Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Eve: The Light Shineth in Darkness, and the Darkness Comprehended It Not

Good evening, and welcome; I’m happy to welcome you here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or something else, no matter what your belief or unbelief, we are glad that you are here to celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord.

Let me announce some changes in the program. Our sixth lesson will not be read by Mark Wingerson but by Jenny Burrill. Another soprano soloist tonight is Merrill Grant. Michael Daves will be singing the traditional number, Star of Bethlehem, with Eva Lawitz on bass.

Tonight you do not get your own candle, and we’re sorry to disappoint you. But with the difficult means of exit up here we need to keep you safe. You will get your own candle when we return to our main sanctuary, which is a reason to look forward to it. We long to hear again someday the glory of our pipe organ, but we also love to have Aleeza Meir directing her chamber orchestra up here, so God is good.

Meanwhile, it was right for you to come here tonight, whatever your reasons, whether you worship Christ or simply admire him, your complex reasons and your overlapping reasons. One very deep reason you all share, so allow me to bring it out of you and elucidate it for you.

You came for the light. You came to choose for the light and choose against the darkness. Yes, because it is dark out there right now, and the darkness threatens all the other points of light. You came tonight to listen again to those words from our ninth and final lesson: The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. It’s dark out there, but you came tonight because, against that darkness, you are choosing for the light.

Of course there is a darkness which is good, the loveliness of night-time, the time for rest and silence. Darkness has its place. But there’s also a darkness out of place, a resistance to the light, a darkness chosen, a cover, a cloaking, a willful obfuscation. It is powerful, and it overpowers you even when it’s you who have chosen it.

It is compelling. It tells you it’s the true state of affairs, and that the universe is vast and cold and dark, and that existence in it is a struggle to survive – the survival of the fittest, the strong against the weak, the wolf against the lamb, the lion against the ox, the poison asp against the infant child, the cold hard facts against the vision of Isaiah in our fourth lesson, the law of club and fang – and that finally there is no peace except by self-defense and no justice but by retaliation.

The darkness tempts you to choose it because it offers you cover and relief. It covers your guilt and shame. It lets you keep your secrets. It lets you maintain your ignorance. You can hide your prejudice and your resentments, you can cover your fear and cloak your anger.

You can choose it but you can’t control it, because it also gives cover to the evil spirits, and I don’t mean ghosts and goblins, I mean the cultural spirits of greed and corruption, of exploitation, and of hatred and fear, which, once you let them loose, will grow on you. The darkness gives cover to the spirit of violence which is loose in our land, violence taking on a life of its own and breeding itself in us, violence feeding on our anger and our fear, violence feeding itself on murder and suicide and tempting us to turn our backs against each other. The voice that calls you to do that is calling you to choose for darkness. But you want to choose against that, which is why you came here tonight.

They know not what they do. Darkness does not comprehend itself, because it does not comprehend the light, and it’s only because of the light that you can identify the darkness. By choosing the light you can see that spirit of violence and reject it, you can see that the stronghold of hostility is a prison, and that you don’t have to turn your back on any other child of God. You can comprehend the light, and you get help for that from the music and the lessons, which is why you are here tonight.

Let the story told by the the lessons encourage you, because the darkness seems to be constant. The lessons tell you what so many of the world’s religions agree on, that the truer constant is the light, and science agrees with this as well, that light is the constant, not darkness. There’s your hope, there is your encouragement.

Tonight it is a tiny light, a little baby. You can choose his light. In the fifth and sixth lessons you will hear again how Mary and Joseph made their choices for his light.

You choose it if you admire him and find in him an inspiration and example. You choose it if you worship him as Lord and God and find in him the living source of light. And if you came only to consider him, you may choose for light as well. No matter what else you came here for, you did come here for this, and you did well.

There is a glimmer in the shadows of the barn; it is tiny but it will not go out, the darkness does not overwhelm it. This little light is a miracle, a wonder, for in this light you see light, you can see all the other lights in the world that the darkness tried to hide, all the other deeds of love around the world, irrespective of religion, all the other acts of courage and generosity by individuals of every tribe and nation. Peace on earth, good will towards humankind. 

Sometimes the light surprises you when you sing, and it rekindles and strengthens your own little light inside you, and it breaks forth beauteous, and the greater light surrounds you like it did the shepherds, and you see the glory beyond a glimmer and you hear the music in the air.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

On the Death of Young Mohammad Uddin

This is a guest-post by a member of my Old First congregation, Ms. Cynthia Ponce. All she did was what Our Lord said he is looking for: "I was a stranger and you visited me." And the sheep shall say, "Lord, when did I see you as a stranger and visit you?" And the king shall say, "As surely as you did to the least of these, ye have done it unto me." May God rest the soul of Mohammad Uddin.

At about 5:00 pm on Thursday, November 20, 2014, fourteen-year-old Mohammad Uddin was struck by a car while crossing the street.

It was at the corner of Caton Ave. and East 7th Street in Kensington, Brooklyn. He was rushed to Maimonides Hospital, where he died of trauma to the head and body. The driver, a 78- year old woman, was found and arrested that evening for leaving the scene of an accident.

According to an NBC interview of the boy’s uncle, “Uddin, a ninth-grader at Brooklyn Tech, one of the nation’s top high schools, moved to the U.S. with his family 10 years ago from Bangladesh and dreamed of becoming a medical specialist.” Mohammed’s uncle described him as a very, very gentle boy.

