Light of Mine

Well, my light-seeking friends, I have been pondering bushels lately – and what a curious word, first of all. If you say it out loud, you might also hear how cute it is: bush-el. The word is not used much anymore. My own association with it comes from my foot-stomping Sunday school days back in the early eighties: We used to sing This Little Light of Mine, complete with hand motions and enthusiastic shouting. I can still picture myself in a Gunny Sax dress shouting from the patchwork carpet, surrounded by pastel posters of the long, wavy-haired Jesus with sheep. I recall most fondly the bushel verse:

Hide it under a bushel?

No! (here you shout and shake your fist)

I’m gonna let it shine –

Let it shine!

Let it shine!

Let it shine!

The song gets its origins from a Biblical passage: You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do (people) light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all. (St. Matthew 5:14-16)

I think it’s the determination in the song that appeals to me – the wild fist punching the air, the vigorous “No!” and the commitment: “I’m gonna let this light of mine shine, darn it!” While it seems some people don’t require extra determination to let their lights shine (I rather envy these people), I myself have long been more comfortable beneath the bushel, safe and hidden. The only trouble with staying beneath the bushel is that you miss out on the light.

One of the ways to face our own inner darkness (whether it be fear, reluctance, old wounds, pride, low self-esteem...) is to step out into the light, even if the dark of old feels more comfortable – even if sometimes we have to drag ourselves out kicking and screaming. The Biblical passage (and the song) make it all seem so obvious and simple – as in naturally, you wouldn’t put a light under a bushel; of course you place it on a lamp stand, where it can give light to everyone. But edging ourselves out from beneath the comfort zones of our bushels is not always so obvious or easy. In fact, my own lamp stand efforts are, more often than not, very deliberate and conscious, not to mention awkward and uncomfortable. I am more inclined to ask, Why me? Why should I step into the light? But why not me? Why not you? Each of us has our own light to share.

We might wonder, why make the effort? Why not stay comfortable? What’s the harm in dwelling beneath the bushel? The answer is simple: The world misses out and we ourselves miss out – on growth, on joy, and on celebrations in our souls. The world needs more light for the countless dark corners of the world, the countless dark corners in the hearts of human beings. It isn’t merely for ourselves that we take strides into the light; it is for the benefit of our fellow human kind. We all depend on the light of others, do we not? The smallest beam of light from a fellow human being shining into a dim or dark situation has the utmost power – power to comfort, to give hope, to enlighten, to reveal truth, to accompany, to inspire, to give courage, and to guide the way. Thanks to my fellow light-sharing friends, little beams of light have even made all the difference in how I have proceeded in certain dark situations; I give great thanks for these brave and shiny souls in my life.

Being the recipient of such illumination strengthens my conviction to let my light shine. While at first, stepping into the light can feel intimidating or awkward, later I end up wondering how I ever lived without the light I so reluctantly stepped into. So I continue to take risks and try new things – like starting an Advent blog; or saying yes to a new volunteer position at church. And I continue to rock the boat, sometimes a boat that perhaps nobody else is willing to rock – like providing honest feedback about my less-than-ideal online class. I continue to step outside of my cushy comfort zone – by hosting a gathering with new acquaintances or accepting an invitation to speak in front of a crowd (not easy for me). I choose to keep lifting the bushel and stepping out because when my work on this earth is done, I want to know that at the very least I let a little light shine on the world around me.

So friends of Advent, will you let your lights shine?

*I love Elizabeth Mitchell. Enjoy this little you tube video accompanied by her singing This Little Light of Mine.



Day Eight: Let it Be

Where the light of creativity has gone for the past week, my light seeking companions, I do not know. The creative light went out from my soul, leaving me bare as a winter tree. It must be shining on someone else. I know it will pass, the way that winter does, but in the meantime, it feels dank and dark around here. In the meantime, what to do?

Sip celery lime soup at the downtown bakery, I suppose. And stare at the plastic poinsettia centerpieces on café tables. Pick pieces of random red glitter from my sweater. Wink at the blue-eyed baker’s son, who keeps sneaking pastry. Listen (with some disdain) to Whitney Houston sing, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” Admire the mistletoe in the doorway. Eavesdrop on the table next to me chat about flying horses from France to the U.S. Try to picture a horse on a plane. Lick hazelnut pastry crumbs from my fingers. Refill my too-strong, lukewarm coffee. Look for a Radio Flyer wagon on ebay. Yawn. Stretch. Entrance myself in the fluorescent red trees outside the café window. Type whatever comes…

Just as I become tempted to rip into myself, to over-analyze my lack of self-discipline and motivation, instead what comes to me is this: Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote these words, which have meant different things to me at different points in my life. At the moment, the words tell me it’s okay to simply exist; that sometimes, it is enough to keep the breath flowing in and out of our lungs. Sometimes, it is enough to be who we are at any given moment, even if we don’t think it is enough. It is sacred to be ourselves at all times.

I wonder if Mary, in the Christmas story, always believed that she was enough; that in the moments when the light came down and the angel appeared, if she felt up to the task. If Mary didn't feel that she was enough, we know that she surrendered to her life’s purpose nonetheless: Let it be unto me according to your word. I pray I can do the same - that somehow, even when the light is not shining down, even when I feel I am far from enough, that I might be able to surrender to and carry out the purpose of my life.

