Keeping Faith in the Darkness

July 9, 2017
Reverend Katherine S. Michael, Pastor Emerita

Isaiah 45:1-3; Romans 8:31-35, 37-39

Last week my husband David and I took our grandchildren to the World War I exhibit at the Minnesota History Center. In honoring the 100th anniversary of that “war to end all wars,” the exhibit brings home the hardship and tragedy of those who fought to free Europe from tyranny and oppression. The names of our own from Westminster are on the bronze plaque in the Cloister Hall.

When our Westminster Traveling Seminar was in Scotland last spring, we learned that small country lost a whole generation of young men in the Great War, leaving the young women of marriageable age in a difficult situation.

The history exhibit reminded us that brutality, racism, destruction – and sacrifice – are sadly an ongoing part of human history.

How do we hang on to faith in dark times – whether they are global or personal – when God seems to be very far away if not absent altogether? When the waters of adversity are rising and we feel like we’re drowning, how do we keep faith? When dreams are dashed does faith make any difference at all?    And how do we dare talk about these things in church where we’re supposed to be Easter people?

God’s people Israel entered their own time of darkness in 587 Before the Common Era, when Jerusalem was overrun by the Babylonians, and the people were carried off into exile. They lost everything – their homes, their community, their culture – they even feared they had lost God, for God dwelt in the Temple, and the Temple had been utterly destroyed. The blackness of its charred remains were no darker than the cloud of despair and lost hope that descended on God’s chosen Israel.

The earth shifted, and they lost their footing, their security, their stability – the very structure of their world – and they wailed in the darkness. The Psalmist records their plaintive cry:

“By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Ps. 137:1-4

How do we sing the Lord’s song when the lights go out? Darkness can strike suddenly, swiftly, with terrible fury when a child dies or illness takes away life as it has been. Darkness descends when a relationship is crumbling or a job disappears or when division and discord dominate a community. Its tentacles squeeze the joy out of lives crushed by addiction or mental illness.

Again in Psalms we read, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” 30:5b If only it were that simple. In dark times, we all strain to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but so often we see nothing but more darkness…

And so how do we hang onto faith in the dark – when we seek answers that don’t come and healing that doesn’t happen? Where do we find God when we feel so very alone?

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of the tension between light and darkness in the Bible and in the language of the church. Darkness is bad and light is good – and we all want to walk in the light. We understand that tension. But she also asserts that there are treasures in the darkness if we have eyes to see them.

Just this past week, fireworks lit up the night sky. Their magic can never be seen in the daylight.

Creation itself was born out of darkness.

A dark summer night can bring peace and rest and renewal under the flicker of fireflies.

Old Abraham was given God’s promise on a dark night that his descendants would be like the stars in the heavens.

“I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.”  Isa. 45:3

The context of the verse from Isaiah is not about any of the things we might associate with dark times. But it provides a metaphor for hope when we need it most. God is speaking to Cyrus, the Persian king who defeated Babylon and returned the exiles of Israel to their homeland. God chose this pagan king for the salvation of God’s people and promised him the riches of the kingdoms that he would conquer – treasures like grain and gold that were buried underground – in secret places.

The key for us comes in the second half of the verse: “…so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.” It is not Marduk, the pagan idol that Cyrus worshiped, but the God of Israel who is sovereign – not only over Israel, but over Persia as well. God calls Cyrus by name and anoints him for God’s purposes.

And it is that Sovereign God who speaks to us in the darkness.

The great mystics of the Christian tradition describe the darkness as part of our journey to God. (BBT 80) They taught that the ‘dark night was a necessary moment in the development of the soul.’  JChittister p. 39

Difficult times can become the crucible for growth and a deeper awareness of God who will show us the treasures of the darkness. I call such times ‘adultifying’ moments. I don’t like them; they force me to grow up in ways that come only through discomfort or suffering or setting aside my ego.

But once through them, I am more my true self.

Thomas Merton’s Prayer for Trust and Confidence has been an important part of my own journey – whether through painful times or times of vast uncertainty.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore, I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

In whatever darkness we encounter, we may feel lonely, but we are never alone. David Hastings, one of our fine ushers, has contributed a lovely photograph to the current exhibit in the Westminster Gallery. Its subject is Moonrise Over Grand Marais Lighthouse. David’s commentary states, “The moonrise gives us reassurance at night that God is still present with us.”

Paul writes in Romans, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?       … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced,” he says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 8:34-35, 37-39

N.T. Wright says in his commentary on Romans, “Love is the ultimate assurance, stronger than logic…it is not an idea to be worked out, but a

fact, an experienced fact…that cannot be denied… if the clouds of present suffering hide the sun for a while, the unshakable evidence of God’s love is seen…in Jesus’ death.”

Even if we can see nothing but darkness in our life circumstances – or in the heart-rending darkness of our world – the light and the love of God are ever present. We know now that World War I was not the war to end all wars – wars and strife, hatred and violence, abuse and suffering are ongoing realities in our world.

From Psalm 139 – “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol…even there your hand shall lead me… If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you… Ps. 139:7-8, 10a, 11-12a

God weeps with us and for us in the night. God’s own self has entered into whatever darkness we can imagine. In the dark night of Gethsemane, while the disciples slept, Jesus knew the deep loneliness of human suffering.  Even when God seems silent and far away, we are not alone, and we can still sing the Lord’s song –

Abide with me…

Abide with me: fast falls the even-tide

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide! When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

I need thy presence every passing hour;

What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? Who, like thyself, my guide and stay can be?

Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

“…if God is in the depth of the heart, no amount of darkness can extinguish that presence. …God is the One who made for us a good world and walks with us to hold us up as we go. Sometimes, in the face of the God of life, the most faithful thing we can do is simply to keep on living.” Joan Chittister, p. 43-44

There are sparkling treasures in the darkness if we look for them – deepening spiritual maturity, personal transformation, trust in the abiding presence of God – Some of these can be found only in the dark. I have boldly promised many people that God doesn’t waste anything. God can use even the most painful times of our lives to teach us greater understanding and compassion for others and give us a deeper awareness of God’s love for us and the beauty of our life in God.

If we look carefully enough, and if we are open, we may also find God- with-skin-on in a friend or even a stranger – someone who can come along side us to give us courage for the journey.

This gift of community was evident one day in Scotland. We had a long walk to visit a castle when one of our group developed such pain in her hip that she couldn’t walk. The other travelers gathered around her and held her up until they could get her to a place of safety and rest. God with skin on! When our hearts are broken and limping, the treasure of human love can carry us through the night.

Beloved, darkness comes to us all – it is the human condition. But we can keep faith when the lights go out, trusting in the One who calls each of us by name, who knows no darkness and who will never leave us to face our perils alone.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Barbara Brown Taylor – Learning to Walk in the Dark

Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope

N.T. Wright, Romans, The New Interpreter’s Bible

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