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December 2023

God Speaks in the Darkness

God Speaks in Darkness

1 Samuel 3:1-9

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 December 2023

               This Advent, we have been exploring God’s Holy Darkness.  Partly as a corrective to how often we limit our spirituality and worship to images of light.  And one reason we have been motivated to explore this theme is because of our commitment to be an anti-racist congregation.  Light supremacy in spirituality is dangerously connected to white supremacy.

               The theme of Holy Darkness has also drawn us into exploring several Biblical stories that occur in the dark—there are so many once you start paying attention to it.  And we’ve drawn from the rich well of the church’s mystical tradition, which has long emphasized the spiritual importance of darkness.

               This week I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  She writes that one of the reasons she left ministry when she did was the over-emphasis on light.  What she calls “full solar spirituality.”  She says “You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer.  Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”  And then she follows that up, “If you have ever belonged to such a community, you may have discovered that the trouble starts when darkness falls on your life.”  Because such full solar congregations are not equipped for dealing well with the realities of life.

               Instead, she encourages a “lunar spirituality” with all of its doubts, questions, ambiguities, and uncertainties.  Such a spirituality is far healthier.  Rather than avoiding “the primal energy of dark emotions” by cutting themselves off from the world, congregations with a lunar spirituality, like Jacob of old, are willing to wrestle angels in the dark.  A lunar spirituality recognizes that what we call the dark emotions are “conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act.”

               Darkness is so often the place where God speaks to us something we need to hear. 

               Taylor writes,

I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion.  I need darkness as much as I need light.

The Jewish scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg declares that “The night is indeed the time of redemption.”  There is a freedom and uncanniness to the night.  What happens in the night cannot be fully assimilated in the daylight. 

               How often God does speak in the darkness.

               From the Spirit hovering at the Creation calling the world into being.  Or Moses receiving the commandments in the clouds surrounding Mt. Sinai.  This story of the child Samuel, awakened to the mission that God had for his life.  Or the choirs of angels, appearing to sing their glorias to the startled shepherds below.  In so many of these vital stories, God speaks in the darkness.

               And God speaking, Eugene Peterson reminds us, is the fundamental conviction of our faith.  From Genesis to Revelation God keeps speaking.  Peterson writes:

God speaks—in creation and invitation, in judgement and salvation, in healing and guidance, in oracle and admonition, in rebuke and comfort.  The conspicuous feature in all of this speaking is that God speaks in personal address.  God does not speak grand general truths, huge billboard declarations of truth and morals; the Lord’s speaking is to persons, named persons.

               Like the child Samuel. 

               So we must beware of full solar spirituality for it might be closing us off from the word that God has just for us, in the darkness.

               We believe that God is still speaking.  Which means that in our darkness—whether literal, metaphorical, emotional, or existential—God comes to us and speaks to us a word that we need to hear. 

               May we listen.  Like the child Samuel learned to listen.

               As Barbara Brown Taylor beckons us, “Come outside now, it’s getting dark.”

God Dwells in Darkness

God Dwells in Darkness

Genesis 32:24-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

3 December 2023

               Last year I was fortunate to finally make a trip to the Boundary Waters.  That region along the Minnesota/Canada border where there’s no infrastructure, rarely a cell phone signal, about as pure a wilderness as one can experience near us. 

               My friend Robyn and I canoed, portaging along trails between bodies of water, setting up a campsite.  We packed in all of the food and supplies we needed for the weekend.

               We had fun, wonderful adventures on that trip—shooting rapids, swimming across the international border, seeing wildlife.  But what we both enjoyed and remember the most is the peace and tranquility, the chance to truly rest and restore.  One reason we traveled well together is that we are able to be silent with each other, not feeling the need to fill all the empty time and space with chatter.  We’d sit quietly every morning drinking our coffee, reading our books, and watching the fog lift off of the cove. 

               And one of the highlights of the trip was the darkness.  When night fell there was no artificial light, expect for the flashlights and lanterns we used.  The campfire, the moon, and the stars were the only real lights.  In the darkness we couldn’t see much around us, but the heavens opened up in all their glory, able to see the stars in a way we rarely get to anymore.

