Shining Like the Sun
“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, that they were mine and I theirs, 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 in a special world. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”- Thomas Merton
One thing returning to the United States means for me is traveling. Lots and lots of traveling. I’ve visited 12 states so far, and will be in a couple more next week. My borrowed little car has rushed through the veins of the American highway system, and I’ve marveled the majesty of smooth roads and rule-following drivers, the absence of goats and chickens, mutatus and motorbikes. I’m definitely not in Kenya anymore.
So many of the people I love have been scattered and sown around the country, and I also need to learn some things, so I’m going to classes on counseling and community development while trying to reconnect with dearly loved friends and family who have prayed and poured into the work I’ve done in East Africa.
It is such a gift, to sit at your tables, to share meals and conversation, to feel time stop for an hour or two. I am touched by the abundant generosity I’ve received as I’ve crashed on couches, laughed with kiddos that I remember as babies, and savored the gift of being present.
Last week, just before Thanksgiving, my final stop before heading home was Louisville, KY. I walked the streets where, years before, Thomas Merton stood and saw the people around him shining like the sun. And as I reflected on my recent travels, and the many of you that I’ve seen, I realized I felt exactly like Merton. You, in your love and generosity, are shining like the sun, and you don’t even know it.
At the same time, my travels have carried me to places rife with tension. I’ve been twice to Memphis, TN, standing in the place where Dr. King was shot. It is a grievous mystery how his life was taken too soon and how, this many years later, our country is still battling for racial equality. I’ve driven through St. Louis, reflecting on the violence of Ferguson, a place that shares my name in a city I used to call home. And I went out to Mizzou to visit a student from Rift Valley Academy, who has entered her first year of college. It was the same week when, due to significant racial injustice, a Mizzou student was on a hunger strike, and the football team was peacefully protesting, and their were death threats made against everyone on campus with darker skin. Security was heightened, feeling more like a lockdown in Kenya than things I’m used to in the US. And fresh-from-Kenya Emily, who I visited, was stepping into the confusion, serving as a photographer for the school paper, documenting protests, and learning some hard truths about race in the United States. Next week I’ll head to Charleston, where I attended college, and a place that has been marked forever by racial violence in a church very near the one I used to attend.
How do I understand this? How do I reconcile the beauty and generosity of America with the brokenness of racism and violence, of economic injustices, of religious prejudice, of mass shootings showing up in the news? It feels like things have changed since I last lived here, but maybe it’s my perspective shifting? And perhaps my privilege has blinded me to places in my culture where there is need for repentance and change?
We in the Northern Hemisphere are approaching the darkest night of the year. And we feel the need for light and brightness. So let us fall again into the two-step Advent rhythm: preparation and expectation. We prepare by grieving the brokenness, and repenting of our own roles in the systems and structures that promote injustices. And we turn, in our giving and living, away from ourselves and towards God and others. This is the preparation of Advent. But as we do that, we soon realize it’s not enough. And so preparation (always) leads us to look desperately for deliverance. In expectation, we anticipate the delivery of a baby, the God/Man who comes to bear our grief and know our sorrows, and through His death becomes our deliverance.
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him…But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...” May His light become our light, and may we shine like suns in our preparation and expectation as we wait for His coming more than watchman wait for the dawn.