As a teenager, I worked at a scout camp in Virginia. At night the staff would hang out in our lounge at the center of the camp; then one by one we’d head off to bed, walking a trail through the woods to our tents. New camp counselors always walked the trail with bright flashlights. But those of us who’d worked at the camp for a summer knew to walk the trail in darkness.
The reason was we lacked a lot of entertainment options at a camp before I-pads. So some nights the older staff would hide in the woods to jump out and scare the junior counselors. Their flashlights announced their approach; the light blinding them to the darkness; so easy to scare.
At the time, I just thought of it as a fun game. But now, looking back, I see the irony. Junior counselors hadn’t learned to walk in the dark. Instead, they had some fear and caution about the night. Being scared of the dark meant they were so much easier to scare.
Many of us live like junior camp counselors. We might not fear the night. But we fear the shadows of our souls, the doubts in our faith, the vulnerable places in the heart. Oh for bright lights, clarity, ready answers and cheerful summer days.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, made a distinction between solar spirituality and lunar spirituality. Her distinction, of course, depends on the difference between the sun and the moon. The light of sun is brilliant, powerful: life depends on it, but even as it enlightens, it makes things hard to see. The stars surround us every moment of the day, but we can see them because of the sun.
And likewise a solar spirituality can be invigorating because it makes life clear: this is the path, this is the answer. But it comes at a cost. Just as the sun obscures the midday stars, a solar spirituality’s clarity causes a kind of blindness. When we value the clarity, we dismiss the uncertain, until in the end we create a divided world: light, dark; good, bad; heaven-sent, hellbound.
Taylor, speaking of her own solar spirituality, said she expected each day to be great. A faith life constantly filled with meaning, an always sunny day; the light of Christ burning in her heart, protecting her from the dark.
Life intervened; the clarity of her solar spirituality crumbled. And as it did, Taylor started to pay attention to all the night-time moments in the Bible. Of creation’s starting first with night and then with day; of God taking Abraham out at night to promise him even more descendants than the stars; of Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the dark to ask the question he could not speak during the day.
And so Taylor started paying attention to the night and the stars and the moon. She noticed the way the moon waxed and waned. It felt like a symbol of her own faith, which would strengthen and ebb in intensity.
Reflecting on this, Taylor wrote, “Sometimes the light is coming, and sometimes it is going. Sometimes the moon is full, and sometimes it is nowhere to be found. There is nothing capricious about this variety since it happens on a regular basis. Is it dark out tonight? Fear not; it will not be dark forever. Is it bright out tonight? Enjoy it; it will not be bright forever.”
A lunar spirituality opened Taylor’s heart to the change, variety, and subtlety of faith. She stopped fearing the dark - especially the shadows inside of herself - and began to accept and celebrate the day and the night, the light and the shadows, and all the twilight in between.
Zechariah, in our readings from the Gospel of Luke, experienced a transformation from a solar to a lunar spirituality. At the beginning of the story Zechariah came to Jerusalem to perform his sacred duties as a priest. He entered the Temple and began his work to offer a sacrifice. Zechariah’s faith was well ordered: he gave God a sacrifice, God gave him and the nation blessings. As a priest, Zechariah was among the elite in the nation; the system worked well for Zechariah.
Though he had his hardships and disappointments; chief among them: no child. Zechariah reconciled himself to not having children, boxed away that grief, resigned to his role as priest.
But in the dark recesses of the Temple, something happened. Later he would say it seemed like an angel of God appeared to him in the darkness. “Your wife will bear you a son.” It must have seemed like a taunt; here was his buried hope resurfaced, an impossibility now thrown back at him just when he’d accepted his fate.
Isn’t that what happens to us in the dark? All day we can go through life, never questioning our choices and our purpose. But at night, awakened, we ruminate over the could-a-beens. What dashed hopes, what fears, what longings come to you in the night? Zechariah found the deep longing of his heart, long buried under a compromise with the probable, spoken in the dark: you shall be a father.
Zechariah couldn’t handle this angel from the shadows. He gave voice to his doubts. “It can not be!” But the shadows silenced Zechariah. Carl Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious.” Zechariah long tried to ignore the shadows in his life by focusing on the bright solar light, but in the darkness of the Temple, the truth he found in the shadows overwhelmed him.
We sometimes say a person is dumbstruck when they can’t find the words to speak. But Zechariah was shadow-struck. This continued for nine months. When we face our fears, name our doubts, share our grief, face our longing then we can similarly find ourselves without words. Prayer can seem dry and pointless. Faith empty. Relationships dull. Community lonely.
