July 20, 2014 – 6th Sunday after Pentecost
This is week two of our eight week series called “Hum a Sermon.”1 We are reflecting on the texts and biblical images found in hymns–mostly new hymn texts in the Glory to God hymnal. Mark began last week with the theme of light and we sang “Come, Live in the Light.”
This morning I want to talk about darkness and in particular, finding God in the darkness. The bible is replete with images of light and dark. 1 John (1.5) says “God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.” The psalmist (139.12) proclaims that darkness does not exist for God: “the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
Overwhelmingly, the message of the bible is light is good and darkness is bad. We are instructed to live in the light and flee from the darkness. Darkness is associated with debauchery and sin and being separated from God.
It is not much of a leap after that for the darkness to be feared and the creatures that are active at night (like bats and many cats) are imbued with sinister and demonic characteristics. And it’s not a far stretch from there for people whose skin is dark to be seen as suspect and scary and evil and separated from God.
And so a whole theology of racial superiority develops from a theology that links God exclusively with the light–and therefore with whiteness. A theology that associates honor, purity, cleanliness, and godliness with white also means what is not white is dishonorable, impure, dirty and not of God. White people are honorable, pure, clean and godly. People with darker skin are dishonorable, impure, dirty and not of God. This theology enabled our white ancestors to abduct and murder 30-45 million Africans for 250 years when slavery was legal.2 It continues to enable white Christians to be complacent about poverty which disproportionately affects people of color as well as the New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander labels the reach of the criminal justice system today where more African Americans are under the control of the criminal justice system now – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – more than were enslaved in 1850.3
Now I am not opposed to the theological streams in the bible that associate God with light. It is one of our traditions. But it is time for us to break the association of God and light with God and white.
We need to develop a theology of finding God in the darkness. Not just that God brings light to the darkness but that God is found in the darkness because it is dark. And that if God lingers and lives in the dark, then darkness is good and holy and blessed. And therefore, creatures who are active in the darkness and people whose skin is beige or fawn or amber or mocha or mahogany or sable or onyx or ebony are also good and holy and blessed.
I know you know that. But we need more theological resources to counter the many voices that say, explicitly and implicitly, light (and therefore white) is God’s preference.
And so we get to a wonderful hymn text by Brian Wren titled “Joyful is the Dark”4–which we will sing in a few minutes. It’s not a hymn about how God brings light to the darkness. It’s a hymn about the beauty of the darkness where God dwells. And in the hymn we hear about the Spirit moving over the darkness in the very beginning. We hear about the birth of Jesus in the dark shadows of a stable floor. We sing of the darkness of the tomb as the beginning place of resurrection. And we sing hallelujah that even love is dark and glorious and haunting and joyful.
We could add a stanza from Exodus where Moses meets God, not in the light but in the thick darkness. We could sing along with one of the lovers from the Song of Songs: “I am black and beautiful.” We could tell the story of Jacob wrestling in the dark of night with God and in that darkness his life is forever changed. We could recall the experience of Saul (who will become Paul) who met Jesus on his travels and was made blind. For three days he had no sight and in the darkness of those days his life was recast.
Perhaps as we sing “Joyful is the Dark” we will experience the treasures of darkness as Isaiah speaks about.
And that reminds me of a poem by Wendell Berry called “To Know the Dark.”
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.5
One of the biblical images associated with darkness is hiddenness. “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places” says God through the prophet Isaiah.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her newest book Learning to Walk in the Dark, draws on what “the mystics of the Middle Ages understood: darkness holds divine mystery…‘If we turn away from darkness’ [she suggests]…‘isn’t there a chance we are running away from God?’”6
But in the darkness we have to rely on other ways of being than what most of us are used to in the light.
I remember when I was kid and had sleepovers with my friends. We’d turn the lights out and from our respective sleeping bags on the living room floor, we’d talk and talk and talk. There’d often be a long pause and we would listen for the change in breathing that said one person had fallen asleep. And then we’d talk more quietly.
Have you ever sat around the dying embers of a campfire late at night with people you love? There’s not enough light to see each other anymore but you can feel the other people–the energy of one another and the arm and shoulder of the person you’re sitting next to. Even though you’re tired you don’t want to leave this wonderful feeling of contentment and happiness with people you love and who love you.
Or think of the darkness of sleep when you are exhausted and done in for the day. And do you know that in our sleep, in the darkness (and sleep happens better when it is literally dark), without our making any of this happen, the hormones in our bodies shift so that the chemicals that kept us alert and engaged and ready at a moment’s notice to fight or flee or freeze, those hormones begin to ebb and hormones that repair the physical damage brought on by the stress of living begin to flow. Sleep improves our immune system and our brain function, protects our heart, reduces our chance of developing diabetes or becoming obese.7
Darkness requires other ways of being–some of which we can be conscious about (listening and touch, energy and emotions)–and some of which we have to surrender to being completely out of control (as we are in sleep).
The 16th century mystic John of the Cross wrote about the “Dark night of the soul”–an “experience of lostness, confusion, drought, and panic that is often part of the spiritual path.”8 And that’s often how we think about times of “darkness.”
But there is a biblical tradition that says God is in the darkness–whether it is the confusion and lostness that is part of the spiritual life or whether it is the holy wonder of the thick darkness where Moses meets God or the quiet conversation (with or without words) in the middle of the night with someone you love.
“I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Holy One, the God of Israel, who call[s] you by your name.” That’s Isaiah 45.
And over in Isaiah 48, we hear God say,
“Now I am revealing new things to you
Things hidden and unknown to you
Created just now, this very moment.
Of these things you have heard nothing until now.
So that you cannot say, O yes, I knew this.” (48.6-7)
“This is the God of ‘hidden things,’” says writer Christine Paintner, the God “who reveals new possibility in the moment, things we had never even dreamed of before.We don’t have to figure it all out…In the midst of the black space of night, we are invited to tend the sacred Mystery of a God who is far beyond our imaginations and calls us where we had dared not believe we would go.”9
That sounds like a new beginning to me. That begins in the darkness. That begins with God. That we can receive with joy.
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1 Thanks to the Rev. Jane Larsen-Wigger for the idea for this series.
2 Paul Kivel, Uprooting Racism – How white people can work for racial justice, rev. ed., (Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2002) 131.
3 http://www.cflj.org/new-jim-crow/, accessed 18 July 2014
4 Glory to God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #230.
5 Wendell Berry, Collected Poems – 1957-1982, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984) 107.
6 article from Time, 28 April 2014, 39.
7 http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/healing-power-sleep, accessed 19 July 2014.
8 Bradley P. Holt, Thirsty for God – a brief history of Christian spirituality, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005) 112.
9 http://abbeyofthearts.com/blog/2008/12/14/holy-darkness-1/, accessed 17 July 2014.