Anyone who grew up in church, remembers singing this song. The lyrics come from verses found in Matthew:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
We all have a light, but not all of us shine. David Brooks recently published a book called, The Road to Character, in which he contrasts eulogy virtues with resume virtues. Just this last Sunday, pulling the thread on many of his book themes, he wrote an article in the New York Times, called the Moral Bucket List. He begins,
‘ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.’
Whether you agree 100% with David’s depiction of the folks who shine, I think we’d all acknowledge that some folks seem to really radiate…others, put their light under a bushel. Here’s the thing: it’s not always easy to shine. If it were, the world would much different. Like many, I’ve struggled to find my place.
Why is it so hard to be ourselves? There are probably thousands of reasons. But, just a quick glance at the titles of some popular Christian books (many of which are in my favorites!) and you see a trend….
- The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are OR I Thought It Was Just ME (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” by Brene Brown
- The Me I Want to Be by John Ortberg
Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life by Glennon Doyle Melton
Clearly, these books, and their popularity, substantiate the reality that many of us are walking around as dimmed version of our true selves. We recognize that being authentic (maybe even vulnerable) matters. Still, few of us feel like we’re anywhere close to shining.
There’s this verse in Psalms that describes God’s word as a light to our path. And, quick history lesson: there were no fancy LED flashlights….just oil lamps at best, which likely illuminated only a few feet ahead. I realize with hindsight, that the only way to get here is through some narrow and rocky roads, with lots of wrong turns and tough lessons along the way. Often, I’ve questioned where the hell I’m going and what I’m actually supposed to do with my life? In stumbling along the path, I’ve begrudgingly learned the value of sifting out what I DON’T want. Friends, houses, careers, towns, churches, serving projects, forms of exercise (no SoulCycle for me, sorry)….you name it….much of life is testing to see what works and what doesn’t. Like it or not, we all learn more from our mistakes than our successes. While books, like the ones above, can be enormously informative and encouraging, they can’t replace the messy process of putting yourself out there and just doing it…of trying and testing, making mistakes, falling down and then picking yourself up and getting back at it…hopefully, a little wiser. All of that, while God usually gives us clarity for only the step before us (not the many after).
So, my apologies but there’s no magic formula to be replicated here. But, the song we sang in Sunday school + the verse in Matthew offer some tips for shining, which happen to be true to my own story.
Let Your Light Shine Before Others
It’s not just Jesus. Even modern science validates that helping others makes us happy. According to author, Jenny Santi:
Through fMRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain—and it’s pleasurable. Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.
This reinforces some of David’s assertions, that eulogy virtues (the ones that matter and are remembered at the end of a life) are usually the ones like kindness, bravery, honesty, faithfulness or humility. Serving is something that taps into all of these.
Confession: Remember the tripping and falling? That’s true in helping others too. Even though it’s scientifically proven to make us happy, and even though we know they’ll write a nicer eulogy if we build a life of service, there’s no guarantee that the first time you sign up to help others, you’re guaranteed a ‘happiness high’. I’ve signed up for plenty of projects, after which I left saying, ‘nope….not gonna do that again!’. But, you never know for sure till you try. As with so much else in life, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I am not trying to be cliché. We persevere with much in life….we will try a dozen diets or change our careers, you name it. Why not this?
I gotta admit that this latest opportunity feeding the homeless has surprised me. I’ve done service activities before that just fell flat. Maybe it wasn’t the right time. Maybe it wasn’t the right group of people. Who knows. But, keep trying because you will shine much brighter in serving others than in serving yourself.
A Town (or Tower!) Built on a Hill
You know what makes a candle shine brighter? Reflectors. The first ‘Ah-Ha moment’ for seafarers long ago was in putting light on a hill. Storms and dangerous coastlines are inevitable, but light can illuminate your path. However, the major problem with early lighthouses was the small output of light from the wood or coal fires then being used. It didn’t matter what they changed, re: the fuel, lamp designs, etc. – the light could only shine so far. The second ‘Ah-Ha’ was in discovering the power of reflector designs. William Hutchinson developed the first practical optical system in 1763, known as a catoptric system. This rudimentary system effectively collimated the emitted light into a concentrated beam, thereby greatly increasing the light’s visibility.
People are reflectors. We all need folks in our lives who can reflect our light. And, let’s be honest. I’ve had seasons of my life when the people around me made me just want to put my light under a bushel. Vulnerability is hard. Relationships are tricky. This advice definitely falls into the ‘easier said than done’ column. But, I’m going to beat this dead horse and say it again – keep trying. Your light will only shine so far on its own; it will shine much brighter with the reflective power of other people in your life.
This past Saturday, ten women gathered to celebrate my birthday. I share this not in boasting, but in praise to God for answering my prayers for community + gratitude to the friends who loved me and been reflectors in my life. I have known lonely birthdays. I have sat and wondered if I mattered or if I had a place. You cannot be truly loved unless you are fully known. And, I think that what’s made the difference with these women is that I was finally brave enough to just be myself…and, it has meant the world to me that they still loved me. The other key factor, has been our shared passions for making a difference in this world – it is our glue. They inspire and motivate me with their own efforts, big and small. Our bond has cemented over mugs of coffees and glasses of wine, as we share our broken hearts in the face of a hurting world; we dream and pray and think about the ways we can try to make a tiny dent.
Last Saturday, felt like a celebration of the real me. The friend who planned and hosted the night, brought out two trays at cake time. She had pastries from my favorite Menlo Park shop (Mademoiselle Colette) AND blueberry muffins. She shared with everyone, how she loved the blog post about the man at the shelter who was so excited by the blueberry muffins. I could have cried. Instead, I decided to just savor the moment. We drank wine and ate pastries (and muffins!). It was a sacred moment of God’s goodness in answering so many prayers….prayers for community and prayers for purpose.
The next day, I opened their gifts. One of the first that I grabbed, had the best box. A gift of fair trade products resonated with my love of both beauty and justice. A beautiful journal affirmed the value of my words. An adorable coffee cup with tea candle both celebrated my blog AND planted the seed for THIS post….that even a tiny light can shine brightly.
If I do say so myself…..This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Thank God for the women who have become friends (and reflectors!). The road leading up to this blog or the Saturday birthday party has been bumpy, for sure. But, those challenges along the way make these moments all the sweeter. And, while it seems incredibly surreal and awkward to write about my birthday party, the story would be missing an important chapter sans this milestone in my pursuit of the people and purpose God wants me to align my life with. This blog is about the ‘ah-ha moments’ over mugs of coffee and glasses of wine. I started it, not really sure if I had a light…and, if so, how brightly it burned. Blowing out the candles Saturday night, I knew I had a light. And, even if it is a little light, these ladies make me shine. I love you guys. Thank you.