Keep Your Lights Up
On the first Monday of 2021, I circle my neighborhood, taking inventory. One block east, a series of houses still lights up the night.
One porch bears a few spare strands, united to outshine their sum; a small team of white reindeer nestles at the edge of another lawn, illuminated from inside. A great tree initially stands dark and disappointing; on a later pass, I see the beacon resurrected. Its silver lights descend like snowflakes, touching a deep purple horizon.
A block west, the light scatters between just a couple houses. Stars which appear in one window seem more distant than the one which sent shepherds and kings slouching toward Bethlehem.
I head home, muttering prayers beneath my visible breath. Adoration for the lights that stayed; confession for all those I presumed upon. I close with a plea: Lord, let there be lights for many nights to come. The words seem bold rising up from inside, yet sound foolish upon my “amen.”
On social media, writer friends like Courtney Ellis suggest we leave our winter lights and Christmas trees up as long as we like. After an exacting 2020, we’ll tend our own hearts well by staying surrounded with symbols of comfort and hope, they reason.
No matter how the calendar reads, my heart leans this direction. Boxing up our decorations each year feels like preparing a small funeral—even as the angel of Acts 1:11 sits on my shoulder. This Jesus who departed the scene will return to split the sky and mend everything else, it promises. Still the solace rolls off my back.
Humming an unseasonable song the other day— “Wonderwall” by Brit-rock titans Oasis—this annual ache finally explained itself.
“Backbeat / The word is on the street / That the fire in your heart is out,” Liam Gallagher sings through his nose, without guile, without much grace. And the song presses pause on me.
The dissonance which attends the close of each Christmas represents my truest fear in miniature. I dread an imagined day when whatever light living in me extinguishes, when the fire inside turns to ash.
When that moment seems imminent, I tear a few pages from my favorite books for kindling. James Baldwin and his combustible prose stoke my soul; my cry for help meets its answer in the poems of Franz Wright, a master at mining wisps of smoke for enough warmth to live.
Radiance shines through the soul music of The Staple Singers; each dynamic note from Killers frontman Brandon Flowers leads me up a ladder, through the clouds and toward heavenly light. Sitting with these songs, everything I bask in promises to outlast at least this night.
As I write these sentences, our Christmas tree still standing a few feet away, illumination is exchanged and converted into endurance. Wherever and whenever I can, I grope for light and heat until I’m glowing from within like a Peter Gabriel chorus.
Each of us holds the darkness back for a while on our own; eventually we need other sources of light. We rely on one another’s art, one another’s stories, the Christ in one another’s words—so often greater than the God inhabiting our own, as Bonhoeffer reminds us.
The prophet Isaiah writes about the perfect purposes of rain and snow. Never thwarted, they always accomplish God’s aim—saturating, stilling, stimulating the earth. Light, in whatever form it arrives, always does what it’s designed to do. Sharing these little lights of ours, they converge and grow to fulfill so many verbs. Renewing. Warming. Clarifying. And the darkness cannot overcome them.
So, this year, finish that stalled-out essay. I need it.
Recite the Daily Office by fluorescent bulb or flashlight. We depend on your prayers.
Sound out your voice as quietly or loudly as you know how. For God’s sake and yours, the echoes will accomplish what he intends.
And keep your lights up beyond Epiphany. Keep them up until the sun comes and brightens the long, cold, lonely winter George Harrison described. Leave them right where they are until Christmas comes around again. Keep them up long as it takes you, me and our neighbors to remember some lights will never go out.