I’ve been deeply aware in these past few weeks of the irrefutable fact that there is sorrow in our world. Private sorrows of individual lives are amplified by the societal sorrows we see all around us, and sometimes the shadows seem to overpower the light. This is not a new problem, but things do seem especially rough in the moment.
Last December (2013), I preached the following sermon at a communityWinter Solstice service in Westfield, Vermont. The issues of that moment still pertain, I’d say, so it seemed worth posting it here, almost a year later.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I began my day today quite aware of darkness of the spiritual sort … quite understanding of despair. Not that I tend that way myself, for what it’s worth (I was fortunate enough to have been born seeing the glass as at least three-quarters of the way full, which I do know is lucky).
No … my despair … my sense of spiritual shadows this morning came from my own foolish decision … in which I, still in my flannel jammies, and not even having had my first cup of coffee, opted to reply to a Facebook post about the supposed injustice done to Phil Robinson of Duck Dynasty fame and how the A&E network has singlehandedly injured all Christians and squashed free speech. Even as I pushed the send button with my reply, I knew I was in for an argument that would raise my blood pressure and lower my spirits, but as St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, said, “Love will not let me keep silence” … and so … theological arguments on Facebook with fundamentalist Christians … and so … darkness and despair. Ugh.
When Uncle David put me in touch with Jeff and Katherine about this service, we talked about the purpose of this reflection … not quite a sermon, but more of meditation on dark and light, with the understanding that the people gathered here would probably represent a fairly broad swath of spirituality … that a little God-talk wouldn’t be out of place … but that mostly the focus would be the coming of the light and the community that carries us through the seasons of darkness in our lives.
And as one who sees the darkness but almost always holds onto the light, I wanted to encourage us to think a bit about the gifts of both darkness and light.
We’ve already heard from Robert Frost this evening, but I wanted to add this piece~ his poem “Acquainted with the Night”:
“Acquainted with the Night”
by Robert Frost
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
The time … the darkness … neither wrong nor right. I like that.
And from Mary Oliver ~ it’s a poem, but more than that, it’s a thought to ponder:
“The Uses of Sorrow”
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
(by Mary Oliver, from Thirst, Beacon Press, Boston, 2006)
This darkness, too, a gift. It strikes me that the possibility of spiritual resilience, that which gets us through painful seasons, may well lie in seeing all things as gifts … or at least to see that all things could contain gifts. They’re not always easy to notice at first, and sometimes they’re only clearly revealed to be gifts in the rearview mirror.
I’m a big fan of the folk singer Gordon Bok, and one of his sea songs that I particularly love is called “Sailor’s Prayer.” I first fell in love with the chorus: “I will not lie me down … this rain a-raging. I will not lie me down in such a storm. And if this night be unblessed, I shall not take my rest until we reach another shore.” … pretty good chorus, wouldn’t you say? (Will you sing it with me?)
In fact, I loved that chorus so much that I initially missed the words of the second verse. The song is about a sailing ship in desperate situation, with wild weather and unspecified dangers in the darkness, and about finding hope in the midst of despair. The words of verse two are these:
“If the only water’s salt and I cannot quench my thirst
I will drink the rain that falls so steady down.
If night’s blindness be my gift, if there be thieves upon my drift,
I will thank the fog that shelters me from them.”
Night’s blindness … a sheltering gift.
Perhaps darkness can be a sanctuary — a place of safety, of warm comfort … so in this sanctuary I invite us into a quiet moment … I invite you to open your heart to the question: when in your life has the seeming absence of light been a gift to you? What gifts do you find in darkness?
I hope something comes to mind for you, but if not yet, keep the eyes of your heart open … I believe the gifts are there, awaiting notice.
Lastly, I want to turn briefly to the Christmas story. There are so many wonderful characters therein … but also so many ways in which we soften the focus of the story until we see it with only sentimentality: “Look, the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, with his adoring mother gazing quietly upon him.” We don’t always notice the darkness, but it’s there.
Take that adoring mother: Picture Mary … an unmarried girl of maybe 15 or so. Not only is she asked to bear the child of God … not only does she face ostracism from respectable society … not only does Joseph himself not believe her tale of an angel’s visit …. after all of that … she has to ride to Bethlehem alongside Joseph on a donkey when she is, as the Bible delicately tells us … “great with child.” She has to bed down in a stable — a dusty, smelly stable — and then to top it off, she gives birth there — a 15 year old girl, far from her kinship circles… far from the women in her family who might have customarily helped her through her first childbirth experience. There is no midwife in sight, no help to be found … not even the comfort of familiar surroundings. Somehow, that whole scene doesn’t bear much resemblance to the stained glass images. “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
And yet, in the midst of that difficult situation, Mary takes a stand. She chooses yes (when she could clearly have said, “Nope, Gabriel, you got the wrong gal.”) She chooses light … and I take courage from that fact. On my best days, she reminds me that one of the gifts of the dark times is the option of saying yes anyway and choosing light
Some years ago I came across a poem by Cheryl Kristolaitis — “Just give me a little time to think about it: for those who say no to the angels”:
I felt the brush of an angel’s wings across my face.
Looked up, startled,
and felt my life fall away
like so many pieces of shattered glass.
“Don’t be afraid,” a voice said,
as if this was something I could assimilate
and go on with my day.
Don’t be afraid even though the cosmos has shifted and heaven has walked into the room.
“I have something I want you to do.”
At least I thought that’s what I heard.
But to tell the truth I was still staring
at the blend of light and motion
that seemed to mesmerize me in my place.
I don’t know how I responded
except I am sure that I didn’t say yes.
Give me some time.
Let me think this through.
Half certain that when the light had left the room
I could convince myself that it was only
the way the sun filtered itself through the clouds that day.
But I couldn’t.
I felt the brush of angel’s wings
and want that moment back.
I want to know what would have happened
if I had said yes.
There is darkness. We’re deep in it these short winter days. We’re deep in it in our world of woes. We have been acquainted with the night. There’s no denying it … but still we have the option of saying yes to the angels, saying yes to the Light.
“I will not lie me down, this rain a-raging. I will not lie me down in such a storm. And if this night be unblessed, I shall not take my rest until we reach another shore.”
May it be so for you and for our world.
+“Just give me a little time to think about it: for those who say no to the angels,” by Cheryl Kristolaitis, appeared in the church school curriculum “Seasons of the Spirit” in the early 2000s.
+“Sailor’s Prayer,” written by Rod MacDonald, appears on the album “All Shall Be Well Again” featuring Gordon Bok, Ed Trickett and Anne Mayo Muir on the Folk-Legacy label, 1983
(Rev. Susie Webster-Toleno, December 19, 2013)