When the clocks go back and the evenings draw in, so often life can seem murkier for many of us. Never more so, perhaps, than this year, with seemingly so little to look forward to, hope removed with anticipation ripped away from us. The world can feel a dark place for us. The world may have felt a dark place for some of us over years already – but the question is this: can good things come out of darkness?
I live with long-term lung disease and it’s always worse over the winter, so this season often ushers in a sense of dread for me, a sense of resignation and disappointment for all that I will miss. I’m often in hospital around Christmas or in January, and many times I’ve missed out on all the loveliness of Christmas I so crave, too sick to join in and be a part of it, sitting instead on the edges looking in. Now this year I’m finding the whole world joining me out there on the edges and I’m longing to journey with everyone to discover the hope that still lurks within the shadows, the hope that sometimes breaks through in dazzling light. The hope of knowing that God is here within the darkness with us. Because Jesus suffered the greatest agony we could imagine, darkness is not unfamiliar to God – in fact, as it says in Psalm 139,
‘Even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.’ (v12)
I’m so captured by this imagery of the night shining like the day. This weekend is Halloween, which so often seems to prioritise the celebration of darker things, yet originates in the celebration of All Saints Day and those who have gone before. In the gloom of All Hallows Eve we find glimpses of the light of God’s glorious kingdom, which seem all the more bursting with luminosity for the darker backdrop.
I love the little book The Cloud of Unknowing which is by an unknown author, written in the fourteenth century. The central theme of this work is that we encounter God more in the dark, in the unknown places, as we surrender our control and take God out of the boxes we put him in:
“For if ever thou shalt see him or feel him, as it may be here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.”
Is it possible that the darkness isn’t always a bad thing, but in fact becomes a place to meet with God, to encounter the shekinah presence of God, to be filled once again with the Spirit of God who breathes through that darkness? Is it possible that it is actually in the very darkest places we more easily catch hold of the glimmers of light – and encounter the God who holds us within that darkness?
I think that it is when we admit to the darkness and the pain that we begin to journey into freedom. Too often as Christians we have been led to believe that our lives should look all sorted out, we should look healed and whole, mentally and physically – and so when we are still in distress we hide it away, ashamed before God and others. But the Bible does not allow for this falsehood and instead calls us to honesty and lament when times are tough. I think the Church is waking up to this and we are beginning to share our despair in ever more helpful and creative ways, and as we share it encourages others that they are not alone, either. So many of the Psalms give us a model for lament, using words that are stark in their agony – such as Psalm 42 where the author grieves that he is alone in the desert, away from the temple where he loved to worship (Psalm 42 is a wonderful song to reflect on during the pandemic – you’ll see why.) Scripture is full of lament, of groans too deep for words, of rage and weariness and confusion before God, and we would do well to not only notice them, but to use them to help us in our own depths of emotions and pain. I have found countless times, that in the very centre of the worst pain God is still there, abiding, sometimes silently and with very little tangible presence, but there, constant and unchanging, a rock and a fortress, my home when I am at the end of myself.
I was shielding over almost five months earlier this year, living in my room, unable to touch or hug my family. In this time lament became even more important for me as I poured out my sadness and frailty before a God who understands. I was living in the shadows, yet was reminded that shadows cannot exist without light and darkness itself is not malevolent, but can instead be where we discover great treasure troves that lift us and fire us with hope. I found that my sadness began to come out in poetry and short re-imaginings of encounters with Jesus, and so my new book Treasure in Dark Places was born. My prayer is that it will draw you closer to God even when you are hurting, and resonate with you in your struggle. I’d like to share a poem from it written for All Hallows Eve, reminding us of the importance of laying out our pain before God and then turning to him within it.
Walls press in on me
fear is a gag, biting my flesh
dread shrinks me into cages of terror
shakes my grounds as hope impounds
in my night of despair
Lost in labyrinths of what might be
pinned under roaring anxiety
I pray and call, but do you hear?
I pray and cry, but are you here?
Adrift in a fog of bitter despond
a heavy cloak of gloom’s dejection
nothing lives here but agony’s grief
horror’s dancers escaping my dreams,
and mocking my screams
I turn and remember with anguish of soul
laid out in a pit of shadows in murk
where monsters lurk
I turn and remember and
wait for the Lord
I sink to my knees and
praise in the storm
Your breath sweeps my silence and
soars through my veins
I sit with the pain
and remember again.