Light Scattering Darkness

Darkness and light. Their daily and seasonal dance mirrors our own movements in and about the two realms.

This past December in our South Austin neighborhood, some of our neighbors wrapped holiday lights around tree trunks and others draped overhangs with icicle lights. My wife placed electric candlelights in our five front windows that face the street. Even though fewer neighbors placed lights than in previous years, light shone forth and vanquished the night darkness nonetheless.

I needed those December lights to shine. A number of folks in our society – some leaning left and others right of the political divide – agree that we are living in dark and difficult days. Hyper-partisan divides, stagnant social and economic inequalities, an erosion of humane values, and climatic changes combine to produce a general sense of gloom felt by many, myself included, for the future.

My focus on the future took on a personal enhancement because my wife, Denise, and I became new grandparents in the hot summer of 2019. As I rocked my months-old granddaughter in my arms toward the end of last year, I was struck by how often and easily she smiled back at me. I wondered as I smiled back at her: Doesn’t she know about all the problems going on in the world today? Doesn’t she know about the potentially perilous state of the future? How is it that she can smile while the world despairs?

Of course, she doesn’t know about the world’s problems, nor does she have to know. One of her important tasks at this point in her little life is to smile at her grandfather, thereby reminding him that God is still at work sending divine light into the world – the type of light that vanquishes the darkness every single time.

Christians observe Advent during the short days (in the northern hemisphere) of light in December, waiting in celebration for the promised light of Christ to arrive and vanquish the darkness in the world. Appropriately, my granddaughter’s smile of light graced the sermons that I gave at different churches in December. Congregants smiled back at me as I explained my theological interpretation of her smile, based in the words of the Christian Testament: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness is not able to overcome it” (John 1:5).

Maybe times have always been this difficult. Five or ten years from now, hindsight will reveal whether these current days are truly as difficult as they seem to some of us. Adding the recent coronavirus pandemic to the above list of difficulties seems to embolden the argument for the case.

Yet we know that fellow humans in past times suffered and endured much worse than what we are living through today. How did they hold onto hope in the midst of difficulty? As do we, they saw the sun rise in the morning and scatter the darkness. The daily cycle of darkness and light infuses the human soul with life and hope because it affirms the possibility of change within the larger frame of stability. Such is our hope: life goes on, large-scale chaos doesn’t rule, each day holds the potential of a new start.

blog.sp.2020And now the spring sun coaxes the blooming of wildflowers as the days lengthen. The seasonal darkness of winter has faded away and the flowers gracing my yard – bluebonnets and poppies – reflect in a transformed state the invigorating light that called them forth.

Soon I will hold my granddaughter again and we will both smile for a camera in front of the bluebonnets and poppies. Captured will be a perfect picture of light, flourishing beauty, and vulnerable grace. Our hope for the future is yet alive as the light continues to shine.


balm.cover.2T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m also the author of  There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019).

 

Check out my author website: www.tcarlosanderson.com.

The Minority Status DNA of the Church

At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence?                                                                                   – Gallup Poll question

Religion is losing influence in American society, according to 77 percent of those recently polled by Gallup. It’s not the first time Americans have been pessimistic about religion’s influence upon society. Gallup started polling on this question in 1957. At the height the Vietnam War in 1970, 75 percent of those polled answered the above question in the negative. During the 1990s, those answering “religion is losing influence” hovered near 60 percent. It was only after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that increasing influence numbers outpaced losing influence numbers. That positive bump only lasted two years, however.

Could this losing influence trend reverse itself in the future? Absolutely.

Contrary to what the Gallup poll might suggest, the church in America is not in the process of dying. As of 2014, 70 percent of Americans claim Christian affiliation, a clear majority. Not all of these, however, regularly participate in the life of a gathering faith community. According to the Pew Research Center, Catholics and mainline Protestants are currently losing significant numbers of adherents, while the category grouping “unaffiliated” or “none” (many of these young adults) conversely grows – now at 23 percent, nearly one in four Americans.

As a pastor in a mainline denomination (ELCA) that is suffering numerical decline, I proclaim that the wane of religious influence and participation is not the worst thing that could happen. As I’ll explain, it’s a potentially good situation.

For the first 300 years of its life, the Christian church was a minority status organization. The apostle Paul described the believers in the church of Corinth as not measuring up to elevated human standards of wisdom, influence, or nobility. Even so, this small and obscure organization – the gathering community in Corinth being one example – maintained vitality. Its founding DNA, if you will, was infused with an ability to thrive in difficult circumstances.

early church

Roman Emperor Constantine gave his blessing upon the church in 325 CE, thus enabling it to (eventually) grow into what most American Christians know the church as – a majority status institution. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a majority status institution, but care must be taken that corruptions, entitlements, and ineffectiveness don’t infiltrate the institution and desecrate its mission. The American auto industry of the 1970s and ’80s is a prime example – remember the Plymouth Volare and the AMC Pacer? These inferior models, indirectly, helped make the way for the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry – significantly better automobiles, and from foreign manufacturers.

Like the US auto industry, the American church is not what it used to be. In the 1950s and early ’60s, social pressures dictated that respectable citizens be church members; church attendance numbers crested. The pendulum has now swung decisively in the other direction, as attributed by the growing number of “nones” or religiously unaffiliated, and shrinking church memberships.

It’s quite possible that the church is in the process of becoming leaner and more focused. The pendulum has swung far enough to the other side that churches no longer need to try to measure up to what used to be. Our numbers aren’t what they used to be a generation or two ago? So be it! Biggest is not always best. Infused into our organizational DNA is the ability to thrive as a minority institution.

The 21st century could be a time of clarified mission for a number of our churches. Mission that includes cooperation with peoples of differing faith traditions on topics of common interest: compassionate service to the human family for the advancement of common good; an impassioned voice for justice when the economy unfairly rewards the advantaged at the expense of the disadvantaged; the promotion of peace in the face of war. And all these things done in the name of that which we hold to be holy.

When peoples of differing religions operate together in this fashion, positive religious societal influence will proliferate and the world will be a better place because of it.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!