Can you remember the first time you became aware of being afraid of the dark? It’s always a little dangerous for a preacher to ask a question like that. I run the risk of sending you off into long forgotten memories of childhood, and never getting you back. But this morning I thought I’d chance it. This is the kind of question I ask myself when I’m trying to feel my way into a passage of scripture. The subject of light and darkness leans in the direction of very basic, childhood fears. When I began writing my sermon, I started to say that I’ve never been particularly afraid of the dark. But the more I thought back, the more my mind began to fill with a collection of very old, very dusty memories: bad dreams, night terrors, gathering my whole stuffed animal collection around me as tight as I could. I was about five at the time so you don’t need to give me too much grief. The point is that if we dig back far enough, most of us can remember times when darkness was a scary place. For some, probably still is.
I suspect that has been a true as far back as there have been people. If you ever read the book “2001, A Space Odyssey,” the opening chaptergives a vivid description of what life might have been like in the darkness.The story begins in prehistoric times with a small tribe of people who are obviously struggling to survive. They have enough trouble during the day, but when the night falls, they are reduced to huddling against each other in a small cave. They listen with terror to the noises of the night, animals hunting outside in the darkness. It’s hard to imagine them getting much sleep. The book, even more than the film, paints a haunting picture of the helplessness and fear they would have felt. It is painfully obvious how dependent they were on their eyes for safety and security, and how useless their eyes were in the dark.
It’s not too surprising, actually, that our understandings of good and evil are all wrapped up in images of light and darkness. We have eyes. These days it’s entirely possible to lead a wonderful and fulfilling life as a blind person. I’m sure Maggie and David can tell you how true that is. But historically, that’s a fairly recent development. For most people, vision, eyesight, is the most critical of our senses, and darkness deprives us of it. If we were bats, instead of people, if we were primarily dependent upon our hearing instead of our sight, our ideas of good and evil would probably have more to do with sound and silence. Imagine this morning’s Bible reading … the sound vibrates in the silence, and the silence has not overcome it? Of course most of us don’t depend on our ears nearly as much as we do our eyes. It is no accident then, that light and darkness became such powerful images for us of what we like and what we don’t like.
If you read through the Bible, you willfind a few passages where darkness is good. In Genesis, God created both light and darkness and pronounced them good. And there are a few other passages that suggest an appreciation for the beauty of darkness and the mystery of the night. However, the overwhelming majority of references in the Bible associate darkness with affliction, ignorance, illness, sin, evil and death. The writer of proverbs said, “The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what they stumble over.” (Pro 4:19) On the other hand, light in scripture is almost universally positive. God’s word is light. Our savior is light. We are children of light. We put on the armor of light. We are to let our light shine out to the world, and someday, Lord willing, we will enter the kingdom of light, which exists in the eternal light of God, assuming of course, that we don’t get lost in the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Now as much as I love the Bible, as much as I love the message that Christ is the light shining in our darkness, I think we need to be a little careful here. Probably it would be a good thing not to be too simplistic. “Light good! Darkness bad!” Life, we all know, is a bit more complicated than that. In order to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as we say, we need the resist a universal human tendency to over generalize. You may remember Mark Twain’s comment that a cat who sits down on a hot stove will surely never sit on a hot stove again. But it won’t likely sit on a cool one either. Somewhere along the way, and it happens very early for most of us, we become afraid of something that happens, or something we’re afraid might happen, in the dark. At that point, most of us begin overgeneralizing. It is not just what happened, or might happen, that we fear. We also come to fear the medium in which it happened. We become afraid, not just of the things that go bump in the night, but of the night itself. Darkness becomes an enemy, a source of fear. And that’s unfortunate. The fact is, there is a great deal of good in darkness.
When I was living in Westport, I had an interesting experience. Pam and the kids were out of town for a few days. I stayed home mostly to work, but I found myself with a free afternoon and decided to go for a hike. I drove out to a nature preserve north of town called “Devil’s Den.” It’s a beautiful and quiet place, crisscrossed with trails that stretch for several miles. On a beautiful weekday afternoon the place was practically deserted, which was exactly what I had in mind. Once I got going, I found myself hiking clear across the park to a place called the Great Ledge, which gives a fantastic view out over the local reservoir. I got so wrapped up in the view that time got away from me. When I started back, I got off on the wrong trail at first, and by the time I got myself turned back around it was quite dark. As Robert Frost would have said, “The woods were dark and deep, and I had miles to go before I could sleep.” It took me about a half an hour to get out to the great ledge, and something like three and a half hours to get back to my car.
