What Happens in the Dark?

7:14 AM

 Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; Matthew 5:4
I have a confession…I’m afraid of the dark—not the kind of “afraid of the dark” in which I need a nightlight to sleep at night. I mean, I’m afraid of the pitch dark. The few times in my life when I’ve found myself surrounded in complete darkness with no light to be seen, I’ve felt terrified. When I’m darkness surrounds me, my heart rate rises, my breathing becomes labored, my limbs seem to stop working. I feel like I’m being squeezed and suffocated by the emptiness enclosing me. The fear binds me.

C.S. Lewis, in his writing after losing his beloved wife, Joy, to cancer, said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”
No one ever told me either. But for me, I found it true. In my grief, my heart physically felt different than before; merely breathing seemed to take more effort. I felt like I’d never be able to move from this place. Grief and fear provoke similar feelings and experiences, particularly the fear we face in the darkness. Tonight, maybe these kindred terrors can offer guides to us through this challenging season.

In the dark, we have to remember to breathe. The Hebrews considered the name of God too sacred to be uttered out loud. In our Bible, translators translated it as the word “Lord.” Today, no one knows exactly how to pronounce the original word because no one ever spoke it. Our best effort at pronouncing this name is “YAHWEH.” Some scholars believe YAHWEH is not a word at all as we use it, but they think it is breath itself. God’s name is our life-giving breath. So the name was intended to imitate the exhaling and inhaling of breathing: “Yah” (exhale) “Weh” (inhale). When we are born, we breathe, and in this way, the first thing we do is “speak the name of God.” And when we die, the last thing we do is “speak the name of God.” “Yah” (exhale) “Weh” (inhale).

When I think of it this way, it brings me some relief to me in my grief. Because in the darkness of despair, I sometimes find it hard to pray…but as long as I am breathing, as I understand this, I am speaking the name of God. 

And if my breathing during these “merry and bright” holidays becomes mingled with tears and sounds more like sobbing, that’s ok because I’m speaking the name of God.
And if my breathing turns to laughter amid my sadness and pain, that’s ok as well because I’m speaking the name of God. In the dark, we must remember to breathe.

Another result of being in the dark is that we slow down. I’ve never known of anyone who suddenly found himself in the dark and began to run. What do we do when the lights go out? We stop. And then we slowly start to move, taking careful consideration in each movement we make. 
The thing about darkness and grief is there’s no rushing through either of them. Just like being in the dark, trying to move too quickly through it could cause us more pain. Grief has its own timeline. It is slow, deliberate work.

When we slow down in the dark, we realize we have to begin to rely on things we did not rely on before. We depend on different senses to get us through because our sense of sight doesn’t help us anymore. 

And if we are fortunate enough to find ourselves in the dark with another person, our first response is to reach out for them. Because we know twice the body mass, twice the sense of hearing and touch will help us navigate the darkness better.

In the darkness of grief, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place. Our life is not what it was before our loss, and the tools in life which worked well for us before sometimes don’t work at all now or, at the very least they have to be adjusted. We discover new ways of navigating. In addition to the grief of losing a loved one, a marriage, a job, a physical or mental ability, or whatever loss we’ve experienced, we also grieve the loss of our future self with that person, that relationship, job, ability. I’m no longer the person I saw in the future before the loss. The things I relied on, yes, even sometimes the very way I saw myself is no longer there. 

In Matthew 5, Jesus gives the beatitudes, a list of people he identifies as blessed. He says in verse 4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. In this list of people identified as blessed, it seems strange to say “blessed are those who mourn”--at least in the way we tend to define blessings. We tend to use the word “blessing” as if it were some wonderful present we’ve received. We say we are blessed with a new job, new car, etc. So when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn”-- it gets confusing. Perhaps that’s not exactly how Jesus intended for us to understand it. These “blessed” people are not in circumstances they (or any of us) would choose for themselves. The blessing is not in the event--in the dark times when we don’t understand or can’t even imagine God at work. Mourning is not a “present” I would choose for myself, but the blessing comes in the consequences which arise from it. What results from our mourning? “Comfort.” Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The blessing comes in the “comfort.” And God brings comfort in ways we did not depend on before our loss. 

In the darkness, we have no choice but to depend on other senses to guide us, no choice but to hold someone’s hand to navigate our way. And so it is with grief, we have to rely on other resources and depend on others to continue this difficult journey.

Ultimately when we find ourselves in the dark, we seek the light. When the lights go out, we catch our breath, we slowly fumble around, relying on other senses and those with us until we find some light. 

Isaiah 9:2 says, 
“The people who walked in darkness
  Have seen a great light.
For those who lived in a land of deep shadows—
  Light! Sunbursts of light!

The people of Israel had endured an unimaginable loss. Isaiah’s words come on the heels of a disastrous war. They mourn the loss of people they loved, the loss of possessions, the loss of freedom, and even their own identity seems stripped away. To these grieving people surrounded by darkness, Isaiah speaks words of hope. The light is there. The light is coming. Isaiah identifies this light in verse 6-7:

For a child has been born—for us!
  The gift of a son—for us!
He’ll take over
  The running of the world.
His names will be: Amazing Counselor,
  Strong God,
Eternal Father,
  Prince of Wholeness.
His ruling authority will grow,
  and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings. 

This child, Jesus, would not be born for hundreds of years after Isaiah’s words here. God’s light would burst through the darkness of this world in the form of a helpless baby. Isaiah’s words tell us that even though life has not worked out the way we thought it would, God is still at work—encouraging us to trust that this light can be born into our darkness once again. 

So when life should be “merry and bright,” but we are in the dark, we must remember to breathe, we slowly move about relying on other resources and the people with us, and in the dark, we seek the light. Peace be with you.

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