               I remembered being at a youth retreat twenty years ago with some of my teens from my church in Dallas.  We were at a retreat center in southeastern Oklahoma, and one night I was walking along talking with a couple of kids, only to realize that one of them wasn’t beside me anymore.  I turned and saw that he had stopped walking and was staring up at the sky.  For it was a clear night and the Milky Way was glorious.  I walked back to him, and he said, “Sorry, I happened to look up and had to stop.  I’ve never seen this before.”

               The deep darkness of night time, especially in the wilderness, presents risks, uncertainties, and dangers.  But, like all rich and multi-faceted experiences and symbols, that darkness is also full of rewards—beauty, stillness and silence, the chance for rest and restoration.

               One of my former congregants in Oklahoma City often shared about how much she enjoyed all of the “light Sundays”—Epiphany, Transfiguration, etc.  And our tradition is rich with metaphors of light, connecting us to spirituality, insight, and the divine.  I think of the line from the hymn “Immortal, Invisible” in which we sing “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”  The idea that God resides in light so bright it is blinding.

               But there is also a tradition that finds divinity in the darkness.  When King Solomon finished dedicating the temple in Jerusalem, the presence of God descends upon the building as a thick cloud, and so Solomon proclaims, “God dwells in darkness.”  And we are reminded of how often sanctuaries and sacred spaces can be more dark than light, with stained glass that filters and alters the light, all conveying a sense of mystery and awe.

               This familiar story from Genesis is another of those moments where the divine appears in the dark.  Jacob’s mysterious nighttime visitor, his wrestling with the holy, the wounding of the experience—have all animated the human imagination for centuries.  As we’ve pondered the meaning of this story and how this night-time wrestling match is an experience of seeing the face of God.

               This theme of Holy Darkness continues in the history of the church.  The Greek theologian Pseudo-Dionysius described God as “luminous darkness,” and talked of the depths of God that exceed our finite human abilities to understand. 

The Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart described God as the grunt, the ground, the dark soil in which we planted.  The grunt is “pure possibility,” and Eckhart teaches us to “Go into your own ground and there act, and the works that you do there will be living.”

The 20th century Russian theologian Sergius Bulgakov wrote, “The roots of a person’s being are submerged in the bottomless ocean of divine life and get their nourishment from this life.”

               And the 21st century feminist theologian Catherine Keller encourages us that in “embracing the depths of life, in which are mingled the depths of divinity itself, we participate in an open-ended creativity.”

               Divine darkness is, in our biblical and spiritual tradition, the source of mystery, awe, wonder, possibility, creativity, nourishment, holiness.

               Maybe the greatest Christian writing about his Holy Darkness is by the sixteenth century Spaniard San Juan de la Cruz, known in English as St. John of the Cross.  For he wrote the great classic Dark Night of the Soul, an image and idea that itself has been used repeatedly by so many. 

               For San Juan, the dark night of the soul is the path to mystical union with God.  He first uses beautiful poetic language to describe this ecstatic experience:

One dark night,

Fired with love’s urgent longings

--ah, the sheer grace!—

I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
Lover transformed in the beloved.

               In the rest of his book, though, there is less ecstasy and more agony.  For San Juan, the dark night is a spiritual experience wherein the soul is stripped of its desires and affections in a period of quietness.  For the individual experiencing this it can be felt as wasted time or more acutely as darkness.  A period of emptying and relinquishing can be felt as purging and annihilation.  One can find it difficult to focus, even to do simple things like pray.  He writes that the darkness can be “profound and horrible and most painful, for this darkness, being felt in the deepest substance of the spirit, seems to be substantial darkness.”

But for John, this is precisely the moment when God is most present with us.  Emptying ourselves of what normally captures our attention gives God a chance to fill that space.  It is through this experience that we can attain “the state of union with God” and “live that new and blessed life.”

