Signs of Light in Darkness
September 10, 2017
In a murderous time
the heart breaks
and lives by breaking
It is necessary
into the dark
and deeper dark
and not turn…
This is an excerpt from "The Wishing Tree" by Stanly Kunitz, one of our greatest contemporary poets. I have been keeping it close to my awareness for a long time and, in some ways, it has gotten truer and truer. It describes only part of our national life – there are still so many wonderful things happening every day and their beauty stands out brightly against the dark backdrop of some current events. Most of us are working to create beauty and peacefulness and love, maybe more intentionally than we did in the past when things felt more reasonable and stable.
At the same time, there is a communal sense of foreboding that is pervasive. We are talking to each other about the ways we limit the bombardment of news, the self-care we must practice, the choices we are making about how to have integrity and effectiveness in a time that challenges all we have loved and believed in.
The other morning as I was thinking about this teaching and about the news and about my own helplessness and frustration I read the lectionary for the day and it was the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their witness to Nebuchadnezzar. It seemed amazingly relevant. Basically, there is a king who sets up a gold statue and he wants everybody to worship it and if they don't he will do something bad to them. Everyone knows the story, but if you haven't read it recently, you can find it in Daniel 3. I love the echoes of oral tradition in the way it's recounted. So anyway, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego wouldn't do it, so he threw them into a fiery furnace so hot it killed the people who threw them in.
The conversation between Nebuchadnezzar and the three went like this: The king:
Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king,
O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and to rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.
There is a lot more to this story, and as you probably know, the three of them walked around in the blazing furnace and a fourth person walked with them, all of them unbound and unharmed and the fourth, as the king says, like a son of the gods. When the king orders them to come out of the furnace, they say politely, "Of course, O king."
I want to stay with this conversation for a little while because I think it is a fine example for folks who live with an immature ruler who might have a personality disorder. The three Jewish men are sparing in their speech. They aren't indignant. They just say their truth without threat or emotion. And they are going to be true to what they've said and to the God they serve. I doubt very much that we'll come to the place where we're threatened with a fiery furnace but who knows what we'll be facing as this administration progresses. So we can internalize their witness and that of other communities and individuals who have faced rulers lacking in compassion and common sense.
One of those I immediately thought of was Etty Hillesum. I've been rereading An Interrupted Life, excerpts from her diaries. She was a young Jewish woman who lived in Holland during the German occupation. She lived a few blocks away from Anne Frank. The reason I love to read it is because Etty, who would never fit into any conventional categories of religion and morality, grew from a frightened young girl to a mature woman ready to say her truth in a murderous time and to live with the consequences of that, just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did.
We have glimpses of her personal soul as she lived into and wrote about being a Jew in Nazi-occupied Holland. At the beginning of the diaries on November 20, 1941 she speaks of complete collapse and panic. But a year later she could write,
Tonight new measures against the Jews. I have allowed myself to be upset and depressed about it for half-an-hour. In the past I would have consoled myself by reading a novel and abandoning my work. Now I must finish working."
In January 1942: "I no longer plumb the depths of despair. My sadness has become a springboard."
July 1942: At the end of our long walk there was a room waiting for us with a divan on which to fling ourselves after having kicked off our shoes, and then such a wonderful treat sent by friends – a basket of cherries from the Betuwe. A good lunch which used to be something we took for granted, is now a special treat. As life becomes harder and more threatening, it also becomes richer, because the fewer expectations we have, the more the good things of life become unexpected gifts which we accept with gratitude.
Later that same month she wrote this prayer: Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me. I shall promise You one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow, although that takes some practice. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safe keeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safe keeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings. And they say, ‘I shan’t let them get me into their clutches.’ But they forget that no one is in their clutches who is in Your arms.”
I just love this book
In September 1943, she and her parents and her brother were put on a train to Auschwitz. Here is a description of her leavetaking written by her friend, Joppe:
She stepped onto the platform in her own unforgettable way. Talking gaily, smiling, a kind word for everyone she met on the way, full of sparkling humour, perhaps just a touch of sadness but every inch the Etty you all know so well. She said, 'I have my diaries, my little Bible, my Russian grammar and Tolstoy with me and God knows what else.'
Etty died in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943.
I just love this book and the woman who wrote it. It was hard to choose excerpts – I wanted to read the whole thing to you. Her way of thinking is a treasure for learning to live in a world in uproar. We don't know what is about to happen. We may or may not be seeing the disintegration of our familiar way of life. Sometimes the world seems more frightening than ever. But also it seems to me to this is a time of revelation. Goodness and light are being revealed as communities and individuals gather to name their commitment to love not hate, to protest violence against the weakest, to imagine ways to band together to prevent loss of humane structures -- the women's march, the protest against repealing Obamacare, the courageous peaceful protestors in Charlottesville. So many who had been silent are speaking out in defense of loving action against hateful acts. These loving actions are a revelation of hope and light and love against a dark backdrop of fear and cruelty.
For us Church of the Saviour folks, it is axiomatic that we wholly lean on Jesus' name. On Christ the solid rock we stand. We hold close his words, "I am with you always," and "Wherever two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of you." Our faith sustains us and will sustain us.
We can choose to live with awareness of what is about to happen or what has happened, continuing to create beauty, choosing the symbols and actions that make a beautiful life together. Maybe, because we have chosen to be faithful to prayer and Scripture and community, to Jesus and to each other, we are living out Gordon's dream. Remember, when he returned from the war he dreamed of calling together a people prepared to live or die in faith, whatever should be given? Elizabeth O'Connor described that vision in this way:
A group of people who have known that they were bound over to the power of death, stumble on a treasure and that treasure is Christ, miracle of miracles, doors that were closed open, gates of bronze are broken down. The words spill out as they try to tell one another what happened, and how it happened, and of a Presence that was there.
I believe together we have become that people.
I want to close with a poem by Denise Levertov,
For The New Year, 1981
I have a small grain of hope –
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.
I need more.
I break off a fragment
to send you.
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.
Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.
Only so, by division,
will hope increase,
like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source –
clumsy and earth-covered –