Tag Archives: darkness

“More than watchmen for the morning…”


 Between graduating from Christian college in May of 1975 and starting seminary in the fall of 1976, I got married and worked as a youth minister at our church in Pocatello, Idaho.   Now, in Idaho they think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t hunt and fish, backpack and camp, snowmobile and ski.  And so part of my job description at the church in Pocatello was to serve as the assistant Scout Master for the church’s troop.  That’s what I was doing at 7800 feet in the Grand Tetons camped next to Hechtman Lake in the shadow of Mt. Berry.

I was with my Boy Scout troop one day out on a scheduled weeklong trek through the backcountry. It had taken the better part of that first day just to get from the trail head up to Hechtman Lake, and on the second day we were planning to go up and over the Mt. Berry pass into the high Alpine Meadows beyond it. We pitched camp, caught our dinner – dozens and dozens of small Dolly Varden trout that went straight from the frigid lake into our frying pans and then into our bellies, and then we sat around the camp fire telling stories and talking about how hard the next day’s climb was going to be.  A few hours after dark everybody was fast asleep in their tents.

The storm came up suddenly and violently as they do high in the mountains. There was a flash of lightening followed almost instantly by a clap of thunder and then it began to pour.  Too late did we realize that we had pitched out tents in a natural runoff for the rain from the granite peaks above us to the lake below us.  And thus began the longest and most desperate night of my life.

I was awakened by the screams of some of my boys being washed into the lake in their tents with all of their stuff. There was a mad scramble to get the boys untangled from their tents and out of the water.  And then once everybody was accounted for, the next critical task was to get out of the rain and to save our campfire for some warmth.  We quickly rigged a canopy over it and slowly fed it firewood that was just barely dry enough to burn.  We unzipped the sleeping bags that we still had to make blankets that we draped over little clusters of boys who looked like drowned rats and then we huddled around the fire against the dark, and the cold, and the rain, impatiently waiting for the sun to rise.

Psalm 130:5-6 says –

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

 My terrible night on that mountain with those boys helps me appreciate what the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote these words. The trouble he was in that prompted him to write this familiar prayer is unspecified in the text. Lots of interpreters say that they appreciate this ambiguity because it allows each reader to fill in the blank with his or her own particular crisis.  Our “depths” are different, and this cry from “out of the depths” is vague enough to be able to take them all in.  This is a prayer that anybody can pray no matter what it is that is threatening to undo them.

What drives the spirituality of this Psalm is the experience of waiting. Simone Weil, one of the great Christian mystics of the 20th century, said that the experience of “waiting patiently with expectation” is the “essence” of the spiritual life in the Bible, and I think that’s right.  The Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), and that means that faithful people are going to have to get comfortable with waiting because it concerns things that are “hoped for,” things that are “not yet seen.”

The God of the Bible hears our prayers and acts on our cries for help, to be sure, but always on His terms and in His time. And so, in this Psalm, we who believe get compared with “watchmen for the morning” who wait for the rising of the sun.  That’s literally what I did with my Boy Scouts high up on that mountain in Wyoming back in 1976.   We watched and we waited for the rising of the morning sun.  We understood that with the coming of its light and warmth that everything would get better for us, and this is why the Bible frequently uses the image of dawn as a way of talking about salvation.

The Christmas Canticle that Mark preached on last Sunday morning, the “Benedictus” (Luke 67-70), is the hymn of praise that Zechariah sang to God on the day when his son, the baby who would grow up to be John the Baptist, was born.   This is a song that gets sung in many parts of the church every single day as part of Morning Prayer, at the beginning of the day, just as the sun is rising.   From personal experience I can tell you that there’s some real power in saying – “Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” – as the first streaks of light are crossing a dark night sky.  The sunrise – the “day spring” – is a good picture of the true meaning of Christmas.  Just as the first streaks of light on the far horizon signal the start of a new day, so the humble birth of Christ in Bethlehem’s stable signaled the fulfillment of a promise, the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, the coming of God’s Savior to begin the work of repairing all of creation.  But it takes faith to see, and it takes time to unfold.

