Matthew 5:14-16; John 1:1-5
The Rev. Tom Herbek
August 21, 2016
The light of the world came to us, says John’s gospel, and in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus even called us to let our own light shine. But there are so many things in our life that can keep us from letting our light shine, things that cause us to put our light under a basket, to keep it from being seen. Sometimes our eyes need to be opened.
A bicyclist had trained long and hard to race in an event similar to the Tour de France. He was very disciplined and focused; he even shaved the hair off his legs to streamline his body and trim seconds off his time. At the beginning of the race, he pulled so far ahead that he couldn’t see the other cyclists.
Then, just as he was descending a long hill, a huge heron, with its magnificent wings fully spread, swooped down in front of his handlebars. The cyclist was stunned and stopped in the road. The encounter with the heron opened something in him that he’d been chasing. He stood there, straddling his bike as the others caught up and passed him. He lost the race.
Years later, on the porch of his home, someone asked him, “What cost you the race?” He stared off and said, “I didn’t lose the race-I left it.”
The writer goes on to say:
I think all his training and effort were done so he could meet the heron. If he’d known that was the goal, he probably wouldn’t have trained the way he did. We often work toward things, not knowing what we’re really working toward.
- Mark Nepo, The One Life We’re Given
Last week, I was racing around like a crazy person, so upset that my computer had crashed and was dead. Unfortunately, its fate was not reversible, and I had to start with a new laptop and set it up and customize it. I lost a whole week, both days and evenings, trying to recover everything and re-set it all. On Friday, I drove to the post office to mail some things and pulled into the drop boxes, and that’s when I saw it: a beautiful great blue heron in the pond to my right. That’s when I knew I had picked the right title for my sermon this week. The sight of the heron changed my disposition immediately.
Sometimes we need some help uncovering our light. It might be a heron that does it, and often it is another person. Our eyes need to be opened, which can happen in many ways. Sometimes the things that get in our way are caused by things we can now no longer do, and because of that, we now see light we could never see before.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen says:
The ways we lose each other can be very simple. One of my patients describes how he spent time with his son prior to his cancer. “We would hike a mountain, a difficult climb, side by side, both focused on reaching the top. Then we would come down a different way, one behind the other to the car, and drive home. We did this many times. In thinking back, I have a clear memory of many of these climbs, but no memory of anything my son said to me or I to him.”
In child psychology what this man is describing is called parallel play and is normal for children between two and three. At this age, children use the same sandbox and even the same toys, but they are playing alone, next to each other and not with each other. Rather than relate to each other, they relate to a common activity which they do in parallel.
My patient makes a great contrast between this and the way he and his son relate now. “I can’t do much just now, so we sit and talk. I ask him about his life and how he feels about it. For the first time I know what is important to him, what sort of a man he is, what keeps him going. And I talk to him too. I know now that I am important to him, that he wants to spend time with me and not because we can do physical things together. Sometimes we just sit together, being alive. The mountain got between us before. I had not known that.”
- Kitchen Table Wisdom
The great advantage in becoming older is that some things that we used to do we can no longer do. We usually think of this as a loss, and yet, sometimes, the result may be powerful and good in an unexpected way.
As we move through life, we may find that our inner light is crying to get out, and when we keep it bottled up inside we may become depressed and isolated. Sometimes the only solution is to seek help from a fellow journeyer in life, one who has the wisdom to ask us questions and allow us the time to find our own answers. Dr. Remen describes one such person:
One of my former patients, Josh, is a gifted cancer surgeon who had sought help because of depression. A highly disillusioned and cynical man, he was thinking about early retirement. “I can barely make myself get out of bed most mornings,” he told me. “I hear the same complaints day after day, I see the same diseases over and over again. I just don’t care anymore. I need a new life.” Yet, through his extraordinary skill, he had given just that to many hundreds of others.
I sometimes suggest to people like Josh that they review the events of their day for fifteen minutes every evening, asking themselves three questions and writing down the answers to these questions in a journal. The three questions are: What surprised me today? What moved me or touched me today? What inspired me today? Often these are busy people, and I tell them that they do not need to write a great deal: the key thing is in reliving their day from a new perspective and not the amount that they write about it. I asked Josh if he would like to try this as an experiment.
