“The Darkness Is Inevitable”
Last summer, when I planned our “Simply Put” sermon series, I had in my mind the image of a wise, venerable sage, in the sunset of his or her life, sitting at a desk with pen and paper in a quiet, lamp-lit study, transcribing for us the simplest truths of faith and life—the holy, indispensable lessons that only one who has experienced the wonders and anguish, the heights and depths of life, could ever truly convey.
She sits at her desk, and in the handwriting of her old age, she writes: “Before I leave you, a few indispensable lessons I’ve learned along the way…”
In the dim glow of lamplight, he picks up his fountain pen and begins to write, “In the time that remains, I leave you with a handful of simple truths that might help you along your journey…”
Simply put, they write:
First, “No one is exempt”—life is shorter than you think, so give your self and your love daily to things that matter most.
Second, “You are enough”—you are not what you possess, or what you produce, or what others think of you. These will all fail you someday. So you must remember that you are God’s beloved, and that God takes delight in you.
Third, “You belong”—you are never alone in this world. You belong to a family of others who are at least as imperfect as you, whom Christ gathered around himself. In that family, you never have to try to fit in; you are only required to be yourself.
Fourth: “You are known”—God sees your beauty and your mess. God knows your hidden secrets and desires. God knows everything about you, and still, God turns not away from you, but toward you in love.
That leads us to today’s simple truth.
Months ago, as I planned today’s message, I chose Psalm 23 as our guiding scripture. Today’s simple truth was to have been “resting is required,” because it follows logically that when you know that you’re enough, when you trust that you belong, when you’re fully known and still accepted, you can finally rest, as Psalm 23 says. You can stop trying so hard and worrying so much about who you are and what you’ve achieved and, at last, stop and sit “beside still waters,” where God “restores your soul.”
Don’t we long for that kind of deep rest in our lives? The pace and anxiety of modern life leaves us so exhausted. Resting is required. As Ann Lamott says, “Nearly everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes—including you.”
That was what I had planned to talk to you about today.
But then a novel Coronavirus sweeps across the globe, disrupting every aspect of our lives—our health, our work, our relationships, our faith community, our daily rhythms—and we suddenly find ourselves more anxious than ever. Lying down in green meadows and resting beside still waters is what we long for, but today it feels more like we’re walking through what the Psalmist called “the valley of darkness.”
These are dark times. It’s hard to tell the difference between the very real and dangerous viral epidemic and the rising social epidemic of fear and the daily deluge of bad news that borders on the apocalyptic. It can start to feel so hopeless.
But the Psalmist offers a word of hope for us this morning:
“Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.”
How do you walk through the darkness without fear?
Darkness is shorthand for anything that frightens us—whether real or imagined: death, terrorism, temptation, addiction, loneliness, uncertainty, the perceived absence of God, anxiety about the future. In the darkness, when we are scared, we lose our bearings, we lose our way, and we can so easily lose sight of our ourselves—forgetting who we are.
How do we deal with the darkness?
When my kids were young, I was always intrigued by their inexhaustible fascination with light. Kids are naturally drawn to lights—Christmas lights, candlelight, nightlights, glow light necklaces, fire truck lights, laser lights, finger lights. You can even buy shoes for them that light up as they walk. What is it about lights that capture a child’s imagination? And what can they teach us?
I have a theory.
I’m one of those people who likes to leave several flashlights in strategic places around the house in the event of a nighttime emergency, and when my kids were young, I invariably discovered that not one of those flashlights ever seemed to work whenever I actually needed it.
Because to a child, a flashlight is a toy meant for exploring and learning about their dark world. Put a flashlight into the hands of a child and watch what she does: she’ll flip the switch and shine it into a dark closet, or into the darkness beneath the blankets, or into that darkness under the bed, where Legos and socks and fossilized Fruit Loops went missing years ago.
Children shine the light not to eliminate the darkness, but to illuminate it—to see the darkness better. If a parent were to walk in and flip on the bedroom light, the game would be over: her fascination would be lost, because she knows that the only way to understand her world is not to eliminate the darkness of it, but to illuminate just enough of it to see and know it without fear.
