A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Finding our way in the dark

It’s interesting, the different attitudes out there about the dark. In my world, darkness has always been threatening. I imagine all the scary things that could be lurking out there, in the gloom. I remember literally flying down the stairs when I was little (landing hurt a little), doing my best to get away from the monsters on my tail, monsters that waited for me in the dark of my bedroom each and every night. Years later and a teenager, Mom had to come keep me company one night while babysitting because I was so unsettled in a strange house at night. Despite my best efforts, my kids seem to have inherited my unease.

But there are others who came at this from the completely opposite direction. It didn’t take me long to discover I really didn’t like being in our country church by myself at night. It was more than a little spooky. So it really took me aback when I discovered two women in our congregation who actually enjoyed being in the church by themselves…. after nightfall. So shocked was I by this revelation, I pushed them to explain themselves. Both of them appreciated the peacefulness of that time by themselves. And rather than seeing darkness as a threat, it was instead more like a comforting blanket under which they found refuge.

Both of Sunday’s lectionary texts have a lot to do with darkness. But again, the approaches seem a little different. Job spends a lot of time in the dark. After losing almost everything and everyone dear to him, he retreats to an ash pile by himself so he can be alone with his dark thoughts. For more than a week, he sits there in his own self-imposed darkness - ruminating, processing, being angry. This dark solitude is a refuge for him. His friends try to keep him company, but at soon as they open their mouths, it’s evident they aren’t actually “with” him at all. Job is on his own.

Bartimaeus sits in the dark too. But this is not a place he has chosen, rather it is a condition that has been imposed upon him. Instead of finding refuge in the dark, he yearns for escape (Mark 10:46-52).

So we have here two different takes on darkness. But there’s more. It turns out Job and Bartimaeus aren’t the only two characters in the dark.

The book of Job is thought by many to be the oldest book in the Bible. It was written most likely around 500 b.c., but its oral tradition stretches much further back in time. It is a folktale of sorts that appears in other ancient cultures as well in somewhat altered forms. The book of Job is cherished in the pantheon of world literature in part because it so fearlessly takes on some of our most timeless questions about the nature of good and evil and God.

Interestingly, the book of Job seems to make two broad theological assumptions, both of which get overturned in the final chapters. Assumption number one is championed by Job’s friends. They believe the good and the just are rewarded by God and the misguided and sinful are punished. This worldview not only permeates the entire Bible but has survived and flourishes in our present context as well. Because such great misfortune has struck Job down, his friends are heartily convinced Job has done great wrong. They believe Job’s only way forward is to own up to his sin and confess. But the reader knows already in the first chapter and the voice of God confirms in the final chapter, that Job is indeed innocent, thus proving there isn’t always a neat correlation between our actions and our fate. Job’s friends are in the dark too.

Assumption number two is illustrated by the character Job as well as the authors and editors of this ancient book. In the first two chapters we find a very disturbing assumption - that God causes everything to happen. So if a hurricane blows up and wipes out a village in its path, God caused it to happen. Now one group would say, the village must have been engaging in some mighty shady activity - back to assumption one. Assumption two is almost more disturbing. It would indicate that God acts as God will…and sometimes people get in the way. This is a very capricious image of God, the idea that God is personally responsible for everything in life that befalls us - the good, the bad and the ugly. It also happens to be another theological line of thought alive and well today.

Yet despite the assumptions of these authors, they have their main character utter words of truth in the final chapter that topples this second assumption as well. Job says, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (42:3).” It often seems like humanity in general doesn’t appreciate the fact that we all sit in the dark. Thankfully, we are given little flashes of insight which brighten the gloom of our limited understanding. Too often though, we see shadows and without fully understanding the image, we name it and plant those faulty beliefs in concrete. I have no doubt that at one time long ago a wealthy and upright man lost everything in a series of catastrophic coincidences. These kinds of things happen. But I don’t for an instant think it’s because God and Satan got together and struck a dirty deal in order to test the poor, unfortunate soul (in the words of Ursula, ala The Little Mermaid). This fits with the worldview of that time, but it certainly doesn’t jive with the God Jesus talks to and about. I imagine for a few moments anyway, Job, as we find him in chapter 42, is bathed in light as he realizes with startling clarity how little he comprehends God and the ways of God.

Bartimaeus isn’t the only character struggling with darkness in our Mark text either. Here is a man desperate for the light. When he senses salvation (healing) draw near, he reaches for it with all he’s worth. But those around him reprimand him for seeking the light, thus revealing their own blindness as well.

I watched a short online video clip last week that reminded me how blind the church was during the period of slavery. Of course the era of church sanctioned human slavery stretches back into Biblical times. Standing in a better lit spot at this time in history and looking back, you have to wonder, how is it that up until and even after slavery was abolished, the Bible was used as a weapon to justify the institution? How could we have been so blind? In so many ways, both in and out of the church, we find the blind leading the blind. Our vision of God is that limited.

This idea of darkness is a complicated one. Darkness is scary. Frightening possibilities do lurk in the dark. Anyone who has struggled in the pit of grief or been caught in the black of depression knows darkness can be terrifying. Bartimaeus is someone who remembers what light looked like. The text says Bartimaeus requested to see again - that he regained his sight. Given the choice, Bartimaeus can’t wait to leave the darkness behind.

But this isn’t the full story. Darkness can also offer a place of healing. Job sought refuge in the dark, in a solitary place where no one could go to be with him. The dark can be a place for us to hide away from the world for a time. The dark is a place where we learn again our limitations. Darkness offers us lessons in humility.

Ultimately, no matter how we feel about it, darkness is a part of life. And here’s the good news I see emerge from these texts. While Job and Bartimaeus might have felt a little differently about the dark, God was there beside them both. God was there for Job to rail against in the blindness of his own limited thoughts. God was there to call Job to account. God was there to rescue Bartimaeus from blindness, from despair. God was there. God is there. There is no place so dark that God will not tread. Good news indeed.

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