He was dubious. “Less expensive than Prozac,” I told him. He laughed and agreed to try.
He had trouble with the journal at the beginning and had wondered how he could be so busy and living such an empty life. But slowly he had begun to find some answers to the three questions. He opened the journal and began to read some of them to me.
At first, the most surprising thing in a day was that a cancer had grown or shrunk two or three millimeters, and the most inspiring thing was that a new or experimental drug had begun to work. But gradually he had begun to see more deeply. Eventually he saw people who had found their way through great pain and darkness by following a thread of love, people who had sacrificed parts of their bodies to affirm the value of being alive, people who had found ways to triumph over pain, suffering, and even death. I was deeply moved.
In the beginning, he told me, he would only notice the things that surprised him, moved him, or inspired him several hours after they happened, in the evening in the privacy of his home. “It was like one of those fairy tales,” he said. “Like being under a spell. I could only see life by looking backwards over my shoulder.” But gradually this lag time became shorter and shorter. “I was building up a capacity I had never used. But I got better at it,” he told me. “Once I began to see things at the time they actually happened, a lot changed for me.”
I was puzzled. “What do you mean?” I asked him.
“Well,” he replied. “At the beginning I couldn’t talk about it and I just wrote everything down. But I think when I began to see things differently, my attitude started to change. Maybe that showed in my tone of voice or in some other way. People seemed to pick up on it because their attitude seemed changed, too. And after a while, I just began talking to people about more than their cancer and its treatment. I began talking about what I could see.”
The first patient he spoke to in this way was a thirty-eight-year-old woman with ovarian cancer who had undergone major abdominal surgery followed by a very debilitating chemotherapy. In the midst of a routine follow-up visit one morning he suddenly saw her for the first time, her four-year-old on her lap and her sixyear-old leaning against her chair. Both little girls were shiny clean, well fed, happy, and obviously well loved. Aware of the profound suffering caused by her sort of chemotherapy, he was deeply moved by the depth of her commitment to mother her children, and for the first time he connected it to the strength of her will to live. After they spoke of her symptoms, he had commented on this. “You are such a great mother to your kids,” he told her. “Even after all you have been through, there is something very strong in you. I think that power could maybe heal you some day.” She smiled at him, and he realized with a shock that he had never seen her smile before. “Thank you,” she told him warmly. “That means a lot to me.”
He was very surprised at this, but he had believed her. Encouraged, he began to ask other people one or two questions that he had not been taught to ask in medical school. “What has sustained you in dealing with this illness?” or “Where do you find your strength?” and found that people with the same disease had very different things to say. Things that he really wanted to hear about. In some way what they said was true for him, too, as he struggled to deal with the difficulties of his own life. “I knew cancer very well, but I did not know people before,” he told me.
He has always been a superb surgeon whose outcome data are remarkable, but in the past few months for the first time people have begun to thank him for their surgery, and some have even given him gifts. He sat in silence for a few minutes, and then he reached into his pocket and brought out a beautiful stethoscope engraved with his name. “A patient gave me this,” he said, obviously moved. I smiled at him. “And what do you do with that, Josh?” I asked him. He looked at me, puzzled, for a moment and then he laughed out loud. “I listen to hearts, Rachel,” he said. “I listen to hearts.”
- My Grandfather’s Blessings
Each of us sometimes tends to allow the tasks of life to encapsulate our light underneath a barrier that keeps it from shining.
Herons and the limitations of growing older and the company of fellow journeyers can all help us to uncover our light. Sometimes we must find a way to leave the race, to see the herons around us.
Sometimes we find that activities that we used to be able to do, but can’t do anymore, actually caused us to miss the people we love, and, only after we cannot do them anymore, are we able to see the light of those we love, and allow our light to shine when we are with them.
Sometimes we must change the way we view our work and our efforts, our time and our life, and begin to understand the impact of our light (or potential impact of it) on the people we meet each day.
And so, may there be many herons in our life, and may we let our light shine in our hearts, and in the encounters we have with each person today, and each day to come.