Luke 4:1-13 Psalm 139:7-12
The Rev. Tom Herbek
February 21, 2016
Darkness is a part of each of our lives. And one of our most difficult temptations to overcome is our desire to try to eliminate all of the darkness in our lives, to make everything light. Barbara Brown Taylor tells the following story about darkness and light:
A few years ago, Ed and I were exploring the dunes on Cumberland Island, one of the barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and the mainland of south Georgia. He was looking for the teeth of long-dead sharks. I was looking for sand spurs so that I did not step on one. This meant that neither of us was looking very far past our own feet, so the huge loggerhead turtle took us both by surprise.
She was still alive, but just barely, her shell hot to the touch from the noonday sun. We both knew what had happened. She had come ashore during the night to lay her eggs; and when she had finished, she had looked around for the brightest horizon to lead her back to the sea. Mistaking the distant lights on the mainland for the sky reflected on the ocean, she went the wrong way. Judging by her tracks, she had dragged herself through the sand until her flippers were buried and she could go no farther. We found her where she had given up, half cooked by the sun but still able to turn one eye up to look at us when we bent over her.
I buried her in cool sand while Ed ran to the ranger station. An hour later she was on her back with tire chains around her front legs, being dragged behind a park service Jeep back toward the ocean.
Finally the Jeep stopped at the edge of the water. Ed and I helped the ranger unchain her and flip her back over. Then all three of us watched as she lay motionless in the surf.
Every wave brought her life back to her, washing the sand from her eyes and making her shell shine again. When a particularly large one broke over her, she lifted her head and tried her back legs. The next wave made her light enough to find a foothold, and she pushed off, back into the water that was her home. Watching her swim slowly away after her nightmare ride through the dunes, I noted that it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.
“Sometimes they make it,” the ranger said, “and sometimes they don’t. We won’t know until next year whether she was one of the lucky ones or not.”
“How is that?” I asked.
“If she comes back to lay her eggs again,” he said, “we’ll know she survived.” But who would help her next time? The lights on the mainland would still be there – even more than this year, judging from the new strip malls we had passed on our way to the ferry. When her eggs hatched, her babies would be wired to scramble toward the ocean while seabirds and ghost crabs picked off the stragglers, but the hatchlings would be subject to the same confusion as their mother. What hope did the turtles have, with their navigational system made obsolete by humans?
She notes that it is not just turtles that need darkness. We all need some darkness in our life.
Darkness turns out to be as essential to our well-being as light. We not only need plenty of darkness to sleep well; we also need it to be well. The circadian rhythm of waking and sleeping matches the natural cycle of day and night, which affects everything from our body chemistry to our relationships.
We have become so used to the idea of Jesus as the light of the world that we forget that light is most striking, most transformative, in the deepest darkness. In the darkness, we often encounter God in ways that change our understanding of who God is, as well as who we are. Our God is the God of the darkness as well as the light.
Without temptations, periods of testing and trying, we cannot grow and learn, we cannot become all we have been created to be. The challenge to follow our inner light is often misunderstood, even by people who love us. Some people want to change us, believing that they can know what is best for us at the time, and that we cannot see it or understand it. Changing college, changing careers, changing jobs, leaving a marriage, taking a stand against powerful people, standing up to parents and spouses or the expectations of children or siblings, are all times when it can be a challenge to follow our inner light and to face our inner darkness.
Just like Jesus, sometimes we must choose to step into our inner darkness, even when following externals might satisfy everyone else much more. In this story in Luke, Jesus makes the choice to remain fully human, to live with the same limitations as the rest of us. It is this choice that allows him to be extraordinarily compassionate in the rest of his life on this earth.
The temptation to diminish life comes at us often, sometimes subtly and sometimes clearly. Sometimes it comes in the midst of something that happens regularly and seems overwhelming. The struggle itself can be so difficult that we wonder how life can have any meaning, until we overcome the temptation to avoid the struggle.
The temptation to avoid the struggle is great. Struggles are filled with pain and darkness, filled with finding out things about ourselves we don’t want to know. But perhaps meaning occurs in the struggle itself. Dr. Rachel Remen describes a friend of hers:
In talking of a particularly dark time in her life, a friend once told me that in the depths of her alcoholism a thought had occurred to her and proved a turning point. What if her struggle to find a way to live beyond her addiction had a deeper meaning? She had been living in darkness for many years. What if she was the only person in the world who could redeem the goodness in this particular piece of darkness? This task might be hers alone. In some larger, more mysterious sense it might be her life’s service.
