This content was originally delivered as a sermon on Sunday, August 13, 2017 at Arbor House a community of Northgate Free Methodist Church in Batavia, N.Y. The full sermon by Jae Newman, has been edited into a three-part series for the Northeastern Seminary Blog. Readings referenced in this sermon can be found here.
Why are we conditioned to be afraid of darkness?
Many Christians I know have been told that there are clear symbols in the Bible. Light, you may have heard, is always good and darkness is always bad. There’s precedence, for this, I know. After all, Jesus does call himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12) and Job does a good job of eternally setting “darkness” as the “land of gloom and chaos.” That doesn’t sound very promising. And yet nearly every notable biblical figure, from Moses to Jesus, accomplishes his or her good in the dark. Is there some mistake here? Aren’t we to avoid the dark?
In her book “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor asserts that this simple system of symbolism is not just lacking in comprehensive truth, but that it has become the a kind of blurred lens for how we how we encounter God and ourselves in times of crisis, which we usually call times of “darkness.” In the book “The Wizard of Oz,” all the residents of the Emerald City wear glasses tinted green. Uniformity in popular thought, as history shows, isn’t always correct. And so today, in our “Oz,” in order to see clearly, we need to remove the bifocals that inhibit clear pictures of who we are and what we are to do.
Taylor would tell you that many Christian communities, imperfect as they are, rely on this system of good and bad (light and darkness) as a moral foundation for society. And, yes, teaching children about good and evil is a real job to be taken on by parents, grandparents, and all other skilled storytellers. But what happens in real life is rarely the same as the cinematic conflicts we see in movies. Life is messier and in cases of serious grief or trauma many Christians don’t know how to properly stand by those inflicted with pain. Advice to “pray harder” falls flat. Thus, “Full Solar Spirituality” as Taylor calls it—the type of faith that says we must remain positive at all times—can be seen by non-Christians as robotic church-speak that is a danger to not just the practitioners, but for any person who finds him or herself in the throes of some major episode of depression, abuse or worse.
The God of the Universe, the Creator and Redeemer, the Alpha and Omega. God controls our lives in both times of light and darkness and uses both at his disposal; today I’m asking you to think of darkness as something more complex than a shallow portrait of something bad. I’m asking you to see and experience darkness as an opportunity. It is an opportunity that most in the world wouldn’t willingly sign up for. It involves tribulation, periods of waiting, or absence of the full measure of light. “Darkness,” then can and often does turn faith into doubt. It doesn’t have to though. Instead, we can allow life’s challenges to refine us—not define us.
Many important biblical events occur in the dark—just look to today’s readings for proof of that. As Taylor puts it: “There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.” Pixar Animation made a cleverly guised movie about this recently. In this movie, two emotions must learn to co-pilot a little girl through adolescence. It’s a dose of truth that most parents didn’t expect. It wasn’t a canned message that we could just ignore. As it turns out, joy and sadness must merge before wholeness is achievable. Likewise, light and darkness can work in tandem for our benefit.
That’s because the real healing in life, the real learning in life, the real guts of all our searches for identity, meaning, and salvation can and must be found in the “dark.” You cannot find Jesus in the prosperity of a life where you are perfectly tanned and everyone you know is tanned in the “solar” plexus of dualistic theology — say one thing, live another. From the beginning of the church two thousand years ago, so-called followers of Christ have been trying to merge the Christian path with a road paved of happiness and bliss. That is not what Jesus experienced or demanded and if we are to follow him we need to lean into life trusting there will be enough—enough food, enough money, enough time. And that’s so hard. It was hard for Joseph, Elijah, Paul and of course it was soul-blistering for Jesus. The point is that there’s something to be gleaned from letting ourselves be present in the “darkness” of the readings in this weekend’s study.
Readings from the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b, 1 Kings 19: 9-18, Psalm 85: 8-13, Romans 10: 5-15, Matthew 14: 22-33
Jae Newman (MAT ’15) lives with his wife and three children in Rochester, N.Y. He teaches graduate research courses at Northeastern Seminary and English Language Arts at St. Paul Lutheran School in Hilton, N.Y. His poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his works have appeared in publications such as Rock & Sling, Ruminate Magazine, The Cresset, and Relief. His first collection of poetry, Collage of Seoul, was published in 2014.