Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Let There Be . . .

"For You are my lamp, O Lord; and the Lord illumines my darkness."
- 2 Samuel 22:29

"All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light
of a single candle."
- Saint Francis of Assisi

In this age of electricity, I don't think we truly grasp the depth of passages about light shining in darkness because we are seldom in real darkness. There are street lights on. Lights from our cities and towns. We cannot even really see many of the stars in the night sky because of all of our man-made light. It is different if we live out in the middle of nowhere in North Dakota or Alaska. We get a better grasp of this darkness when we go on a tour of a cavern, like our family did in Linville Caverns. At one point, deep below the earth, they turned off the lights and we were consumed by a darkness that would not allow us to even see our hands in front of our faces.

We don't understand the power that darkness and light had on our ancestors, of how such darkness could create such fears within man.

Darkness often makes us feel more alone, even when we are with others. I can attest to that when we were in that ink-dark cavern and, despite being with a tour group, I felt the fear of isolation. It made me want to reach out for the hand of my wife or my child. There was a palpable sense of release when the guide turned the lights back on. People laughed and joked because darkness does create fear, even momentarily. 

Thomas Merton once wrote, "Faith is a light of such supreme brilliance that it dazzles the mind and darkens all its visions of other realities, but in the end when we become used to the new light, we gain a new view of all reality transfigured in the light itself."  This statement reminds me of whenever you come out of a darkened movie theater into the sunlight outside the theater and how it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. Many people are the same way when they experience love. We live in a culture that is too often full of vitriol, anger, fear, hatred, discrimination, lust, and, while not having a sense of self, are consumed with self. By this, they are full of insecurities that drive them towards a cultural definition of success. Much of that requires one to look a certain way, dress in certain clothes, drive a particular brand of car, and have the newest, latest stuff.  This is driven by discontentment.

There are two types of discontentment. One is good and that is a divine discontentment. This is one that draws us closer to God because we realize nothing on this earth will truly satisfy us apart from our Creator. The second is a secular discontentment. This is the type that will never be satisfied: somewhere else is always better, something else is always what's needed (a new job, a new relationship, a new car, a new church, and so on). The problem with the latter discontentment is that the problem is us and we always take us wherever we go. That's also why they cannot see real love. What is real love?

Jesus condensed it down to: Love God. Love people as yourself.

The problem is, too many people don't love themselves and cannot love others. This is not a self-centered love that I'm referring to but an understanding that they are beloved by God and in that belovedness, can then reach out to love others. The poet Rilke wrote, "To be loved means to be consumed. To love is to give light with inexhaustible oil." Those who are truly consumed by the unconditional love of God are filled with the light of His "inexhaustible oil" through the Holy Spirit.

Without that love, we continually search elsewhere. In people. In things. In new experiences. In travel. They are not consumed by love, but become only consumers. A consumer is full of wants that can never be met. Our culture is driven by this and has been since the end of the second World War. That's when advertising began to take hold, convincing us that we needed that newest, latest, greatest and that our happiness depended on it. In 1637, the French philosopher Rene Descartes wrote: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). This became the basis of much of Western philosophy after that point. This became the foundation for modern reason and science. And it's been that way - until now. That philosophy was replaced by "Ergo sum, ergo buy" (I buy, therefore I am). Our original identity from creation onward has gone from God, to self, to humanistic thought, to now objects creating a false sense of self. We have gone from the Maker to the made. Like sharks who must constantly feed to live, our consumption drives our nation's economy and identity.

It's also what drives so many to social media for their community. There we can all craft a version of ourselves and our families that many times bears little resemblance to reality of the day to day life. We also begin to draw our sense of self-worth from how many people have pinned our posts on Pinterest, follow us on Instagram or Twitter, liked our photo on Facebook, or comment on our blogs. Certainly I can find myself guilty of this. The worst thing one cannot get from a blog post is not negative feedback, but no feedback. As a writer, you begin to wonder, "Is anyone really reading this? Why does my blog have less hits? Should I just post pictures of cute puppies and kitties?"

We go to the Internet to find connection. We go to find those who are like us or to complain about those who aren't. Certainly people post comments that they were never dream of saying to someone in person. But despite the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet, it's not real connection. It's not real community. Real community asks of us and gives back to us in immeasurable ways. Real community is not easy. Families, friendships, churches, basically anywhere people are is messy. Proverbs 14:4 says, "Where there are no oxen a stable stays clean . . ."  No people, no mess. " . . .but from the strength of an ox comes an abundant harvest." This means that, despite our messiness, more is accomplished among groups like the body of Christ. But being in this messiness is also where we are strengthened by the love of each other as we try in our limited human capacity to love in a godly agape form of love. This is why the early Church grew exponentially.

Love is hard because it asks of us. It requires that we love past all of the things that annoy and irritate us. It means we understand that there is no perfect relationship (dating, marriage, church or otherwise) here on earth. People are imperfect, but in their imperfection comes glimpses of heavenly grace. That person who calls you up to check on you or says that they have been praying for you. The one who brings food over when you're celebrating or mourning. The one who wants to meet for coffee to have a conversation or just listen.

Love is not always giving someone advice or answers, but is oftentimes just being there amidst all the messiness. It's saying nothing but embracing them. It is being honest with each other and letting that mask down to say, "I struggle with that, too."

When we love like that, we are light. Light to our friends and family members and to those who are looking at us from the outside. (Warning! I might just break out into Neil Diamond's sappy "Heartlight" if I have to. . . )

I love what Madeleine L'Engle said, "We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all of their hearts to know the source of it."

I believe this, too.

People hear arguments and dissension all the time (our media thrives on it). We are inundated with the noise of heated debates that more often sound like children on the playground.  But when we offer love and light to someone who is starving for it, we draw them in. It's not about convincing someone, but about loving them. I think true faith is born of love. That's why one falls in love with Jesus. And others should see that love first through us.

When we love, not to be right, not to persuade or convince someone, not to save someone but to simply love them, we will begin to see not just a change in them, but, more importantly, a change in ourselves. Love transforms. Love never leaves anyone as they are, including ourselves.

This is not the love in television and movies. It's a love that sees past people's faults, flaws, and seeing them in their struggles and needs. It's no small or easy thing to do. It requires us to be deeply rooted in love so that we can move past rivalry, anger, hatred, and our own biases.

So we must ask ourselves:

Did I offer love today?
Were my words words of healing?
Did I reach out in compassion?
Did I let go of my own hurt feelings and resentment to see what was at the root of someone else's?
Did I forgive?

When we love this way, we open ourselves up to both love and pain because those we love the most can cause them the deepest. But we cannot let fear keep us from loving because only love casts out this fear. Only love is worth the risk. The world is waiting for us to take such risks. They desperately need us to do it, to be the light in the darkness.

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