The idea for our message this week came when I was having a conversation with a friend at hospice about family patterns. As we talked, all of a sudden I understood some things in my own life differently. It was like someone had flipped a light switch: I thought of the way I was at six years old saw clearly how sensitive I was, how deeply I felt things all the time, and how hard it must have been for my immediate family members to relate or to know what to do with me. The message I received most often as a child was a don’t: “Don’t cry about that,” “Don’t worry about it,” “Don’t get yourself all worked up.”
As a little girl, my frets and upsets were often about animals. I cried at the end of every episode of Lassie (I just couldn’t bear Lassie’s sad face as she lifted her paw to wave goodbye), but I also worried about any animals I encountered, trees that looks droopy and thirsty, pets that seemed lonely and forgotten. One time when we were walking along a path at Raccoon Lake, I found what I thought was a miraculously beautiful white wooly worm and I was so convinced that he would perish if I left him behind that I sobbed all the way back to our cabin. I’m sure my mother was at her wit’s end with me. I was just so emotional. My mom was super smart, highly intellectual, and extremely competent, but not very comfortable with emotions—hers or anybody else’s. She must have wondered what God was thinking when he decided that her efficient, rational, analytical mind was the right fit for an all-emotion-all-the-time child.
So as my friend and I talked about family systems—how different people in families play different roles, and how the whole family changes and grows over time—the light suddenly went on for me. In a split second, I saw both how hard it was for me to be me as a child in my family, but I also understood what a challenge it must have been for my mother and brother as they did their best to understand and meet the needs of this little exposed nerve ending.
Chances are you’ve also experienced a flash of light like that—a sudden understanding when things seem clear or you get an answer to a problem you’ve been mulling over for weeks. Sometimes these things come about as a result of prayer—ours or others who are praying for us—but sometimes they are simply gifts of grace, ways that God helps us along the path as we try to figure out our circumstances, heal our relationships, and bring more peace to our lives and our world. That moment of understanding that arrives, the idea that just pops into our minds from out of nowhere, that’s God, soul-to-soul. God helps us glimpse our circumstances in a more spiritual way—not rationally, not logically, likely more in our feelings than in our thoughts. And after we get a glimpse like that what often follows is a growing feeling of compassion for all involved, a lessening of blame, a tiny expanding flicker of freedom, and ultimately, understanding widens into forgiveness. When forgiveness comes, we realize that in our system, whatever it was—a family, a group, a church, a society–we were all doing the best we could at that time and as soon as we know better, we can do better. That’s what God’s gift of Light is all about. And a new day dawns and systems heal as we each do that inner work of understanding.
George Fox wrote eloquently and often about the work of the Light in his own heart and life, and we have copious evidence that what I’ve just described here is something he experienced often. Over and over again, for George Fox, the Light inspired new ideas, expanded his perspective, brought him to a deeper understanding. The Light showed him where he was looking at something wrong, where he needed to let his heart be changed, and even why he had to go through the struggles he did, in order that he might one day speak with experience to the varied conditions of the people he met.
Our Old Testament verse today, from Psalm 119, shows that the psalmist also knew that same kind of intimacy with God: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” He wasn’t thanking God here for a one-time flash of insight that suddenly answered all his questions about the future; this was a continual, step-by-step walk and he knew he needed light and guidance all along the way. I heard someone speak once about our very human tendency to want to see everything that’s coming down the road all at once. We want to be able to prepare ourselves and get ready for any big challenges that are coming our way. But the problem is—and I’m sure you’ve noticed this—that life is rarely like that. We get only little glimpses at a time, and maybe not even that. Most often, life is more like driving a car at night—we can see only as far ahead as our headlights can show. We don’t know what might be just off the road in the darkness—a deer, maybe, or something else that could shock or surprise us. But as we drive along, trusting and following the light, we can get where we need to go safely, one car length at a time.
In quite a literal way, the psalmist was pointing out that God’s presence was that light in his life and it made his journey possible and blessed. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Think of what this means on a purely practical level. The light of God’s presence keeps safe each step we take—we won’t step on a nail or trip over a branch; we won’t twist our ankles or fall into brambles. And God’s light shines into the space around us as well, showing us what we need to be wary of or watching for. We can move forward, feeling safe and secure, knowing that God’s light is showing us what we need—and maybe only what we need just now—as we learn to trust God more and more.
There’s something special about the nature of light in the fall. The sunlight seems to grow even more intense—especially in late afternoon—and the shadows are so deep that sometimes it’s hard to see what’s in them. I’ve had a few scary moments driving down the road when I suddenly discover a pedestrian or bicycle in the shadows, completely unseen to me just a fraction of a second before. I’ve learned now to watch carefully when I driving in and out of those deep shadows because there is often more there than meets the eye.
The idea of shadow—the risk of shadow, the uncertainty of shadow—has been part of the human psyche perhaps as long as we’ve told stories to try to understand our experiences. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, wrote extensively about what he called the “shadow self,” which Jung saw as a collection of the qualities in ourselves that we would rather not see. We all have them. Think of the qualities we value as people of faith: Kindness is a virtue; unkindness is not. Patience is a virtue; impatience is not. Honesty is a virtue; dishonesty is not. I could go on, but you get the idea. In Jung’s idea of shadow, we all would rather not see ourselves as unkind, impatient, and dishonest, and that’s understandable. But in reality we all—all humans—have the capacity to act unkindly, impatiently, and dishonestly under the right circumstances. Acknowledging that—and allowing God’s loving light to reach that often hidden place in us—is healing and peacemaking, both in our relationships with ourselves and our relationships with others.
