Walking in the Dark
Text: Psalm 27
It is hard to walk in the dark. Despite my age and knowing better, I still often try it some nights. I wake up early, don’t want to disturb Jennell’s sleep, so I slither out of bed (as much anyone my size can slither) and I sneak off in the dark. Inevitably, I miscalculate my steps and stub a toe or trip over a shoe that I forgot to put away. It is hard to walk in the dark.
It is even harder to live in the dark, much less to find God in the dark. I speak from experience. And, I suspect that you have visited there on occasion as well, maybe even now. In times of deep darkness, there could be a blinding sun shining in a cloud free sky and you would still find yourself walking about in the dark, uncertain about your next step, unable to see anything, unable to prevent the inevitable stumble, the feared fall.
A certain number of predictable things happen when you are stumbling about in the spiritual dark. Sometimes, people of good faith who love you dearly send you words of encouragement but they are hard to receive. Sometimes friends drop by to comfort you, but you are so hurt, you can’t welcome them in the way you want. It’s hard to do hospitality when, like Job, you’re walking about in a deep abyss of darkness and despair.
Walking about in the dark leaves you with a deep longing for light, for direction, for God. Sometimes preachers say they know the way out of the dark and then with even more pomposity, they go on to explain to you why you’re in it. I recall William Sloane Coffin’s remarkable sermon about the untimely death of his son. He writes about the flood of letters that followed this tragedy. Coffin writes: “Some of the very best, and easily the worst, came from fellow reverends, a few of whom proved they knew their Bibles better than the human condition. I know all the ‘right’ Biblical passages . . . but the point is this: While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal . . . The reality of grief is the absence of God, . . . the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart’s in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that ‘there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away’ (Lord Byron).”
Early in his Christian life, the fine Christian thinker and novelist, C. S. Lewis, said that walking about, stumbling about, in the dark was God’s way of getting our attention, waking us up to deeper, more important things. He called it his “alarm clock theology.”
Then, later in life, Lewis fell in love and married Joy Davidman. Soon after, her cancer and death literally undid his tidy explanation of suffering and left him walking alone in deep darkness. In Shadowlands, the play about his marriage, Lewis faces the audience, with his wife in her hospital bed, and confesses that his alarm clock theology was too glib. Nothing can explain or make sense of this. There is suffering so deep, [so dark] that it simply will not do to dismiss it as God’s teaching us something (Michael Lindvall, The Geography of God, p. 114).
Speaking of walking about in the darkness of suffering, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Christianity is the only world religion that confesses a God who suffers. It is not all that popular an idea, even among Christians. We prefer a God who prevents suffering, only that is not the God we have. What the cross teaches us is that God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain. It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them—not from a distance but right close up (God in Pain).”
We know almost nothing about the Psalmist who penned Psalm 27, except that she surely knew something about walking alone in the dark. Just after Psalm 27 opens with the joy-filled words: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” it talks about unjust suffering, enemies camping on our doorsteps, friends forsaking us just when we need them the most – all reasons to fear, to be afraid.
During my dark night of the soul, I was unsure if I would ever emerge from the darkness or that God even knew I was in it or if God cared that I was in it, but still I guzzled the Psalmist’s words, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?”
It should come as no great surprise that of all the ways Jesus describes himself, perhaps the most revealing – and the most hope-filled is found in the Gospel of John when Jesus declares: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Our current church season of Epiphany falls in the darkest time of the calendar year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is a season when we have short periods of daylight and most of us long for days with more light. It is the season when people of strong faith and people trying to find any faith pray for God’s light to penetrate the deepest darkness in the world and the deepest darkness in our souls.
The Yale philosopher Nicolas Wolterstorff who also experienced the loss of a son asked the question many of us ask: “What should you say to someone who is suffering, someone you love who is walking about in the abyss of darkness?” “Your words don’t have to be wise,” he wrote. “The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything to say, just say “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know I am with you in your grief.’”
“What I really need,” Wolterstorff goes on to say “is that you are with me.” He writes, “To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench” (Lament for a Son). And, I would add, come sit beside me in the dark. Sit beside me and please don’t pretend that it is not really dark or that it is dark because God is messing with the circuit breakers or that the dark is really for the best or is anything other than part of the inexplicable, excruciating nature of suffering.
In the season of Epiphany, we pause to celebrate that in Jesus, God has come to sit beside us—to walk with us, to live with us, to love with us, to suffer with us, to sit in the dark with us, and to die with us. We celebrate “the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
As I walked about in the darkness, the words of the Psalmist took flesh in my family, in my friends, and in some of the most amazing ways, in you. What do you do when your pastor needs a pastor? You can hope that someone else will step up and provide that care because that is a change of roles for which you never agreed. Instead, when I could not find my way out of the dark, you refused to let me stay there alone. When I was living in sheer terror, when I could not begin to see the light, your prayers, your e-mails, your cards, your meals, your visits, your hugs, your belief in me helped hold me together.
I cannot say it better about you than Coffin says it about a congregation that was a light for him in a time of deep darkness. He writes: “You gave me what God gives all of us – minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.” I certainly can say the same.
When the Psalmist first declared, “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” it is likely that her people were living in the darkness of exile. Maybe the Psalmist first writes these words then to light a torch in a people too-well acquainted with darkness, too accustomed to suffering, too mired in despair. Maybe these words still light such a torch today.
Look beside you. Look around you. Maybe just look in the mirror. What better torch does Scripture give us than the promise of Psalm 27, a torch to bring with us into the darkness of those facing their final days on this earth, of those who have lost a job for no good reason, of those who cannot seem to catch a break, of those who cannot bring themselves to believe that there is a God, much less a God who is our “light” and our “salvation”?
Who do you know today who is living so deep in darkness that they need for you to believe, “The Lord is my life and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Then, they need you to sit beside them in the darkness, to make them some brownies or bread or bring them a bottle of wine. They need you to surround them with prayers because they cannot pray. They need you to believe for them until they lay claim to the Psalmist’s near closing words, “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” I can speak first-hand just how much such simple acts of love and support can mean.
Psalm 27 closes with words that are not only hard to grasp for those walking in the dark, but also for those who have come alongside those walking in the dark. They seem like almost impossible words, but they are, in fact, the words that finally lead us into to the light: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
So, today I want to thank you for your light and for casting God’s light my way. Thank you for waiting for me and with me and with my family when “darkness covered everything, blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp (from James Weldon Johnson’s, The Creation). Thank you for the light that you cast far beyond this church.
I wouldn’t dare finish this sermon alone because I am not being led out of the dark alone. So, please join your voices with mine as we lay claim to the Psalmist’s promise in verse 1 and say together: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
For all who have lived and all who are living in the land of deep darkness, may the light of the Psalmist’s promise continue to shine.