Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
I was humming a song the other day and our good Music Director, Zach Hemenway, over heard me and asked if I’d like to sing a solo this morning… Just kidding. What he said was: “That’s quite an earworm.” Not a compelling image. Sounds like something that attacked Hans Solo.
But the song I was humming, truth be told, had been lodged in my head for the past couple of weeks. Do you know what that is like? Whenever I’d go quiet, like during my morning mediation, the song would begin to play. When I wasn’t paying attention to what my brain was doing, the song would start to sing. This song jumped into my heart on August 6 as I was listening to NPR, and it made me think of Barbara Himmelman. Barbara would have said, “It’s not an earworm, Doyt, it is a song written on your heart.”
A few of you may remember Barbara. She was a very long-time parishioner, all the way back to the days of Father Wieland, even before the Venerable Elmer Christie.
A few months after I arrived at Epiphany, I received a call (from one of you I suppose) saying, “Barbara is near the end. You better get over there.” So, I shot over to Park Shore, and that began my eight-year friendship with Barbara. It was a slow demise.
What I remember so clearly about her was that, as her eyesight was failing, and as her hearing was failing, and as her body became less and less mobile, when I’d drop in to see her I’d almost always find her laying on her back in her room, quietly, and I’d ask (YELL): “What are you up to?” And she would say, “I’m praying or I’m singing.” “What are you praying or singing,” I’d ask? And she’d respond, “The prayers of my childhood; the songs of my youth…the ones they taught me in Sunday School; the ones written on my heart.”
Before she died, about two weeks prior, when she was so frail and weak, she said to me, “Doyt, I think I am finally growing up as a Christian. I’m finally getting it.” Barbara was on the ascent. Even as her body was wasting away, her spirit was getting stronger day by day. Hers was an arch toward union and unity and the light and lightness of being. As the Psalmist wrote: “In your light, (O God) we see light.” (Ps 36:8) As Jesus said: “I am the light of the world whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) And yet again Jesus said: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.” (John 1:5).
Barbara, in her last days, was radiant. In her body, withered as it was, there was a lightness of being. Light is mentioned a lot in the Bible, and we hear it again today. Jesus says, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket,” (Matt 5:15) because, as the Apostle John reminds us in the Epistle, “Whoever loves a brother or a sister lives in the light.” (1 John 2:10).
Light. That was the song Zach overheard me humming the other day: This Little Light of Mine. It was one that Barbara sang, and it was the one I heard on NPR in early August. I’ve been singing it ever since.
The context in which the song surfaced was a white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, VA. There to witness this hate and division were counter-protesters and as the Alt-Right chanted: “You will not replace us. You will not replace us,” you could hear, faintly at first, and then louder and louder: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine; this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine; this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” Anyone know that one?
This song was the spontaneous response to the darkness revealed in the souls of those angry white men…it was a resistance song capable of extinguishing darkness without a fight; because that is the nature of darkness; it is not the opposite of light; it is the absence of light.
When light shows up the darkness goes away. It doesn’t run away or hide or die, it just ceases to exist. And these big, tough guys decked out like macho medieval warriors just withered and slithered away in response to a child’s song.“You will not replace us!” How pitiful.
I can only imagine how sad it would have been if those had been the words inscribed on Barbara’s heart as she lay there in her bed, frail at age 99… “You will not replace us.”
God gives us what we ask for, and if those are the words that fit the trajectory of a life, then life leads to the grave and nothing more. Or as Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “Their throats are open graves; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness” (Rom 3:13-14).
But that was not the case for Barbara Himmelman. Her heart was filled with a child’s song. And so, Paul might say to her: “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 15:55-56 para) “He is the light of the world.” (John 8:12)
The Bible begins with light. The first words of God were: “Let there be light. And there was.” (Gen 1:3) This light wasn’t the product of the sun, or the moon, or the stars. They were created much later, made to divide day from night. No, the light God made at the beginning was given to drive out darkness. That light came from outside the created order, from beyond space and time; to illumine all things within creation.
And that light “became the life of all people.” (John 1:4) That is what it says at the beginning of the Gospel of John. The point here is that our lives are connected to the light from outside creation, ignited from a place beyond that gives us the power to see and to do.
Jesus confirms our identity as outsiders through the metaphors of salt and light. (Matt 5:14) Let me explain: salt, as you know, is not food that nourishes, it is a thing that preserves. It comes from outside the food to add value to the food by extending its shelf life.
Light adds value as well, only on a broader scale. It is a source from beyond that feeds this world, starting with plants, with photosynthesis; but more than that it reveals creation to itself. Salt preserves. Light reveals.
Jesus’s point here is that we too come from beyond to care for and add value to creation. So, “Do not put your light under a bushel basket, hang it on a lampstand!” (Matt 5:16)
We are not of this world. If we were our chant would be: “You will not replace me.” Instead, we are children of light, who sing: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” It is a children’s song, and it is a powerful source of resistance put upon our heart, shouted from our lips, in opposition to the thin self-centeredness tempting us to imagine that we are the point of creation. We are not the point of creation. God is.
“I’m finally growing up as a Christian,” Barbara told me in her last days. She was a rebel. She was part of the resistance as she accelerated toward union with God. She was salt and light.
We are salt and light with the purpose of preservation and illumination in a way that renders the darkness mute, nonexistent, irrelevant, impossible, extinct.
We were put into this world, set here, you and me, at this moment in time for a reason. You are not an accident. You are not a random collection of carbon. You were made for a purpose…God’s purpose… not your own purpose, because your purpose will be replaced. Your purpose always ends in the grave, and so does mine. No, you and I were made for better things, for bigger things, for divine, eternal reasons. We were set here to care for this creation and to reveal the glory of God.
But know this, because we come from the outside we are like an invasive species that can do harm even though we are made to do good. And I wonder are we doing more harm than good? Are we spending our effort on not being replaced or forgotten rather than caring for creation and revealing the glory of God? Have we forgotten our purpose? Has our salt lost its taste? Has our light been put under a bushel basket?
Or are we carrying the torch of resistance passed down to us from Barbara Himmelman and all of the other faithful followers of Jesus who have gone before us? Are we willing to face darkness, innocent like children, with nothing more than a song in our heart?
Be the light. Radiate it from the inside out as voice and action and even song… maybe it is a small light, a quiet song, sang from the lips of an old woman, dying alone on her bed, but in it there is power, there is direction, there is trajectory, there is hope, there is the arch toward goodness and holiness…there is love.
We are the resistance. The light of Christ casts out darkness. We are the resistance. What has come into being in Jesus was life, and this life was the light to all people. We are the resistance. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
We are the resistance. So, let your light shine that the world may see your good works and in them reveal the glory of God. We are the resistance. Made powerfully known in a song, even a children’s song, a simple song: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine; this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine; this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
Let your light shine. Be the resistance.