               The contemporary theologian Wendy Farley helps us understand San Juan’s teaching.  She writes that the Dark Night of the Soul has two stages of darkness.  In the first we are released from our normal attachments, and in the second we are cleansed of egocentrism.  These experiences can be troubling and confusing, leaving us unsure what to do.  And often the things that we normally do to bring peace and joy don’t work.  She writes, “The healing itself is painful, and healing can require remedies that are, in the moment, suffering.” 

               San Juan and Wendy Farley seem to be describing the divine encounter in the darkness as being something like what Jacob experienced—a moment of wrestling, that leaves us wounded but transformed.  It is rather common for interpreters of Jacob’s story to point out that Jacob isn’t only wrestling with the mysterious divine being, but wrestling with a manifestation of all his past troubles, even wrestling with a manifestation of his very self. 

               Wrestling with the depths of our selves, our own shadow sides, is essential in emotional and spiritual health and well-being.  Often something we do as part of therapy, psychoanalysis, or spiritual direction. 

These teachings on the Dark Night of the Soul have also been helpful for centuries to Christians in moments of despair and struggle.  For this tradition teaches that even when we feel our spirituality to be lacking and God to be absent, that isn’t the case.  Even in those moments, God is present with us.  And how helpful to learn that even these experiences can be the path of spiritual growth and ultimate union with God.

               But finding God in the darkness isn’t only about wrestling and struggle and purgation and suffering.  There are also the experiences of beauty, awe, and wonder that come about in moments of stillness, rest, and quiet.

               Even San Juan writes about the dark night as a chance “to allow the soul to remain in peace and quietness” which gives an opportunity for “peaceful and loving attentiveness toward God.”  Wendy Farley writes that “darkness is a time for supreme gentleness” and encourages us “to do nothing, to relax, to be still and stop making so many demands on ourselves.”

               In this vein, of holy darkness as a chance for rest, we find some wisdom in other traditions.  For example, Karen Armstrong writes about the Daoist thinker Laozi and his teaching of “the rich darkness” where we return to the One.  According to Laozi, “Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.”   Armstrong adds:

The (stillness) that the myriad things enjoy is, therefore, a return to their original source.  It can be compared with the seasonal cycle of a plant that grows exuberantly in the spring, forming flowers or fruit, but in winter sends in energy down into its roots . . . it is a stillness infused with the vitality of the Dao which will spring to life again.

As such, it is a stillness full of creative energy.

               One of the good books I read this last year was Rest is Resistance by the African-American artist, poet, theologian, and community organizer Tricia Hersey.  She writes that we are too busy, working too hard, always on the go.  And we are this way because of the injustices of the capitalist system have made us this way.  Yet, when we are so busy we are exhausted and can’t dream, can’t flourish in our humanity.  We “lack clarity and the ability to see deeply.”  She adds, “Your intuition and imagination are stifled by a culture of overworking and disconnection.”

               And so she teaches that rest itself is essential for our humanity, rest becomes an act of resistance, pushing against the injustices of our current systems. 

               Once we rest, then we can dream, engage our imaginations, become more creative.  She teaches, “We connect with the deepest parts of ourselves when we are rested.”  Which, to me, resonates with this tradition of Holy Darkness as going into the ground, or sinking into the vast divine ocean, to connect our roots with God and experience unlimited possibility.

               Hersey declares, “You were not just born to center your entire existence on work and labor.  You were born to heal, to grow, to be of service to yourself and community, to practice, to experiment, to create, to have space, to dream, and to connect.”

               And we live into that human potential when we have quiet moments of rest.

               I return to my experience in the Boundary Waters.  A chance to disconnect from much of modern life.  To get away from all the light, power, and energy that normally surrounds us.  To go into the wilderness, where there is quiet, serenity, and darkness.  And there to find beauty, rest, and restoration.

               King Solomon told us that “God dwells in darkness.”  And in that darkness we can experience so many different faces and aspects of the divine—wrestling purgation, presence, mystery, possibility, awe, beauty, rest.

               This Advent, as the days grow shorter, and the nights grow longer.  As life slows down with the winter cold.  As you wait and prepare for the coming of Christ again at Christmas, enter into the darkness, there to encounter God, and be transformed.