As the final moments of 2019 end, we draw nearer to the end of the 2010s. Many approach the start of the new year and decade, with a new vision for themselves and a renewed resolve to set and reach physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual goals. While setting resolutions and creating vision boards to this end, it is easy to overlook another important aspect of this time of year, Epiphany.
During Epiphany, we journey with the wise men who saw the beam of light and made a pilgrimage to pay homage to the newborn king. A king who would establish his reputation as a Savior and Lord through his itinerant teaching and healing ministry. He taught in parables and healed the lame, sick, deaf, mute, and blind.
On one occasion, in Mark’s Gospel, a group of people brought a blind man to Jesus, who was seeking to have his sight restored. Jesus took the blind man by the hand, led him out of the village, put saliva on his eyes, laid his healing hands on him, and asked him, “Can you see anything?” The man responded, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.”
This story reveals that our sight can still be unclear even if we have 20/20 vision. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), 20/20 vision is not perfect, rather “20/20 vision” is a description of normal visual acuity (sharpness and clarity) at a distance of 20 feet. Furthermore, “Other important vision skills, including peripheral awareness or side vision, eye coordination, depth perception, focusing ability, and color vision, contribute to your overall visual ability.”
As you develop your vision for 2020 and beyond, take some of the principles from these determinants of sight into consideration:
(1) peripheral awareness, or side vision, seeing ideas and people on the margins;
(2) eye-hand coordination, aligning your vision with your work;
(3) depth perception, seeing the distance between objects and relationships to determine where to place boundaries;
(4) focusing ability, seeing the path to reach your goals and objectives clearly;
(5) color vision, recognizing the dignity and worth of all humanity-black, white, and all of the colors in between.
In addition to these vision skills, there are also some eye conditions to be aware of. For example, farsightedness is the ability to see well at a distance while being unable to bring closer objects into focus. The principle here is to keep your vision for the next decade while not losing focus of the daily habits and practices that will bring you closer to your goal next year. There is also nearsightedness, the ability to see close things while being unable to see things far away. The insight here is to make sacrifices and adjustments to reach your goals next year while keeping the big picture (your goals for the decade). Finally, there is presbyopia, which is the loss of focusing ability altogether.
In the story from Mark, Jesus places his hands on the man’s eyes a second time before the man’s sight is restored, and he sees everything clearly. As we now know, even with 20/20 vision and the other factors at play, we cannot see clearly without the light. With Jesus Is King Kanye answered the question, “Can you see anything?” like the blind man from Bethsaida. Kanye’s self-proclaimed musical genius has received a second touch with the release of Jesus Is Born.
“Ultralight Beam” first appeared as the opening track on The Life of Pablo. The Sunday Service Choir gives it a second touch on Jesus Is Born. Derrick Watkins, aka Fonzworth Bentley, was one of the producers/composers on the first edition of “Ultralight Beam.” Watkins described the origins of the idea in an interview in Fader magazine: “Here’s the ultralight beam, here’s what it means. This is that connection that goes straight to heaven. This is the thing that people say is intangible, that people try to wrap their heads around.”
Consider this ultralight beam as the universal desire to connect with something that is both bigger than ourselves and beyond our grasp. Life, then, on an ultralight beam is a life lived and walked “by faith, not by sight.” It is the life of Habakkuk’s runner who reads the vision written plainly on tablets and continues to run until it is fulfilled. Perhaps, it is what God envisioned at the beginning of creating when God said, “Let there be light.” And then later, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1.26). In the creative light, humanity is the fulfillment and manifestation of God’s dreams.
As we set and live out our visions for 2020, will God’s dream shine through us? Will our lives be transparent, permitting God’s image to shine through us so that God can be seen? Will our lives be translucent, allowing God’s dream to shine through but not permitting others to see God clearly? Or, will our lives be opaque, blocking God’s desire altogether, leaving others in the dark?
In closing, be mindful of the AOA’s recommendations on comprehensive eye and vision examinations: “Periodic eye and vision examinations are an important part of preventive health care. Many eye and vision problems have no obvious signs or symptoms, so you might not know a problem exists. Early diagnosis and treatment of eye and vision problems can help prevent vision loss.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain undeniable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is included in The Declaration of Independence (US 1776.)”
The truth is the world got it wrong. Something that God quickly began to teach me as I attempted to watch the well-known movie The Pursuit of Happiness. As we embark on what is easily the most hostile election year to date, it is evident we need to pursue what Jesus instructed from the first day of his ministry. We need to pursue the Kingdom of God.
As Christians, too often we associate ourselves and our circumstances with the pursuit of things that make us happy or feel good. This takes us away from the purpose of God in our lives. Happiness by definition comes from the root word, hap – which means luck, chance, or fortune. This sets the way to create an idol in our lives, one that causes us to focus on the pleasures of life and the circumstances that surround them. Take note this is something God clearly speaks about in Isaiah 65:8-12. This is even true when it comes to the election and voting for a person who makes you feel good, or even secure and happy, not necessarily what lines up with the will of God.