I know that we are living in a time of real “depths” – personal, social, political, and cosmic.  And I understand the very real feelings that many of us have that God has inexplicably absented Himself from the very real struggle in which we find ourselves these days. “Where is God?” is our cry in the face of terrorism, and natural catastrophe, and glaring injustice, and inconceivable violence, and abusive power, and blatant greed.  Why, there’s even a theological category for this feeling, it’s called Deus Absconditus,” and it refers to the way that God so often appears hidden in our experience and world. Reflecting on this, theologian Peter Leithart says that it’s when the world spins out of control and our instincts are to “rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” what we need to remember is that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we can know that “confusion is not the final word… that confusion will itself ultimately be confused and dispelled.” That’s the promise of Scripture.

dawnNo matter how dark the night, or chaotic the storm, God’s got this. And this is the kind of trust that the faithful waiting of Advent is meant to activate in us.  It’s by crying out from our depths, and then watching and waiting for God’s tender mercy to break upon us from on high like the dawn that we enter into the spiritual experience of Psalm 130, and the spiritual meaning of the season of Advent, and will wind up with hearts that are truly prepared for the celebration of the coming of Christ at Christmas. DBS +




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O Morning Star…

O Morning Star, you are the splendor of eternal life;
you are the dawning sun, the sun of justice:


Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death!

lightA year ago last November Mary Lynn and I went to Hawaii to celebrate our Fortieth Wedding Anniversary. Because of the time change and the jet lag, I was up well before dawn on our first morning there.   And so I went out on the balcony of our hotel room with a cup of coffee just to sit and watch the sun come up.  It was truly spectacular.   It didn’t happen all at once, mind you.  It wasn’t dark, and then all of a suddenly light as if somebody had thrown a switch.  No, it was a slow and gradual change.

First there was just a warm glow on the far horizon, and then this tiny little sliver of light that slowly erupted into bloom that, in turn, became this great big ball of light that seemingly rose up right out of the ocean.   It was the most impressive sunrise I have ever seen.  And what’s stayed with me from the experience was the gradual process of the darkness turning to light that that morning entailed.

In his chapter on “Defining Conversion” in his book on Humble Apologetics (Oxford University Press – 2002), John Stackhouse described our usual way of thinking as Christians as being “binary.”   Spiritually we’re accustomed to thinking that we’re either in or out, saved or lost, spiritually dead or spiritually alive.  I once heard an evangelist say that just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, so you can’t be a little bit Christian!  Either you are, or you aren’t, and that’s binary thinking, and it’s Biblical, to be sure.

“You must be born again,’” Jesus proclaimed (John 3:7). “God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13).  Only “those whose names were not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” would go to heaven and the rest to hell, prophesied John (Revelation 19:15) [Stackhouse 73]. It’s black or white, yes or no, in or out.  The Christian life begins with “a single, obvious, transformative experience of conversion” that fundamentally and irrevocably reorients the direction of one’s whole existence.  “When were you saved?” is the question that this perspective just loves to ask, and what it expects by way of an answer is a day, and an hour, and sometimes even a minute.  That’s binary thinking.

But the Bible also speaks of conversion more organically than this abrupt binary way of thinking might suggest. Just like that sunrise in Hawaii last year, there’s this beautiful process that gradually unfolds as the darkness turns to light.

growthThe Spiritual Life continuum from Willow Creek’s “Reveal” study describes the process as the movement from “Exploring Christ” to “Growing in Christ,” and then from “Growing in Christ” to being “Close to Christ,” and finally from being “Close to Christ” to becoming “Christ-Centered.” It doesn’t happen instantly or invariably.  We can get stuck, and we can regress.  But the ordinary course of the spiritual life is one of gradual growth into greater intimacy with and obedience to Christ as our Lord and Savior.

This is why every significant metaphor of the Christian Life that I can find in the Bible emphasizes this process of gradual transformation. Being a Christian is like a plant growing from a seed to a sprout to a harvest. Being a Christian is like a building going up from a foundation to a superstructure to the roof. Being a Christian is like running a race from the starting blocks to the course to finish line. Being a Christian is like the growth of a human being from birth through childhood to maturity.  And what this means is that rather than thinking about the spiritual life in strict binary ways, there is some real value in thinking about it instead in a more organic process that is slowly unfolding sort of way.   Rather than thinking in yes or no, black or white, in or out, “I’m saved” or “I’m not saved” sorts of ways, thinking in an “I’m in the process of being saved” sort of way opens us up to the more nuanced way that the experience of spiritual awakening occurs in most of us.

