"Sometimes you need the darkness to see the light.
This is true at a lot of levels, but recently I read a fascinating article about the search for planets throughout the Milky Way which potentially could support life. There are a select group of scientists who devout themselves to this work, and our capability to find these planets is growing as our understanding of the number of such planets has also grown, exponentially. There are billions of potentially life-sustaining exoplanets out there, waiting to be discovered.
But one of the problems with looking for distant planets is that the night sky is literally littered with stars, whose light blocks our ability to see.
If one were to look in our direction, the direction of our solar system, from 5-10 light years away our sun would mostly blind your view. At best, Jupiter might be detectable. But the earth is so small, that it would be lost for all the light pollution that comes from our sun.
Try seeing an airplane, or a bird, in the sky when it’s against the backdrop of the sun.
Since the 1960’s scientists have floated the idea that a large “starshade” could be deployed into space to block the light from a distant star, enabling us to peer into the darkness to discover new planets. It’s been the thing of science fiction for decades, but now it’s believed that we have the technical capability to build it. Think a big telescoping umbrella a hundred feet across, shaped like a huge sunflower that would block out the light of a distant star so that a space-based telescope could detect what is believed to be out there: Lots and lots of planets.
In order to detect life out in the galaxy, you need darkness to see the very faint light of a new planet.
One of the leaders in the movement to find planets that could sustain life is Sara Seager. Even among other astrophysicists she’s considered a rare breed. While her husband took care of the household chores and the kids, she had her head in space. She didn’t know how to do the basic things that us ordinary folk do every day.
But her world crashed and burned when the love of her life developed a rare form of untreatable cancer. When he died, he left her three pages of handwritten notes on how to do things, like paying the mortgage, making the coffee, getting the kids dressed and to school.
Her world folded into darkness, and she felt herself lost, empty, and unable to handle the most basic of responsibilities. She was always socially awkward, but her loss made for a chasm that seemed too great to cross. She took her kids sledding on the great hill in Concord, Massachusetts, and she saw a small group of chipper suburban mothers standing nearby and felt even more alone. These women said something to her about her son, to which she responded, “He has a problem. His father died.” As luck or fate (or grace) would have it, all of these women had also lost husbands. Somehow they had managed to find joy and laughter again, and their friendship would help to coax her back from the grave. She met a new love, and her previous experience of loss brought into sharp relief the contours of hope and new life. In fact, her loss broke her open, and something new took shape and grew. New constellations, new places for life to be lived!
It took the darkness to experience the light.
Isn’t it true, that when all is going well and the world is our oyster, that it’s there we take much for granted? So much light, yet so little ability to see what really matters in the long run?
But there is something about the darkness – those places of hardship and pain and heartache - which brings into sharper focus those places of true and undying light.
· A stroke makes us think about the gift of our bodies, and we change how we live, what we eat, how we exercise.
· An election makes us think more deeply about the unique and amazing and fragile thing a democracy is, and we choose to get involved because if we don’t… well, we already know.
· A terrorist attack on a Christmas Village in Berlin reminds us that to be a community, a people means to have courage, to stand strong against the threats of those who would sow fear. Life is a choice!
· One has seen hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of babies. But now it’s you and yours, and from the pain of the delivery room, a baby is born, and your world is quite literally turned upside down and filled with unspeakable joy. You sing the praises of the God who makes that possible.
Everywhere, always, life is breaking forth. Our world and the galaxies are teaming with new and beautiful things, but the mundane and the profane cloud our eyes. The very essence and fabric of the universe is creative and life-giving energy, but we shuffle our feet and live in much smaller places than the Author ever intended.
Nations fall / Diseases strike / Refugees are dehumanized / Women and children are trafficked / Cities are bombed / The rich get richer/ The water is polluted / The air becomes unbreathable / And the people get numb and indifferent. We drink and shop and click-bait our way to oblivion, because it feels better.
Into this, what the prophets and the poets have called “the darkness”, a new light shines. In the world’s eyes it’s not the brightest light, or even the most compelling or beautiful. But from the hungry eyes of faith, it’s the surest, clearest and most dependable thing that you and I can ever know and follow.
