Speaker: Taryn Strauss

First Service: 9:30 am

Second Service: 11:00 am

Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor argues that we need to move away from our “solar spirituality” and ease our way into appreciating “lunar spirituality” (since, like the moon, our experience of the light waxes and wanes). Through darkness we find courage, we understand the world in new ways, and we feel Divine presence around us, guiding us through things seen and unseen. Often, it is while we are in the dark that we grow the most.


Sermon Text

I really should never begin with binary thinking, but there are two kinds of people, those who went to camp, and those who did not.

I don’t think I would be here today without girl scout camp. At age eleven, I was sent to Camp Wild Rose in middle Illinois, and the camp itself was nothing special. There were no horses, no lake in my memory, only endless time for games, bonding, and singing. It was my first time away from home, and I felt bold and outgoing.

Something happened that week that has always stuck with me.
One evening, in the middle of the week, we had a clear, moonless night, only the jeweled net of stars twinkling high above us. The counselors took us on a high-stakes night hike. At one point, we were instructed to put our flashlights in a counselor’s bag. “We are doing a trust walk,” she said. I’m not sure how good the liability insurance was for this camp, but as hikes go, this was fairly treacherous. The path was rocky, and if felt like we were high above sea level, at one point curved around the edge of a mountain, at another point we had to cross a creek.

All we had were the hands of the girl in front of us, and her soft voice, whispering to the person behind her, “step up, step down, small jump.”

I remember the complete disorientation, and at one point, I realized it was easier to simply close my eyes. Closing my eyes sharpened my ears somehow, gave the feeling of the girl’s hand in mine more weight, I could smell the water as much as I could hear the creek’s gurgling flow.
I have thought of that night often. How exhilarating it felt to stop searching for light. Just surrendering to the darkness, and feel our way forward. For twelve little girls, the night was full of power and daring, realizing the dark was so much more than monsters under our beds, more than nothingness. Hand-in-hand, we walked right out of our childlike understanding of the dark, and after what felt like hours when we finally reached the end of the trust walk, we opened our eyes, dropped our hands, whispering excitedly, “we made it through.”

Rev. James Forbes reflects that
Since the election that brought in our current national leadership, there have been ominous signs on the horizon. Shortly after the election, a woman he knew met him on the street and she said pastor, I believe these are the last days. That captured his imagination. So he decided to look more closely at what how Bible was characterizing the last days.

2nd Timothy, the Bible wisely describes the last days. Chapter 3

You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. 2 For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! 6 For among them are those who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

Something is happening when it gets this bad. We hardly know what to do with all the criminality that is being affirmed in the highest offices in the land. We wonder, when will they figure out what to do, but there is some good news,

when it gets as bad as it is now. Given what is happening in washington, and beyond the beltway, something else is going on.

Michelle Goldberg, wrote in an op-ed for the Times this week, she thinks lately she is experiencing what she calls “Democracy Grief.”

She writes, For anyone who was, like me, born after the civil rights movement finally made democracy in America real, liberal democracy has always been part of the climate, as easy to take for granted as clean air or the changing of the seasons. When I contemplate the sort of illiberal oligarchy that would await my children should Donald Trump win another term, the scale of the loss feels so vast that I can barely process it.

I have lived through three of our nation’s greatest tragedies. One was Sept. 11, 2001, and I remember exactly what I was doing. Then came Dec. 14, 2012, the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, five years ago this week, that killed 28 people, including 20 first graders. I know exactly where I was standing when I heard the news.

Personally, I consider Nov. 9, 2016 to be one of the darkest days our nation has faced. I went to bed that night, with a fever, coming down with the flu. All night, I woke to my spouse pacing, holding his phone, until finally the morning came and he was sitting on the bed, head in his hands. My fever spiked, and as he said the words that a reality television star had become the president of the United States, I was hit by a crash of nausea, then dozed fitfully, thinking it had all been a nightmare, until the fever broke the next day.

Even then, I didn’t know how dark things would become. How rapists would be vindicated in the highest court of the land, how immigrant children would be treated and left in cold cells to die alone of the flu. I didn’t know then that Puerto Rico would be left do suffer their storm in darkness for months, that each day civic discourse would sink lower and lower, and the ice caps would melt and the plastic would choke the reefs and yes, it does seem like the end of days.

I have always been a sunny person. Born in July, my favorite month.

But for this season in our country, I knew no solar faith would be my lifeline for the long dark night ahead. The sun, constant and persistently giving off heat, never a question, not hiding, just there. I’ve never been as sure as the sun. So sure about the nature of God, that its just there for me to find, a light breeze to move a cloud out of the way, and voila.

