Message for Sunday August 7, 2016
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee
Scripture Reading: John 1:3-5, 9-10, 14
What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. John tells us there was nothing on Earth before life was created. The life that was created was light for all people and the light shines in the darkness. It makes sense, then, that we think of the time on Earth BEFORE the Word brought forth life, as a place that was void of any sort of illumination, any sort of location that was friendly or safe for humanity—a vastness of dark pits with danger and uncertainty around every corner. The Creation stories do not tell us that darkness is bad but we humans have learned this over time. Through nature and with our interactions with one another, we have learned that very little good comes from the night. From the dark. Hunters hunt at night. Camps and outposts get attacked at night. Depression’s lies are most often the loudest at night. Bad dreams are most real at night. There was a period in our parenting lives when a certain son of ours was experiencing night terrors and would wake up screaming his head off. One time I actually managed to get him calmed down enough to tell me what he was afraid of and his response was, “the turtles! The turtles are coming to get me!” At night, even turtles can be scary.
We have taken the darkness of night and whatever good exists within it and whatever purposes it serves and have made it a frightful place. The night is dark and full of terrors as the prophet Melisandre from Game of Thrones tells her followers. Darkness is not to be trusted. Even though many, many bad things happen in broad daylight—9/11 happened at 8:45 am—it is the dark of night that people fear the most. And it is easy to see why. I don’t know about you but as someone, who over the years, has experienced my share of panic attacks, bouts of anxiety and a period of depression or two, I can tell you whatever was going on in my head at the time, it was ALWAYS worse at night. Late night, middle of the night is the worst. There’s a good reason why when someone is struggling with doubt or uncertainty—particularly around their faith—that this time is often referred to as the dark night of the soul. Because if God were ever to abandon you, if God were to ever forget to show up, it would not be the clear light of day when it would be so much easier to see what is lost. No. If God were to vanish from your side, it would happen at night, wouldn’t it? Nothing good happens in the dark.
Which brings us to the importance of light. As we found out earlier, with the children, it takes very little light to break into complete darkness. If you were lost or in a long tunnel, you can imagine how welcome that little flicker of light we saw today would be so welcome. How you would be drawn to it. We have come to associate light with security. Just as dark can be scary and bad, light is safe and good. And when we find ourselves alone in the dark, whether physically, mentally or spiritually, we seek light. We search endlessly for light to give us hope that there is a way out of the dark, a way to feel better, a way to believe even amongst your doubt. We are told in today’s scripture reading that Jesus is like this light—this impossibly bright thing in a sea of dark, in a vast unknowingness, Jesus is the light that leads the way. And, because this light is created through the awesome power of God, the goodness of light is also God’s goodness. But when there is no light to see—visual or metaphorically—what does that mean about God’s presence? Where in the dark is God?
There is a quote somewhere in my readings from school of a man saying when he had fallen into a well he never despaired, because even at the bottom of that dark well, he was happy because he knew he was not alone. God was with him. And I have wondered what that happiness feels like? I don’t know about happiness but I have had moments of certainty that God has been with me, even when there was no light to glimpse, no matter how hard I looked. Two years ago, I was one of the Board members at the beloved Naramata Centre, an educational and retreat centre of the United Church of Canada. As with the other three educational centres across the country at the time, Naramata was struggling financially for a variety of reasons that had a history that is, as it often is, complicated. Push finally came to shove in January of 2015 and the Board voted to close the Centre. There was a legacy of land, infrastructure and many, many people who held Naramata very close to their hearts. Those of us on the Board understood the depth and breadth of pain our decision was going to cause. We sat there at the table, slightly shocked that we had finally made the decision that had been dogging us for months. And something needed to be said. We spoke about we were in the dark. In place of total uncertainty and lack of any clear vision. Of there being no light to show us the way. But that complete lack of light did not mean we were alone. I knew, without question, that God was with us in our decision that day. And that God would be with us as we moved forward with shutting down the Centre. I can’t explain much more about it but there was no doubt in my mind, sitting there that day, crying with the others, that God was there.
