Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Turning on the Lights (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 24, 2013)

Canadian story teller, Shane Koyczan[1], tells the story of being raised by his grandparents. Koyczan had terrible nightmares, but his grandfather had a unique way of dealing with them. He says that his grandfather had two memorable characteristics. First, he loved beef jerky. That may seem like a trivial fact, but trust me, it will be useful to know later. Second, his granddad had a way with monsters.


As a child, Koyczan says that his bedroom was full of monsters. His closet was stuffed with long-legged demons who could make it from one side of the room to the other in a single step.  When the demons would get out of the closet, Koyczan would wake up screaming, and his grandfather would storm down the hall and throw open the door to his grandson's room, and say, "All right, you monsters. I swear to God I'm going to turn on the darn lights." Well, actually his grandfather modified "monsters" with a colorful adjective and he didn't say "darn lights", but you get the point.


Koyczan went on to say that no monster has ever heard a battle cry more terrifying than "I will turn on the darn lights". Every night his grandfather took boogie men by the ears and threw them out on their butts. He dragged the carcasses of dead monsters out of his room, grabbed a broom, swept the remains of his grandson's nightmares into a dustpan, emptied them into a trash can, and said, "Sweet dreams, my boy." 


Koyczan said that he learned as a boy that not every hero wears a cape. When he would cry out in the night, his grandfather would suddenly appear in the doorway of his bedroom, ready to wage war, to restore light to darkness, to dismiss shadows.


But these nightmares continued night after night, and Koyczan noticed that the constant nightly battles with dragons and demons began to wear on his grandfather. So he resolved to fight the demons himself. But one night the demons were just too much for him, and he cried out for his grandfather again.


His grandfather came into his bedroom, dispatched the demons in the closet, then stuck his head under Koyczan's bed and said, "What in the world is all my beef jerky doing under your bed?"


You see, Koyczan had decided that he could get a good night's sleep by making peace with his monsters and feeding them with his grandfather's beef jerky.


Sometimes when we believe in monsters, they take up residence under our beds. They may even take root in our heads. But when they get inside us, they grow and grow, and we need to keep feeding them. We may even believe that it is better to keep our fears a secret and not tell anyone about them. Our hearts become like dark tombs. And in those dark tombs, our fears fester like sores, and get dangerously infected. They may even become life-threatening.


What we need is for someone to break down the door of our dark rooms and turn on the lights.


In the eighth century before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah said, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined."


We are the people that Isaiah was talking about, the people who walk in darkness and dwell in a land of deep darkness. Every single one of us knows what it's like to dwell in darkness. We all know what it's like to turn off the lights and go to bed and hear monsters stirring in the closet and demons scratching under the bed. We all long for someone like Shane Koyczan's grandfather to come running down the hall and throw open the door and turn on the lights and throw the boogie men out on their butts.


Most folks take one of two approaches to the problem of the demons in the dark.


Some folks will tell you that it's all in your imagination, that there aren't any demons in the closet or monsters hiding under your bed. They will tell you that they are just projections of childhood fears and fantasies or that you've been reading too many Stephen King novels or something like that.


But don't you believe them. The demons in the dark are quite real. I have seen them and so have you. And many of us, including me, have the scars to prove it.


If the 20th century taught us nothing else, it certainly taught us that there are demons lurking in the dark corners of our hearts and minds. How else can we explain the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, a regime that came to power in one of the best educated and most civilized countries in the world, the country that gave us composers such as Beethoven and poets such as Goethe and scientists such as Einstein? How else can we explain the Soviet gulag or Mao's cultural revolution or the Rwandan genocide?


Closer to home, how can we explain the murder of 20 children in Newtown, CT, or the Columbine massacre, if there are no demons in the dark?


The other approach to the demons in the dark is to make peace with them, negotiate with them, even feed them. Some people allow the demons to live in just a small corner of their dark bedrooms, just a little subdivision in their hearts and minds. But that doesn't work because the demons want more and more territory, more and more food and drink. They get bigger and bigger, stronger and stronger. So do not make peace with the demons.


There is only one thing to do with the demons - turn on the lights, kick them out, throw them out on their butts. But demons are strong and we are weak. We need help. We need someone like Shane Koyczan's grandfather to help us.


Well, as Koyczan said, not all heroes wear capes. The good news of Christmas is that someone came to chase the demons away. Someone came not only to turn on the light but to be the light of the world.


Like the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem, we are huddled together in the cold and dark, and we know that just outside our tiny circle of light there are demons, there are monsters, there are things for which we do not even have names. But there are also angels; there is a heavenly host;  there is singing, and above all there is light, glorious light, the very first thing that God created. And God's light pushes back the darkness; it pushes back the cold; it pushes back the demons.


And the song that the angels sang to the shepherds, they also sing to us, "Do not be afraid... do not be afraid..."


To the frightened child with the sheets pulled up over her head, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To the unemployed construction worker, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To the person with cancer, with AIDS, the hospice patient, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To the people waiting in line for food from our Epicenter, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To every single one of us, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." Here is One who is stronger than the demons, Someone who has come to turn on the lights, to throw them out on their butts, to sweep them up and deposit them in the trash can.


"For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord."


Merry Christmas.





[1] Shane Koyczan's story can be heard on the NPR program Snap Judgement: