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Staying bright amid unrelenting gloom
This Sunday, I’m in Birmingham, Alabama, speaking at Highlands UMC. I’ve turned Sunday Musings over to my friend, Cathleen Falsani. The text for the day includes Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world.” Cathleen writes This Numinous World, a newsletter that is all about light, wonder, and awe. I admire her gift with words — and her love of poetry. The verse and Cathleen’s persistent search for the luminous make a perfect pair.
Cathleen is also a member of the Cottage community. Feel free to leave her a comment. I know she’d love to hear from you today.
I hope you will enjoy her guest reflection. And I hope you’ll consider following her work as well. Her musing begins under the photograph of the lighthouse.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
SUNDAY MUSINGS, A Guest Reflection by Cathleen Falsani
“You are the light of the world.”
I can’t read those words without hearing them sung by Victor Garber’s Superman-shirt-wearing, face-painted, halo-haired Jesus and his band of holy fools in the 1973 film adaptation of the musical Godspell, dancing and singing words paraphrased from St. Matthew’s gospel on the deck of a tugboat on the Hudson River.
You are the light of the world!
You are the light of the world!
But if that light is under a bushel,
It's lost something kind of crucial
You've got to stay bright to be the light of the world
How does one stay bright amidst what feels like the unrelenting gloom of our times?
This is where I love the poetic turns of Eugene Peterson’s para-translation of the Bible, The Message, which presents Jesus’ words to his followers from Matthew 5 this way (hear it in the voice of Ted Lasso, if that helps):
“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives.”
We’ve been surrounded by darkness these last several years — whether covered by dank thunderheads of political storms, the pall of a global pandemic, ideological tunnel-vision, or a thick tapestry of populist (and popular) lies.
While we know the horizon exists even when we cannot locate it, the sun promises to rise, and that we will emerge, eventually, into the light of a new kind of day, for many of us, what has kept us moving forward of late is the light, however large or small, borne by others.
Earlier this week, I watched a travel documentary about the oldest lighthouse in Ireland (and second-oldest in the world), Hook Head Lighthouse, in Churchtown, County Wexford. It is more than 850 years old and, while no longer “manned,” it still has a working signal light — operated remotely by the Commissioners of Irish Lights about 100 miles north in County Dublin.
The original keepers of the light at Hook Head were monks who lived nearby and would set wood fires atop the tower to warn sailors away from the rocky peninsula. When the monks moved on in the seventeenth century, the wood fires were replaced by coal-fired lantern, an oil lantern in the late eighteenth century, a paraffin lamp in the early twentieth century, and finally by an electric beacon in 1972, which became completely automated in 1996.
Over the course of eight centuries, the source changed but the light remained. When an ancient lit the first fire atop the tower in 1172, the area would have been surrounded by nearly total darkness. There was no “trash light” in that era of rural Ireland. Even a small fire held aloft would have been seen for dozens of miles out at sea, up and down the coast, and in all directions.
Perhaps the simplest lesson amidst these many metaphors is that we should be generous with whatever light we can muster because everybody needs it and even the tiniest of sparks can be seen from farther away than we might imagine when someone is trying to feel their way through the dark.
The light of kindness. The light of generosity. The light of neighborliness. The light of anti-racism. The light of radical inclusion. The light of creating art. The light of making music. The light of listening without talking. The light of calling people by the name they choose. The light of holding space for people until they’re ready to move into it. The light of deep breaths. The light of being a non-anxious presence in the world. The light of hope. The light of courage.
The light of love.
Whatever light you have, let your light so shine.
Cathleen also selected today’s poem. She included this note explaining her choice:
“Seamus Heaney’s ‘Electric Light’ is, to my ear, a poem about change, unexpected and otherwise. It's about the long and short perspective on who we think we are, who we are becoming, and what passes away along the journey of transformation.”
Candle grease congealed, dark-streaked with wick-soot.
Rucked alps from above. The smashed thumbnail
of that ancient mangled thumb was puckered pearl,
moonlit quartz, a bleached and littered Cumae.
In the first house where I saw electric light
she sat with her fur-lined felt slippers unzipped,
year in, year out, in the same chair, and whispered
in a voice that at its loudest did nothing else
but whisper. We were both desperate
the night I was left to stay with her and wept
under the clothes, under the waste of light
left turned on in the bedroom. "What ails you, child,
what ails you, for God's sake?" Urgent, sorrowing
ails, far-off and old. Scaresome cavern waters
lapping a boatslip. Her helplessness no help.
Lisp and relapse. Eddy of sibylline English.
Splashes between a ship and dock, to which,
animula, I would come alive in time
as ferries churned and turned down Belfast Lough
towards the brow-to-glass transport of a morning train,
the very "there-you-are-and-where-are-you?"
of poetry itself. Backs of houses
like the back of hers, meat safes and mangles
in the railway-facing yards of fleeting England,
an allotment scarecrow among patted rigs,
then a town-edge soccer pitch, the groin of distance,
fields of grain like the Field of the Cloth of Gold,
tunnel gauntlet and horizon keep. To Southwark,
too, I came, from tube mouth into sunlight,
Moyola-breath by Thames's "straunge strond."
If I stood on the bow-backed chair, I could reach
the light switch. They let me and they watched me,
A touch of the little pip would work the magic.
A turn of their wireless knob and light came on
in the dial. They let me and they watched me
as I roamed at will the stations of the world.
Then they were gone and Big Ben and the news
were over. The set had been switched off,
all quiet behind the blackout except for
knitting needles ticking, wind in the flue.
She sat with her fur-lined felt slippers unzipped,
electric light shone over us, I feared
the dirt-tracked flint and fissure of her nail,
so plectrum-hard, glit-glittery, it must still keep
among beads and vertebrae in the Derry ground.
LENT AT THE COTTAGE
Ash Wednesday is February 22.
This Lent, The Cottage will explore the EMPTY ALTARS of our days.
We are living in a time of iconoclasm. We've stripped the altars of both state and church. America's spiritual landscape is now marked by empty altars everywhere.
What does it mean to live in such an age? And what comes next? Will we put up new icons? How do we go about that? Can we reimagine the sacred space in which we live?
I’ll be exploring EMPTY ALTARS in TWO WAYS:
1. WEEKLY DEVOTIONAL REFLECTIONS for paid subscribers at The Cottage. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone but Empty Altars is the theme of my next book project — so you’ll be getting a preview of what I’m working on in addition to inspirational material for your Lenten journey.
If you aren’t already a paid subscriber and want to receive the Empty Altars devotional reflections, please upgrade here:
2. An EMPTY ALTARS online class with me and Tripp Fuller. The Cottage and Homebrewed Christianity are teaming up once again for a mind-blowing, heart-expanding class this Lent — and our focus this year is history, spirituality, and social change. The course will begin on Monday, February 27. It requires a SEPARATE SIGN-UP HERE — and is offered for free. Voluntary donations are welcome.
* * *
If you want the ENTIRE EXPERIENCE, make sure you are registered for the class AND have a Cottage paid subscription. The registration and the subscription will give you full access.
Of course, you are welcome to do one without the other — they are complimentary explorations but each is beneficial on its own.