Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shine on!

Shine on, shine on,
There'll be time enough for darkness when everything's gone.
Shine on, shine on,
There is work to be done in the dark before dawn.
(Daisy May Erlewine)

I learned a long time ago that one of the biggest faults we human beings have, that winds up leading to even bigger problems in the long run, is this two-pronged approach we take to life––avoiding pain and augmenting pleasure. If you think about it, you could almost fit your whole day into one of those two categories––avoiding pain and augmenting pleasure.

“What are you up to today?”
“Avoiding pain. How ‘bout you?”
“Augmenting pleasure…”

We are forever trying to build up a life of ease and comfort, padding our nests and battening down our hatches. We are forever trying to get away from hard things, and we especially want to get rid of any kind of pain as soon as we get a hint of it, whether by an aspirin or by a drink or some harder drug, or some kind of diversion that gets our mind off it. I have two close friends who say almost the same thing: one, who endured the death of several of her family members, a difficult divorce and just had a ling transplant, says, “It’s only pain”; and the other says, “Sometimes things just hurt.” Like a death, or a dysfunctional family, or a debilitating disease. Sometimes we just have to feel the pain, grieve, wail, cry, so that it can pass.

The poet David Whyte says when we are little children we get a little black bag strapped to our waists and everything frightening or painful we throw in the black bag. And it stretches and stretches so that by the time we are adults we can barely fit through the door because the bag is so large. We try to keep on avoiding looking at all those things that we fear or that are going to be difficult for us to face, but at some point––let’s hope this doesn’t have to wait until our deaths––we’re going to have to face it all, and deal with it, and let go of it. And we’re going to have to let go of the pleasures we’ve been clinging to as well, even the legitimate pleasures, loved ones, careers, sometimes even health of mind and body. As Teilhard wrote in The Divine Milieu, “The Master of Death will come soon enough––and perhaps we can already hear his footsteps. There is no need to forestall his hour nor fear it.”

There’s a lot of sweetness and light in the readings we read in church today. First is the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 8, proclaiming that the Gentiles are going to see a great light. This is a passage that is used liturgically also at Christmas time: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in darkness a light has shone.” Later in the text those famous lines come that is not quoted here––I remember it well because some friends of mine and I were working with this text during the summer of 2006 when Israel was in the process of bombing the smithereens out of Lebanon (with the US’s tacit approval), just the opposite of what is going on here, where: “For every boot that trampled in battle, every cloak rolled in blood shall be burnt as fuel for flames. For unto us a child is given, to us a child is born…” And in the Gospel of Matthew we see Jesus is going into the land of the Gentiles, bringing his light, a light that is now going to be for all people, not just for the chosen few.

I’ve heard is said that the dark side of modern spirituality is that it has no dark side. Lest we get too comfortable, there are three little correctives to the sweetness and light in the readings today. In the Isaiah reading, this light shines where there has first been great degradation, great darkness, and Isaiah says it is specifically by the hand of the lord that this degradation and darkness had come, like John the Baptist’s axe laid to the root of the tree. And Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (4:12-23) is sending his disciples out not just to announce the light, but to call people to repentance so that they can actually make room for this light. And we sneak St Paul’s words in from the end of the second reading (1 Cor 1: 17)––so that the cross of Christ may not be emptied of its power. In this context it seems to me that the repentance could be just what I mentioned earlier. It’s time to get real! It’s time to open that black bag of fears and avoidances you’ve been carrying around, empty it out and face the reality of life. Or as Jesus puts it in another place, “Take up your cross and follow me.” So that the cross of Christ not be emptied of its meaning. Repent may mean to stop clinging to pleasure, even to legitimate pleasure. Stop worrying about what to wear or what to eat or tomorrow––do not live in fear, my little flock! So that the cross of Christ may not be emptied of its power. It’s just pain, it’s just a cross, and it may kill you but it will not destroy you.

There’s a song a friend of mine introduced me to recently and I can’t stop singing it. It also seems to fit so well with today’s readings. It strikes me as an announcement of the gospel, of the good news, even if it doesn’t specifically mention Jesus, because it mentions Jesus’ way. It’s called “Shine On.”
Knocked me off of my feet
But I think it's time for me to start walking again,
Stop running away from things.
Next time you see me,
I will be singing a new song
I am learning to shine on.

Shine on, shine on,
There'll be time enough for darkness when everything's gone.
Shine on, shine on,
There is work to be done in the dark before dawn.

It's been hard not to give in,
And it ain't easy living in hard times.
I know it's weighing on your mind.
Next time you see me,
I'll be uplifting, yes I will give you hope!
I am learning as I go to shine on.

I know how dark it seems,
Feel it coming up inside of me,
And I feel it in you too, in everything you do.
Next time you see me,
We'll both be laughing, oh just to be alive!
We are learning to shine, shine on.

I think this would be a good thing for us to sing to the world right now. I my circle, there are many people despairing, many people hurting, many people hopeless about life. But so that the cross of Christ not be emptied of its meaning, I think we should be announcing this good news to the world: Shine on, shine on. / There'll be time enough for darkness when everything's gone. / Shine on, shine on. / There is work to be done in the dark before dawn. And that work to be done is just what Jesus sent his apostles out to do: preaching that the reign of God is at hand, curing disease and illness among the people, especially the dis-ease of despair, the illness of hopelessness, so that the people who walk in darkness can see the great light of Christ, through us, with us and in us.