On the 42nd anniversary of the 1977 blackout, New York City experienced another (albeit much smaller and briefer) blackout last night. It was a strange epoch in an already-unsettling weekend that began, for me, with standing vigil at Foley Square as part of Lights for Liberty, holding up my phone along with nearly three thousand other phones, candles, and flashlights in the shadow of 26 Federal Plaza. Saturday morning found me chasing our friends’ toddler around the Elevated Acre and watched the helicopters and ferries bouncing along the East River with him and his parents; I went home and followed stories of the ICE raids, starting earlier than the projected date of today, on Twitter. That flowed into news of the blackout, and in an apophenic moment, I wondered if one had anything to do with the other.
In all this darkness, incongruous with the long days and late sunsets of summer, I repaired again to church this morning, where Donna asked if anyone had been affected by the blackout (a few folks had) and said, “Welcome back to the light.” During joys and concerns, Roy drew our attention to the space in the ceiling of the meeting room through which a small patch of blue sky was visible; such a gap would usually be more of a concern than a joy, but rather it’s a peeling-back, part of necessary work for our long-delayed roof replacement. Along with the roof replacement is coming an upgrade to our lighting system; Zac briefly dimmed the theatrical lights shining up at our ceiling to demonstrate the patchiness of our current illuminations, and we all gave thanks for the generosity and stewardship allowing this work to take place, and tried not to think too hard about the paint curling and flaking off the ceiling at the same time. That’s another project.
Sometimes, patching is itself a project. Today’s Ancient Testimony came from Ezekiel 13, in which Ezekiel (presumably on God’s behalf) condemns those that have “daubed untempered mortar” on the walls they have built. And while it would be easy enough to hear this passage as a condemnation of the walls and the wall-builders themselves, especially given the circumstances, it’s not that quite that simple. The language of the King James Version didn’t emerge very neatly from the Hebrew translation; “daubed untempered mortar” is perhaps better translated as “whitewashed,” Donna explained. In other words, a patch job. It’s what you do when you don’t have the time or resources to do better, to come back and apply the next layer of paint, to take the wall apart and start over again.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that? Wouldn’t it be great if we could tear down all the walls of untempered mortar, so to speak, and build something better? It would. And to be sure, patching is often unsustainable, as we’re learning in that same meeting room: the patch that has been our hydraulic lift is nearing the end of its useful life, and the need for an elevator that would make the building fully accessible is only more apparent by the day. It’s reasonable to infer that yesterday’s blackout was either caused by some kind of patch job or will be resolved by some kind of patch job.
But as individuals, sometimes all we can offer are patch jobs. I stand on the edge of Foley Square with the flashlight app on my phone turned to a soft golden orange meant to approximate a candle flame, or make a contribution to the New Sanctuary Coalition bond fund: a patch on a system for which “broken” isn’t a strong enough word anymore, so chaotic by design and so depersonalized as to be inhumane. Zac turns on the theatrical lights and hopes for days without rain as he sits in the tech booth: a patch on a house of faith whose house is in need of some serious work. These are the lights by which we welcome ourselves and each other, small and patchy though they often are.
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