But something worked in Zechariah’s heart. Biblical storytellers like parallels. In this case we’re meant to notice the baby growing inside of Elizabeth for nine-months during the equally long silence of Zechariah.
Holding his newborn son, holding his miracle, Zechariah finally spoke. Or, more accurately, sang. Wealthy Zechariah sang a song of the poor. For much of his life, Zechariah didn’t question the status quo. It worked for him. But months in silence allowed him to hear the cries of the poor, to see the life of people for whom the status quo was unbearable. Facing his own shadows allowed Zechariah to understand and empathize with all the others living in the shadows of his world.
The pregnant silence of Zechariah also nurtured within him a profound joy. The man resigned to his life discovered amazing things could happen. The one-time curmudgeon now sang with gratitude.
It makes me wonder: what could we nurture inside of ourselves? What would happen if we faced the shadows in our hearts? The dark places we avoid out of fear?
God once spoke to the prophet Isaiah, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” Zechariah found treasure hidden in his own darkness. What could we find there too?
It may not all be as miraculous as a son born to an old couple. Barbara Brown Taylor described her experience of going caving. Her eyes slowly adjusted the darkness of the cave. In one amazing room of the cave it seemed as if all the walls glittered with crystals. On the floor she found a shard of crystal on the ground; she took it as a souvenir. Back outside, she pulled the stone from her pocket. Dull gravel, like something you’d use for a driveway. Taylor asked herself, “What in the world made me think this was a precious stone?” And then she knew, “the stone wasn’t the problem.” It was the light. The bright light of the day turned her precious crystal into gravel; it took the dimness of the cave for her to see the brilliance of the stone.
Sometimes the greatest treasures are truly hidden in darkness, only accessible if we open our eyes to the shadows. Which is why our faith so needs the season of Advent. We need this season of increasing darkness, this season of long shadows, in order to see the glimmer in the gravel of our lives.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from Mary Ann Neevel, who’s 50th anniversary of ordination we celebrate today, concerns an Advent faith. So many central events in her life happened during Advent and Christmas: her birthday, her marriage, her ordination. But all of those connections are just a background to a faith which finds light in the darkness, beauty in the shadows.
Back in the nineties, Mary Ann used to lead Advent worship services. Of all the services I attended with her, these were some of my favorite. We’d gather up here on the chancel to sing and pray the Holden Vespers, to proclaim with our voices hope in the shadows.
Looking back, I realize Mary Ann’s ministry often worked this way. As a child making friends with Lakota girls at camp or as a new pastor traveling to India, Mary Ann learned to find and see the truth in people others dismissed. Her youthful experiences of native people at camp led to a lifelong commitment to learning from people of every faith. We live in a time when too many people dismiss folks of other religions as the fearful other; but Mary Ann taught us to see in the other a potential new friend.
This didn’t just happen with people of other religions. Mary Ann has always seen people shoved into the shadows of our society. And so she joined a black congregation and marched for Civil Rights in the sixties. She stood up for reproductive rights in the seventies. Spoke out against war in the eighties. Welcomed in the LGBT community in the nineties. And, because these issues never went away, remains committed to all of them even to this day; five decades of seeing those cast into the shadows as God’s beloved.
In all of this, Mary Ann’s ministry provided an example to all of us. But I learned the most from her as she faced her own shadows, and in particular, the shadow of illness. It is now that I see the power of her Advent faith.
Mary Ann’s first diagnosis of cancer came in 2002; actually it was during Advent I think. Facing the fear and the darkness of illness required so much of her physically and spiritually of course. But in those shadows she found grace. Cancer meant Mary Ann, who’d been a caregiver to so many of us, had to learn how to be a care-receiver. She once said of this experience, “being the recipient of grace was more amazing than having the ability to give it.” On another occasion she described the treasure she found, “There are moments in our life when all of a sudden there is this powerful recognition that things are never going to be the same again. But then there is that moment of transformation, which to me is God’s power. And even out of those despairing situations, grace is renewed, and maybe we move on in a whole different way.”
Mary Ann’s ministry continues 50 years after her ordination. All along it's been an Advent ministry - helping those in darkness see light, those in shadows see beauty, those in despair to know grace.
Mary Ann, I know my own spirituality has been enriched by all you’ve taught. Thank you, for teaching us to walk with faith in whatever Advent we find ourselves.
Alleluia and Amen.