Text: Colossians 1:1-14
Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend
us from all perils and dangers of this night: for the love of thy only Son, our
Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you have spent time in an Episcopal church, you may recognize this prayer. It comes from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. I know it because when Felicia, Lizzy and I became a family when Lizzy was in 4th grade, it was a deeply-ingrained part of Lizzy’s bedtime prayers. Since then Felicia and I have adopted it as our nighttime prayer. We’ve tweaked it a bit. “Lord” has become “God” and “Savior” has been replaced by “Teacher.” But this historic prayer continues to be an integral part of our lives.
For those who don’t care for the old English language, it may not appear to have much meaning. But over the years I have come to deeply value what it means to ask God, in God’s mercy, to “defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.” Obviously, this prayer was intended to refer to literal darkness, as in after the sun goes down. It’s part of a service of Evening Prayer. But there are so many more “nights” in our lives and so many other “perils and dangers” associated with them. It could be the illness of a loved one; a painful disagreement with a friend; difficulty at school or at work; a personal battle with serious illness, depression or addiction; or the challenge of parenting a child who is struggling. St. John of the Cross referred to the “dark night of the soul,” which may sound a bit more dramatic than some of the darkness we experience – but maybe not.
On this day our nation is in a dark night of the soul. People of color keep getting killed by police and now police officers have been murdered in retribution. Someone has said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” and never has that been truer. But the deeply entrenched racism that infects our nation is what’s blinding us – along with our insistence that we’re all somehow safer when each of us has our own gun. Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord…” It is weeks like this one that have made this historic prayer not just a nighttime prayer for me but rather a lifetime prayer.
Our text for this morning is the letter to the church at Colossae. Epaphras, who is referenced here, was the founder of this congregation. Although written as if Paul is the writer, Colossians is one of the “disputed letters” in our Christian New Testament. Some scholars believe Timothy was its primary author or perhaps another follower of Paul. But in any case, the authority for the letter’s message is clearly intended to be the Apostle Paul. One aspect of Colossians that distinguishes it from what most believe to be Paul’s true writings is the family metaphor employed in the greeting. This letter is written to “the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.” There are multiple references to God as “father.” So whoever wrote it, the author views the recipients of this letter as beloved family members for whom the writer is very grateful.
An important thing to note about Colossians is that it frequently references a rival philosophy that was popular in the community at the time. Its teachings emphasized the importance of human effort and achievement as necessary for a full relationship with God. In this philosophy, thankfulness and joy were in short supply. Its followers’ self-deprivation translated into sternness toward others, which sounds a bit like the stereotypical Puritan attitude to me.
In contrast, the author of this letter seeks to assure the people of Colossae that their redemption is a result not of their own work, but of God’s grace. The fruits of this grace-filled relationship are hope, joy, strength and, of course, love. While good works aren’t required for a relationship with God, they are its product, according to our unknown author. This is why these verses in Colossians are paired with the story of the Good Samaritan in the group of lectionary readings for today. The implication is that doing acts of justice and peacemaking are envisioned when our text says “…that you may lead lives worthy of God, fully pleasing to God, as you bear fruit in every good work…” Essentially, the wisdom and insight referenced in these verses have an ethical dimension that directs how followers of Jesus are to live in the world.
The last part of this passage is what drew me to it for this morning:
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to God, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
God has rescued us from the power of darkness. God has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. In other words, the writer asserts, God has the power to lighten our darkness. Let me quickly say that I am aware of problems associated with this darkness-and-light metaphor. Like so many other racist practices, it has often been used to perpetuate negative treatment of persons whose skin is dark sometimes in horrifying ways. Yet when we’re talking not about people but about the presence or absence of rays of the sun, it is true that it’s harder to find our way in the dark. We stumble; we can’t tell where we’re going; we get confused; and sometimes we hurt ourselves and others. These words attracted me because it feels like there is a lot of darkness in our world today.
