Adjusting our Eyes: A Christmas Message

What follows is my sermon delivered at the  Monmouth College Christmas concert and worship service.

[A spot light is turned on me, the rest of the chapel is dark.]

Wow. I can’t see a thing.  It’s so dark out there.  I mean I know you’re there—I can hear you breathing, and shifting in your seats, and laughing….but it’s creepy because I can’t see you.

You know what’s creepier, though?  To be in this chapel alone…at night…without any light. I’ve had to come in here sometimes at night and crawl through the pitch black, in heels no less, to get to the light switch behind the stage.  If I were smart, I wouldn’t rush that walk through the darkness, because I’m clumsy, and sure to trip over something or walk into a wall. But I want to get to that light switch as quick as possible. All my life I’ve been conditioned to believe bad things happen in the dark—Edgar Allen Poe things.  Every horror movie I have never watched is set in the dark. Every monster jumps out from under the bed after the lights go out.  It’s scary here in the dark.

Isaiah 9: 2-7 is read by Christians at Christmas because of its reference to the birth of a baby, born to save a people.  But tonight I want to focus on the darkness inherent in this text. The monsters the Israelites were facing were real—the yoke of foreign oppression; the boots and blood of war.  It was not just a dark time, according to Isaiah, but deeply dark.

Our historical context is far from that of the 8th century, but Isaiah’s words still resonate today. I mean, can you remember a darker Christmas than this? Maybe you can.  But this season, to me, seems particularly bleak: our nation entrenched in deep, unyielding differences; children separated from their parents at the border; tear gas and rubber bullets used against refugees; the #MeToo movement revealing what we women already knew; hateful, destructive rhetoric; endless mass shootings; wildfires raging; our environment degrading.  Then, here in Monmouth we’ve got Thanksgiving blizzards dangerously stranding students on the road, friends and loved ones struggling with their mental health—suicide, dementia, cancer, marriages and families breaking under stress—seriously, our list of dark things could go on and on.

Dear God, I pray every day, save us from the darkness. I want to move through the pitch black as quickly as I can, even in heels, because it scares me. Maybe you’re scared too?

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that  “70 percent of our sense receptors are located in our eyes. Those of us who can see rely heavily on our sight.” Darkness is disorienting. It frightens us because we don’t know what to expect of the dark, we don’t know where we are going when we are in its midst, what we will find, or what will find us.

Here in the darkness, though, the prophet Isaiah wants us to slow down; he wants us to give our eyes time to adjust. Even while walking in darkness—he says—there is something to see.

I was recently introduced to contemporary artist James Turrell who uses darkness as his medium. In an essay entitled, “In Praise of Darkness” Heather Lanier describes one of Turrell’s exhibits at a museum in Massachusetts. “You enter,” Lanier writes, “by stepping into a narrow corridor—the only source of light is behind you—which quickly turns 180 degrees to the right. As you get farther along, the walls must be painted black because now the darkness is nearly complete. If you go with children, this is when they’ll start to grasp your hand tighter. If you go alone, this is when you might seek out the handrail, flu season or not. You’ll feel the handrail bend, and you’ll let it guide you through another 180-degree turn. The darkness at this point becomes thick, almost palpable, and if you’re like me, you’ll put your hand out in front of you because you’re certain you’re about to walk into a wall. You’ll follow the handrail until you reach its end, at which point you will have no sense that the space has just opened up into a room. Your hand will eventually find an armrest, which means you’ve arrived at the viewing chair. You sit and wait in the blackness. It can take as long as 15 minutes for the irises to open sufficiently to perceive this work.”

In a James Turrell exhibit, what helps you follow that handrail into the darkness and sit in the black room long enough for your eyes to adjust is the belief that there is something there—something good and beautiful.  You just need to give yourself a little time—you just need to be patient enough and courageous enough to sit in the dark in order to see it. But that’s not easy. Lanier described two college age women who stumbled into the exhibit with her, linking elbows. Standing at the entryway, they whispered that they couldn’t see a thing and refused to take another step. Then one of them drew something from her back pocket, and in an instant the stark light of her cell phone lit up their faces.

Isaiah wants us to know, and believe, that the darkness hold promise, that the darkness is not dark to God, that art and beauty, meaning and purpose can be found even in the bleakest of circumstances. This is, after all, the message of Christmas.  When all that surrounds us feels like death, new life is born. When hate is on the rise, love prevails. When darkness blinds, light illuminates. God is not absent in the darkness. Beauty and meaning are not absent in the darkness. The key is to believe—that something is there—something is here for us—something good and beautiful. Then being patient enough and courageous enough to give our eyes time to adjust.

Eventually, in the Turrell exhibit the art emerges. Heather Lanier describes it as, “A faint, gray amorphous source of light. It’s so faint [at first] you might not be able to place its shape. Circle? Oval? Blob? It’s like a reflection of a reflection of light, like a moon of a moon, like a gray lake’s mirroring of a dulled silver spoon. The art you eventually arrive at varies, according to who you are and how you view the world. But if you wait long enough, there is actually something there.

