Monday, December 15, 2014

Learning to Walk in the Darkness Alert for the Light

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo.

          As a child I went through a prolonged period when I was deathly
afraid of the dark.  Every noise during the night seemed to mean a threat was near, and I had frequent nightmares.  The first prayer I ever remember saying was, “Please God, no dreams tonight.”  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

          At least partially because of this experience I have always been drawn to the “light” imagery that is pervasive in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament and particularly in John’s Gospel.  John’s Gospel is built on this and other contrasting images:  light/darkness, belief/unbelief, spirit/flesh, sight/blindness, and acceptance/rejection.  John creates an either/or world that keeps things simple.

          The problem is that things are hardly ever that simple, including the things of God.  To use a phrase from elsewhere in John’s Gospel, the truth that sets us free may be that these contrasting images are not opposites, one to be chosen over the other, but that what we should really seek is a balance between them.

          One of the best books I have read in a long time is Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark.  Taylor is a well-known Episcopal priest and preacher, although about ten years she left parish ministry.  Since then she has been writing books that stretch the spirituality of Christianity.

          Here’s a little taste:

[For me] “darkness” is shorthand for anything that scares me—either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.  The absence of God is in there, along with the fear of dementia and the loss of those nearest and dearest to me.  So is the melting of polar ice caps, the suffering of children, and the nagging question of what it will feel like to die.  If I had my way I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love—if I could just find the right night-lights to leave on.

At least I think I would.  The problem is this: when, despite my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick) plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nevertheless I do not die….I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my live over and over again, so that there is only one conclusion.  I need darkness as much as I need light.

          Now that may sound as far from a biblical value as you can get.  We sing, “I want to walk as a child of the light,” and would certainly never sing, “I want to walk as a child of the dark.”  And yet the biblical story does contain Taylor’s intuition about how the things we learn in the dark are vitally important.  Abraham has important talks with God and visions in the night, Jacob has not one but two decisive dreams in the dark that are fundamental to his relationship to God and the direction of his life, Moses meets God on the mountain in the darkness of a thick cloud, and the Hebrews escape Egypt in the dark.  I could go on and on.  Light may be preferred as an image in the Bible, but plenty of significant moments occur in the dark.

          In my life this is welcome news.  Because I live with bipolar disorder, I have spent my fair share of time in the dark, and more.  I spent a long time trying to keep that from happening, but it is a losing battle.  I have been resentful of it.  Most recently it has cost the ending of my relationship with a parish I dearly loved.

          Taylor’s book may be helping me to come at my experiences of darkness from a different direction.   It is not that I have to like them, but it is that I have to accept them.  Sure, there are things I can do to keep them at bay most of the time, but all of the time is not realistic.  I think I am learning that when I let them be, I can also more easily allow for a light to be given to me in the darkness.  I put it that way quite deliberately.  My trying to find by myself a candle in my darkness is a losing proposition.  But exercising enough Advent alertness so that I can receive the light is the task.

          By the way, this parish, you, have been a source of light for me in what has been a very dark year, and I am grateful.

          Part of accepting the darkness so that we can receive the light is letting go of our need to “understand” everything.  I believe intensely in the Incarnation, the showing of God to the world in Jesus, my brother, my friend.  But I have to take great care not to act as if God can be contained in some neatly wrapped package.

          St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote volumes about his understanding of God also said this:  “If you think you have understood, what you have understood is not God.”  One reason we must exercise Advent alertness is that God insists on remaining a mystery, being absolutely allergic to any attempt to control him.

          There are, of course, things we know about God and that we can depend upon God for.  We know that nothing can separate us from his love, that, in the words of the old eucharistic prayer, his “property is always to have mercy,” that we can have confidence to stand before him, as the hymn says, “Just as I am.”

          If this is confusing as all get out, well, you are right, it is.  But I do believe it is the truth that the less certain I become about God and about life, the more I am willing to experience the dark parts of life, the more faithful and joyful and hopeful I can be, the more I can walk in the light when it is offered to me.

          Just prior to introducing John the Baptist, the poet of the prologue of John’s Gospel says,

What has come into being in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

          Thanks be to God for that.  It is a hopeful thing to know that the darkness cannot quench the light.  But it is also true, if you think about it, that neither does the light quench the darkness.  No matter how much light we shine on our lives, no matter how many lights we turn on, the darkness is there and we will experience it.  The question is not if we will experience it but how.

          I’ll try to make it as simple as I can.  We must learn to walk in the darkness so that when the time comes we can walk through it with acceptance and courage.  And if we do that we will also be able to be alert enough that when the light is offered we can let it shine.

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