Finding the Light in Others: Tikkun Olam

I preached this sermon at First Parish UU in Arlington, MA today. I began with a reading by Rilke:

You, darkness of whom I am born—

I love you more than the flame

that limits the world

to the circle it illumines

and excludes all the rest.

But the darkness embraces everything:

shapes and shadows, creatures and me,

people and nations—just as they are.

It lets me imagine

a great presence stirring beside me.

I believe in the night.


Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

This sermon came about in conjunction with the writing experience I am offering after the service. As I was trying to decide what theme to center a writing experience around I called on the wise sensibility of Ellen Leigh, who chose six themes from my website and left me to pick. At the time, the twenty-four hour news cycle churned with the likelihood of a limited air strike in Syria and it became apparent that finding the light in others would be a timely theme—compelling enough to reflect on in worship as well.

I talk a lot about finding the light in others. The Creation story that speaks most deeply to me—from the Jewish mystical tradition—tells of the Divine Presence receding to make room for the world—and as that happens, as if a balloon were to burst and send fragments falling everywhere, sparks of divine light scatter, settling into all being. Our job as humans is to notice those sparks, to reflect back the divine light we see in others. That process becomes tikkun olam, restoration of the world.

It’s easy to talk about noticing light. It’s a lot harder to do it. In a sermon I preached this August up in Keene, in honor of the feast day of Jonathan Daniels, a martyr in the Episcopal church, who like James Reeb, died at hand of an angry segregationist, I quoted my favorite line, an epigraph in Alice Walker’s novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy: “When the ax entered the forest, the trees said, ‘the handle is one of us.’”

The trees don’t necessarily see the light in the ax, but they recognize themselves in it. They are brave enough to claim connection, to see their oneness with an implement bent on their destruction. Whenever I quote that line, people ask, how do we actually train ourselves to do that? To see what connects us and to recognize sparks of light in what appears devoid of it.

Two months ago, as the President and the entire nation considered a strike on Syria, Bashar al-Assad appeared to many nothing short of monstrous, a despot destroying his own people, a leader devoid of light. In his interview with Charlie Rose, two clarities emerged: Assad has followers and the acts of violence he perpetrates—in his perception— attempt to render justice. The renowned forensic psychiatrist James Gilligan has written that in the eyes of the every perpetrator each act of violence seeks justice. Violence is a form of energy intent on expression. So what are we to make of a man who murders unarmed people? Where is the light? What common humanity could we possibly share?

In the sixth through eighth chapters of Genesis, God destroys the entire planet, save Noah and the precious few inhabitants of the ark. The magnitude of the Flood story and its grisly nature make it hard for us to identify with a Creator so distraught by creatures wrought, that the Creator declares, “I will blot out from the face of the ground every living thing that I have made.” But with deeper reflection, as with most biblical rhetoric, we can sense in the enormity of the drama and the degree of vitriol, the intensity of disappointment and its flipside, connection. God’s disappointment mirrors the vast wonder and magnificence of Creation; and the irony that God comes so perilously close to destroying what God treasures most, relays itself in human terms every day. We need only recall Mary Oliver’s pithiest of poems with a longer title than the poem itself: “Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears Trying to Survive on the Melting Ice Floes—That God had a plan, I do not doubt./ But what if His plan was, that we would do better?”

One way to see the light in others is to notice the darkness in ourselves.

We, who plaster the bumpers of our gas and electric burning cars with stickers that sing odes to the earth and express our love of nature, what do we tell the polar bears as the ice melts? We fell the forests. We foul the air, the water, the soil. We slaughter the creatures we call animals. We invent drones to keep blood off our hands. And still we mingle with the ghosts of slavery, xenophobia and segregation.

Yes, at first glance it’s perverse to destroy any part of Creation; so we revisit an ancient text to understand why we do. We glimpse ourselves in a portrait of a broken-hearted God. What parent has never lashed out at a child in a moment suffused with fear or disappointment? Who among us hasn’t spewed rancor on a beloved? Or excoriated ourselves? If God makes a world in God’s own image, are we less likely to do the same? We expect a world reflective of our own vision yet we rail against the limitations of it.

In no way would I justify the actions of Bashar al-Assad, but like the depiction of God in the Flood narrative, Assad rains down his wrath. In his own words, he amputates the leg in order to save the body—as God blots out every living being except the few on an ark in order to reset Creation gone so terribly awry.

And thus we might ask ourselves, on a micro-scale, what or whom have we sought to destroy? What creation, what person, relationship, job, or opportunity have we mangled? What limbs have we removed to save the body? What nose have we cut off to spite the face?

Beckoning our own shadow can lead us to illumination; every shadow is cast by light. As the shadows fall: across Syria, Congress, our own commitments, it behooves us to be still while our pupils dilate.

When Rilke writes, “You, darkness, of whom I am born—“ he invites us to remember the fertile dark from which we emerge, to realize that “the flame limits the world/ to the circle it illumines/ and excludes all the rest.”

Beyond the circle of illumination lies the darkness into which we stumble and curse. Out there in the far corners that elude light it’s pitch black. And it’s there, Rilke reminds us, we might “imagine a great presence stirring.”


