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A Friend in the Darkness

January 3, 2011

“A Friend in the Darkness” Isaiah 60:1-2, 17-22; John 1:1-18 © 1/2/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The ‘60s duo Simon and Garfunkel had a great many hits like “Sounds of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Bridge over Troubled Water.” And I enjoyed those songs. But there is one that has also remained with me that never made it onto the charts. I heard it only once, at the home of my high school friend Donald Sweat. The tune is called “Silent Night/Six O’ Clock News.” The two begin by singing “Silent Night.” Faintly in the background, we hear reports of war, bombings, murder, hunger, and all sorts of bad things. Gradually, it’s “Silent Night” that fades out, and all we hear is the news. For Simon and Garfunkel, the darkness had overcome the light.

By “darkness,” of course, we mean what the gospel writer means, following ancient archetypes. As metaphors go, it’s basic and easily understood. No doubt it arose from a time when the gloom of the evening was only poorly illuminated by campfires or the moon. If one ventured beyond the camp or the village, beyond the light, there were all sorts of dangers lurking. Wild animals came out at night to hunt. Landmarks could not be seen to guide one back to safety, so the darkness became associated with disorientation. It was easy to trip and fall in the shadows of the forest. And darkness provided cover for deeds and practices meant to be secret. So people began to talk about the “dark arts” or the “dark side” and picture the bad guys as wearing black hats or cloaks. Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort are of course the two most obvious examples from contemporary pop culture.

For John and for ancient and even modern minds and hearts, the darkness is a force that obscures and frightens. We explored some of this on Christmas Eve when we noticed how grief is an experience of darkness. More generally, it’s a situation where nothing is clear and God seems absent. It can symbolize the separation of neighbor from neighbor. It’s the fear that stalks us even at noonday. The terror and anxiety we feel about the future. The guilt and shame we have about the past. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t walked in darkness one way or another. Despite the sentiments we express in the beloved Christmas carol, all is not calm and bright.

The late writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once put it this way: “I live in a kind of fear and despair all the time. I read the newspaper every day and see what people are doing to one another, how they kill and provoke others to kill…. I tremble at the low estate we have fallen into.” The celebration of Christmas, especially in our acquisitive broken nation, does not always succeed in illuminating the darkness, despite our best hopes. Someone has written: “This season does not bring an end to the conflict in our lives. There are pangs of sadness and loneliness. There are old wounds that have not healed. There are children abused, there are parents ignored. There are Christians who will sing the same carols but not share the same pew. There are neighbors who will not speak to one another. There are families who will have nothing to eat when the Christmas food basket is empty. There are people without jobs. There is mistrust among races. There are people so fearful that all strangers are enemies.”

In the face of such despair, the Scriptures give hope. Burdens are removed. Oppression ends. Violence ceases. The least are lifted up. People rejoice. Why? Because “the Lord will be our everlasting light” and “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” The song to remember is not Simon and Garfunkel’s cynical tune, but the anthem of angels: “Peace to all on whom God’s favor rests.” The lyric to recall is the saying of the baby of Bethlehem, the Word of God made flesh, when he had grown up: “I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness.”

There is a light that is without pity, like the harsh lamp of an interrogation room. There is a light that reveals all, like the spotlight sweeping from a police helicopter searching for a fugitive. But the light that shines from our life-giving Savior is a gentle glow of grace, truth, and love. From his tent, so to speak, a beacon guides us. It invites us to joy and wonder.

We should not be fooled, though. Despite its gentleness, this is no easily extinguished beam. This is the light of which it was said: “the darkness has not overcome it.” Even the worst humankind could do in the execution of Jesus could not put out the persistent light of God’s love, which gives hope to all. This is the light emanating from the face of the one who gave sight to the blind, speech to the mute, strength to the lame, and even life to the dead. The life of Jesus illumines humanity.

We could stop there and go home feeling great. But we can’t simply rest in the knowledge of our own deliverance. We are called to share the gospel, to be light for the world. As the prophet put it: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” The hymn writer, expanding on the image, wrote: “Arise, your light is come! The Spirit’s call obey; show forth the glory of your God, which shines on you today.”

We don’t have to perform great feats of spiritual strength or to use a more appropriate metaphor, have a lot of wattage, to shine God’s light. Whoever we are, wherever we live, we can do it.

I read a story some years ago about a cave diver and high school teacher named Sheck Exley. A graduate of my alma mater, the University of Georgia, Exley was a hero and mentor for youth in Florida. He died 904 feet down, in an underwater pit, deeper than he had ever gone before.

In Exley’s eulogy, a friend compared the diver to Christopher Columbus or the captain of the starship Enterprise: “He went places no man has ever gone. He took his candle and pushed back the darkness.”

Maybe it’s a bit of a cliché, but we too take our candle and push back the darkness. That’s what we symbolize on Christmas Eve when we share the flame with each other. Even the smallest bit of illumination, a single sliver of light, may make a difference in the life of our neighbor or our world. As Adlai Stevenson said of Eleanor Roosevelt: “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.” It may sound hopelessly idealistic, but it’s nevertheless true: one person, one community, one church that lets the light shine can change things. Energy, devotion, imagination, love: all these bring illumination in the darkness, and when we share God’s light with another and another and another, the darkness will be in retreat.

Perhaps the best way we can share light with someone is to be a friend in their darkness, whatever the gloom may be. One of the now defunct “Calvin and Hobbes” comics has poor Calvin, a little boy, trying to sleep after reading “Scary Death” and “Frightening Monster Tales” comics. He lies sweating in his bed, covers pulled up, trying desperately to hide from the monster he is sure dwells in his closet. How will he ever be delivered from a certain and horrible death? Then he remembers! He is not alone in the dark! Calvin rouses Hobbes, his faithful stuffed tiger companion, who comes alive for him. He now has an ally as fierce as any monster who might threaten. And indeed, Hobbes does dispatch the beast, who bolts out a window. Calvin muses, poetically, “Rid of the pest/I now can rest/thanks to be best friend/who saved the day.”

Sometimes we, like Hobbes, become a friend in literal darkness. We comfort a child frightened by nightmares. We sit vigil on the night shift for a family member or friend in the hospital, providing company and assistance.

But there is also the dark night of the soul, when the abyss of doubt and conflicted emotions threatens to swallow someone up, the pall of despair is cast over them. Then, too, we become friends in the darkness, listening to the same stories, complaints, and laments over and over if need be, providing assurance that all is not lost. Studies have shown time and again that resources make the difference in a crisis between coming through it and spiraling down to crash and burn. Of course, “resources” might mean money or coping skills. But at the top of the list is someone to count on.

In our companionship with someone who is frightened or troubled, we follow our Lord, the One who brings the light and is the light. The message of Christmas is that there is a friend in the darkness with us, who causes all monsters to flee. That there is one born who would dwell among us, full of grace and truth. The darkness is in retreat! Hope has come that one day, there will be no more darkness at all. In that great and glorious Day of the Lord, all the forces that deform and destroy human life will be defeated. All who seek to thwart God’s purposes will be judged and vanquished. The brilliant beam of righteousness and peace will shine undimmed by human tears. God himself will be our light.

“Traveler, darkness takes its flight. Doubt and terror are withdrawn. Watchman, let thy wanderings cease; hie thee to thy quiet home. Traveler, lo, the Prince of Peace, lo, the Son of God, is come!”

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