My favorite time of day is the dark, quiet hour or so before sunrise. I wake early enough every day (only rarely do I miss!) to experience the sights and sounds of the darkness and to witness the gentle waking of the slumbering creation. I don’t turn on any lights nor do I make noise or speak, and I get irritable when others interrupt this practice by switching on lights or engaging in conversation.
Something inside me needs these moments of pre-dawn darkness. There is a rhythm in our world and within myself, and I am profoundly aware of it as I sit quietly in the dark. Before a new day arrives with its bright lights and busyness, I sense the nearness of God’s Spirit, the same Spirit that hovered over the deep in the darkness of Genesis 1:1. For me, these moments are holy, parts of a necessary routine that nurtures me both physically and spiritually. I must have them.
When evening comes, I welcome the dark once again. I prefer soft light or no artificial light at all as the day draws to a close. My mind and body operate in rhythm with the creation, unwinding as the sun sets and preparing for a good night’s sleep. Darkness comes like the softness and warmth of a well-worn quilt and the protective embrace of a baby’s security blanket.
This instinctual circadian rhythm of mine becomes problematic in the winter time, though, when darkness arrives early and lingers late. During this season, light and dark wage war within me. I hesitate to venture out in the evening, and I experience mild symptoms of depression. I long for and countdown to the lengthy, bright days of summer sunshine. I crave the light in the way I imagine an addict craves her addiction. I must have it.
Somehow, the desire for dark and the longing for light are both part of my nature; each has a role to play in my life. Neither is wrong or right, good or bad. Darkness has its own time and place, as does light; light serves its own purpose, as does darkness. For the sake of healthy mind, body, and spirit, I need them both.
In fact, all humans do. We need the darkness as much as we need the light. Darkness is essential to our physical well-being. This circadian rhythm affects everything from our body chemistries to our relationships.
New studies are being done, and scientists are growing concerned about the effects of our ever lit-up 21st century lifestyles. We were not created to live in perpetual daylight, and we suffer when we spend all our time with the lights on. Article after article has been written about insomnia in our culture, and the first piece of advice to cure sleeplessness is to turn off everything that emits light in the evening: tv, cell phone, computer, tablet, etc. Our brains need the dark to shut down, rest, and renew. Our bodies need the night to recuperate from the day; to get the most out of the day to perform and produce at work and play, we must give ourselves to the night.
So, why do we work so hard to stave off the darkness? Why the preference for light?
Perhaps its because we’re so dependent on our eyesight. We can see so much clearer in the daylight or by lamplight. When walking by day, obstacles are obvious and easy enough to avoid. In the light, we can see where we are and where we’re going. But at night without clear sight, we might stumble or get lost.
Perhaps its because we’re afraid of the dark. Maybe not in the same way we were as children, but we still perceive the dark as dangerous. Darkness hides, conceals, and covers who-knows-what. So, we plug in our nightlights and install our motion lights. The lights will keep us safe, so we think.
Perhaps its because darkness is so unknown. Maybe we are so consumed with knowing that we are uncomfortable not knowing. The unknown is unpredictable and untamable, and we like a certain amount of predictability and domesticity in our lives. We prefer order and associate darkness with chaos.
Perhaps its because we’ve been taught even in church and Sunday school that light is good and dark is evil. Consider the many scriptures that reinforce this idea.
Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. John 3:19
God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 1 John 1:5
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light. Ephesians 5:8
But what if darkness is not inherently bad or light inherently good? What if darkness has the potential to reveal as much as conceal?
When we avoid the darkness because we cannot see or because we are afraid or because its unknown or because we believe it to be evil, we miss out on the treasures of the night. Without the dark, we would never see the stars. Without the dark, we would hardly notice the beauty of the moon’s phases. Without the dark and relying solely on our eyes, we might not ever hear creation’s night song or smell the dewy dampness of the overnight or sense the hovering nearness of the Spirit. These are the treasures of darkness.
Our spiritual life as a community of faith is similar. We work to “keep the lights on” both literally and metaphorically… We generally prefer the well-known, well-lit, well-worn path over an adventure into the unknown darkness.
I’ve been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” She asks her readers to consider a spirituality that grows and thrives, not in the bright light of day, but in the soft glow of a deep, dark, moonlit night. She challenges readers to check their attitudes toward darkness, saying “If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we’re running from is God?”
