Winter Darkness

Rev. Megan Huston
January 4, 2015

John 1: 1-14
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Woodstock, New York is probably known by most of us because of the music festival of the 60’s. But before it was known for music, it was known for light or maybe, for darkness. In late 1924, when the people of this small mountain town had their first experience of electrical lighting, they were appalled. A local historian, Alf Evers wrote, “Old people swore that reading or living by so fierce a light was impossible.” In December a protest was staged to speak out against the evils of modern light.

In the late 19th century cheap and effective lighting became widely available. It added hours to the day- hours for work, entertainment, discovery, for consumption, for every activity except sleep claims New York Times contributor Clark Strand.

And now, it seems that we are addicted to light. Office lamps that allow us to work into long hours of the night, street lights that allow us to come and go as we please at all hours, the lights of business fronts that remain open 24 hours so we have immediate access to all of our wants and needs, and probably most used, the backlit screens of our electronic devices which keep us up into wee hours of the night and are known for hampering our ability to fall asleep. We are a culture that is constantly surrounded by light.

If scripture is to be taken literally, then it would seem we have landed. We have certainly overcome darkness with light, for instance, with light pollution so great, that in many of the most populated parts of the world, one can look up into the sky and not see a single star. Imagine, living your life without ever having seen a brilliant deep dark night sky covered in twinkling stars. It seems to me that in a culture full of light, we may actually be desperate to turn the lights off and learn a different rhythm.

A few days before we left for Guatemala, I realized that I hadn’t planned any of our evening worships. So I brought my work home with me, and decided I had to get those worship services planned. Pretty soon, though, it dawned on me that my planning worship at the end of the day when I was exhausted and hadn’t even yet experienced Guatemala was probably not the best idea. So instead I packed a worship sort of DIY kit that contained all we would need to worship each night- large pieces of poster board, cut in half to fit in my suitcase, markers, sticky notes, pencils, and most importantly, as many tea light and jar candles as I could fit. I knew that worship would be obvious after working in the city each day. And the simple act of lighting a candle under a dark sky would without a doubt bring us toward encountering God. And so we did- we sat in a circle on the roof of our retreat center and recounted our stories of the day, watching the flames move around in the darkness, and listening to the urban street sounds. Our tired muscles relaxed when we stepped out of the light and into the natural darkness, preparing for rest for another day’s work. And the reality of suffering that we were encountering each day seemed to require the reverence of soft candlelight.

I don’t know about you, but after the magic of Christmas has dissipated and we have brought in the new year, I often start to feel a sense of dread. And the truth is that I think it is the darkness I fear most. February has a visceral impact on me. I don’t know why, but I guess there is something about staring out at all that darkness each day, that brings out my own dark places.

I wonder if it has to do with the rhythms of life slowing down. It seems like February is the least eventful month out of the year. In a culture where we love to have the lights on, and keep ourselves busy every possible minute, empty space can be debilitating.

But what if what the poet Mary Oliver claims is true? “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” What if we learn just as much from the dark as we do in the light?

Barbara Brown Taylor describes some churches as solar faith communities. The lights are on all the time in these worshipping communities. Life experience is supposed to be positive for faithful Christians, which is great until someone you love dies, or a bout with depression hits someone in your family, or your prayer isn’t answered.

The truth is that we live in a world that is full of darkness. And to pretend that our artificial lighting can scare the shadows away is simply delusional. Some of the most miserable people I have known are manically happy. Everything in life is “great, great, great” but the problem is that they are so used to pushing out the bad feelings that they have forgotten how to feel at all.

I wonder if Winter is actually our invitation to face our fear of the dark… To accept that during this season the day is shorter and the night is longer and to ask, what can we accomplish in the dark that we need more than ever?

In the winter darkness, we can reclaim the sacredness of rest. Many people have become ill over the winter break, and many have admitted it is because they have been working so hard for so long that their body finally shut down when it had a chance to rest. What does the rhythm of our seasons teach us about the rhythms we need in our own personal and family lives? It is simply not healthy to keep the lights on all the time!

And also, I wonder what we can learn when we face our fear of darkness? When we pull back the curtains on the dark places that haunt us- admitting our failures, recognizing our imperfections, being honest about our deepest wounds… The winter time reminds us that darkness shapes us in profound ways. If we have the courage to face our most fragile places, we may become stronger than we ever imagined.

I wonder if there is a spiritual discipline that you could take on during the darkest winter months. Journaling about how darkness has uncovered some truth about God, sitting in silence for five minutes a day, or turning off all the electronics and lighting a candle to be together as a family.

This year, let’s not run away from the winter. Let’s face our fears knowing that God’s love is always stronger than death and that it takes courage to be honest about who we are. Spring will be here before we know it, but let’s not wish winter away too soon.


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