At home, before bed, I listen to “Let it Be” by The Beatles. It is the perfect Advent song, especially tonight. Have a listen. And keep seeking.



Bethlehem Star

Tonight, while setting up the village of cardboard houses that’s been in my family for over fifty years, my middle son asked where the three wise men should be placed. At the far left, I said, because they are only at the very beginning of their journey. Tradition in our home has it that various eager hands move the wise men a little farther along each day, so that they’re slowly inching their way past all the houses in the village toward Mary and Joseph, who are positioned at the far right end. It isn’t until Epiphany that the three kings finally take their place among Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, having been led all that way by the impossibly bright star.

It occurred to me, retelling the story to the boys, how lucky it all seems for the wise men, being guided by the obvious star. I would like my life to operate according to signs and wonders, but it does not. But we find Bethlehem stars inside of our souls, do we not – if we pay close enough attention? Don’t we finally figure out the path we should take if we are watching intently, listening closely, even asking, for where the God-light might be leading us? So for us, the light is merely a metaphor.

But once, almost ten years ago, I prayed for a Bethlehem star, and it actually came. It was December of the millennium, and Chad and I were celebrating our first wedding anniversary. Though I had tried to embark on our celebratory travels unencumbered, I carried with me a heavily burdened heart, due to a situation back home. Under an especially vast and black night sky, outside of our inn in Mendocino county, I prayed these words as I studied the tiny silver, sparkling wonders over my head: God, send me a Bethlehem star to guide me through my darkness, please! The darkness was an oppressive work situation and a general feeling of frustration with my purpose in life. I didn’t know it at the time, but the star was already on its way, as I would discover only days later, upon returning home: I was pregnant with my firstborn son, James (quite a surprise). Eventually, the extreme sickness of pregnancy, combined with the prospect of a new light on its way into my life, led me to quit my job, which was exactly the freedom I needed at the time.

I cherish this story about the rare and incredible gift of my own personal, Bethlehem star; and I cherish the Biblical story of the wise men. The stories remind me to keep looking for the light in any situation, even when it feels like it could be dark forever.

What are your Bethlehem stars?


Day Two: Dim Light

Today was a dimmer sort of day, both inside my soul and out. The valley was gloomy with the sky preparing itself for rain, and my soul overcast with some troublesome thoughts. It happens that way sometimes, doesn't it, that the light seems hidden from our eyes?

Out on my hike this afternoon, I went looking for the light, as I often do when I am suffering from a troubled mind. St. Augustine said, "It is solved by walking." I think I know just what he meant. Walking is like prayer for me. In fact, most of my thinking and praying is done on my walks; it's how I sort things out. Being out in nature seems to put me back together again; the trees speak loudly of God, somehow.

Out in the park, there was a brightness to everything -- the sidewalks, the fields, the brush, were all cast in a silvery hue. But no sunlight to speak of -- except for the one single, splinter of light I found in a cloud mass. I stood in the open field and scanned the sky for more light splinters; but there was just the one.

Sometimes one is enough -- or it has to be, right? Enough to tell us the light will return. That it won't always be so dim.

At home, when the darkness fell completely, I listened to Handel's Messiah -- a splendid choice for the Advent soul.

Until tomorrow, my fellow light-seekers.


Day One: Blowing out the Light

I watched as the boys blew out the first candle of the Advent wreath tonight. Isn't it strange, blowing the light out, when we are always seeking it?

But then I began to think about how it's necessary to blow the light out sometimes -- that sometimes, we must endure a time of darkness before we can actually find the light. That is, darkness can lead to light.

An Advent tradition in our house over the past many years has been for all of the family to gather in a child's bedroom each night before bed. In a huddled circle, all fifty of our toes touching, our hearts constrict a bit with anticipation. We tingle inside. We giggle. We get ready to turn out the lights. A Paulist Priest I know, Father Frank, used to guide the young people's retreats I attended back in college days. He spoke about our experience of coming on retreat, about getting quiet within and experiencing what he called "the fear of the holy." By this he meant there is a place in us that actually tends to recoil from the light, sometimes -- because the light requires things of us: courage to look inward and see what we see, not what we wish we saw; it requires faith to journey on into the unknown, unchartered territories of our soul. And we don't always feel ready for something that great.

So in the cozy bedrooms of our children, we ready ourselves, best we can; we feel a little fear of the holy beauty that will surround us any moment, and then we turn out all the lights and sit in solid darkness. We talk about the dark state of our beings without any God-light. And then we're quiet. We feel the unknown. We experience the foreign but intriguing dark. And only after a few moments of squirming in the dark do we light our candle and begin to sing:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

We sing with all of our hearts. We sing off-key, every one of us. And I always can't help but cry a little for the thick joy of it all, watching my children's candle-lit faces and earnest eyes as we sing together in the dark.

*Enya does a beautiful version of the song on her album, And Winter Came. I highly recommend it.

**Don't forget to leave a little light below, should you feel inspired. I tried to fix the comments so they are accessible to everyone.