If we wait long enough and let our eyes adjust something is there…something emerges…

Maybe it’s the dark silhouettes of the people sitting around you, reminding you that you are not alone.

Maybe it’s the exposed wooden beams of this Chapel ceiling, appearing as arms outstretched drawing us closer together as one community.

Maybe it’s a darkness so large and unfathomable that it takes the shape of God.[1]

Maybe it’s a light we hadn’t noticed before.

What we see will vary according to who we are and how we view the world.  But the darkness holds something for us all.

Wendell Berry writes:

To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight, and find
that the dark, too, blooms and sings.

For Isaiah, the darkness blooms and sings about the birth of a child.  God has not forsaken you, Isaiah declares. God has not abandoned you in the darkness. Tonight, let us give ourselves a gift. Let us sit in our viewing chairs, give our irises the time they need to open, and receive what the darkness holds for us tonight. It might…it just might…give us hope.

Now to the God who calls us to this night vision, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1]This phrase attributed to Sara Miles from her recent Christian Century lecture.

[Feature Image: Billie Grace Ward]

Protecting our Hopefulness

Just_Mercy_Stevenson_Bryan_002 (1)_0I just returned from a trip to Washington DC where six students and I studied the issue of mass incarceration.  I will write more about this trip soon, but for now I just want to highlight the inspiring work of Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system.  Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption details his journey into this work beginning with one of his first cases, defending Walter McMillian, a young man sentenced to die for a notorious murder he did not commit.  I highly recommend this book as well as a number of videos where you can hear Stevenson speak.  In this 45 minute video you can hear Stevenson talk about “Confronting Injustice.”  At about the 20 minute mark he talks about the importance of “protecting our hopefulness.”  Here’s a little of what he says:

If we are going to create more justice in the world, we have to protect our hopefulness. Injustice is a direct consequence of hopelessness. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. When I go into a courtroom and I see a hopeless judge and a hopeless prosecutor and a hopeless defense attorney, I know that there is going to be a bad outcome. When I go into a school system and see hopeless teachers trying to deal with hopeless sets of rules, I am very worried about the future of our children. When I go into communities and hear people talking about issues but I hear them giving in to the despair and hopelessness that oftentimes emerge because things get complicated, I get very worried. The complexity of the world can oftentimes make us hopeless about what we can do. We have to be curious and understand the complexities of issues, but we also have to protect our hopefulness because we cannot move forward without hope. We cannot create more opportunities for justice without hope.

I encourage you to get to know Stevenson’s work.  Learning more about our country’s urgent need for criminal justice reform will disturb and challenge–the stories of injustice are heart wrenching.  But, as Stevenson shares with us, we have good reason to hope, because through hope we find our way forward to justice.

about the church

I love the Church.  To be clear, I love the old, mainline, rooted in tradition, liturgical, theologically complex, organ-blaring, butt-numbing pew kind of church.  I have given my life to this Church.  I am passionate in her service.  I am emboldened to lead a new generation through her doors.  And yet, sometimes I stop to wonder why?

The Church has challenged me and nurtured me in all the ways I needed to be challenged and nurtured.  She put me in a pulpit and told me to preach. Only then did I discover my voice.  She pushed me to follow Jesus behind the prison walls, within the mental health ward, to the communities of Mexico, to the rural poor of South Carolina, and into homes of impoverished families living in my own community. She taught me profound spiritual practices.  She introduced me to the most inspiring of people.  She opened the scriptures for me and she surrounded me with a community the likes of which cannot be found on Facebook.

But the Church has not always been good to me.  She passed me by for positions in favor of a less experienced, less talented man.  She passed my husband by for positions because as a working pastor myself I could not be the traditional “pastor’s wife.” She, the Church, placed me in some horribly dysfunctional congregations working with some horribly dysfunctional people. And she, the Church, has made me sit through committee meeting after committee meeting after committee meeting during which a LOT was said, but little was actually done. (This could be a form of human torture.)

Yet, in the face of her flaws (the mistakes she refuses to confess, the prejudice she still harbors, the certainties she will not let go) I still believe in the Church’s potential.  I believe in her because I believe we need her.  I believe we need a place to console us in grief and celebrate with us in new births, a place where we can cry unabashedly and name the complexities of life.  I believe we need a place where we talk about things that matter, a place that will challenge us to move outside of our selves and our little worlds, a place that will prod us towards our neighbor who thinks and believes differently. I believe we need a place where people of all ages can gather around commonly held rituals, a place where we can sing, and pray, and play the blues in the context of Good News.  I believe we need a place where we can feel hope.

I believe, at her best, and by the grace of God, the Church can be that place.  This is whom I have given my life to, because this I believe.