The Light Still Shines

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. (John 1:5 NLT)

As I type this, I’ve just received an email telling me my dream trip, the one I’ve been planning for two years, has been canceled. As you read this, that’s where I should be.

I know as sacrifices go this year it’s not tipping the scale, but the trip was both symbolic and a lifelong dream for me, and I’m devastated.

December may host the darkest days of the year, but it seems for many that the darkness never lifted after last winter. When spring arrived, so did protracted global crisis. We’re entering the Christmas season tired, grieving, and anxious. Family togetherness probably won’t look the same. There could be members missing from the circle around our tree. It’s unlikely we here will have in-person church services for this important time of year, and that loss of community during one of the most-community oriented seasons of our lives cuts deeply.

Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

The lights might be twinkling, but not a lot of people are singing “Joy To the World” in quite the same key they’re used to.

Into all this enters the promise of a baby in a manger wailing under a star whose wattage won’t quit. Nothing about that part of the story has changed. The Light of the world still came, still lives, and if nothing could extinguish it when John penned those words some 2000 years ago, nothing can in this year of woe either.

Think about the world Jesus entered.

When the star shone on Bethlehem, the people there lived under oppressive rule. They might not have seen Roman soldiers often, but they felt their presence. They knew the grasping greed of the tax collectors and their power to destroy a family already on the economic edge. They had seen crosses on the roadside, and they knew who usually hung there. Though their ruler Herod pretended to be a Jew, they understood his true loyalties lay only with himself.

They needed light to believe the darkness that pushed them into the ground and stole their breath could be pierced.

When the star shone on Bethlehem, most of the population existed in near-poverty, including Mary and Joseph. They subsisted, with a home and enough food, but they worked constantly, and one bad year could be the difference between survival and devastation. Jesus and Joseph would have carved plows, yokes, chairs, and bowls six days a week, unaware of this thing we refer to as leisure time. 

They needed light to hope that their children’s lives could be better.

When the star shone on Bethlehem, mothers died in childbirth, children died of diarrhea and other results of poor sanitation in crowded areas, and everyone died in plagues. In cities, people lived sardined together in buildings with no modern comforts such as air conditioning or indoor plumbing. Alexander Hamilton famously sings that, where he came from (1750’s Nevis), many people lived “half as many” as twenty years. Jesus understood this, too—at 33, he had already lived close to the 35-40 average lifespan. (High infant mortality, however, skews that number.)

They needed light to see that the grave didn’t close out their life story and this difficult world was not their only chance to find peace.

This is the world into which the great I AM entered as flesh. The similarities of disease and injustice strike us clearer this year perhaps, but they don’t surprise the baby who took up residence in a musty feeding trough in a place whose capacity for sin he knew too well.

The darkness can never extinguish the Light of the world. All the pain and difficulty in Jesus’ world could not stop the blinding star from flashing its sign for all to see who wanted to see: “Come. Faith, Hope, and Love are born tonight. This Light cannot ever be overcome.” 

We can be overcome. We can be overwrought and overworked. We can lose heart, and our courage to keep on can be extinguished. Those are the days we look to that star of Bethlehem we hang a facsimile of on our tree and remember: its incredible light was only a sign. Though it shone like a Fresnel lighthouse lens beaming its way out to a dark sea, it only pointed the way to the greater Light. 

That Light shone in a wooden trough on a holy night in a cave long ago. It also shone out of an empty tomb behind a cast-off stone on a morning when all hopes had been shattered. The darkness cannot extinguish it. Death has no power over it. Neither pandemics nor racism nor ugly divisions can separate us from it. If we follow him, even when it feels like we’re walking in the deepest darkness, we can know that we are walking toward life.

Photo by Anton Darius on Unsplash

 “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life. (John 8:12 NLT

The Lord is my light and my salvation—so why should I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1 NLT)

This article first appeared in The Glorious Table.

Food that Satisfies

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. — Maya Angelou

This famous quote of Angelou’s, sometime erroneously attributed to Oprah, although she credited it properly, has surfaced anew lately. We’ve seen it more for good reason. Far too often in the last few years, people we previously trusted have shown us who they are. We’ve come to terms with that truth, even when we have desperately wanted to believe otherwise. Yet the quote has its positive side, too. If someone shows you who they are, and who they are is dazzling, believe that, too.

