It’s pretty typical for pastors (and maybe normal folks, too, but I haven’t been that kind of normal for a long time)… I crashed after Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I love the season, the frenzy, the presents, the candlelight, the music, the kids… even the family… but then I had nothing left. I was all out of nice, I was tired… worst of all, I felt empty. Honestly, I hate to even admit it. What happened to the illuminating, calm, peaceful presence of the Divine I’d felt just a few days before? It seemed like the light I’d just help usher back into the world had gone out. I just wanted to sit in the darkness staring at the lights on the Christmas tree and fill the emptiness within me with Christmas cookies.
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Then yesterday was Epiphany, another celebration of the light come into the world. Epiphany is the story of the magi who follow the star to the baby Jesus. A visit to recognize a child who would bring illumination to the darkness. Yet, a week ago, I felt like there wasn’t any way I’d be able to preach my way out of a paper bag, much less wax poetic about the Epiphany. I was steeped in darkness during the two weeks where we celebrate the coming of the light.
And, frankly, it didn’t help that Christianity has never had anything nice to say about the darkness. It has been a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, evil, death. Society, too, has its fair share of negativity about darkness. We’ve been programmed to think of darkness in terms of fear, weakness, hopelessness, despair, depression, grief and anger. Not to mention images like the cowboy in the black hat, the shadow side of ourselves, Voldemort, Darth Vader and the dark side of the force (“Stay away from the dark side, Luke!”)
Nope, we much prefer the light. The church is all about being in the light. 1 John 1:5 says, “God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.” Jesus is the Child of Light, the Light of the World. If we are to be close to, or become more like God and Jesus, we need to be light only.
It’s enough to evoke a good dose of guilt in us when we feel lost in darkness and separated from the light.
What do we do when darkness falls? We want to force it away. We want to pretend it doesn’t exist. When we have problems (especially in our relationships) we don’t tell anyone. When our past sneaks up to bite us, we push it away and try not to think about it. I’ve had people tell me they won’t come to church when they were down because they didn’t want to put on a happy face. They believed that church is a place you are supposed to smile… it is only for people of the light.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” calls this understanding “full solar spirituality.” It focuses on constantly remaining in the light of God and not allowing oneself to have any negative thoughts about life or God. She suggests you can always tell a “full solar church” by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include always being confident of God’s presence, God’s guidance in your life, that God will always answer your prayers, as well as being completely certain of what you believe.
The churches have lived in the duality of light and darkness where light is good and darkness is bad. So, instead of being taught how to walk in the darkness; instead of being given resources for getting through the challenges in life, people have simply been told to avoid the dark. But that is simply not possible.
But what if it is balance between light and darkness that is needed for a healthy spirituality? Taylor calls this “lunar spirituality,” where we recognize that the times of light and dark wax and wane, ebb and flow throughout our lifetimes. But one is not good and one bad. This is simply life, God there regardless, and both offer the opportunity for learning and growth.
Og Mandino said, “I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.”
Joan Chittester, in her book “Between the Dark and the Daylight,” expounds, “The stars that come with darkness are the new insights, the new directions, the new awareness of the rest of life that darkness brings. Then at the end of the struggle with it, the spirit of resistance finally gives way to the spirit of life.”
To bring us back to the metaphor of the Epiphany story, if the magi hadn’t been fascinated with the night sky and astrology, they would not have followed this strange new star and discovered the child who would bring insight, new direction and new awareness to the world. But, they not only had to be interested in looking at the stars, they also had to be brave enough to walk in the dark.
There is the tension of fear and expectation when we truly enter and engage the darkness. We sense that what we find there may be terribly uncomfortable. Maybe we’ll have to really engage and look at our loneliness, our anger, our emptiness, our memories, our grief, our failings. But if we don’t, we won’t ever see the stars of understanding, awakening, healing, and inner peace.
I don’t expect or want us to be a full solar church. In fact, I hope and pray that we are a lunar church – one in which we understand that the light waxes and wanes in our lives, and that is normal. I’d like us to be a safe place where people are comfortable being, no matter their spiritual, emotional, mental or physical state. I’d like us to be a community that is not afraid to journey into the unknown, like the magi, seeking new insights and new awareness. I’d like us to not feel like we need to flood the darkness with security lights, but to look deep into the night sky where stars await us.