What shall the believer do in times of darkness -- the darkness of perplexity and confusion, not of heart but of mind? Times of darkness come to the faithful and believing disciple who is walking obediently in the will of God; seasons when he [or she] does not know what to do, nor which way to turn. The sky is overcast with clouds. The clear light of heaven does not shine upon his pathway. One feels as if he were groping his way in darkness.
Beloved, is this you? What shall the believer do in times of darkness? Listen! Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and rely upon his God. -- Dr. Pardington*
There was a time when I was in a very dark place, spiritually. My home life sucked. My husband was stressed-out at work, and did not then know how to handle stress in a healthy way. He brought his stress home and yelled a lot, and he drank a lot. One "coping mechanism" fed off the other, becoming more and more of a problem. This was something that had never happened before, and I didn't know how to respond. I didn't know how to make things better except to pray to God to change my husband, or pray to God to change me. But nothing changed. If anything, life just kept getting harder.
The thing is, although I believed in God, I had stopped going to church. I was angry with the church for excluding people who were different: who thought differently, who looked differently, who had different lifestyles. And so, because it made perfect sense at the time, I excluded myself from church. Who needed church, anyway? I thought.
Well, it turns out ... I did. I needed that hour on Sunday morning to sit in peace and listen to God's word on a regular basis.
It's ironic. I knew that I could find God's guidance in church. That was, in fact, how I thought of God: The-Peace-Which-Passes-Understanding found in church. For I couldn't begin to count the number of times I had gone to church, a little (or a lot) stressed and found just what I needed to hear in the words of a sermon or song. That coincidence was the surest proof I had of God's existence. And yet, when I got angry with the church, I removed that one mode of sustenance from my life.
Well, I eventually did go back to church, but it took me reaching rock-bottom for that to happen. After one Christmas vacation, in which all of us were home for two weeks, and in which each day was filled with one angry blow-up after another, I finally realized how miserable my life had become, and how utterly alone I felt. It's a cliche, but I felt like a small deserted island. As this thought came to me, it was immediately followed with another thought: You may be an island, but you are an island made by God. It was such a simple thought, but I felt like I was being embraced by the kindest and gentlest of friends. My control finally started to crack. I handed everything over to God, and knew I needed to go back to church. I had always found The-Peace-Which-Passes-Understanding in a church, and I had to trust that I always would, whatever church I happened to go to.
So the following Sunday, I went to the nearest church, and listened to a sermon about remembering that we are children of God and honoring our diversity as children of God. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I immediately asked how to become a member of that church. And life got better, as I learned to listen to God again.
There is a story in the Bible about Moses leading the people through the wilderness, that describes pretty well what happened to me. The people traveled three days in the wilderness and came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it had become bitter. Moses cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him how to make the water of Marah sweet again. God said, "... listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes...." And then the Lord led them to Elim, "where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water." (Exodus 15:22-27)
For me, Marah was the church, in general -- not any specific one. God led me to see that church was actually a place where sweet water could be found. And God also led me to other springs of delicious water, as well.
What are those other springs? Where else can you find the sustenance, comfort or peace you need in times of trouble?
Here are some springs:
* journaling or centering, contemplative prayer -- they are the same thing to me.
* reading the Bible -- a daily selection from the Old and New Testament is most helpful.
* reading a daily devotional
* reading any book, mindfully -- especially a faith-related book -- that you feel especially drawn to read
* belonging to a small group in which you talk about faith on a regular basis -- Where two or three are gathered in my name I will be there.
* listening to music, mindfully -- sometimes the lyrics will tell you exactly what you need to hear.
* paying close attention to the small blessings, all the good things, that come into your life on a daily basis -- gratitude brings grace.
* listening to that very quiet inner voice within you that tells you what to do next. Don't put it off.
* doing some kind of physical or creative work: gardening, exercise, handwork, etc. -- focusing on something else will actually free your mind enough to bring some clarity and insight.
* sleep -- sometimes it's the most spiritual thing you can do for yourself
* being in the midst of your favorite kind of landscape, be that the beach, the mountains, the desert, etc.
Besides church, that makes eleven springs of water. There may be more. Moses mentions
twelve at Elim. I found another spring recently. It came out of failure.
I've shared these ways of finding God's presence
with many people in my life, hoping to help them through a period of
spiritual darkness. Sometimes my advice helps, and sometimes none of my
advice works. Sometimes the person I'm trying to help doesn't believe
that God exists, or would actually be able to guide them through
anything so mundane as their personal crisis. But even with some people
who believe in God, these ways of seeking God fail to move them.
I have a very dear friend who sometimes gets stuck in a dark place. Because I love her, I have tried many ways to help her find God's guidance: I have given her a journal; I have given her my favorite daily devotional -- "Streams in the Desert," from which the above quote is taken; I have told her how important church is to me, and how much I learn from the books I read and the women's faith book study I belong to; and, since she is Catholic, I have even made her a beautiful rosary. But even though she believes in God, she doesn't want to go to church, or use her rosary, or do any of the other things I have encouraged her to do. These are all too religious for her. I understand that attitude. Believe me, I've been there.
Recently my friend came to visit, and she shared how utterly stuck she felt about a particular concern of hers. As she shared her pain, I listened, as I always do. And, afterward, I wondered how I could help her, as I always do. Only this time, since I knew that all of my previous advice to her had failed to move her, I kept thinking, What can I say to her, dear God, that will make a difference? All of my attempts to point her to you have failed. What would you have me say? And I found the words that I believe God wanted me to tell her. They did not mention God, or church, or faith, or religion, but they were the words she needed to hear to help her get unstuck. As she left to return home, she commented on how peaceful our weekend together had been.
And so, I would say, the twelfth spring is:
* talking to a person you trust who is listening to God.
Sometimes we get stuck, spiritually. And yet, all of the traditional trappings of spiritual sustenance -- church, praying, the Bible, etc. -- are no longer sweet-tasting to us, if they ever were. So telling someone about them is less than helpful. I believe God understands this. And I believe God brings people into our lives who will speak to us the words he would have us hear -- even though no mention is ever made of God. It's a mystery how it happens, and yet I know that it does happen.
Last week I was struggling with the book I am writing. I had many questions, which were mounting, as I had asked an acquaintance to critique it for me. As the deadline for handing it to her approached, I considered putting her off. But then my friend, the one mentioned above, and I popped into the bookstore for a minute, on our way to picking up my son, and I found William Zinsser's "On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction." Reading it over the past few days, I have found answers to all of my questions, even to my concern about the finished product. Zinsser devotes a whole chapter to "The Tyranny of the Final Product." His solution to this common problem was to "teach a writing course in which no writing is required." (pg. 255) I repeat: a writing workshop in which writing is optional. The class was simply devoted to collectively solving the problems of writing. Kind of like a discussion of spiritual problems in which no one mentions God, isn't it?
Last time, I wrote about the need to empty ourselves of what gets in the way of communication. At the time, in church, the Sunday lectionary was from The Letter to the Philippians, where Paul writes that "Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.…" Now again, I see God doing something similar: emptying himself even of himself, when it is our perception of him that gets in the way of communication.
All I can say to that is...
May the Peace
Which Passes Understanding
Be With You
* quoted in "Streams in the Desert," by Mrs. Charles B.Cowman, Oct 7