all, what is it for which we are preparing? My friends, we are only preparing for the changing of everything that we know. That’s all.

God did not come into the world to simply validate what we were doing with our lives. The Christ child was not born so that we could continue to live as we have. The Spirit did not ascend to us and say “Great job, people…keep it up! Way to go! Rah…rah…rah!” You and I both know that’s not the way it happened. Frightening news? You bet. We are not called in this season to prepare to dress up our lives in their best finery so that we can be presented to God. (No need…God is here!) No, we are called in this season to prepare to change. And that should be frightening to anyone who really bothers to think about it if only for a split second. Because you see, so long ago, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, [came] into the world.” And if we prepare ourselves to open our eyes, if we prepare ourselves to live our lives focused on that light, if we prepare our hearts to know and speak the truth in love, then we cannot help but be changed. And that IS frightening news but it is also oh, so glorious!

So go forth and prepare to be changed!

Grace and Peace,
Shelli

(1) From “The Coming of Jesus in our Midst”, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, (Plough Publishing)

ADVENT 3B: Anointed to This Messy Work

Some ramblings on this week’s Lectionary readings…

During Advent, the Lectionary invites us to read some familiar texts, texts that many of us could almost recite from memory. But if we think that it is just a repetition of the same things as last year, we are very mistaken. We are different; the world is different. And God calls us to walk a little bit farther in the journey, even if it’s only a tiny step closer than last year.

Isaiah 61: 1-11
So what does it mean to have the Spirit of the Lord upon me, to be anointed by the Lord, as the servant is here? This is a pretty tall order–to be sent to build up, raise up, and repair. After all, things were pretty much a mess. So we look to the servant to fix things, to make life well again. But, there, as early as verse 3, the pronouns begin to change. The single servant becomes a “they”, those who are fitted with a mantle of praise. A mantle is something that covers or envelops. In essence, that “anointing” to do the Lord’s work has been passed on and “they” have inherited the covenant. And all those who come after the servant–generations and generations of descendents–are the “they”. We are the “they”, those with the Spirit of the Lord upon us, those anointed, those sent to build up, raise up, and repair. This is a pretty tall order. After all, things are pretty much a mess. What are we waiting for? Yes, being anointed by God’s Spirit is messy work. It’s a good thing we don’t have to do it alone!

1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
That’s what it says here…we are not alone! As it says at the beginning, there are those who labor among us; after all, remember, we are the COMMUNITY of faith. It is together that we build up, raise up, and repair. Here, we are admonished to be careful about not quenching the Spirit. For ourselves, that means to attend to our own spiritual life through prayer and thanksgiving and remembering who and whose we are. But I think this also warns us against quenching the Spirit of our fellow laborers. We are not all the same. We come from different pasts and we journey by way of different futures. It is the diversity within our community that anoints with God’s Spirit. And while it is sometimes much more comfortable to march in ranks of sameness, with our collective voices drowning out those who do not speak the way we do, that “rank and file” mentality makes is difficult for God to come into our midst. Because the God of peace is wanting to “sanctify us entirely”, our bodies, our minds, our souls, our community, the world. That is this building up, raising up, and repairing to which we are called. But how can we see that if we only open our eyes to our own needs and our own way of thinking?

John 1: 6-28
Whatever you have to say about John the Baptist (after all, it is hard for some of us to identify with a camel’s hair-wearing, locust-eating, loud-mouthed wilderness wanderer screaming at everyone to repent!), he took his job seriously. He understood that he was called by God to point to the light as well as that which is illuminated by the light. In other words, he did not get lost in rhetoric about Jesus as the light without realizing the purpose of the light itself. And that is probably what makes us so uncomfortable with John. We would rather the light be allowed to remain in our thinking depicted as a warm and comfortable place to be. We would rather live under the notion that Jesus’ light is just for us so that we can see our way to God. We would rather bask in its illumination without looking at what it now enables us to see in a different light. But, as our Lectionary readings imply today, it is not really about us! That light that came into the world came not only to show us where to go; it also came to show us what needs to be done. Remember, we are anointed, filled with God’s Spirit, now basking in the Light of Christ. And we can no longer close our eyes to what the light has shown us. We can no longer close our eyes to hunger and homelessness, to destruction and waste, to violence and war, or to exclusion of any of God’s laborers from the work to which they are called. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.

So, go and build up, raise up, and repair!

Grace and Peace,
Shelli

Waiting to Be-Come

Most of us are so busy trying to become something that we often forget to be. God calls us to be–to be open, to be compassionate, to be ready, to be salt, to be light, to be for one another what Christ is for us. And while we are growing into our being, we are called to wait. When we are ready, when we are receptive, God will come and we will then become. So, once again, waiting is not passive. Waiting is not just sitting around until the world changes. Waiting is our time of being–just being with God. It is God’s coming into our lives that sparks our becoming.

So wait this season with purpose and intentional being. Be open to being and you will be open to God’s coming. And when God comes into our being, we become what we are fully meant to be. So, be salt; be light; be who God calls you to be. And wait. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, Come that I may be-come.

So go forth and be!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Journeying through Waiting

Perhaps the reason that we experience such difficulty with this act of waiting is that we have mistaken its meaning. For many of us, waiting means stopping, standing still, even retreating from the “goings on” of life. It often is misconstrued as doing nothing. But while our waiting often looks like that on the outside, I am realizing that active waiting is a journey in and of itself.

Think about this…things that involve transformation–growth, healing, acceptance, even, as we wait in this season of Advent, birth–also involve waiting. It does not mean that nothing is happening; it just means that we are not fully in control of where we are going and how it will all end up. The journey through waiting, then, is definitely ours to walk. The point is that, finally, someone else is leading the way. We just have to open ourselves to the possibility that we might end up in a different place altogether. We just have to open ourselves to the very real possibility that God will come in a way that we have neither planned or expected and do things that we can’t even fathom.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 40: 4-5, NRSV)

So, go forth and wait!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

This Season of Waiting

I must confess that I do not wait well. Waiting involves stopping, looking, and listening actively to the silence of one’s life. But often I want so badly to fill it with something “constructive”, to spend time doing something active. In fact, Henri Nouwen wrote that “for many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go.”

Advent is the season of waiting. This, though, is not the same as a season of rest. This is not a season for doing nothing. This is instead a season for actively partipating as the world waits for the coming of God. It is a season for waiting not for what we have planned, not even for what we know, but for that which is unimagineable, unintelligible, and unlike anything that we have ever known. Experience has shown us that God comes into our lives in ways and times that we do not expect. The point is, though, that God is really already there–we just have to learn to wait long enough for our lives to open up enough to see what God is already showing us–Emmanuel, God with us. This is the season to go forth and wait!

Grace and Peace,
Shelli