TIME Religion

Sermon Series: “Entering the Dark Cloud of God”

Barbara Brown Taylor Stefanie Fauth, Festival of Homiletics

The following sermon was delivered at the 2014 Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis, Minn.

Read sermons from additional speakers provided to TIME by the Festival.

Grace to you and peace in the name of the one God who comes in more than one way. I am glad to be with you on day two of the Festival of Homiletics, which I think of as the preaching conference for people who will pay good money to avoid a) having to preach and b) being assigned to small groups. Am I right?

Since we are all here to pick up some tips from each other, I thought I’d lead with one of mine: whenever you come up on something about God, the gospel, or the life of faith that everyone knows is true, step back from the reverential crowd whose gaze is fixed on it and look in the opposite direction—because nine times out of ten there is something just as true back there, though largely ignored because its benefits are less obvious and its truth harder to embrace.

For example, “God is light and in [God] there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). That truth is so central for most Christians I know that one of our favorite hymns is based on it. “I want to walk as a child of the light,” it begins, “I want to follow Jesus.” The refrain pours down from a high D that some of us aren’t really capable of, but the words are so lovely we try. “In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”[1]

I’m not saying it’s not true. How could I? The psalms are full of it: “The Lord is my light and my salvation…” (Ps 27:1a), the fountain of life in whose light we see light (Ps 36.9). Our favorite passages are full of it: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Is 9:2). The fourth gospel is full of it. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).

What’s not to love? The benefits of faith in these passages are so clear that you’d have to have a sack on your head to miss them: The light of the world has come to put an end to darkness, to be a lamp in the hands of those who believe. I know so many people whose lives depend on that good news– when they can’t see where they are going; when the bottom drops out; when their prayers go unanswered and they’re marooned in the kind of darkness that makes them afraid to move—they know that if they can just keep their minds focused on the light of the world then sooner or later he will send some bright angels to get them out of there.

It is by far the most popular version of the Christian truth. But if you turn around and look behind you, there is an equal and opposite truth that almost never comes up in church, though it is well attested in scripture: God dwells in deep darkness. God comes to people in dark clouds, dark nights, dark dreams and dark strangers in ways that sometimes scare them half to death but almost always for their good—or at least their renovation. God does some of God’s best work in the dark.

If this is hard to see, then maybe it’s because we’ve been conditioned to think of darkness as a negative. When I listen to all the ways that people use “dark” in ordinary conversation these days, it seems clear that the word has become a grab bag for everything sinister, dismal, tragic, or wrong.

That was a really dark film.

This economy’s not out of the dark yet.

Well she’s in a dark mood

I’m sorry; I’m just in a dark place right now

And him? He’s gone over to the dark side

The only positive associations I have heard with any regularity are “dark chocolate,” and “dark beer.” Maybe you can help me lengthen that list later, but for now it may be enough to say that no one asks God for more darkness, please. Please God, come to me in a dark cloud. Give me a dark vision. Put out my lights so I can see what I need to see. Then send me a dark angel on the worst night of my life. Please?

As far as I can tell, no one asks for that in the Bible either, but it happens. God comes to Abraham in the dark. After telling the old man to sacrifice a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon, laying them out on the ground like a runway for a divine landing, God comes to him as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, passing between the creatures to seal the covenant with Abraham for ever after (Genesis 15).

God comes to Jacob in the dark not once but twice–the first time in a dream at the foot of a heavenly ladder and the second time on a riverbank where a man who isn’t quite a man fights him all night long. Morning light puts an end to it, but before the man goes he gives Jacob a name, a blessing, and a permanent limp—the gift that goes on giving for those who think God goes easy on chosen ones (Genesis 32).

Once you start noticing how many things happen at night in the Bible, the list grows fast. Jacob’s son Joseph dreams such dreams at night that he catches a Pharaoh’s attention, graduating from the dungeon to the palace in order to become the royal interpreter of dreams. The Exodus from Egypt happens at night; God parts the Red Sea at night; manna falls from the sky in the wilderness at night–and that is just the beginning.

