When Hope Shines Brightest: A Recipe for Surviving the Dark
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(A Sermon inspired by Ezekiel 34:11-15)
At our house, we sleep with the heat turned all the way down to 55 degrees, which forces you to hunker down under layers of flannel and fleece. I will admit, it is my favorite time of year for sleeping—that cold air on your face, while you snuggle deep into downy fluff. But while winter makes for good sleeping—to me, it feels kind of heavy. Maybe it is all of those extra layers of clothing. Or the way the cold makes me crave rich, comfort foods. Whatever the reason, I dread the onset of winter. I don’t like the way my hair freezes if it hasn’t completely dried before I leave the house. I don’t like the slippery ground and fear of falling. But above all, I don’t like the dark.
Last winter, while I was bemoaning the months until spring, a member of this congregation let me in on her winter survival tactic. Each day, while the winter sky is still dark, in that time before the sun rises and begins to thaw the biting chill, she gets out of bed, pulls on layers of clothing, laces up her boots and heads outside. No matter how cold it is, she is out there, face turned up to the stars, beginning her day in that cold, dark silence. When the ground gets covered in snow and ice, she just straps on skies or snowshoes, and makes her way out to the field behind their house. She told me that once she stopped avoiding the winter, it became bearable. In fact, it became surprisingly beautiful.
You see, there’s something about walking toward, rather than away from, the darkness that transforms it.
Former Episcopal priest and modern day mystic Barbara Brown Taylor just came out with a new book called, Learning to Walk in the Dark. In it, she explores our very human fear of darkness. She starts off by recounting a childhood memory that takes place in the moments after her parents tuck her into bed for the night. She says:
Once the smell of my parents had faded away along with their footsteps… then all the loose darkness in (my) room started to collect in the closet and under the bed, pulling itself together with such magnetic malevolence that I could not keep my mind away from it. Without benefit of maturity or therapy, I had no way of knowing that the darkness was as much inside me as it was outside me, or that I had any power to affect its hold on me. No one had ever taught me to breathe into it (rather than tremble in fear). The idea that it might be friendly was absurd. The only strategy I had…for dealing with my fear was to turn on the lights and yell for help.
Okay, so that coping mechanism sounds totally familiar to me…My first impulse when I sense something that I am afraid of, or that I fear will overwhelm me, be it sadness, or loneliness, or hurt, is to try to escape—to turn on all the lights, so to speak, or yell for help. In my case that might look like retreating to the mind numbing safety of Facebook or Netflix, or maybe even a piece of really good chocolate… And while those are MY particular escape hatches, almost everyone has an emergency exit strategy for when something comes their way that they would rather not feel. (pause)
And there is nothing wrong with that from time to time. I am certainly not one to criticize the desire to finish a tough day with a good glass of wine or a favorite show. The problem arises when we are NEVER willing to face our internal shadows. As an adult, Barbara Brown Taylor wonders how her life might be different if, when she cried out to her parents in the dark, rather then flipping on the lights or assuring her that there were no monsters, they had instead encouraged curiosity about her fears. What if they had asked her questions about the monsters: what color were their eyes? What did they want from her? Were they, perhaps, friendly? You see curiosity is a way of walking toward darkness—making room for it to transform.
But instead, Barbara’s parents installed nightlights in her bedroom and the bathroom, and along the whole length of the hallway in between. She learned that the best response to darkness is to eradicate it, or run screaming until someone saves you… But while night lights can still the fears of a five year old, they aren’t much help when it comes to the darkness we face as adults: fear of sickness or death, fear of being alone or left behind, financial anxieties, fears about your kids and their safety, fears about global warming, or ebola, or biological warfare, or water running out… The list goes on and on, and some days it seems it could swallow us whole.
While doing some research for this sermon, I came across the word “nyctophobia”—which is the technical term for the fear of darkness, or night. The word is derived from “Nyx” the Greek goddess of chaos. Her role was to ride through the sky at the end of each day, drawing the curtain of night behind her. While she does not appear often in Greek mythology, when she does, she is a figure of such exceptional power and beauty, that she is feared, even by Zeus himself. Now, Nyx had a number of children, including: Sleep, Strife, Death, Destiny, Dreams and Doom—intense right? But here’s where it gets really interesting. She ALSO gave birth to two other children: Brightness and Day. Somehow, the Greek understanding was, that the same force that gave birth to those dark energies that lurk in the shadows, also gave birth to the daylight and brightness that we crave. And Greek mythology is not alone in this idea that light and dark are linked. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, the creation story in Genesis 1 starts off with God creating the world from the formless void—using the raw building blocks of darkness and chaos. Acknowledging that light is linked to darkness is ALSO a way of transforming it. (Pause)
So, keeping that in mind, I want to turn our attention to our text for today. Ezekiel, like so many prophets of the Hebrew Bible, seems to dwell in the darkness, focused on the gloom and doom of the day. His voice came to prominence during the 6th Century BCE when the Judeans had been exiled to Babylonia. Given this context, what the Judean people desperately want to hear is that they will soon return home to their land—that they will be vindicated and their displacement will end. But that is not what Ezekiel tells them. In fact, the passage for today is the lone, comforting passage in the entire book. Ezekiel’s understanding of God is rooted in a terrifying vision expressed through graphic images of violence. Up until this passage, he insists that believers are helpless before an indomitable and wrathful God who is utterly intolerant of sin. His visions are the stuff of nightmares. They are the monsters lurking in the closets of Ezekiel’s mind and haunting him.
