As my eyes glanced over the Christmas curios on the shelf in Hobby Lobby, I reminded myself, “Only stuff of the true Christmas”. It has become my safeguard against the wanton spending I am tempted to engage in at this time of year.
I rehearsed under my breath as I browsed: “The nativity scene—Mary, Joseph, the Christ-child, angels, shepherds, animals; bells to proclaim His birth ; silver and gold for The King; evergreen for the eternal life His incarnation would provide; red—poinsettias, bows and ribbons—for the blood He would shed; ribbons—His cords of loving-kindness reaching out through the Gospel to draw us to Himself in saving grace… out of darkness into light…always light… Oh! Stars!”
My search increased in purposefulness as freshly inspired, I now scanned for an ornament to represent not just ‘light’ but ‘shining’. I had selected star-themed ornaments in the past and so groped for a fresh idea. I was on the verge of giving up when I saw them—miniature, white porcelain chapels with sequin glinting roofs and on/off light-switch. I was besieged by a flood of associations:
The solid, white marble chapel on the grounds of my alma mater — the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica*. The intriguing story of the chapel’s construction: gorgeous blocks brought from the demolition of what used to be an 18th-century warehouse, at the request of Princess Alice; but more treasured to me were the memories of the Christian campus fellowship group that met there once every week under the auspices of Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship. It was a gathering of vibrant camaraderie, encouragement and equipping in truth that contributed to the shaping of a generation of believers that would lead in wide-ranging spheres of significant influence, at home and abroad…as believers in Jesus. Released to shine.
As I pressed the switch on the miniature chapel I was also taken back to the early days of our young family in the Mid-West. My husband was a lover of road-trips and we often enjoyed long drives out in the country with the children, whizzing by seemingly boundless fields of wheat, soy or corn farmland or open prairie. But occasionally the vastness would be broken unexpectedly by the sight of a simple lone wooden chapel along the way, with faded or chipping white paint: a monument to the Faith of those who forging into this nation’s interior, did so by courage based on belief in God. Trials, hardship, persecution or isolation did not extinguish their trust in Him.
Like light-houses, those churches had shone through the subsequent stages of this nation’s history. And despite the darkness without, and sadly sometimes within her, an unusual nation was born. It’s way too easy to focus on the dark when it surrounds us—a fact we sought to help our children maneuver with Biblical admonition. The memories seeped into my consciousness, like reversing a dimming switch, as I recalled a Scripture verse we memorized as a young family, initially introduced to help with doing chores in the right attitude:
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the (universe) as you hold firmly to the word of life…
—Philippians 2:14-16a (NIV)
Pressing and releasing the switch on the little chapel I considered the two basic types of those who came of their free will to settle this nation—pursuers of their own dreams of prosperity—light off; or pursuers of a place to worship God freely and purely, to be a ‘city set on a hill’—light on. What ensued of America’s history tells the flickering tale: of the Salem witch hunts—light off; of pastors who preached against imperial tyranny on Sunday and led the men of their congregation bearing arms to resist it on Monday—light on; of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the church’s misuse of Scripture to sanction the evil institution in America—light off; the Quakers, notable in their participation in the Underground Railroad to freedom, and the biblically influenced abolitionist movement—light on; the church’s failure to speak out against egregious injustices from Jim Crow, to child abuse—light off; the civil rights movement light on; the fleecing of the faithful weak of their hard-earned money in the name of gaining favor with God—light off; the modern worship and prayer movements wonderful light on! shaping our world, spawning broad history-making movements—pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-babies …lights on! On! On! The church significantly influences by the positioning of the ‘light switch’ of individual believers in Christ, how they live out the Gospel of His grace and Kingdom, displaying courageously, love and truth in dark times …or not— light ON? or OFF?
As I released the button, the light inside of the chapel went out. The concept of church has fallen on hard times, obviously deservedly in some instances, totally unwarranted in others. I wondered what associations would be stirred in the minds and souls of my now Millennial-aged children. Would they appreciate the message held in a small white chapel with a sparkle roof, reflective of creation’s star-splattered night sky? Would it commemorate, for them, the cosmic immensity of that one night of nights: of Christ’s condescension, when heaven and angels sang? Or would it represent oppression, suppression, control, bondage, and boredom to be cast off and eschewed?
First called Christians—in Antioch (modern-day Western Turkey)—because their loving community was so reminiscent of Christ’s sacrificial and servant-like lifestyle, the church’s failures, scope, and complexity have left this generation eager to dissociate from it. The longing for simplicity is understandable: the preference for small, acoustic, pure, natural. In the midst of pagan culture to the max, Antioch’s Christians had shone and the Gospel, which their lives then proclaimed, had turned the world upside-down.
Scriptures make clear that Christ is coming back to claim a Bride: a community that is pure and perfect, one that will have taken great pains to prepare herself—ready for her Groom. Who doesn’t love a bride? Or fails to rejoice in that moment when she appears in the doorway; and who more so than her groom? Asked once about the progress of the Protestant Reformation of the church in the Middle Ages the Reformer, Martin Luther, replied, “Not all is bright and shiny but it is being polished.” The miniature white chapel with the glinting roof and on/off switch made me recommit to more intentional participation in the polishing.
That realization distilled for me a focus for Christmas this year—Shine!! As believers in the saving grace of Jesus Christ, we must daily determine the quality of our shining—whether we will be shooting stars: comets that fizzle out after a brief flashy show; dead stars: caved in perpetually on ourselves; or worse yet, hidden stars: lights secreted under a shroud while the world around us stumbles about in desperate darkness grasping at shadows and mirages. As ones holding up the lamp, we can probably discern the dark better than anyone else, yet our call is not to merely keep describing and lamenting it but rather, lighting the way—echoing our Great Shepherd, calling, “This is the Way, walk ye in it!”
I picked up four of the little white chapels and placed them in my basket, one for each of our three children and one for my husband and I. Thankful for Advent’s invitation to check my spiritual store of oil, polish my lamp, cast off the cloak or camouflage and make sure that the light in me is not darkness. “For how deep indeed would be that kind of darkness” as Scripture declares. I headed to the cashier and Christmas prepared for new seasons of Shining, committing to keep the switch turned permanently ON!
No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a secret place or under a basket, but on a lampstand, that those who come in may see the light. The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is good, your whole body also is full of light. But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness. Therefore take heed that the light which is in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, the whole body will be full of light, as when the bright shining of a lamp gives you light.
—Luke 11:33-36 NKJV
The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
—Matthew 6:22-23 NKJV
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
—Psalms 139:11-12 NKJV
A lamp is despised in the thought of one who is at ease; It is made ready for those whose feet slip.
—Job 12:5 NKJV
While thus occupied, as I journeyed to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, at midday, O king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ So I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’ ‘Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision,’
—Acts 26:12-19 NKJV
* Inset picture is of The historic University Chapel on UWI Mona campus (Source: The University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona website | Explore UWI)