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Light never shines more brightly than when it clears away darkness. I celebrated the New Year at a party I was never supposed to attend. I was to spend the night of the 31st with friends in Albuquerque and drive home on January 1st. Through the darkness of a broken down car shined the light of friendship and hospitality. I watched the Rose Bowl at a home known for its wonderful holiday parties, and the evening ended with a moment that will live long in my musical memory.
Earlier this year a student of mine asked who Bruce Springsteen was, when I mentioned a song of his. I almost rent my garments. But on January 1st in Albuquerque, a young self-taught guitarist gave my dream answer when I asked him if he knew any Springsteen, “I know every song he ever wrote.” I laughed condescendingly, and his dad and mom, die-hard music fans of my generation, said, “He means it. Try to stump him.” The young man, Kevin Cummings, is in his early twenties and forms part of a six-member band that is making musical headlines in Albuquerque, The Noms. After hearing his guitar recreate the entire opening piano solo of “New York City Serenade,” I ceased caring that my machine was a dud, stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of New Mexico. (This post is laced with lyrics. Indulge me.)
He sang every song I could name. He sang “Thunder Road” for his parents since it was a song from their wedding reception. We shared songs I hadn’t heard since I heard them on vinyl. (Hear “Meeting Across the River” on the radio lately?) And when it was nearly January 2nd, he sang his favorite, which also happens to be mine and my little sister’s, “Racing in the Street,” from my favorite album: Darkness on the Edge of Town.
When Bruce Springsteen was honored at the Kennedy Center a few years ago, John Stewart quipped, “When you listen to a Springsteen song, you are not a loser. You are a character in an epic poem… about losers.” True enough. But the epic that begins in the badlands, in the dim outskirts, has a destination, even when it’s only longed-for and never fully realized, and that destination is redemption. Even when we are faced with just a meanness in this world, when we are faced with debts no honest man can pay, my baby and me still have to ride to the sea, to wash these sins off our hands.
It begins in darkness and at the periphery. But by God’s grace it doesn’t have to end there. Because our God of light seeks out the fallen, enters the darkness, reaches out to the edge of town. I hadn’t noticed that until Kevin’s Springsteen set up the dominos and Pope Francis tipped one over. The Pope’s Angelus Sunday speaks of Christ going out to the periphery and reaching out to people rough around the edges. He chooses rude fishermen as apostles and preaches “in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,” where Isaiah said the people in darkness would see a great light. And that is where the Gospel always needs to start. That is why Pope Francis wants pastors to smell like their flock. They cannot fear the darkness on the edge of town. That is their starting point. The Easter litugy begins in darkness, outside the church. The light of Christ enters. So it must be every time, everywhere.
But there is more. My own soul is a town besieged by temptation and oft breached by sin. There is much darkness in me that I often close off from Christ’s light. My own faith cannot grow where I feel comfy in my belief. It can only grow under the flickering lamp posts of the periphery, where Christ does battle with the demons I fear to face. He does it because he is my brother, and nothing feels better than blood on blood, and if a man turns his back on his family, he just ain’t no good. He took the burden of sin upon Himself. That’s my burden. That’s my sin. And He calls me to live in the light, and not to fear it. He calls me to believe the surprising, amazing, staggeringly puzzling truth that I, who feel so undeserving, wasn’t made for darkness and loserville, hiding on the back streets, but called to live in a mansion on the hill.
And the greatest paradox of all is that I grow in light when I reach out to the darkness of others. I grow in strength when I admit my weakness and allow Christ to work in me, when what could have been despair becomes a prayer and a plea. Light never shines more brightly than when it clears away darkness.
I believe in the love that you gave me, I believe in the hope that can save me, I believe in the faith and I pray, that someday it may raise me above these Badlands…