Tag Archives: darkness

bobbing lights

Irvin Yalom tells a story about a man named Dave who was having trouble being honest in group therapy. The other members of the group called him out on it.  Dave defended himself, saying, “If I start being honest then I’ll have to talk about how much I hate growing older, how much I fear death.”

Yalom said, “You’re not the only one who has these fears, Dave. Maybe it would be helpful to find out everyone’s in the same boat.”

“No,” Dave said, “that’s the most terrible part about dying—you’re alone in the boat.”

 Another group member spoke up. “Even so, even though you’re alone in the boat, it’s always comforting to see the lights of the other boats bobbing nearby.”

 Yes, yes, it is. When the darkness descends, may we fall to our knees in prayer. But don’t forget to reach out your hand and grab someone. There are lights bobbing all around you. 

Use them. 

God of the Dark

What are you afraid of? We’re all afraid of something. Illness? Unemployment? Mental math? There are certain existential fears we all share: death, abandonment, the college football rankings. Some fears are universal but many aren’t. Talk to ten people about fear and you’ll hear ten different stories.

We’re all wired differently, which means our fears are too. When I was a kid I had one particularly haunting fear: small spaces. More than once my mother had to reassure strangers that she wasn’t actually kidnapping me, it was just necessary to drag me onto the elevator. Oh, how I hated those chambers of death. Small spaces—dark rooms with no escape—these were the contours of my nightmares.

Years ago I fainted in the middle of the night and awoke on my bathroom floor in total darkness. I couldn’t see and, for a moment, I couldn’t move. I wigged out. My wife remembers. We were dating then and I called her and said, “Get over here, I’m dying!” She came, took care of me, and then told me to stop being dramatic. She tells me that about once a week.

Darkness can be scary. And in a way that is unique to it darkness unnerves even the bravest among us. To enter a dark house, to walk through a dark wood, to wade into dark water, requires infinitely more courage than it does under the safety of light.

But darkness is where the Christian New Year begins in December, that month when our days get short and our nights very long. Advent is the time we prepare for the coming of a baby whose life will burn so bright it’ll light the whole world. But Advent begins—where we all begin—in the dark.

Consider this Advent reading from the gospel of Mark: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then you will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

Most of us, myself included, spend Advent drinking eggnog and buying stuff we don’t need. But Advent offers darkened moons and falling stars and shaken heavens. Why? Because Advent knows that our lives, like the month of December, will get darker before they see light.

One of the people I love most in this world has had a hard year. She said to me, “Ryan, I want to pull the covers over my head and wake up on December 26th.” “Yeah,” I said. “I know that feeling.”

I think Jesus knew it too. Which is why he spoke of darkness. We’re like servants, Jesus says, tending our master’s house while he’s gone. And he might come home at any moment. So we wait and we watch. And there will be days when we do pull the covers over our heads.

And that’s OK. But here’s what we don’t do. We don’t stop believing. We don’t stop hoping. We don’t stop watching for the light. Rob Bell was asked why Advent still matters and he said, “Because cynicism is the new religion of our world.” Which means we better not get our hopes up because it’s never going to get any better.

It’s easy to feel that way when we see the violence in Ferguson and are reminded of how far we still must go if we’re ever going to love one another as brothers and sisters. Sometimes what I fear most is that the darkness will never end.

But then I remember what Jesus said about the sky falling and the heavens shaking and how it would be then that the Son of Man would come in great power and glory. The whole earth may crumble, Jesus says, but the One whose hands fashioned that world, will do no such thing.

I think that’s the heart of Advent. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s easy to believe we’ll be let down in the end and there’s nothing worth waiting for. But Jesus says, “Hold on. Wait. Watch. Because I am coming and I am worth the wait.”

I don’t know what lurks in your darkness. But I know something about it. It’s scary. I also know it might not go away soon. Advent reminds us of that. But Advent says something else. This: God may be light, but He comes in the dark.

There is no dark water He won’t wade into; no dark night He won’t spend at our side. We may be afraid of the dark, but He isn’t. He made the dark and it He moves.

As a teenager I was still frightened of small, dark places. So my dad decided he and I were going to learn to scuba dive. Because if there’s one thing a claustrophobic kid wants to do it’s breathe air out of a tiny hose a hundred feet under water. But we did it.

To pass the course we had to dive in a cold lake with visibility often no more than a few inches in front of our faces. Near the end of the dive, our instructor led us to a tunnel and pointed at it. It was pitch black and I couldn’t see where it ended.

I knew what I had to do. I swam toward it and entered the darkness. And kicked like crazy until I came out the other side. My dad has always praised my courage that day. He was so proud that I went for it. But I’ll tell you the truth. I was scared out of my mind.

The only reason I swam into that tunnel of death was because my father was behind me. I knew that whatever happened, I wouldn’t be alone. I couldn’t see him but I felt him. He was there and I knew he’d be there until we reached the other side.

Christmas is coming. The Christ Child is on His way, coming to bring light to our weary and darkened world. But today is Advent.

