The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned. From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4:16-17
Today we again remind ourselves of the darkness which surrounds us. The darkness outside is one thing, however, but the darkness within us is another matter. The darkness outside and inside our physical homes can be controlled by turning on lights and lamps and candles. The darkness inside our minds is another issue; here we are dealing with attitudes, thoughts of negativity, of bitterness, of hopelessness and of hatred. The question today, then, is how do we become lights with attitudes of positive hope, peace and love?
The first step to overcoming the mental darkness within our lives is to accept the darkness as part of this world. Realize that darkness and misery are universally found in this world. In Buddhism, this is called the first step toward freedom and enlightenment; it is recognition that misery is everywhere! This is the first step to what is called enlightenment.
In our Christian tradition, this first step might be called the idea that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I interpret the word “sin” as being merely a mistake or an error in our thinking and actions. I do not interpret sin as something which angers our creator God forcing him to punish us. Rather, I understand that “punishment” as part of this world; we are part of its darkness. We were born into it with a natural propensity to judge others as inferior, to take what we can before others do, to react to criticisms or losses with anger, bitterness and resentment. Hatred of others is most natural thing in this world. Read the news. And so is the tendency to think of ourselves as more special than others; especially more loved in the sight of God and as others are seen as less so. Witness the hatred of “pagans.”
If we listen in awareness to our attitudes of mind, we realize this darkness is all too common in our lives. We read the news and listen to broadcasts with constant judgment of who’s right and who’s wrong. We live in a world of opposites and polarities, of winners and losers. In listening, we feel waves of hopelessness, fears of death and dying, and constant fears of not having enough to secure our futures. This is the darkness of the world in which the Light of Christ comes to enlighten.
So what is this new light which comes into the world to enlighten our darkness? To put it simply, it is an awakening to our Higher Self, or the Christ Self within. Our awakening to Light is and what I call a shift in thinking. It has little to do with what we do but much to do with how we think. If we use our minds to think of the world of matter including our bodies as only temporary, and thus illusions of reality, we can choose to think of another world called Spirit.
The Bible says, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” Then it says, “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'” (Mt. 4: 16 – 17). The word “repentance,” means to change one’s thinking. The idea is that heaven is not outside of us in what we see with the physical eyes, but that heaven is a spiritual world, which is everywhere, including within us. It is somewhat as the old prayer goes, “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” It is the awareness of a Spirit that comes to our minds and eyes, normally so focused on material forms, on structures.
Awakening to light then means we are able to say “I am not this body, I am not this church, I’m not whatever the form is that surrounds me.” This is a part of what baptism signifies; that we are reborn into an oneness which is beyond all earthly identities. For in baptism there are no differences between male and female, rich and poor, color of skin, religious or nonreligious!
Granted, this new awareness takes time. We are so accustomed to the darkness of criticism, of judgment on others, of our own self hatred, that the bright light of freedom can be blinding. I remember the story told from the old coal mines in Pennsylvania. Back 100 years or so ago they used mine mules to pull carts of coal to the surface. These mules would live in mines all day long working at pulling coal carts. When they took breaks at noon, however, the mine mules had to be brought out into the light, to readjust their eyes. If not, if left in darkness too long, they would become permanently blinded when they saw the light. The longer and the more comfortable we feel in darkness and in despair, the more painful it is for us to see the light of change, that whole new way of thinking about who we are and about why we are here.
But once this awareness comes or starts to come, we can then begin the process of moving on and forgiving. We learn to forgive ourselves for our mistaken thinking, or we might say our sinful errors. We learn to forgive ourselves for the pain which we have caused ourselves in our mixed up thinking. And we move on learning to forgive others for not measuring up to our standards. And then we can learn to forgive others for what they have done to us, understanding that the hurt was only to our bodies and our egocentric minds and not to our abilities to think and chose again with a new awareness.
A basic meaning of the word “forgiveness” is to “cancel an obligation.” The light of forgiveness teaches us to cancel our obligations to be bound to that which is mortal. The Greek word for forgiveness is from the word which means “to synchronize.” It’s the idea that we can synchronize ourselves to the world around us in peace and kindness. That’s what the teachings of Jesus mean saying to do good to those who hate us, and learn to love our enemies.
And so we yet become angry and judgmental but we learn to forgive ourselves and to let it go. We learn to humbly recognize that we are being angry at that which is really “nothing!” We learn to realize that the world around us that we see with our physical eyes was never made to have problems solved. We see the world as a mad idea of what it is like or would be like to be separated from our Creator, Spirit.
This hope of coming to light in darkness is for everyone. The story of Jesus himself is an example. Jesus came from the province called Galilee, which was northwest of Jerusalem. It was also called the land of Nephtali and Zebulon. Nephtali and Zebulon were two of the children of Jacob, who became part of the 12 tribes of Israel named after Jacob’s 12 sons. But as a story goes, when the Canaanites began to attack Israel, all the tribes joined in the fight to repel them except these two tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon. They became what we would call “traitors” for instead of fighting the Canaanites they joined them and assimilated with their culture. Their names then for centuries were synonymous with traitors and enemies. And so it was a great shock but a contradiction with hope when later out of that same land, now called Galilee, arose a great teacher called Jesus. He was called in our traditions, “the light of the world.”
Regardless of the darkness in which you have lived with or without your ancestors, we each have the opportunity today to choose a new way of thinking. We can change our way by repentance and acceptance the light of Christ within. This invitation is given to every person on earth, extended to the very best among us as well as the worst who sits on death row.
I recently heard a man on NPR named Bo Lozoff who works among prisoners in mostly the southeastern part of the United States. In the 1960’s, Bo and his wife were “hippies,” floating around the country with no commitments. After his father died in 1969 near Miami, Bo and his wife got a job on a little cruise boat, taking wealthy folks around Caribbean Islands. The cruise boat needed more money so the owner decided to make it a “drug hauling cruise boat!” Bo and his wife Sita decided to leave and joined a Yoga ashram in North Carolina. They began to meditate, reading Ram Dass’ book, “Be Here Now.” After a few years, they visited their boat friends now serving time in federal prisons for illegal drugs. And while there, they got the idea to teach meditation and a new way of thinking to prisoners. Their work now continues to flourish.
Today, we continue to be in some of the darkest and coldest days of the year. But what is worse than the outside darkness and coldness is the darkness and coldness within our minds and hearts. Through God’s Word we are offered another opportunity to repent, or to change our thinking, and to see ourselves not as bodies, not as a mortal being in just temporary tents, but as a part of the Eternal Oneness of a loving, Eternal God. We can stop drifting about on boats of emptiness, however bright the skies above. We can see and experience the Light which is always, everywhere, and right here now. Amen.
Reflections offered at the First Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, January 23, 2011.