Two years into a worldwide pandemic, and within that, a time of political and social upheaval in our own country and families, it can feel pretty dark right now. Where is the light, and how can we kindle it for one another?
Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, struggled with lung disease throughout his short life. Constrained by ill health, his muscles of imagination strengthened, enabling him as an adult to top mountains that his body could never conquer, thriving in conjured worlds of physical and spiritual danger. He had been mostly unable to attend school as a boy or play with other children, and he grew up in his grandparents’ house tended by maids, tutors, and a fervently religious nurse named Allison Cunningham, whose folk tales caused the boy to have nightmares. “Cummy,” as Stevenson called her, also cared for him tenderly, reading to him from Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible, long day after long day, when he was especially weak. Once, late in the afternoon, Cummy found Stevenson staring out the window at the lamplighter, as the man moved from light post to light post, igniting the gas street lamps. She asked Stevenson what he was doing, and the boy responded, “I am watching that man poke holes in the darkness.” Stevenson’s writing, rooted in his own losses, offers his readers a similar gift: inviting them to envision a world better than the one they have. When times are especially tough, poets poke holes in the darkness.
That is the genius of the writer Isaiah, actually three different authors, who made sense of the people’s struggles over two centuries. The context of 8th-6th century BCE Israel would be very familiar to us: international superpowers treating smaller countries like pawns, institutions rocked by scandal and then weakened by apathy, average folks worried about their physical safety, how to keep food on the table, and what moral compromise their leaders would engage in next. When Jerusalem falls and the people are marched into Babylon, it even looks like they have lost their religion, until Isaiah helps them altogether re-imagine God’s power and presence. This period is called the Exile in Jewish history, and for all of its death-dealing losses, it is also the moment of a spiritual flowering whose gifts can be opened to us right now.
Isaiah helps the people see that their God is portable, not tied to a piece of real estate or a building. He helps them see that God is on the side of justice and peace, not in some political victory. He broadens the vision of God’s compassion and breaks the tradition of party and nationalism—God is for all people, and He intends the well-being of every tribe and nation. Every valley shall be exalted, he says, and every mountain will be brought low. And in this same moment of Exile, the poetry of the Psalms is penned, and the origin stories of Genesis and Exodus are composed. In that exceedingly dark period of time, poets gave us the language of creation and redemption, of struggle and strength, of a Suffering Servant who reveals that love is older and more powerful than hate. In your most bewildering wilderness, Isaiah says, a voice of light and hope will cry out: The kingdom of God is within you shining, and no power can ever take that away.
The light is in each of you—I see it and am warmed by it, even when you are fairly convinced it has gone out. The light is in the compassion you offer your parents or neighbors or children, especially on the days when you feel like there is nothing left to give. The light is in the difficult conversations you have with colleagues and strangers, when you say “Tell me more” and you ask where it hurts. The light is in the ways Redeemer is righting the wrongs of red-lining and inequitable schools, when you invest in affordable housing and help make every neighborhood a place to learn and thrive. The light is in your personal study and spiritual exercises and welcoming worship that invites everyone to join hands and build a better world than the one we have.
So many of us are in a night of struggle, but in the love you embody, I see a light that shines.