So may we experience the season, trusting that our Father in Heaven does not wait to meet us on the side of light, but walks with us now, this day, in the dark.

I Need Help. You?

Dan Clendenin says that “one of the most dangerous spiritual places we can live is in the deluded notion that we are a fully sighted person.”

There’s something to that.

The Westboro Baptist “Church” is famous for protesting the funerals of American soldiers and making hateful statements about all kinds of people. I’ve often wondered what drives those people to such extremes? Probably a lot of complicated factors. But at least one has to be the deep-rooted belief that they see the world rightly. Because folks don’t treat others as worthless unless they actually believe they are.

It’s easy to get into trouble when we think we’ve got it all figured out. We may not spout hate speech but we have our plans and ambitions. Why consult God in prayer? We know who to vote for. Why listen to another perspective? We know what’s right and wrong. Why bother reading scripture?

We know. We know. We know.

But you know what I’ve been learning? The healthiest people don’t just admit they don’t know, they celebrate it. The wise readily admit, “I. Don’t. Know.”

A newspaper once asked, “What’s Wrong with the World?” G.K. Chesterton wrote back, “Dear Sirs: I am.”

If we hope to see by the light, we must first acknowledge we’re in the dark. The first step in any recovery is admitting there’s a problem.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the healthy but the sick. A healthy person doesn’t need a doctor. A sick person does.

The righteous can keep on being righteous. But sinners? We need help.

May today be the day we ask for it.

Homily on John 9:1-38

“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of the light.” Amen.

 

My mother has been a flight attendant for nearly 23 years.

 I remember the day she went for the interview. She wore a red dress and was afraid to fly. But she needed the job. So fly she did. Pretty cool woman.

A week ago a passenger approached her to report that another passenger had threatened him.

“He threatened you?” mom asked. “How?”

“He said if I leaned my seat back again, he was going to beat the something out of me.” That’s the PG version of what he said.

Mom raised an eyebrow. “Was he was joking?”

The man shook his head. “No, not joking.”

“OK,” mom said, “I’ll ring the cockpit and let the captain know. We can have law enforcement board the plane when we land.”

“No, no, I don’t want to cause a scene,” he said. “I just wanted you to know in case something happens to me.”

“Well, at the very least, let’s move you to another seat.”

“Great,” he said.

Later, mom was taking drink orders when she arrived at the row where the alleged villain sat. She checked him out and said he was well dressed and by all accounts appeared normal and content.

The passengers around him, however, looked stressed. The tension that had surfaced earlier was still very much alive. Mom said the man sitting next to the villain had his face pressed against the window, trying to put as much distance between them as possible. He also ordered a double scotch.

The villain ordered a ginger ale.

Mom left to get the drinks but when she returned she realized she had forgotten the villain’s ginger ale.

Uh-Oh.

 

She apologized and said she’d be right back with his drink.

The passengers winced. The man by the window threw back his scotch. Just kidding.

The villain said, “You know what? Make it a club soda. I forgot; I gave up ginger ale for Lent.”

Mom’s jaw hit the floor.

 

 Ginger ale? What about threatening people? That might have been a good one for Lent.

 

I’m not looking to throw stones but sometimes we Christians give Christianity a bad rap, don’t we? I know I do.

It was Gandhi who said, “I like Christ, just not Christians. They’re so unlike Christ.”

 Ouch.

I’ve tried to let that quote challenge me and not offend me. Because the reality is that when people want to know if what they read about Jesus is true, they often look to the lives of those who profess Him as Lord.

I think about that.

As a kid someone once told me I needed to behave because I might be the only Jesus someone ever sees. To which I thought, “That’s too bad.”

But seriously, when we—the religious—turn people off from Jesus, that’s a problem.

A popular mantra of my generation is that we’re spiritual but not religious. Which is another way to say we’re open to God, but suspect of his people.

A sentiment I imagine would ring true with the beggar from our gospel reading. Blind since birth, he encounters Jesus, who takes dirt, spits in it, and uses it to anoint the man’s face. And for the first time in his life, he moves from dark to light.

But then he runs into a bunch of religious folks and things run sideways.

Before he’s even healed, the disciples point at him and say, “Teacher, whose fault is that? Who sinned? He or his parents?”

It was a commonly held belief in the ancient world that illness and disability were the direct result of sin.  But Jesus will hear nothing of it.

“Nobody sinned,” He says. “Come on. This man is who he is as you are who you are. He’s a person, fully formed, in whom the work of God will be made manifest.”

On a recent evening I was running at the track when I saw a severely disabled teenager using a walker in the lane next to me. His father was a few paces ahead, keeping an eye on him. As I ran by, I became hyper aware of my able body, and I felt bad for running while he fought for every step. I felt pity for him.

But the next lap I got a better look at his face. It was painted in joy. He was smiling, radiant, happy to be walking in the cool of the evening with his father. And I thought, “How dare I marginalize that boy? How dare I presume to know anything about him?”