The Engle Scale was a tool that I learned about at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary when I was a student there in the mid-1970’s.


What this tool helped me to see is that a “decision of faith” (#’s 7-8-9-10 on the Engle Scale) are just steps along the way rather than the sum total of what it means to become and then be a Christian.  Just as that Hawaiian sunrise was not a sudden throw the switch from the darkness of night to the brightness of morning experience, but rather a gradual dawning of the light dispelling the darkness kind of experience, so I believe spiritually that people, all people, are somewhere in the process, on their journey to Christ.  And I think about this at Christmastime each year when I pray the fifth “O” Antiphon –

O Morning Star, you are the splendor of eternal life;
you are the dawning sun, the Sun of justice:
Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death!

With this petition I want Christ who is the light who enlightens every person in the world (John 1:9) to rise and shine in each and every person’s life, dispelling their darkness like a sunrise and ushering them into the light of His glory forever (John 1:14). DBS +

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O Key of David…

O Key of David, and Ruler of the House of Israel, you open and none can shut;
you shut and no one can open:


Come and lead out of the prison house the captives who sit in
darkness and in the shadow of death

easterThe traditional Easter icon of Eastern Orthodox Christianity shows the Risen Christ breaking down the gates of Hades and pulling people out of the bondage of death. The detail in this icon that I simply love are all the locks, and chains and keys that have been opened to set people free that are falling away beneath Christ’s feet.  As the Risen Christ tells the church in Philadelphia in Revelation 3:8 – I have opened a door for you that no one can close.” In the book of Hebrews this is the idea that’s at work in the wonderful invitation of chapter 10 –

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (10:19-22)

And, of course, this invitation is premised on the theologically rich image of the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple being torn open wide from top to bottom at the very moment when Christ died (Matthew 27:51). That curtain was the barrier that symbolically separated people from the Holy of Holies where God was said to dwell on earth. This was part of the dividing wall of hostility that Christ broke down on the cross giving us our access to God (Ephesians 2:14-18).

And so it is that in our run-up to Christmas the church prays the fourth “O” Antiphon –

O Key of David, and Ruler of the House of Israel, you open and none can shut;
you shut and no one can open: Come and lead out of the prison house
the captives who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

At Christmastime I begin by praying this “O” Antiphon as an intercession for myself. The door that Christ has opened by His saving presence and work is the door through which I must daily pass (John 10:1-3).  I understand that my access to God and His provision for all my needs depends upon this door being open.  And then I pray this “O” Antiphon as a petition for you.  I know that what Christ has provided for me through that open door, He intends to provide for you, and for all, as well.  And so I pray this fourth “O” Antiphon as a reminder of the mission that is mine as someone who has passed though that open door that is Christ.  It is not enough just for me to get “in.” Because that door to God has been opened by Christ for all, my experience of it is diminished so long as any remain outside of it.  This was Paul’s lament in Romans 9 where he wrote of his “great sorrow and unceasing grief” in his heart for those from his own spiritual family who remained outside the access and provision that Christ had made.  “I wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ,” Paul wrote, if that would mean their inclusion (9:3).

A more positive statement of this same desire was Sam Shoemaker’s (1893 – 1963) personal mission statement –

I Stand at the Door

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any person can do
is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
and put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
and opens to that person’s own touch.

People die outside the door, as starving beggars die
on cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia
and want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled.
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
to leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
but would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
before they got in. Then they would be able to help
the people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
and forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.

Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me – One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
for those who seek it.

‘I had rather be a door-keeper…
so I stand by the door.


Christ is the door that opens onto God, and through which we are invited to pass into His presence, and Christmastime each year is our opportunity to both remember what it is that we have been given in the coming of Christ, and to renew our commitment to the mission that He has placed in our hands just as soon as we have stepped through the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any person can do
is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
and put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
and opens to that person’s own touch.

