UNALAKLEET – He turned the lights off. I had been in that church thousands of times from not long after I was born until I graduated high school, but never like that. It felt irreverent. The pews were full and the lights were off. There were elders in there, and I wondered what they were thinking.
It was New Year’s Eve, typically my favorite service. We sing a few songs the pastor picks out, and he shares a verse and a very short message, and then opens the microphone for anyone. Surprisingly, opening the microphone isn’t as dangerous as one would think, and the sharing is quite reflective and introspective. The volunteer choir sings a few songs, we hug and end the year on a positive note with our gears turning. I love that. The year ends and I’m inspired — not by fame or fortune or flash, but by the people around me.
Of course Daniel shared. We call him Hot Dan. He’s 85 years old, 5-foot-3. He always shares when given the chance and usually I can only understand a few of his words. This year Hot Dan got to the microphone with battery-powered Christmas lights draped around his shoulders. He talked and talked and then he turned his Christmas lights on with a huge smile. “Jesus is the light of the world,” he said. The man was positively glowing, and I’m not talking about the lights around his shoulders. I couldn’t help but feel excited and happy. I felt lucky to be in that room with Hot Dan and all the people I grew up knowing. While we didn’t understand all of his words, we knew exactly what he was saying.
And then the Chicago, now Unalakleet, boy went up. Quite the opposite of Hot Dan, Nick quietly walked to all the light switches and turned them off, one by one. He nodded and someone in the back turned off the lights there. There was one left up front and I thought he’d leave that as a spotlight on himself, but no. He turned that one off too. The church was completely dark. The pews were full and we were all quiet, wondering what this kid was up to. He started speaking and all the energy from our senses went to what he was saying and the air was flat, yet charged. “He was in the beginning … in him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Nick read from the book and talked about the danger that comes with darkness. You can bump into something and fall. We heard a big thunk, and I saw from his shadow that Nick threw himself on the floor. People laughed. He said the darkness is scary and sometimes in our lives we can find ourselves in total darkness, not knowing where to go or where to take our next step. Nick then did something great. He asked everyone who had a phone to turn it on. “I know a lot of you have iPhones,” he said, and the place lit up. Not bright, but enough to see everyone and their smiles. It was beautiful. And it was a relief to see those next to me. Nick said we all have light within us and, in our community, we can shed our light for others. Gathering together, the darkness is overcome.
Nick’s memorable message has me thinking of my friend who’s part of the volunteer ambulance department, who at 3 in the morning will get out of his warm bed and respond to a call when it’s 20-below.
I think of my friend Linda who was there when my mother died and cleaned her body and let us know we were loved and cared for. She gave me a cookie jar that once belonged to my mother.
I think of the magistrate in town who tells people headed to jail that they can make better choices and we need them to.
I think of my nephew who is going to college and with his future so bright and full of possibility, it makes me think my own future is bright, too.
I think of the pilots who, while waiting for weather to clear, work well after dinnertime to fly people to their families the day before Thanksgiving.
I think of our neighbor who brought us cookies last year and the unknown person who plowed my driveway last week.
I think of the obnoxious friend of a friend who surprisingly was a safe refuge when my friend needed it.
I think of the person who simply said, “Hi. I heard you’re going through some stuff. How are you doing?” when I was, indeed, going through a particularly difficult time.
I think of Hot Dan who glows even without his Christmas lights.
I think of the Unalakleet kid who reminds us of the gift we have in community.
The world can be a dark place. Incredibly painful and scary. When we find ourselves in those dark times, let’s try to remember the light we can find in others – it’s there if we look hard enough.
In less than 10 days, we will lose a whole hour of daylight. It seems obvious to post this story published nearly two years ago while we’re approaching the darkest months, but it doesn’t feel like that’s why I’ve chosen this time to share.
A few weeks ago my son and I were baptized in my home church. We were baptized on the anniversary of the day my mom’s lamp was extinguished because her dawn had come. Through professing our beliefs and being dunked in a hot tub full of warm(ish) water, October 9 is no longer a day satiated with sadness or pain. (And I’m not kidding about the hot tub. It’s called the Bubble Spa.) Anyway, thanks to great love, October 9 has become a day we celebrate forgiveness and rebirth. And becoming a part of beautiful and imperfect community.
And I don’t know about you, but it seems we have been inundated with stories of injustice and division and darkness. I hope you’ll join me in my effort to both look for light. And let your own light shine, too!