The following is a homily I delivered Dec. 21, 2015 as part of Green Street United Methodist Church‘s “The Longest Night: A Service of Hope & Remembrance.” This service was an opportunity for those who struggle, for any reason(s), during the Holidays.
I hate carols. “Tis the season to be jolly.” “Have a holly, jolly Christmas; It’s the best time of the year.” “It’s the most wonderful time of the year with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Again, I hate carols. The curse of carols is that they are far more sentimental than substantial. Such well-meaning seasonal sentiments convey an insistence that serves to make already long nights appear all the longer. For some, all the Christmas cards in creation will not put a single soul back in a single empty seat at a single dinner table. For some, no matter how lovely the branches of a tree are having no one to buy a gift for to place under that tree is a savings gladly forfeited. For some, stockings are not something to hang by the chimney with care because sacrificing socks simply isn’t in the budget. For some, visions of sugar plums dancing don’t displace their despair. Conventional Christmas expectations can be cruel. “Are you trying to ruin this for the rest of us?” “Can we not get through the holidays this year without you falling apart?” “Do you have to be that way? It’s Christmas!” “Just move on! It’s Christmas.” “Get over it! It’s Christmas.” “Suck it up! After all…it’s Christmas.” And for some, such expectations replay in an endless loop in our heads when others say nothing at all.
I don’t know why you’re here tonight. But, I know “(to) not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence.” (Andrei Lankov) I don’t know what lengthens your night. And I don’t know that there is anything I can say that will hasten your dawn. I fear that my words will convey the curse of carols offering sentiment, but not substance. Again, I don’t know why you’re here tonight. I’m here because my eyes hurt.
The gospel according to Matthew (4:16) says, “For those sitting in darkness have seen a great light.” I’m here tonight because my eyes hurt. Depression turned my days into nights. The hell that is depression is like running a race. I don’t recall hearing the starter pistol fire and no one said how far I’d have to run. With depression you don’t see a finish line. Depression is an experience of eternity. Eternity is infernal. But, I’m here tonight because my eyes hurt. They hurt and it is a most welcome pain. You see the thing about being in the dark so long is that when a light shines in it hurts.
The lights are on, but it hurts to look at it. I’m in pain because I am ashamed that I gave up hope that the light would ever come back. I’m in pain because I still want to ask the light where did you go? Why did you leave? I’m in pain because what if I get used to you and something takes you away again? I’m in pain because despite my education and experience I can’t answer those questions. And I can’t tell you that this time tomorrow my depression will still be in remission. And I can’t tell you that I don’t still struggle. I do.
But my eyes hurt because there is light. And in that light I can see something. I confess to you that it’s still a blurry vision, but I can see dawn breaking. Last year, I sat in the darkness on the other side of this pulpit. I sat in the darkness stifling my urge to swear every time someone said, “G-d is good!” But I’m standing in the shoes of John on this side tonight. High noon is still a ways off, but it will get here. It will come as sure as day has followed night ever since Almighty G-d said, “Let there be light!” And that same G-d who brought Moses to the mountain top and allowed him to see the Promised Land. Brothers and sisters below, the view from here is breathtaking. Tonight, for me it is “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” (John Wesley)
The great lie those of us who know or have known darkness is its insistence that it has always been dark and it always will be dark. Both are lies. Lies that dared me to prove them otherwise. And in my proofs I looked to the heavens because where else would you look for light? Grief, depression, loss, separation, and all that would make for long nights persuades us to train our eyes on the heavens. But such looking is a fool’s errand. The light is not in the heavens. Of course G-d’s not there. What did we expect? We’re looking in the wrong direction. With eyes heavenward we fail to look beside ourselves where G-d’s been since a decree went out from Caesar Augustus while Quirinius was still governor of Syria. Darkness’ great deception is persuading us to keep looking up perpetuating the myth that we are alone. We are not alone. It is as absurd as us taking attendance tonight while only looking at the ceiling. That count will never change. We are not alone.
