In studying for the sermon this week I was reminded that one of the pictures the biblical writers paint to depict darkness is that of a night without the possibility of dawn.
The picture is cogent, especially considering that these ancient texts were written before the invention of artificial light, the time when people had to rely entirely on the light provided by the sun. For them, the idea of not seeing the sun for a prolonged period of time could be terrifying, in addition to being impractical, since it would incapacitate people from engaging in even the most trivial of tasks.
So, when Isaiah speaks (chapter 9) about people walking in darkness, he uses that picture, alluding to the kind of night with no sunrise in sight, but it’s only a picture. What’s behind the metaphor is the reference to a period of utter desolation resulting from punishment by God due to the apostasy and rebellion on the part of His people. The darkness in that case is so thick that no one can imagine cutting through it and emerging on the other side. It is truly a night without hope of rising.
In our lives we sometimes are afflicted by a thick cloud of dark matter that threatens to devour us. Whether it’s divine retribution or simply the burdens of humanity, there is no denying that in those times we feel that we are about to succumb under the weight of sorrow. For some, it is depression, something people in the 18th century called “melancholy.” For others, it is the loss of a loved one, the open wounds of sexual abuse, the sting of rejection, the dart of betrayal, the sharp fangs of estrangement or the revolt of injustice.
Darkness comes in all shapes and shades. The only constant is our poor soul, breaking like the timber of a ship beaten by violent waves. Some people call this “the dark night of the soul,” but a friend prefers to call it a “funk.” I like “funk,” except it almost makes what I am describing here sound like a cool thing, which it could never be.
I felt somewhat like that yesterday when I heard the news of what was then thought to be an “active shooter situation” on the campus of Ohio State University. Except, that’s not how I heard the news because when I saw it flash through my phone only one thing mattered to me — where exactly is my niece? Soon, I heard from my terrified sister that my niece, a graduate student at OSU, was holed up in a lab somewhere on campus.
Though only a couple of hours went by, our vigil felt like a dark night with no end. I was at the dentist, being evaluated for an abscessed tooth, the only time in the last few days when I was able to forget the physical pain — and I was not even numbed.
These are the times when more than ever you keep repeating in your head: “she’s going to be okay.” And you pray the most “selfish” prayers ever invented. You ask God to end the agony and you feel ashamed that when it’s all said and done and you are finally able to connect with your niece, her emotive tone intuits a gentle: “don’t forget to pray for those who were injured.” You are embarrassed because you almost forgot about “the others.” Like a camera zoomed in on the subject of your picture, you open the lens up and suddenly realize there are others there that you were blurring the whole time. It is then that you realize that love may not be blind but it is definitely nearsighted.
That was yesterday. Today was a different kind of “funk.” I woke up to the news that a plane carrying an entire professional soccer team from Brazil had crashed near Medellín, Colombia.
The story would have been tragic regardless, but this one hurts like no other because it appears to give ammunition to those who posit the existence of an anti-hero, kill-joy, sadistic kind of a god (small “g”).
Here you have a team made up of a bunch of young men that this year had ascended to the first division, the elite of football in Brazil, for the first time ever, a small team from a small town whose stadium only seats about 20,000. Against all odds, they were runners up in the national league, going against some of the richest and most popular teams in the nation. Not only that, they managed to win against two of the toughest teams in Argentina to advance to the final game of the South American Cup, which was going to be played in two days in Colombia. To call them the “Cinderella” team would not even come close. They were the Cinderella, the Maria turned Mrs. Von Trapp, the David against Goliath and the Joanne of Ark (minus the butchering by the British), all combined into an epic story of meteoric rise to glory without any hint from anyone that this was about to happen. These guys make the Trump election a mere yawn. They were the real “November surprise.”
But in an instant their feat and their dreams met the unforgiving hardness of the cold mountain. The plane crashed and our hearts with it. Young men, they were, in the rush of triumph, dreaming of millions of dollars through contracts in Europe somewhere. Or maybe just of a quite life with family. Many of them left young children. One had just found out he was going to be a daddy a couple of days before he got on that plane. Perhaps some of them just wanted to live the moment and soon go back to enjoying their families again. They knew that glory is so ephemeral. But did they know to what degree?
Back to the sadistic “god” (small “g”) idea. Five people, apparently, were found alive. One was a goalie. His family got wind that he was alive, but later on they found out he died in the hospital. Another goalie had to have a leg amputated and a defense player suffered spinal injuries that may render him paraplegic for the rest of his life. These are just the stories I heard, the ones that were plastered in the headlines. I am not brave enough to read about the others’ personal stories right now, including the journalists and family members who were onboard. Will do that after the shock subsides some.
Against the sadistic “god” (small “g”) idea. Two players were injured. They couldn’t fly with the rest of the team. They thought perhaps that they were missing the opportunity of a lifetime. Instead, they gained a lifetime. But, if you insist, you may question the goodness of this fortuitous event for it is also possible that they might live with “survivor’s guilt” for the rest of their lives.
So we are left to wonder: what purpose do these tragedies serve? To remind us of the brevity of life? But this could be accomplished without the loss of life, I am sure. To bring some closer to God? I’m sure, but perhaps some didn’t want to get that close… yet. The reality is that with my feeble mind I can’t conceive a logical scenario that would justify these horrific events, but this does not mean that I am blaming God (capital “G”) nor that I am denying that there is a purpose in this kind of suffering. By faith, I must accept that there is but I can’t spell it right now. Perhaps later, but I may never truly know while sojourning here. So, I will choose to suspend judgment because though my last name is Trindade, I am pretty sure there is no vacancy in the Trinity.
Ah, and I also know that despite all appearances no darkness remains forever. In Genesis 1, God pierced the darkness with His word, “Let there be light!” Going back to where I started, in Isaiah 9 the darkness is broken with the appearance of a “great light,” a reference to the coming of the Messiah.
It was 9:10 pm EST in Lititz, PA, when I started writing this post. Just for kicks, I checked. It was:
5:10 pm same day Fairbanks, Alaska
1:10 pm next day in Melbourne, Australia
5:10 am next day in Krasnodar, Russia
4:10 pm same day in Waimea, Hawaii
8:40 am next day in Yangon, Myanmar (yeah, they have that weird half an hour thing going on for them)
3:10 pm next day in South Pole, Antarctica
2:10 am next day in London
12:10 pm next day Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea…
I know that’s not profound, but as I looked at the list above a thought came to me: with the precision of a clock, light is piercing darkness somewhere in the world right now. And this happens every day, without us having to work for it. This tells me that despite the appearance, ultimately darkness cannot win. Some day the light of the Son of God will shine brightly on every corner of the universe and that is the hope that baby of Bethlehem brought the world on Christmas night.
Sometimes, what helps me rise the next day after a day of tremendous sorrow is the thought that Christmas is happening in a symbolic way every time the glorious light of morning rises. It’s a perennial reminder that whether personally or cosmically the dark night of the soul will some day come to beautiful end, (capital “E.”)
Pastor Ivanildo da Costa Trindade
Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA