By The Rev. Canon Massey Gentry
One of the issues of growing old is that it takes more and more pills just to keep growing old. As Grace Slick sings, "One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all.”
All of these pills, however, “do something.” They have side effects.
The effect of one of mine is that it tends to cause hallucinations. Actually, I take comfort in this knowledge because the other night I had an experience I prefer to regard as a sort of hallucination because, frankly, the alternative is beyond my capacity to tolerate.
I woke up in the middle of the night into total darkness. You would say it was the middle of the night. No. I mean darkness. No light. Void. Black. I could not see the glow from my watch or the shadows from the street light. I could see nothing.
So, I am still in the bed trying to stay calm and asking myself if I am hallucinating or living in “reality.” Gradually, I began to see some light.
We all know that we are going to die. It is a given.
I expect to die. I might even lose my sight. I do not expect to suddenly go blind in the middle of the night.
Darkness is more than nothingness. It is a thing. You can feel it. It tastes of cold.
Lately, it seems like all of us are in danger of becoming overwhelmed by the dark. On the other hand, perhaps we are becoming overtaken by our own blindness. Perhaps we no longer want to see.
My first parish was Trinity in Wetumpka, Alabama. Literally adjacent to the property was a park on the grounds of an early 18th century French fort built to protect the outposts of the Louisiana Territory. Fort Toulouse also served the purpose of cementing an alliance with the powerful Creek Confederacy.
If you are an adult, the site is a significant witness to a First Nation civilization and remains a sacred testimony to “mound technology.” If you are a six year old, Fort Toulouse at night is a land haunted by river pirates and bandits and wandering remnants of Andrew Jackson’s army returning from the Battle of New Orleans. Truthfully, who knows what is in those woods?
Trinity was filled with children. We were all young and eager and did not know those were our best days. We had our two boys, and there were the Chamblisses, and the Joneses, and the Westbrooks, and the Searcys, and the Harmons and Tracys. I could go on.
And so we had a family camp out at Fort Toulouse. It was complete with camp fires and roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. Of course, there were ghost stories. Nothing like a ghost story to keep a six year old from sleeping!
Sometime late that night or early in the morning, the still too scared to sleep kiddo wakes me and says there is a noise outside our tent. There should not have been a noise outside our tent.
I do not know if you have been camping on a river bank on a Deep South summer’s night when the heat exchange from the water creates wraiths of vapor, and the sky is without the moon or stars. Even I was expecting lions, and tigers and bears.
Instead, what caught my eye was a small but persistent light about a hundred yards across a clearing. There should not have been a light.
So I began to walk to the light, the mystery of it replacing my caution of water moccasins and mosquitoes.
The closer I got to the light, the more I was confused. I just could not make it out!
It turned out the light was very, very small. If there had not been so suffocating a darkness, it would not even have been visible. In the daytime I would have walked right by it. The quality of the light was determined by the enormity of the darkness.
Right now it seems our world, our nation, is being engulfed by the darkness. The darkness of a will to not listen to each other. The darkness of wanting our own way at the expense of others. The darkness of privilege and the darkness of coveting. The darkness of selfishness. The darkness of believing the rights of others are given at the cost of our privilege.
And the darkness is very great.
Or have we just gone blind? Blind to tolerance. Blind to kindness. Blind to compassion. Blinded by the knee of fear on our necks. Blinded by the smoke from the fires of division.
But the quality of the light is determined by the enormity of the darkness.
In Koine Greek, there is a grammatical form of a word that, by changing one vowel each time, can be variously read as “light,” “birth,” or “ knowledge.” Think about that. Are not light, birth, and knowledge all interchangeable concepts?
Perhaps it is time for us to know one another as human beings. Perhaps it is time to shine a light upon injustice. Perhaps it is time for us to be born again.
But the darkness is very great.
There is a story about the origin of the international symbol for Amnesty International. It is a match wrapped in a strand of barbed wire. As per the story, a political prisoner was being tortured during the Philippine regime of Ferdinand Marcos.The only people with access to the prisoners were the guards.
One night after a particularly brutal torture session, a prisoner finds in his cell a match box with a single match and a note.
The note says, “Courage.”
Courage. Courage. Courage.
Because the darkness is lit by the light of our courage to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not by the blindness that threatens to enshroud us all.