I was talking to someone recently about the story of her church-going life, and she told me about a time in her life that she stopped coming to church. Many people who have a story about their church-going life also have a story about taking a break from church—when they stopped going, sometimes for years and sometimes even for decades.
This congregant told me that she stopped coming to church for a time because she wasn’t happy enough to go to church. She was in the worst time in her life—she was getting a divorce, her kids were acting out, and she was depressed and the medication wasn’t working—and she needed to take a break from church because she knew she couldn’t put on her best outfit and her best smile and her best “I’m okay” face, much less her best “I’m great don’t worry about me!” face. And so she decided to stop coming to church until she was better; ’til the crisis was over; ’til the depression was lifted; ’til the world was a sunnier place… and she felt as though she was in exile.
The time that she needed God the most was the time she was sure she couldn’t access God in a church.
Does this story sound familiar to you? Unfortunately, it’s a story I have heard over and over again, even from my friends and colleagues. Some of us don’t want to come to church when we need church most of all; when we feel as though God’s face is most hidden.
We might acknowledge darkness in our lives, but rather than sitting with, dwelling in, learning from, and befriending that darkness—waiting for what God teaches us there—we’re quick to turn on the lights; to move from despair quickly to optimism. When crisis hits, when we are plunged into times of darkness, it can feel as though it’s because we don’t have enough faith, and are somehow spiritually deficient compared to those around us. Worse, we might even believe that our God has forsaken us; is absent.
God-with-us, Emmanuel, is there in the darkness as well as the light. God created the darkness of the world before God says “let there be light.” God was there.
God was present in the darkness of our mothers’ wombs, where we were fearfully and wonderfully made. God was there. God is present in the seeds that are planted firmly in the dark ground waiting to sprout flowers next spring. God is there.
God is there when the lights go out: offering presence, not protection. Presence, not always illumination. Presence, not punishment.
God is present in the light of hope we yearn for, yes. But God is with us in the dark, as well, just as Jesus was implanted in the generative darkness of Mary’s womb.
Our Advent texts tell us over and over again to stay awake, and not to be afraid; that we are to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us in the dark. This Advent, may we test together our ability to stay awake in the dark with God and with each other, despite our fears: to sit with one another’s darkness without trying to shine light into it. Instead, may we just be still, hold a hand, and keep vigil. Stay awake. Do not be afraid. Emmanuel, God with us, the Lord is with you.