One of the heaviest clusters of darkness in the early books of the Bible has nothing to do with nighttime, however. It comes about three moons into the wilderness story, when the people who escaped from Egypt are camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. That is where God decides to enter into covenant with the people, the Bible says—to marry them in the full light of day with Moses as the celebrant.

“I am going to come to you in a dense cloud,” God says to Moses, “in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after” (19:9). And that is how it happens. God comes in a cloud and speaks to the people from inside a cloud. The cloud sits on Sinai for days, flashing like there’s a forest fire inside. When God calls Moses inside the cloud, Moses enters it and stays for forty days. When he comes out again his skin is so shiny that people are afraid to come near him. So Moses fashions a kind of cloud to cover his face—a veil that he can pull down when he is not with God to protect the people from God’s reflected glory.

The cloud and the glory go together—not just then, but always. It’s the truth about God that few are eager to embrace. Ask Job, who yelled into the darkness for 37 whole chapters before God snatched him up into a whirlwind and showed him things too wonderful for him. Ask Peter, James and John, who entered another cloud on another mountain, where they too were overshadowed by the glorious, terrifying darkness of God. Ask Saul the ferocious know-it-all, who was blinded on the road so he could be led by the hand to a hard bed in a rented room, where he finally became soft enough to welcome a dark angel named Ananias.

It’s not a popular truth, but there it is: God dwells in deep darkness. The darkness that is not dark to God can be terrifying for those who like our deities well lit. When we cannot see—when we are not sure where we are going and all our old landmarks have vanished inside the cloud—then plenty of us can believe we are lost when the exact opposite may be true. Based on the witness of those who have gone before, the dark cloud is where God takes people apart so they can be made new. It is the cloud of unknowing where nothing you thought you knew about God can prepare you to meet the God who is. It is the dark womb where life begins again, at least for those who are willing to lift the veil. Is this good news or bad news? I think that’s up to you.

I do know there are real benefits to this kind of faith, though they may not appeal to those for whom God is light (and in whom there is no darkness at all). The first benefit is that you have to slow way, way down once you enter the cloud. All those things you prided yourself on outside the cloud—your speed, your agility, your ability to suss things out at a single glance—they won’t do you any good inside. You might as well crawl like a baby; at least you can’t fall down when you’re already on the ground. The good news is that slowness has a lot going for it. There’s time to use senses you don’t use when your eyes are working fine. There’s time to wonder where you think you’re going and why. There’s even time for the feelings you usually outrun to catch up with you, tenderizing you in all the ways you have worked so hard to prevent.

Another benefit is that none of your outside navigational tools can help you now. Good luck with that compass, that laminated map, that guidebook, that Bible. If it’s not inside you, then it’s of limited use to you now. The good news is that second-hand wisdom can only get you so far. Once you enter the cloud, it’s time to find our what your primary resources are—what gyroscope, what tuning fork, what insistent, sacred whisper you can learn to trust when you’re walking by faith and not by sight.

The third benefit (I don’t care what anyone says; I’m never giving up three point sermons) is that you begin to see how shabby a faith based on benefits really is. Inside the cloud, with everything slooooowed waaaaay dooooown so that you are more in touch than you may want to be with whose cloud this is, the good news is that you can see very clearly how much of your life strategy has been designed to get you where you want to go—and to get a handle on God while you are at it, so that you can figure out how to get God to help you get there faster. This is more than embarrassing. This can break your heart, so that you hold out the pieces in two hands you can’t even see and say, “Here—do absolutely anything with this that you want.”

It will never sell. I know that. Endarkenment is never going to appeal to anyone the way enlightenment does—well, except maybe the people who are already sitting in the dark, thinking they have done something wrong, that God has abandoned them, that they have lost their ways and may never find them again. To hear the gospel that God dwells in darkness might save them on the spot, along with any of us who are listening in—because if we haven’t already been there, we will be, by and by. No one who follows Jesus gets a rain check. No one who is human gets to bypass the dark cloud.

