God’s Isotope

“Living things carry an imprint of their environment recorded in isotopes.” ~Jason Moon

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I love high places.

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I’ve been visiting a few favorites this past week, and also paying calls to some I have not seen in almost a decade.

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On the weekend, while hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail my son and I did in 2010 and knocking off some peaks on The Grid, I binge-listened to a podcast a dear friend suggested.

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Bear Brook by Jason Moon chronicles the mystery of four murder victims discovered in New Hampshire’s Bear Brook State Park beginning in 1985, their eventual identification, and the capture of the serial killer responsible for their deaths.

One of the ways they uncovered the identities of the victims, who were (sorry about this) cut to pieces and shoved into barrels was by examining the isotopes found in their bones.

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Environmental isotopes are naturally occurring atoms that carry the signature of the geographic region where they are found, and they make their way into rocks, plants, animals, and even us, revealing our history with a mark that is as distinct as a fingerprint.

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While I listened and walked, walked and listened, I marveled at the complexity of isotopes and the unique map God creates for all of lives.

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What is in our bones?

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God’s vastness is so incomprehensible, and his thoughts and ways so much higher than ours.

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We are so small.

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The prophet Isaiah once observed: He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. (Isaiah 40:22)

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Jesus, too, was drawn to high places. He frequently slipped away to a mountaintop to pray and spend time with His daddy. I’m sure they had a lot to talk about: bumbling disciples, plotting pharisees, the hurting, the sick, and the dead.

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Jesus needed this time to strengthen Himself, gather courage for the way ahead, listen to His father’s voice.

Things always seem so much better up there.

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Perhaps they even discussed Jesus’s answer to an expert in the law who once tested Him with this question: Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?

Jesus didn’t hesitate: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 

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So where do we go to find the map of own lives?

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At times, the way seems so obvious, so well-defined.

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Other times, we come to a crossroad and freeze, hardly knowing which way to turn.

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It’s murky. Unclear.

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We stumble and curse, wishing there were some way to control the swirling chaos and the deep ache inside of us like an imprint in our bones.

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Isaiah reminds us that those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

Spending time like Jesus did, up high, with our heavenly Daddy gives us a sense of proportion. While there, we also percolate in the immutable character of God, absorbing His most perfect isotope: love.

When we are confident of the Father’s relentless, passionate love for us, things down here seem less awful. We find ways to cope, to fight, to overcome.

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It allows us to weigh Paul’s words against our own experience and see the wisdom in his testimony: for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Whether or not we can see the way, we can be confident that God sees. He is the ultimate map-maker.

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And that is more than enough for me.

 

 

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On Paying Attention

I got a speeding ticket this week.

It ruined a decades-long streak of clean driving and made me a little crabby, not appreciating the heft of the fine.

The truth is, though, I wasn’t paying attention, and this is something against which we must guard with all fury.

I had spent the previous weeks feeling marginalized at work, wishing the landscape of my life would change, and wondering if I was ever again going to be anything but alone.

Probably the best place to be when self-pity rears its wretched head is at a boarding school, where pace and duty leave no room for despair, where the presence of middle school boys presents endless opportunities for surprise and joy.

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Oswald Chambers writes that “No sin is worse than the sin of self-pity because it removes God from the throne of our lives.

Ouch. Thanks, O.C.

Determined instead to de-throne myself, I tuck the ticket in the back seat, wish the officer a nice day, and drive on, albeit much slower.

It was Saturday, it wasn’t raining, I was done with school for the day, and I was headed to a mountain.

Rejoice, already.

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Thankfully, Tecumseh didn’t scold as I moved up her flank, her bottom half determined to be spring while her top half remained stubbornly mired in snow.

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Ill-prepared hikers skidded and fell in their sneakers and shorts.

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Were they simply not paying attention?

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The other day in chapel, I spoke about nostalgia and the need to be fully present. To not look to the next-next thing, lest we miss something along the way.

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The lyrics of a Talking Heads song came to mind, the song “Once in a Lifetime,” where David Byrne croons same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was over and over and over.

There is a not-so-subtle warning there; we must be careful to fight against the complacency of routine so as not to wind up, years hence, asking ourselves in bewilderment, “Well, how did I get here?”

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On this, Tecumseh-climb #9, it would have been easy to roll up and down, to not notice.

The unfurling.

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Red growth on a rock.

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My friend Chippy, who still doesn’t trust enough to come near.

 

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Life, pushing through.

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Signs, everywhere, if we pay attention.

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Each day a gift.

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A marvel of complexity.

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But we must be sure to look.

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On the way home, I plant bulbs at the base of the tree where my son died. Leave some pennies, a new bracelet to replace the one dissolved by weather and the years.

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Nothing really is same as it ever was.

