Candles in Windows

I was blessed with getting stuck in the great blackout of 2003; the most profound of all blackouts in American history. We were in the process of a very messy move from Locust Valley on Long Island to Hillsborough where I had accepted a call to the Millstone church. The movers had done a poor job, leaving much behind, forcing me to make repeated trips back from New Jersey to Long Island. The week of the great blackout found me going back and forth, back and forth on the beltway through Queens and Brooklyn. The belt parkway is my least favorite road in the land of congestion. I even prefer the precarious BQE, because you can at least catch glimpses of the glory of Manhattan across the East River, keeping one wary eye open for traffic slamming to a stop. The beltway is always a tedious, slow ordeal.

I had sent the family on ahead of me and was alone on Long Island. The lights had gone out in Locust Valley just after four in the afternoon. In fact, I had just unplugged my daughter’s fish tank when the lights flickered and went out. Being a believer in total depravity, I assumed I had done something to cause the circuits to fail. I finished packing up the car and took off. Over the radio came the news that there was a blackout. It was not my fault after all. Not having enough gas to make it all the way to Jersey, I turned back and went home and spent more time packing and cleaning empty rooms in the Locust Valley parsonage. The power came back on after 8:00 PM and I boarded the Nissan Quest and set out again for Millstone. Only a few miles from Locust Valley, I plunged again into darkness. Power had been restored to only a tiny part of the north shore of Long Island. I decided to take the chance of making it to New Jersey by driving slowly. I was not alone. The traffic was light but slow moving on the belt parkway.

How did it feel to drive through Queens and Brooklyn in the darkness? Privileged. The hulks of the soaring apartment buildings were silhouetted against the dim light of a hazy moon. The only lights were our puny headlights as we sojourners rolled over the ups and downs of the bumpy beltway. Then, deep into Brooklyn, were the candles in the windows of dozens and dozens of high rises. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

A solitary firework soared up somewhere near the New York harbor and for just a moment gently illuminated the dark sky line of the riverside places in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn cradles much of the early history of the Reformed Church in America. The oldest building is a parsonage. Brooklyn is different. Concrete and steel, clutter and rust, new construction and slowly improving water now take the place of the trees, orchards, and rich soil our forebears found. The churches are still there. Some have passed on. Some vibrate, exploding with new immigrants, some gasp as what Howard Hageman called “one-lung churches.”

Brooklyn is exciting. My favorite memory of it will now be that precious night when the power went out. I will no longer loathe the beltway because of that one night. “You are the light of the world,” said Jesus. I saw it that night. Con Ed and LIPA can put out mega watts of power. But nothing they generate with coal, natural gas or uranium can touch the soul like those humble candles, the only light on a dark, dark night. There is an old Persian saying, “The stars shine brightest on the darkest night.” I saw. Thank God.

Fred Mueller is minister of Hillsborough Reformed Church in Hillsborough, New Jersey.