Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV)I’ve always loved this particular message from Jesus, and perhaps a large part of it has to do with the song it inspired from the musical “Godspell.” (Original Broadway cast recording please; not the “Godspell 2000” soundtrack.) In fact, because of the song I find myself preferring the King James translation, at least for the phrase “let your light so shine…”
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."
I was taught many times in my youth to live my life so others would see the light of Christ shine through me. In the interest of full disclosure, I am sure have not been very good at following that advice on the regular, but I still think it’s a pretty good suggestion. After all, saying you are a Christian is one thing, but living as Jesus taught us to live is quite another. Further, if we are to be the face of Jesus in the world, we kind of owe it to Him to be good examples. And the hypocrisy of a wide chasm between word and deed is not setting a good example.
The passage also reminds me of the quote often attributed to Gandhi — “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want people to love their neighbors as they love themselves, well, you can do worse than showing them what that means by living your life in the same manner. We should hold no one to a higher standard than we would hold ourselves. Of course, that’s really, really hard, because it’s so much easier to reach for the specks in other’s eyes before addressing the planks in our own.
(As for the Gandhi quote, there’s no real evidence he ever said it. According to a 2011 New York Times article, the closest sentiment on record is: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.” Also a great point, and much more deeply nuanced. Yet significantly more difficult to cram on a bumper sticker. Maybe Gandhi needed a marketing consultant.)
Speaking of adages, how about the notion that charity starts at home? You know what else starts at home? Living right. It’s one thing to put on a good face — or a God face — when in public, be it at work or church or wherever we might feel we have a chance to make a good impression. But it’s another thing to do so in the privacy of your own home, in front of your family. If there’s a greater bull detector than wives and especially young children, I have yet to find it. You can’t, nor should you try, to fool your family. If your light so shines only on occasion, your kids will notice.
Perhaps they won’t call you on it directly. In fact, the younger they are, the less likely that is to happen. But what young kids will do is let you know just what kind of person you are by behaving exactly the same way you do. Every parent whose children can speak has lived through the shock of hearing their exact words and phrases parroted from the mouth of a child who may not understand the context, but sure as heck knows the inflection and intent of such words.
Sometimes this is cute, such as when I caught Jack putting his stuffed bear in timeout for some imaginary infraction, proving he did indeed understand the notion of discipline. Lucky for him, the bear was much more willing to accept his sentence. More often, it’s not cute, but it is embarrassing, such as when junior loudly repeats an expletive you casually used in his presence. The more people around when this happen the better, because you finally start to realize the kind of example you’re setting for the offspring.
As they get older, it becomes harder to discern when the kids are mirroring a parent’s behavior. That is, unless you have a wife who graciously points out that maybe, just maybe, the reason the kids aren’t getting ready to leave is because their dad doesn’t have his shoes and coat on either. Conversely, my own experience is it often takes the kid well into his 20s before he realizes he’s doing or saying things exactly the same way Mom or Dad always did.
This kind of imprinting and mirroring does not need to have negative, embarrassing connotations. If we are setting good examples for our kids, intentionally or otherwise, there is a strong likelihood we’ll see that reflect in them as they mature. In some cases, it takes an adult child to realize the positive and negative traits of their own parents passed on to their own nature, then put in some very difficult work to channel the good while suppressing the bad. In other cases, an adult child needs the perspective of life experiences (likely becoming a parent) to realize the good example set for them by preceding generations.
I don’t recall my grandfather ever once explaining to me the secrets of a good marriage or the right way to treat your wife or really anything that might constitute relationship advice. But somewhere along the way, I realized he loved my grandmother more than anything on this planet and stayed endlessly devoted to her for more than 50 years. When I had this awakening to something plainly in front of my face for at least two decades, I realized I wanted nothing more than to follow their model and build the same kind of life and family with Kristie. This is why I hope to never forget the sight of the tears in their eyes the day we got married. And why I dream of one day being the grandparents who beam with joy.
There’s a lot of time between now and then, should that day ever arrive. All I can do is let that light so shine, one day at a time, and do it with sincerity. I owe it to God, I owe it to my grandparents and parents and other adults who set a good example, and I owe it to my kids.
A prayer for May 1:
Lord, thank you for trusting me to be a light of the world. Please help me to remember my parenting is the most basic way to let that light shine. I want to set a good example for my kids in ways big and small. I want them to see and feel your presence in my life, and I want them to grow to not just love and respect me, but more importantly to love and respect you because of how I have loved and respected them. Amen.