So we find joy in hope, soldier on through tribulation, devote ourselves to prayer. (Romand 12:12)

Pay attention, lest we miss what matters most.

Sorrowful, Yet Ever Rejoicing

Another birthday, and I find myself this morning crying at a footnote at the bottom of a page.

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I was reading how the apostle Paul journeyed to Ephesus, a stronghold of paganism and magic arts, bringing Good News, the message of hope and peace.

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When they reached Ephesus, Paul left Priscilla and Aquila behind, then he went into the synagogue and spoke to the Jews. (Acts 18:19)

I looked below:

Ephesus was in the ancient world, a white marble city, one of the most beautiful in the world. It had the temple of Artemis, one of the seven great wonders of that era. It also had two agoras, a beautiful fountain in the city supplied by an aqueduct…a large stadium, and many terraced houses…It was in this backdrop that the apostle Paul and his companions planted the renowned church of Ephesus.

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Why was the description of a now-ruined city making me weep?

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I’m always a bit raw this time of year – wondering about my would-be 25-year-old son.

April, birthday.

May, deathday.

What do you look like now?

What might you have been, here, on earth?

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You were such a beautiful boy.

Trusting, hopeful, full.

Flawed, as are we all.

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How transient are the things of earth.

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Stretching, blooming, dying.

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Falling, freezing, melting.

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Later, I read:

Human beings are frail and temporary, like grass,
    and the glory of man fleeting
    like blossoms of the field.
    The grass dries and withers and the flowers fall off,
 but the Word of the Lord endures forever!
And this is the Word that was announced to you! (1 Peter 1:24,25)

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Do tears fall because that no matter how beautiful things are here – even a gleaming metropolis hewn from marble white, or the sign of a promise in the sky  –  they can never compare to the beauty of your eternal church, your heavenly city, your promised forever?

Paul. Knew. This.

He was beaten, stoned, left for dead, his only crime spreading kingdom seed.

And yet he was still able to say, as I am today:

We may suffer, yet in every season we are always found rejoicing…We seem to have nothing, yet in reality we possess all things. (2 Corinthians 6:10)

There’s still work to do here, of course.

Hard, humble work.

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Forgive the ones who have done us wrong, pray for the sick, practice peace and patience and love.

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Make ourselves ready.

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Soon and very soon.

Both Sides Now

Ever since my son died, I have had a fascination with clouds.

Or perhaps it started, way back when he was still with us, on a beach in Florida.

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While visiting the Sunshine State, he and his siblings and I had driven to a state park, paid the rather hefty entrance fee, and set up towels on the beach in anticipation of a banner day.

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As these things sometimes go, however, the clouds rolled in and thunder wrecked the sky, until we could no longer deny that a violent storm would soon be upon us. At the last possible minute, we made a run for the van.

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All that trip – the first we had taken together after their dad had left – the clouds seemed to loom, trying to tell us whatever clouds know.

Everywhere we went, there they were.

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Terrible.

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Lovely.

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Years later, at my son’s funeral, his brother spoke about the long drive home from that Florida trip: a precious memory of a time he had felt closest to his brother, sharing stories of loves and dreams and naughtiness as the two of them, awake, navigated the rest of us, sleeping in the back of the van, through the dark night.

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I ran into my son’s old headmaster the other day, at the Hannaford in Plymouth.

When I asked him how he was doing, he happily announced it was his first day in a while without the crutches he had been using after breaking his leg skiing.

He smiled, then paused.

Breaking his leg was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, he quietly apologized, and I was reminded of why I loved my son’s old school and its kind headmaster so. 

With this small gesture of tenderness, he was saying: I remember. I understand what you might be thinking. I miss him, too.

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I had, that day I saw him, gone north to climb Mt. Tecumseh.

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It was my seventh time atop the 4,000-footer. I am loosely working through “The Grid”: each one of New Hampshire’s 48 special mountains in each calendar month, a task that both overwhelms and thrills. It does, however, give me a reason to get out there, and although it may take decades to finish, it’s a joyful challenge.

There is always certain point on the climb when I look up through the trees and see Tecumseh’s snout, a mile up and away in the distance, and think that I might never make it.

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So.

Far.

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Life seems that way, sometimes: or more accurately, life-after.

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There was a song that used to make me cry back in middle school.

Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell speaks of looking back at things-gone-by and seeing them in a more mature, realistic perspective. It’s a haunting, somewhat tragic song, and I thought of it looking at the Tecumseh clouds.

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The veil is so thin, there, up high.

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In the Book of Revelation, the disciple John has a vision of the sky splitting open and rolling up like a giant scroll.

Behind this, he sees angels, a great white-robed multitude, and even the very throne of the Lamb. (Revelation 6-7)

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Had heaven been there all along? Behind the clouds?

