In the season of Epiphany we are reminded that God gives us light.
Once I did not see. I was blind and in darkness. When I was a boy of 11 I discovered a book called, “Follow My Leader” by James B. Garfield. It’s the story of a boy who goes blind because of a firecracker accident and who receives the assistance of a guide dog who he names Leader. It spoke right into my time of life and caused me to think deeply about how life worked, especially tragedy.
And I went on to explore it by deciding I’d see if experiences I read in the book were real. I blindfolded myself one night as I was getting ready for bed and went to sleep that way so that I’d wake in the morning and not be able to see the light. It worked. I could feel warmth and I could sense a change in the room, but I could not see it. I got up and got dressed and felt my way through the difference in my clothes and things like the tag in my shirt that helped me put it on the right way. I made my way down the hall and down the stairs and through the house and into the kitchen. I figured out cereal and bowls and sticking one finger in the bowl or in the cup so I could make sure how much milk got in and not let either overflow. I ran my fingers over everything and discovered that the world was different than I usually experienced it.
I went through the rest of my day and tried everything I could. I tried to sense the greater pressure of air by things, like a wall or even a chair. I remember volunteering to dry the dishes, among other things, just to experience putting them away by feel. I went to bed that night, I pulled off the blindfold and went to sleep without opening my eyes. When I woke I was living in a different world.
What this all gave me, more than anything, was a sense of difference. It made me pay attention to difference. It’s still with me. When I was in Ireland just a few months ago I was feeling the coins in my pocket to see the difference between their shape, size, weight and their edges. Like American coins the edge tells me what coin I’m touching and whether I’m handling a dime or a penny, twenty pence or two Euro.
As we are in the season of Epiphany we remember that God gives us light and that light doesn’t just come through our eyes. It is the truth in our hearts. God’s light, so tangible and rich, streams through our atmosphere, and also shines through the experience of our soul. It passes through clouds’ gloom as well as our gathered prejudice to remind us that this is not all there is and we need to not get caught there.
We move in and carry the light of Christ now. There was a time when I did not have it. At that time I knew all I needed to know about how the world worked and what to expect from the next day. But, then I was found and the cover was removed and I woke. From then on I was living in a different world.
I had a conversation recently and, actually, it’s been a number of conversations and they each shifted at some point to normalcy. They shifted to that because that’s the point of society’s conversation now, right? The point is not acceptance. The point isn’t love. It’s normalcy. The reason my conversations shifted to normalcy is because that’s my road to acceptance of anyone. It’s that each one of us is normal.
As a pastoring counselor I have had a variety of moments where I’ve shared with people that they should have the anguish, pain, frustration, anger, sadness, despair that they are feeling. They should because that’s what human beings feel in moments like the one they’re in. It’s normal. Normal is an enormous word at times like that. I’ve seen waves of rest settle into someone’s physic as that word hit their souls. They are normal. It brings that relaxing because they are part of the community, they’re of a kind.
But there’s another meaning to “normal” that is even larger than just sharing similar appropriate reactions to circumstances, and I find that when I talk about “normal” this way it is different from others’ expectations. It is part of my personal acceptance of others, but in some cases it makes others uncomfortable.
What I find around me now is that people want to be or want others to be seen as “normal” and what they mean is “good.” And what makes them uncomfortable is that what I see as “normal” means “messed up.”
That’s not new with me, but it is what I believe church is all about. Church is all about being a group of sincerely, deeply and utterly messed up people. And what we offer as the way we get “better” is that we help each other grow ever more aware of how messed up we actually are. It’s as we confess, admit the truth of that, to each other, that we actually get more in contact with God because it is through confession that we find grace. We discover how well God knows us.
There’s a moment in Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he encourages them to “continue to work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling,” and he goes on to explain that “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” I think that the fear and trembling part comes into play when we confess we are messed up to each other. How scary is that? We’d like it to be demonstrating that we’re strong, able, mature, but it’s not our will that moves us ahead and it is not our power to act. Paul tells us that God is the one who does that. Our work, sincerely, deeply and utterly is being humble before each other and with God.
Humility is the road in.
Normalcy that leads to acceptance of anyone by the church is admitting that what I am at the heart of things is messed up. If you’re there before God… you’re already in.
I’ve been thinking on the issues facing the PCUSA and it occurred to me that the point is the Gospel. The point is not church. It is not ordination. It is not the definition of “marriage” or “family.” Amazingly, the point is not even equal rights. The point is the Gospel. The point is the relationship between God and humanity.
The church is an institution that was created, organized and structured to assist the meeting of those who heard and received the Gospel. Leaders for the institution were selected and designated through procedure and ceremony for special responsibilities within the institution to guide and assist those who heard and received the Gospel. These responsibilities included a number of ceremonies to be led by these leaders alone in hopes of protecting, guiding and assisting those who heard and received the Gospel.
Those who heard and received the Gospel brought life and hope to those around them in the greater community. They sought to share the Gospel. Their primary motivational force was and has been to teach those who live near them that they are valued by their Creator in a manner that was far beyond their imaginations. This included, as they had experienced, a relationship with their Creator that was love best expressed in obedience. Sometimes sharing this Gospel to their neighbors cost them their possessions and sometimes it cost them their families and sometimes it cost them their own lives. They found within the Gospel a stalwart truth that taught them that any of this sacrifice was worth it, entirely.
One essential element within this Gospel was that they did not have within themselves any resource by which to achieve or through which to create purity or wholeness. This essential element included the truth that they must rely abjectly on the one who brought the Gospel initially. All power and wholeness was to be ascribed to this one alone.
We now come to a place within the life of the institution, as we have before, where there is a battle raging over the retaining or obtaining of power. We are at the place, again, where those designated haves and have-nots are at odds and each is confident of the rightness of their position. But this has nothing to do with the Gospel. It has to do with power. For those who point to the definition of words as battle sites at which to find defeat or victory, the issue remains power. For those who claim victimhood as an ally in the battle over rights, the issue remains power. The war for power within the institution does not alter or establish or have anything to do with the Gospel.
The Gospel is now and always will be expressed in the everyday life of individuals and their small communities. It will never be within the purview of institutions. It is its own authority and is obeyed by individuals who show this by treating others with kindness or dignity beyond their societal rights. Participating in any of the institutional battles would make those under the Gospel’s authority ashamed.
For individuals who live under the authority of the Gospel within the institution, there is one choice and that is to teach, celebrate and live out obedience to the Gospel. That work should be done until one is asked to leave by the institution that does not want them anymore. This is the example of Jesus, the disciples, the reformers and others in the life of the Gospel until we reached America, where we started the practice of leaving. Those before us did not leave. They got kicked out and that is the example to follow. We remain and share the Gospel until we are kicked out.
And this is important because we will then clearly learn and demonstrate that our dismissal doesn’t change us or what we do with our lives. Whether we are in the institution or not, we live this Good News in obedience to the one who brought it to us.