Light in the Darkness

Our family is using the 25 Stockings book each night at the dinner table.  As well as three versions of homemade ’25 Stockings’ hanging across the room, our 19 year old daughter bought an Advent candle this year. It’s one of those candles with incremental marks down it from 1 – 25.  So each night when we are all together we light the candle as we eat our dinner.  This requires very careful watching because although the candle starts off burning slowly, all of a sudden the wax drips down the side and the mark is reached for the day and it’s time to blow out the candle.

Once we’ve finished eating we read the bible passage. Because our children have always had this experience (I started writing the book when I was 19!) they love the three questions so we have to include that, and then we usually read the reflection and the prayer.

A couple of nights ago we also did the Discussion Time talking about darkness and times when we’ve been in the dark and turned on a light and how this makes a difference and of course how this relates to the metaphor of God’s love.  We had a satisfying conversation about light and darkness and times we’ve each felt God’s presence.   It was nice sitting there in front of a candle and talking about the impact of light that a single candle creates in a darkened room.

Last night I wasn’t feeling so good and although I went to bed early, I was up and down all night.  At first the rest of the family were still all up so while my room was in darkness, the rest of the house was a blaze of light.  By about midnight, 17’s door was shut and I figured he had turned in for the night. But sometime after 1, when I was up again and the rest of the house was this time in darkness too, I reasonably thought everyone else had now gone to bed.  But… around 17’s closed door was a silhouette of light.  (Not that, there was anything wrong with him still being up – he is on holiday)

I was pondering the idea that I had only seen the light around his door because the rest of the house was in darkness.  It was kind of the opposite thinking of our earlier discussion talking about darkness and the difference that happens when a candle is lit.  (Okay, I know it sounds like the same thing but bear with me.)  The light had been on all the time, but I only saw that it was on when the rest of the house changed from light to dark.

So maybe sometimes the metaphor is that we can be like a light in the darkness for others just like a candle lighting up the darkness.  And maybe other times we are part of a larger group of lights, indistinguishable as individuals until we are separated and stand as a solitary light in darkness.

I’ve really liked the metaphor as a follower of Jesus, of being a light in the darkness, or being salt adding flavour to the world.  But I also think there is a balance and when we are being ‘light’ we carry on being true to our call to follow Jesus and be light to the world, by both gathering with a larger group of other ‘lights’ and also living, working and spending time on our own with others who are not followers of Jesus, and therefore hopefully bringing light to their darkness.

It’s a balance that is a struggle and maybe always changing.  There is something wonderful and refreshing for followers to spend large amounts of time with other followers of Jesus.  And maybe at different times in our lives we need this fellowship more than other times.   But if we spend all of our time with our friends from our church groups, then how much is our light shining noticeably to others?  And if we spend too much time with others who are not followers of Jesus, are we in danger of our light ‘battery’ running out or our candle burning until the flame is extinguished.

Anyway, that was my middle of the night musing… instead of sleeping!  Just thought I’d share it.

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Religiously – imbued with salt and light

The other day I was taking part in a conversation at a meeting which seemed far removed from a religious context.  In my work-a-day construction environment the discussion involved developing a strategy around working with a difficult individual.   Someone present used the term ‘religiously’ to describe a negative characteristic of this individual.  There was a general murmur of agreement to this description.

Afterward I was reflecting on the use of the word ‘religiously.’  What the speaker had meant to convey was the negative idea of an over-zealous, intense individual who was committed to the strict pre-determined routine rather than coming at a problem with an open mind and a creative and flexible approach that would deliver a workable solution.   Hmm…   It made me think about the other times when I’ve heard ‘religious’ used in a negative context… and how a word that should be a positive is often used negatively.

I looked up the definition of ‘religiously’ on dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/religiously and it didn’t really help explain why the word can be used negatively.  I love this defintion of ‘imbued with religion’…  that works for me and my faith journey…  living a life imbued with the Christian faith in every aspect of the journey is something that is always my desire.

It reminded me of another conversation over a cup of coffee when I had just taken a leadership role in a community group a few years back.  I met with a woman who was not a friend at the time and had some influence in the group.  She was a no nonsense business woman and she started our conversation after initial pleasantries, with getting straight to the point.  “I don’t like religious types and I have serious concerns with you taking on this role. ”  Oh great…  now to dig myself out of that hole… “I am religious, but… ”   Fast forward a few months and perhaps surprisingly, I had a new friend.  I’d somehow navigated the path of maintaining my ‘religiousness’ with enough real life authenticity to change her viewpoint on my type of religious type.

That’s just two examples, but when I stop to think, there are plenty of times that I’ve heard about ‘religious nutters’ and the like.  And I wonder, how do I live out my faith in a way that is both true to the Christian religious teachings that are the framework of my faith and conveys a positive impression on those who sit outside of any Christian religious circles.

Perhaps there is a challenge for us in understanding, interpreting and living the word, ‘religious’.  I think for me the images I like to use to define my religious behavior and lifestyle are those of salt and light.   Matthew 5:13-15 says, “You are like salt for everyone on earth.  But if salt no longer tastes like salt, how can it make salty? All it is good for is to be thrown out and walked on.  You are like light for the whole world.  A city built on top of a hill cannot be hidden, and no one would light a lamp and put it under a clay pot.  A lamp is placed on a lampstand, where it can give light to everyone in the house.”

