Light of the World


{This is the last in a series of forty Lenten reflections loosely based on ideas suggested by mugs found in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. As I wrote on the first day, this exercise was designed only for my pleasure. The discipline of writing each day has taken a couple of hours out of the 24, and has further frayed the already worn edges of the pages of J. I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder. I know I’ll miss this daily practice, but I will be glad to have the time for something else…like springtime.}SONY DSCThe first mug I wrote about was a commercially-produced coffee cup with the name “Jeff” on it, along with a kind of greeting card verse about what “Jeff” means. Now, on the last day of these forty days in Lent 2017, I turn to another mug with my name on it. It’s the companion to one with my wife’s name similarly inscribed. We were given these mugs by the Bick family when we left Richmond, Virginia after some 27 years. The Bicks were our neighbors and members of our church. I trust that they did speak for all our Richmond friends by expressing their love. We still treasure the mugs and the message.

Does that mug “fit” this day? Does it have context? Today, the Saturday between Good Friday and the Day of Resurrection, is certainly “the day between the days.” This last day of Lent is non-descript for most Presbyterian-types. We know it has deep meaning, but we don’t pay much attention to it, as we await tomorrow’s sunrise service, with its shivering little congregation gathered amid tombstones in the church cemetery hoping the sun will actually be visible on what is predicted to be a rainy day. And then later, in the church itself, we will sing lustily (pardon the expression) and find ourselves accompanied by brass players and pipe organ. We will hear the Good News of the Gospel (pardon the redundancy) proclaimed, add flowers to the bare wooden cross, and break out the Lenten-hid alleluias (pardon still another parenthesis, but that word shouldn’t have been typed/seen/spoken/sung until tomorrow. Sorry. OK, enough with the pardons!)

But today is just Saturday. Some call it “black Saturday,” because of the solemn mood of sadness or defeat that followed the day of crucifixion. Others refer to it as Holy Saturday, or Easter Eve. Many years ago, Joan and I participated in our first Easter Vigil, a three or four-hour service that chronicled the Biblical story of “salvation history.” There was music, drama, graphic and fabric art, the reading of Scriptures, with prayers and accompanying liturgy rich with spiritual depth. It was a powerful service, difficult to transport back home from the conference we were attending. But many Christian communities around the world do something similar on “Easter Eve,” some even longer services, most shorter; but all designed to keep the rich meaning of God’s grace and love and Presence in focus, so worshippers could move from Good Friday to Easter knowing the all-important context of what some refer to as cross and crown.

So, I’ve been writing about mugs, have I? But this series hasn’t been about ceramics, fair trade coffee, favorite teas, or how to use drinking vessels as marketing tools. The context has been Lent, a time of preparation, of anticipated spiritual growth. As days lead from the ashes of that first Wednesday to the dust of the Emmaus Road, some of us added mid-week gatherings of worship and/or study; many used Lenten devotional guides such as the one on the Kellam dining table, Walter Brueggemann’s A Way Other than Our Own*; Lenten disciplines included service projects, lectio divina, labyrinth walks, special music, and giving up Mountain Dew. All in the context of the Lenten journey of Jesus, a wilderness time of testing and surviving, a prelude to his life’s symphony of compassion, outreach, healing, and teaching. His was a life and death by which we measure our time on this God’s earth.

[* Brueggemann’s take on this day: Saturday is that in-between day of stillness and doubt and despair when time stands still in lethal flatness.]

In relying on mugs to get me started writing each day, I’ve kept context in mind. The context of the season, the context of following Jesus, the context of my own day-to-day existence. Some days are, sadly, a big waste of time. Or, seem like it to me. I make that confession as I fall asleep those nights. “Forgive me, Lord. Didn’t do much for you or your people today. Wasted time and gifts. As the Psalmist prayed, ‘Put a new and right spirit within me,’ and offer me another day.” On those other days, my personal context is that of being and serving in a community of faith, and some opportunity pops up unexpectedly. Or, maybe it’s a family thing, where I find unconditional love so vital and energizing, that my prayers at night are full of thanksgiving. We all have some context in which we find ourselves– or are found.

Context is the weaving together of things that yearn to be connected. My life and someone’s need; my gifts and someone’s lack; my lack and their gifts. Faith and life. Daily living and revelation! Our purpose and the Shepherd’s guidance. Mugs and Lent. The context of a neighborhood, politics, (don’t get me started), local church or national denomination, the cloud of war or threat of terrorism, a child’s trusting eyes. Temptations, sin, dark thunderhead clouds hanging over. Context.

