In Love with the Light

I’ve had some requests for the meditation I shared at the Hanging of the Green service on Sunday night.  Here it is, and if I say so myself it probably reads better than it “preaches.” 

There was a time in my life when all I wanted to be was a photographer for National Geographic magazine.  Maybe everybody has that dream at some time.  But I took it further than most: I traveled from Charleston, West Virginia, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a Greyhound bus when I was nineteen years old and spent a month studying photography with my great aunt Caroline.  I learned a lot.  I learned that the word photography means “to write with light.”  I spent a month trying to do that, trying to coax the light into the lens of my camera and onto the film in such a way that my great aunt would say, “You got it.  That’s it!”  She did say that—once—but by the time I took the bus back to West Virginia I had pretty well given up on my dream.  That month in New Mexico did make a lasting impression on me, however: I fell in love with the light.  I began to see it everywhere, all the time, began to see how it fell on the landscape, how it changed from early morning to the middle of the day, how precious it was in those last moments before twilight.  In fact, this afternoon I spent an hour driving my brother Billy around Richmond and everywhere we went I pointed out the beautiful light, and the way it was falling on the buildings or reflecting off the water.

In a book called, Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith spends a whole chapter talking about light.  He begins by saying that light is a universal metaphor for God.  And then, borrowing the language of quantum physics, he talks about the way light transcends time and space, the way it shares the properties of energy and matter, the way it can make something out of nothing through the process of photosynthesis.  He doesn’t say that light is God but he comes close, so close that I began to think about the similarities, about the way light is everywhere in the universe, how just a little bit of it can drive back a world of darkness, how it warms, and cheers, and brightens.

I read that book in the days just after September 11, 2001, when I was living and working in Washington, DC, and it was a huge help to me.  Those were days when I didn’t get on the Metro in the morning without thinking that something terrible could happen, and as I rode the escalator up from the Dupont Circle station I would pray, “Lord, if this is my day to die let me do it with courage and strength.”  Everybody seemed shaky in those days.  We all needed to be reassured.  And so here I was, reading a chapter in Huston Smith’s book in which he was talking about how much light and God had in common, and on that day, as I came up the escalator praying my little prayer, I looked up and saw the light just falling all over the buildings on 19th Street.  It was that beautiful, golden, early morning sunlight.  It was dazzling, and fairly dripping down the sides of the buildings, puddling in the streets.  I don’t know that I had ever seen it so perfect and pure.  I found myself thinking, “God is here, right here, pouring out his blessing on the city.”

Huston Smith may stop just short of saying light is God, but 2000 years ago the author of 1 John said God is light.  Do you remember that?  “God is light,” he said, “and in him is no darkness at all.”  It may have been the same author who said, “the true light that enlightens every person was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, and yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him, but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God” (John 1). 

Not long ago I read a blog post by a Canadian named James Loney who lives in Baghdad.  He talked about the violence in the city, about bombs exploding so close to his house he could feel the sound in his chest, about friends who witnessed the aftermath of a bombing, who saw the blood-sprayed wall, and body parts, and people carrying away the victims.  But somewhere in the middle of that horrifying report he wrote this:

I have fallen in love with the light in Baghdad. How can I catch, hold, describe it in words, except to say there is just something about it. In the mornings, when I go onto the roof of our apartment building to hang my laundry or greet the day, the light rushes about me, kisses me everywhere. It is fine and simple and gracious, cheerful and embracing and flowing, a pouring swimming breathing medley of lemons and yellow roses and honey.  More than this I cannot say: you must come see for yourself.

I think about that light falling on the bombed-out city of Baghdad, about the writer of 1 John, maybe looking out through the bars of his prison cell as he writes, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”  I think about the golden, late-afternoon sunshine that washed over Richmond today and I fall in love with the light all over again.  I think of God, embracing the city with these radiant beams, blessing it before moving on to the west to bless the cities of Chicago, and Dallas, Los Angeles, and yes, in due time, the city of Baghdad, where little children feel the morning sunlight fall across their faces, kissing their beautiful brown cheeks, waking them up with a strange and wonderful sense of hopefulness that today will be a better day.

So may it be.

Sloppy Scholarship

Maybe it’s because I’m a lectionary preacher, but when I start to work on a sermon I start not with an idea or a theme, but with the Bible.  That’s what I did when I was getting ready to preach at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia recently.  The theme was “A time for extravagance” but the text was Luke 7:36-38, so instead of pulling from the files my sermon on John 12:1-8 (which was all about extravagance) I started fresh with the text from Luke 7.

