Stumbling in the Dark
I began hiking in the dark.
As I have shared before, this is rather important if you are climbing a 14,000 foot peak. It is generally a good idea to start hiking in the dark because you want to be to the top and back down again to treeline before noon, when the Colorado thunderstorms are likely to begin.
So, I began hiking Mt. Yale in the dark. Somewhere around 3:30 am.
Somewhere around 3:50, I had absolutely no idea where I was. You won’t be surprised to learn that it was still dark. And you may not be surprised to learn that the trail can sometimes be hard to find in the dark. In fact, I knew that there was a creek crossing, so when I saw what seemed to be the place where the trail crossed the creek, I hopped over, and continued climbing. Until the trail became much thinner. And less obvious. And eventually nonexistent.
And it was still dark.
I was pretty much lost.
Anyone else feel lost these days?
Psychologists and social scientists tell us that the reason for that feeling of lostness is closely tied to the experience of grief. They tell us that we grieve when we lose something. Of course, we know that we grieve when we lose a person. A family member or loved one. We understand that loss and that grief. But we also grieve when we lose anything that we love. We also can grieve when we lose a thing: a house, a job, our freedom, a routine. Not only do we feel loss, but we feel lost. We fundamentally feel as though we have lost our way. Our mooring. Our anchor. We feel as though the things that help us make sense of life are gone, and we are left in the dark, stumbling up the side of a mountain, unsure if we should keep going up, or turn around and go back, or just sit down and wait until it is light enough to see what the heck we are doing.
I would offer that in one way or another, most of us have felt at least some level of lostness in the last few weeks. Many of us grieve the loss of a thing: a job, a graduation ceremony, a wedding. But I would suggest that most all of us feel that we have lost something. Anyone else feel like they don’t know which end is up? Anyone else feel like they don’t know how to operate in this new and difficult reality? Anyone else feel afraid and unsure about where to go or whether to go…or even how to make the dang Zoom call work?
We grieve the loss of a routine. We grieve the freedom to meet a friend at a favorite coffee shop. We grieve the ability to go buy a bag of avocados without wearing a mask. We grieve the chance to go to church on Easter Sunday morning and see our friends…and not watch it on a screen!
For many of us in these days, we feel like we are stumbling in the dark.
The Marys were stumbling in the dark.
Matthew tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary got up early in the predawn hours and travelled to the tomb. He also writes that these two Mary’s were the same two who were there when Jesus was placed into the tomb on Friday. But notice what it doesn’t say. A lot of the other Gospels explain that the women who went to see Jesus on Sunday were carrying spices in order to treat the body. But not Matthew. Look what they are doing in Matthew. They are going, simply, “to see the tomb.”
To sit. To be close. To grieve. Anyone else know the experience? That experience of comfort sitting next to a loved one’s gravestone. That emotional peace of being close. Even though you know that they aren’t there anymore. You were there when they laid them in the tomb, and now you simply want to be there. To be close. To grieve.
For the Marys, there is not assignment of spices or a task to do. Only the task of grief. Perhaps they wanted to return to something normal. Perhaps sitting by the closed grave might give them a sense of normality, of purpose, of clarity. In their grief, they sought something that they hoped that a sight of the grave might bring. And so, they stumbled in the dark in the early morning hours. Lost. Alone. Afraid. Hoping to find their way.
But what they found was something very different. They came seeking some normalcy, and received anything but! The Two-way noticed the unnatural natural events that they faced. An earthquake. An angel. An appearance like lightning…I don’t even know what that means. Matthew can’t even use normal adjectives to explain what was happening here. Will Willimon writes about the abnormality that faces these two women. He says bluntly, “after God just raised Jesus from the dead—forget normal!” They came seeking normalcy, and comfort, and peace. But they instead received the good news of Resurrection joy! God was up to something even more amazing than normal. God was doing something even more powerful than what was expected.