So, I wrote about mugs in the context of Lent. But more, in the context of my life. And if you have read some of these reflections (to call them meditations may be too generous), you know a lot about the man whose name is on the mug at the top of this day’s blog. You know something of my family, my church life and ministries, where I’ve lived and places I’ve been, what I believe, and — heck, even the name of our everyday china!

But, again, I haven’t been writing for you. I’ve been writing for me. I may know who you are. WordPress tells me who’s “following” my writing here, and others have happened by and sent private responses with names attached. But I’m guessing that if this writing stays “up” in some Internet cloud somewhere, I have no idea who you are. That said, the question is, do you know who you are? Now early in my 70s, I’m getting there. Knowing who I am, that is.

Today, the context is somewhere between the shadow of yesterday’s cross and the rising sun of tomorrow’s Light of the World. I have to admit, that I have had more than my share of that Light already. Grace has encompassed me. Love has surrounded me. Read that mug again! And God has gifted me with a strong family from which I have come and a beloved family I have helped to nurture. My wife, my children, and now my grandchildren. Wow! Plus, there was that Call…my vocation… full of exclamation points! (<There’s one now.)

The Apostle Paul once quoted a Greek poet as he preached a sermon in Athens. He referred to God as the one “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” There. That’s context. I am content in that context.

Yet, there is still tomorrow!

There is a new context that awaits, something downright cosmic, earth-shattering, mind-blowing, a whole new song to sing…there is tomorrow!

There will be Easter!

 

 

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I hope this image doesn’t say “Monday” to you. It wasn’t meant to. When I chose it for today’s reflection, I just liked the layers of trees, hills, and clouds seen on a Vermont walk. As I enter the final week of this Lenten discipline of mine — taking a picture from decades of film and digital images I’ve taken and writing whatever those images suggest– I realize I have spent far more words on celebration than on lament. But today…a look at the “dark side.”

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The hills of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont

This cloud formation is a far cry from the wispy cirrus clouds that add a harmless white spray on an otherwise clear blue sky day. This looks dangerous, or at least ominous. It casts everything into shadow, even one’s disposition if we let it. Since I am aware of the area geography in that part of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, I know we are facing west, and the sunset is hiding behind that thick, stormy formation. We had hoped for beauty, but instead found wonder as we walked.

I went looking through the Bible for some references to darkness (because that’s what we preachers tend to do). The Prophets saw darkness as consequence for the waywardness and sin of God’s people. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah…all used darkness as metaphor for that which covered over the light of God. Isaiah 59:9 sums it up:

Therefore justice is far from us,

and righteousness does not reach us;

we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;

for brightness, but we walk in gloom.

Darkness also stood for silence in the Hebrew scriptures, the silence of prophesy and the silence of God, pretty much the same thing. (Micah: “The sun shall go down over the prophets, and the day shall be dark over them.” 3:6)

In the New Testament Jesus comes as the Light of the World, as John’s prologue says, and the darkness would not overcome it. Except that one day, when nails pierced flesh, breath gave out, and Luke says, “There was darkness over all the earth.” Other New Testament writings affirm the triumph of the light in the age that followed the resurrection of Jesus, from the gospels to Revelation, and his followers “walk as children of light.”

But there’s another caveat here, and I believe this is the lesson for our day. “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.”(1 John 2:9) Hate is a strong emotion; the Greek word here can also mean “detest.” I confess that I may be guilty of that from time to time, keeping in mind that we aren’t talking about biological siblings here, so much as our Christian family. And that covers a wide variety of sometimes, um, detestable characters: that TV evangelist; that candidate; that guy with the offensive (to me) bumper sticker on his pickup truck.  As I said, I am guilty of those dark feelings. I confess. Help me, O Lord, to repent. I want to walk as a child of the light, as the song says.

Another look at that hidden sunset from Vermont reveals more than a little hope, it turns out. There is light that still shines, and will overcome, as the clouds disperse. And the clouds always, always, disperse. Even in Portland. Even in Binghamton. So, if we look beyond the trees and the hills, and behind the clouds, there is light! And it will win. Even if it takes until sunrise.

Praise God because the dark is never the end, the end is light, and the light has already broken through into the world out of the very heart of the world’s darkness, which is the cross of the world’s suffering. And it will break through again, as sure as, far off down the road, the rider comes again his weary, lonesome way.           –Frederick Buechner