There were these chalk artists, when I was a little girl, who would come to Summer Camp, or special meetings at church. The lights would dim so that eyes could focus on the easel and the artist’s hands as he laid colors up on that paper, music swelling in the background while he blended and swirled shades together confidently. You could never tell what he was drawing at first, but the skies, the sea, the mountains sprang into existence beneath his touch, and it was obvious the artist knew exactly where he was going with it. It always felt like a small glimpse of Creation, and what it was like for the angels who looked on in the Beginning. Gradually the details sprang up: trees, bushes, waves, birds flying high, until the final focal point of the picture became clear. Often the picture was of a lighthouse on a cliff, looking out over the sea– sometimes stormy, sometimes calm at sunset– and a sailing ship coming into the harbor. The artist would give a Bible lesson about how Jesus guides us to the safe harbor of Heaven, if we watch for His light.
That memory sticks with me, and of course I haven’t out-grown the need to be guided by Jesus’ light, but by now those early lessons are overlaid with many renditions of This Little Light of Mine and the verse I learned in Bible Club about how to shine as children of God: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Turns out that as we grow up, Christ-followers are being shaped by the Creator’s hands into a lighthouse as well, shining through the darkness to help people find the Way.
And here Paul is, talking about how to live as a child of light, only there is nothing about cliffs and sunsets and strong beacons at sea; he is getting very down-to-earth and ordinary with it. “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure…” (Philippians 2:14-15) Everything? Well that covers a great deal. And without grumbling? Complaining seems like a relatively small thing on the scale of venial sins, but if you ever manage to step out of that river, you realize just how easy it was to get swept into the current. And maybe it has more importance than we realize, because Paul finishes his sentence: “Then you will shine…like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” (Philippians 2:15-16) See it’s not enough to be relatively better than the rest of the world. I mean just watch the news for an hour, and you can end up feeling smugly secure about yourself, and yet still blend in gray against the backdrop.
No, the way to stand out in the darkness is to become something altogether different– learn to speak a different language from the prevailing flow of words and opinions and values, like the foreigner that you are. If you are a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, it might mean not criticizing all the things that are wrong in this world as if it were a surprise to you (because there is no end to that list) and start giving thanks for all God’s blessings in this world (which are also unending and really are often surprising). It will mean holding firmly to the Living Word who wakened you to eternal life; fixing your eyes on Him and not getting distracted. It will mean giving up grumbling about how difficult life is, for the sake of offering praises to God for His provision and presence with you. Instead of arguing your point, your rights, your opinions on how things should be, deciding to lay down your Self for the good of others the way Jesus did. That is plenty enough to keep you busy, and remarkable enough to make you shine.
And again, Paul has the right words for it: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) It’s a call for all of us non-conformists to step into the Light of God’s Word and let its fiery truth re-make us– be set ablaze ourselves– until suddenly all that old darkness is illuminated and we can see it for what it is. So can everyone else, and it will either draw them into the Light as well, or make them uncomfortable; Paul says don’t let either reaction shock you or sway you… just keep on shining bright. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) And what great power it is, that wakes up the dead to eternal life!– that takes enemies and makes them beloved children, “that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) It is not yet completely apparent what we will become, but we can stand firm on God’s promise that “…He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
I imagine that as the angels watch the Creator at work and us shining for His glory, they can’t stop singing for joy.
…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The world thirsts for a different kind of neighbor—not the kind who deny their fellowman, take up their comforts, and follow their dreams—but the kind who deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Jesus in his mission of loving a weary world to life. The world also thirsts for a new vision for being human, for pursuing and entering friendship, and for leaving things better than we found them.