Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Dark Side of Christianity

This was my 9 AM sermon this morning.

If you peek into the sanctuary, you’ll see that the liturgical color right now is green. Not only that but, according to the Common Lectionary, the Old Testament reading appointed for Super Bowl Sunday promises us that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

So it would appear that God has already chosen our Super Bowl winner for us.

When I was planning 2018 worship, of course, I had no idea who’d be playing in today’s big game, but I gravitated toward preaching on Isaiah 40:31—the verse about the wings like eagles—because it’s such a beloved piece of scripture.

And it is a truly great verse—not least of which because of its actual context. Remember, Isaiah wrote those words to Israel while they were still in exile. So they must certainly have been weary and felt hopeless. So Isaiah reminds Israel how all-powerful God is, and that God is promising them a huge comeback—bigger even than the Tide in their last big game.

When you think about it, both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures are all about comebacks, and God’s power to bring them about.
Whether it’s the Exodus from Egypt, the return from Babylonian exile, or the Resurrection, comebacks aren’t just a major theme of the Bible. They are the Bible.

Maybe that’s why comebacks fascinate me—and usually in a good way. I think the best one I ever saw was in the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man a few years ago. It was about a couple of South Africans who were remembering an American singer named Rodriguez, and wondered what had ever happened to him. Most of us never heard of him, because he just never caught on in his own country. But he was huge in South Africa— especially among the whites who hated Apartheid, but whose ability to express themselves was censored. Listening to Rodriguez was one of the ways they protested their own government.

But they also lacked access to international news back then and there was no such thing as the internet, and so they knew nothing about the singer they idolized. Rumors abounded, most of them involving Rodriguez’s death. And so after the end of Apartheid, these two documentarians set out on a quest to find out what happened to this obscure American.

After many dead ends, they found his daughter, and she told them he was living in Detroit, having given up on recording his music. And so they met him, and had a great deal of trouble convincing him that he was known and remembered and loved in South Africa. They finally arranged for him to go there, and Rodriguez was astounded to be mobbed by throngs of middle-aged white people, and even more astounded that his concerts in huge venues, such as soccer stadiums, were packed with screaming fans.

Musicians aren’t the only ones with comeback stories. Politicians have them, and even clergy. Or at least we think we do. We preachers seldom do comebacks very well. Case in point: a pastor in Memphis was recently accused of trying to sexually assault a teenage girl back when he was a youth minister. At first he ignored her when she tried to contact him directly, but when she contacted the media, he attempted a “comeback”: He admitted his weakness to the congregation of his megachurch. They gave him a standing ovation. [1] He had ignored the woman he’d hurt, had done nothing to make amends, and had faced no consequences for his wrongdoing. But his church not only forgave him, but celebrated him. Like I said, we preachers seldom do comebacks very well.

But there’s yet another kind of comeback story that I really love, and it’s when not a perpetrator of a wrong weasels their way back into others’ good graces, but when the victim of a wrong is vindicated. Unfortunately, this kind of comeback is too often posthumous. I’m thinking in particular of a woman named Zora Neale Hurston, an African American woman born here in Alabama in 1891. She was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, yet her work was largely ignored in her own day— probably because they reminded us a bit too explicitly of the wrongs done to women and blacks in this country. She died in a home for paupers the year I was born and was buried in an unmarked grave. It wasn’t until over a decade after her death that her writing was re-discovered, re-published, and eventually even put on the silver screen. In her best known novel, we find the protagonist and her love interest waiting out a hurricane in the Florida Everglades.

It’s night, and in the pitch darkness they sit huddled together listening to the deafening storm rage around them. “They seemed to be staring at the dark,” Hurston said, “but their eyes were watching God.” [2]

Darkness gets a bad rap—usually at the hands of religious people. But who can blame us? The Bible uses darkness as a metaphor for evil, and light as a metaphor for good.

1 Timothy 6:16 speaks of God dwelling in unapproachable light. So if God dwells in the light, then certainly darkness must be godless, and therefore bad.

But I want to us to think about light and darkness in a different way. Light can destroy—think about printed fabrics and old photographs. Too much sunlight is also bad for Anglo-Saxons like me—we’re supposed to protect ourselves against it as much as possible. And so if darkness is bad and light is good, then I’m afraid I need to face the fact that God apparently didn’t create me to live in the light. I’m forced to either reëxamine my own goodness, or I need another metaphor to describe goodness to me.