And God was with the Chilean miners in 2010. If you remember, 33 men were trapped seven hundred meters underground for sixty-nine days after a cave-in occurred in the copper-gold mine in which they were working. Most of the men were Catholic and, after they were rescued, they spoke of how their faith helped them endure being trapped for so long. I don’t know if you have ever had the opportunity to tour an underground mine but I have—a copper mine in Zambia. Twice. The stories I can tell you about being underground are mostly funny and they usually involve Matthew Taylor-Kerr, our former youth leader here at Symons Valley, but there were some rather serious moments during the tours. Such as when we shut off our lamps and stood in the complete darkness. We were all together but you wouldn’t have known it by looking. The lack of light was profound. It was unsettling to say the least. Any bit of light, the tiniest flicker, would have felt God-sent in that moment. How I understand the Chilean miners situation is that they had some light in their refuge but I think we can imagine how very alone and separated from humanity they must of felt each hour of those sixty-nine days. If there was any time to give into despair or to allow hopelessness to seep into your bones, being trapped in a mine owned by people who had such a complete disregard for their miners that they did not have essential safety measures in place that would have allowed them to escape a cave-in nor did they have the financial resources to fund a rescue mission and relied on the national government to step in to get the miners out—if ever hope was lost, it would have been then. If ever a light was needed at the end of the tunnel, it was needed for those thirty-three miners.
But the miners never gave up hope. Mario Sepúlveda said, “I was with God, and with the Devil – and God took me.” Mónica Araya, the wife of the first man rescued, Florencio Ávalos, noted: “We are really religious, both my husband and I, so God was always present.” The British newspaper Daily Mail reported, “A deep religious faith powered this rescue.” And I wonder how that could be. Why God’s presence was so tangible for those men, encouraging them to not give up hope when for others, God’s absence is so keenly felt and all hope is lost? How when a child abuse survivor I spoke with this week told me that God and Jesus abandoned her as her father raped her at 14 years old and her despair of their absence haunted her for years. But when another who’s beloved hit rock bottom earlier this year—hit bottom so hard that the marriage surely needed to end, relationships in the family so broken it was hard to see how to pick up the pieces—and yet, these many months later, they have made it through. The pieces HAVE been picked up. Hope was not lost. The darkness was not overwhelming. God was there.
How and why can God and hope feel so present for some at different times when not for others or in other times? It can’t simply be a matter of faith and trust in God and Jesus and it can’t just be the strength of will. Because if we could pray or will ourselves out of depression, addiction, a situation where the only answer will cause grief for all involved or will ourselves out of being trapped in a mine some seven hundred meters below ground, then we would. We would. But that’s not how life works. Sometimes medical help is needed. Sometimes a room of trusted, dear companions is needed. Sometimes the full force of the government and a nation’s demand is needed. But those are outside forces.
What happens within our being so that God’s presence is such that hope is not lost and light, however faint it might be, is there for us to grasp on to? I think it has something to do with connection. Or, at the very least, an openness to connection. A willinness to be vulnerable to connecting with something, someone, outside of ourselves. Connecting to God, to the presence of Jesus in our life—connecting to one another. We have an innate need to be connected—whether as lovers, in social groups or in families—biological, adopted or self-selected. We have a keen desire to have people that we can be bonded to—maybe not for a lifetime but for the time we are in. But we must be open. Our heart must be willing to connect with another. And we must be willing to allow in the Divine. Within the “I am spiritual but not religious” folks there is a common thread—they crave a connection to something greater than themselves. They know it’s there but are seeking ways to invite it into their lives—into their very beings. One of our tenets, one our beliefs in Christianity, is that the risen Christ is with us—not yet returned but with us nonetheless. Our teacher, our leader, the light who guides the Way is not gone forever, but is with us in some fashion, offering to us still, guidance and a lit a path. It is said that Jesus does not demand entry into your life but waits at the door for you to open it. Just as God does not demand to be loved, but loves you without end, Jesus, the Word made flesh, stands ready to offer you a light, however small it might be, to guide your feet and to let you know not all hope is lost. The dark does not have to be scary. Because in the dark is also God. You don’t have to be happy when you find yourself at the bottom of a well but know there is good in the darkness.