Now I can’t claim to know if this is a darker time than those in the past. If your loved one was killed in one of the shootings this week, it certainly feels that way. But even if we’re not historians, we’re all aware of terrible periods when Crusades or holocausts or World Wars or massacres extinguished some of the light in our world. In every age of human history brutality has been present even if some of us have been sheltered from it. But anxiety seems really heightened right now, at least for progressive people like ourselves. On top of the events of this week, the election and all of its ugliness casts a pall on everything, or so it seems to me. Terrorism abroad and at home generates fear even among those who are not normally fearful. Attempts to label people as evil because of their skin color or ethnic group or gender identity or political views are everywhere, coming not just from politicians but also from pulpits. I don’t know about you, but at times I’d like to crawl in a hole and come back up in mid-November. And I have a hunch we’ve not seen anything yet.
So how do we hang onto the light and not fall prey to the darkness of anger and cynicism? It’s hard, I think – really hard in these days. In the midst of all the ugliness, isn’t becoming what we oppose out of anger or frustration a “peril and danger of this night” from which we need to be defended? Losing our footing in a dark house or getting lost on a dark road is one thing. Losing our moral compass in all of the darkness is another thing altogether.
As I’ve attempted to discern how to hang onto the light, several strategies have come to mind. I’m not especially good at employing them when I need to, but I offer them for your consideration. One is to be honest about what is darkness and what is not. In the heat of the moment or the trial of the hour, frustration, inconvenience and wasted time can feel dark when in the big scheme of things, they really aren’t. A recent example:
Some of you know that Felicia and I moved our 24-year-old daughter Lizzy to Madison, Wisconsin, last week to begin a new job. This is an exciting adventure that allows her to satisfy her desire to live in another part of the country. I did the same thing when I went to graduate school in Madison 40 years ago. We had a great plan to pick up and pack a rented truck in Greensboro on Tuesday, June 28th; get a good night’s sleep at a friend’s house; and then do the two-day drive to Wisconsin on the 29th and 30th, avoiding travel at the beginning of the July 4th weekend. I was to be the truck driver, Felicia would navigate for me and Lizzy would follow in her Toyota. It was a great plan.
I called the day before to be sure our truck would be ready and was assured that it would be. But when we went to pick up the 12-foot truck we had reserved, they did not have one. Instead we were offered a 16-foot truck for the same price. I did not want to drive a larger truck; we did not want to pay for the extra gas for a larger truck; and actually it would have been harder to protect Lizzy’s small amount of furniture in a larger truck. When I expressed these concerns, I was told that there was not a 10- or 12-foot truck in all of Greensboro. To get a smaller truck, we would have to drive to High Point.
Grudgingly, we did just that and picked up a 10-foot truck there. On the way back from High Point we discovered that the air conditioning wasn’t working. When we turned around and took it back to share this important detail, we were told to call Roadside Assistance. I did so on the way back to Greensboro where one of Lizzy’s male friends was patiently waiting to help us load her furniture. As you can probably guess, I was told that the AC could not be repaired roadside. Our choices were to either wait until the next morning (when we planned to be driving away at 9 AM) to see if they could locate another truck, which would probably be a 16-footer and they did not know how far away it would come from, OR take our 10-foot truck to a repair shop in the morning. When I checked to see if we could just go back and get the 16-foot truck originally offered, we were told that we’d first have to take the truck we had back to High Point and have the contract transferred back to Greensboro. Since it was by then 5:15 PM, that wasn’t going to happen before the Greensboro rental agency closed for the day.
So I called Roadside Assistance back and asked where we could take the truck for the repair. When he mentioned that they had a good mechanic at Battleground Tire and Wrecker Service, I was pleased. There is a Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, and I know how to get there. However, when the man on the phone gave me the address, the shop was in Burlington – 30 miles in the opposite direction from where we were headed. He was obviously not from around here since he seemed confused when I told him this would take us the wrong way. Seeing no other choice and not being willing to drive two full days with no AC, we were at the repair shop at ten of eight the next morning. There are more details than I have time to share here – like the first repair they tried didn’t solve the problem. But just know that we left the repair shop at 10:30 AM with a mostly-fixed air conditioner, drove back to Greensboro to pick up Lizzy, and were on our way to Wisconsin at 11:30 AM. The rest of the trip was wonderful.
