A Light Brighter Than Any

Deer Island is a fishing village off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada.  Small fishing boats head in and out of the harbor, into the North Atlantic every day.  The island is so small, that it doesn’t have a lighthouse.  And in the days before GPS systems fishing boats would regularly wander into dangerous waters, hitting the rocks, or foundering in the rough seas.

That is, until the community put a light on the steeple of the church.  You see, the church sat on the hill, overlooking the harbor.  It was the highest structure in the village.  And so the town invested in a bright light, which they installed at the base of the steeple, making it visible for miles.  And immediately, the number of boats that were lost dropped.  And when a fishing boat was overdue to return, town leaders would ring the church bell.  And the residents of Deer Island knew, when they heard the bell at night, whatever the time, they were to turn on every light in their homes and their businesses, to create a brighter glow…to guide the lost fishing boat home.

Light guides.  Light protects.  Sometimes, light even saves.

That is what the shepherds experienced on that dark Christmas Eve.  They were in the field, outside of the village of Bethlehem, watching their flocks when the light came.  The angel of God appeared, reassured them, and told them what was happening.  “For unto you, a child is born…unto you, a son is given…and he shall be the Messiah…the Lord.  Go and see.”  Where should they look? “Follow the light,” said the angel.

And the shepherds looked to the sky and found the star…a star brighter than any other…a star so bright that it felt close.  And they followed, until they found the manger, and the child…the Savior…and more than that.  At the manger, the shepherds found grace…they found hope, and they found love…love made flesh.

Do you ever feel alone?  Isolated, like on an ocean, or in a field at night?  Sometimes, I do.  There are days that we all feel this way…days when we all need light.

Author and teacher Mark Yaconelli, in book, Between the Listening and the Telling, tells the story of Morton Kelsey.  Morton Kelsey was born in 1917, five weeks premature.  Not many children born premature back then survived.  But Morton did.  He was what was called a “blue baby.”  His skin was thin and transparent, his head disproportionately large, and he had cerebral palsy and suffered from hearing loss.  His head was malformed, with a ridge on the back of his scalp from the use of forceps at his birth.  

1917 was a very different age.  Less was known about children like Morton, children with significant special needs.  The doctors told the new parents that this child likely wouldn’t survive long.  There were just too many things going against him.  When his mother first saw him, she experienced a deep shock, anger and grief. To deal with her grief and disappointment, Morton’s mother withdrew, and she refused to care for him. Once home, he slept in a shoe box that was set next to the wood stove for warmth. Morton was rarely held…rarely cared for.  

“My parents gave me just enough love to keep me alive,” Morton said.  “But no more.”   As soon as he was weaned, a fourteen-year-old girl from town was hired to come and live in a cottage near the house and provide full time care for Morton.  For his first four years, he lived a life separate from his mother and father.  

At age four, Morton was moved to a home for disabled children.  As a part of his intake there, he was given an intelligence test.  To everyone’s surprise, Morton’s scores were so high that the local school officials had Morton take the test a second time.  Again, his scores were near the top of the scale.

Morton was brought home, and for the first time, received love and acceptance from his parents as a full son.  But years of rejection had already inflicted deep damage.

Growing up, Morton suffered from extreme bouts of depression and anxiety.  His grades were good…top of the class even…but he felt worthless. Isolated.  Alone.  He felt like he was out, out in the dark.

In his early twenties, his emotional state was so fragile, that he decided he couldn’t take it anymore.  One evening he took his father’s rifle and walked into the Allegheny Mountains, fully prepared to end his life.  As the sun went down, he laid on a large rock formation to watch the stars, and he waited for midnight.  

And then, just as he prepared to leave his life, he heard something; a song came to him.  It was not a song that he heard through the ears.  It was deeper than that.  It was a song that came from within.  It was a sort of a lullaby.  A song of love, and comfort and warmth.  He heard it in his mind, over and over.  Morton stood up.

That was the turning point in Morton’s story.  Surprised, disoriented, and confused, he made his way home.  He wasn’t sure what had happened, but he suddenly felt like he had been given a purpose.  He went to college and graduated…with honors. Then on to graduate school, earned a Ph.D, and then went to seminary.  He became a husband, a father, a therapist, an author, a theologian and an Episcopal priest.  His life was full…though he always had these lingering questions…doubts… wonderings.  He said that he always lived on the very edge, of shadow.

Morton Kelsey

But in 1994, something extraordinary happened.  Morton received a letter from a woman named Clara.  She had come across one of Morton’s books and wondered if he had ever lived in Palmerton, Pennsylvania.  Yes, he had grown up there.

She wrote back: “It’s you!  When I was fourteen years old, your parents hired me to take care of you.  You were just an infant, but they placed you in my care, and together we lived in a detached cottage, close to them, but separate.  I felt like I was the luckiest girl in town.  Your parents provided a crib for you to sleep in, but you never slept in that crib.  You always slept next to me.  Your parents rarely held you.  But I loved to hold you constantly.  As you got older, I sang to you and told you stories.  For four years, you were the center of my life.  You were my best friend.”  She concluded by saying “I have been looking for you my whole life, Morton.  Please…please come and see me.”

And so, he did.  Morton and his wife, Barbara, flew to eastern Pennsylvania to visit this 91-year-old woman.  Clara had pictures; seventy-five-year-old snapshots of her, holding Morton as a baby and a toddler.  The two shared stories.  Morton’s wife, Barbara, said later, “They loved each other immediately.  It was like a long-lost son returning to his mother.” 

Barbara said “When it was time for us to leave, we stood in the doorway exchanging goodbyes.  Clara leaned forward and hugged Morton.  She placed her head on his chest, and held him tightly, and then she began to sing. It was a lullaby.  It was a song she had sung to Morton when he was a baby.  And Morton began to weep.  She sang and he wept these deep tears.”  

When they finally got in the car, Morton sat silent for a long time.  He said to Barbara, “Do you know the lullaby that Clara sang to me?  I had forgotten it, but it was the same song that came to me in the mountains all those years ago when I was planning to end my life.”  

Clara, you see, was Morton’s light.  She was his light in the darkness. He didn’t remember her…but he had remembered her light.   And it was Clara’s light that sustained him all those years…Clara’s light had saved his life.

The story of Morton and Clara is above all, a love story.  The kind of unconditional, unlimited, indescribable love that God gives.  It is a story of love, and hope, and of light.

In an article I recently read, Pastor Peter Marty wrote that those of us who follow Jesus “…follow a light brighter than the flicker of our own, little bulb.”  We follow a light, brighter than the flicker of our own, little bulb.

I do not know what the darkness in your life may be.  It may be emotional, or relational, or financial, or physical, or spiritual.  You may feel alone, disconnected, isolated, even lost.

But know this truth:  There is a light, a light brighter than any…and the name of that light is Jesus.  And Jesus guides, and protects, and directs, and restores lives.  And like the shepherds following the star, we are guided, protected, and loved.  This, my friends, is the message of Christmas.

At some point tonight, I’d encourage you to stop for just a moment…stop and look up.  See the sky and see the stars.  And remember that on this night, 2,000 years ago, those shepherds, they looked up at those same stars, and they saw a light…a light brighter than any other.  And be reminded that this light is still there.  It is for you.  That light is named Jesus.  Follow the light.  Be guided to the child…the savior.  And be reminded that he is your light, the light that no darkness can overcome, and know…know that you are loved.

Thanks be to God!  Merry Christmas!

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