But for grown-ups, darkness is something we try to eliminate altogether. The invention of the incandescent lightbulb changed life in ways that most of us remain largely oblivious to. By providing us with adequate, inexpensive light, the lightbulb allowed us to make advances in every area of human enterprise, convincing us that there’s nothing we can’t handle with just a little more light.
The effect is that we’re more and more uncomfortable in darkness. We dread coming home to a dark house. We avoid dark alleys. We fall asleep with the TV on. We wake up in the middle of the night, and all of our fears and worries suddenly rise to the surface of our consciousness.
We work so hard to eliminate the darkness that we’ve forgotten how to see in the dark. When darkness comes, we grow fearful and lose our way, because we don’t know how to see in the dark.
Which makes this line from Psalm 23 all the more courageous: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil.”
He’s not saying, “Even though I might someday walk through the darkest valley…”
The writer of Psalm 23 is already in the dark valley.
Some scholars believe that he happens to be in the temple in Jerusalem as he’s writing these words—at the very moment when the temple is under siege by the enemy. Others say it’s a personal dark valley in his life that he’s walking through. Maybe the doctor just left the room after speaking that word, “malignant.” Maybe his child is in deep trouble and he doesn’t know what to do. Maybe it’s a broken marriage, or a job loss, or a strange virus that’s settled over his household.
We don’t know what it is. All we know is that he’s in the middle of a very real valley of darkness—as we are today.
And whenever darkness descends upon us, the reality that troubles us most is the apparent absence of God. If God is light, then wherever there is darkness, we assume that God is absent. There’s no luminous presence to comfort us in the dark valley, no familiar voice to reassure the soul that all will be well. There’s an impenetrability to the darkness that isolates us, so that it feels as if it’s just us, in all of our smallness, against the darkness, in all of its vastness.
So how does the Psalmist find the courage to say, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil?”
The Jewish poet, David Rosenberg, translates this line from the original Hebrew this way:
…though I pass
through cities of pain, through death’s living shadow
I’m not afraid to touch
to know what I am…
“I’m not afraid to touch, to know what I am…”
In the darkness, he reaches out to touch a world he cannot see, unafraid to reach out when his instincts are to withdraw. The more he touches, the less he fears, because it occurs to him that he knows this world—he’s seen it before, been there before. It’s dark now, but it’s no different. And that gives him reassurance that even though he can’t see God, it doesn’t mean God is absent.
And so in his valley of darkness, the Psalmist remembers two simple truths:
First—the darkness is inevitable; but despair is optional.
Darkness falls on all of us. It’s part of life. There is night and there is day—this is the rhythm of the universe, and it’s the rhythm of the soul.
St. John of the Cross, the Christian mystic, spoke of “the dark night of the soul.” He said that not only are we not immune to darkness, but that it can be God’s best gift to us—intended for our liberation.
What he meant is that the dark night can free us from all of our attachments to the things that we turn into substitutes for God: our daily comforts and rhythms; our sense of invincibility; our cherished individualism; all the things we use to distract ourselves from what’s real, like binge-watching Miss Maisel and Mad Men, or spending endless hours on Instagram, or our work.
These may all be wonderfully self-indulgent, but in the valley of darkness, we discover that they don’t actually light the way for us. That’s when we can finally turn to what is real and luminous: our faith, our relationships, community, simple kindnesses.
In the darkness we discover what we really need, and who we really are.
In this present darkness, God calls us back to such worthy things. What can we do?
Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation—so we can call our loved ones, our colleagues, our neighbors. We can ask them what they need, how we can help. Like Koko the Gorilla, who shared her bananas back in the 19070’s, we can share our rolls of toilet paper, our hand sanitizer, our green beans, or compassion.
We can sign up for an online Bible Study or class to stay connected to our faith and community.
We can sign up to make a meal or send canned food and supplies to those who are most vulnerable.
