The letter to the Ephesians warns us to
“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible.” [Ephesians 5:11-12]
That’s all well-and-good, but it often seems that darkness disguises itself as light and the first thing that often happens when someone starts to come out of it is the recognition of the difference between artificial light and daylight, and how dark the night is just before the sun begins to rise.
Jay McInerny’s novel Bright Lights, Big City takes as its narrator and main character somebody who is eager to make it very big, very fast and projects that very clearly. He has left a small town in Kansas behind him to work at a bigtime magazine and he spends his nights doing the club scene, where the bouncers all wave him to the front of the line and he goes around wearing Ray Bans all the time. (Realize that this was the 1980’s, when Ray Bans were a big deal and pop songs included “The Future’s So Bright, I’ve Gotta Wear Shades” and “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night".
What he doesn’t let onto anyone about is that image and reality are different things. His job is not going so well, because the work he does on one or two hours of sleep is not his best. His wife has left him and the chances of pulling their marriage back together are slim. His sunglasses are there to protect his eyes because his unacknowledged cocaine addiction has made them painfully sensitive to light. And he is dumb enough to think that people are not going to notice.
News flash: they do. When people get caught up in the whirl of such things, the people around them see it. They may be so wrapped up in it themselves that they don’t comment, or maybe they don’t know how to bring up the subject. Sometimes they pretend not to see because they hold themselves responsible in some way, rightly or wrongly. A parent will wonder what they did or didn’t do that led to this. A spouse will do the same. A brother or sister will wonder if they set a bad example or teased them too much as a child. A boss will question when and how to say, “Enough. You’re done.” A child will just watch, scared.
It isn’t just substance addiction, either. That’s the easy one to point to. The addiction to status, to trying to be the bigwheel or the celebrity, that’s even harder. It looks so much like just being a buffoon or a blowhard. Have you ever seen The Office? The main character thinks he’s the center of everything at the Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company’s Scranton office, and he is the only person in the whole company who thinks he’s half as funny or intelligent as he believes. But nobody tells him until he pushes them too far, because they see something that he doesn’t think they do. They see how fragile he is.
Along with that goes the addiction to power, whatever petty territory someone rules. Maybe it’s a country. Maybe it’s an office. Perhaps it’s a classroom or a household. Control it if you can, because beyond those borders or those walls or those working hours lies a world that is not your own, and that does not respond to your commands or wishes or even needs.
In Bright Lights, Big City we find out slowly that the narrator became entangled in the web that his life had become because he was trying to get away from a deeper trouble. His mother had recently died of cancer, and there had been nothing he could do about it, except spend the time with her to let her know how much he loved her. He had not done that. That, too, was at the root of his problems with his wife. If she were to get sick, would he stand by her? Or would he hide? One definition of sin is “a disordered love”. It is loving anyone or anything more than God. It is loving yourself more than another. The hardest sins to deal with are the ones that are strictly between you and God – nobody else. The sins of the heart get locked away inside, where they begin. Who would ever allow them to see the light of day. Such sins are the ones that lead people to turn away from God, not out of simple guilt, but out of shame.
“For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly,”
we read. [Ephesians 5:12]
In such a condition, we may not even want to hear about forgiveness, because it hurts so much to know how desperately we need it. In the last couple of pages of his book, as McInerny’s narrator stumbles out of a club around 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, he’s falling apart physically and he’s falling apart spiritually.
“You’re not sure exactly where you are going. You don’t feel you have the strength to walk home. You walk faster. If the sunlight catches you on the streets, you will undergo some terrible chemical change.
After a few minutes you notice the blood on your fingers. You hold your hand up to your face. There is blood on your shirt, too. You find a Kleenex in your jacket pocket and hold it to your nose. You advance with your head tilted back against your shoulders.
By the time you reach Canal Street you think that you will never make it home. You look for taxis. A bum is sleeping under the awning of a shuttered shop. As you pass, he raises his head up and says, ‘God bless you and forgive your sins.’ You wait for the cadge, but it doesn’t come. You wish he hadn’t said anything.”
Well, whether or not you want to hear it, you are blessed and you are forgiven. Let me read on, from the novel, again.
“As you turn, what is left of your olfactory equipment sends a message to your brain: fresh bread. Somewhere they are breaking bread. You can smell it, even through the nose bleed. You see bakery trucks loading in front of a building on the next block. You watch as bags of rolls are carried out onto the loading dock by a man with tattooed forearms. This man is already at work so that normal people can have fresh bread for their morning tables. The righteous people who sleep at night and eat eggs for breakfast. It is Sunday morning and you haven’t eaten since…when? Friday night. As you approach, the smell of bread washes over you like a gentle rain. You inhale deeply, filling your lungs. Tears come to your eyes, and you feel such a rush of tenderness and pity that you stop beside a lamppost and hang on for support.
‘Could I have some? A roll or something?’
‘Get outta here.’
‘I’ll trade you my sunglasses,’ you say. You take off your shades and hand them up to him. ‘Ray-Bans. I lost the case.’ He tries them on, shakes his head a few times and then takes them off. He folds the glasses and puts them in his shirt pocket.
‘You’re crazy,’ he says. Then he looks back into the warehouse. He picks up a bag of hard rolls and throws it at your feet.
You get down on your knees and tear open the bag. The smell of warm dough envelops you. The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag. You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.”
Jesus, the Bread of Life, assures us that we can all do that. We may have to go slowly. We may have to relearn everything. But we are fed with the simple, honest forgiveness that our souls crave – and even if it sticks in our throat to say that we need it, that simple bread is what gives life. We aren’t meant to stumble hungrily through the dark,
“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” [Ephesians 5:8]