Genesis 1:14-19; Psalm 121:1-8
The Rev. Tom Herbek
September 18, 2016
I really like what Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
And make big shadows I can move in.
The truth is that we need both flame and shadows, both light and darkness, in order to live- and even within the light, we need different types of light in order to really see the complexity of life. Carl Jung once said that what we need is the “symphony of all things.”
Jung said that wholeness consists of bringing together what has been torn apart. We live, said Jung, in a “painful fragmentariness.” We live in a division of the parts.
Jung distinguishes between what he calls moonlike consciousness and sunlike consciousness. Think of what it is like looking at the world under the full white radiance of the moon. Certainly when I walk under the moon’s light at night I am almost speechless. I am filled with wonder because what the moon’s light enables me to remember is the oneness of everything I am in the midst of. The hard edges of day are softened by the moon’s gentle light, and I see the relationship of all things. When I walk under the sun’s light, on the other hand, I am much more ready to speak analytically, noting the uniqueness of the parts and the differentiations among everything around me.
Jung’s point is that we need both ways of seeing. We need moonlike consciousness and sunlike consciousness. But so much of our culture, including much of our Western Christian inheritance, has been dominated by sunlike consciousness. We have been strong at seeing the uniquenesses and accentuating individuality, but we have forgotten the oneness from which we have come.
– The Rebirthing of God by John Philip Newell
We also need darkness in order to live fully. There are things we can only learn in the dark places of night, even in the places where there is no moonlight, and we are afraid of the dark.
As Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “Each of us has a personal history of the dark. As universal as darkness may be, our experience of it is local.”
She goes on to comment that: “I have spent a whole lifetime with seekers of enlightenment; I have never once heard anyone speak in hushed tones about the value of endarkenment.”
It is interesting to me that most seeds that actually survive begin by incubating in the dark so they can then break ground and then they grow toward the light. The same is true of some parts of who we are. Civil rights elder Vincent Harding once said:
I’ve always felt that one of the things that we do badly in our educational process, especially working with so-called marginalized young people, is that we educate them to figure out how quickly they can get out of the darkness and get into some much more pleasant situation. When what is needed, again and again, are more and more people who will stand in that darkness, who will not run away from those deeply hurt communities, and will open up possibilities that other people can’t see in any other way except through human beings who care about them.
-Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett
Our darkness can have great power in us for many years. Krista Tippett describes how her own darkness as she was growing up caused her to want to ask questions of others about how they found meaning in life, and led her to a career as a journalist:
I’m acutely aware of how my father’s lost sense of history and family was the spiritual background to his childhood and a great black hole in the middle of mine. It’s a good analogy: time and space had collapsed in on themselves. No light could enter or escape. He’d been dropped off for adoption one day without warning, along with an older sister and a baby brother. I don’t know what his first years were like before that; I suspect the worst. My father professed to have no curiosity at all about his sister or brother or mother, though I believe he remembered their names. When he was a bit older, his mother briefly tried to kidnap him back. He shared this story matter-of-factly. But he sometimes had terrible screaming nightmares, which lent a perilous air to my nights, that his mother was coming to get him.
By day in my family, we scarcely spoke of these things. Questions flourished in our midst, unaskable. And of course, those unnamed realities, those unasked questions, shaped us all from the inside out in ways it would take me decades to begin to apprehend. Only in the writing of this book have I come to trace the intensity of my insistence on talking about what matters-now in the world writ large-to the beginnings of my own story. This is ironic, and wonderful in its way. Conversation after conversation, year after year, I’ve coaxed others to trace the intersection of their grandest aspirations and surest wisdom with real life and time and place, past to present, wound to gift. Now, in the act of offering what I’ve learned to others, I receive it for the first time, fully, for myself.
Listening is an everyday social art, but it’s an art we have neglected and must learn anew. Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say. I like the language Rachel Naomi Remen uses with young doctors to describe what they should practice: “generous listening.” Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability – a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions.
Generous listening in fact yields better questions. It’s not true what they taught us in school; there is such a thing as a bad question. In American life, we trade mostly in answers -competing answers – and in questions that corner, incite, or entertain. In journalism we have a love affair with the “tough” question, which is often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight.
My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits.
If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question.
Although I preach a sermon every week, I would hope that one thing everyone goes home with are questions for themselves about life and its meaning. Generous questions help us see beyond the surface.
In the hard daylight of a bright sun, we see details, and we expect clear and precise answers to our questions, and we are “realistic” about what can happen and what is just wishful thinking. Yet, there is always more to life than what we can see in the harsh, realistic glare of daylight. Krista Tippett describes spending several years in Berlin during the Cold War:
And the wall running through Berlin-a material symbol of the ideological “Iron Curtain” that cut through the heart of the ancient continent – appeared as the shape of forever, an unshakable truth of our lifetimes. I hold on to these memories now as a reminder that there is at any given moment much reality we do not see, and more change possible than we can begin to imagine.
-Speaking of Faith
In 1983, I was in West Germany, and I stood at a pulloff which allowed for a view of two castles, one in West Germany and one in East Germany. My guide told me that just a few days before, three East German farmers had used the front end loader on their farm tractor to escape over the electrified barbed wire that stood on their side of the riverbank. The river separated East from West, and we stood on our side of the riverbank staring across at the armed East German guards across the river. The three farmers had swum to within inches of the West bank when the guards had opened fire and killed all three. The border was intimidating, amazingly fortified and permanent. Yet, my guide and numerous other Germans believed that the two Germanys would be reunited within their lifetime. I felt they were completely unrealistic dreamers.
We realists tend to see things as overwhelmingly impossible to change. Yet, more change is possible than we can begin to imagine. Joan Chittister describes our quandary quite well, we realists who sometimes believe there is no hope:
Clearly, hopelessness has at least as much to do with what we bring to life as it does with what life brings to us. Great pain does not dampen hope and great opportunity does not ensure it.
What breeds hopelessness is the failure to pursue the possible in the imperfect.
The paradox of hopelessness is that in it lies the invitation to get up and go on. Despite the implacability of the exercise, despite the windless intervals of life, hopelessness calls us to try again, try something different, if necessary, but at least try. Hopelessness prods us to go beyond what we ourselves estimate to be our chance of succeeding.
We realists must remember that our most important task is to try again, to go beyond “our reality.” Chittister reminds us:
To be citizens of the world in a world that has itself become a global village, we must all allow ourselves to be called to life by the unknown. Then, perhaps, stunned by the sameness in us, we will no longer lose sleep worrying about the danger of immigration, the danger of strange religions, the danger that comes clothed in other colors, other accents, other ways to marry and bury and pray and be alive, all of it in the name of one humanity.
Most of all, we will all come to understand that the human race has a great deal more in common than it has differences.
-Between the Dark and the Daylight
Darkness and light can both help us to see how much we have in common.
We need the darkness in our lives to become who we were created to be.
We need the sunlight in our lives to realistically understand the world and the problems that challenge us.
We need the moonlight, whose soft glow allows us to see the beauty and inspiration of God’s presence in our lives, in our world, and in our fellow journeyers in life.
And let us never forget that beautiful line, repeated in Genesis, about all of creation, including humanity:
“And God saw that it was good.”