Two thousand years ago Jesus looked at the disabled and declared them full people, in every sense of the word.

The disciples’ question had to do with exclusion. They wanted to know who was responsible for keeping the blind beggar shut out from society.

Jesus said, “Wrong question. No one is excluded. I’m the light of the world, and my light shines on all people.” All people.

After the beggar’s encounter with Jesus, his neighbors drag him before the Pharisees to give an account for his healing.  And like our pal on the plane who gave up ginger ale for Lent, they make a mess of religion.

They simply don’t believe the story.

They badger him and question his integrity. They haul his parents in to testify whether or not he was actually even blind. They call Jesus a sinner and say the man is nothing more than a disciple of a sinner. But they are disciples of Moses, a true prophet.

The beggar fights back, saying, “Look, I don’t know who he is; haven’t a clue if he’s a sinner. But if he were not from God, how could he open my eyes? I was blind, but now I see.”

That does it. The Pharisees eject him from the synagogue, saying, “You were born into utter sin. How dare you teach us?”

With those words we reach the heart of the story: blindness, but not of the eyes, of the spirit. Physical blindness, challenging as it may be, only has so much power. Our physical condition speaks not of our true identity.

As we heard in our reading from Samuel, God does not see as mortals do, who look on outward appearances, for God looks upon the heart.

Far more challenging is spiritual blindness. Because when our spirits are blind, we no longer see the works of God, not even when they’re brought before us.

The Pharisees are certain they know how God works and how He doesn’t. So when Jesus heals this man on the Sabbath, it can’t be from God, because God doesn’t work that way.

You know, the Pharisees take it on the chin a lot, but they were just trying to be faithful. But in this instance their religious beliefs, the conviction they could see, blinded them.

Which is kind of terrifying for us. How can we know if we see by the light?

Dan Clendenin says, “One of the most dangerous spiritual places we can live is in the deluded notion that we are a fully sighted person.”

There’s something to that. This past week the Westboro Baptist Church—which in no meaningful way is Baptist or a church— was again in the news because it founder, Rev. Fred Phelps, passed away. Phelps made the church famous for protesting the funerals of American soldiers, and making hateful statements about all kinds of people. I’ve often wondered what drives a person to such extremes? Probably a lot of factors, but at least one is a deep-rooted belief that you see the world rightly. You don’t treat people as worthless unless you believe they are.

It’s easy to get into trouble when we think we’ve got it all figured out. We may not spout hate speech but we have our plans, our ambition; why consult God in prayer? We know who to vote for; why listen to another perspective? We know what’s right and wrong; why bother reading scripture?

We know. We know. We know.

I wish I read this story and identified with the blind beggar, who knew he was blind and could thus recognize the light.

And maybe some days I do. But more often I’m the Pharisee, believing I can see, when in reality I cannot.

But, you know what I’ve found? The healthiest people don’t just admit their blindness; they embrace it. The wise readily admit, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Long ago a newspaper posed the question, “What’s Wrong with the World?” The great writer, G.K. Chesterton wrote back, “Dear Sirs: I am.”

Pretty good.

If we hope to see by the light, we must acknowledge we’re in the dark. The first step in any recovery is admitting there’s a problem.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the healthy but the sick. A healthy person doesn’t need a doctor. A sick person does.

The righteous can keep on being righteous, but sinners? Well, we need a savior.

If we’re honest, I think that’s tougher to admit than we like to think. We like Jesus as teacher, and healer, and preacher… but savior?

Who needs that when we know, we know, we know?

During the past year the most visible Christian in the world has garnered unprecedented attention. Pope Francis has been called a rock-star pope; a title he said offended him. Which I thought was awesome.

This is a man who’s spent his entire career living with and serving the poor. A man who admitted he didn’t want to be pope. A man with tremendous wealth at his disposal and drives a Ford escort, which the guys from NPR’s Click and Clack say proves he is a man of prayer.

Pope Francis hasn’t changed any doctrine. Hasn’t overwhelmed anyone with electric preaching. He’s not youthful or particularly handsome.  He’s not even considered a great theologian.

And yet, he’s set the world on fire with talk of God. I have atheist friends who despise religion, but they like this pope.

What’s up with that?

Might be because he recently admitted that while burying the priest who had been his confessor years ago, he stole a rosary from his casket. Pope Francis said it took a little work to pry it from his cold fingers, but he got the job done, and then asked the priest to forgive him one last time.

 I think it has something to do with the answer he gave to a reporter when asked, “Who are you?”

The pope sat in silence and then said, “I am a sinner. A sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

Humility is a warm light that draws all people toward it. The Proverbs declare that fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

If we hope to see we must first know we are blind. This isn’t bad news. It’s good because in our blindness we are not left to stumble in the dark, for the light of Christ shines on all people—on popes and beggars, on saints and sinners, on your and on me.

 How do we know if we see by the light? “I don’t know,” the beggar said to the Pharisees. “I don’t have all the answers. But one thing I know: Jesus touched my eyes. And where once I was blind, now I see.”