Learning to Walk in the Dark
I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
This verse opens an excellent book by Barbara Brown Taylor called ‘Learning to Walk in the Dark.’ It’s one of those books that begins with one simple idea but then shows you how deeply interesting and challenging that simple idea really is. The idea Taylor explores is this: darkness contains treasures, and if we can learn to walk in the dark, we will find true riches. You’ll have to read the book to find out more; she says things much better than I ever could. The idea sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? As Taylor says in her introduction: ‘it seems clear that eliminating darkness is pretty high on the human agenda – not just physical darkness but also metaphorical darkness…’ Who wants to walk in the dark? It seems obvious that the darkness is dangerous for all kinds of reasons: you can’t see where you are going, and you don’t know the dangers that are around you. So we put on lights, again both physical and metaphorical. We flood our streets and homes with illumination, and we flood our inner lives with the ‘light’ of entertainment, distractions, and other ways of avoiding the darkness.
Sometimes we need the comfort of a light, and that’s ok. It’s tempting to shame ourselves (and others) with ideas of needing to shed all our defence mechanisms: you shouldn’t need that night-light anymore; you shouldn’t need that comforting blanket; you don’t need to rewatch that tv episode you love. We can easily be shamed by those who think we should just face our problems and throw off all the things that have helped us to cope with the challenges of life. Sometimes, though, it’s ok to keep the light on if that will help you get through another dark night of the soul.
The invitation of Advent, and Taylor’s book, is to face up to the reality of darkness. And what we discover is this: there is nothing to be afraid of after all. We can walk in the dark and come out the other side, often carrying treasures we didn’t know were there. It’s not an easy journey; there’s a reason why we avoid darkness at all costs: we know it can be a painful, energy-sapping process. But if we can let ourselves sit with the darkness for a while, we might begin to discover a way through.
If you read the scriptures, you’ll discover that lots of interesting encounters with God happen in the darkness. I particularly like the story of Jacob in the wilderness having a sleepless night on the run (Genesis 32:22-32). In the darkness of that space a strange figure comes and begins to wrestle with Jacob. All night long they go at it, neither getting the upper hand. The strange figure tells Jacob: let go of me, day is beginning to dawn. Jacob refuses and demands a blessing before he will let go. So the man asks him another question: what is your name? And from this question flows a moment of transformation for Jacob, because his name had haunted him from his birth. Jacob means ‘heel grabber’ or ‘trickster.’ He was known as one who couldn’t be trusted. Now, in the darkness of this wilderness, wrestling a strange man, Jacob is given a new name: Israel. A new name, a new beginning, and all of it happens in the darkness. In that unexpected place, a place of fear and anxiety, comes an encounter with God that changed everything for Jacob. Maybe for us, too, in our dark places we might meet God and discover a new beginning we never expected.
A prayer for Advent week 2:
You dwell in light, you are the light,
But you also dwell in darkness:
for there is nowhere you do not go,
no place far enough to escape from your presence.
Help us to trust you as we go on our journey through the darkness.
Help us to know that even there you can bless us and offer us new futures.
As we meet you and find your comfort, may we carry that comfort with us into the world,
And may we be good companions to others on their journey through the darkness.
In Jesus’ name we pray,