Walking in the dark valley is a lonesome business. Maybe that’s why Psalm 23 is the most popular prayer in the Psalter. Even folks who have not been very regular members of the sheepfold can recite a few lines of “The Lord is my shepherd” by heart. Its soothing images comfort us at funerals and in times of confusion and distress. Who doesn’t long for green pastures to lie in, water for refreshment, and guidance toward the right path with a strong and benevolent escort?
Yet the dark valley cannot be circumvented. Sooner or later we’ll cross it. And for some of us, the darkness may last for a season, many seasons, or be a constant feature of the terrain. Perhaps in recognition of this, Christian poet William Stafford titled one collection of his work Traveling Through the Dark. In the poem, “Learning,” Stafford laments: “Worlds can swerve while I stammer; / the stars come different at night and nearer. / I can’t learn even how to enter / what awaits me every year. / And it is late, I know it.”
Every preacher knows what it’s like to stammer through a feeble homily while worlds hang in the balance for the assembly. Grace matters—and, heaven help us, so does the gospel proclamation. For the world we live in, it is indeed late and we are still fumbling in ignorance, stumbling through the dark, unsure how to enter the next moment or make the next decision. O Lord, be our shepherd!
You were once darkness
The Letter to the Ephesians, the great manifesto of the church, celebrates our identity and unity in Christ. It also does not hesitate to acknowledge who and where we’ve been: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” This is not a reference to gnostic darkness; the metaphor does not imply a lack of privileged information. The writer—maybe Paul, maybe not—is talking about moral darkness, ethical confusion.
But we shouldn’t mistake that for the related condition of weak moral fiber. Many times we lack the will to do the right thing, though we certainly know what the right thing is. Still there are times when we honestly can’t distinguish between right and wrong, when we find ourselves persuaded that our hearts are true when they are turning in a direction that is deeply and dangerously false. In those events, we don’t choose darkness so much as become the dark ourselves. At such times, the way is doubly dark.
Then comes the light of Christ into our lives, for the first time or simply burning brighter than before. Now as “children of light” we are invited to live more authentically and courageously. We are the awakened sleepers, the dead raised to new and fuller life. We have no more excuses to wander the dark valley without our guide and champion. Not only do we know better than to participate in works of darkness, we must be prepared to raise the light over a deceitful world and expose the error of the wrongly persuaded.
How were your eyes opened?
If you’re looking for a homily starter this week, here’s a question to ask of your assembly or yourself. It’s the question posed to the man born blind by his neighbors, incredulous that a sightless man has gained his vision: “How were your eyes opened?” We might answer this question in many ways, the saddest of which could be: “My eyes are still closed.”
Yet most of us have managed to gain a little sight after years of attending to the gospel and its many graces. Our eyes may have been opened because of the goodness of our parents or the faithfulness of local saints or the wisdom of our many teachers and mentors. Our eyes may also have been opened by a radical occasion of sin in our lives that caused us to be ashamed, to repent, and to turn in a new direction. We may have gained our sight because some gracious event of mercy or healing that came to us. We may have had a powerful experience in prayer or a change of heart in forgiving someone who dealt us a grave injustice. An encounter with astonishing beauty can enable us to see more clearly. And love, above all, can make all things seem new and full of light.
The story of the man born blind reminds us that, once our sight is made whole, we still have to deal with a society full of folks stumbling around the dark valley. The ignorance expressed in our cultural obsessions, in the media, in politics, and in global relations may make us feel impatient and alienated. We may find ourselves wanting to escape the darkness by retreating from a grossly ignorant community when it is precisely that community that needs us to bring our light and vision to it.
Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in our families, where some will choose materialism, cynicism, bigotry, atheism, hedonism, scorn for the disadvantaged, and a host of other dark roads leading into the valley of the shadow of death. We may be tempted to sever relations with those family members who are still traveling in the dark, because they tax our restraint and our love. We may also, like the man in the gospel whose sight is restored, face the rejection of our neighbors who no longer recognize us, or the disloyalty of our families who are afraid to claim us. We may even, in the ultimate irony, find that our religious leadership does not trust or validate the new vision we have received. In the end, the only person who may rejoice with us in our clear-sightedness is Jesus.
Applying the word
Go wash in the pool of Siloam
“Siloam,” John tells us, means “Sent.” The one whose sight is restored has places to go and people to see. To receive the light of Christ and refuse to share it would be to enter into a new kind of darkness. Our testimony to clear-sightedness is our way of saying thanks to the God who opened our eyes. Once we are escorted from the dark valley, it is our duty and privilege to serve as guides for those sisters and brothers who have yet to open their eyes.