Shine your light

Matthew 5:14–16

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 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. 16 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.

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What does it mean to be a light?  How good do I have to be? How shiny?

In elementary school and even through my teen years, I was the kid of kid who liked to do everything right.  I liked right answers, neat arrangements, perfect performances, first prizes.  Needless to say, I was a pretty unhappy kid most of the time. The irony is that the more flawless we try to be, the more self-conscious we become and the more mistakes we make. Nobody can thrive when they’re consumed with frantically trying not to fail. I sure couldn’t.

Then there was the other side of the problem: when I did do right, when I did win first prize, or get 100 on a test, or do something well that others had struggled with, I worried about being liked.  “I hate you,” another kid would say as the teacher handed me my perfect spelling test. “Come on, you make us look bad,” a coworker remarked.” “She’s so arrogant,” a colleague said when she thought I couldn’t hear. These hurtful words made me try NOT to excel. Slowly but surely, I began to hold back, covering who I was and what I could do. It seemed like the price to be paid to avoid rejection.

And then there’s Jesus: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works….” This passage always irritated me.  First, there’s the part about “good works.” How many times had I been told that it was all about grace, not works?  Now here Jesus himself is telling me to do good works after all?  That didn’t sound like Jesus to me.

Hearing this passage, I felt (as I once heard a pastor in Texas put it) “danged if I do, danged if I don’t.” If I tried to do my best, I would fail, and therefore fail to make “good works” for those others to see.  And if I didn’t fail, I would surely end up lonely, and who would see the good works then?

After years of torturing myself with this line of thinking, I’m grateful to God for helping me finally to read these words in another way.  I have come to believe that it’s not a perfect performance, not really the works in “good works,” that Jesus asks of us here. It’s the light.  If we are the light of the world, it’s because God ignited the light. And in each of us, God has ignited a different, unique and burning light. God asks that we not hide that—not behind false modesty, not behind embarrassment, not behind a need to look perfect, not behind fear of failure. Being the light of the world is not about us being perfect. It’s about us being…us.  It’s us being who we are, the best of how we were made, revealing and using God’s gifts in the fullest way possible, even when we risk failure. Perhaps especially when we risk failure, because it’s in moments of failure that we find the best opportunities to show grace (God’s grace!) to others and to ourselves.

So I try not to ask myself, “how well did I do?” or, worse, “do they like me?” I try instead to ask, “Did I shine my light?” and trust that the light God ignites is a bright one indeed.

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Saved from What?

Driving on the highways of Texas and New Mexico, the neon crosses and stark billboards would loom in the distance for miles before you could read them: “Jesus Saves.”

Or in the street, at a park, or at a public event, a stranger with a handful of tracts might ask, “Are you saved?”

For most of my life, and especially in my years away from the church, my internal reply has been “saved from WHAT?”  From burning in hell, which is what the people asking seemed to be asking about?  I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in hell, or at least in a hell that was a place, with fire, and maybe a devil in a red suit.  Those seemed like bogeyman stories to me. They seemed like things TV preachers warned about, or (on the more cultured end of the spectrum) things Dante wrote about. I’ve never been scared of hell. Concerns about the afterlife are not why I’m a Christian.

So as an adult, even as I have grown to love Jesus and know him more and more, the idea that he was saving me has always seemed a bit abstract.  I have problems, yes, but am I in danger that he must rescue me?  I sin, no doubt, but somehow I’ve never been afraid of ending up in hell; I believed it when Jesus said that he loved me and redeemed me.  

But in truth, there are many, daily times I need saving, times I long for rescue from something. I long for rescue from my own bad moods. From my pessimism. From my incessant judgment of myself and, consequently, of others. From racing thoughts. From persistent, needling worry. From that “stuck” feeling I get– stuck in a situation, or with a person, or with a problem. Stuck with my same old self doing the same old patterns. Times when it seems nothing I do will make a difference. Overwhelmed, I long for rescue.

That’s how Jesus saves me. He swoops in to be with me when I’m really not fit to be with. He lifts me out of my own head. He lets me glimpse here and there how God sees things, restoring some perspective. He accompanies me through the bad moments until I’m unstuck.

I have no doubt that Jesus also saves me in the afterlife. Through Jesus we will have eternal life. But we also have life NOW through Jesus as he saves us NOW from the hells we make for ourselves. It is as Psalm 23 says: “He restores my soul.” And it is also as that same Psalm says: he restores it “all the days of my life”, not just after it has ended.

 

 

Photo credit:

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fairest, Beautiful

The first hymn I ever loved was “Fairest Lord Jesus,” in our hymnal as “Beautiful Savior” (ELW 838).

Having not been raised in the church, then coming home from summer camp wanting to find out everything I could about God, I listened to the Christian radio station in Houston. Mixed in there with a lot of very bad theology and political discourse was a lot of great 1980s “Contemporary Christian” music—some of it terrific, some truly awful—covering the whole range of 80s sounds from synthesizers, to fake rock and roll, to the truly grandiose. One day, cutting through all that noise like a laser, I heard this simple hymn. It was performed a capella, without instruments, starting with a single voice and then layering on part after part in a way that made my ears tingle. It was like musical glitter, sparkling and lovely.

I knew about Jesus the baby, Jesus the mighty, Jesus the mysterious, Jesus the dead-then-alive. To that point, my attraction to Jesus had been to the idea of Jesus.  It was about his teachings, his importance, the necessity of Jesus.

keplers_supernovaBut THIS was a different Jesus. Jesus the beautiful. Jesus in the meadows and woodlands; Jesus in a shining sky.  Beautiful Jesus. The Fairest.  The song, and the Jesus in the song, cut right through my brain, through all that thinking and reasoning I had been doing, and got into my musical heart. Thinking about Jesus was good, but through this song I started to feel Jesus.

Beautiful Savior, delight us with your starlight and moonlight. Shine on the meadows and woodlands, and on us.  Drizzle your beauty all over us like musical glitter. Let your love enter our brains, our ears and our hearts. Amen.

Photo by NASA/ESA/JHU/R.Sankrit & W.Blair [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons