I don’t know when is the last time you sat in complete darkness? How did you feel? What did you sense? What did you notice about your body, your fears or even your surroundings?
These are all questions that I want you to consider– as we sit together in as dark of this room this evening. I invite you to clear your mind, relax and simply be in the dark as we turn all the lights off now. (Pause for 5 minutes)
Church: in these moments of dark, what did you notice about yourself? What did you notice about this room that you did not play attention to previously?
Over the course of the next forty days, a season in the church we call Lent, our worship theme will ask us to consider again the darkness. Not only the darkness of our own souls– the ways that we each fall short of God’s best for us– but simply to pay attention to the darkness in our world. Where are there places without hope? Where are there places without God’s light? Where are there people hurting because they feel God has abandoned them?
The funny thing is about darkness, is that the more you sit it in, the more sensitive you become to any spark of light, even if just a crack through a window. But, only if you sit with it.
One of the first times our power went out in our current home, right after we first moved in, with boxes still strung everywhere– piled in the hallways, blocking doors and by the staircase– I felt immediately paralyzed.
Being new to our home and not being able to “feel” my way around and furthermore not knowing where the candles or matches or even flash lights were, I quickly began to stumble around hoping not to injury myself too badly (You know, I’m not too good at sitting still).
But, I had never been in this kind of darkness before. Everything in my surroundings felt out-of-place without any memories to guide me. So, hoping not to break a leg, I stayed put on the couch and tried to enjoy the quiet. Luckily, the power came back on within an hour.
By the next time that we experienced a power outage at night, Kevin and I were well settled into our current address. We knew the drill. All of the important boxes were unpacked. The journey upstairs to find the flash light didn’t feel like so much of a risk of life because we’d journeyed through the darkness to the space before– we knew how high to raise our feet in climbing the stairs, we knew where the walls divided rooms and we could feel our way around the bed and find the candles and lighter on the nightstand. Darkness didn’t seem as scary because we’d previously experienced this space as safe.
Darkness, with practice wasn’t as bad as we thought.
In our gospel reading for tonight taken from Matthew 6:1-6, we are asked to commit ourselves tonight to a different way of life than the norm. We are asked to prepare our hearts through waiting. We are asked to fast. We are asked to pray. We are asked to consider serving God in ways that might feel new to us. But, we are asked to all of these things without drawing attention to ourselves or making a big fuzz about how wonderful we are to be taking care of our spiritual lives.
In fact, Matthew’s gospel tells us in verse 5 that “when we pray, we must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. . . . but when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father in heaven who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Which is another way of reminding us of the benefits of sitting in darkness. While it may be more fun or more pleasurable to our egos to say our prayers or do our good deeds this Lent for all the world to see, we are asked to sit in darkness. We are asked to do in the shadows, not the limelight.
For some of us, this season of sitting in the darkness may taste like one of those disgusting flavored cough syrups our mother forced in our mouth as child. In fact, we’ve never been one to sit in the darkness at all. We run from it. And, what I’m asking you to do “this whole sitting in the darkness bit” could seem as scary as the day I was alone in our home in the dark for the first time. Without resources for light– you are simply afraid.
If this is where you find yourself this Lent– unfamiliar with this spiritual darkness– then I say, just sit. Sit and know as you do, you might just recognize more light around you that you could not have noticed any other way. And, what a gift this Lent can be for you as you wait.
But, if you are a person who knows the shadows of the dark night of the soul– who has been in dark season before because of some personal circumstances of your own choosing or even just because life’s cruelties– I invite you too to this season of Lent too.
This is your promise tonight: just as a space called a home can become more familiar over time, the same is true for darkness as you continue to experience it. For, as we sit in darkness, as we cleave to our prayer closets of grounding our hearts and souls in Christ’s light for our life, darkness can become a friend. We know that it won’t kill us to sit in darkness– eventually the light will come. We’ve seen it all before and lived to tell of the surprising joys of the darkest times.
So, as we receive these ashes tonight and commit as a church to the 40 days of darkness, cling to the hope of the promise. Return to your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love.