Date: August 9, 2015
Title: “How Long, O Lord?”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Psalm 13 and Psalm 22:1-11
When I was six years old, I got lost in the woods. My family was camping at Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park. We had gone to the Ranger’s evening campfire program, and were on the way back to our old Coleman tent when my sisters asked to stop at the restroom. Since I didn’t need that stop, and we were not far from our campsite, I convinced my parents to let me walk on ahead of the rest of the family. And somehow, somewhere I took a wrong turn and ended up hopelessly lost.
I remember crouching down in the brush while the dark descended and the night came alive with the sounds of wildness. I was certain there were bears crashing through the undergrowth and that I was about to be eaten at any moment. I wasn’t far from a road which ran through the park, but I didn’t dare walk down that, because if the bears posed a certain threat, the kidnappers I knew would be out looking for me seemed an even greater danger! So I simply ran, blindly, deeper into the woods.
If you have ever been lost – in the woods or in the wilds of your own self – you know how terrifying it can be. You appreciate the panic being lost can create in even the most hardy of souls. David Wagoner gives some great advice for just such a moment in his poem entitled “Lost”:
The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
you are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
where you are.
You must let it find you.
“How long, O Lord” is a common refrain when we run, stumbling through the darkness of whatever wilderness we face. We don’t like being lost. We don’t like to feel out of control as we wander without direction and maybe even without hope. We hear the phrase “the dark night of the soul” and we immediately feel that experience, even if we can’t quite remember its origin with John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish Carmelite monk, whose best known work is titled “The Dark Night of the Soul”.
Now John was an ally and a student of Teresa of Avila, who sought to reform the Carmelite Order by returning them to their original idea of simplicity, solitude and prayer. In 1572 John became spiritual director for Teresa’s convent and the two of them began making sweeping changes – changes which were vehemently opposed by the church hierarchy of the time. On December 2, 1577, John was abducted and taken, blindfolded, to a monastery in Toledo, Spain. When he refused to renounce his reform work with Teresa, John was beaten and thrown into the monastery prison.
After two months of regular beatings and appalling living conditions, things got even worse for John. He was thrown into solitary confinement, where the only light was what little seeped in through a small crack in the prison wall. It was there he began to compose “The Dark Night of the Soul.”
Now if you go to that spiritual classic, expecting to read about how awful the whole experience was, expecting to hear John say he only survived by hanging onto his old, existing faith in God… you will be disappointed. First, you will quickly learn that for John of the Cross, the “Dark Night” is a love story, full of pain, but also joy as he recounts his own search for God, the most elusive of all lovers. And then, even more surprising, John will tell you that the whole purpose of the dark night is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped. The whole point is to teach us that when we are lost in the wilderness of our lives, when we are stumbling around in the dark, the last thing we should try to do is hang onto our way of seeing in the light.
In Spanish, John’s word for God is nada … no-thing. God cannot be held onto; God can only be encountered. Someone else recently wrote in an online blog:
Are you wandering around a spiritual wilderness and dying of thirst? Does it feel like God has gone away on vacation to Bermuda? I’ve been there… And more than once, I’ve had someone ask me in a very pious way, “Who moved”? as if to suggest that all you have to do is simply move back to Jesus and become more religious, and then you and God, hand in hand, will walk off into the sunset together.
This author goes on to suggest:
That is stupid. It comes from the heart of the “Try Harder” heresy of our faith. It smells like smoke and it comes from the pit of hell. It is simply not true.
The Psalmist understands. The Psalmist understands that when things fall apart, when we are lost in the wilderness within or without, we have no choice but to allow the dis-orientation of life as we knew it. Because only then can we begin to see life as we can imagine it. Viral Mehta reminds us:
The word “vulnerable” itself comes from the Latin “vulnerare” which means “to wound”. At the root of vulnerability is our own sense of woundedness. To be authentic in a moment in which we feel wounded, we have to honestly acknowledge the places where we feel hurt, and then muster up the strength to just be with the pain. This takes tremendous courage.
It takes courage to stand still when you are lost. It takes courage to remind yourself that the forest you are in knows where it is and can find you. It takes courage to stop trying to grasp that which cannot be grasped, whether that be our experience of God, or even of ourselves.
John of the Cross suggests that we are never in more danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. And Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
When we no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to god’s protection. This remains true even when we cannot discern God’s presence. The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.
The dark night… it’s such a great metaphor in so many ways. We fear the dark for its mystery, its surprises, and our lack of control in it. We intimately know the isolation, loss, and sadness of the darkness. And yet, we so often miss the complexity and the wonder of the dark. Think of that moment when the lights first go out. It is unsettling, dis-orienting, even. But if you stay with the dark, your eyes begin to adjust, your body begins to relax and you become aware that you are not alone. If you stay in the dark, broad outlines are filled in with details you previously missed.
Again, in Taylor’s words:
The good news is that dark and light, faith and doubt, divine absence and presence, do not exist at opposite poles. Instead, they exist with and within each other, like distinct waves that roll out of the same ocean and roll back into it again. If I can trust that – if I can give my heart to it and remain conscious of it – then faith becomes a verb, my active response to the sacred reality that the best religions in the world can only point toward.
If I can trust that, maybe I can also remember to stand still whenever I am lost. Stand still. The forest – and God – knows where you are. You must let yourself be found. As disorienting as it may be, the dark night is essential for the Dawn. Thanks be to God! Amen.