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Is that where it is, now?

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I want to see the other side. 

But like looking toward Tecumseh’s faraway snout, like the Grid, like the steady walk of grief or joy, we can only be where we are, here, between what has been called the “already” and “not-yet.”

What amazes me is not that God promises to bring us, his children, there, but instead to bring heaven down, to us: new, vibrant, bright and pure. (Revelation 21)

So far? 

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When?

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Hours or decades, not even Jesus knows, only the Father. (Matthew 24)

Amen. Come.

On Other-ness

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 ~The following is taken from part of an chapel address I gave at my school last week. Other information has been added since then. The opinions contained are entirely my own. ~

Have you ever felt like the only one?

The only child at a table of adults? The only kid who didn’t have the popular shoes?  The lone conservative in the family? The only person who didn’t get the joke?

Have you ever felt like the only one?

Did it make you feel different? Strange? Uncomfortable? Left out? Other than?

Did you perhaps wish that if only – if only they could see me, know me, hear me – then they would understand?

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This past week, we honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At times, I feel that Dr. King’s message of hope, love and justice is needed more today than back when he first began fighting the good fight. 

In an age where a few unverified clicks on social media can ruin a person’s reputation; when a difference of opinion is grounds for the termination of a friendship or a job; where civility seems like an antiquated notion and offense seems to be our first response – yes, in this present age, it seems that what we truly need is a double dose of Dr. King.

Rooting out injustice in all its insidious forms seems like it should be such a simple thing. We all have hearts and souls, desires and dreams, the will to learn and try and plan and do. We all have the capacity to see one another, in all of our other-ness.

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But if we have learned anything from the Holocaust and the myriad slaughter of innocents before and since, is that all it takes for injustice to advance is passivity.

There can be no spectators in the race for human rights.

It seems especially apt that on the brink of full blown war between Syria, Iran, and the nation of Israel, when missiles could be striking targets across the Middle East even as you read these words, that we take King’s words to heart.

He once observed, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles but misguided men.”

I would add “…and women.”

We hear an awful lot about tolerance these days, and to be honest, it almost seems like the ones screaming the loudest are the least willing to see the other side. Perhaps, as my headmaster suggested last week, tolerance should not be our goal.

Was it not a twisted form of tolerance that led to the extermination of 6 million Jews, the proliferation of slavery, the shameful internment of Japanese Americans, even cyber-bullying?

And what of the 60 million babies slaughtered in the womb since 1973?  Or New York, who has now decided that killing a full term human person minutes from delivery is a reason to celebrate?

Monstrous. 

I weep for the babies who were never allowed to draw a breath and I weep for their precious mommies who thought that they had no other choice.

No, we must NOT tolerate these and any other forms of evil or hatred, but seek instead to eradicate them from our body. Standing passively by is NOT an option.

We must not, as the apostle Paul once wrote, be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

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But to do that, we must also understand. To recognize that EACH of us is the ONLY one.

I believe that we live in a society where we can not only see but live the manifestation of Dr. King’s iconic dream. Every day, I break bread with boys from China and Mexico and Korea and Japan, from uptown and downtown and north and east and south and west.

We see each other and love each other as we are, for all of our differences. 

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The faces before me reflect the manifold diversity and creative beauty of God’s tender hand, and I am grateful that there is no discrimination in His kingdom; His unconditional love is free to all nations, all tribes, all tongues.

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I pray that God would help us to love as Jesus loves.  To give us courage to ferret out evil and injustice, to tear each insidious occurence out by its very roots until no remnant remains.  

I pray that we might steward our blessings well, that we may be a blessing to those who are poor, or marginalized, or forgotten.

I ask Him to help us to be gentle, humble, and unoffendable in our patience with each other.

And I pray that someday, soon, we will be joined together in perfect unity – one heart, one passion, one harmonious purpose – and that love would be the true mark of our maturity.  

On Day One

2019: The Year, if it is anything like 2019: Day One, has the potential to blow expectations out of the water.

The night before, celebrating New Year’s Eve with colleagues I am also blessed to call friends, the hosts dropped a cascade of balloons onto a bevy of squealing, twirling children at midnight-is-really-8 o’clock, so I was home in bed by 9:30. Perfect for an introvert like me, easily fatigued by conversation and social situations.

Waking up to snow always makes me happy, like memories of school closings scrolling across the bottom of a TV screen, hours of expectant potential right outside the front door. I was already imagining the sugar-dusted boughs overhead on the hike that was only a short drive away.

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A rainbow!

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No way this day could be sealed with anything more prophetic. Capturing it while driving on the backroads of New Hampshire was a bonus.

It seemed fit to tackle timid 4,003′ Tecumseh as my first hike of the year, my first winter 4,000 footer, and the maiden voyage of the snowshoes I gave myself for Christmas.