Most of our household likes watching the reality TV cooking shows, ‘My Kitchen Rules’ and ‘Masterchef’.  We get hooked on the competitions, rivalries, personalities and the cooking skills and it makes good winter time television watching.  Invariably and frequently the judges always go on about seasoning…  it seems that even when you’re good enough at home cooking to get all the way through to the finalists, doing something as simple as salting your food can be the difference of a winning dish or not.  I think being a salty Christian is one of my religious goals.  I like the idea of being a flavor enhancer and a preserver of the faith.

Thinking about the image of light, events of this last weekend, come to mind, when we had three nephews and a niece come and stay.  The two older boys at ages 8 & 6 were very thrilled with their sleeping arrangement on a double bed air mattress in front of the TV in the lounge.  The younger 3 year old was not quite as impressed with his mattress in the study next to his sister’s cot.  This might have been why when he woke long before the birds and the sun, he went and jumped on his brothers bed, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Hey guys is it still dark?”  When questioned as to why he’d woken everyone in the entire household up with a question that he could have answered himself by observation, he explained, “Well I didn’t know if it was still dark because I couldn’t see.”  ….  !!  (Okay,  so only the logics of a very verbal three year old could come up with that as an answer!)  That’s the thing with light – even a small glow can light up a large dark space.  A little bit of light cancels out darkness.  Maybe asking whether it is still dark is a question to test our religiousness…  is it still dark… or is the light of our faith, lighting up the way for others as well as ourselves?  It’s a nice picture, the impact of even a little light.

So to conclude this religious ramble…  I think that for the word ‘religiously’ to be viewed as a positive characteristic… it means ensuring our Christian faith journeys must be genuine and authentic experiences of salt and light religion…  and that is always far harder and more challenging than it sounds!

(Photo credit: salt and light on my dining room table)

Christian cakes vs Non Christian cakes

I had a memory sparked by a random conversation this week…  it took me back in time to when I was working for a local church as a pastor with a focus on the community.

For Andrew and I, our focus in ministry has always been on creating belonging and it was no different when I was a pastor in this particular church.  As part of my role each week was running two weekly music sessions for preschoolers and their caregivers. The two sessions were sandwiched with a morning tea in the middle.  We wanted to create an environment of belonging in the group so one of the things we deliberating did was we put out a roster for any of our adult participants to sign up to bring some baking one week in the term.  It was never hard to fill the list of volunteers and there was great camaraderie in sharing recipes and admiring each others cooking over the weeks.  Friendships were formed that still exist to this day – and although music was apparently the main thing that was happening, in many ways, the real stuff that makes a difference in people’s lives happened over a shared cup of coffee and a muffin.

No surprise to get a phone call from someone from a nearby church wanting to start such a programme in their church and finding out how it would all work. I must have made some remark about the great success of the home baking and she in turn expressed concern over how she would be able to manage that each week with a small group of volunteers from her church who would struggle to provide baking each week.

I breezily replied that it wasn’t a problem at all.  I know a lot of churches liked to serve morning tea as a way of sharing with their community, but that wasn’t how we operated.  I just put out a list on the first session and adults wrote their names on if they wanted to participate.   Having only ever had enthusiasm for this approach from our attending adults, I had never viewed it as anything but a positive option.

Silence on the other end of the phone as this was processed.  And then in a shocked, incredulous voice…. “You let non-Christian’s provide the baking?”

I couldn’t help myself in my reply!  “Well, call me strange, but I’ve never been able to tell the difference between a Christian cake and a Non-Christian cake.”

I can’t remember how the conversation ended.  The reality was, that the woman on the other end was well meaning and had a heart for doing things for others.  It was part of her faith to reach out and share and I’m not knocking that.  But I sometimes wonder if when we’re inside the church looking out, we’ve somehow got the wrong idea about what we should be doing as followers of Jesus.  We see ourselves as the chosen ones and we put an invisible guard around ourselves and what we do.  It’s like all that is good and right can be found inside the church and all that is bad and wrong is outside.  And we almost fortress ourselves in, and throw out our ‘goodness’ in pot shot fashion with a hit and miss approach as to where it lands – but congratulating ourselves anyway.

I don’t believe that things are that black and white.  There’s not an ‘in’ and ‘out as distinctive by anything us mere humans can identify’. And if there was, being ‘in’ does not mean that you aren’t ‘out’ and vice-versa.  I am constantly encouraged by the way that God works in peoples lives who are outside of any traditional or contemporary church.  God loves the people of this world!  And it is delightful and inspiring to see God’s people coming to realisation of that in their lives and seeing God at work through them with a tang and a flavour that is new and fresh and encouraging.

It’s like salt and light.  When you light a candle in a brightly lit room, the light from the candle is lost in the overall brightness, but when you light the same candle in a darkened room, it shines and stands out and provides light for the whole room.  One of my favourite characteristics of salt as a metaphor is salt as a flavour enhancer.   Almost every cake recipe I have in my beloved recipe book with recipes from my grandmothers, my mother and my mother-in-law have a pinch of salt in them.  The trick is that if a cake tastes salty – you’ve put in too much salt!  But cakes with a pinch of salt, taste much better than a cake without that pinch.

 (Photo credit: my daughter made this purple ombre cake on request for her niece’s 10th birthday)