Bringing light to dark places

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by Brooke Thomas

Isaiah 60:1-6 from Laughing Bird

On your feet, people of God! Let everyone see you!

The glory of the LORD has set you ablaze with light

like the sunrise on the rock.

Darkness overpowers the earth and its peoples,

blinding them, weighing them down;

but for you the sun always shines,

because the LORD has lit up your lives with glory.

As the brightness of your light intensifies,

nations and their rulers will be drawn to you

like moths to a flame.

Open your eyes! Look around you!

The crowds are streaming towards you.

Everyone is coming,

even the children you thought had gone forever.

What a sight for sore eyes!

You’ll be elated and proud – positively aglow.

You’ll be showered with gifts by those who arrive,

priceless gifts from overseas and around the world.

They’ll arrive by the truckload from everywhere,

from places rich and exotic and mysterious.

People will bring gold and frankincense,

and lavish their praise on the LORD.

Light is such a potent theme not just in the Bible and in western culture but in art and literature throughout history and across cultures.

Light represents life, wisdom, warmth, peace, the Spirit. It is one of the most prominent  metaphors in the Bible, mentioned over 260 times.

As I considered today’s theme, I was pondering the nature of light as a metaphor and I wondered – has light become too easy a metaphor for us? When light is a mere flick of a switch away, is it too easy to undervalue its symbolism? Does light feel like more of a blessing if it is harder won?

Consider our Palaeolithic ancestors: have any of you ever successfully created fire from friction or flint? It’s no mean feat. And before human beings worked that one out, it’s believed that primitive man obtained fire by carrying hot coals from the sites of naturally occurring wildfires and keeping the precious flame alive over as many days and weeks as possible. How precious would this resource have seemed while it lasted! – because not only was fire important for cooking and warmth, its light was critical for keeping away nocturnal predators. How much a blessing would light seem when your very survival depended on it?

The generation and containment of various sources of lights have since been integrally linked to human evolution and the development of civilisations. We invented the torch, the wick, the lamp, the candle, and the candelabra. We even filled jars with fireflies to capture their natural bioluminescence. Then came gas lighting, electrical lighting, and solar lighting.

I wonder, when light comes with the dawn, at the flick of the switch, or the strike of a match, is it too easy to accept the symbol of God’s light entering the world? I wonder if, when we consider ourselves as a source of light – of being tasked with carrying God’s light out into the world, can we take more personal responsibility for the symbol of light?

This led me then to think about that key story of light from the Gospels: Matthew said

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (5: 14-15)

In simplest terms, this passage in Matthew invites us to take ownership of our light as people of God: to let our words and deeds brighten our world and the lives of the people around us. To share this light is to participate in the identity of Christ.

This season of Epiphany is a celebration of light: wise men follow a bright star to welcome the new light of Jesus into the world.

Celebrating the coming of light is in-built to human beings. For millennia we have awaited and welcomed the return of longer, warmer, lighter days with the marking of the Winter solstice. When human survival is linked to the harvest cycle, the coming of Spring is the most significant event in the year.

Festivals of light exist in almost every human culture: Jewish, Chinese, Iranian, Thai, Japanese, Indian to name a few – they all have specific celebrations around the symbolism of light – light representing new life, fresh starts, the victory of good over evil. These festivals remind us that darkness must yield to light.

The coming of light in these celebrations also represents importantly the coming of wisdom. To focus on the  Indian festival of light, Diwali is a celebration that focuses on light as a symbol of the victory of good over evil and of knowledge prevailing over ignorance. Countless lamps are lit to symbolise that profound truth about life –that the darkness of the human experience that comes with fear, corruption and ignorance can be dispelled through the light of wisdom. It is this focus on the bringing of wisdom that I will talk more about next.

In my daily work I get to meet people from various advocacy groups and international organisations including the United Nations who are working towards the global empowerment of women through education because, as history and research shows, where women are educated – have the metaphorical  light of wisdom spread to them – profound, positive societal change follows.

As you may know, the United Nations, established the eight Millennium Development Goals in 2000, following the adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration. All member states at the time and 23 international organisations committed to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

The goals are as follows:

  1. to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. to achieve universal primary education
  3. to promote gender equality and empowering women
  4. to reduce child mortality rates
  5. to improve maternal health
  6. to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. to ensure environmental sustainability
  8. to develop a global partnership for development.

I have a video to share with you about the Millennium Development Goals

Video 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ErGv4Q87mE

In March this year, the United Nations will hold its annual Commission on the Status of Women, focussing on the achievements and ongoing challenges in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls. Member States gather at UN Headquarters in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide.

Goal number three  – striving for gender equality, the empowering of women, the valuing of their social and  economic participation, and the investment in the education and safety of girls – has immense transformative power for the world.

The path to gender equality and the empowerment of women is through the elimination of gender disparity in education at all level. Because educated girls raise healthier families. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later, and has two fewer children. Every year of schooling decreases infant mortality 5-10%. Mothers are also more likely to reinvest into the health and education of their children.

I think it’s encouraging to know that steady progress has been made towards equal access of girls and boys to education, and the gender gaps in access to education have narrowed, but disparities remain across different regions, at different levels of education, and particularly for
the most excluded and marginalised.

Poverty is the main cause of unequal access to education, particularly for girls of secondary-school age. Women and girls in many parts of the world are forced to spend many hours fetching water, and girls often do not attend school because of a lack
of decent sanitation facilities. Child marriage, violence, disability and pregnancy are all also significant barriers to education.

As a flow on from the education of girls, women are gaining ground in the labour market, but in every developing region they still tend to
hold less secure jobs, with little or no financial security or social benefits. And globally, women occupy only 25 per cent of senior management positions, and 20 per cent of seats in parliaments.

Specific measures used by governments and organisations worldwide to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls have included scholarships to keep girls in school longer; recruitment of more female teachers; conditional payments to impoverished families to send girls to school; encouraging young mothers to resume their educations; establishing women’s collectives to train rural women in basic business and budgeting skills; mentoring programs aimed at young female politicians and the introduction of quotas for female representation; and national programs to end violence against women.

In support of the Millennium Development Goals for gender equality, you might be interested to know that the Australian government focuses on three specific areas, both domestically and with our near Pacific neighbours, through the Office for Women:

The first is the National Action Plan to reduce violence against women and their children, including safety programs, domestic violence and sexual assault help services, and support for victims of people trafficking.

The second is a suite of measures to increase women’s economic empowerment and security through addressing issues of pay equity, workforce participation, superannuation, money management, and business skills.

And the third is promoting women’s leadership which includes programs aimed at reducing barriers to women participation in leadership roles in business, government, and civil society.

It’s not hard to spot the compatibility of the Millennium Development Goals with the values of Christianity. Jesus spoke of equality between rich and poor, slave and master, male and female, black and white. We are still a long way from that state of perfection that Jesus wants for us but we have been given directions on how to get there. The road is long; the obstacles many. The work of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, countless organisations worldwide, even our own UnitingCare Kippax shows us that change is possible where people choose to be light and bring that light into the darkness.

I have a final video for us to watch which is about the global benefits of allowing the education and enlightenment of women and girls – what this gift does for individuals, families, communities and the world.

Video 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cO5kh9fjCw0

Benediction

As we leave here today, as we go out into the world, may we be bringers of light, promoters of peace, whisperers of wisdom,

taking a message of equality, justice and enlightenment out into the dark shadows of the world.

We go in peace to love and serve the Lord,

In the name of Christ. Amen.

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