– DBS +



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Robin Williams, Depression and the Church



My last two postings have been on the Dark Night of the Soul. This week, after the second posting, the news of Robin Williams’ suicide broke, and since then there has been a wide-ranging and nonstop conversation throughout our culture about depression, and while I deeply grieve the trigger, I gladly welcome the result. It’s long overdue. Depression is not well understood either by those who suffer from it, or by those who know and love people who do. And as the tragedy that is Robin William’s death so painfully shows, this kind of ignorance has devastating consequences.

Because everyone has periodic episodes of reactive or situational depression, stretches of feeling “blue” when things have not gone your way that becomes the interpretive grid that most people use to understand what depression is all about. It’s part of the inner response to an outer experience of loss, disappointment, failure, betrayal, sickness, discouragement or struggle. Something negative happens to us and depression is one of the things that we feel as we process the experience. It’s one of the phases or stages of adjustment; think of the way that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross mapped the grief experience in her seminal work On Death and Dying – Shock, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Depression is just part of the journey, one of the steps along the way to healing. It’s real and it hurts, but it’s temporary, it passes. The circumstances change and we start to feel better. In fact, people in situational depression are often encouraged by their family members and friends to “get out,” to “do things” and “go places” in order to start to feel better.   Because it was a situation or a circumstance in your life that made you feel bad, just engineer a change in your situation or circumstances and you will start to feel good again, or so the conventional wisdom goes.


We used to have a Mary Englebreit illustration printed on a piece of fabric and hanging on a wall at the house. It showed a rather stern looking little girl with her feet firmly planted, her hands on her hips and a set to her jaw with the words in the text box over her head reading “Snap out of it!” And that’s what depressed people are expected to do. Because experiences of reactive depression pass with time, when it is perceived that someone is staying too long at the fair – that one is wallowing in their misery – this impatient little girl shows up with her scowl and her screech. And while this kind of “shock” therapy, this swift sharp whack up the side of the emotional head might work for someone who is situationally depressed, it can’t touch the other kind of depression that there is, “clinical” or “endogenous” depression.

If reactive depression starts outside of us with a difficult circumstance or a bad situation, constitutional depression starts inside of us. While reactive depression is triggered by something that happens to us externally, clinical depression is just part of the way that some of us are wired internally; it’s part of our state of being. The way that I have sometimes described my own experience of being clinically depressed is to say that while we all fall into deep, dark holes from time to time that we then have to climb out of, that there are some of us who find ourselves in holes so deep and dark that they can’t be climbed out of. They are not a temporary state, a passing emotion that we can “snap out of,” they are where we live.

Since his suicide, I’ve heard people in the media wonder about what could have been so terrible in Robin Williams’ life to have prompted him to do this. I’ve heard the speculations that he was having money problems, or relationship problems, or career problems – a cancelled television series, or a health problem – more heart disease, or a substance abuse problem, and that it was this problem, whatever it was, that prompted him to take his life. But that’s reactive depression thinking in a clinical depression life. Something didn’t happen to Robin Williams this week that resulted in one desperately bad and irreversible decision. No, Robin Williams was sick; had been for a long time, and it was that disease – clinical depression – that killed him. Like any disease, you can live with clinical depression, function at a very productive and creative level, even while you are desperately ill. Think Abraham Lincoln. Think Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Think Vincent Van Gogh. Think Ernest Hemingway. This is what has confused so many people about Robin Williams. We saw his genius. His gifts were obvious to us. His accomplishments were great. But all of this happened against the backdrop of his very real suffering from a very real disease.

A few years ago we admired the strength of Patrick Swayze as he continued to act while battling terminal cancer. And when his disease finally claimed him, in the sadness of his death there was a widespread recognition of the courage that he had displayed in the way that he had continued to ply his craft when it would have been so easy for him to just have rolled over and quit. He “played hurt,” and we greatly respected it, even saw it as “heroic.” Well, so did Robin Williams, only it appears that he “played hurt” for his entire career. But because his terminal disease was mental rather than physical, it’s unlikely that his passing will be viewed by society at large in the same way. But I do. For all of the sadness of this week, I want to go on record here with my admiration, respect and honor for the courage and strength of Robin Williams.

Some of the most courageous people I know are those who battle mental illness. There are men and women all around you every day in the cubicle next to yours at work and on the pew next to you in worship who have to muster every last ounce of strength they have just to get out of bed in the morning to step into another day. They carry burdens and fight battles that we can’t even begin to imagine. And because we just don’t “get it,” because we don’t understand mental illness as a disease that is just as real and devastating as cancer, diabetes or emphysema, we think that these people could “snap out of it” if they really wanted to. Tell that to the next person you see having a heart attack!

