The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” His words seem to echo the sentiment of the Psalmist who declared, “Weeping may last for a night but joy comes in the morning.”
However, in the days before the winter solstice, in this season of advent, we are more aware of the darkness than the dawn. The nights are getting longer. The days are getting shorter. This time of year some of us drive to work in the dark and come home in the dark. Sometimes all this darkness inflicts a cost to the human spirit. This week I saw an Instagram post from a member of the church, Summer Awad, that showed her characteristic dark sense of humor. It was a selfie of her face with flat affect and the words, “This is a picture of me battling seasonal depression and winning.”
Suffice it to say, sometimes we can’t tell from the outside whether someone is winning or losing the battle with seasonal depression. And that’s why this time of year it’s a good thing to check in with each other.
The acronym for seasonal affective disorder is S.A.D – sad. However, sometimes people look happy on the outside but are sad on the inside (for others it is the reverse.) However, during this season it’s important for us look beyond appearances and be aware that many people are going through dark times.
At times like these it may seem comforting to remember the words of the Chinese proverb, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” However, there is also power in embracing the darkness. One of my mentors in the ministry was Jacqui James. As an African American woman she did not like the fact that the word darkness too often carries negative connotations in our culture.
Jacqui wrote, “We must acknowledge that darkness has a redemptive character, that in darkness there is power and beauty. The dark nurtured and protected us before our birth….Welcome darkness. Don’t be afraid of it or deny it. Darkness brings relief from the blinding sun, from scorching heat, from exhausting labor. Night signals permission to rest, to be with our loved ones, to conceive new life, to search our hearts, to remember our dreams. The dark of winter is a time of hibernation. Seeds grow in the dark… Imagine a world that had only light—or dark. We need both. Dark and light. Light and dark.”
And yet the darkness that is so good for the germinating seeds under the earth, and so necessary for all life to flourish is not always easy on our spirits. I once fell into a conversation with an African Quaker about the negative connotations that so often get attached to the word darkness, and we agreed that it was troubling, but then he added, “Chris, I am African and even I cannot see in the dark.” And the same can be said for seasonal affective disorder, it strikes people of all races, colors, cultures and religions. There is something about the human condition that makes us seek the light.
I once heard a satirical radio show on BBC radio poking fun at this basic human need. There was an official sounding announcement, “Your attention please, in order to conserve energy and save money the government has decided to extinguish the light at the end of the tunnel.” This witticism reminds us that it is in times when we feel we are walking through darkness that we want to see a great light.
This summer I watched a documentary about Martin Luther King Jr. called King in the Wilderness. It’s about the most difficult days of his leadership, the 18 month before his assassination when he felt abandoned by friends and overwhelmed by critics. His popularity was at an all time low. The FBI had him under surveillance. He was receiving death threats. Dr. King’s most famous speech is the one where he says, “I have a dream” but when you look closely at the film footage from the last months of his life his face seems to say, “I have depression.”
We too have reasons to be depressed. As we speak 15,000 migrant children are incarcerated in the United States and border agents are using tear gas against the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breath free. In this festive season we can’t help but notice that there are more homeless people under the bridges and people living in poverty.
However, this week I also went to a great concert at the Bijou to raise money for Bridge Refugee Service and we were all singing, “This Land is Your Land, this land is my land.” And this morning I saw people setting up for the Fair Trade Fair working for the day when people all over the world will earn a living wage. And this week I have been witnessing volunteers sign up to help Family Promise house the homeless in our building over the holiday season. So there is a light in the depths of this darkness.
There is a saying, “Inside of every cynic there is an idealist” and I want to suggest there is a similar truth, “Inside every person suffering from depression there is a dream.” And for this reason I think it is important for each one of us to continual renew our capacity to dream so that when it is darkest we dream of dawn, when it is winter we dream of spring, when our seeds are dormant we dream of blossoming, when our fields are empty we dream of harvest, so that when we are fighting our depression we can sing, “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us and the world will be as one.”
This time of year, when nights are growing longer and the days are getting shorter, when we often drive to work in the dark and come home in the dark, we can give ourselves comfort through singing. I don’t know about you but this time of year when I am driving home in the dark I often sing Christmas carols along with the radio. And that’s another reason to come to church so we don’t have to just sing alone in the car or sing alone in the shower or sing alone in the kitchen but instead gather together as a congregation and sing, “Bright morning stars are rising, bright morning stars are rising, bright morning stars are rising, day is a breakin’ in my soul.”
(This homily was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday December 16, 2018 by Rev. Chris Buice)