I’m glad I did.  I learned things I would have never learned if I had simply preached that other sermon.  But one of the things I learned is that this story from Luke 7 is different from all the other stories in the Gospels about women anointing Jesus.  That story from John 12:1-8 for example is a story about Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus’ feet with a pound of pure nard—a very precious perfume.  There’s a similar story in Mark 14:3-9 about a woman who comes to the home of Simon the leper, breaks open an alabaster jar of nard, and pours it on Jesus’ head (not his feet).  Matthew uses this same story in 26:6-13 with very little elaboration on Mark’s version.  Again it is an unnamed woman who pours “costly ointment” on Jesus’ head.

The stories in John, Mark, and Matthew are all stories about women anointing Jesus with costly perfume or ointment as a way of preparing his body for burial.  The story in Luke 7, however, is about a sinful woman who comes to Jesus while he is eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee (not the leper).  She bathes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, covers them with kisses, and massages them with ointment.  It is a scene of shocking intimacy.  There is no mention of expensive perfume, no reference to preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  This woman does what she does to express her gratitude for the forgiveness she has received from Jesus.  It is a completely different story, about a completely different woman.

But you wouldn’t have known that if you had been at the BGAV meeting.  Almost everyone who stepped to the pulpit to preach or offer an interpretation on the theme talked about this woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.  They tossed the details of these four stories together as if they were one, talking about how this woman named Mary, who was a sinner (probably a prostitute), poured out ointment or perfume or something expensive on Jesus’ feet (or maybe it was his head) and the fragrance filled the room. 

Did it?  And does it matter?

I think it does.  While the stories from Matthew, Mark, and John might be lumped together under a single heading—“A woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume in preparation for his burial”—the story from Luke needs a different heading altogether, something like—“A sinful woman pours out her gratitude for the gift of forgiveness.”  The point of this story is different from the others.  The characters in the story are different.  The details don’t match up.  To treat it as if it were the same story as those others is to twist its meaning into a shape Luke would not recognize—it is to do violence to the text.

You can tell I feel strongly about this.  Maybe it’s because I’ve heard too much “biblical preaching” that isn’t biblical at all.  It doesn’t begin or end with the Bible.  It is simply some preacher cloaking his thoughts and opinions in bibical language or using one verse of the Bible as a springboard into a sermon that never touches on that verse again.  Maybe the next time you listen to a sermon you could ask yourself some questions: “Is it faithful to the text?” “Does it communicate what the biblical writer was trying to say?” “How much of it is simply the preacher’s own opinion?”  And if you’re writing a sermon, of course, take the responsibility seriously.  Take the Bible seriously.

Do your homework.

Preaching Into Thin Air

On Tuesday night I preached at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.  This is a gathering of a thousand or so “messengers” who come from Baptist churches across the Commonwealth to do the business of the Association and to enjoy times of worship and fellowship.  It was a huge honor to be asked to preach and I tried to take it seriously.  I worked on the sermon for weeks, wrote out a full manuscript, and rehearsed it until I was fairly sure the words were coming out of me and not just off the page.  I polished my shoes, put on a suit, knotted my tie, and shoved a silk handkerchief into my breast pocket.  I was ready, or at least I thought I was. 

I climbed the steps and walked across the stage to the pulpit, opened my Bible, arranged my notes, and then looked out at the crowd.  But I couldn’t see the crowd.  I could only see the bright lights shining in my eyes.  And that’s when I remembered why I don’t like preaching at events like this.

I started in anyway, preaching the sermon as I had rehearsed it, but I couldn’t tell if the congregation was “getting it” or not.  I couldn’t see their faces.  Every once in a while I would hear a ripple of laughter move across the darkened room and once I heard a loud “Amen!” off to my right, but as I struggled through the sermon I realized how much I usually depend on congregational feedback. 

That raised eyebrow in the third pew lets me know that whatever I just said was a little surprising; those crossed arms off to my right may be a sign that things are getting too personal; that warm smile up in the balcony is a clue that whatever I’m saying is going down well; and that look of confusion to my left is a clue that I might need to say that last line again—slowly.  I “read” those faces, I depend on that feedback, and when I don’t get it the act of communication becomes uncomfortably one-sided.

It’s a good reminder that preaching—at its simplest—is one person sharing good news with others.  There’s an intimacy about it that is hindered by bright lights and a big stage.  Some of the best preaching I’ve done has been one-on-one, or in a group of five or six people, or in a tiny country church.  The worst preaching I’ve ever done—in my opinion—was when I read a sermon off the teleprompter in a television studio in Chicago.  Preaching ceases to be preaching in such circumstances and becomes something else:

Performance. 

I’m glad I had the opportunity to deliver a sermon at the BGAV.  As I said, it was a huge honor.  But I’m looking forward to being back in my regular pulpit this Sunday, talking to people I love about something I love to talk about. 

That’s not performing; that’s preaching.