Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Being One of the Lights in the City

Matthew 5:14-16 You are the light of the world--like a city on a hill, glowing in the night for all to see. Don't hide your light under a basket! Instead, put it on a stand and let it shine for all. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.
My last post was about City on a Hill, an inner-city ministry. I love the name. When Jesus uses the "city on a hill"-- a city of light-- as a visual metaphor, he is speaking to those who are his disciples. The Christ-followers are to be the light, the city that shines where all can see.

This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine,
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Hide it under a bushel?
I'm gonna let it shine,
Hide it under a bushel?
I'm gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

This was one of the first songs I remember from Sunday School. That one and

Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
To shine for him each day,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
At home, at school, at play.
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I'll be a sunbeam for him!

Were you singing with me?

I recently heard someone say that "This Little Light of Mine" was a song of self-affirmation. In a sense it is, since we all have gifts and glory to share. But this song is not primarily about our humanity. The song is from the Matthew verse. It is not merely our own light that is shining; it is the light of life, the light of Christ which, hopefully, shines in our lives. Folk singer Barry McGuire once said that we are like the moon. Jesus is the main light, like the sun, and Christians are a secondary source--reflections of divine light. He joked, "I wanna be a full moon." I know, today that brings other images to mind than what Barry intended, but at the time the thought of a beautiful full moon reflecting the sun's light seemed simple but profound.

Someone left two comments here not long ago. One said the blog was "amazing" (not a compliment, I learned), and the other urged us to open our minds. Both referenced an internet site which aims to prove that God is a figment of our collective imaginations. I took a look. Some of the "proofs" required some thinking about, IMO. Others made me groan, because the statements and examples were so simplistic and revealed a gross misunderstanding of basic tools of Bible interpretation, among other problems. Nonetheless, the assertion that God is imaginary, and the site's efforts to persuade us that we are being deluded, got me thinking.

I was not trying to decide whether or not God is imaginary, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to debate atheists. I leave that to my friend Metacrock and others. I was thinking about why those who authored the site cared whether I believed in God or not. What would be accomplished if their reasoning convinced me?
I tend to think of things from my heart's perspective even when I'm trying to be cerebral; therefore, my initial intellectual arguments for the existence of God rather quickly gave way to pondering what being a Christian--a "little Christ" or a follower of Jesus means. What difference would it make in my life, and in others lives, if we all decided we are fools for having faith and joined the ranks of Christians who have become atheists?

That deserves a book, not a blog post, but here goes. The Church of Jesus Christ has often done a woeful job indeed of shining in the darkness. However, this is the ideal, and this is the aim of my heart. I want to make a difference in individual lives and in the world in my own God-given way.

I thought about our trip to the coast to help with Katrina relief efforts, which I blogged about at length, starting here. Our church back home in Wisconsin was praying that the Church would shine. I saw overwhelming first-hand evidence of that happening everywhere we went on the Gulf Coast. I am not saying that only people of faith were helping. Of course, that is not the case, but I know that those who arrived first, before FEMA, before the Red Cross, before any "official" organization, were mostly the church people. From all parts of the country and from many denominations, they came. They prayed, cried, hugged, and rolled up their sleeves and sweated in the stifling heat and humidity and worked hour after hour. I worked till I almost could not stand up anymore, and then I rejoiced that I actually had a real shower (in a church basement) to use, and a building in which to sleep. Many volunteers slept in tents for weeks, right along with hurricane victims. Over and over we heard, "Thank God for the churches. We would have nothing without you people." Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Methodists, Christian Missionary Alliance people and more, all worked side by side and sang hymns and laughed and smiled through their exhaustion.

I thought of the boxes we gave to Mississippi children--boxes with a few toys or crayons, dolls, a book or two--where did those boxes come from? From churches. Many included notes of encouragement or assurances of love and prayers. Many of the notes were from Sunday School children.

Who is reaching out to children trapped in Asia's sex trade business? Who, most often, are the ones who run rescue missions and, in spite of overwhelming obstacles, seek to share love with the homeless, the addicted, the lost and broken? Who reaches out to abused women? Who had the idea for Heifer International? It was Dan West, a Church of the Brethren relief worker. Who are the people working on the streets of the inner cities? Who is working at City on a Hill (see previous post) to reach "one block at a time?" What kids came and picked up litter and washed windows and raked and mowed lawns of elderly poor? Who removed plywood and provided real windows for a grandmother caring, against all odds, for 17 grandchildren? People of God, that's who.

I think of Galina (of the blog OceanChrist) who reaches to broken people and believes in them. Her story of an encounter with Jesus while still in the USSR is remarkable. I think of Diane who directs City on a Hill. She formerly held an executive position in a renowned and prosperous health care corporation. I think of Brian who works long hours there, not because anyone makes him but because he loves with Jesus' love. I think of someone who gave a small fortune to a little church in the south, simply out of love. I think of pastors who often work long hours and usually receive little affirmation or recognition. Most churches in America are small, not multi-million dollar enterprises, and being a "reverend" doesn't carry much prestige anymore. I think of missionaries I have known. They were not the arrogant and narrow-minded radicals so often depicted in movies or books. I know those people exist, but most left home, family, comfort and security to learn a foreign language, eat unusual food, use unsanitary toilets and sometimes face danger and even give their lives. For fun? Not likely. Their desire was to be a light in some dark places. The missionaries I know are some of the finest individuals on this earth. I think of Laurie, who cleans our church with a song on her lips. I think of my secretary, Honey, who gives time and service for no pay, and I think of Pat who has a demanding job and who often longs to go home and put her feet up. Today she will be sharing time and prayer and love with a group of women who will come to her house expecting something good. And there are so many more.