It was in a class on ministry that I took in seminary taught by Dr. Charles Kemp that I first heard the quote: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” He said that this was one of the most basic principles of pastoral care. And if Robin William’s tragic death this week is to have any enduring impact on us, I urge it to be this.

In Matthew 12:20, it was said of Jesus Christ that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” In the history of interpretation these descriptions have been applied to the discouraged and the disheartened, to those who have been overwhelmed by their lives and are just barely hanging on. And it seems to me that the stance that Jesus took toward such people should be the stance that we as part of His church ought to be taking as well, and this begins with simple kindness, and a recognition of the depth and the darkness of the fight that so many find themselves in every single day.  DBS+


I highly recommend –

Robin w






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A Good Companion for the Dark Night

St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775)

St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775)


Alister McGrath in his book The Journey wrote about spiritual “hitchhiking” (Doubleday 2000).

The journey is long and tiring… There will be moments when we sit down on the side of the road in dejection and wonder why we even bothered setting out in the first place…  But there is another thought… Others have made this same journey before us.  They have experienced its highs and lows firsthand. They developed ways of coping with the tiredness, cynicism, and downright waywardness they knew on that journey.  Its milestones are stained with their tears. And some of them have passed on their experiences and insights to those who follow.  We are not alone; we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1-2) who are shouting encouragement and advice to us as we struggle onward.  So how can we make the best use of this wisdom – wisdom that has been quarried from the living stone of past lives of faith and tested on the journey of faith?  And one answer is to hitchhike, to catch a ride with others who are much better at this kind of thing than we are…  To hitchhike is to get a free ride and travel in company.  By the end of our ride, we are farther along the road than when we started, and we have enjoyed company along the way.  To hitch a ride is to learn more about people and life as well as move along the road to our destination.  It is to learn from the wisdom of others, who accompany us for a while along the road before dropping us off. (29-31)

Last week I wrote about “The Dark Night of the Soul” and how I learned make sense of my own experience of it.  This was one of the most important discoveries in my spiritual life.  And this week I want to introduce you to a good friend of mine whose experience with and insight into the Dark Night of the Soul has carried me farther along the road than where I started.  His name is Paolo Francesco Danei and he was born the son of a wealthy merchant in Northern Italy.  He was a contemporary of many our nation’s founding fathers, albeit, living half a world away.  His spirituality is summarized by the prepositional modifier that’s traditionally been attached to his name.  Paolo is known as St. Paul “of the Cross,” and the brothers and sisters of his Order are called the “Passionists.”  All of this “fits” because Paolo believed and taught that the Passion of Jesus Christ is the greatest “work and sign of God’s love.”  Not just an event of ancient history, St. Paul of the Cross regarded the Passion of Jesus Christ to be a present experience of God’s love that we need “to contemplate and allow to penetrate us.” This why “Passionist” brothers and sisters wear an embroidered cross over a heart on their black habits with words in Hebrew, Greek and Latin that say “The Passion of Christ.” This is their mission in a nutshell, to show people how to live their lives with the Passion of Christ constantly in their hearts.




For Paolo this became especially important because of the extreme spiritual and emotional hardship that he faced.  Beginning approximately a dozen years after his ordination to the priesthood and lasting for the next 45 years, St. Paul of the Cross knew nothing but the desolating experience Dark Night of the Soul.  He actually died with his brothers gathered around his bed reading the Gospels’ accounts of Christ’s crucifixion –

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is to say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 45)

And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is, being interpreted, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” (Mark 15: 33)

And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23: 44)

It was this sense of forsakenness and experience of darkness that was Paolo’s daily bread.  But rather than leading him to utter despair, Paolo’s long experience of the Dark Night of the Soul taught him instead how to commit himself more completely to the Father’s hands and to trust Him no matter what he felt or didn’t feel.  His sustained meditation on the Passion of Jesus Christ, and his keen personal appreciation of everything that Christ had suffered on his behalf – the inner anguish, the terrible fear and depression, the abandonment by His friends, the betrayal, the deprivation of His freedom, the injustices, the lies that were told about Him, the bodily pain and utter fatigue, the misunderstanding, helplessness, powerlessness, sense of failure, the feelings of being abandoned by God the Father and finally death itself – provided Paolo with the strength and the grace that he needed to see his own journey of faith through to its end.

