Spiritual Reflections

It was a dark and stormy night, kind of on the spooky side. Though not cold, the rain dampened everything but our spirits as my family went to the Minnesota Zoo. We went not to see the animals but rather the pumpkins.

Big ones. Small ones. Everywhere you looked, jack-o-lanterns looked back. There were pumpkins on the path, pumpkins on pedestals and even pumpkins in the trees. Some of them smiled while others smirked. A few tried to scare.

The theme of the squash sensation was “around the world.” Among the thousands of classically carved pumpkins were extra-large masterpieces representing people, places, folk stories and animals found on all the continents. There were pictures of sloths, sharks, toucans, Bob Marley, Maya Angelo, Bruce Lee and Mahatma Gandhi. To say that these carved works of art were amazing would be to understate the fact.

From the inside out, the pumpkins emitted an orange glow. The effect was magical and delighted both young and old. There was so much to see, so much to take in and so much to enjoy.

At the end of the pumpkin walk, the rain picked up again. We had about a mile to trek before we got to the shelter of our minivan. It was no matter. We walked a leisurely, though slightly quickened, pace and talked about what we had experienced. I would never have guessed that illuminated gourds could spark so many conversations. It was well worth the price of admission.

So what does this experience have to do with spirituality? Aren’t the origins of Halloween pagan? Don’t some Christians disavow anything connected to this ever-growing secular holiday?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what brings us together as a community. What shines into the night? These are spiritual questions that transcend denominational identities, religions, cultures and nationalities. Where do we find light in times that are darkened by the rhetoric of division, fear, insecurity and self-absorption?

On each continent and across the ages, human beings have struggled with these profound questions. They are part of our collective search for truth, meaning and freedom. Every prayer-filled journey contains a piece of the puzzle.

Our human ancestors wrote some of this wisdom down in sacred books so that they wouldn’t forget and could pass it along to their children. Sacred writings and practices brought new revelations and served as valuable sources of light. Humanity walked in the glow of our collective faith through unimaginable challenges and perils.

We also smashed a few pumpkins along the way. Instead of sharing the light that we found and allowing it to shine in the night alongside others, we demanded exclusive rights to truth. We held suspect those whose understandings and experiences were different from our own. Wars, violence, crusades, inquisitions and genocides were the nasty outcomes of letting our fear of those who didn’t share our perspectives or tribal affiliations get out of control.

Darkness has an insidious way of deepening. Fear and hatred do little to bring people together, find common ground or solve problems. Instead they isolate, separate, divide and reduce us to reactions that trade short-term personal security for lasting global peace. We act in the name of expediency, efficiency and self-interest. When that occurs, we add to the swirling cesspool that drowns relationships and prevent us from connecting with our fellow human creatures. Fear escalates as we continue down this road.

We need both the courage and correction that light provides. Light pushes back the night of despair, uncertainty and the unknown. Although fear thrives in these hidden recesses, it has a hard time existing when confronted by the revealing nature of light. We find new courage when we can see what we are facing.

As a Christian pastor, I seek to shine the light of Jesus’ ministry, teaching and life into life’s dark, stormy and spooky places. I do this by lifting the stories of Jesus that reach beyond boundaries and the exclusive, darkening theologies of the first century. Jesus challenged the Pharisees, who had a very limited and exclusive understanding of God. Jesus welcomed the poor, excluded, foreign and frightened people of his time and shared with them a vision of a banquet where all had a place and none were left out.

In these sacred stories, there is both comfort and invitation for Christians to go and do likewise. Not only that, but there is common ground to work with others from other religious backgrounds and convictions. We are all bearers of light even though our containers come in different shapes and sizes. Together we have the ability — and sacred responsibility — to illuminate the night.

My thoughts bring me back to that beautiful (albeit rainy and somewhat stormy) night at the zoo. Pumpkins great and small radiated through the dreary mist. Thousands of glowing gourds shared a sense of joy and wonder with the hundreds of people who wandered along the dark paths. It is an inspiring image.

What would it look like if we were able to do the same thing in our living this week? What if people of different faiths shone the light of love, grace and kindness as we made our way around town? How might we each reflect the radiance found at the heart of all our traditions? What joy might we generate from an openness to the faith values of others, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim or agnostic?

How might our community become a place that glows brightly, even in dark and foreboding times?

The Rev. Dr. Walt Lichtenberger is the lead pastor at St. James Lutheran Church in Burnsville. He is one of several area pastors who write for “Spiritual Reflections,” a weekly column appearing in this newspaper. He also writes devotions on his website, lightfromthishill.com.

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