The darkness is inevitable, but despair is optional—so be the light.
Garret Keizer is an Episcopal minister. He wrote a memoir years ago entitled, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. He describes an Easter vigil service that he held in his tiny Vermont parish. When he arrived at the church, he discovered that just two other people—a husband and wife—had come for the service.
The three of them huddled together in the old church. Keizer lit the Paschal (Easter) candle and then extinguished all the other lights—a ritual that symbolizes the act waiting for God’s promise of hope in the darkness of the world. Together, they prayed: “Grant that… we may so burn with heavenly desires, that with pure minds we may attain to the festival of everlasting light.”
The candle sputtered in the dimness. As they prayed, they could hear cars passing by outside—all the sounds of the world oblivious to the ancient hopes being spoken in the church. But he says, “There we were, just three people and a flickering light.”
Like those three, we can be the light. We can embody the ancient hopes of God’s people who for centuries have refused to let the light go out.
“…though I pass through cities of pain, through death’s living shadow, I’m not afraid to touch, to know what I am…”
The Psalmist knows that the darkness is inevitable, but despair is optional, and so, by touching his world, he chooses to become the light.
The second truth he remembers is that darkness exaggerates everything, so we must refuse to doubt in the darkness what God has revealed to us in the light.
Darkness messes with our minds. Have you ever noticed that when someone you love is a hundred miles away, they might as well be a million miles away once the sun goes down? The phone call at noon is nothing out of ordinary, but when the phone rings at mid-night, it spells disaster. Watch a Steven King horror film, and then turn out the lights and lie in bed and try not to shudder when the wind howls, or when the screen door thumps against the front door, or when the house pops and creeks. You look out the window and you’re convinced that the fence posts are zombies. Darkness messes with our minds.
The Psalmist knows that darkness exaggerates everything, and so he refuses to doubt in the darkness what God has revealed to him in the light. That’s how we get through the valley of the shadows—we remember those simple words, “Thou are with me.” We cling to a faith that, in the face of fear, refuses to lose its reasonableness.
If you ever watched the popular 90’s television series, “X Files,” about the paranormal, you might remember the catchphrase that flashed on the screen before every episode. It read, “Trust no one; fear everything.”
Perhaps that describes our current context: the crisis of trust and the pervasive fear that borders on hysteria.
We have a God in whom we put our whole trust.
The prophet Isaiah says, “Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on their God” (50:10).
This darkness is real. But we can commit to being reasonable but trusting in God. We can remember that we are not the first to be here. Unlike those of previous generations, we are not staring down the barrel of the Great Depression and years of unemployment. We’re not mobilizing troops to fight the plague of tyranny overseas. We’re not battling the Spanish Flu of 1918—to which this pandemic has been compared. We’re battling a virus by staying home in order to protect our most vulnerable populations.
Doing so will come at a significant cost for all of us. But we’ll get through this—by helping one another, supporting one another, each doing our part. Adversity brings us together; it leads us to a deeper trust in God.
It will be difficult, particularly for small businesses and people who work for businesses that will be shuttered. It will be risky, particularly for doctors, nurses, first responders and caregivers. We’re going to have to help them—but we will make it through.
The darkness exaggerates everything, so never doubt in the darkness what God has revealed to you in the light: “The Lord is with me,” sings the Psalmist. That is enough.
Leave it to the ancient poets like him, who call us to trust in the Lord in the darkness, and to become better versions of ourselves.
And leave it to the modern poets among us like Bono, who sings it this way:
I know the world is done
But you don’t have to be
I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves
Are you tough enough to be kind?
Do you know your heart has its own mind?
Darkness gathers around the lights
There is a light
We can’t always see
If there is a world
We can’t always be
If there is a dark
That we shouldn’t doubt
And there is a light
Don’t let it go out
~ 13 (There Is A Light), U2
Our take-aways for today:
The darkness is inevitable, but despair is optional—so be the light.
Darkness exaggerates everything, so never doubt in the darkness what God has revealed to you in the light.