It was someone else’s story, but over the years I have retold it as if it has become my own. It was Gardner Taylor’s story, which he told at the end of a sermon during my first year of divinity school, nearly fifty years ago. Dr. Taylor was then the pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn. Widely considered to be the “dean of American preaching”, Newsweek magazine ranked him as the best preacher in the English language. (Gardner Taylor died eight years ago at the age of 96).
The story was a recounting of what had happened during a church service the night before a civil rights march in Alabama. It was the practice at the time for people to gather the night before to pray, sing, hear sermons of support –all designed to prepare them for the risky enterprise they were going to undertake the next day.
Gardner Taylor was the second to last preacher at the service. Martin Luther King was to be the final speaker. As Dr. Taylor moved into the final crescendo of his sermon, inspiring both himself and the packed church, the lights suddenly went out. Dr. Taylor said he was struck mute with fear. Silence descended upon the congregation. The entire assembly fully expected that the church doors would burst open and police and thugs – or both, would storm in with guns and clubs – or both, and they would be arrested, beaten or worse. It had happened before.
The silence and fear was broken by an elderly woman’s voice from the back of the church: “Preach on, preacher; we can still see Jesus in the dark.” Her faith enabled Gardner Taylor to find his voice. He finished his sermon. The lights came back on. The congregation regained its courage and commitment. Dr. King closed the evening with a call to justice, power and love, which provided the spiritual foundation for their march the next day.
We can still see Jesus in the dark. That is a profound statement of faith for Christians. For people of other religious traditions, and for those who claim no religious tradition, instead of seeing Jesus in the dark, we can find light in the dark, or hope in the dark. Or solidarity in the dark.
This is hard to do, not so much because of the lack of faith, but due to the encroaching darkness of polarization, climate change, war, gun violence and all the rest. More and more people seem to want to hide in the darkness – because then they don’t have to see or feel the fearsome darkness outside their carefully protected bubbles. And there is a deafening silence, which is not really silence at all, but an endless cacophony of shrill, angry and threatening voices; and commentators who dissect those shrill, angry and threatening voices – and what most of us want to do is shut it all out. And then there is a growing cohort of people who fear that some authority is going to burst in into their lives – not with guns or clubs, but with threats to their way of life.
The Selma, Alabama congregation stepped out of the church that night and the next day stepped into a march for freedom; into an entrenched system that fought against their freedom. Following their example, we – people of faith, little faith or no faith, can step out of our fear and anxiety into the mandorla. The Italian word for almond, mandorla is the shape created when two circles intersect (think Venn diagram from 6th grade math; the mandorla is the featured image for this post). Step into that space where two opposing forces interconnect. In medieval art, the mandorla was the intersection between heaven and earth. In our contemporary world, the mandorla is the space between the intersecting circles of red and blue, gun rights proponents and gun law reformers, those who permit abortion and those who forbid it. It is not a place of compromise, but a space of transformation. The circles cannot be fully aligned, nor can they be completely separate. The mandorla has the capacity to generate new perspectives, if not new life. It requires risk and commitment, and faith that light and hope can be seen and built upon. By stepping into the mandorla we can step out of our political and ideological circles and march toward the light and hope.
One of Marin Luther King’s most remembered quotations brings power and love into the mandorla space. “Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Pundits and politicians tend to keep power and love separate. Power then becomes reckless and abusive; and love is rendered sentimental and anemic. Following the legacy and genius of Martin Luther King, we can bring power and love together. We need to bring them together – into the mandorla. That will go a long way to provide light in the darkness, and help generate a true silence that centers us so that we can march on with courage and commitment into greater hope.