Brendan is a little boy growing up in a monastery—his uncle’s monastery. His uncle is the Abbot—the guy in charge, and his uncle is intent on keeping the evil out. The evil includes Viking invaders as well as the fairies and the wild forest and the supernatural spirits that live in the forest. Brendan is never allowed outside the walls. This is the set-up to the animated movie, The Secret of Kells. In the picture on the front of our bulletins, you can see Brendan going about his daily chores, with the monastery walls in the background.
Brendan doesn’t particularly question his uncle’s rules, although he does stare at the outside world, sometimes, wondering what he would find there if he could go romping through the woods. But one day they get a visitor—Aiden, an elderly monk from a different monastery—comes with news that his monastery was destroyed by Vikings. He comes bearing a book—a copy of the Bible that is in the process of being written and illustrated. Aiden is a master at the special kind of drawing called illuminating. The Abbot ramps up his building effort—the Vikings are getting closer, plus he now has an important person and a valuable book to protect.
But Aiden has a different perspective from the Abbot. Aiden doesn’t think building a wall is the right way to protect the treasure they’ve been given. He knows that this book he’s been working on is not a book to lock away—it is a book to share. It is a light to share, and the darker the world gets the more important it is to share the light.
I strongly encourage you to watch this movie and find out how Brendan navigates between these two different perspectives. It’s an interesting story, based on historical events and a real book—the Book of Kells—and the colors and shapes and style of animation is completely unique and captivating.
The tension laid out in this movie is a tension that Christians have felt throughout history—on the one hand, we have this impulse to protect our faith and our communities from outside threats. We know that we are called to be distinctive—to live with values and priorities that are based in Jesus’ teachings and example, not what is considered “normal” by the culture around us.
As Jesus says in this prayer from John 17, “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” And just one sentence later, he repeats, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” Sometimes it feels like it is necessary to protect ourselves and our children from those outside influences or temptations that might lure us away from who we believe we are called to be. Our identity and allegiance are found with Jesus, not with social, political or economic forces. We are Jesus-followers before we are consumers. We are children of God before we are Americans. We are imitators of Christ before we are imitators of fashion icons or trendsetters.
So, we have desert Fathers and Mothers in the first few centuries after Jesus’ life. We see monastic communities form throughout the middle ages. We see Puritans and Moravians flee from persecution and seek religious freedom in America. We see Mennonite and Amish communities preserving old lifestyles, and we even see an upsurge in home-schooling among Christians in the last half-century.
But that call to distinctiveness is only half of the equation, and this is where the tension comes in. We might be called to be distinctive from the world around us—to be in the world, but not of it, but we are called to be in the world—in fact, we are sent into the world. Right after saying that he and his followers do not belong to the world, Jesus says, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world,” and then, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
We have been given a gift—a gift of good news about how God wants to relate to this world, but our job is not just to preserve that gift in a glass case where no one can damage it—our calling is to bring that good news out—to share the light—to live in a way the lets everyone see the truth of this good news.
And, just as our history shows a legacy of people taking separation from the world to extremes, so we have extremes on this end of the spectrum, too. The Crusades, governments justifying imperial expansion by claiming that they were Christianizing other nations, missionaries who tried to share the good news of the Bible, but also shared diseases, consumerism, industrial capitalism, and European cultural norms.
They do not belong to this world…I have sent them into the world.
I think sometimes that the legacy of extremes—people and communities and nations that have retreated from the world or imposed themselves on it—scares us off from trying to really live out either part of our calling. For fear of becoming those isolationist Christians, we ignore our calling to be distinct—to live in a way that shows that we do not belong to the world—the culture we live in does not own us or dictate our values. For fear of becoming those obnoxious self-imposing Christians, we ignore the fact that we are sent—sent out into that culture that doesn’t own us to set other people free.
What would it look like if we started to embrace these two callings? How would we look different? How would our values differ from what we see on TV or at school or at work? Would we shop less, or differently? Would we stick people in the same categories our culture constructs—categories like liberal and conservative, white and black, rich and poor, put-together and a-mess, gay and straight—or would we look at people differently? Would we read the news the same way? Would we try to respond to social problems like poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, and job-loss by following the rules—written and unwritten—or would we look for new rules—new guidelines in Jesus’ example and teaching?
And how would we reach out to share the gift of good news? How would we communicate to our neighbors and strangers that God loves them wholeheartedly, with no reservations, no conditions, no expiration date? Who would we share it with? How would we live out the message, so that our words would be believable?
The children’s song, “This Little Light of Mine,” actually provides us with a wonderful image of how we can hold these two callings together in harmony. If you’ve ever tried to light a candle outside on a windy day, you know how useless it can seem. No sooner has the wick caught the flame and it’s blown out again by the wind. It’s better to light a candle inside, or behind a hand—in a sheltered place where the flame can grow strong. In the same way, we need spaces in our lives where we can retreat—step back from the whizz of busy-ness and catch the fire, again—remember who God is and what God is doing and why we’re excited about it in the first place. But once we’ve lit that flame, whether it’s in worship, or in Bible Study, or private devotionals, or an excellent dinner conversation—in any case, there is no point in having a candle if it doesn’t light anything up.
I have a friend who worked for a few years at an organization called International Justice Ministries, and she talks about how all the employees were required to spend the first 45 minutes of every work day doing private devotions. The founder of this ministry knew that, in order to continue doing the work they did, trying to confront child trafficking and other systematic injustices in the world they needed all their employees to access spiritual strength. They needed time in silence each day so that their candles would be burning bright when they stepped out into a dark world. Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine!
So, let’s shine! Let’s find ways to fan the flames in our time together—to feed off of each other’s energy and vision and experience of God. And then, let’s take those lights into the darkest corners of the world with the news that God is love.