A number of years ago, Natasha and I went to Africa for the wedding of a friend. We took some time before the wedding to go to Kenya first. We were able to arrange a driver with a van to take us from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara game preserve. We were told it would be a couple or few hours drive. So it was us, Natasha and me and a driver who spoke virtually no English, who took off on this adventure. We placed our faith in our driver and sat back for the experience of a lifetime to unfold.
Almost two hours out of Nairobi, we exited the main highway onto a secondary highway heading west southwest. Over the course of another two hours the highway degraded into something more along the lines of a dirt road that had been carpet bombed for weeks, or months. With signs of civilization long behind us, we jostled and pitched and turned to avoid one crater after the next. There were times I thought the van would just flip over. One wonders about the state of a road that connects the capital of Kenya to one of the leading game preserves in the world. Along the road we would see an occasional Maasai warrior, with the telltale fierce and confident look of one who is unafraid of being in the bush alone, with nothing more than a heavy stick in hand. We even stopped for a late afternoon lunch in the shade of a tree, and a Maasai warrior simply came down to sit and eat with us. There were no words exchanged for this; it just was. We didn’t have a lot of food, but either this was culturally expected and understood or we were kept alive by our open table and the warrior’s good graces, I’ll never know. But the latter thought crossed my mind until we waved goodbye and got back into the safety of the van and left.
These things I tell you to set the stage, to paint a mental picture for you, in order to lead up to what was yet to come.
Our two to three hour drive had become five, and now darkness was starting to creep across the landscape. A giraffe’s head poked above the trees, and now we were clearly in the land of “Where the Wild Things Are.”
We started to wonder when our driver pulled over to a wandering Maasai warrior on the side of the road in what clearly was a need for directions. Animated conversation in the manner of the Maa language. Gesturing arms. Pointing. Disconcertingly, this happened a few more times at dusk, but then again when it was pitch black. Our head lights jumping up and down, the landscape looking even more fierce in the dancing shadows. The branches of the jungle seemed to reach out to pull us in. And then, out in the middle of seemingly nowhere, a Maasai walking alone, in the bush, and our driver desperately trying to get directions, yet again.
And I’m thinking: here we are, in a flimsy little van in the middle of the African bush, no cell phone signal, no nothing, with God knows what wild animals lurking all around us. What if we get a flat tire?? Who would dare to get out to fix it? What if? Even our driver was getting nervous, which didn’t help us.
Minutes creeped into eternity as we bounced and jostled and searched all around us for the telltale signs of civilization. And then, just barely, we saw it. A distant, dim yet unmistakable sign, a glimmer of light barely visible across the black landscape. The light grew brighter, and more certain, until we pulled up to the gates of the hotel. Inside there was food – lots of food! - and music and people laughing. Ah, God is good!
The prophet wrote: “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.”
It is the faith of this church that the light which has come into the world comes first as a little, helpless, crying baby.
This light came into the world not in the manner of a children’s fairy tale, but in the rough and tumble world of ancient Palestine, when the people were subject to an occupying military, steep and painful taxes, and the imperial command for all the world, the Roman world, to be registered. This was a time of humiliation and subjugation for the people, or as prophets and poets would say, “It was a time of deep darkness.”
In their own wilderness, with wild beasts lurking near their encampment and continually threatening their animals, shepherds were visited by an unexpected guest! An angel, that being in the Bible associated with big events, broke into their encampment filling the pitch black landscape with the light and the glory and the good news of God: “Unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Then, as if whole galaxies were being birthed in that moment, the creative force that is God could no longer be contained, but erupted across the landscape with a multitude of the heavenly host: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
All of this display, all of this hubbub in the desert wilderness, and all the testimony of the prophets and the poets and the church throughout the ages is nothing more than God’s promise of light in the darkness.
Love in response to hate. Forgiveness in response to guilt. Acceptance in the face of shame. Healing where there is brokenness. A caress when touch has been withheld. Hope when things seem hopeless .
Affirmation that this world and all the rest are God’s, that we are God’s children, and that we are loved and held and shown the way.
This little light, shining in the deep darkness, is all these things, and more. This little light is enough.
Unto us – this night – is born the Savior, the light of the world.
The light shines in our darkness. And the darkness cannot overcome it!