“Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the dark of doubt away.
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.”1 from “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee” lyrics by Henry Van Dyke, Jr.
I love these words! I sing these words, and I mean them. And yet. In the Church, we invoke light and dark language so often, we don’t even realize it.
If you are conversational in Churchspeak, then you know it’s common to treat darkness and light as diametrical opposites. It becomes a kind of code— darkness represents mystery and uncertainty; light represents clarity and truth. Darkness sits with grief; light shimmers with joy. But then the poetry gets reduced to the code.
Pretty soon, darkness equals death; light equals life. Then if you blink, you’ll miss it, because the next thing is we’re not only naming opposites, now we’ve begun to assign judgement.
All through the poetry in the Bible and the lyrics of our hymns, we praise the light and renounce the darkness. Maybe without even meaning to, we’ve arrived at the decision in our own hearts that light is good and dark is bad…
It could be, if we don’t stop to notice, we could miss the sunrise that shows light and dark are not always opposite. Regularly, they spill into each other. If we don’t stop to notice, we could miss the sunset demonstrating that darkness is not actually evil after all.
In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor shares my concern about how easy it is to take for granted that light is good and dark is bad; there’s plenty of biblical support for this dualism. But then she delves into the Bible stories and discovers how time and again —the critical action happens at night.
In the dark, the angel wrestles with Jacob until Jacob learns who he is and demands the blessing. In the dark, God leads the Israelites through the wilderness, a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. In the dark, the angels turn up, the Lord walks on the water, the prison doors are opened, the dead are called back to life…
In this hemisphere, Advent is the dark season. Beginning today and throughout Advent, I invite you to give yourself a few moments of darkness every day. You might find that it’s harder than you’d think —our world is flooded with light. But if we can try it, if we can learn how to just be with the darkness, even for a few minutes, we might find that the dark is alive with possibility.
Even in the poetry of the Bible where it can seem so this or that, darkness is the place of turning. The dark gives us privacy for changing, it gives us protection to repent, to let our own hearts be turned toward God, to let our own grip on grief begin to soften…
In just a moment, we’ll share in reading and hearing Psalm Eighty-Eight, and a word of warning is needed because it turns out this is not a cheery holiday poem. You will not find this Psalm printed inside a candy-cane border on a Hallmark Christmas card.
Psalm Eighty-Eight is situated staunchly in the dark of the dark. Here the darkness is drenched in sorrow, and the person issuing this prayer is chillingly alone. Now on the one hand, it would be easy to hear this Psalm and rehearse the opinion that darkness is bad and light is good. But we have another choice.
As you’re hearing Psalm Eighty-Eight (you might even choose to pause the video and get a Bible and read it to yourself while Kathy reads it aloud) as this Psalm unfolds, it raises a question: If this person is already in the Pit, if this person is so deep into grief that all they can see in any direction is more grief, if this person is so alone that no living person could hear them scream…
How is it possible that this person can pray to God?
Where does their prayer come from?
They have to have something more than darkness inside of them! The darkness that fills them and surrounds them has to be doing something more than disappearing them into the nothing. We’re about to hear a person cry out to the LORD from the dark, and it’s an ugly cry. They have to pause partway through the Psalm to catch their breath because they’re sobbing!
And what we’re about to hear is a person crying out to the Holy Spirit in the dark as though it is possible to do this. Because it is. As though God might hear the prayer we cry even when it’s made of complaining and cursing. Because she does.
There is the promise of turning hidden inside the darkness.
It will take some work to hear it, but I promise there is hope hidden inside of Psalm Eighty-Eight.
May God give blessing to our reading and hearing of this Word.
It’s like the darkness knows the truth Jesus was getting at in his Sermon on the Plain. Woe to you who already have everything, says the Lord. Woe to you who understand, you who are rich, you who are in control… One day you will lose what you have. But blessed are you who are longing. Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled. Woe to you who are laughing now; the day will come when you will mourn. But blessed are you who are grieving. You will be comforted. Everything changes. Imagine if it’s the work of the dark to hold holy this turning…
In the darkness, death turns into life. Life comes back to life! In darkness, captivity turns into liberation, the prison doors fling open, the wise men are warned to go home another way. As we just heard in the Psalm, in the dark, the animals come out to find food —hunger turns into abundance.
In some way or another, all of us are finding ourselves in the dark this season. We could be grieving… We could be unsure where the path will lead, what will happen with our nation, what will happen with our jobs, what will happen with our health… All of us carry darkness in our own being. Which means that all of us carry within ourselves the promise of turning. We could change!
The darkness gives itself to the possibility that it could break into light.
During this Advent season, our theme is searching for light in the darkness. This searching is so important because it acknowledges that things will not always be like this. In case nobody has warned you, somebody should. When you go out searching for light, there’s the real likelihood that we’re going to find it.
Coming up next in our worship service is the Lighting of the Advent candles. If we were sitting together in the sanctuary, we’d all get to watch one person light one tall purple candle, and it would be bring a little more light into a well-lit room, and we’d all see it, and it would be very good.
But there’s a new opportunity before us this year. We could each light a candle in our own homes. (And yes, it can be a symbolic candle if a real candle is not available to you.) We could each consider how our own darkness holds a longing for light. We could each add a little more light to our homes. Imagine what that does to the world! In our farmhouses, and city apartments, and houses in town, wherever you find yourself, we’re all beholding the dark making room for the light.
This year, our Advent Candle song is This Little Light of Mine. I hope you will join in the singing —even if no one else can hear you— even if everyone can hear you!
Now we don’t know who first composed This Little Light of Mine. Some credit the prolific hymn writer Harry Dixon Loes; they say he wrote this as a children’s Sunday School song in the nineteen twenties. That’s possible; we don’t know. What no one disputes is how this song poured into the world and got picked up in all kinds of settings.
Zilphia Horton turned This Little Light of Mine into an anthem for the Civil Rights movement in the nineteen fifties and sixties. Fannie Lou Hamer sang this song as she was getting arrested for attempting to register to vote. This Little Light of Mine is what the people of faith sang in Charlottesville a few summers ago in order to counter the chanting of the Nazis.2https://www.npr.org/2018/08/06/630051651/american-anthem-this-little-light-of-mine-resistance
What I love about this song is it captures the whole spectrum of Church of Peace. It’s got roots as a buttoned-up Sunday School song, and we know this respectful Sunday School spirit. Of course this song is soaring for social justice, and we’ve got holy protest in our church too. And you and I know; we’ve got the light of God in us. Already in the dark.
Blessing on this season as darkness holds the promise of turning.
Blessing on your home as it might be about to get a little more light…
Blessing on all of us filling up the night with singing!