Jung’s idea of the shadow came from a dream he had that he wrote about in his journal, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections:
“I had a dream which both frightened and encouraged me. It was night in some unknown place, and I was making slow and painful headway against a mighty wind. Dense fog was flying along everywhere. I had my hands cupped around a tiny light which threatened to go out at any moment. Everything depended on my keeping this little light alive. Suddenly I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me. I looked back, and saw a gigantic black figure following me. But at the same moment I was conscious in spite of my terror, I must keep my little light going through the night and wind, regardless of all dangers. When I awoke I realized at once that the figure was my own shadow on the swirling mists, brought into being by the little light I was carrying.”
Interesting, isn’t it? Many religious traditions put a lot of emphasis on teaching us to live up to the virtues of God while doing our best to escape, refute, and deny those anti- qualities that might cause harm, break commandments, or invite destructive and hurtful patterns into our lives. That’s a reasonable approach for a life of faith, but when we work so hard to put our shadow qualities out of mind they don’t go away—we just meet them in the projections we put on the world around us. Splitting off the part of us that needs the healing of God’s light only adds to the rancor, division, and polarization we experience. That need for healing likely has something deeply to do with where we find ourselves as a society today.
And while our testimonies are important to us as Friends—Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship—what is most important of all, above any quality or practice we might employ, is openness to God’s leading and presence, a willingness to be fully known by God and to be led in the way we should go. That is the blessed agency of God’s Light at work in each of us and it’s a daily process. More than simply an emphasis on our ideas and behavior, it’s a living, growing divine-human relationship that enables God to lead us, step by step, toward wholeness so we can do our part to help unfold the kingdom of God in the here-and-now.
Our New Testament reading today comes from John’s Gospel, chapter 8, verse 12, when Jesus says these famous words, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” He says this just after the resolution of the incident with the woman caught in adultery; remember that? They brought the woman to Jesus trying to trap him into something the Pharisees could arrest him for, but Jesus knew their intention. He said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And one by one, wordlessly, from the oldest to the youngest, all her accusers slipped away into the crowd.
And then Jesus tells the crowd He is the Light of the world. Those who would become followers of Christ would not walk in darkness; they would not be chased by their shadows; instead, they would forever after have the Light of life as their closest companion. The woman’s accusers were not being honest—not with themselves, not with the woman, and not with Jesus. They had ulterior motives and were using the Law in a deceitful way. We can be sure that the presence of Jesus—and the power of the truthful words he spoke—clearly illumined in their hearts the pattern of dishonesty in their actions.
The Light of Christ works the same way in us today, teaching us especially in moments when we’re separating ourselves from others, that there may something unseen going on in us that is motivating our choice to pull away. It’s possible we are judging another because they are showing us qualities in ourselves we’d rather not see. Have you ever heard the saying that when we point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at us? That is a good reminder that whenever we feel inclined to judge another for whatever reason, we should stop and ask, “Where is that quality in me?” We may be surprised to discover how quickly and how lovingly God answers that question for us. Because God’s hope and intention is not blame or judge us but to help us see, so that God’s wholeness in us can be made perfect in love. When we are open to knowing the truth of ourselves, God will work with that, and when Christ’s light shines into our understand, everything is redeemable, and God’s harmony is real.
This week as I was exploring this idea of light and shadow in my own life, I made two columns in my journal. The column on the left was for the good qualities, the things I hope show up in my life. The column on the right was for bad qualities, ways of being I want to avoid as much as possible. I drew them with arrows on each end and connected them, to remind myself that all the qualities are on a continuum, not an either/or where one will be there and the other won’t. They’re all connected.
For example, take a look at the listing below. Find a quality that is important to you. Maybe Caring or Grateful. Notice that Caring is connected to Uncaring, and Grateful is connected to Ungrateful. If being caring is important to us, then the potential to be uncaring is in there too somewhere. (Remember how the shadow in Carl Jung’s dream was caused by him caring the light. In this case, Caring is the light, so Uncaring must be the shadow.) And if we don’t want to see our potential to be uncaring, if we can’t be honest with ourselves about it, we will project Uncaring onto others and then react to them with judgment and dismay. And that adds more division and upset to our world—which is truly the opposite of what we want, as caring people.
Noticing the patterns of light in our own lives, and being willing to explore—with God’s help–a bit of the shadow we may not know so well can go a long way toward creating more harmony and, healing the splits within and between us. Perhaps this week we can spend some time simply relaxing in God’s presence, letting God show us whatever we need to see—in ourselves, in our experiences, in our world. We’ve got the best possible guide and best possible promise: Christ is the Light of the world, and whoever follows him will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life.
- OT Psalm 119: 105
- NT John 8: 12
- Johnson, Robert A. Owning Your Own Shadow. [New York: HarperOne, 1991].