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“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…” (Isa. 9).
Sometimes it is hard to say “I love you.” Perhaps this is because walking in darkness may seem like the most obvious thing about us as human beings. Darkness means that no one can see really well – either themselves or each other. It is why we do not really know where we are going, or what will happen to us, or for that matter were we stand right now. We experience darkness in every kind and level of conflict.
Because understanding this darkness matters to me, this fall I read a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. It is a collection of advice columns by Cheryl Strayed whose pen name is simply “Sugar.” People who usually write this kind of thing for newspapers sound official. They seem detached and in full control. They speak with a definitive, often judgmental voice. They call in expert advisors, use civil language and say almost nothing about themselves.
Sugar does just the opposite of this. Most shockingly she writes vividly about absolutely awful things that have happened in her life including her experience of sexual abuse, addiction, infidelity, divorce, stealing and promiscuity. Like the waitresses I used to know at Denny’s Restaurant she expresses her affection for these desperate letter writers and calls them “sweat pea,” “darling,” and “honey bunch.”
Let me read a quick example of a question that Johnny asked her. He writes, “Dear Sugar, My twenty-year marriage fell apart. Whose fault? Mine? My wife’s? Society’s? I don’t know. We were both too immature to get married… and we both worked hard to avoid dealing with the unhappiness that was hanging over us.”
Since the divorce and after dating a few other women Johnny has found someone whom he “click[s] with very nicely.” But he goes on, “I’m afraid to say it out loud, as my experience shows that the word “love” comes loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken. My question to you is, when is it right to take that big step and say I love you?”
Yes, Johnny knows about darkness.
I do not know where and from what directions you face darkness in your life right now. But let me share a summary of Sugar’s advice to all those who contact her in case it might be useful. First, seek out that friend who shows you some affection and sympathy – you may find that just being called “sweat pea” changes the whole picture. Next, recognize that a sense of entitlement, and the implied superiority behind it, makes us weak and dependent. It cuts us off from the resources that could help us to weather the storm. Chief among these is an extraordinary inner strength that most of us fail to see in ourselves. Finally, recognize that you cannot change other people. The best you can do is to set up healthy boundaries that show you love yourself too.
Sugar points out that two kinds of people write to her: those who have the answer already and those who are genuinely lost. Incidentally, most of us fall into the first category although we do not realize it or are afraid to act on what we do know.
You may be wondering why I am bringing this up on one of the holiest nights of the year. The reason is that in your hearts I want you to touch something real tonight and this doesn’t happen when we deny the dark parts in our life, or only bring our best selves to church.
After the emperor’s decree, after the journey to Bethlehem, after the baby, the angels, the shepherds, the fear, exhaustion, amazement, and joy – there is a quiet moment I especially appreciate. Luke writes, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2). Although I love this translation it conceals something that you might not otherwise notice. More literally one might say instead, “Mary preserved these words.” Then for the word ponder the Greek is sumballousa. It means meeting, comparing, considering, bringing together. Mary brought these things together in her heart.”
Sumballousa is also the Greek word for symbol. Mary is the only adult from the stories of Jesus’ birth to have a role in the rest of his life. She puts things together. Most importantly she possesses the special gift of holding on to the meaning of things as others just go back to business as usual.
The linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson have a particular interest in symbol and language. They point out that we live according to expressions, symbols and ideas that lie beneath our conscious awareness. This is the reason we act (to use their words) automatically in so many situations.
Our feelings and emotional life are so much more powerful in relation to our rationality than we recognize. We are metaphors that we have not always consciously chosen.
The biggest problem with this is that the meanings of these symbols will not stay fixed. I remember first hearing Adele sing “Chasing Pavements.” Her voice sounded so fresh and different. It seemed like I would never get tired of those songs, but I did. When my mother was in college she listened to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so many times that it completely lost its magic.
This is the same problem that we have with Christmas and Christianity in general. We are creatures in time, and meaning will not stay still. Perhaps that’s part of Johnny’s problem with saying, “I love you” to someone he cares so much about. I do not want you to miss Christmas so let me tell you about two symbols in particular that have lost their meaning and make this sacred night confusing to us.
