Month: November 2019

The light within

In 1835, Robert Browning (1812-1889) published his poem Paracelsus, named for a Swiss physician. It took Browning about six months to write it. Inspiration often came on late night walks in London. From Part I:

to KNOW,
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendor may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without.

“I will give you as a light to the nations….” – Isaiah 49.6 (NRSV)

“You are the light of the world.” – Matthew 5.14 (NIV)

“…if we love others, we are in the light….” – 1 John 8.10 (CEV)

The universe has more light and more darkness than we can imagine, and scientists are finding light where it was earlier thought to be total darkness. We need both light and darkness to thrive, and (metaphorically) there is plenty of both within each of us.

When feeling low or dark, Browning’s poem reminds us that there is within each of us “an imprisoned splendor” of light.

Into the light

Light greets us at birth. Based on Mom’s contemporaneous notes, my first word was “ights” (lights). It was a response to Christmas lights. A light shining in the darkness captivates children and adults alike.

Light greets us at death. Ron DelBene, a mentor for almost four decades, wrote Into the Light: Ministering to the Sick and Dying. We can encourage dying loved ones to walk into the light. We can claim this for ourselves, too.

From Diarmuid O’Murchu’s book Quantum Theology:

“Matter is … gravitationally trapped light. … (T)he human body stores immense amounts of light: The hundred trillion atoms in each of our hundred trillion cells together store (enough photons) to illuminate a baseball field for three hours….” (p. 164)

“(T)he carbon that makes possible all life on earth… is the product of stars…. We are the same stuff as the stars themselves!” (p. 166)

“The scientific imagination has long sought to understand the nature of light. The human mind can scarcely grasp the speed at which light travels. The spiritual seeker engages unceasingly in the call to become enlightened.” (p. 174)

Shed light

To shed light is to explain something in order to make it easier to understand. A lamp is a common symbol for knowledge, or for finding one’s way in life. Light helps us see things more clearly. At my last eye exam the doc suggested we need more light as we get older. She’s in the enlightenment business since light is necessary for sight.

The Pilgrims who came from Old England to New England called themselves not pilgrims, but saints (as in Paul’s letter to “all the saints at Philippi”). A 1623 harvest celebration evolved into our current Thanksgiving. When light is shed, something may be unlearned, such as the stereotype image of black and white outfits with buckle shoes.

That wasn’t 1623 attire. Our pilgrims/saints image comes from later Victorian era artists during the 1837-1901 reign of Queen Victoria. In school I remember sharpening a silver or gray crayon for the square buckles on those black shoes, black hats and black pants. Actual 1623 attire was more varied, less formal, more colorful and would have been more fun to color.

Though not there in 1623, those uniform black and white outfits remind us of Thanksgiving. Symbols need not be 100% historically accurate to convey meaning or shed light, which is the latest addition to my long list of reasons to be thankful. I’m learning–with thanksgiving–to embrace Reality, with its many shades of darkness and light and its many hues of color.

Unattributed photo of two unidentified pilgrims/saints, wearing inaccurate period clothing, nonetheless reminding us to cultivate a heart of thanksgiving


My understanding of light and darkness is changing. I’m more aware of their complementary relationship. I see them as companions that coinhabit the universe, always dancing, engaging, crossing–and melding.

We’ll dabble in some simple physics later in this week, but for now I invite you to hear anew the first verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

Bethlehem is the ancestral home of King David, who blends idealism and treachery. In Bethlehem’s dark streets we see an everlasting light in the person of Jesus, birthing in us a new capacity to embrace our dark places with the strength of God’s everlasting light.

In a sense, Bethlehem is wherever we are at any given moment. It’s wherever light and darkness intersect. This can be a place of profound growth and transformation, empowering us to hope more and fear less.


Embracing Darkness, Embracing Light

Alone one Christmas Eve many years ago, I started Elie Wiesel’s book Night, his memoir as a teen in a Nazi concentration camp. I questioned my choice on page one, but I couldn’t put it down. I read it in one swoop and now I remember Night each Advent, our annual season of waiting.

What then felt so incongruent now feels increasingly appropriate. Each year brings greater awareness of the dark side of human life. Today’s post and the next few will focus on the healing that can come when we embrace both darkness and light. We can build a cumulative endowment of light.

Night by Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) is available as a free PDF download. He won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. Here’s part of his acceptance speech:

“…I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. …. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must–at that moment–become the center of the universe.”

… “No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.”

Why Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’ Still Matters So Much to Me–And All of Us,” by Samantha Power

Two perspectives

Ted: “Reba, why are you chewing on the tub?”
Reba: “What were all these things doing inside my chew toy?”
Ted: “Sorry, Reba. I’m putting the tub out of reach.”
Reba: “I need something to chew on.”

When off duty, Reba is an energetic, sometimes mischievous pup. Reba has better manners when wearing her service-dog-in-training vest.

To highlight the need for service dogs for veterans, WVTM’s Jeff Eliasoph wanted to interview Christine McDonald, a military veteran and volunteer puppy raiser along with Rudy, her service-dog-in-training.

