Reconnecting with the Light
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RECONNECTING WITH THE LIGHT
A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)
John 9:1-41 (Jesus heals a man born blind)
If you haven’t been with us these past few Sunday of Lent, this congregation expressed a desire several months ago to deepen their spiritual lives. So we have been using as a guide for learning and reflection a book by John Philip Newell, called “The Rebirthing of God.” Some of us have been reading and discussing the book as we have followed it in worship. It notes some of the big changes that are happening in the Christian faith right now. Actually, God isn’t dead; but Newell invites us to reconnect with God in order to bring new life to our faith and our lives. And he suggests various ways or places we might do that reconnecting – as in spiritual practice, love, and the journey. Today, we consider “reconnecting with the light.”
Newell shares some beautiful stories of light in this chapter. But I found myself trying to understand exactly what this light was that he wanted us to see and reconnect with. Maybe it is something he has caught a glimpse of, but struggles to describe to those who can’t yet see it. It is difficult to describe light or color to someone who has been blind from birth. Maybe I, like the blind man that Jesus healed, need to gain my sight.
What Newell describes seems to be a life force – a force of beauty and possibility in living things. Maybe it is similar to the spirit or breath from God that gives life. One of the creation stories in Genesis says that God created the first human being by taking dust from the ground and blowing breath – spirit – into it, giving it life.
Celtic spirituality, in which Newell’s faith has been shaped, sees this essence of life in all living things. It was most evident in Jesus.
But Newell also sees this light in non-living matter. It seems to be the energy of creation – of the original Big Bang that brought the world into being. It is the light of heaven penetrating into this material world.
There is a version of Christian theology that is based on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead – an early 20th century English mathematician and philosopher. It is known as Process Theology, and although I have never studied it in depth, some parts that I have read about have been very thought-provoking and helpful for me in trying to understand our world and where God fits into it.
Whitehead believed that everything is in process – always changing. Even those things that seem pretty inert – like rocks (any good geologist will tell you that rocks do change!). He proposed that at every single moment, the world that is, and everything in it, is passing away – going out of existence – but is then replaced by a new world that is being born. Similar, but different from what preceded it. The new world that is coming into being is affected by what came before, and perhaps even restricted by the ways that matter can change; but the future is full of possibilities.
This idea suggests our universe is something like a motion picture. Each frame is slightly different from those that precede and follow it, but they are projected so quickly that the motion and change seem continuous to our eyes.
Our biblical creation stories say that God brought the world into being “in the beginning.” Scientists say the universe began with a Big Bang more than 14 billion years ago. But Process Theology suggests that creation was not just a one time, long-ago event. Instead, creation happens every single moment, bringing a new world into being out of the dying remnants of the old.
Perhaps this ongoing creative process is what Newell senses as the light – and marvels at. It is a recurring miracle in even the most mundane matter – the dust on your feet, the rust on your car.
One of the consequences of Whitehead’s process thought is that death and resurrection are not infrequent events that go against the laws of nature; they are built into the very nature of our existence, and happening all the time. You have died and been raised to new life countless times since you woke up this morning and had your first cup of coffee!
What we often fail to see in boring matter is that the elements that make it up are quarks and bosons clinging together in atomic nuclei that are always vibrating and boogeying – surrounded by electrons in an unending dance of particles that don’t always act like particles. Some of these elements were formed in the early aftermath of the Big Bang; others were forged in the cores of ancient stars that have long since died and exploded – scattering their remnants throughout the galaxy. We are all made of stardust and the remnants of living creatures that have died and returned to dust. But so are the mountains and the seas. I think the light that Newell wants us to reconnect with has something to do with the miracle that is ordinary matter – so pervasive that we don’t even notice. It is an energy that at every moment keeps the universe from collapsing into non-existence.
It is important for us to find time and places where we can reconnect to that light so we can continue to see it when we return to the places we live our lives. For Newell, that is the island of Iona, or the woods near his house. Where is it for you?
John Philip Newell seems to be a fan of the poetry of Mary Oliver (he quotes several of her poems in this book). He writes, “What she (Mary Oliver) is describing is a movement from awareness into open-eyed wonder, and from awe to prayer, and from prayer to adoration.”
But Newell warns us that once we have our eyes opened and our sight restored – once we can see the light that is the divine miracle of ordinary matter, of the earth, of all living things, and of other people – we can become a threat to those who would exploit the earth, its creatures and its people for their own benefit. That is what got Jesus crucified, and people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Mahatma Gandhi assassinated.
John Philip Newell also suggests another dimension of the light he sees and tries to help us to see. This light is an ability to bless the world with our lives – to offer something creative and constructive for the betterment of others. I think this is similar to what Christians have called “spiritual gifts” – gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit at our baptism which are given for the common good.
I think what Newell is finally trying to get to, although he uses different language, is the ancient Christian dichotomy between spirit and matter/flesh. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrote:
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:6)
Many of us have been taught that anything “spiritual” (praying, reading the Bible, worship, etc.) is good; but anything “fleshly” (involving the senses and pleasure, like dancing or having fun or sex) is a source of temptation and therefore sin.
I think that is a misunderstanding of what Paul was trying to communicate. And I think Newell is trying to correct that idea by noticing that the light – God’s spirit – is everywhere, even penetrating matter and flesh. It’s all good — when used responsibly – when we recognize the light in all things and all people.
Can our faith in Christ open our eyes to see that – to see the light in all people and all places? Can we reconnect with that light and change the ways we relate to ourselves and to others? This is a good day to begin.
Robert J. von Trebra