I got the news moments after the accident occurred. I was running errands on the same corner as the accident. As I was stepping out of my building, my neighbors, a young expecting couple, told me that something terrible had happened outside. My neighbors were troubled that this tragedy may have involved a child.

Just minutes after the accident, the police had closed off the corner in both directions. The news reporters were right there. One reporter confirmed for me what had happened. Other neighbors were now outside, and there was a general sense of disbelief and grief. I think we all felt contempt for that oddly-angled street corner. Drivers seem to be in such hurry all the time, even when the pedestrians have the “right of way” in the crosswalk.

There is a garden center on that corner, with beautiful seasonal decorations. I know I have been guilty of crossing the street and letting my eyes focus on the fall-colored potted-flowers, pumpkins, and lovely things outside. I know my 10-year old step-daughter finds these things attractive too. I think the whole neighborhood felt appalled that something like this should have happened there. 

A neighborhood is sad.  A neighborhood was suddenly taking form and becoming a body, something real, a community where people know each other, maybe like in a small town, with a feeling that’s almost impossible in dynamic and overcrowded New York City. I didn't know Mohammed personally, but my heart went out to him and his family. I wondered if I had met him or his family before. They live only a few houses down. I am often outside walking my dog, and passed in front of his home many times on my way to the Park or to the hardware store. I was hit with a sense of finality that death brings, but also of longing. I began to think of the family. Could his mother be one of the women I often overhear greeting one another with “As-salamu alaykum” (peace be with you). Maybe we were not strangers.

The depths of despair. I cannot imagine what that family is going through, but I wanted them to know that they are part of me, of the community, and that they are not forgotten. After reaching out to Pastor Meeter for prayer, it turns out other people had reached out to him also. There was a lot going on in the community in remembrance of Mohammad, but I was unable to make it to the wake or funeral. I was torn by this, so Pastor Meeter advised me on how to approach the family in this time of need.

I was meaning to write a letter, but before I knew it was Thanksgiving. So I posted a sympathy card in our lobby with a letter and a pen, encouraging the tenants of my building to write words of comfort, as Thanksgiving Day mark a week since Mohammad’s death. I was moved by how many people cared.

The next day, I went to deliver the card with my step-daughter. I had intended to leave it in the mailbox or hand it to someone if anyone was home. There was plenty of movement in the house, so we knocked. Young people opened the door. I explained why we were there, and tried to hand them the card, but they invited us upstairs to meet the Uddins and give them the card directly. We went up.

I was worried I would not know what to say and that I might not know the proper protocol and do something offensive. But I needn’t have worried, for when I met Mr. and Mrs. Uddin, their warmth, graciousness, and gratitude for our visit was so sincere, even in their grief. I felt a deep desire to comfort them, to take away their pain. We were simply fellow people, communicating words and feelings from the heart. They invited us to sit and visit. I shyly leaned on the sofa, but Mr. Uddin gently insisted I sit down. My step-daughter shyly sat down too. The family served us grapes and sliced apples and made us feel at home. The family worried about us and our comfort. I looked in Mrs. Uddin’s eyes, as she sat right across from me, and tears began to stream down her face. I hugged her and I did not let her go. Then we all sat again. 

We spoke of the impact this has had on the entire community, that Mohammad will always be remembered and that we all feel his loss, the loss of one of our children of our community. I spoke of being a Christian, and that Kailey and I pray to God –to Allah – and that we pray for their healing and peace and for Mohammad. One of the family said, "Yes, God — Allah. He hears all our prayers,” in response to my mentioning Christianity. We nodded in agreement.

It was a beautiful moment; we understood each other and our shared human experience; we are all God’s children. It felt real, and life-changing to have experienced something so intimate and raw with this family. They were welcoming to us and open to what we had to say. I was moved that we could mention Christ and Allah and it felt natural and comforting and safe to say. Our hearts were open to one another. I won’t forget it.

There were moments of silence, as we sat together in sadness. The children sparked conversation with my step-daughter, asking her what school she goes to and what grade she is in. I am still astounded by the loveliness and grace of these children and young people, looking carefully after their guests. I met Mohammad's 5-year old brother, a happy child who smiled at us often from behind his mom and sister’s dresses. I also met Mohammad's older sister. We stayed a few more minutes. On our way out, they invited us to a walk and vigil to be held Monday, December 1st.

The walk and vigil began at PS 130, and we walked to the Uddin's home. We paused, in silence, where the accident occurred. It was cold and raining, which felt appropriate. The turnout was great.  At the end of the vigil, Mohammad’s sister spoke from the home, and she tearfully expressed her gratitude on behalf of herself and Mrs. Uddin, who was overcome by emotion. She thanked us for showing her family that "Our community has lost one of our own children, and you are helping us to get through this by showing us that we are not alone."

In retrospect, I can see how a small gesture, like purchasing a card at the store, and posting it by the lobby elevator with a simple message, became empowered by the heart of community. The gesture helped moved grief beyond desolation. It gave me the courage to approach the family and let them know we cared—despite my timidity and my fear of saying the wrong thing. I saw our common humanity, and my timidity evaporated. I saw how we are interconnected, and I could see that we are not alone or independent of one another.  We really are a family meant to care for and lift up one another, and share with each other those things that make us human.