We all know something of a dark time framing a fragment of divine light. In the midst of the greyest grief, a neighbor, a friend, a stranger comes bearing a pan of brownies or a vase of bittersweet, tucks the right poem under our windshield wiper or into our email inbox. At the outpatient chemo clinic, a chaplain’s kindness, a nurse’s gentle care, another patient’s wry smile illumines a dun-colored world and sets life right again.

In those moments, recognizing divine sparks of light—slivers of goodness rising in the dusking sky—comes so easily. Finding ourselves in the travail of the bescarfed woman, IV fluid pumping into her port. Finding ourselves in the frustrated parent so worried his teenage son will drive distracted if not drunk that he explodes at the boy as he sneaks in the house after curfew, his breath yeasty sweet. We see ourselves in the wearied hopefulness and dashed expectations of others. But when the ax enters the forest will we remember the wood of the handle exists because sunlight infused a tree?


Twenty-five years ago, I struggled mightily with my own darkness trying desperately to avoid it though it consumed me. Perhaps had I been willing or able to let my eyes adjust long enough to plumb its depths I could have regained a sense of my own light. Instead, I thrashed around, careening in and out of relationships ignoring the one I needed to cultivate with myself.

During this time, I taught a writing class in the protective custody unit of a men’s prison to six students, two of whom I really liked. The last day of the class, after I bid them goodbye, I stopped outside the offender record room. My state-issued volunteer name badge allowed my entrance and for a reason I still can’t identify, I opened the door into the darkest corner I could find. There’s a ubiquitous prison ethic: one does not ask why a person is behind bars. It certainly was none of my business. I was neither lawyer nor counselor. But curiosity got the best of me so I pulled the files of each student and sat down. Not surprisingly, the fellow who had plagiarized every paper from the World Book was serving time for forgery. Another for an armed robbery he had already explained was carried out with an unloaded gun. It was my two favorite students I wanted to know about. Had they not been incarcerated I would have invited them to dinner. They were charming and sweet, intelligent and insightful. As I opened J.T.’s folder I assumed it had to be drugs—a nice guy like that.

There is nothing so pitch dark as a police report, devoid of any light, any metaphor, any soul-sustaining turn of phrase. Mug shots are designed to be the black hole of photography obscuring any and all sparks. Far beyond the circle of flame I found the spent ashes of rape.

The last folder, Steve’s, contained more of the same.

I felt as though the ground had literally vanished from beneath my feet. I drove in silence from the prison to my university office and sat in the dark. I did not realize then what I understand now: in the creation story I began with, the darkness into which the fragments of light fall is divine as well.

You might be wondering where is the divine, the putty of sacred, in this story?

It is here in the words J.T. wrote in a letter to me:

Here I am, the perpetrator, once victim and now incarcerated for the hideous crime of rape because I had no to little self-esteem, low self-image and no self-respect. I lived in a self-made world where there was no wrong on my part for the actions I committed and I did as I pleased regardless of who I hurt as long as I got what I wanted, sex, drugs, and otherwise.…I had broken all the rules for life itself. I didn’t give a shit about anything or anybody. I had jumped off the deep end.…after three months of self-destructiveness, heavy drinking, drugs, selling my body and soul on the streets…I came back to try again to fulfill this madness…to release the anger and frustration I carried within like an atom bomb on the brink of destruction.


And every living thing that I have made I will blot from the face of the ground.


My other favorite prison student, Steve, wrote in a letter:


I think someone should write a book called The Anatomy of a Rapist just to show the lifestyle and similarities of a person who has committed a rape and someone who hasn’t. Like how a pre-occupation with sex can, although doesn’t have to be, a warning sign. Or treating women as an object instead of a person. I think then, maybe, more people would begin to understand that not all men who rape are perverts who hate women, but people whose lives got out of control and didn’t know how to regain control. Although it’s inexcusable, I don’t believe all rapists should be thrown in the scrap heap either. Tell your students to keep an open mind when discussing this subject because in all reality that’s what it takes to even begin to understand this.


My wise friend, Margaret-Love told me what her daddy told her: We travel in all the light we have. When we move beyond that illumined circle that excludes all the rest, to the dark that “embraces everything: shapes and shadows, creatures and me, people and nations—just as they are” we find ourselves. We find the sharp, often serrated, edges of our own brokenness, the shards of our dashed hopes. We find our violent expressions of energy, our cries for help, our utterances of despair, the fury of our unmet longing and blunt blade of the ax whose handle is made of the very same stuff of us. Infused with light.

Rilke writes in another poem:


I love the dark hours of my being,

My mind deepens into them.

There, I can find, as in old letters,

the days of my life, already lived,

and held like a legend, and understood.


Then the knowing comes: I can open

to another life that’s wide and timeless.


Because J.T. and Steve were willing to claim their darkness, I could see the light emanating from them—and I thought to myself in those darkest hours, if I could love them I had to find it in me to love myself. And because they had found a way through their own pitch black to feel light radiating forth, they could see and reflect my light back to me.

“In the dark hours of our being… then the knowing comes. [We] can open to another life that’s wide and timeless.”

Or in Rumi’s words,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

Out beyond “the flame that limits the world…the dark embraces everything: shapes and shadows, creatures and me, people and nations—just as they are.” Just as we are.

That’s where connection happens.

That’s when we see the light in others.

That’s how Creation is restored.

In that embrace.