In the Dark

Second Sunday after Epiphany
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139

It seems funny in the weeks following the dazzling brightness of Epiphany to reflect on/in darkness, but that’s where I’m headed. In part because it’s heavy in the text, but also because I’m hypersensitive to it. Something of a spiritual/emotional “darkness” has been hanging out with me as of late.*

Were it possible, I’d rather slam the door in the face of darkness than spend time with/in it when it knocks. I don’t think I’m alone in that. We as individuals and communities typically want to bring light (flash, night, or flood) and all it represents – understanding, goodness, clarity, often God – into both physical and metaphorical darkness.

Depending on circumstances, the absence of light can be uncomfortable or disorienting at best, and at worst isolating, despair-filled, panic-inducing and terrifying. As Barbara Brown-Taylor writes in Learning to Walk in the Dark, “Darkness packs a different punch for different people” (13).

In our text this week, Samuel’s author takes great pains to emphasize that Israel communally is in the dark. The word of the Lord is rare. There’s a dearth of visions. Priest Eli’s eyes are dark with blindness, and on top of that it’s the middle of the night. The physical reflects the spiritual. The only glimmer of hope immediately apparent in this set up is the “lamp of God,” which “had not gone out yet” (3:3). Light in the dark.

Samuel is also in the dark; he has no idea what’s going on when God calls him the first three times. The fourth is the charm when God sought out his lying down (borrowing from Psalms 139:3, if you’ll allow), “came and stood there” in the dark and called him again (1 Samuel 3:10). Eli had a bit of a light-bulb moment and had offered his counsel to Samuel by this point, but I don’t think we should underestimate the text when it explicitly points out that God was physically hanging out at the end of Samuel’s bed.

God doesn’t just call us out of the dark. God comes into our dark, stands beside us and speaks our name.

It’s at this point where Barbara Brown-Taylor hits the nail on the head for me.

When we run from darkness, how much do we really know about what we are running from? 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 are running from is God? (Learning to Walk in the Dark, 57).

In a sense she’s calling us to offer the dark a hospitality of sorts, rooted in the fullest Judeo-Christian tradition of making room for the other/the stranger/the inconvenient with the strong possibility that we’ll find blessing in it/them.

I think she’s on to something. As it turns out, God’s got a long history of waiting for us and working in our dark. God created the heavens and the earth in darkness. Jacob’s wrestling and wresting is a night match. Manna is provisioned while Israel sleeps. God spent his own time in a dark, squishy womb and is intimately involved in knitting together all the rest of us while we hung out there, too (Psalms 139:13). According to the synoptics, Jesus’ death is accompanied by darkness in the middle of the day, and he rose from the ultimate darkness of death in a cold, dark tomb.

With this latest experience of my own dark places, I’ve been thinking about how I understand darkness. Setting darkness in opposition to light or defining it as the absence of, particularly when God is typically associated with light, doesn’t completely sit well with me. In a way, I think it sells God short.

Poet and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe provides welcome insight. Apologies to any color theorists as I offer reference to a paraphrase of his work:

One of Goethe’s most radical points was a refutation of [Isaac] Newton’s ideas about the color spectrum, suggesting instead that darkness is an active ingredient rather than the mere passive absence of light.

Perhaps it’s a shot in the dark, but this is where I’m landing after wrestling/wresting from my own dark places and reading from within them the lectionary and wisdom of others.

Our human experience of darkness is substantive; it can feel deep and heavy. By the same token, darkness is pregnant with active/creative/transformative potential, because God stands, dies and resurrects in it. Because to God “the night is as bright as the day…darkness is as light” (Psalms 139:12).

Dark is light is grace is gospel.

To close, a few words of gospel to read from within your own individual and communal dark places. They’re just too brilliant not to share. From Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three:

You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up physically, spiritually, intellectually or morally and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead—and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea. That then is the first rule of the life of grace: it is lived out of death. (p. 175).

*As a person with training in theology and social work, I firmly believe experiencing “darkness” is part of the human condition AND ALSO that there is a fine, potentially unclear line between that and the dark places of mental illness for which treatment should be sought. My post refers primarily to the former, and I staunchly encourage anyone who needs support wading through their own darkness to reach out to a friend, pastor, therapist, psychiatrist, etc. Like Samuel, we often need the insight and wisdom of others to help us navigate our dark, especially when we can’t recognize God in it.

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