This Advent, we’re working through some of Jesus’ I AM statements. Several times he told the people who he was. More importantly, he showed them. It always rang true. He was/is who he said he was. 

Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life. I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6.27, 35)

Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last. I don’t know about you, but so much of my life at times seems filled with working for food that doesn’t last. Not tangible food I ingest. Food of others sorts. Praise. Appreciation. Perfection. Bylines or likes on a page. Numbers of people tuned in to a church service or a live video. “Food” that nourishes our egos but what about our souls?

Photo by Helena Yankovska on Unsplash

It isn’t that these thing aren’t important. They are. I’m not going to get on a soapbox about how promoting a brand or a church or a book is somehow ungodly and a waste of our precious one life. I don’t know that this is true. We are given gifts by the Holy Spirit, and God enjoys when we use them for our fulfillment and others’ benefit. I don’t believe God looks at our promotional efforts and shakes a head at how pointless they all are. God loves when we bless others through our work, and we can’t bless others who don’t know we exist. It isn’t the actions themselves or the need for them professionally or personally that causes malnourishment of the soul.

It’s the need for them for our identity.

Using that kind of bread to feed our souls isn’t sustainable for long, because it was never meant for that purpose. It doesn’t fill the holes hungry for real love and acceptance that hang nothing on what we produce or how profound or witty we are online. 

We hunger, deep in our spirits, for food that will satisfy those gaping holes of being loved for who we are and being wanted in someone’s space, no conditions attached. So when we exchange those likes, tweets, and shares for acceptance, we’re  gorging on food that doesn’t last. That space empties so quickly, needing to be filled again every day, just like out stomachs. 

The people who crowded around Jesus the day he made this statement had a similar experience. They hung who they were and how valuable they were on the thing they could see, like the bread and circuses so popular and familiar in their Roman/Jewish world.

They wanted to measure Jesus like this too, but he defied them. After he’d fed the crowd miraculously, he left them,  but they tracked him down, wanting more.

“I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted. Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life.

They asked, “What must we do in order to accomplish what God requires?”

Jesus replied, “This is what God requires, that you believe in him whom God sent.”

They asked, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do? 

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.But I told you that you have seen me and still don’t believe. 

Jesus knew they came for the show. He knew they wanted to be defined and valued by their proximity to the sparkle and glitter. He knew they would define him by what he could deliver, and they would turn on him once he did not. 

So Jesus showed them who he was.

He gave them bread. Then he offered life. 

Approaching the bread and circuses world in which we live believing we can find who we are and what we long for from it is asking for food that will not last. Yet this is where we live, so how do we find the balance between living there and gaining our value there?

Drawing near to Christ, the Jesus who was born in a feeding area and lived moving toward a cross, is our touchpoint. The Christ of loaves and fishes and water and wine is beautiful and generous and abundant, but this was not his daily life. Jesus didn’t materialize fish and fries for his disciples at every meal. His presence was the bread of life, not his miracles. 

When we gain our identity through proximity to his humble life rather than a shiny show, we can learn to manage that show as a helpful tool but not as our main source of nutrition.

The world this year seems to have grown both closer and lonelier. More people than ever long for acceptance in another’s space without conditions attached. We haven’t been in others’ space much, and when we have, we wonder if the wrong word or opinion might sever the relationship.

Interpersonal strains, writ large by how much we’ve been in the same space for so long together, have brought more of us to the point of recognizing that we need love for who we are, even when we are at our worst. 

Jesus offers to fill those hungers that nothing else can. The miracles of feeding 5000 aren’t about food. They’re about love. Abundant, magnificent, extravagant love that knows no bounds of physical reality that would count loaves and fishes and find them not enough. The miracles are about filling our hearts with the bread we need—the nearness of a savior whose love can’t be put in a box of opinion, dogma, or party.

It can, however, be put in an animal trough. It can come blazing hot on a winter’s night, lighting up our hearts and filling them with food that will endure for eternal life. 

It’s that food that grounds me when I launch into the world around me where identity and love can be bought for a large enough following. We do need daily food. It’s not a bad thing. It’s fine and good to work for. But it’s not the same thing as eternal food. We cannot confuse the two.