where the light shines through: thoughts on 2016

“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”
– Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

Light: it’s a word that’s hard to capture. It has a depth that I’m still exploring, meaning I’m still discovering. And it would—after all, the electromagnetic spectrum is entirely made up of light, yet only the tiniest fraction is visible. (I read once that if the known spectrum was stretched out 2,500 miles, end to end, the visible portion would take up only one inch.) When it comes to light, there’s always much more than meets the eye. If we don’t have the means to see beyond the obvious, sometimes, light looks a lot like darkness.

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If I had to use one word to characterize 2016, my first instinct would be to say dark. In all of my conversations with friends, family, even strangers, it seems there is one thing we can agree on (perhaps the only thing): this has not been a happy year. From American politics to the war in Syria, the worldwide refugee crisis to Brexit, things have been hard. And with struggles with anxiety, depression, and general uncertainty, even in my personal life has felt darker than usual. My primary emotion over the past 18 months has been grief: deep, aching, soul-level grief. Most days, the darkness felt so heavy, too heavy—what good could possibly come from all this?

And yet.

Even amidst all this darkness, my one word for the year has been light.

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The Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” the 2016 Word of the Year. Dictionary.com chose “xenophobia.” The political climate, both globally and domestically, has been bleak. A lot of darkness has been stirred up to the surface, and it can be hard to know which way is up. We’ve found ourselves in a time when truth is seen as a nonentity, and we don’t know who to trust. And when truth is clouded, we cling to the next best thing: familiarity.

When you’re groping in the dark and bump into something you don’t recognize, it’s scary. It’s threatening. The human brain is hardwired for security, and without a way to evaluate what’s real, we choose to either flee or fight back—better safe than sorry. We choose “us” over “them.” We choose insulation over loving and welcoming our neighbor. We choose to believe that they’re the cause, not the victims, of the darkness.

As followers of Christ, we’re called to be the light of the world. Instead, we’re running scared—covering the glow with a basket, keeping it confined to our churches, our own people. We claim to know the truth, to have the antidote to all this darkness, but we’re clamoring to keep it shut up in our sanctuaries. We’ve entered crisis mode, and it has made us blind. We make our decisions based on fear, all the while shutting out the ones who desperately need the light.

We call ourselves persecuted as we turn a blind eye to those facing bombings, starvation, torture, death. We criticize, ignore, and downplay the fears of those who are afraid their children may not come home tonight because of the color of their skin. We cry out for religious freedom while affirming restrictive measures against Muslims. We say we feel bad, but we have to look out for ourselves, too. We can’t help everyone; it’s just not our responsibility. But if the Church is the body of Christ—the only physical presence of Christ on earth—and it’s not our responsibility, then whose is it?

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Manmade light—lamps and streetlights and city skylines—allows us to see our surroundings. It gives us a sense of certainty. And yet, the more artificial light we allow around us, the more we miss the night sky above us. We can see the immediate—but we lose the infinite. We lose the stars. [1]

The world feels like chaos these days, and it’s tempting to look for certainty. We flip on the lights of our own understanding to make sense of it all, because how can we navigate through this darkness with stars alone? This is the real world, after all, and His mysterious ways won’t solve real problems. Loving your enemy is fine when you’re talking about that annoying guy from work, but ISIS is a different story. It’s heartwarming to love your neighbor if you’re talking Israelites and good Samaritans, but foolish and impractical when it comes to Americans and undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

Yet here’s what I’ve learned: when it comes to trusting God, you have to be okay with uncertainty. You have to be okay with facing fear in the name of love and reaching out anyway. I’ve also learned (am learning) that when I orient my heart and choices around Jesus, the darkness starts to feel a little less scary. As much as I love the daylight, I’m learning that sometimes, the most beautiful light can be found in the dark—not in spite of the night, but because of it.

* * *

I’ve discovered light in the unlikeliest of places. I’ve found it in project housing, and in a roomful of women—Iraqi and American; Sudanese and Russian; Methodist, Muslim, and Mormon—sharing food and exchanging gifts. I’ve found it in the sparsely decorated living room of a Sudanese refugee family, as I help a new friend study the driver’s handbook. I’ve found it in laughing and adventuring with that same friend, while walking half a mile to find my car because I parked in the wrong lot. I’ve found it in waiting rooms, in Twitter conversations with strangers, and in stacks of books that make me shift uncomfortably, then change me.

Choosing uncertainty is hard, I know. Turning off the lights is disorienting at first, and maybe it seems darker than ever. But as you give yourself a moment to adjust, and turn your eyes heavenward, you’ll see: the light is infinite, even here in the darkness.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
– John 1:5
Brittany Stoess