There was just the barest sliver of a moon that night, but in among the trees I didn’t have enough light to read my map. This was before the days of cell phone flashlights. I couldn’t make out the painted trail markers on the trees. I found myself feeling the trunks of the trees trying to find the painted trail markers, but I couldn’t tell by feel what was painted and what wasn’t. It was quite a pickle. Fortunately, I was somewhat familiar with the trails, and I had a walking stick, which I swung back and forth out in front of me as I stumbled along. At first, I was very nervous. Every sound I heard made me jump. I walked right off the trail several times and tripped on rocks and roots at first. But gradually my senses adjusted and the whole thing began to feel like quite an adventure. I found that I could almost feel the trees looming up ahead of me, even with my eyes closed. After I got over being jumpy, I found myself having a good time, especially when I realized that I wasn’t going to make it to that evening’s Trustees meeting. There is a mystical quality to the woods at night. I have learned to love the darkness.
Our culture, though, is very deeply committed to setting apart things like light and darkness. We divide most everything up into categories of good and bad. We want to reinforce, in our society and ourselves, whatever is of the light, and eliminate, or avoid as much as possible, whatever is of the darkness. To some degree that is necessary and important. We don’t want violent criminals and terrorists walking the streets. Separating good and bad can be a very important thing to do. But again, in our eagerness to secure our safety, we have to be careful not to overgeneralize. There is a great deal of good in darkness. One of my favorite sayings on the subject comes from the psychiatrist Carl Jung. He said, “Ninety percent of all that is to be found in the shadow is pure gold. The other ten percent is unrelenting evil.” We need to be careful not to get lost in the very real evils of the world, but we should also be careful not to allow our fear of the dark to make us miss the gold.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book that I mentioned last week. It’s called, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,”by Barbara Brown Taylor. She talks about a couple of frightening experiences she had as a child, and her lifelong desire to explore darkness and overcome her fears. At one point, she talks about St. John of the Cross, the author of “The Dark Night of the Soul.”She shares this quote from his book:
The dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God. All of these are substitutes for God, John says. They all get in God’s way. (Learning to Walk in the Dark, page 145)
The Dark Night is God’s best gift to us, intended for our liberation. If we’re being honest though, when we find ourselves in the middle of our own dark nights, it usually doesn’t feel like much of a gift.
Darkness has much to teach us. But if, in our minds, darkness is always bad, it’s not just the night we fear. We also come to fear our dreams, our deep emotional experiences, unknown people and places, dark skin, and, most of all, death. If darkness is only bad, we deprive ourselves of the whole world of the night. Of course, there are things to be careful of at night, but that’s true of the daytime too.
In spite of the ways the images of light and dark are used in our Bible, I don’t believe the message of scripture is that darkness has nothing to offer us. The message is that even in the midst of our deepest darkness, we can be at peace because we live in the confidence that we will never be entirely without the light. The light of Christ shines in our darkness, regardless of what the nature of that darkness might be. Darkness is not altogether banished, but it can never overcome the light. Because we have this assurance, we are free to explore the darkness for the gold we may find there.
As is captured by the famous Yin and Yang symbol from Eastern wisdom, light and darkness are always part of each other, intimately woven together, ultimately inseparable. Much as we might want it otherwise, that is the reality of life on this planet. The idea that we could ever pull them completely apart in order to make life altogether safe and secure is a false hope. Life doesn’t work that way. It will always have its moments of darkness. And though we may fear them, it is important to understand that the vast majority of these moments are pure gold. They have so much to offer us. And for the rest, we can live in trust that the light will always be shining in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
I’d like to close this morning with some of my favorite words from Kahlil Gibran. At the very end of his book, the Prophet, when all of the local people have asked all of their questions and he is getting ready to sail away, the Prophet turns to the people and offers these final thoughts.
That which seems most feeble and bewildered in you is the strongest and most determined. Is it not your breath that has erected and hardened the structure of your bones? And is it not a dream which none of your remember having dreamt that builded your city and fashioned all there is in it? Could you but see the tides of that breath you would cease to see all else, and if you could hear the whispering of the dream you would hear no other sound. But you do not see, nor do you hear, and it is well. The veil that clouds your eyes shall be lifted by the hands that wove it, and the clay that fills your ears shall be pierced by those fingers that kneeded it. And you shall see, and you shall hear. Yet you shall not deplore having known blindness, nor regret having been deaf. For in that day you shall know the hidden purposes in all things, and you shall bless darkness as you would bless light.