The angel explains that the tomb is empty, that Jesus is gone, that he is headed back home to Galilee, and if you hurry, you can catch him! It says the women left with “fear and great joy.” I love that juxtaposition. They didn’t leave with their hearts comforted and their grief managed. They left terrified! And with great joy! All at once! All of a sudden, the Mary’s received nothing that they expected…and everything that they needed. Nothing that they anticipated…and everything that their hearts could yearn for. They came seeking normalcy. Instead they received Resurrection! They received Jesus! And when they saw him, they couldn’t help but fall at his feet and worship him!
So what does that mean for us? We, too, are grieving. We, too, yearn for a sense of normalcy. We, too, want things to go back the way they were. We, too, want to stop watching worship on our cell phones and come back to church! But what if there is something bigger happening here? Something new, something different, something unexpected, something akin to Resurrection? Resurrection in our church? Resurrection in our lives? Resurrection in our world?
Now, don’t hear me saying that God caused COVID-19 to shake us up. Our God is a God of life and not of death and this is not punishment for something that the dead or dying did wrong. I will not dishonor their memory or their fight with such bad theology.
But what if God is using this moment…
…what if God is taking this dark day and bringing something akin to lightning and brilliant snow and new dawn?
…what if God is taking our tears and turning them into something like “fear and great joy” and worship and falling on the ground in honor and glory?
…what if God is taking the horror of death all around us and bringing Resurrection life?
Barbara Brown Taylor has suggested something in her book Altar in the World. She writes about several different practices of the faith, including what she calls the practice of getting lost. Seems strange, right? Why would we want to get lost? Brown explains that the experience of lostness hones a certain category of skills:
Managing your panic, marshalling your resources, taking a good look around to see where you are and what this unexpected development might have to offer you…I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path. I have lived through parts of life that no one in her right mind would ever willingly have chosen, finding enough overlooked treasure in them to outweigh my projected wages in the life I had planned. There are just a few of the reasons that I have decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead. The Bible is a great help to me in this practice, since it reminds me that God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.
She continues with the stories of Abraham and Sarah, the Egyptians in the wilderness, Elijah on the mountaintop, even Jesus in the forty days after his baptism. “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.”
What if it is not our task to return to the “way things were?” What if our job is not to seek “normalcy?” What if instead, our task is to engage in lostness. To stop pretending we know where all of this is going, and simply begin to trust God for the journey. To trust that God is here. To trust that God is at work. To trust that even in the middle of some of the hardest days in our lives, something akin to Resurrection may be taking place. To trust that even while we stumble in the dark, there is a Resurrection power that accompanies us. Steadies us as we stumble. Guides us up the trail.
This is the point in the sermon where I am supposed to go back to the original story and reveal that it was all along a wonderful metaphor for life and faith.
But it’s not.
You see, on top of Mt. Yale I did what you are supposed to do. I stopped, took a deep breath, backtracked to the stream crossing, hopped back over, looked around, and saw that the trail had actually switched back and turned up the slope again. My path was not the trail. I retraced my steps, went back to the familiar, and achieved success.
A great lesson for hiking. A decent metaphor for much of life. And a total failure to be able to explain the power and unexpected grace of Easter.
Instead, I end with another story of another lost soul. My father is a hospital chaplain and spends a good deal of time counseling those in grief. In his grief groups, he often tells the story of a young girl who wandered far from home one day, and found herself in unfamiliar territory. Like my trip up Mt. Yale, she realized that her path was becoming smaller and smaller. And the bramble bushes were closing in tighter and tighter. They were catching on her clothes. They were scratching her face. She realized all at once that she was in the middle of a terrible patch of brambles. She tried to turn around and go back, but it was nearly impossible to clear herself enough to do a 180. The thought occurred to her what he must do. Keep walking. It was going to hurt, and she wasn’t sure where the end was. But the only thing she could do was walk until she came out the other side.
It is a story for those who grieve. After we lose something or someone that is profoundly meaningful to us, there is no way to return to the “way things were.” We cannot go back to “normal.” Instead, all we can do is keep walking, until we come out on the other side.
Right now, we as people of faith find ourselves in the middle of a field of brambles. We want to turn around and go back to where we came, but we simply cannot. Instead, the life of faith invites us to engage in the lostness, trust in the Resurrection Power at work in our midst, and together come out on the other side.