I tell you this story to make this point: As you can imagine, I was incredibly frustrated by all of this. At one point Felicia said, “I don’t know if I’m going to shoot myself or shoot you.” But while the sympathetic mechanics were trying to figure out how to get the AC running, reports from the bombings in the Istanbul airport were playing on the TV in the waiting room. We went through the Istanbul airport on our way to the Republic of Georgia last year. Were it not for the gracious staff of Turkish Air racing us through the crowd to reach our gates both coming and going to Tbilisi, we would have missed our flight both times. Forty-four people were killed, 240 were injured, and thousands more were traumatized in a place where we had experienced great kindness. As I stood there watching the television, I became very aware that what I was witnessing was darkness. Our problems with the rental truck were not. What happened in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas this week is darkness. Things that inconvenience me are not. Now I am not suggesting that the challenges we all face in day-to-day life don’t matter. But it does keep us closer to the light when we can put our struggles in perspective.
A second strategy: Although I struggle to do it, I know there is a spiritual discipline that helps ward off the darkness. It’s called “detachment.” Detachment refers to the state of mind of letting go and not clinging. For those of you who were around when Mahan was pastor here, his version of detachment was something like this: “Show up. Be present. Speak your truth. And don’t be invested in outcomes.” The last part is the hardest, of course. How can we not be invested in outcomes? The outcome of the upcoming elections is a good example of the things in which we are deeply invested and this is mostly a good thing. We are invested because we care and that’s critical in a world where apathy sometimes seems like the emotionally-safest option. But part of detachment is admitting the absolute truth that ultimately we are not in control of things. So our mental and physical health require that we do our very best to “show up, best present and speak our truth” and then, hard as it is in these days, let go while we figure out where we need to show up, be present and speak our truth the next time.
I repeat that I’m not very good at this. But I am convinced that spiritual detachment, for those who can do it, can fundamentally deepen our confidence in God and in others. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The spiritual discipline of detachment requires that we truly believe this. We like the “justice” part but we really don’t like the “long” part. Detachment also requires a soul-deep conviction that God is working in the world in ways we cannot see. In a wonderful prayer often attributed to Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero are these words: It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. It concludes with: We are prophets of a future not our own.” We live in a complex and often violent world that includes a lot of darkness. Detaching a bit from outcomes we can’t control can be a light-giving practice.
Finally, in the letter to the Colossians, the writer describes the nature of the prayers being offered for the community at Colossae.
In our prayers for you we always thank God…for we have heard of your faith…and of the love that you have for all the saints…For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you…May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to God…
These are not event-specific prayers for the sick or those who are struggling, as important as those petitions are. These are prayers of thanksgiving and intercession that teach us about holding individuals and communities before God in their whole relationship with God and with others. It teaches us that one way we can all find more light is through praying for each other, for this community and for others who are pursuing love and justice in dark times. When we did our Wisdom Circles last fall, one of the most moving moments for me was when one of our beloved seniors shared that she prays regularly for members of Pullen who are doing the tasks that, because of age, she is no longer able to do here herself. I truly believe prayer matters regardless of the form it takes. It binds us to each other and to all that is sacred in the universe.
In the times we live in, it is vital that we act and that we use our privilege to change our world. At the same time, all healthy strategies we can develop or borrow to get through all the darkness are important for us as individuals and as a family of faith like the one addressed in Colossians. If perspective, detachment or prayer ease your burdens, use them. Pursue whatever leads you to the light. Engage whatever helps you cope in a healthy way in dark times. Practice whatever bolsters your confidence in God and in other people of good will. If this feels hard for you as it does for me, that’s OK. If it feels awkward or goes against your personality’s instincts, that’s OK, too, as long as it helps you avoid the perils and dangers of this night. Do whatever it takes to draw yourself into the light and then trust that God’s great mercy will meet you there.