It’s been 13 years since my dad passed away. Four years since my mom died. I lost one of my brothers to cancer only a year ago, and my first grandson died before his first birthday seven years ago.
Grief is an emotion that all humans have in common. The differences come in our responses to grief. Just writing the first two sentences of this article created a groundswell of memories within me. I had to wipe away tears so my eyes could focus on the screen in front of me. Grief often visits us at inconvenient times.
Tears are one of the ways we cope with the feelings that grief offers us. But it took me almost sixty years to unlearn enough of what I was taught for me to allow myself to feel grief. My heroes early in life seemed able to hold it all together in the face of adversity. They didn’t have time for emotions that could hinder their response to life’s biggest challenges.
But oftentimes our dark emotions do stand in the way. 1
In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor shares how she sometimes wakes up in a panic, unable to get back to sleep. I can relate.
There are times when I wake up in a panic. My mind races to identify situations that create stress in my life. A lack of sufficient money to handle incoming expenses is the usual subject matter. Asbury requires a substantial amount of funding to run, and there’s never enough.
We are a captive audience for the angel of doom to have his way with our thoughts and fears in our efforts to rest. The banks are closed, and our colleagues are asleep — as we should be. But sleep is elusive when our mind is focused on the shadows in front of us.
What if we were to trust our feelings rather than pleading to be saved from them? What if it were possible to stay with the present rather than allowing our thoughts to look two steps ahead?
Barbara notes that beds are where we face our closest and furthest moments with God. We are conceived, born, and die in beds. We also pray, dream, and cry in beds. And beds are where we come face to face with our dark emotions.
Professional therapist Miriam Greenspan writes about the experiences of alchemical transformation. “Alchemical “ suggests a mysterious process by the standards of modern science. In an alchemical transformation, we mysteriously move from grief, despair, and fear to a state of gratitude, faith, and joy. Greenspan argues that most of our problems dealing with darker emotions come from our unwillingness to experience them authentically. 2
There is a story in the Book of Genesis about one of Abraham’s descendants named Jacob. Jacob wrestled with an angel after running away from the trouble he created with his brother Esau. I’m guessing it was an angel of dark emotions. Nevertheless, Jacob received a blessing after staying with the darkness, although the night left him with a limp.
The alchemical transformation for Jacob came as his restless night neared its end. Perhaps Jacob finally fell back to sleep after staying with his grief long enough to find that God was with him all along.
Blessings come from embracing our emotions rather than running away from them.
Jesus also spoke about hanging in there rather than avoiding adversity. On one occasion, Jesus told His followers that we lose out on the blessing of grace when we try to save our lives by running away. Instead, we should push forward, knowing that God is with us in the darkness.
But we prefer not to tolerate the darkness. Instead, we turn on lights as a way to cope. We light up the darkness — often literally with cigarettes or cannabis. Others choose harder drugs, while some turn to alcohol, food, or Netflix to cope with the dark. What we’re most certain of is that we want out of the darkness as soon as possible.
And the dark feeling that haunts us the most is that sense of nothingness that comes with despair. What if life is nothing more than our immediate sense of doom? I’m not talking about those times when we feel like, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” No, I’m talking about those times when the poop hits the fan, and you are feeling more like, “How could things get any worse?”
When life feels more like nothing.
The word “nada” comes to us from Spanish. This word was used by Ernest Hemingway in his classic short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” His story focuses on two waiters and a lonely customer confronting the concept of nothingness as the café closes for the night. Hemingway writes:
What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. 3
Many equate feelings of nada with a lapse in faith. I know that I try to push ahead when these feelings of nada chase after me. I want to trust that God will deliver on whatever idea I have in my head that would restore lost feelings of “It doesn’t get any better than this!” “Surely God will deliver if I only believe,” I think to myself.
But what lies waiting in the shadows? What might God reveal if I believe? Will lighting the shadow reveal nada — nothing?
Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them—what do you do?
Honestly, most of the anticipated and imagined disasters that come to me in my sleep turn out to be nada. While other, less anticipated shadows turn out to be significant.
In last week’s message, I talked about going out into the darkness of night to count the stars. But what about those nights when the stars are obscured? What if we live in one of those places where the night sky isn’t visible? Would Abraham’s life turned out differently had he looked up and saw nada?
Some of my favorite stories told by Jesus are about finding lost things. “Won’t a shepherd in charge of 100 sheep leave the 99 to search for the one that was lost?” Jesus asks. “Of course,” responds the shepherd. “You bet,” replies the parent. “I’m not so sure,” the voice in our head says.
Perhaps our answer depends on how the sheep became lost. Jesus doesn’t say. I figure that the sheep wandered off the trail, losing sight of the others. But when I’m the lost sheep needing to be found, I’m hoping that Jesus isn’t qualifying His search based on how I came to be lost.
Sometimes we get lost simply by stopping — unable to take another step. We feel left out and left behind. And we panic.
But what if, instead of panicking, we simply embraced the moment with all of our senses? What if we paid attention to the beating of our hearts and the tightening of our back? What if we took in the sounds and smells surrounding us? What might we learn about the place we call lost? What if we simply walked in the darkness for a spell? What if we also wrestled with God?
God is both nada and everything because God cannot be bounded by what we know or experience.
Before there was something, there was God, and there was darkness. But as God sang light into existence, God divided our time into night and day. This is the rhythm that God’s song follows and we are invited to sing along.
This month our series, Night vision, examines the contrasts of light and darkness in our culture, in scripture, and in how we understand the roles of light and dark. Our aim is to learn better how to flourish both in darker times and in the light of day. Plan to join us.
We have a new button on the homepage of our website – Click here to watch. This button takes you to a viewer to allow you to join live or watch later in the week. We’re also live on our newly launched YouTube channel. You can find these links along with more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.
A reminder that we publish this newsletter that we call the Circuit Rider each week. You can request this publication by email. Send a request to connect@FlintAsbury.org or let us know when you send a message through our website. We post an archive of past editions on our website under the tab, Connect – choose Newsletters.
1 Much of the content of this series is based on Barbara BrownTaylor’s book: Learning to Walk in the Dark: Because Sometimes God Shows Up at Night. New York: Harper One, 2014..
2 Miriam Greenspan, Healing through the dark emotions. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2003.
3 Ernest Hemingway. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition. New York: Scribner, 1987.