The Word of the Lord today comes from the prophet Isaiah 45:3-
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,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
Consider these incredible events from the Bible that took place in the dark.
In the beginning, there was darkness. God’s Spirit was there.
Evening always comes before morning; darkness gets first place.
God leads Abraham outside to look at the stars and promises him countless descendants.
God comes to Jacob by way of dreams in the darkness.
Jacob later wrestles with an angel of God all night long.
God reveals the future to Joseph through dreams at night.
Exodus from Egypt happens at night. God parts the Red Sea at night. Manna falls from the wilderness sky at night.
God speaks the covenant to Israel from within the great darkness of a cloud atop Mt. Sinai. This darkness, while dangerous, is a sure sign of God’s presence.
Jesus was born under a blanket of darkness and a starry sky, and he was resurrected in the darkness of a stone, cold tomb under the heavy, hovering pre-dawn blackness.
These are treasures of darkness, riches hidden in secret places so that ordinary people might know that the Lord is God and that the same Lord calls them by name.
When we focus all our energy on keeping the dark, unknown at bay, we miss opportunities to experience the great treasures of darkness that only come when we trust the Lord enough to walk into the dark unknown.
Today, I invite you to join me and Roger for a walk in the dark. After being with you all for 2 years now, we have learned about you and loved you, on occasion gently challenged you to think in different ways. Now, we sense it’s time to actively move in new directions, into unknown places.
If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know that over the summer we engaged in experimental Sunday school programming. Having recognized that the well-lit, well-worn path of traditional Christian education was essentially broken infrastructure, a group of us proposed a new Inter-Generational model. We had no clear directions and no road to follow. We chose to take a walk in the dark. And as we did, we discovered treasures of darkness: the treasures of renewed excitement and increased interest in growing as disciples of Jesus Christ. Our attendance has been phenomenal; the conversation has been meaningful; the perspective of a wide variety of leaders and participants has been considerable. We took a walk in the dark, and the road emerged even as we walked on it.
As a result, we are abandoning the old road for this new one. In two weeks on September 13, a new season of Inter-Generational Sunday School begins. Ages 5-105 will meet together in the fellowship hall to learn and grow together as disciples of Jesus Christ. One cannot become a disciple in isolation; we learn to walk in the way of Jesus as a community. So, if you’re not engaged with others in an effort to grow in Christ, you need to get involved. In order for Gage Park Baptist to become the Vibrant! Growing! Reaching! community that we said we desired to be, we must individually and communally nurture a vibrant and growing faith.
Tomorrow, we begin yet another walk in the dark. Roger and I began challenging you a year and a half ago to “Think Outside the Church.” We have these great visual reminders hanging throughout the building. Now, it’s time to do more than think about it every once in a while. Now, it’s time to become a congregation that does more than just worship on Sunday. Now, it’s time to follow Jesus into life-changing and community-changing mission by meeting the real needs of the world.
Tomorrow night we have an orientation session for this new adventure, Mission from the Gospels. We have gathered a variety of other churches who also desire to be outward-focused disciples, and we are going on this journey together. We will study how Jesus and the first disciples ministered to people, and we will follow Jesus by doing mission in our own community. If we are to become that Vibrant! Growing! Reaching! Church of our dreams, we must do some actual reaching. We take the first step tomorrow night, and we have only a sketchy map with a few landmarks to follow over the next several months.
Do we know exactly what this means for the future of our church? No.
Do we know if we can successfully flip the switch from being inward-focused to becoming outward-focused? No.
Do we know if this adventure will transform us into the Vibrant! Growing! Reaching! church of our dreams? No.
What we do know is this: if we insist on walking the well-lit, well-worn, familiar path, we will never know the treasures of darkness. We believe that God has a promising future for this congregation to be more than simply a worshipping community. We believe that if we follow God into the dark, God will show us the stars and fill our hearts with dreams. We believe that if we step into the unknown, God will part the seas and nourish us with manna. We believe that if we venture into the darkness, we will find all the hope and possibility of the newborn savior, as well as the resurrected life of the risen Lord.
Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century monk, said this, “if we decide to keep going beyond a point where our eyes or minds are any help to us, we may finally arrive at the pinnacle of the spiritual journey toward God, which exists in complete and dazzling darkness.”
Come, let’s take a walk in the dark.