But here’s the thing about that cloud of unknowing, which even the saints take on trust: it’s not there to get through, like a test or a fever. It is God’s home. It is the place where God dwells. To be invited in is a great honor, and to stay a while? Better yet. Those who come out can be hard to look at, at first—where did all that brightness come from, inside that dark cloud?—and they may not have a lot of words to describe where they have been, but even the limping ones will tell you this: they would never have chosen it, not in a million years. But now that it has happened? They would never give it back.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a renowned author and the Butman Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Piedmont College in Demorest, GA. She was one of many featured preachers and professors at the 2014 Festival of Homiletics. Read TIME’s interview with Taylor here.

TIME Religion

Barbara Brown Taylor: In Praise of Darkness

Christianity has never had anything nice to say about the dark.

“Darkness” is shorthand for anything that scares me — that I want no part of — either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. The absence of God is in there, along with the fear of dementia and the loss of those nearest and dearest to me. So is the melting of polar ice caps, the suffering of children, and the nagging question of what it will feel like to die. If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love — if I could just find the right night-lights to leave on.

At least I think I would. The problem is this: when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. The witches have not turned me into a bat. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.

The problem is that there are so few people who can teach me about that. Most of the books on the New York Times “How-To” bestseller list are about how to avoid various kinds of darkness. If you want to learn how to be happy and stay that way, how to win out over your adversaries at work, or how to avoid aging by eating the right foods, there is a book for you. If you are not a reader, you can always find someone on the radio, the television, or the web who will tell you about the latest strategy for staying out of your dark places, or at least distract you from them for a while. Most of us own so many electronic gadgets that there is always a light box within reach when any kind of darkness begins to descend on us. Why watch the sun go down when you could watch the news instead? Why lie awake at night when a couple of rounds of Moonlight Mahjong could put you back to sleep?

I wish I could turn to the church for help, but so many congregations are preoccupied with keeping the lights on right now that the last thing they want to talk about is how to befriend the dark. Plus, Christianity has never had anything nice to say about darkness. From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death. Visit almost any church and you can still hear it used that way today: Deliver us, O Lord, from the powers of darkness. Shine into our hearts the brightness of your Holy Spirit, and protect us from all perils and dangers of the night.

Since I live on a farm where the lights can go out for days at a time, this language works at a practical level. When it is twenty degrees outside at midnight and tree branches heavy with ice are crashing to the ground around your house, it makes all kinds of sense to pray for protection from the dangers of the night. When coyotes show up in the yard after dark, eyeing your crippled old retriever as potential fast food, the perils of the night are more than theoretical. So I can understand how people who lived before the advent of electricity — who sometimes spent fourteen hours in the dark without the benefit of so much as a flashlight — might have become sensitive to the powers of darkness, asking God for deliverance in the form of bright morning light.

At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it “full solar spirituality,” since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith. This sounds like heaven on earth. Who would not like to dwell in God’s light 24/7?

If you have ever belonged to such a community, however, you may have discovered that the trouble starts when darkness falls on your life, which can happen in any number of unsurprising ways: you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says. The first time you speak of these things in a full solar church, you can usually get a hearing. Continue to speak of them and you may be reminded that God will not let you be tested beyond your strength. All that is required of you is to have faith. If you still do not get the message, sooner or later it will be made explicit for you: the darkness is your own fault, because you do not have enough faith.

Having been on the receiving end of this verdict more than once, I do not think it is as mean as it sounds. The people who said it seemed genuinely to care about me. They had honestly offered me the best they had. Since their sunny spirituality had not given them many skills for operating in the dark, I had simply exhausted their resources. They could not enter the dark without putting their own faith at risk, so they did the best they could. They stood where I could still hear them and begged me to come back into the light.

If I could have, I would have. There are days when I would give anything to share their vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely, but my spiritual gifts do not seem to include the gift of solar spirituality. Instead, I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season. When I go out on my porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice. Some nights it is as round and bright as a headlight; other nights it is thinner than the sickle hanging in my garage. Some nights it is high in the sky, and other nights low over the mountains. Some nights it is altogether gone, leaving a vast web of stars that are brighter in its absence. All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.

Barbara Brown Taylor is the author of “Learning to Walk in the Dark” (HarperOne), from which this piece is excerpted. Read TIME’s interview with Taylor here, or in our April 28 issue.

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