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]

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Keep Walking–A Christmas Sermon

What follows is my Christmas Convocation sermon, “Keep Walking,” to the Monmouth College community, based on Isaiah 9:2-7.

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If Tim Kramer, our college’s videographer, were to set his camera to film all of us walking the slick sidewalks of campus this winter, I imagine he’d get a pretty good blooper reel. A few weeks ago (when the sun was still shining) I was walking and talking with our new Associate Chaplain, Jessica Hawkinson, along the sidewalk above the Stockdale parking lot. Jessica accidentally stepped off the pavement, lost her balance, and then just sort of rolled down the hill. It happened so fast. One minute she was there and the next she was gone.

I wouldn’t embarrass Jessica, though, if I didn’t have my own story to tell. My first winter here in Monmouth I slipped and fell down the stairs of the Weeks House, shouting out a very unchaplain-like word as I went. This would have been bad enough, but my fall happened right as the men’s track team was running by.

I’m sure these little spills don’t only happen to the clumsy occupants of the Chaplain’s Office, though. You’ve got your stories to tell too. I know you do. Now that winter has set in here we’re all going to be tripping and slipping our way around campus.

The prophet Isaiah opens his passage to us today by describing a people who weren’t unfamiliar with treacherous paths. Isaiah’s people walked in a time of darkness. They were living in fear. Neighboring superpower Assyria had been systematically taking over the entire region surrounding Israel and Judah. The people didn’t know if they should join a coalition that was preparing to fight Assyria or if they should try to avoid the bloodshed by giving in and giving up their rights and their freedom as an independent nation. Isaiah’s people were walking in an uncertain and frightening time. Perhaps we can relate.

I recently read an Advent sermon by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber in which she described the year 2016 as apocalyptic. And she meant this literally. The Greek for apocalypse means “to uncover” or “to unveil.” Many things were uncovered this year, many things that we probably would have rather left veiled. All the horrific shootings, the mounting evidence of police brutality, the racial and socio-economic tension and divisive political rhetoric did not create the anger, fear, bigotry and biases among us, it just uncovered what was already here. And that uncovering has been devastating. So devastating that it makes it hard to carry on. I mean what do we do in the face of all that 2016 has revealed? What is a pastor to preach this Christmas to offer any kind of hope?

I confess that on Wednesday, November 9th, I was among the 50% of our country that woke up despairing over the news that Donald Trump would be our next President. I drove to campus that morning wondering how I could be the Chaplain for such a diverse community as ours when I was personally feeling so broken and beaten. I attended all the meetings I was scheduled to attend that day, but I couldn’t focus on anything. So I abandoned my to-do list and just started walking. I came across a student who had recently come out as gay. He laughed at the absurdity of the election, the surreal feeling that this couldn’t possibly be life as we know it. But tears welled as he spoke, spilling freely down his cheeks and onto the sidewalk we shared. I caught a professor outside of the mailroom, he too in tears. How do I teach today, he asked? How do I just go on? Then, I started knocking on dorm room doors. (I do that sometimes. You all should know.) But I wanted to see my Latina students whose families are still in the process of becoming citizens. And our Syrian students whom I have grown to love. And the African-American student whose rage lit up Facebook, his fiery words highlighting his feelings of betrayal, once again, by White America. Then I ran into a white student whose views, I know, are more conservative than mine. He was afraid too. Not in the same way as our Latino students, and African American students, and Syrian refugee students. But he was afraid, nonetheless, that if people knew what he believed and who he voted for, he would be treated like some sort of monster to be shunned and disdained. I listened to him too.

As I walked campus that Wednesday and met people on the sidewalk, in the dorms, in their offices and at the mailboxes, I had no words of reassurance, no explanation that would make everything okay, no wisdom, not even any prayers. All I knew when I got to campus was that I needed to be with you and I needed to walk.

I recently discovered a poem called “Walker” by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. In this poem Machado writes: “Walker, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”

I’ve been considering this poem lately. The first part, “Walker, there is no road,” resonates, because right now, with the state of our government and our nation and our communities embroiled in tension and hostility, it feels as if there is no road forward. Seriously, where do we go from here?

The latter half of the poet’s phrase, “The road is made by walking,” offers a charge to which I know I should adhere. The poet suggests that there is no road forward until we take the steps to create it. It’s up to me, the walker, to forge the path. And, whereas, this sounds quite empowering—kind of like “be the change you wish to see in the world”—I’ll be honest, it also sounds exhausting, maybe even a bit overwhelming.

I’m sure you understand. I mean it is December 6th—the week before finals. If Will Ferrell were here he’d describe this end-of-the-semester time as like riding a bike, except the bike is on fire, and you’re on fire, and everything is on fire, and you’re in hell. Yeah, we’re just trying to survive.

So this is when prophets like Isaiah come in handy. You see, their job is to fuel our imagination with an alternative reality, a motivating vision of what God wills for our lives. Isaiah paints this picture as a time when the yoke of the people’s burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor has been broken. It’s a time when all the boots of tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood are burned as fuel for the fire because there is no longer a need for a military, no need for war. It’s a time ushered in by the birth of a child, a new King, who will rule with justice and righteousness—a Prince of Peace—whose authority will grow because of his love and respect for all people, most especially those who are poor and vulnerable. This is the vision the prophet Isaiah holds before us today.

Walking our campus with this vision in mind, it’s amazing what you will find, literally, just steps away.

A few weeks ago, I walked past Wallace Hall and paused to take in the chalkings. Affirmative statements such as, YOU BELONG,  YOU ARE LOVED,  YOU ARE WANTED, filled the plaza’s cement.

Mujeristas of Monmouth College

Teri with the Mujeristas of Monmouth College

This past Wednesday I walked into the Weeks House living room to sit and listen to Diana Rubi’s Mujerista Theology study group. Latinos are projected to be the majority population in our country by 2050. Holding this vision before them, Diana’s group discussed their responsibility to the world. How can they ensure, they asked themselves, that today’s oppressed do not become tomorrow’s oppressors?

Friday afternoon I walked to Hewes Library for a coffee from Einstein’s and passed a student reviewing Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” for an ILA exam.

Saturday afternoon I walked into Room 273 of the CSB to attend the Empowerment Workshop led by Neddy Velez and her group, People of Change.

Saturday night I walked here, to Dahl Chapel. The lights set by our theater students made it feel like you were walking into a fairy tale. Then, I sat down and was moved to tears by the beauty of the music performed by our chorale, and our orchestra, and our wind ensemble.

I, like you, walk this campus all the time. It’s what we do. When we walk, though, with the prophet’s vision before us another kind of unveiling occurs. It’s an unveiling of care and compassion for others, an unveiling of art and beauty that will move us to tears, an unveiling of people who seek to do good and make a difference with their lives, an unveiling of young lives being shaped for the future, our future—and it’s this unveiling that keeps me walking.

If, as the poet says, the road is made by walking, then I want to make this road by walking it with all of you— because you inspire me. You encourage me. You give me hope. If this Christmas Convocation leaves with you anything, I hope it is the knowledge that though the road ahead may be dark, it is well lit by walkers with their candles held high—walkers inspired and illumined by a prophetic vision of the world to come—a world we are to see into reality, guided by the grace and love of God. So keep walking, my friends. Keep walking.

[Feature Image: Renaud Leon]