August 31, 2014
1 John 1:5-10
On Wednesday morning, family members and friends and people from this congregation gathered in this sanctuary to celebrate the life of Lois Foster Watson. There is a plaque in the back of the Gathering Room where you can read Lois’s name near the top of a list commemorating longtime church members. The plaque indicates that Lois Watson joined Wapping Community Church way back in the year 1936.
Just reading Lois’s obituary was a jaw dropping experience. Twenty-two grandchildren. Sixty-six great grandchildren. And eleven great great grandchildren. Talk about an impressive legacy. Not to mention all the ways Lois contributed to this church’s life and ministry over the course of her seventy-eight years as a member.
During her funeral service, two of Lois’s five sons offered words of thanksgiving. Their stories were poignant as they described the many things their mother taught them when they were younger. And there was one life lesson her sons learned from Lois that struck me in particular.
Growing up in Lois Watson’s house there were specific chores each of the five boys had to do on a daily basis. And if the boys neglected those chores after school, there was no such thing as putting the chores off until the next day. Instead, each of them were required to finish their chores before the day ended.
Seventy years ago South Windsor had far fewer houses and neighborhoods, far more open land, and as I imagine it, far more wild animals. Which made the prospect of doing chores after nightfall more frightening than it might be today. But Lois armed her sons with a flashlight they could take with them when they went outside. And she encouraged them to sing “Jesus Loves Me” in a loud voice whenever they became scared.
In retrospect, there were two morals to that story. First, no matter what other activity may have seemed more appealing, it was a good idea to finish chores while it was still light outside. And second, if it was too late to heed the first moral, at least don’t be afraid of the dark.
It’s that second lesson I’ve been pondering since Wednesday and for a number of weeks prior. You don’t have to be afraid of the dark…
One of the best things about my mother-in-law’s house up in New Hampshire in the summer is taking a pillow and a blanket out on the porch on a clear night, lying down on the deck, and looking up at the night sky. Everything in the night sky looks dazzling up in northern New Hampshire. Constellations. Planets. Airplanes. Shooting stars. Plus with very few homes or businesses nearby, there is no danger of having the night display dulled by light pollution.
As a parent, I’m hoping summer vacations in New Hampshire have taught my children a number of things over the years. Like the importance of spending time with family. One of the other lessons I hope they’ve learned best, however, is the same lesson Lois Watson taught her sons when they were young. You don’t need to be afraid of the dark.
Unfortunately, learning any kind of positive lesson about darkness in our current world is next to impossible. For as the Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor argues in her most recent book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, you and I live in a world committed to stamping out any and all darkness. Not just physical darkness but psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual darkness as well.
Think about it for a moment. When I say the word “darkness” what words immediately pop into your mind? Do you think of ghosts, graveyards, caves, or bats? Or do you think of things less tangible like evil, doubt, despair, danger, or death? Every single one of those words can be traced back to “fear.” As a result, I imagine almost all of us are afraid of the dark in some way. Yet I don’t believe darkness and fear need to be linked so closely.
If the truth be told, churches and religious traditions are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to perpetuating fear of the dark. On a mundane level, we tend to talk a lot about how to keep the church lights on. But I’m talking more on a spiritual level. We associate “darkness” in the church with “sin” and “ignorance” and “disillusionment.” “Deliver us from the powers of darkness,” we pray in so many words, “so that we might rest in God’s holy light.”
The same sentiment is etched deep into the pages of Scripture in passages like the one we heard today in the First Letter of John. “God is light and in him there is no darkness. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Generally speaking, the Christian faith teaches us that light is a good thing. While darkness is a bad thing. To be clear I’m not claiming there’s anything wrong with the light. What I am saying is there’s value in learning how to navigate the darkness. Setting aside our fear and anxiety and learning to find peace in the dark.
Sooner or later, we are all going to find ourselves in the darkness. For some of us that means living with a chronic disease. For some of us that means coming to terms with a sudden job loss or an addiction that consumes us or a physical disability that’s severely limiting our independence. For some of us it means watching a loved one cope with a terminal diagnosis, trying to sift through regrets they hope to amend before life’s end.
Crisis in our lives often causes us to spiral into dark places where we don’t know what will happen next and we’re not sure whether God or anyone else can comfort us. If you’ve been in any of those lonely, gut wrenching spaces recently or in the past and you haven’t made peace with the darkness you experienced, it might be helpful to consider whether darkness is the actual enemy.
Maybe you are a younger person who has grown tired of the religious traditions and expectations handed down to you by your parents. And you are looking to hone the kind of faith that has a sharper leading edge you can hold onto as you try to figure out what it means to come into adulthood in the twenty-first century.
Or you might be a person in the middle of your life. Some of your hopes and dreams have come to pass. But you’ve had to defer and cancel others and it’s been tough let go of resentment. The job that once meant something to you has become drudgery. The relationships that once gave you sustenance have been severed, sometimes for no good or discernible reason. And you long to figure out how to reinvest in your life.
Or you are an older person. You find yourself losing things more frequently. Yes, your keys and your eyesight. But more than that, you’ve lost family members and dear friends and your own sense of purpose. Meanwhile, you spend more time than you used to trying to discern the work you still need and want to do before your life in this world is over.
No matter which life stage we are in, you and I would do well to reconsider our word associations. And the associations we make in our mind and in our gut. So that we can replace our fear of the darkness with a blueprint for how to get around and how to get by when the darkness inevitably descends…
I suspect the theme of darkness will be one I return to from this pulpit in the months ahead. For the time being, however, I offer you some really good news. Even when the light of day fades into dusk and the dusk fades into night, God does not turn the world over to some other deity.
You and I may not be able to see very well in the dark. We may bump into a few things that unnerve us. We may not be able to hear anyone respond if we call out. But darkness is not dark to God. In the eyes of the God we trust, nighttime is as bold and creative and life giving and holy as the daytime. In other words, just because the daylight disappears does not mean that God disappears along with it.
In the end, you are welcome to go forth from this worship service holding on tightly to the Savior who referred to himself as “the light of the world.” Then again if your life looks or feels dark right now, remember that the same Savior was born in the midst of darkness in order to show us the way…
And don’t forget the advice of Lois Watson. When it’s dark, sing the words out loud so you won’t be afraid. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Amen.
NOTE: The subject matter for this sermon was inspired by Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, entitled, Learning to Walk in the Dark. (Harper One: 2014)