Shuck and Jive

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Light in the Darkness: A Christmas Eve Reflection

Here is my Christmas Eve reflection:

Light in the Darkness
Christmas Eve 2007
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

It makes sense why the church chose the Winter Solstice to celebrate the birth of Christ. At the darkest time of the year the light shines. Only when it is the darkest are we open to see the light.

At Christmas, many folks go all out with huge Christmas displays with lights and lights and lights. It is fun, colorful, and celebratory. Some homes, businesses, and Christmas theme parks are so lit up that it feels like daytime.

But I think that the light that shines in the darkness that we hear announced in the gospels is light of a different sort.

The light that shines in the darkness is not an overwhelming light. It is not a ten thousand megawatt super spotlight that obliterates the darkness. The light that shines in the darkness is more like the faint glimmer of a single candle. It is a light so tiny that it can be noticed only in the darkest times. It needs the darkness in order to be seen.

Christianity has struggled with power throughout its history. Often it has thought that bearing witness to the light was to be a big light itself. If it was successful, bright, and in control, it would shine with the light of Christ, who conquered the world.

Yet the church has been reminded by its prophets that the big powerful light is not the way Christ reveals the Divine presence. The narratives of the birth of Jesus show us a very small light. This light is revealed to a young woman in the middle of nowhere who is shocked that God would choose her. This light is presented to subsistence living shepherds who cannot fathom that they would be the ones to tell the story.

It is a light in the eyes of an infant asleep in a feeding trough for livestock. The Christmas story is a humble story. The light comes to those who have nothing to offer, or so they think. The light is not overbearing. It is a glimmer of promise in a dark time.

Matthew’s gospel is the story of a narrow escape. It is the story of the foiling of Herod which is a retelling of the story of the foiling of Pharoah. It could be summed up with this headline:

Evildoer Kills All Male Children Two Years and Under: Chosen Child Escapes

(Thanks to Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas)

Luke’s gospel is the story of a reversal. Augustus Caesar, the ruler of the known world, considered to be the Son of God, uses his muscle to push people around. He likes to throw parties for himself. Luke’s story could be summed up with this headline:

The Ruler of the World Plans a Big Celebration: God Parties with Shepherds Instead

In these birth stories of Jesus we find the light in the places that the Herods and the Caesars and the powerful and the successful and the bright and the beautiful do not look. As we know if we are honest, it is only in the darkest moments, only when we have hit the bottom, only when we realize we cannot do it on our own, that we can see the true light that is the light of the world. It is the light of a single candle. And it is all we need.

I am going to share a story with you that I read in the newspaper the other day. It is a great story and it gave me a sense of hope for our world. When we turn on the television, radio, or computer to get the news, we discover that the international situation is desperate as usual.

We wonder what is going to happen. What is this world coming to? We may wonder if anyone is paying attention. We wonder what we can do at all. You may think this story I am about to share is sentimental, or of little account. This little light is far too small for the dark world whose situation is desperate as usual.

I find this story important because it shows people overcoming their cynicism, overcoming their own feeling of powerlessness, and overcoming their self-evaluation as not very creative. These folks surprised themselves.

It is the story of a church. The Federated Church of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Their minister, Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton came up with a sinister scheme. This sinister minister decided to give each member of his congregation $50. It is a pretty good-sized church, about 1700 members.

Apparently, several anonymous folks had loaned a total of $40,000 to the church for this plan. Each member was given $50 and each child received $10. On the day the sinister minister passed out the cash, he preached a sermon on the parable of the talents. In this parable, a landowner entrusts three servants to a sum of money different for each. One who is given five talents makes five more. One who is given two talents makes two more and one who is given one buries it and returns the one. The landowner praises the two who made more money with their talents he has harsher words for the one who buries his talent.

Those who have ears let them hear.

So Rev. Throckmorton decided to put this parable into action. Everyone received $50 with the instruction to use their talents, skill, and creativity to double that amount within seven weeks with the proceeds to go for church mission projects. There was an out. Folks could return the money if they didn’t want to play.

There was grumbling and uncertainty at first.

In her regular pew at the back of the church, where she had listened to sermons fro 40 years, 73- year old Barbara Gates gasped. What kind of kooky nonsense is this, she thought.

“Sheer madness,” sniffed retired accountant Wayne Albers, 85, to his wife, Marnie, who hushed him as he whispered loudly. “Why can’t the church just collect money the old-fashioned way?”

Folks were doubtful, thinking they were being pushed a little too hard. But as the time went on, a few found some ideas.

A retired Navy pilot, Hal, enjoys flying his four-seater Cessna. He used his $50 to rent air time from the airport and charge $30 for half-hour rides. Church members eagerly signed up. Hal raised $700 and got in some flying time.

Hal’s girlfriend, Kathy, was tempted to give the money back. What talents do I have, she thought, dejectedly. But she found an old family recipe for tomato soup, one she hadn’t made in 19 years. She remembered how much she had enjoyed the chopping and the cooking and the canning and the smells. She dug out her pots. She bought three pecks of tomatoes. Suddenly she was chopping and cooking and canning again. At $5 a jar, she made $180.

“I just never imagined people would pay money for the things I made,” she exclaimed.

Others surprised themselves as well. Barbara Gates, the 73-year old who thought the idea was kooky nonsense, raised $450 crafting pendants from beads and sea glass.

But it wasn’t just money. It was something else. For the seven weeks the church members felt an almost magical sense of excitement and energy and carmaraderie.

Eighty-one year old Shirley Culbertson said she felt a joyful sense of purpose that she had rarely experienced since her husband passed away two years ago. She knitted eight-inch stuffed dolls with button noses and floppy hats and raised $90.

One member offered twelve-mile rides on his Harley Davidson Road King. The first person to sign up was Florence Cross, who is in her mid-80s. She had never been on a bike. Her friends now call her Harley Girl.

There was one story after another of people finding some skills they never thought they had. One woman turned her kitchen into an applesauce factory. Another woman took old flip-flops and with beads and yarn made dozens of funky, fluffy footware that were a huge hit with teens. She raised over $550 dollars and is still taking orders. She is thinking of starting a business. Her children call her the flib-flop lady.

Others made birdfeeders, some stenciled portraits, shawls were knit, hot-air balloon rides were auctioned.

When the seven weeks had arrived, on the designated service, people brought their proceeds into baskets and offered testimonials about what living the parable meant to them.

The next week he reported the news that the initial take was over $38,000 with more to come. The final sum will be divided between three projects: one-third will go to a school library in South Africa where the church is involved in and AIDS mission; one-third will go to micro-loan organizations that provide seed money for small business is developing countries; one-third will help the Interfaith Hospitality Network in Cleveland, Ohio, specifically programs for homeless women.

But perhaps more important than even the money was the new friendships that were made, the creativity expressed, and the sense of accomplishment felt by those who did something that they didn’t think they could. What will save us? I don’t think it will be the big accomplishments and the big victories. It will be the small things done by the many, following the light of creativity

The international situation is desperate as usual. But I have hope for human beings. I know that there is latent creativity within each of us, waiting for the time in which it will be needed. There is a kindness deep within us that is stronger than our fear. Creativity and kindness are gifts of God, the light of the world, and they will be our guide through the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness. And the darkness did not overcome it.

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