The Dark Night of the Soul means different things to different people. It can mean the loss of faith, by circumstances or beyond control. No one chooses the dark night, the dark night descends. When it does, the reality that troubles the soul is the apparent absence of God. If God is light, then God is gone. Even if friends come around, they are like the friends of Job, not much help. The only way out is through.

I want to distinguish between a mental crisis and a crisis of faith. For some people, the way out may mean it is a good time to see a doctor and get help for a mental disorder. Lunar spirituality waxes and wanes, it does not stay dark forever.

The real question is whether you will resist the darkness, or surrender to what can be discovered within.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes

The widely acknowledged master of the dark night of the soul is John of the Cross, a sixteenth century monk whose best-known work is The Dark Night of the Soul, begun during the eleven months he spent in a monastery prison. He was a Carmelite monk in the same order as Teresa of Avila, and like her, he believed in the ideals of a simple life spent in solitude and prayer. This made them rebels of their time, believe it or not. Teresa of Avila pressed on in spite of huge opposition, founding the Monastery of Saint Joseph in Avila in 1562.

She prayed for a male ally who could help her found monasteries, and John of the Cross was the answer to her prayers, he became her apprentice and spiritual director for her convent. Three years later, when John’s superiors told him to quit his job at the convent, he refused, becoming an outlaw to his own order.

On Dec. 2, men broke into John’s room at the Convent, abducted him and led him, bound and blindfolded to a monastery in Toledo. When John refused to renounce his work with Teresa, he was beaten and thrown into the monastery prison, where he survived on little more than bread and water. After two months, he was placed in solitary confinement, where the only light he saw came through a slit in his prison wall. It was there that he began to compose his greatest works, first by memorizing the words in the dark and later, by writing them down. He escaped after nine months, and fled to the south of Spain and he continued to write down what he had learned in the dark.

Most people who hear the name of John’s best-known work assume that it is the memoir of a survivor describing the worst period of his life. Because so many of them have been programmed to think of “dark” as a synonym for “sinister,”
they open The Dark Night of the Soul expecting John to tell them how awful it was and how he got through it by hanging on to his faith in God no matter what happened to him.

This will be a disappointment to such readers, however. One of the central features of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped. In John’s native spanish, his word for God is nada. God is no-thing. God is not a thing, and cannot be held onto. God can only be encountered.

Though the dark night of the soul typically refers to the individual’s experience, it is also true that whole communities can lose sight of the sun for a time.

The dark night is a gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God,
your fears about God, your attachments, your positive and negative evaluations about God, or yourself as a believer, and the cures for your doubts.

The only thing required in the dark night is to stay in it. To stay present, and awake to it. Not to be too quick to turn on the lights, but stay in it long enough to be led towards something else.

Yes, I too am resonate with democracy grief. I too, am struggling with the loss of the idealism of the Obama years, that hope and that change we were promised. But something else is happening.

Maybe when the moon of our democratic ideals is but a tiny crescent, far from us, this is what it takes for new generations to become mobilized in a new way. Perhaps, and I do not say this lightly knowing that it will mean death and destruction on a mass scale,
it must become worse for the children who have enjoyed a steady forecast of relative sunshine, to realize their place in their own democratic process.

What I do know is that darkness and light are not on opposite poles of our lives, though we may think of them that way. Emotionally, we know that joy touches sadness, and courage touches fear, we can feel like the light is very far away, experience that as a spelunking expedition into the caverns of our souls. If that is our focus, we will miss the gift that only come to us in darkness.

That trust walk on the mountain, under the night sky so many years ago, was notable for two major features. There was no turning back, how could I? I would lose all face, I would lose my sense of myself as a truth-or-dare player who always chose dare, my propensity towards risk rather than certainty. I would lead us all back into the light, and the light would take a new tone, disappointment would flood us all under the cabin’s fluorescent glare.

Of course, the other major feature is that feeling my way through the dark, there was a hand in mine. She didn’t know where she was going either. It’s good to learn that kind of trust early. I still have it. That is my belief system.

I still trust that wherever we are going as a country, and as a religious community, we are going there together. Some of us may be shuffling, others may be weary, ready to turn back, barely moving for fear of what is to come, and some of us walking surefooted, with certainty.

Welcome to winter. To long nights and grey days. This is the time to reach out a hand, to find someone who can lead you forward, whispering in your ear, now step up, now step down. Feel the warmth of connection, reminding you that in community, we need not resist darkness, instead we shall face the dark together.

Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

Goldberg, Michelle. “Democracy Grief is Real.” NY Times, Dec. 13, 2019.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark. HarperCollins, 2014. New York.