Ten years ago or so I was invited to be the “inspirational” speaker at the holiday tree lighting in our neighborhood. Within the invite I was reminded that it was a “holiday” tree and accordingly my remarks should reflect the diversity of beliefs of our urban Northwest neighborhood. Rather than being offended that my beliefs, which I happen to be quite firm in, were being minimized, attacked, or otherwise tossed aside, I saw this as an opportunity to connect in the one commonality that we all share during the holidays, which is story. Like it or not, this time of year is shared in some way shape or form with those who hold other beliefs as well as no belief at all. We can choose to take our ball and go home, or we can join in and be confidently own our faith story. So with my allotted 3 to 5 minutes in mind, I was committed to connecting the birth story of Jesus to the diversity of stories reflected in my neighbors.
It seemed to me at the time that the most obvious and relatable illustration would be the actual tree itself and the lights that were imminently going to be lit for the season. I asked those assembled to consider not simply the tree but also the individual lights on each branch … that whenever they passed over the next few weeks they would imagine each light as an individual story being carried and lived out in the neighborhood. Within that I was free to share my own story … represented in the lights of the tree and connecting me to the light who entered the world in the form of a baby.
As my church has gathered during this season of Advent, we have been embracing the idea of light and reflecting on the various forms it takes in reminding us of the hope that our story, the greater story of God, promises. For my wife and I, one of our greatest joys this time of year is walking our streets and experiencing the various lighting displays of our neighbors. The idea of light as story has helped me look beyond the arrangements and to consider the stories represented. I often wonder about the families or individuals behind the lights … are they happy … are they at peace … do their lights mask deep pain and longing or reflect hope and joy? Sometimes it causes me to offer them up to God. Often it helps me see the stories in my place and to consider the beautiful and fragile humanity represented through those elaborate displays as well as the complete darkness of other homes. I have become aware that sometimes light tells a story and sometimes it is the story.
The message shared that night must have connected in some way during that tree lighting because it began a 5 year tradition of me being asked to be the “inspirational” speaker ending when we moved out of the neighborhood. This year, having recently returned, my wife and I will be back at tree lighting, this time as observers and volunteers. When the switch is thrown and the darkness is lit for the season, I look forward to once again, at least for myself, connecting the lights to the stories while being drawn deeper into our story, God’s story of light in the darkness.