This thought had lifted her sense of guilt and shame and dignified her struggle. It had given her a power she had not been able to find elsewhere. She wonders now if everyone’s struggle to overcome whatever diminishes them and live whole has this same meaning.
Perhaps this woman is correct. Our struggle – each of us – to overcome what diminishes us and live whole in the midst of it could be the meaning in our lives at that time. In the darkness of the struggle to overcome what diminishes us, we may experience meaning that we never expected, may find parts of who we are that we never knew were there. But we have to start where we are.
Anne LaMott says:
One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are
That would be fine, when where we find ourselves turns out to be bearable. What about when it isn’t – after 9/11 for instance, or a suicide in the family?
I really don’t have a clue.
I do know it sometimes has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos, and that seems a way to begin. We could start with something relatively easy: C. S. Lewis famously said about forgiveness, “If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.”
My understanding of incarnation (God with us) is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering. Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scraped-up elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed.
Jesus understood that we must go through the tunnel, must deal with the temptations on our way. But the biggest temptation for most of us is to not deal with any of it – no darkness, no pain, no struggle.
I like what Dr. Scott Peck once wrote about how we grow in life:
Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.
Actually, there is a defect in the approach to problem-solving. It is the hope that problems will go away of their own accord.
Problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit. We cannot solve a problem by saying, “It’s not my problem.” We cannot solve a problem by hoping that someone else will solve it for us. I can solve a problem only when I say, “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve the problem for me. It is not really my personal problem.”
-The Road Less Traveled
We have, open to each one of us, the opportunity to face problems, to admit failures and limitations that we have accepted as unsolvable, unredeemable, untouchable. We must see the times that we fail as opportunities to learn about ourselves in ways not possible when we are successful.
In her book, Rising Strong, Brene Brown says that organizations must learn this too:
The work being done by Ashley Good is a great example of how we must embrace the difficult emotion of failing. Good is the founder and CEO of Fail Forward – a social enterprise with the mission to help organizations develop cultures that encourage the risk taking, creativity, and continuous adaptation required for innovation. She got started as a development worker in Ghana with Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) and was integral to the development of EWB’s failure reports and AdmittingFailure.com, a kind of online failure report where anyone can submit stories of failure and learning.
These first reports were bold attempts to break the silence that surrounds failure in the nonprofit sector –a sector dependent on external funding. Frustrated by the learning opportunities missed because of that silence, EWB collected its failures and published them in a glossy annual report.
The organization’s commitment to solving some of the world’s most difficult problems, like poverty, requires innovation and learning, so it put achieving its mission before looking good, and sparked a revolution.
In her keynote address at FailCon Oslo –an annual failure conference in Norway – Good asked the audience for words they associated with the term failure. The audience members shouted out the following: sadness, fear, making a fool of myself, desperation, panic, shame, and heartbreak. Then she held up EWB’s failure report and explained that the thirty glossy pages included fourteen stories of failure, proving that EWB had failed at least fourteen times in the last year. She then asked the same audience what words they would use to describe the report and the people who submitted their stories. This time the words shouted out included: helping, generous, open, knowledgeable, brave, and courageous.
Good made the powerful point that there’s a vast difference between how we think about the term failure and how we think about the people and organizations brave enough to share their failures for the purpose of learning and growing.
In our own failings, our problems, all those things that diminish us because we try to keep them hidden in the darkness, we must find a way to walk into that darkness. Much of the darkness that we must wade into cannot be overcome by turning on a light switch. We must walk into it, knowing that it will be difficult, a struggle. One of our biggest temptations is to pretend that the darkness isn’t there, to hope that it will go away on its own, that no one else will notice it. But unless we experience the darkness in our life, then we will never overcome what diminishes us. We will never learn and grow.
Jesus chose to walk among us as a human being, as one who understands the pain and struggles of human life. In the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry he chose to make difficult choices that would enable him to feel our pain, know our struggles, and these choices enabled his compassion for us.
Jesus understood who we are, and he helped us to understand the love of God, the presence of God even in the deepest darkness of our life. Out of God’s understanding and compassion, God’s love and grace, God calls us to walk into the darkness, knowing that, as we do so, God’s presence with us and love of us will enable us to overcome whatever diminishes us.