It’s not my first office in a closet.
A couple of years ago I moved out of what is now Kate’s office and into the Fireside Room. Well, the Fireside Room closet, where supplies, chairs and wine are stored. I was reducing my time at St John’s and felt it was only fair to give up the prime real estate, so I scouted around and found the closet which I thought had potential. So Dusty found me a desk and a bookcase and I located a room divider and I moved in, with my stuff. I also wanted to have one of those gold-plated signs made that said “Whine (w-h-i-n-e) Closet” but the usually fun-loving rector said “We’re not doing that.…. “
I also had an office in a closet a long time ago when I began teaching at the Blake Upper School in Minneapolis. I was only part-time so had to teach in several several classrooms but needed a place to keep my stuff and meet with students. I found a minimally-occupied janitor’s closet, and convinced him to move his stuff out and a desk for me in. I existed there for a year or so, sharing the space with the resident Blake mouse during the winter. (You always think that your mouse lives alone). I survived in these places because each had a window, a degree of natural light.
My Blake closet just happened to be next to the president’s office so he would stop by and chat (“No, Mr. Hersey—it’s fine – I understand there are no more rooms available”) and I would wave happily when he walked by.
A year later when his office was moved out of that wing and I became a full-time teacher, and I got assigned that room for a classroom (maybe because of the cheery waving?). I was ecstatic because it had floor to ceiling windows on two sides, along with wood paneling. I taught in that room for 24 years, no mouse but a dozen pots of red geraniums I brought in which bloomed all year. In the light.
We are drawn to light, and few other themes are as important in Scripture. In the lesson from Exodus, when Moses comes down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, his face is shining, because it says, “He had been talking with God.”
In the lesson from Luke, a similar thing happens, when Jesus is on the mountain with three disciples and he becomes “transfigured;” the appearance of his face is changed and his clothes become dazzling white. It’s as if his holiness shines through his humanness. The Creator speaks from a cloud, naming Jesus “his chosen one”’ and bidding the disciples to listen to him.
There are numerous other Biblical references to light, from the resurrection where the two angels are clothed in dazzling white garments back to the story of the Creation, where the first thing God does is separate the light from the darkness. (Churchy joke alert here) The comedienne Ellen DeGeneres observed that “in the beginning there was nothing and God said ‘let there be light.’ And there was light. There was still nothing but you could see it a whole lot better.”
Light bookends our existence, as we emerge from the womb into the light of the world and as we go toward “the tunnel of light,” as so many have described the near-death experience – or whatever form light takes at that point. Light illuminates the screens that have become so vital to us; sunlight grows the food we eat; light deprivation can drive people mad.
The poet Mary Oliver writes about light: “There’s the light that allows people lost in the dark to find their way home. There’s the light of truth-telling about ourselves that allows us to see what we are doing—or allowing — that has helped bring darkness upon us. There’s the light that shows us the way towards a better world.”
But it’s not all that simple. Oliver also says: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” How often I have felt the truth of this statement, confronting experiences I thought would destroy me and then years later seeing what gigantic gifts these events were. How they freed me to be who I am. How they forced me to find strength I didn’t know I had and success I hadn’t anticipated. I think we all have had our own Pandora’s box of darkness, that threatened to destroy us or change our life as we knew it, but that many years later we perceive as a delayed blessing.
The late songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen wrote this:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything
That is how the light gets in.”
We often assume that events in the Bible are singular, that the Biblical era is over, and now our job is to read the stories and believe in them (as if you can will belief). But the light that bathed Moses and Jesus is a reflection of the divine presence that also animates much of human life.
You see it on the faces of a mother and her child playing in the park; or on the face of a gardener gathering roses or rhubarb planted the spring before. I have seen it on the faces of people coming out of a performance of Broadway’s “Hamilton.” You see it on the faces of people in love or even at a funeral, when the breadth and depth of love is remembered. The writer Frederik Buechener says: “Every once and so often something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”
One of the most important religious figures of the 20th century is Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in the mid-Fifties. Merton lived most of his days in relative isolation while writing more than 70 books. But mid-career, his focus changed. One day on an errand for the monastery, he had a profound experience of connection that changed his life and has been immortalized in countless books ass well as by a plaque where it happened. Merton writes:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people around me, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation. . . . It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . This cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
From that moment on, Merton changed and became a passionate spokesman for peace, racial tolerance and social equality
Maybe Merton saw the same light illuminating the faces on Fourth and Walnut as those who saw Moses and Jesus saw in them.