1. Sin. Today when you see the word sin it almost always refers to something like chocolate. For us, sin means indulgence in a harmless pleasure – lingerie or ice cream or a cocktail. The only dimly remembered ancient associations of Adam and Eve, the idea that we are doing something that we shouldn’t, only makes it more fun. This is what sin means in our consumer society. That is why normal people find it impossible to understand why Christians would care much at all about sin.
When Christians use the word sin it means to screw things up, to break what we really care about, often for the sake of some far less important and more temporary feeling. It might mean anything from saying something clever at the expense of someone’s feelings to Johnny’s experience with his twenty year marriage. We are the people who walk in darkness. Sin is another word for that darkness, that world of addiction, abuse, broken relationships, hurt feelings, self-defeating behaviors, thoughtless remarks. Self-reflective adults recognize the way that we come up short, that contradictions lie at the very heart of our thoughts and behavior. But we no longer have as rich a vocabulary for recognizing this darkness.
2. Another word that we do not understand today is Christianity. I think that those who never moved beyond a child’s faith and those who never had it at all regard Christianity as a kind of theory about the universe, a child’s story of something that could never happen. Christians might seem like a club of self-righteous people forcing themselves to believe something that is obviously unbelievable.
Francis Spufford in his book Unapologetic writes about a sign that atheists put on London buses a few years ago. It read, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
You see what the problem with this is don’t you? Think of how that sign sounds to my friend whose barely surviving as he takes care of his mentally ill wife, or my other friend who never knows where her homeless and addicted son is sleeping that night, or yet another friend whose partners summarily fired him and took his shares after he put years of his life into the company. Really – just enjoy yourself. What that bus sign says is that if you are in darkness there is no hope.
My point is that the normal state of things is not peace but a surprising amount of darkness. This is why John Lennon’s song “Imagine” has always bugged me. You remember the song, “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try…” He makes it sound as if without religions and countries and possessions everything would be perfectly peaceful. Nothing in my experience confirms this. Living together in peace is not our default condition. Peace is an achievement attained when people are at their wisest and inspired by something great.
For me, church is a bunch of people just like this. We are the ones who screw up. We gather together try to repair what is broken. We depend for help on something beautiful and mysterious lying beyond ourselves. This is what gets us through the darkness. This is the light of Christ, the one whose birth we celebrate tonight.
Luke constantly describes Jesus as a kind of alternative to the Roman emperor, as someone who would risk everything for the sake of love, who would change what it means for all of us to be human.
You may be wondering how Sugar responded to Johnny’s question about when to tell someone that you love them. Sugar said that “love” was the last word that her mother had said to her before dying. She writes, “Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about… It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor, and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want to keep.”
In short Sugar tells Johnny to say, “I love you” and then talk about what it means. Don’t try to protect yourself from the junk that comes with love by withholding or avoiding.
This is my first Christmas at Grace Cathedral and it has been magical, like the most extraordinary dream. Today the baby Jesus was fussing in her manger and so I got to hold her for the whole Christmas pageant. She called me off the script and that little baby made time stand completely still. And there I was with light streaming through these stained glass windows, with thousand of others standing simply in the presence of holiness. It was the perfect symbol for how Jesus has interrupted my life.
In the darkness of this night as the symbols around you constantly change, as you mess things up and then try to set the world right, remember Mary’s gift of holding on to meaning over time. Hold on to the hope that Jesus is always with you, then say it, say I love you with your life.
 If you are a person who prays, darkness is what you pray about. If you are a person who does not pray, you probably stopped for that same reason. This paragraph is a paraphrases from Frederick Buechner, “Come and See,” The Hungering Dark (NY: Harper, 1969) 50.
 Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (NY: Vintage, 2012), 13-18.
 Others write to her with agonizing questions: Should I break up with my spouse? What do I do about my “icky” sexual fantasies? Should I continue to support the adult children who live with me? How do I handle parents who reject me because of my sexual orientation? How can I ever by okay after the death of my child?
 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980).
 Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (NY: HarperCollins, 2013), 7.
 Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (NY: Vintage, 2012), 15.