Finding a way

Thy word is lamp unto my feet and a light unto my way.

This refrain from Psalm 119 encourages the believer to trust what can be seen in the light of God’s word. Typically the church has equated this light with the Bible. Through generations the church learned to hold this lamp at a particular level and angle to best illuminate the path so as to avoid turning an ankle on a stone or getting tripped up in a ditch or pit. We travel together and when one of our own loses their way this lamp can be used to seek them out and find them before harm does.

We are usually a talkative group always singing the praises of the lamp, describing its many features and past uses; we crowd around it to enjoy the comfort of its glow. Occasionally, if we can be quiet enough, we might hear muffled sounds coming from the darkness; sometimes weeping, sometimes the grinding of teeth. We may lament the loss of these poor souls and wonder why they do not come to the light.

The truth though, is that some of these voices are only muffled to our ears because of the ease and speed that we are able to move past them in those dark places. But for those who pause or are forced off the path they may find that these sounds are indeed articulate; perhaps forming prophetic voices in the wilderness.

Womanist theologian Delores Williams is one such voice. Williams calls the church to remember that the Bible is not the Word of God, that the Word of God is living, that Jesus is living. We must remain attentive to how or where we will encounter the living word (Of course Jesus himself is recorded saying as much in John 5:39-40). Williams says that “Jesus is whoever Jesus has to be to function in a supportive way in the struggle.”[1]

The struggle for Williams is one of survival, survival for all those neglected and excluded from the bright lights of the world (including those shining in churches). Williams reminds us that even the Bible tends to privilege some voices and some lives at the cost of others. So we must bring the light of this struggle to the biblical text itself and ask who might be missing (or even murdered). While the Bible values the lives of Abram, Sarai, and Isaac the Bible consigns Hagar (the African slave woman) and Ishmael to the margins with God offering the most basic assistance for survival. Williams embraces this theme of survival and calls us off the well-lit path to attend to those who have not been valued by our tradition and even by our Bible.

Williams asks us to consider the possibility that we have mistaken the Bible for the lamp. The Word of God for Williams is the presence of one who comes alongside, even in the darkness, to gather with or as those struggling to find a way together even when it seems there is no way. This is no triumphant call of liberation, this is no smooth and well-lit path, but the daily and often grinding work of survival.

This call rings in my ears here in Winnipeg. This summer we witnessed a broad and intense spotlight cast across the city in the hopes of finding mother and grandmother Thelma Krull alive. The search has so far involved multiple layers of media awareness and direct actions including support from indigenous women who work at helping to find missing women in their own community. These indigenous women have added their light, meagre as it is, compared to the vast resources around them.

The indigenous women of Canada have experienced what Williams calls our attention to. We may affirm our desire for equal treatment of all people (#alllivesmatter) but the truth is that indigenous women with tragically high frequency are dragged out into the darkness with few willing to follow after them. And now as they lend their support to finding Krull I can only imagine the mix of emotions they are experiencing. I can only imagine the shared pain they feel in empathy with the family who has lost a loved one. But I also wonder at the questions that might arise, why Thelma and not my daughter, my mother, my auntie? This is of course no criticism of all the work going into finding Krull only a sober reminder that tragedy is often doubled in the way that something bad exposes or accentuates what has been bad all along.

We need to take care that our uncritical (and unfaithful) holding up of the Bible as the Word of God does not keep us from hearing the voices still crying in the wilderness, does not keep us seeking only our own, only staring down at our own feet on the path. We are not the light of the world nor do we hold the Word of God in our hands. Rather, the light, the word, and the way is found for those who gather and grope in the darkness and seek a way even when there seems to be no way; to express a faith which believes that Jesus will be present; that he will be who he needs to be to support the struggle, to find a way. May Jesus be such a lamp and light to Thelma Krull and all those still missing.

[1] Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, 180.