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once compared darkness to light in such a way that light comes up short. Brightness in Rilke’s Thou Darkness is portrayed as being too stark, separating that which might more naturally be drawn together. Rilke’s origins were in darkness—just like the rest of us—and when writing of the possibilities found in darkness, he said, “And it might be that a great power is stirring in my very neighborhood. I have faith in nights.” [3]

I think Rilke’s on to something. There’s a profound security in darkness which I think is as God-given as the safety of the light. If there is an intelligence to the design of our biological make-up, then we need to look at the power of darkness and say that it, too, is good. The psalmist seeks safety not in the bright light of the Almighty, but in the shadow of God’s wings— because we all know that darkness helps restore us, and in darkness we find strength for the future. Seeds germinate not in light, but in darkness. And each of us came from the darkness of a womb. In darkness, therefore, is found not only rest, but the very power of God… which is the power of life.

In my sermon last week, I talked a bit about how Christians need to have humility, even if that means accepting the fact that we might just be wrong about some of our convictions. I said something similar in a sermon a few years ago, and it upset a certain woman in the church, who accused me of not having faith. This same woman, it should be added, could’ve used a dose of humility herself— we caught her stealing from the church, and she never did really apologize for it… But I digress. According to her, if God is good and God dwells in unapproachable light; if in God there is no darkness at all, then in this divine Light is found divine Truth. Those of us who dwell in these realms of Light, who possess the Truth, should be bent on exposing the faults and the untruths of those who dwell in darkness. Indeed, it is our duty to do just that. In the clear light of Truth, we Christians are obliged to point out to those who don’t share our customs or our religion that their values and their customs are uncivilized and downright wrong. We’re so sure of ourselves, that we have destroyed entire cultures, invaded countries, and caused languages to go extinct.

In the clear light of their own truth, others, in turn, are obliged to destroy the symbols of our own destructive culture and our own religion— whether those symbols are churches, centers of commerce, or even flag.

Such is the nature of using light to expose falsehood. Darkness, on the other hand, seems to engender doubt. But if the bright light of Truth is causing such a lack of doubt in our world, and if lack of doubting our own convictions is what’s causing God’s people to attack each other with words and weapons, then please, let’s create a new metaphor for God.

Can doubt somehow point to God? If admitting that my faith is incomplete is what restrains me from punching my neighbor in the nose because his faith is different from mine, then I’m not certain that God wants me to be absolutely sure of my beliefs. If admitting to a little doubt causes me to listen to what my brother or sister has to say about their own faith and their own doubts, then can’t it be said that God is found in doubt?

I would actually go so far as to say that doubt has never destroyed faith. In fact, it has sometimes preserved and strengthened it. What the Spanish mystic John of the Cross called The Dark Night of the Soul isn’t just an unfortunate stage some people pass through on their way to belief—it’s actually a necessary part of a mature faith [4], and it is found throughout our religious tradition—especially in stories found in the Bible. Indeed, the faith of Israel would never have matured or even been preserved without the Babylonian Exile, where circumstances forced them to examine who they were, what they believed, and what they didn’t believe. And in the New Testament, the way God stopped Saul from persecuting those whose faith he considered wrong was to take away his daylight by striking him blind on the Road to Damascus. The seed of faith can only be planted in the doubt of darkness, where seeds grow best.

So I guess my challenge to you and to myself in this sermon is the opposite of what you might think it should be. I’m challenging all of us not to be more sure of our faith, but to be less sure. Let’s allow our doubts to help us question what it is we believe. Because it’s often these questions that prevent us from judging a brother. And maybe our love for a sister— herself a child of God filled with her own doubts and questions— can bring us closer to the God who created all of us.

May the glare of the light of Truth never burn our version of it into us so indelibly that we can see nothing but our own opinions, even when confronted with someone else’s truth. May the bright sunlight of our own faith never eat away at the fabric of our relationships with others whose faith is expressed in a different light.

In the end, the Christian’s most profound hope is in the resurrection of Christ. An event filled with light, yes, but an event that was nurtured in the darkness of a tomb. The purpose of worship is not to blind one another with the light of the story of my own comeback story or yours, but to plant seeds in the darkness of where we find ourselves here and now. Thus may we experience our own rebirth from the grip of death to the freedom of life.

I’ll close with some words written by Wendell Berry:
 
    The seed is in the ground. 
    Now may we rest in hope 
    while darkness does its work. [5]

—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

NOTES
  1. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/sexual-misconduct/memphis-pastor-admits-sexual-incident-teen-20-years-ago-gets-n836511
  2.  Zora Neale Thurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published in 1937.
  3. Rainer Maria Rilke, Der Dunkelheit, aus der ich stamme... (1919), the translation is my own.
  4. La Noche Oscura del Alma is the title of a long poem by the 16th century Spanish mystic & Carmelite monk, Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross).
  5. Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 1998)