Walking in the Dark: Ash Wednesday meditation

The woods at night.


On Ash Wednesday, I had the privilege of sharing the meditation during chapel at United Methodist Communications. 

Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-172 Corinthians 5:20b –6:10

Since reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, I have become more keenly aware of all the lights in my life. We put them everywhere.

The woods at night.

Lent is a time when we face some things we would rather not face. Photo CC0.

The other night, as I took my puppy for her evening walk, I noticed how many homes in our neighborhood had their porch lights on. Others had some decorative light on display outside their home. Some, I guess, leave them on most of the night.

From the night lights guiding us to the bathroom to the security lights on motion sensors in the driveway we like to light up the night.

I don’t know what I would do without my clip-on book light for reading in bed, and was happy to recently discover that not only does my iPhone have a flashlight, but my watch does too.

Since reading the book, I even noticed that there is a light on my television that tells me the TV is OFF.

The conventional wisdom is that all of this light is not good for us. If you are on Rally (from our health program), you may have joined the challenge to dim the lights “well before bed.” This is supposed to make it easier for us to fall asleep.

Darkness and fear

Taylor writes about our desire for light. She writes, “‘Darkness’ is shorthand for anything that scares me—that I want no part of—either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it, or because I do not want to find out.”

“If I had my way,” she continues, “I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love—if I could just find the right night-lights to leave on.”

It feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it? We’ve been taught that evil lurks in the dark. We focus on Biblical metaphors about how God is light, and in the light there is no darkness at all. If only we had enough faith—enough light, we could drive back the darkness. The evil would be put in its place. We could get some more sleep.

But then Taylor writes this: “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

That’s true in scripture too.

God leads Abraham out to look at the stars in the dark. Jacob wrestles with God all night. Jesus is born in the dark of a cave. Nicodemus learns that we must be born again when he comes to Jesus at night.

Maybe because of my recent reading of Barbara Brown Taylor, but when I first read today’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Joel, his calling the “day of the Lord” a day of darkness leapt off the page for me.

Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians, do a similar thing as he writes about God’s presence “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” Paul knew God was working in their lives and ministry in both the days of light and the days of darkness.

An invitation to walk in the dark

This season of Lent, invites us to spend these next 40 days walking in the dark—acknowledging God’s presence in the darkness, and opening ourselves to what God would have us learn.

Today we begin by receiving the mark of the cross in ashes. The ashes are a reminder of our mortality—Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. They also call us to reflect on our sin—Repent and believe the Gospel.

Click to buy Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor from Amazon.com.

Click to buy Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor from Amazon.com.

Those are two things upon I would rather not reflect. Like Taylor, I too want a magical nightlight to push back the darkness of my own death, that is ever drawing closer? Give me a light that will help me continue to delude myself that I will live forever.

Oh, and please focus a spotlight on the things I do well. The places where I fall short behind, let’s leave in the dark. Is there some sort of light that will blind me from my sin and keep me feeling good about myself?

Lent calls us instead to go into those places. Not for a morbid, fatalistic fascination with death, nor to flog ourselves for not being good enough. We go instead, because there are things we can learn in the dark that we could never learn in the light—things that can save our lives.

Where we find life

Much later in Learning to Walk in the Dark, Taylor focuses her attention toward Easter and the tomb in which Jesus was laid.

By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that ther ewere no witnesses to the resurrection. Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after. Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.

As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air… Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.

Lent is an invitation to a 40-day walk in the dark.

May this season lead us to new life in Christ.

Amen.

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