Only When It Is Dark Enough Can You See The Stars
A Meditation for MLK Day, 14 Jan 2017
In geology class, I memorized the maps that showed where the fault lines lay beneath the surface, the edges of continents continuously colliding with one another, creating deep valleys and raising up the ridge lines.
Edges are spaces of transition and creation. Zones of possibility. Edges are sometimes violent and difficult. Edges are where transformation erupts. Edges say yes to what could be.
Let’s think about edges. The ever-shifting line where the ocean meets the land. The warm front that brings the rain. The expanding borders of the tropical jungle. Distant horizons. Those are edges, places of ceaseless creative energy. The forgotten streets where the poor and lonely sleep and the unseen lines that mark the borders of our neighborhoods — edges of our vision and attention. The unpredictable moment when you and I come face to face, eye to eye. The stillness of the expectant crowd before the curtain rises — that radiant edge of potential that introduces all that comes after.
What edges are you navigating in your life? Relationships have edges, especially at their beginnings and ends, but also sometimes in the middle. I once was married to someone who had many reasons to fear relationship. The edges we had to leap across to reach other were too broken and painful and the distance too far. We never found our way across.
New jobs, new experiences, new adventures — those are edges, places where we might step into something new, leaving something else behind. These moments sometimes require a leap as well, sometimes thrilling, sometimes uncertain and fearful.
Edges are usually where you find those who don’t fit in with the accepted norms — the creatives, the explorers, the outcasts, the refugees, the homeless and the needy.
Edges are the birthplace of new possibility, the moment when we cross the tracks, meet the other, and where the beloved community becomes reality.
If we admit it, most of us are a little uncomfortable with edges. We like walls instead. Walls that restrict, control, and protect. Walls that create borders of yes and no. Areas of jurisdiction, occupation, separation. Walls are good for prisons too. Private property. Personal space. On one side, we are foreigners. On the other, we are home.
Politicians and fearful citizens cry for walls (high walls! great walls! that other people are gonna pay for!), to protect those on one side from the dark threat that looms on the other.
Walls protect the status quo and keep out the riff-raff.
The Great Wall of China was one of those walls. Started 2700 years ago and added to and expanded for the next 2000 years, it represented a wall of fear built to protect the empire from invasion by the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and beyond. It was also a wall of control, built for the enrichment of those who collected the taxes and maintained the trade routes.
Hundreds of years after the last construction stopped, those walls of fear still mark the land. A recent survey discovered that the entire Great Wall, as it currently exists in all its forms and with all its branches, measures out to be 13,171 miles long. Fear has a long tail.
These days there’s a lot of talk about walls, borders, red lines. Maybe it’s a human thing. We want to know what, or who, is in or out, and why, and what we’re going to do about it. We want to know that we’re safe.
Confession. I want to know that I’m safe. I have built my own walls at certain times in my life. I’ve been afraid of failure. I’ve been afraid of embarrassment. I’ve been afraid of risk and loss. Sometimes I’ve even been afraid of success.
One of the things I’ve feared is dying. Can you build a wall against that? What happens when we die? What lies on the other side? I sure don’t know so I build my wall. And then I climb up high to peer over into the darkness, pondering the emptiness. By the way, don’t try this at home, especially at 3am. It’s no fun. But here’s a story:
On the evening of October 1, 2016, a little over 3 months ago, my mother came out of the room where my father was in bed dying of cancer. The disease had taken over his liver and was in the process of shutting down the rest of his body. She said, “Things are not going very well in there.”
We gathered around his bed and began to wait. For the last few weeks, he had been restless and uneasy, thrashing around, twisted and uncomfortable. But late that evening, he started to relax. His breathing quieted and he began to rest peacefully. He seemed to be watching something up in the air above his bed. I sat next to him and looked up, almost expecting to see something — or someone — floating there, hanging above us. More than anything, at that moment, I wanted to see what he was seeing. But I couldn’t. I was stuck behind my wall.
On October 2, at 1:51am, my dad died and stepped over the edge of the world to someplace foreign and unknown. Or was it? Maybe he was going home. The hospice nurse said that in 17 years she had never seen such a peaceful passing. What had he seen that night that I could not? I still wonder. Edges.
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech in Memphis, Tennessee. He was talking about walls that night, but he was also talking about seeing beyond. That day there had been threats made to his life, but he said,
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
What was he seeing there, floating in the air, that night? Why was he so hopeful? Why was he not afraid? How did he find the courage to step out from behind his wall and to approach the edge, that point of transition and creation, that zone of possibility?
The next evening, April 4, at 6:01pm, he was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis by a man who only believed in walls.
These days there are a lot of reasons to hide, to beef up our borders, to build up our walls. The uncertainty is high. The things that divide us are not small. We block and unfriend our way through the day and try to stay safe and secure and under control.
I get it. It makes sense to me. Most of the time, I like my walls. They feel like home.
But a funny thing happened on the night my dad died. I don’t know, really, but I think he saw something coming that changed him, that gave him hope. I think he saw around the wall.
And on that evening in April 1968, Dr King stood there and declared a mystery of transformation, a vision of the other side of the wall, a vision of no wall, a vision of the beloved community, a hope for a time when the edges will meet and take hands and say yes, and yes, and so much yes!
He said, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
So then, given all that, what are we to do with our walls, our fears and worries, our biases and discriminations, our mistrust, our apathy, and our hopelessness?
I’m no expert. The only wisdom I have is that which has been passed down from the giants who have gone before, but I propose this:
Abandon your walls. Move toward the edges. Look up. Pray. Imagine the Promised Land. Reach out in faith, hope, and love to those on the other side.
It’s not necessarily a recipe for peace. At least not at first. In fact, it might take the form of resistance against the tides of fear and anger, and the gravity of the center. It might require some leaps of faith, sacrifice, discomfort.
And the only thing I have to offer against this is the small sliver of living hope that says the story — the Great Story that we are all a part of — it ends well; that the brokenhearted will be bound up, the ancient ruins rebuilt, and the captives set free; that those who mourn will be comforted and that joy will overwhelm despair.
We are not yet there. We have a long way to go. But the stars are bright above us and there is a light on the horizon, way out on the edge. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!