Sermon, Mt Shasta/Dunsmuir Methodist Church, January 27, 2008
We are in the dark season, now, with short days, long nights, unusually cold temperatures, and it seems like more than the usual amount of snow. But we know that spring will come; the light is already returning and the days are growing longer. So, if we are among those who find winter challenging, we can hunch down and endure until spring.
Of course, many people rejoice in the snow. Some among us now will no doubt head out after church for some winter sports.
The kind of darkness I want to address this morning is the darkness of hard times. We may all be facing dark times in the years ahead, with the chaotic effects of global climate change impacting life around the Earth. We really don’t know what will happen, but we can be fairly sure that radical change is upon us, along with the suffering that such change usually brings. And we may react with fear and denial, as we all too often do when facing unpleasant circumstances.
With global climate change, and other crises such as oil depletion, there is no spring in sight. We may have to endure years and years of intermingled catastrophes, one upon another, as our oil-dependent economy unravels and collapses, epidemics sweep through the land, and civil society struggles to survive.
So how can there be any blessings in this darkness? I have been thinking about this question a lot, trying to discern a possible path to follow through this maze. As our lives change radically, how can we, as spiritually aligned people, best respond?
I recently read a letter on Joanna Macy’s website that gave me some clues. Joanna is an eco-philosopher and social change activist, as well as a dear friend and mentor of mine. In her letter, she writes of three gifts she received in 2007. I think these are among the blessings of darkness, the blessings of hard times.
The first is the gift of uncertainty. When we look honestly and directly at the challenges we face, we see both the peril and the promise inherent in them all, with no way of knowing how things will unfold. We all would prefer a happy ending, but we have no such guarantees. We are like people who live with a diagnosis of a terminal disease; we know full well we may die of it, and yet we can still hold the possibility that we might be healed.
When we let go of our attachment to “a happy ending,” something wonderful happens. We become more alive in the moment, more open to the wonder and beauty of the world, moment to moment. As Jesus tells us in Matthew 6.34, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” We may experience the Love that surrounds us always, even in the darkness.
And uncertainty can bring forth our creativity and ingenuity in responding to the changing circumstances. Life can self-organize in amazing and unpredictable ways. When we know what will happen, we tend to get into ruts of behavior and perception. In times of uncertainty, all bets are off, and we can come alive in creative new ways.
The second gift Joanna describes is intention. This is something we can count on—not the outcome, but the motivation we bring, the vision we hold, the path we choose to follow. Firm resolve can save us from getting lost in fear or grief or despair. We can choose to live our lives according to certain principles, certain moral values, no matter what the circumstances—and that choice can carry us through the most difficult of times. Our intention can be to bring love and healing to bear in every situation we find ourselves in, drawing on the love of God we carry in our hearts. As Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want in the world.”
And finally, Joanna speaks of the gift of devotion that dark times may bring. Our love for the Earth, for life, and our devotion to God, nourishes and illuminates our intention. In times of uncertainty and peril, we are impelled to reach into the wellsprings of our devotion to both sustain and guide us. Through devotion, we can find the strength and faith to take one day at a time and respond in the moment, especially in times of unpredictable change. The disciples who left their fishing nets to follow Jesus are models for both these gifts: intention and devotion.
I would like to add two more gifts to this list of the blessings of darkness: the gift of service, and the gift of community. I believe the changes that lie ahead will call upon each of us to serve one another and our communities in ways we may never have thought possible. I am convinced that such service will prove to be the most fulfilling experience many of us will ever have had in our lives. It may not be “fun,” but it will be meaningful and rewarding to our souls. Many of the opportunities for service will come along unexpectedly, which means we often will need to respond in the moment. We will be called to serve in our neighborhoods, on the street, in our work places—and not just when doing designated “volunteer work.”
We may be called upon to listen to and support people going through trauma, strangers as well as friends—and we may never know in advance when we will be needed. At other times, we ourselves may need help, receiving the same kind of support we have given. We are all in this together.
Which leads us to the gift of community. People do reach out to one another in times of darkness, such as a severe illness or death in a family. Suddenly we find out how much others care about us, as they show up with casseroles, kind words, and offers of help. In the hard times ahead, I believe we will increasingly come together in community to provide life necessities for ourselves and our neighbors. We cannot survive alone, individual by individual, family by family. We can only survive by helping each other, bringing our varied skills and gifts to bear, sharing what we have, and planning together to meet our common needs. I believe our towns and neighborhoods can be transformed in the process into more friendly, vibrant, sustainable communities.
Well, I’ve talked a lot about the blessings of darkness, partly because they are often more difficult to discern. The blessings of light are more obvious. I guess the most important thing to say about Light is that it is always with us, even in the darkest of dark times. We can find that light within us in our hearts, and in others around us. The dark season of winter invites us to go within and find the light, so it can illuminate our inner path—and often our outer path as well.
At this pivotal time in human history, we walk into the unknown together, as into an initiation, a collective encounter with the human soul. We in the industrialized world have reached the end of our collective adolescence; it is time now to grow up, to move fully into true adulthood, with a broader, more encompassing sense of responsibility to the Earth, all its peoples, and all its life forms.
Every traditional culture in the world provides for a rite of passage for their adolescents—a walk-about, a vision quest. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, communing with God and Nature, before he began his ministry. Global climate change can be a rite of passage for humanity. We can do more than endure the dark times ahead; we can actively embrace them, armed with the gifts of darkness: uncertainty, intention, devotion, service and community.
Let us resolve to work together to create a healthy, sustainable world for the next seven generations, for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and their grandchildren. And let each one of us find the unique role we each can play in creating that world for them, according to our own gifts and circumstances. With the light of Spirit in our hearts, we can meet the challenges of the dark times ahead.