Tecumseh, although least-by-height in the clan of the 48 New Hampshire 4,000 footers, is steep enough to call a work-out and a worthy proving ground for figuring out how to walk with clown shoes attached to my legs.

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The Princess and her hubby were gracious as I tripped and apologized up the trickier parts and even agreed to a summit selfie.

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The predicted 50-70 mph winds picked up as we headed down, but most of Tecumseh is protected by a wooded barrier of hearty pines, so aside from a brief moment at the top, none of us minded the cold.

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I didn’t even mind, back at the car, discovering the shredded hems of my rain pants, evidence of an embryonic spacial awareness between where shins ended and sharp claws of snowshoes began. Oh well – I needed a new pair anyway.

An exit on the ride home took me by the boy’s bench, so I stopped by to say hello.

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Anna had left a wreath, and once again my heart swelled with thanks for the friends my son made while he was still here with us.

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Do you know how much they loved you, silly boy? 

Not much snow on the driveway and stairs when we arrived home, tired. Nothing that a quick shovel and a nap couldn’t fix.

Later, under winking lights, I eat dinner cooked not-by-me and watch some football with the fam.

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2019, I have high hopes for you.

Given the carnage of past years, the lightness I feel on Day One seems miraculous.

Perhaps this will be the year that God does exceedingly abundantly more than I can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

Actually, it seems as if He already has.

 

 

 

On Light

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. ~Genesis 1:3-4

The darkness of the whole world cannot swallow the glowing of a candle. ~Robert Altinger

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It was Hanukkah this past week – the Festival of Lights –  and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about light.

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The other morning, I went out for a run. It was still pretty early, cold and dark, so I threw on some layers and grabbed some gloves.

A friend of mine gave me this pair of gloves a few years back, and I have to say, they are one of my favorite pieces of athletic gear. They have these powerful LED lights that ride comfortably across your knuckles and, when your hands are swinging out in front of you, perfectly illuminate the road ahead.

Anything that has a duel purpose – in the case of these gloves, warmth and safety – is, in my opinion, a win-win.

This particular morning, I was about a mile out from the Cardigan campus on Back Bay Road, which is completely devoid of streetlights, when there was a noticeable dimming of the pool of light in front of my feet. Too late, I remembered that I hadn’t charged the knuckle lights in a while, and they were rapidly running out.

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I thought about turning around, but, probably like some of you, I’m pretty stubborn once I get going. So, I alternated between the glove lights, keeping only one hand on at a time until they both….. went…. out….

I still had a ways to go to reach campus.

One thing I will say about the forest around Canaan – it’s dark.

Really dark.

My eyes gradually adjusted so that I could just about make out the pavement, but I had to slow way down.

Occasionally, a car would drive by, exploding the whole road around me in a sea of brilliant light. The thing is, though, after the car had passed and I was alone again, it was even harder to see through the blackness.  

My whole being craved that sweet light. At last, the halo-glow of the lamppost at the end of Alumni Drive came into view, and I was home….safe.

I told this story in chapel this past Thursday, as we were celebrating Hanukkah.

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Light often serves as a metaphor for good. In fact, in the Genesis account, light was the very first thing that God made, so I’m thinking it’s pretty important.

We must be careful to steward that light well, however. Too long in the dark – looking at things we ought not to look at, hiding things we ought not to have, treating with incivility, unforgiveness, and blame those we ought to cherish and respect – and our eyes might adjust to this absence of light.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Spend enough time in the light – craving it, hunting it, chasing it with all your might – and the darkness no longer appeals.

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I was speaking to a colleague about the properties of light this past week. Did you know that light is actually a wave? And that light’s wavelengths include a spectrum of 7 different bands, only one of which is the light we can actually see?

Did you know that the speed of light is 300,000 kilometers per second and is the “absolute upper speed of anything in the universe?” But even though it’s so incredibly fast, some galaxies are so far away that their light may take BILLIONS of years to reach us.

How remarkable to think that when we look into a night sky, we are “looking into the past across vast gulfs of time” (Tulane University).        

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Marvelous.      

Mysterious.

I can’t help but think that if one single candle can overpower the darkness, imagine what a whole roomful of them could do.

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It could be as miraculous as the story of Hanukkah itself, when one small vial of oil kept a menorah lit for eight straight days.

Of course, Jesus called Himself the Light of the World.

I wonder if, when he left heaven to enter the portal of the world through the womb of a faithful teenage girl, he did so at the speed of light. It would be just like Him.

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Our marvelous, mysterious Jesus.

May we crave Him, hunt Him, chase Him with all our might this Advent season.

The darkness can’t help but hide when we choose to put on the light-armour of our great, great King.