The overwhelming message of Christmas is that G-d refuses to keep to the borders and boundaries of heaven. G-d does not respect that which would separate us. And tonight “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of Go-d in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 38-39) The only leap of faith then is risking looking to our left and our right; looking over our shoulder and straight ahead. The celebration of Christmas is G-d strongly refusing to surrender neither his flesh nor blood.
I don’t know why you’re here tonight. But look around, you’re not alone. For the Spirit of the Lord abides in us and is a light shining into utter darkness. And it is this Spirit who beget and in the fullness of time came as the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The darkness still hasn’t overcome it. The same one who would in time would say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The darkness will not overcome it. The same one who in time though he wept at a tomb still commanded brother Lazarus to “come forth.” The darkness will not overcome it.
I stared at a ceiling, but it didn’t look down on rows of pews and well-worn carpet. I stared at a ceiling that looked down on a single hospital bed. Room for one. And I sat for six weeks each night in the darkness looking at that ceiling while I sweated, shook, cried, and groaned. I prayed as one who had lost hope. There in that cold sterile room wrapped in a sheet, I quit. I gave up. It was my fourth year living with severe treatment-resistant clinical depression.
When I think about those long nights, I would laugh if I had the gift of time that heals all wounds. I find the Creator prefers inhabiting his creations. Of course you weren’t in heaven, you walked in as friends whose presence each day—and still now—prevents me from cursing you and being done with it all. Of course you weren’t in heaven, you were the daughter who wouldn’t stop looking for her daddy’s happy. Of course you weren’t in heaven, you’re the wife who fought like hell to end my Hell. Of course you weren’t in heaven, you were my surgeon, my psychiatrist, even my therapist. And wasn’t it the Psalmist who taught me that even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, that I should fear no evil? Why? You are with me. I find that companions are the very best prayers.
Look around you, you’re not alone. It may feel like it. It may look like it. Take a leap of faith that you’re not all by yourself in the darkness. Take a leap of faith and reach out. My message—if it has a personal agenda—is that if you still feel alone…I’ll abide with you. I’ll come sit beside you if you make me a little space for me. (OK, a great deal of space.) I’ll bring my dim light and my blurry vision and together we will wait for dawn. The cry of Advent that comforts our cries is that G-d is with us, Emmanuel. Christmas then is G-d’s response to our experience of absence, by way of G-d’s presence. Amen.
Postscript: “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” (John Wesley). The challenge of writing this message was that is that I’m at the intersection of “till you have it” and “have it.”
Kudos! Beautifully written, evocatively expressed, and, I am sure, movingly delivered. I do, however, wish to take exception with the central metaphor of your homily: light versus dark.
My first issue is that this particular metaphor is clichéd, and you are a much better writer. However, I do recognize your need to use this particular metaphor in this instance as it is primal and, therefore, readily available to your audience. Which brings me to my second issue: the place of the light v dark metaphor in our collective narrative.
As in all binary oppositions, there is in the light v dark metaphor an implied privileging of all things “light” and a denigrating of all things “dark”. The historical privileging of the light is at the root of most of our cultural, political, and, at the risk of sounding racist, racial problems we face today. You also run the risk of damaging your message that depression is not brought on by something being “wrong” in the depressive, either physically or spiritually. If depression equals darkness and darkness equals bad, then depression equals bad.
More importantly, though, I would like to offer a counter-text as my experience with depression is expressed in a different form of the light/dark metaphor. Even in the deepest of deep depressive states I found myself in, there was still always light standing next to the darkness. However, this light provided no illumination. This light provided no warmth. Nor, did this light diminish the darkness.
I knew you would point this out when I was writing it. My position in preaching is to be understandable and uplifting. I don’t know that in the context of a sermon there is time and space to not use some clichéd language. I knew using a binary would not go unchallenged.