The journey of our lives is a continuing cycle of ups and downs, comfortable straight roads and unexpected, crazy turns, times of darkness and despair and times of light and joy. Metaphorically, the journey through Advent, is the same cycle. It gets dark before 5 p.m. and the days will continue to get shorter until the Winter Solstice on December 21, after which daylight hours will begin to get longer again. Jesus’ birth day (which we really don’t know) was deliberately placed on December 25, which, in ancient times, was the last day of the Roman feast of Saturnalia, honoring the winter solstice and the “Day of the Unconquerable Sun”. Symbolically, the birth of Jesus brings light (enlightenment, spiritual knowledge of God) to the world.
Metaphorically we have the promise of a brighter day. We have hope for the future. But in the dark days it is hard to feel that. And there seem to be plenty of dark days right now. What do we do with the darkness, the tragedies, the struggles, the unexpected difficult bends in the road?
(To listen to the full audio version of this sermon, click here.)
James Conlon, author of “The Sacred Impulse” writes, “Our spiritual journey is as much an embracing of “endarkenment” as enlightenment. It is a journey into silence, a context in which to face our fears, to embrace the cosmic shadow as well our own shadow, to discover a home for our pain, and to realize that our pain is a teacher. Our goal is not to escape life, but to embrace it, to find a home for it in our journey and to allow it to be our teacher.”
The older I get, the more I realize that the true journey of our lives isn’t about anything outside of us. In fact, our outside journey is merely a container for our inside journey. Our outside journey teaches us, or not. It makes us more compassionate, or not. It helps us learn to love better, or not. It deepens our connection with the Divine, or not.
Our spiritual journey is not about escaping life by living in denial, or running away from problems, or expecting God to look like a magic genie and fix everything. On the contrary, the spiritual journey is about embracing all of life and allowing it to teach us. We have to embrace the times of “endarkenment,” as well as the times of enlightenment. We need to be willing to take the bends in the road, the turns in our lives and learn from them.
Someone once said, “The bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you refuse to take the turn.”
Harold Kushner tells the story of an American tourist who found himself in India on the day of a pilgrimage to the top of a sacred mountain. Thousands of people would climb the steep path to the mountaintop. The tourist, who had been jogging and doing vigorous exercise and thought he was in good shape, decided to join in and share the experience. After twenty minutes, he was out of breath and could hardly climb another step, while women carrying babies, and frail old men with canes, move easily past him. “I don’t understand it,” he said to an Indian companion. “How can those people do it when I can’t?” His friend answered, “It is because you have the typical American habit of seeing everything as a test. You see the mountain as your enemy and you set out to defeat it. So, naturally, the mountain fights back and it is stronger than you are. We do not see the mountain as our enemy to be conquered. The purpose of our climb is to become one with the mountain and so it lifts us up and carries us along.”
Life is full of examples of how people became one with the adversity in their lives, embraced it and found a home for it in their journey. Here are two I read about just last week:
- Jeana Monroe, the woman in the Racine paper last week whose son accidentally killed himself while playing a choking game. She has now vowed to bring awareness to as many people as possible of the dangers of this game.
- Susana Trimarco, an Argentinian mother whose daughter was kidnapped and forced into sex slavery, which has led her on a 10 year journey to find her daughter, in the meantime she has freed about 900 other girls and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wherever you are in your journey, whether heading up the mountain or down, whether on a straight, comfortable path, mid-turn, or facing what looks like a looming bend in the road, know that you are not alone. Center yourself and draw near to the divine. Know that your outside journey is a vehicle for growing deeper spiritually. What God offers is spiritual water and food to nourish us on the journey, to help us face and incorporate the times of endarkenment, to cherish and rest during times of enlightenment, to grow spiritually each step along the way. And perhaps even more than that, God offers hope that no matter how severe the bend in the road, new beautiful things will grow again in our lives and one day we will journey again in joy and peace.
In Isaiah 55, God says, “Seek me while I may still be found, call upon me while I am near!” Yes, God is always with us, the Spirit and Energy of Love resides in us at all times. But perhaps the vibration of that love is higher this time of year. I feel a palpable nearness of the Divine. I encourage all of you to find a worship service to experience on Christmas Eve, that night, more than any other I’ve ever experienced, is an especially thin place, where the boundaries between us and the spiritual become blurred. Emmanuel, God-with-us, draws near.