Night Life


…and God separated the light from the darkness, and called the light Day and the darkness Night. (Genesis 1:4-5)

My family has a log cabin in the Catskill Mountains, right up against the state forest. There are other houses along the road, but they aren’t visible from our property, and there’s not a single streetlight. At night, if the sky is clear, you can see an incredible number of stars. And if the sky is cloudy, you can’t really see anything at all. Peering out the cabin door into the dark lawn, my five-year-old nephew once memorably declared: “I need the light so I can see the dark.”

I spent my childhood in Manhattan, the city that never sleeps. Where you could probably live your entire life and never experience true darkness, at least not outdoors. People talk about the New York City nightlife, but really there is no nightlife in the city, just more day-life. But in the Catskills, the darkness is still dark, and the night still lives.

Last weekend, we passed some of that nightlife along the road to our cabin. The moon was bright, so we were able to see deer browsing at the forest edge. We even startled a bear as it was crossing the road with its cubs. One of the cubs scooted up a tree, until its mother reassured it that we were not a threat. My daughter announced at that moment that this was the Best Vacation Ever. And we weren’t even there yet.

“In the beginning,” the story goes, “the earth was a formless void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep….Then God said, let there be light, and there was.” But the light was not instead of the darkness; the light was in addition to the darkness. God separated darkness from light, so that creation would no longer be formless. From an undifferentiated sea of sameness, God brought forth diversity.

Last weekend, I saw my first firefly of the season. As we watched it twinkle, my wife remarked that there didn’t seem to be as many of them now as she remembers from her childhood. She’s right; fireflies, like so many other species, are on the decline. They are subject to all the same challenges that impact other species – habitat loss, pollution, global warming – but they also face some unique challenges of their own. The glow of a firefly is a form of communication, by which they signal their presence to others of their species. But we humans are constantly generating light of our own. It spills from our televisions and street lamps, onto our lawns and parking lots, blurring the line between night and day. Fireflies are disappearing, because they can no longer find each other.

They need the darkness so they can see the light.



(Photo credit: Takashi Ota, Some rights reserved)


…so nothing else has to be.

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Acts 2:4-6

Once upon a time, the story goes, all humankind had one language. We spoke the same words, and this made us powerful. But God confused our language, so that we could no longer understand one another. Until, at the feast of Pentecost, the Spirit of God descended upon the apostles, and empowered them to overcome the language barrier – the barrier that, according to Genesis, God had created in the first place.

So what was the point of that detour? Didn’t God just bring us back where we started?  Not quite. Once upon a time, we shared one common language; but at Pentecost, all heard the good news in their own separate languages.

One language may sound like a utopian ideal. But one language can also mean one culture, one worldview, one-party politics. No wonder they were so powerful: they had no opposition. When God confused human language, God created human diversity. This should not surprise us at all, really. It’s what God has been doing all along, ever since God separated the darkness from the light: bringing forth diversity, out of uniformity.

God’s ways are not our ways; we aren’t always comfortable with those who don’t speak our language. When God confused our language, the story goes, we became scattered and divided. The price of our human diversity was that we became strangers to each other. And for the most part we remain strangers to this day. Humanity seems to be faced with a choice, between the unity of uniformity, and the discord of diversity.

But there is a third way. When the apostles gathered for the feast of Pentecost, people of every nation heard the good news in their own languages. God’s Spirit empowered them to bridge the gap between languages and cultures — not by erasing diversity, but by embracing it. The church was born in that moment. To borrow a phrase from William Sloane Coffin: “Church is the place where all hearts are one, so nothing else has to be.”