Be a Headlight

July 24, 2020
Dear Gathering,

In 2016, while speaking to a group of journalists at a Pulitzer Prize anniversary event, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis urged the audience to “be a headlight, not a taillight”.

I read that quote this past week, one of many that were circulating in remembrance and celebration of Lewis, who died a week ago today. The son of rural Alabama sharecroppers, as a child Lewis wanted to be a preacher, an aspiration common to most of the early civil rights leaders. He got involved in the movement as a teenager meeting future collaborators like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. At age 23, he was the youngest speaker to address the quarter of a million people at the famous 1963 March on Washington. Throughout his life, his words often sounded like a sermon. He had the ability not only to explain and argue, but to craft an argument in the form of a story that both challenged and inspired.

This particular quote caught my attention, because it is a phrase ripe with meaning. Like any good preacher, Lewis drops it and doesn’t over explain it, preferring his listeners to do some work with it themselves. So what does it mean? Well to the original hearers, a group of journalists, they might have heard it in the context of their own work. Journalism is often charged with being a bright light in the dark shadows of the world. As a devout Christian who knew his Bible, Lewis might have been referring to something Jesus once said, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before people” (Matt. 5.14, 16) But again, like only a wise preacher can do, Lewis gave both of these old ideas a twist. We are called to be lights, but what kind of light will you be?

What does a headlight do? It shines ahead, revealing what is coming, illuminating a way forward, and guiding the direction one will go in the future. A headlight is focused on what is coming, it is future-oriented, it points to where we should go from here. What does a taillight do? A taillight shines behind. It points behind, illuminating where we’ve come from, and the stretch of road already traveled. A taillight is about the past, about where we’ve been.

Lewis urges us to be a light yes, but not to be a light that is directed towards the past. We are not to be those who get too nostalgic, spending too much time remembering, romanticizing and wishing we could go back to the “good old days”. No. We are not called to be backwards facing (and besides, those good old days usually weren’t as good as we think they were). Instead, Lewis exhorts us to always look ahead, always look to that which is coming, always remember that God is not done with us yet. We are forward looking, forward leaning and forward working people. That is the road we are called to travel, and that is the focus we ought to keep.

Today, whether it is in your personal life or when you consider our world, you have a choice. You can look backwards, or forwards. You can focus on that which is past, or that which is coming. You can be a headlight or you can be a taillight. Which will you be?


p.s. This weekend we are starting a new series called The Basic Ingredients: God’s Recipe for Life. This series is perfect for your friends, whether they are religious or not. We will be talking all about how we choose to live – a question that is important especially now. I hope you will tune in online and invite a friend to worship with you.


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