Over the last two weeks Mich and I have enjoyed walking the beach in the early morning down at Point Lonsdale. The briny scent of the sea, the fresh air and the beauty of the bay make for a memorable walk. There is a freshness and vitality marked by shifting sand and seaweed, so that each day is always a little different; nothing is ever the same. Once on that walk some years ago a large sea lion was basking and barking on the path causing walkers to make a detour. Sometimes the path is wet with the spray from a high tide, and on other days everything is peaceful and calm.
One of the constants in that place is the silent presence of three lighthouses. They are a reminder of a day long past when sailing ships often foundered on the rocks and lives were lost at sea. They speak both of danger and of hope; the danger of hidden reefs and hope given in the light those beacons provide to warn of danger, and guide sailors to safety. Lighthouses have always fascinated me in their power to warn and guide, as have the stories of those who kept the light burning – those dedicated lighthouse keepers and their families often living in lonely and desolate places.
Of course most if not all of our lighthouses are now unmanned and automated, and ships have sophisticated navigational tools, that guide their path, but lighthouses still play a significant role along the shipping lanes, not only when those sophisticated tools fail. They remain part of an essential network of safety, but they also have a symbolic role, reminding us of the power of nature we too often think we have controlled and mastered. One of my favourite images is that of a lighthouse almost hidden by an enormous wave in a violent storm. Despite all that is forcibly thrown at it by the wind and waves it remains steadfast and firm with its beam of light constant and true.
The church has often been likened to a lighthouse – and when I say that I mean both the building we call church and the people who make up that gathered assembly of prayer and praise in that building. There is something awe-inspiring about the great cathedrals of Europe which have stood for centuries as a silent symbol of the presence of God in the midst of our world, just as the often silent and unseen impact of communities of faith embody the love and mercy of God in the way they work, in the values they carry, and the faith that inspires them to act with compassion toward their neighbour.
We have experienced this for ourselves this year as we entered months of restrictions and physical isolation, for throughout that time the church remained a constant in offering worship and pastoral care, reminding us that we need each other, and I want to thank all who have offered that care. With restrictions easing as we move from spring into summer there is a sense of hope in our communities as we cautiously test out our new found freedoms and, with some relief, plan Christmas gatherings where we can enjoy time with our families and friends.
All this coincides with the season of Advent – a season marked by prayerful waiting and hope. This hope is not wishful thinking but the conviction that God is present and at work in our world to bring order into our chaos. Like lighthouses, God has often been relegated to the outdated and obsolete, especially in times when all is bleak and seemingly hopeless. I think particularly of refugees fleeing the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia, who have already suffered extreme drought.
However, I am constantly amazed at the resilience of the human spirit that continues to work and wait expectantly for freedom, for security, for new life, and I am sure that God is in that waiting, that God is in that longing, that God walks beside us shining as a beacon of light into our darkness even when we are not aware of it.