The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
In the biblical setting of Isaiah, the Jews had been defeated and exiled. They had returned to their land but they returned to rubble. There was no return to the way it used to be. Emotionally, it would be roughly akin to a family losing a child to a protracted illness. You spend weeks in hospitals. You hope and pray but your child dies. You must endure the loss. You must return to a home that can never be the same. Even as I write this, that loss seems impossible to bear.
Less dramatic but certainly more commonplace is our hope that we can ‘return to normal’ after almost two years of pandemic isolation. How many times have we had that hope only to hear of a new variant that forces us backward? In real life, we are still awaiting memorial services for people who died months ago. Ordinary greetings, gatherings and vacations are all affected. Returning to what we once knew is not going to happen. The world has changed and so have we. It is an uncertain and demanding time. For most of us, the world is a heavier place. This was the real life dilemma of the Jews in Isaiah’s day, the real life dilemma of the Jews in Jesus’s day and the real life dilemma of our day.
The poetry of light in such darkness speaks directly to this dilemma. Especially when we are struggling, we need to hear such words. We not only need the knowledge that ‘this too shall pass’, we need a vision of something beyond our immediate circumstance. We have to hear and eventually see that what seems unmanageable can have outcomes we could not imagine. We have to see it is possible to live and to love even as we are sleep deprived, depressed, debilitated, in the middle of a pandemic or in the middle of great grief.
Actually moving beyond the poetry and eloquence of these words into practical substance is another problem altogether. We began our FIRL discussion this week with the question: What do you hope for? Ron Johnson made the observation that he had near term, middle term and long term hopes. Near term, he hoped he would awaken the next morning, middle term, he was not particularly hopeful but long term, he believed that God would prevail. He pretty much summed up Advent hope. Live in the present. Be grateful for each day. Even if the world is dark and we have no real expectation that we will see improvement in our lifetime, hold on to the promise that God will prevail. I believe those words and try to live into them.
The problem is that it is all too easy to hear the promises of future hope as an antidote to despair—“the faithful move forward, the not so faithful are immobilized . Continued depression, heaviness or a sense of futility become indicators that we do not trust God’s promises. Such a judgment is usually unintended, and, in my view, is the very opposite of the gospel, but, in real life, it is often difficult to be frank about our questions,doubts and depression in church. ‘Good’ Christians hear the good news and are beyond such conundrums.
In a staff meeting this week, we were once again answering the question: “What do you hope for?” Emily Wilmesherr was hoping for a night’s rest—a precious commodity when you have a young child. The words of assurance that were offered to her were basically: ‘Hold on, it won’t last forever. Children grow up.” A promise, a future hope, was being used to help cope with a present discomfort. But as true as those words are, it is also true she was, and likely will be again, running on fumes.
How can we keep future hope and present hardness in the same space? Ostensibly hope and hardness (at times reaching despair) are contradictory but in real life they coexist on a fluid continuum. Future hope does not improve sleep deprivation. Nor does sleep deprivation destroy future hope. Hope as an antidote to depression falsely dichotomizes our existence. Sleep deprivation and hope often exist in the same person. The trick is recognizing both.
That is the light in the darkness. If our human desire is to eliminate hardship, loss and suffering, we, almost inevitably, will call hard times ‘darkness’— and the light is supposed to eliminate them. But, as the Psalmist says, “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you”. It is difficult to grasp but we cannot know light without darkness, nor darkness without light. Very few of us like the dark and in fact, many of us are afraid of it. We define darkness as bad but it is really just very difficult. There is a big difference. Only when we realize that darkness (as we define it) is to be lived through and cannot be eliminated can we live fully in the present.
We have to see that such a life is possible. The light in the darkness is learning that real life is hard and sometimes it is very hard. It will include suffering, pain, loss and death. Ask Jesus. We live in the hope that no matter how hard, loving is what matters—even when, in our mortal vision, we cannot imagine where it will lead.
I am seeing a couple who have had a very troubled marriage. Both of them were living lonely alienated lives—wishing they could connect and resenting that they could not. The issues between them are complex but the obvious presenting problem was the husband’s infidelity. I honestly thought the likelihood of them staying married was low. Both, however, have worked very hard to be accountable and currently they are more connected than they have ever been. Last week, the husband said he would never have wished this journey on anyone but he was grateful for every bit of it. Neither could be where they are without walking through great darkness.
In FIRL, when asked where people saw hope, the overriding theme was observing people who continued to live and love in the midst of many obstacles. RG Evans talks about his grandmother who began to be disabled by rheumatoid arthritis in her 50s. He remembers her with a crutch in one hand and a dustpan in another. Her determination to live with what she had was indomitable. Even when she became an invalid she spent several hours a day calling others. Such people are living examples of hope. We need to see them to believe it is possible.
I will add on personal note here, that once again, this preaches easier than it is lived. Some days in our home are very dark. Sometimes my mother will be frightened and in tears because she does not know where she is. My father can be completely exhausted because he has been up five times in the night with her. On those days it is hard to imagine going through another day. It is also true that there have been moments of connection and humor that would never have happened. We dare not look ahead. We are not the first nor will we be the last. This is how some lives are lived.
As I have said many times before, our job is to be kind now. We will find out what tomorrow brings when tomorrow comes. It is exhausting to stay in the present. It is possible because we are not alone. We have seen that it is possible.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Let it be so.