Carolyn Sharp, Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale Divinity School writes in her online Blog:
The anguish of witnessing wholesale death and cultural decimation, along with the extraordinary stress of involuntary dislocation, makes for a heavy burden on the Judean exiles… Ezekiel himself comes close to breaking under the strain of what is required of him, (and he) suffers from powerful cognitive disruption … Some of his behavior may (even) be interpreted as post-traumatic stress.
It is also important to note that, at this time, the prevailing understanding of God was of a being who lived in one particular location—in the ark of the covenant, stored in the temple at Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s people would have believed that if the enemy had defeated them and taken the temple by force, it was only because that is what God wanted. So, in this context, to be exiled from your land and your temple, was also to be exiled from your God.
Which is what makes today’s passage so fascinating! After all of the previous dark passages about God’s anger toward the Judean people, we find this strangely beautiful and comforting passage that imagines a radically different kind of God. This God is not located in the temple—far away from the people’s suffering—but rather is like a shepherd who, in the midst of a dark storm, ventures out to retrieve the lost sheep—to comfort and protect them. It says: “As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness… I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down.” Hmmm. There’s something about walking toward, rather than away from, the darkness that transforms it. In the midst of nightmarish visions of destruction, Ezekiel has this surprising vision of a loving and nurturing God who goes out of the way to care for those who are lost and in need…. Can you imagine how healing this image would have been to a displaced people, who until now, have been blaming themselves for their situation. What a wild reversal to imagine that you might be beloved, even in the midst of your deepest suffering.
Now I don’t, personally, ascribe to the idea of an interventionist God who doles out punishment or protection. If God did have the power to end all suffering, I am not sure I would be able to forgive the many instances where people come to senseless harm. Rather my theology is closer to that vision of the shepherd. I imagine God as a presence that is with us even in the hardest of times—like a tiny flame of hope, whose light is sometimes MOST visible on the darkest days. I imagine God as a force who is made known when, instead of running away from the darkness, we show up to one another bringing unexpected love, undeserved forgiveness, unearned blessings—and peace in the midst of chaos. I recently heard a story that, for me, embodies the transformation that becomes possible when we walk toward the darkness.
I was the minister for two funerals in the last two weeks, one of which was really, really sad. Of course, leading up to it, I spent time with the family and dug deep to find the moments of hope and the stories to uplift. I tried to create a service that would give comfort on a hard, hard day… and I’d like to think I was successful… but even so, I left the service carrying some of that sadness. On the way home from the graveside service, I was riding with one of the funeral directors who asked me if I worked with Rev. Sandra Fischer. I said yes, I did indeed serve the same church, and he told me how impressed he was with her. You see, a couple of years ago they had called her to do a funeral. As there wasn’t a family member to meet with, she harvested information from the obituary and tried to cobble together an appropriate eulogy. But soon after she arrived to perform the service, it became clear that nobody was coming to the funeral. Literally, not one other person showed up. The funeral directors apologized for taking up Sandra’s time and told her that she could go home.
Now let me pause in the story just to say that there is almost nothing sadder to me than the idea of someone dying and no one showing up to mourn. Many people would sprint out of that funeral parlor and not look back. They would hop into their cars, go pick up some Ben and Jerry’s, get into their jammies and watch some terrible television until the sadness fell away. But that is not what Sandra did. Instead, she declared that no matter the life circumstances that led to this person die without a single person showing up to mourn him, his life still had value—that EVERY life has value. And that everyone deserves to have their life remembered and have their journey blessed. So, she said, if they didn’t mind, she would stay and do the funeral anyway. The funeral director and his colleague were so moved that they sat down in the front row—right in front of the coffin of this man. And like a God who goes out on the darkest of nights, to find the lost and struggling sheep, the three of them ventured into the sadness of that moment to remember the sacredness of this person’s life whom they had never met.
Now, I don’t know what happens when we die—but if that person was watching—I’d like to imagine what he saw was three small candles, being ignited in the darkness, guiding him back toward the mystery of love at the center of all things—the mystery we call God—and that by the light of their candles, he made his way home. (pause) Despite the dozens of services this funeral director participates in each month, that simple service years before, still gave him comfort, nurturing his hope for human goodness, even in the bleakest of circumstances. (pause) And when he shared that story with me, I could feel it feed my own internal flame—making hope burn a bit brighter. There’s something about walking toward, rather than away from, the darkness that transforms it.
Over the course of her book, Barbara Brown Taylor came to understand that perhaps darkness isn’t really the problem. Rather, by rushing to turn on the lights, we miss out on the gifts darkness has to offer. She writes:
While I am looking for something large, bright, and unmistakably holy, God (has a tendency to) slip something small, humble, and apparently negligible in my pocket. How many other treasures have I walked right by because they did not meet my standards? At least one of the day’s lessons is about learning to let go of my ideas about God so that my eyes are open to the God who is.
So, maybe THIS is how we survive the winter —or whatever the physical, spiritual or emotional darkness we each have to confront during this season in our lives. Rather than running away and burying our heads under the covers, we make the decision to pull on our boots and venture out into the night. Then, once our eyes adjust, we find that it is not as dark as we initially thought. (pause) And, of coruse, each of us has the potential to illuminate as well. When we engage in acts of kindness, acts of love, acts of witness, we ignite tiny flames of hope around us… until gathered together, side by side, WE sparkles in the darkness like so many stars on a cold winter’s night. And together, we await the rising of a new day’s sun.