Lights in dark places

The extraordinary displays of grace by the relatives of those shot dead by Dylann Roof  in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has been the outstanding Christian witness of the year so far.

To watch hardened news reporters confess to being stunned as they report on bereaved daughters and sons telling a killer they love him, has been to witness the light of Christ.

AME churchIt was one of the catalysts for my sermon yesterday, recalling Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel:

Matthew 5

 14“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Near my home at Garndiffaith in the Eastern Valley of Gwent is the mining museum Big Pit. If you take the tour, led by former miners, you are given a helmet with a lamp on the front and step into a lift to go 90 metres down into the shaft.

Water drips and most of the tunnels are just too low to stand upright – even for me at barely 5ft 6in.

At one point the guide asks everyone to turn off their lights and for a few moments you stand in total darkness while recalling tales of children as young as five who worked underground in that absolute blackout.

It could be argued that we know a lot about light. We could go on a computer and find out all sorts of things about it. We know know that lights bends and refracts; that it has amazing properties; that lasers can be used to repair sight. So many things.

But at heart we know one simple thing: darkness and light are so different. Such powerful images. Being in a dark place is not good. There are testimonies from young people about what it was like to work down those mines – I remember hearing a powerful folk song based on the evidence given by a young girl who worked in a northern coal mine for so long her whole physical shape was distorted permanently.

We have so many sayings based on darkness and light. You know them. And in Jesus’ day it was even more striking. Any artificial light was partial. Anything that broke the darkness was welcomed.

When he spoke about the laughable idea of lighting a lamp and sticking a bowl over it, that lamp was a simple clay reservoir of olive oil with a crude wick. Its light spread hardly further than the few feet around it and was vulnerable to the slightest draught. To read or work by such a lamp would involve huddling close and concentrating hard.

For a people struggling under Roman occupation it was a powerful picture: You are light in this dark place. The light of God in a human heart may be a gentle, fragile light: the power of your single flame may be small. But in God it has significance. The smallest of lights is still light.

If we pool the fragile faith we have, the gentle light of one flame joins with others to become a powerful and visible symbol. The single lamp gives light for friends, the city gives light for strangers.

In U2’s song City of Blinding Lights the last line says “Blessings are not just for the ones who kneel”. I take that to mean that the job of the ones who kneel, or pray, is to offer Christ’s love to the whole world – to shine their light beyond the walls of the Church.

As Jesus said, the stupidity is lighting a candle and then hiding it under a bowl. There is no excuse for secret discipleship. The example of our sisters and brothers in Charleston shows us that.

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