You need black to see white

I never have much been a fan of explanations that seek to illuminate by looking to contrasts and opposing forces. In the church, we often are guilty of this in our attempts to justify pain and evil.  Our reasoning follows the lines of: "If there were not bad, then how would we know good?" and "We appreciate God's righteousness all the more because humanity is so wicked."  While I understand the motivaations underlying these impulses, I think we need something more robust than the (rather self-evident) observation that we need black in order to see white.

 

For one thing, these remarks about opposites can sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently establish unfair hierarchies.  Good is preferable to evil, yes, but white to black?  Why should that be the case?  I worry about the racial undertones to such a message, and I also believe that our world is far messier than clean ranking systems can convey.  

 

Take my drive to work last week: I hate driving in anything that resembles ice, snow, and rain, and I found myself last Tuesday enjoying a mix of all three.  I forget how difficult my commute can be on days when the sun is shining (or, even better, when it is overcast, and I have no glare in my eyes), but it takes only one treacherous or frustrating drive to remind me of what I take for granted.  I am driving a far distance, and I am grateful for the taxes that pay to keep up the roads, for the workers who built the interstate system in the first place, and for Virginia's generally mild weather patterns.  But I would not go so far as to say that rain's sole reason for existence is to make sunshine all the more enjoyable.  Rain has a time and a place (just preferably not when I am driving!).

 

This line of reasoning fails to get how often our world experience comprises glorious, confusing mixtures.  To play on my previous example of my commute, there have been times when the sun in shining and rain pours down.  I sit with families who laugh and joke through their tears as they face the most tragic and daunting of circumstances.  The simple fact is: Good and bad occupy the same space. Black and white collide to make gray.  Contradictions coexist.

 

And it's okay.

 

Part of why the Christian faith grabs me as it does--and has captivated me for so long--is because it embraces the  paradoxes rather than trying to deny them or explain them away.  Our savior was a mere babe at first.  There is the cross, but it is followed by the resurrection.  And communion...oh communion.  I could tell you about the five-year-old faces that beam at me when they stretch out their arms to receive the wafer of bread each week and almost audibly squeal with delight when a teenaged acolyte follows behind me with chalice for dipping.  They know that they are seen and just as important as every other guest at the altar role.  I could tell you about the sweet lady with dementia who takes bread, looks the priest in the eye, and wiggle her tongue and rolls her eyes while mouthing "thank you."  The disease has claimed some of her, but not all, and communion is still real and sacred to her.  I could tell you about the homeless man who sat for weeks in the first pew and finally decided to take communion, and how he nodded reverently as he lifted the wafer to his mouth but then in the following weeks again stayed behind in his pew as others went up to the altar.

 

It is when we lean into these strange mixtures of silliness and ceremony, laughter and sobs, clarity and confusion, that we experience our world to the fullest.  Such is the making of a life well lived.

 

Emily Rowell Brown