My husband and I once spent five days hiking in Yosemite. Since it was our first visit, we started off with a guided tour of the park. One stop was at the base of El Capitan, the 3,000-foot cliff that rises straight up from the valley floor.
Our guide told us to see if we could spot climbers on the rock. At that, my stomach dropped. The thought of trying to scale that formidable monument seemed lunatic, but “El Cap,” I was told, was a must for big wall climbers. The shock to my system continued when I learned that a fit climber could make the ascent in several days.
As I took that in, the guide went on to raise the next obvious question – “Where do they go at night?” Answer: “They find ledges to sleep on, or they sleep in baskets that hang from the rock.” My brain tried to imagine what that would be like and wisely decided it wasn’t going there.
As we drove out of the park one night, the road took us under El Capitan. Even in the darkness, I could make out its immense bulk against the starlit sky. I looked up, and there, about two-thirds of the way up, I was surprised – no, astonished – to see a bright light shining on the wall of the rock. It was a light where none should be. Someone was camping on one of El Capitan’s ledges or hanging from a basket.
I found myself experiencing a flash of vicarious vertigo, and yet it was also a bit thrilling to actually see this light and to know I was observing someone doing something beyond the ordinary, living quite literally, on the edge. That sort of daring spirit would shine anywhere, lamp or no.
I am a Christian and a pastor, and one of the ways I have come to understand and experience Jesus is as a light where none should be. Attempts to define and explain Jesus continue to this day, within the church and outside of it. He is named son of God, prophet, Jewish peasant, miracle worker, teacher, zealot. We interpret him as the Christ, high priest, living water, bread of the world, savior and more. All of these interpretations can point to a larger truth, and many have resonated with me at different times in my life. These days, I name him Unexpected Light.
The Gospel tells us he went to the sinners and outcasts, to prostitutes and tax collectors, and ate with them. He went to the lepers, the paralytics and the possessed and healed them. He scaled the great mountain of human fear and indifference, and he camped out on the ledge with those pushed to the precipice by the culture. He brought a light where none had been before, where none should be according to the custom of the time.
And he asked us to look and he asked us to follow, for the “custom of the time” continues to push people out to the edge of life, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
Christians wrestle with what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. For some it is very clear. For others, not so much. We stumble and bumble along this path, and like Jesus’ disciples, we often miss the point. We argue about doctrine and dogma, who is in and who is out. We turn people off.
If someone wanted to know what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, I would say, “Go out and be a light where none should be.” Someone staring into some dark mass of hardship or injustice might be astonished and inspired to see a lamp burning in the night where no one imagined one could. That could be you.
The Rev. Janet Dorman is the pastor at Foreside Community Church, UCC in Falmouth. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.