Due to scheduling issues, Rudy’s litter-mate Reba substituted for brother Rudy. So, Reba was featured on Jeff’s Facebook live feed, along with with Amy Steenwyk, who is co-raising Reba with my wife, Cathey.

Later that day, Jeff did an interview for broadcast with Christine and Reba.

On duty, Reba gives her full attention to her friend Christine

A beautiful day

In a conversation with friends on Wednesday, one asked each of us, “What’s your favorite painting?” I know very little about art, but the first painting that came to my mind was Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669).

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633
(Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990)

If you look closely, there are 14 people in the boat. Jesus is easy to identify. The guy in blue looking at us, holding his cap with one hand and a rope in the other, appears to be Rembrandt (echoing a similar self-portrait from that era). He seems to have painted himself into the scene.

I’m writing this post early on a rainy Saturday morning after seeing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood yesterday on a rainy Friday afternoon. My review is shorter than Roger Ebert’s: “Don’t miss it.”

When you see this Tom Hanks movie, pay attention to its many subtle details, such as the entire restaurant going silent when Fred Rogers (1928-2003) and his guest pause for a moment before eating. Stay for the credits and notice how much of the movie’s music was written by Rogers.

Both Rembrandt and Hanks participated in the respective stories they depicted, and their art invites us to see ourselves in these stories as well.

Tom Hanks paints himself into a story about Fred Rogers

The journey

How should we think about the journey?

In the spring of my freshman year at the University of Alabama (1970), Bob Morgan, (1933-2014) a 36-year-old United Methodist district superintendent, appointed me to team with two full-time pastors to serve a parish of 7 congregations in rural Pickens County.

At breakfast on May 5th, I walked into an argument between Mike and Ralph, two fraternity brothers and senior ROTC cadets: “The students provoked them.” “The troops used excessive force.” I had not heard about the violence at Kent State University. Already it was a national argument.

Protests occurred at many campuses, including Tuscaloosa. In the months that followed, some who protested for change seemed to “burn out.” Some deeply religious folks didn’t want to deal with the issue (Vietnam) that rocked the country. I searched for a faith that wouldn’t burn out or rust out.

After finishing seminary in 1976, I met Gordon Cosby (1917-2013) and his colleague Elizabeth O’Connor (1921-1998), who wrote Journey Inward, Journey Outward. They taught me how to think about the journey: both daily spiritual reflection and redemptive action in the world are essential.


How should we think about faith?

This week’s posts about various topics begin with the “How should we think about….?” question that was introduced in the November 18th post.

I try to begin each morning with Richard Rohr’s daily meditation. Yesterday he quoted Simone Campbell, who works with issues of economic justice, immigration reform and healthcare. One of Campbell’s themes is: “For those who see deeply there is only One Reality.”

It’s easy for our busy lives to fragment into silos: work, play, family, church, friends, politics, etc. What happens in one silo may be unrelated to, or have minimal engagement with, another silo. Faith brings everything together.

I’ve been retired 54 days. This is my 54th blog post. The blog is a way for me to do the important internal work of living into what Simone Campbell calls “the One Reality” that permeates every aspect of life. I’m beginning to think about faith as attentiveness to the One Reality.

I believe this is what Thomas Merton (1915-1968) described on p. 32 of New Seeds of Contemplation:

“To work out our own identity in God, which the Bible calls ‘working out our salvation,’ is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears. It demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to God as (God is revealed), obscurely, in the mystery of each new situation.”

Peak football

How should we think about football?

A 1953 comedy monologue by Andy Griffith (1926-2012), “What it Was, Was Football,” sold 850,000 vinyl records and led to a 1954 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I played it on our crank-up Victrola enough to memorize it.

Football helped shape my consciousness. Lou “The Toe” Groza (1924-2000) was a mythic figure for me because he kicked a 52-yard field goal. I listened to the Iron Bowl on radio in 1958. On Sundays, I watched the Bear Bryant Show at 4 pm and the Auburn Football Review with Shug Jordan at 5 pm. Football influenced my decision to enroll at the University of Alabama instead of Berea College. Berea isn’t in the SEC.

Here’s how I think about football today:

  • My love for the game is tempered by my growing awareness of injury risk that began when Bo Jackson’s career ended in 1990. Have athletes’ size and speed made the sport too dangerous for high mass, high speed collisions? Are recent safety-focused rule changes coming fast enough?
  • Can teams play hard without viewing an inflicted injury as a trophy? Sometimes players ejected for targeting are cheered by fans and given high fives by teammates. Injuries are not just about size and speed. They are about intent. This may not change until a player is killed on national TV, if then.
  • The sadness I felt for Bo Jackson returned as two Bulldogs chased Tua Tagovailoa. For me, he represents (1) the amazing excellence of this era by raising the performance bar and (2) the dangers of this era by enduring injuries that effectively knocked him out of two Heisman Trophy quests.
Bo and Tua