One Candle

We light a candle.

During the final days of fall, as the nights get longer, we light candles. Our Jewish friends and neighbors light the menorah to celebrate Hanukkah, and we count the Sundays of Advent with candles on the wreath. We put lights on our trees, candles in our windows, and strings of lights around our doors.

Friday was the day of the winter solstice, the longest night, and bells were ringing in Newtown, Connecticut and across the nation. Not Christmas bells, but bells of mourning for little children and the women who died trying to protect them from harm.

A deep darkness has descended on us, and we light a candle. We may do it with tears rolling down our faces, but we light a candle. Lighting a candle has always been a gesture of welcome and celebration, and these days it is no small act of defiance: We won’t accept the unacceptable. Our hearts are broken, and we’re afraid to feel the pain that lingers there, but we light a candle to illumine the darkness.

It’s been a week and a day, and we have tried to keep our heads above water as waves of anger and rage, exasperation and despair washed over us. We’ve participated in conversations about guns and mental health, about a culture in the grip of violence. We’ve tried to somehow penetrate the unfathomable with what we know and believe.

Michael Gerson wrote,

We attempt to regain control of lurching events by explaining them. And we explain according to our pre-existing beliefs. The religious see a God-shaped hole in American society. Those concerned about mental health see a nation inattentive to the broken. Those committed to gun control see a Bushmaster .223. Those who despair of a violent culture see a “first-person shooter” emerged from a video game.[1]

We each see what we are able to see, and we quickly despair when we point out these things to others and they don’t see what we see. I listened to Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, and I thought that he might say something that would surprise me. I thought that this shooting might have touched him and the members of his organization as deeply as it had touched me, and that he would perhaps signal their willingness to talk about restrictions on high capacity magazines or more consistent background checks. He didn’t.

The president said,

Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, [the] fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

It is not just the laws that must be changed. We must change. We will have to have fierce conversations about access to lethal weapons, and mental health services, and our infatuation with violent imagery, and the break-down of community in this country, and the dysfunction of our political institutions – and for these conversations to be fruitful and transformative, we must change.

I listened to Kevin on the radio. Kevin grew up near Newtown. He is the father of a young daughter, and another baby is on the way. Kevin is also a Kindergarten teacher.

He called in to a radio show to say, “I am empty. I respect people’s opinions on gun ownership, but I don’t know what to think. It’s happened again.”

And what’s troubling Kevin the most is that his own children and the children at this school are growing up thinking this is how the world is.

We must change. In order to change the world so our children can thrive in it, we must change. We must attend to our emptiness so that grace can transform it into patient waiting and persistent action. We must attend to our rage so that grace can transform it into holy anger and courageous action. We must attend to our exasperation so that grace can change it into compassion.

I read Micah during these days after the Newtown shooting. I read the passage assigned for this Sunday, about little Bethlehem and the ruler who was to come forth from it.

And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

There it was; the promise of security and peace, and it resonated in ways it hadn’t before. I read through the whole book several times, it’s only seven pages long. I read again the beautiful words,

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid (Micah 4:1-4).

No one shall make them afraid. The words resonated in ways they hadn’t before. And one verse seemed to jump off the page, like it was written for this very moment,

When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me (7:8).

Micah points to Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Judah, and we notice the recurring theme: when God is about to do something great, the human scales of status and power are irrelevant. God is very fond of accomplishing great wonders through people on the margins. For a light to the nations, God could have chosen Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon – there were plenty of super-powers around; but instead, God chose the Hebrews that nobody had ever heard about. And to lead them out of Egypt, God chose a stuttering murderer who was hiding out in Midian. When a king was called for, God chose a shepherd boy who wrote poetry.

As Christians, and particularly today, we see this divine inclination most clearly in Mary. God enters her experience with a promise that has little if anything to do with her own hopes, and she responds with the courageous yes of faith. The redemptive acts of God that bring the topsy-turvy reign of heaven to earth don’t call in the big guns, but rather empower ordinary people to participate in God’s saving purposes. But we seem stuck in imagining the world as a battlefield where the only thing that can stop the bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. We need to change. We must attend to our distorted imagination so that divine grace can re-shape it.

Wendy Farley writes,

When we expect the power of redemption to mimic the power we see around us every day in fathers, judges, rulers, warriors, or captains of industry, it is because we have not been able to digest the shocking images of power we celebrate every Christmas and Easter.

Christ has always been a terribly offensive icon of the Holy, not least because he is perhaps the poorest display of power one sees in any of the world’s religions. In him, we see immortal, invisible God birthed into this world through an impoverished and nearly outcast young woman. We watch Jesus wander around a little rag-tag occupied country for a while and then leave it by one of Rome’s most hideous methods of execution. Although we love these stories and tell them over and over again, they capture something about divine power that [many of us] often find indigestible. Our love of power finds little satisfaction in Jesus. [2]

Our love of power finds little satisfaction in Jesus, and so we are tempted to address our deep discomfort by fashioning the God of power and might in the image of the familiar imperial rulers; we call in the big guns.

We must change, and we must change in ways much more profound than what legislature can achieve. We are all bound, in ways we barely understand, to suffering and to destructive ways of life. But this bondage is relieved and ended by the long and slow work of redemption, the work of grace by which all of the layers of our hearts and minds and community are opened to the flow of divine love. We must attend to the many ways in which we each can illumine the darkness around us by lighting one candle, by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (which, of course, is another verse from Micah).

I saw a beautiful example of this on Tuesday or Wednesday. The New York Times posted a video showing Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who became famous for announcing a Qur’an burning.

Pastor Jones is in Times Square, giving a street-corner speech about Islam that is both uninformed and unloving. Many people just keep walking, some stay and listen. One young woman makes an attempt to challenge one of his statements by saying, with a smile on her face, “That is not true,” but he doesn’t hear her or isn’t interested in a conversation. Then the camera catches a young man staring at his cell phone, typing away, and suddenly he starts reciting the opening lines of a Beatles song. It’s almost like he’s reassuring himself that the world is better than this. And then he starts singing. He really can’t sing, but he sings. All you need is love. And then he shouts, “It’s a free country, folks, let me hear you sing!” and one after another, people on Times Square join in. All you need is love, they sing, and the smiles return into their faces.

How about that for lighting a candle? A love song drowning out a hate speech.

When deep darkness descends upon us, we light a candle.



[2] Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire. Weaving Heaven and Earth (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005) pp. 29 and 96