December 31, 2007

By the Light of Your Word

It is you who light my lamp;
the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness.

Psalm 18:28

Not too long ago, the Hawkins household was enjoying one of those nights when our otherwise precious little girl simply would not go to sleep. "Back in bed, Ella!" was the parental mantra of the evening. After about the third round of this not-so-endearing little game, I opened the door to her darkened bedroom. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the low light. Not in her bed, I carefully scanned the room, only to find her sitting huddled against the opposite wall. She had a picture book open in her lap, its pages cocked outward so that the diminutive nightlight in the nearby outlet would illuminate her reading. At the risk of melodrama, it had the feel of some poignant scene from a prison movie—the inmate grasping at all available light, reading for hope's sake.

After all, one has to go where the light is.

This month your teaching elder is headed back to Austin, Texas, to our Presbyterian seminary there, for the third of seven courses in my Doctor of Ministry program. Every time the plane leaves the runway, headed southwest for one more course, I reflect again on what a privilege it is to be able to study more deeply the Christian tradition in general and the Scriptures in particular. Advanced study is a privilege most Christians in the world never enjoy, not mention most pastors. As such, I am mindful of what a great gift this program is for me in this season of my pastoral ministry, and my frequent prayer is that the Lord will help me to be a good steward of this time in prayer and study.

All that being said, I am also aware that a doctoral program is hardly necessary for God's illuminating word to become a light to our paths. Advanced degrees and continued education certainly serve to elucidate a few dark places in our working knowledge of the Christian landscape, but the kind of wisdom and understanding the Bible most prizes is by and large a study born of life lived in Christ and grace received therein (cf. Proverbs 1:7). "Light my lamp, O Lord," should be our prayer every time we crack open our Bibles, sit down to hear another sermon, or reciprocate a conversation of any depth with people who matter in our lives. "Light up the dark places in my life with the brightness of Christ."

There is no doubt that often we can find in the Bible specific answers to some specific questions. Someone called me at home several months ago, wanted to know where in the Bible it says "don't tattoo your body." I said to my friend on the line: "I bet you're not just wanting to know because you are curious. Let me guess: Your grandchild wants to get a tattoo?" Bingo.

(And we found it: Leviticus 19:28. Jot that one down, just in case one of your offspring comes home and announces she wants to get so-and-so inked on her arm. And simply back up one verse if she's also thinking about shaving her head!)

You get the point: sometimes the Bible comes through for us in that way.

And yet my own experience of the Bible and praying for illumination is teaching me that, often enough, illumination is less about specific answers to specific questions and more about learning how to walk in the Jesus way. Answers to many of our sacred questions abound in Scripture, to be sure. But perhaps more than simple tit-for-tat answers, what we are most often praying for is direction—light for the Jesus-path and the will to walk it. Micah 6:8 comes to mind, wherein the prophet reminds us that God's "will" for our lives is often not so much a fatalistic, unbendable plan to decode as it is a certain way of living with God and with neighbor:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Occasionally someone confides in me that they are struggling to find God's will for their life. What I find they often mean is, specifically, what I am to do for a living, where I am to live, who I am to marry, etc. These are sacred questions, to be sure, and always worthy of prayer and pondering. But with passages like Micah 6:8 (and Mark 12:29-31) burning in my ear, I'm prone to say: "Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Love the Lord and love your neighbor. Whatever else you need to do in order to get that done, go for it. God's will for your life may indeed include certain specifics, but it may just as easily be about how you walk where you walk in this life." The Lord is never so concerned with the former as to neglect the latter. Christian faith is as much about the way we make this Christ-journey as it is about checking off certain divine-waypoints off our itinerary. And the Scriptures illuminate that way of walking in almost every passage. So sings the psalmist (119):

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

A little girl in the darkness huddled near a nightlight, carefully turning each page of her book by its illumination: not a bad image for the church, I think. I would say that the best resolution you can make in this new year now upon us is to resolve to make prayerful conversation with the scriptures a regular part of your walking through any given week. There is plenty of darkness in this world—and often enough, within us—to encroach upon our lives and threaten to cause us to stumble. That much is certain. But thanks be to God for his everlasting Word—Christ Jesus and the scriptures that bear witness to him. The word of God pushes back the darkness and makes God's way known to us all.

As such, we huddle closely, lean in to its light, and carefully turn the pages of our lives.

Grace and peace to you, beloved, in this new year.