Facing the Darkness
The editorial note in the Spartanburg, South Carolina “Herald-Journal” announced that this would be Chris Barrett’s final column. Easter Sunday will be his final Sunday as pastor at St. James United Methodist Church. It will probably be his last Easter Sunday in this life.
I met Chris and his wife, Elise, shortly after they graduated from Duke Divinity School and began in their first pastoral appointments. His final newspaper column faces the reality of his condition with rare honest and genuine faith. I offer it to you as a word that can lead us toward the cross and resurrection.
Light We Cannot See
A little over a month ago I received the bad news. My lymphoma we had hoped had been eradicated by a bone marrow transplant had returned. It was a devastating diagnosis, particularly because we had just celebrated the second anniversary of my transplant, which is typically the point in time when a bone marrow transplant can be declared a success.
As it happens, the diagnosis of my relapse came two days before the beginning of the season Christians call Lent…On this Ash Wednesday, days removed from a diagnosis that gave me months to live, I found myself in a hospital gown kneeling on the floor of the Medical University chapel, with a good friend and colleague stooping low to intone those words: “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.”
In the days and weeks since that sacred reminder, not a moment goes by that I am not aware of how mysteriously and dreadfully it is that our bodies come from the earth only to return to it. Barring a miracle, my body’s return to the elements will be sooner than I would like. This makes me and those who love me sad. It cuts short time we would’ve or could’ve or might’ve … done whatever, gone wherever, accomplished however much.
If Lent does nothing else, however, it begins our lifelong training in accepting the darkness of our current reality as a means of recognizing the light that awaits. As the Christian contemplative Richard Rohr says, “All light must be informed by darkness, and all success by suffering.” Or, as Arlo Guthrie once famously said: “You can’t have light without a dark to stick it in.”
The darkness of the current days is the precondition for the light and life of God to enter and transform hopelessness into fulfillment, misery into appreciation, grief into joy. In the Christian tradition, this means that we don’t get to Easter without going through Lent.
This is not to diminish the difficulty of whatever darkness we may face. Whether dealing with imminent death or some affliction or addiction or restriction, we all must face our limits, the boundaries of our strength and ability. It is all part of learning to trust in a strength beyond our own: a light we cannot see, a peace we cannot make, a wholeness we cannot achieve by our own striving. As St. Paul says in Romans, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
All this is not to say that there’s nothing for us to do in the midst of the darkness. The fact is, I’ve worked as hard preparing for my final days as I’ve worked for just about anything in my life. I recognize, however, that whatever I get done between now and the day of my death, it will always be incomplete. The ultimate outcome — of the seeds I have planted in my ministry, the family I have loved and helped provide for, the friends in whom I have delighted — the ultimate outcome depends on the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being. This is the news that brings light to our darkness. This is the fulfillment of the promise that this Light — the Easter Light — has not, and shall not be overcome.
I close with words attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero, who knew what it was to walk through darkness. I challenge you to do something today that would not make sense if these words weren’t true:
“This is what we are about.
“We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development.
“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.” (http://www.goupstate.com/article/20150317/ARTICLES/150319770/1101/living?p=3&tc=pg)
May the darkness of Holy Week prepare us for the light of Easter morning.
Grace and peace,