Does that mean that God’s will is for us to never be happy? By no means. Quite the opposite in fact. God wants us to be happy. Jesus preaches it very much so in Matt 5:3-12 commonly known as the beatitudes. Take note, however, this sermon is preached as characteristics for those who have entered into the Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17). ‘Blessed’ in Greek means happy and in Aramaic means prosperous. What does that mean for us? It means that in order to be really happy (blessed), we need to pursue God and His Kingdom. Deeper than that, seeking God, staying in His will, produces joy, and that is something that is not dependent on circumstances, it is indwelling and solely dependent upon God.
“And so the Shortest Day came and the year died.” -From “The Shortest Day” by Susan Cooper
Today is December 21, 2020. It is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere—the shortest day of the year regarding the proportion of daylight to night light. Susan Cooper’s poem, “The Shortest Day,” illuminates the mystery of this day and speaks to what so many hope. Namely, for the year 2020 to die. For most, today is the shortest day in what has felt like the longest year in a century.
Looking back on 2020, I’ve discovered promises and possibilities within this year of the pandemic. These promises and possibilities were found during moments of significant meaning-making. Many made meaning by looking to sacred text for some parallel experience to the pandemic’s plight and impact. The foremost prolific biblical scholars of the last half-century released their own reflections. In April 2020, Walter Brueggemann released “Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty.” N.T. Wright released “God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath” in June 2020. Both writers offered reflections on the possibilities and promises of a pandemic.
The biblical text that has captured my imagination and shaped my meaning-making process most recently is Noah and the flood. In many ways, it captures the essence of my experience of the dual pandemic: coronavirus and racism. Genesis 6 describes the divine grief and sorrow experienced after witnessing humanity’s shortcomings. After 40 days and nights of rain, the global flood reached all of creation and spared only those of Noah’s household who had followed the instructions to shelter in place within the ark. God promised Noah that there would be new possibilities after the global pandemic: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22 NRSV).
Although the promise to “be fruitful and multiply” was extended to Noah and his sons, the possibilities would not be enjoyed equally. Sometime after the flood, Noah planted a vineyard, made and then overindulged in its wine, and fell into a drunken stupor. Ham, the youngest of Noah’s three sons, saw his father’s nakedness and told his older brothers. To avoid the shame of seeing their father’s nakedness, Shem and Japheth walk backwards into their father’s tent and cover him. When Noah awakes from his stupor and learns of his exposure, he shames Ham by cursing him and his descendants to serve his two older brothers and their descendants in perpetuity.
As Isabella Wilkerson, in her most recent work “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” explains, Ham and his descendants (Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan) were cursed not only to servitude but also to black skin. This understanding would be co-opted by Eurocentric readings of the text in the Middle Ages to inform the first pillar of caste: “Divine Will and the Laws of Nature.” Since then, white superiority and black inferiority have been thought of as edicts of divine will following nature’s laws. This false promise has fueled the global racism pandemic’s brutal possibilities for at least the last 400 years.
My personal reflection on the dual pandemic’s impact in Genesis 9 reveals what people of African descent had experienced time and time again. We uncover the nakedness of the majority culture’s shortsighted use of and indulgence in the possibilities of the promises of “seedtime and harvest” before being cursed and subjected to a subservient class within the social caste. As a result, we are disproportionately impacted by preexisting conditions as essential workers from the past plantation to the front lines of essential industries today.
What hopeful possibilities and promises can be found when those who reveal the naked truth of our forefathers’ vulnerability are cursed and shamed, while those who hide this truth are blessed and dignified? On this shortest day of light, I look again to my biblical ancestors’ for a glimmer of hope. Hindsight affords us a re-reading of the biblical text to discover the promises and possibilities therein. All of the descendants of Ham journeyed south to the continent of Africa. They took the promises extended to Noah’s descendants and made use of the possibilities afforded to them, including taking dignity and pride in their black skin. In hindsight, my re-reading has revealed the many insights to be gained from making biblical Africans great again.
There are 5 (the number of grace) such examples of biblical Africans that provide models of excellence worth noting— The Queen of Sheba, King Tirhakah, Ebed Melech, Simon of Cyrene, and the Ethiopian eunuch (a court officer of the Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians). I will reflect on these biblical African models throughout 2021. In these personalities, I see the possibilities–purpose, power, posture, position, and passion–within the promises of life before, during, and after a pandemic.
On this shortest day, just hours after the setting sun, we bore witness to the “Christmas Star,” that is, the “great conjunction” and solar passing of Jupiter by Saturn. Some 400 years had passed since the last occurrence of this celestial event. Unlike the temporary promise of annual vaccinations or even celestial meetings, the promises of Christmas are eternal. They address all sides of the problems we face and speak to the need for salvation. Salvation offers us a glimmer, no a beam, of hope through the possibilities of knowing that God is with us.