Three observations about light:
First, light-bearers are often clueless about how they look. Moses is unaware he looks different: Exodus 34:30: “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shown.” In fact, so much so that it scares his followers and Moses has to put a veil on his face. We have no indication Jesus is aware of his changed appearance although the disciples are profoundly affected. You may reflect more light than you realize.
Secondly light can elevate the ordinary. We see this in art, especially photography which is all about light. Dorothea Lange was a Depression-era photographer most famous for photographing migrant workers. Her image “Migrant Mother” from the Thirties is a black and white close-up of a white woman with her seven children sitting at the doorway to a tent. She had just sold the tires on her car to buy food. It is arguably the best-known documentary photograph of the 20th century because of this arresting face of suffering, nobility and resilience in the face of adversity. Art can draw attention to a situation by almost screaming “Look at it! Look at it! “The right light has power.
Thirdly, we are called to engage with the light, to participate in the illumination it brings. Many of us have been seeing the pictures from the St John’s Clinic in Kayoro, Uganda, sent by several of our parishioners who are there now. The people there live in great poverty but the beautiful, shining faces are impossible to miss – on the people who live there and on the visitors bathed in friendship and good will.
One picture especially invited my participation. It was of a barefoot woman preparing dinner in her “kitchen” — consisting of three crude shelves on a dirt floor holding only a collection of plastic dishes, a cabbage and a pineapple. She cooks outside over a wood fire in an iron pot.
I printed this picture and put it over the sink in my own kitchen, to illuminate my ingratitude and internal whining about not having more — more space, more money, more stuff, more security. Maybe we can participate in the light by trying to see those coming forward to the altar later this morning as as God sees them. Two weeks ago I saw one of the small children in the pew front of me in her mother’s arms catch sight of someone she knew in a nearby pew and smiling and immediately reaching her arms out for her – as I often want to do when I see Kathy Brown’s beautiful, shining face.
We all need light whether it is a tiny window in a closet, in the eyes of a person or pet who loves us, or in the pages of Scripture. In 988 C.E. St. Symeon likened God’s love for us to lighting a candle: “As you lite a flame from another flame it is the whole flame you receive…” and yet the first flame is not diminished. One flame is enough to light millions of candles. And yet it is a particle that reflects only a fragment of God’s love and beauty.
A lot of our emotional energy right own is being deflected into the unprecedented events in our nations’ capital. Each day, a new outrage of one kind our another. I often wonder where the light is.
It can be interesting to trace the development of a phrase that becomes part of the culture. In 1939 in his book You Can’t Go Home Again), Thomas Wolfe lovingly describes America saying, “It’s not so big–only three thousand miles from east to west, only two thousand miles from north to south–but all between, where ten thousand points of light prick out the cities, towns, and villages… “Later C.S. Lewis wrote: “One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out.” And of course, in 1989 President HW Bush repeated the phrase in his inaugural speech, the lights representing the volunteers across the country. The same light is still here but we may have to periodically divert our attention from official events to see it.
This is Transfiguration Sunday, and I think is the crux of the Transfiguration of Jesus is this: God shows up in the form in which people need God to show up. The Israelites needed a leader and a set of rules to live by. So God called Moses and gave him the Commandment; Moses’ face shown from directly encountering the source of life… The three disciples on the mountain needed to know that Jesus was who he said was he was, and the Light and the Voice showed them he was. We have to scan scan our own landscape to look for the light that is still there in dark times and for the forms in which God shows up for us.
Let me close with something called “Poem to Be Read at 3 a.m.” by Donald Justice:
Excepting the diner
On the outskirts
The town of Ladora
At 3 A.M.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second-story room
A single light
Was sick or
As I drove past
Is for whoever
Had the light on
In that moment when the driver saw the light turned on in the second story room, a connection was made between two people: One providing the light and the other gratefully receiving it.
It is in those connections that God is and our hope lies.