This is a short meditation that I gave in the Kay Chapel at American University last night. It was inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor's book Learning to Walk in the Dark. The scripture reading is Isaiah 45:1-8. At the end of the reflection, we handed out paper and crayons and people drew pictures of experiences of night/darkness in their lives. Feel free to grab crayons and do the same!
Some of you will recall that last semester the panel that controls the lighting in our lovely Kay chapel got broken. And perhaps some of you also recall that, because of this lighting panel incident, we had one Thursday night healing service in which all of the lights in the chapel were on. Painfully, blindingly on.
Now, if I am remembering this correctly, Tori was preaching that night, and she did a wonderful job, and we had communion, and time for prayer, and the service in general was everything that I’ve come to expect from a healing service.
But those lights were on. And they were sort of…hot. And everything felt just a bit…off.
There’s just something about gathering here, late at night, with the lights lowered and the music reflective, which lends itself to an atmosphere of contemplation and reflection. With all the lights up, I found it a bit harder to relax back into the healing presence of the Spirit. So I was pretty relieved when we got the light panel fixed (or at least sort-of fixed).
I say all of that because I think that our gathering here every Thursday, with the lights lowered, gives some insight into part of the Christian faith that is oft-neglected: the importance of darkness.
It wouldn’t take a newcomer to Christianity a very long time to notice that Christians love to talk about light. Scripture describes Jesus as “the light of the world” (John 8:12); and tells us that “in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5). The latter is quoted in a popular hymn called “I Want To Walk As A Child Of The Light,” and the Christian community is supposed to be a light to the world as well (Matthew 5:14). The images pile up after a while, leading to an obvious conclusion: light is good, and dark is bad.
It’s not just Christianity, of course. We have some cultural hangups about darkness.: I went to see a movie the other day, and the trailer for the next Star Wars movie came on. There are only a few words in the trailer: an ominous voice says, “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it? The dark side…and the light.” And I bet folks in the theater, even if they had never seen a Star Wars movie, knew which side we’re supposed to be cheering for. Dark Side equals bad. Light Side equals …well, it equals Mark Hamill, which isn’t so good, but he’s the guy we were supposed to root for, anyway.
The metaphor makes sense in a lot of ways – there is something about our faith that tends us toward language about illumination, about being able to see or to understand in a new way. But there are some unintended consequences to the ease of our metaphorical preference for light. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things….To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it ‘full solar spirituality.’”[i]
Ironically, the movie that was preceded by the Star Wars trailer was Selma, a particularly powerful representation of one of the more obvious side effects of the “light-good, dark-bad” dichotomy. Of course there is more to our ongoing struggles with racial prejudice in this country than metaphors about light and dark, but it can’t possibly help with the unconscious biases of our society that we so often associate darkness with evil or pain. And Jesus himself has to deal with his own disciples making assumptions about a man with impaired vision when they ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Our preference for light and sight can lead to some problematic stuff.
Tonight’s scripture, from the prophetic literature of Isaiah, challenges our usual understanding of dark and light as they relate to our faith in God. As with all of our scriptures, this text emerges from a complicated social and political situation, marked by unrest and uncertainty. In it, the prophet speaks God’s word to Cyrus, the ruler of the Persian Empire. God calls Cyrus “his anointed,” which, if we were more familiar with biblical Hebrew, would startle us good Christians a bit. “Anointed” is the English translation of the word mashiakh, Messiah. In Greek, the word would be translated khristos, which we anglicize as “Christ.” So this passage opens with the line, “Thus says the LORD to his Christ, the Persian Emperor.”
Why would the prophet Isaiah refer to Cyrus as Christ? Well, as with much of the Hebrew Bible, the scrolls of Isaiah take their final form during the Babylonian Exile. The Babylonian Empire, though, is weakening, and the star of Cyrus II is rising. Cyrus, it seems, might represent the Israelites’ best hope of returning to their homeland and rebuilding their beloved temple.
So in this passage, we have a theological interpretation of sociopolitical events. And what the text says, again and again and again, is that, while Cyrus of Persia might be very strong, although he might represent the people’s best earthly hope for a return from exile, it is only because God is the God of all the world, in fact of all the cosmos, that such a thing could come to pass. That a foreign king could be hailed as a savior is characteristic of the universalistic message of the Prophet Isaiah, a message that is not always well received by people who are used to thinking of themselves as the sole recipients of God’s grace.
And to communicate this comprehensive sense of God’s presence, to relativize the sovereignty of even the most powerful of kings, the text says things like:
“From the rising of the sun and from the west”—that is, where the sun goes down—“there is no one besides me.”
Or, “I form light and create darkness.”
Or, “Let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up.”
What makes God, God, instead of just another powerful figure like the Babylonian and Persian kings, is that God is in the sunset as well as the sunrise, the dark as well as the light, bad times as well as the good times, springing up from underground as much as making decrees from on high. It’s God as comprehensive, universal, all-embracing, that distinguishes the God of the Hebrew Bible from the more particular deities of the surrounding nations and tribes. The God of the Bible is not one-dimensional.
Which makes me think, again, of Barbara Brown Taylor’s words: “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.”[ii] She adds, “There are days when I would give anything to share their vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely, but my spiritual gifts do not seem to include the gift of solar spirituality. Instead, I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season….All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.”[iii]
Much to my delight, though not to my surprise, Barbara Brown Taylor credits her university chaplaincy with opening her up to a spirituality more comfortable with uncertainty and with questioning, with waxing and waning experiences of God – a version of Christianity more comfortable with the dark.[iv] And so here we sit, in a darkened university chapel, somehow, I think, seeking an escape from too much light. Mark spoke about seeking silence last week and he used the term, “negative space,” like the rests in a piece of music. And with all of the artificial light in our lives – fluorescent overheads and smart phones and screensavers – maybe we need some visual negative space, as well.
Our passage from Isaiah tonight recalls God saying, “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, who calls you by your name.” The treasures of darkness. I like that. The gifts that are waiting for us in the places where we can’t see.
What have been the treasures of darkness in your life? I think the question bears some reflection. I’ve got some paper here, and some pens and some colored pencils. And I’m going to ask that we spend a little bit of time tonight thinking about our own stories of darkness. Maybe you remember your parents calling you inside when it got too dark to play. Maybe you remember the power going out and your family playing games. Maybe you used to be scared of the dark. Maybe you still are! If so, why? What did you imagine was hiding there? Think back over your life. Think about your experiences with darkness – take that as literally or as metaphorically as you like. And write some thoughts down, if you’d like; or draw a picture of an experience of darkness, if you’d like; move around if you’d like or stay still if you’d like. But I want to invite you, now, to take some time. To search for riches hidden in secret places. To uncover your own treasures of darkness.