My husband was a computer programmer and systems analyst in the USMC, earning commendations for his fiscal accounting system. Upon discharge a private firm offered him a position with a salary that made our moths drop, one that would have supported us in a style of which we had only dreamed. He declined so that he could study for the ministry, and we scraped by, eating macaroni and cheese and hot dogs and living in campus housing for families (which was a none-too-new mobile home). We made our own fun with our two children, because a concert or even a movie was out of the question. Why? So he could work with felons.

I used to be well-known and respected in certain circles of state service, but I turned down a raise and a new position and relocated so I could earn about half as much serving a small and struggling congregation. Do I regret it? No. Does my husband? No. Oh, occasionally we wish we had a new vehicle instead of a 1997 minivan. Occasionally we wish we could afford overseas travel. Occasionally, while squeezing past each other in the morning, we wish for a larger bathroom.

Would we change it? No. Are we crazy or deluded or foolish? Maybe. But last week in Milwaukee when a smiling man hugged him saying , "Hi, Chaplain!" and then shared of his new life on the "outside," a life that includes a job, a church family and a new attitude, my husband's heart rejoiced more than it ever did when a computer program worked properly. Yesterday when I received an email thanking me for Sunday's sermon, my heart rejoiced too.

It took a long time, but because I believe I am valuable to God, I finally learned to hold my head up, look people in the eye and walk with hope and confidence. Because I am a Christ-ian I try to do the right thing, even when it is the hard thing and even when it costs me. Because of Jesus I seek to love unloveable people, to encourage and build up and affirm. Because I believe we are all made in God's image, I want to look for that image in even the most annoying or the most broken of people. Because of that I can seek for the promise and potential in everyone.

I once worked at a law firm serving low-income clients. Those lawyers, mostly atheists or people who did not attend church (and laughed at me for doing so), were dedicated and gifted and hard-working--and I was proud to work with them. As I said, Christian people are not the only ones who seek to make a difference in the world. Perhaps those coworkers of mine were simply better people than I. I suspect that if I did not believe that what happens here has eternal value I would likely be selfish, depressed, dishonest and feeling stupid and worthless. I am not a good person simply because I exist, and my own efforts at self-improvement always fall short.

I also know that people who called themselves Christians have done foolish and sometimes terrible things. Our efforts have often been misguided at best, and destructive at worst. The Church of Jesus brings me distress, makes me frustrated, causes me to wonder what I'm doing, makes me fighting mad at times, and is so divided as to be laughable. Still, I do not regret that I belong to it. It also brings me joy, hope and purpose. I, like the Apostle Paul, confess that I am a debtor to Jesus Christ. Sometimes Jesus' words make me irritated or confused. Sometimes I have passing thoughts if it is worth it to be a disciple. Sometimes I wish I could believe that it makes no difference what I do or think or whether people believe or not. But I can never repay the debt of love I owe my Savior. The only way I can try is by loving the people he created.

I could write so much more about this, but lunch time is over and I need to get some work done. Today, among a long list of other things, I will call a grieving widower and seek to bring comfort. I will travel an hour to make a hospital visit to a woman suffering excruciating pain. I will call someone who is working with me on setting up a counseling ministry in our church. I will talk to a teenaged boy who is confused and troubled. I will have a conversation with a woman who I suspect is angry with me, and I will try to be diplomatic and mend fences. Why? Because I am some sort of deluded do-gooder? Nope. I don't necessarily look forward to hospitals, counseling sessions or angry people. Pastors and priests and chaplains and deacons and laypeople from around the nation and the world will do the same kinds of things today.

I look forward to the day when I see my savior's face, and I want to hear the words, "Well, done good and faithful servant." If the commenter is correct and I die and there is nothing but oblivion, I will still have had more joy, more love, more hope and more purpose than ever could have been remotely possible if I did not believe God IS.

This little light...let it shine! To God be the glory.


see-through faith said...

thank you.

Quotidian Grace said...

I'm awed by your powerful statement of faith.

D. P. said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post.

(PS: The writer of the "Sunbeam" song was a former pastor of the church I'm currently attending!)

His Singer said...

WELL SAID!!! To GOD be the glory, and you certainly did bring Him glory with this post!

Anonymous said...

Are you for real?

Lorna said...

God rejoices over you with singing. Blessed trip as you seek His guidance. May He fill you - encourage you - and love you back to life.

Anonymous said...

I read this and smiled. Thank you for posting it. It's definitely worth it.


Oengus Moonbones said...

Sister Owl: "One said the blog was "amazing" (not a compliment, I learned), and the other urged us to open our minds."

Dear sister, don't take them too seriously. They're called trolls. Every blogger will get them. Please don't pay them too much attention. They're not really interested in hearing what you have to say.

But I daresay you did write a nice piece in response.

SingingOwl said...

Hee hee...yeah, I know about trolls. Thanks. I think they mostly wanted visitors to their site. And I don't necessarily think they'll be back to read this posst. I just felt like writing it anyhow! :-)

Ken said...

Well said. I know this is late but I just had time to read it.