Writing the Introduction to a study of “The Mysticism of the Passion in St. Paul of the Cross,” the Protestant Theologian Jurgen Moltmann observed –

We need nothing so urgently as the “wisdom of the cross” …since it is the liberating and redeeming truth of God and of man. …The cross… is the revelation of God’s love…  Whoever recognizes the Crucified One recognizes the abyss of God’s love, so full of sorrows; (and) whoever recognizes the Crucified One will recognize that people for whom He suffered and died.  …The cross does not belong to an elite; it leads rather to a solidarity with abandoned people.

My feelings are way too fickle and fleeting to be the foundation of my faithfulness.  If I only loved God and my neighbor when I felt like it, then believe me when I tell you that with my wintry soul by spiritual temperament and my diagnosis of clinical depression with which I struggle every single day, that there would be long stretches in my life when I would do nothing.  But rather than depending on my subjective feelings for spiritual motivation, I have resolved with St. Paul of the Cross to be driven instead by the objective facts of what God has done for me in Jesus Christ.


Jesus on the cross


Emotions are not a means of grace.
The preaching the Word is.
Baptism is.
The Lord’s Supper is.
The Lord’s Day is.

Each of these Gospel Ordinances in their own way anchors us to the “hard historical facts” (Alister McGrath) of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. This all really happened, and it happened “for us men and for our salvation” as the Nicene Creed put it so concisely.  And this is true not because it makes me feel this way or that way.  It’s objectively true apart from whatever I might be feeling, or not feeling.  And it is from that firm place that I try to step everyday into a life of love – love for God and love for neighbor.

Whenever George Tyrell of 19th century England grew weary in his mission of trying to change the thinking of the church in his day, whenever he found himself tempted to give up the struggle, he said that he would look at crucifix, and “always the figure of that strange man hanging on the cross sends me back to my tasks again.” And this is what my friend St. Paul of the Cross has taught me to do as well.  “God can work in us,” he said, “only when we pass through the door which is Jesus Christ and His most holy Passion, which is the greatest and most stupendous work of His love.”  DBS+



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The Dark Night of the Soul



In May of 1975 I came across an article in Christianity Today (May 23, 1975; 7-8) by Stanley Lindquist, a professor of psychology at California State University in Fresno, that has been defining for my life and ministry ever since.  Called “Dishonesty on Cloud Nine,” Dr. Lindquist said that Christians are just being “dishonest” when we “give the impression that God’s presence keeps us always on ‘cloud nine,’” when we act as if we are living lives of perpetually “exalted mood and no defeat” (7).

Dr. Lindquist described his own life as being immensely “interesting and rewarding.”  He said that his life’s assignments were truly challenging, and that his life’s accomplishments were deeply satisfyingly.  “Yet at times,” he still confessed, “I am caught up in feelings of hopelessness, defeat and horrible despair.  Sometimes nothing goes right.  Mistakes accumulate in rapid succession, and I feel ready to give up.  Life seems not to be worth the herculean effort I am making to keep things going” (8).  And Dr. Lindquist insisted that it was our emotional dishonesty as Christians, the “false picture of a (continuously) victorious Christian experience” that we try to paint for others that perpetuates the distorted view of Christianity as the “bubbling function of life.”  

This was the very first time that anyone gave me a “heads up” about the seasons of dryness, discouragement and darkness that are just a natural part of the genuine spiritual life.  Oh, believe me, I’d already had some.  By 1975 I’d been spiritually “awake” for nearly a decade, and in that time I’d known some stretches of spiritual bareness when it felt like God was absent and silent. A familiar preacher’s illustration was the only wisdom that I’d been given up to that point to help explain my experience before finding that article in 1975.

An older couple was sitting in their car at a red light one day. The wife looked over at the car next to them and saw a young couple, obviously deeply in love, sitting close to each other. The woman looked over at her husband and said, “I remember the days when we used to sit that close to each other.”  And her husband just grunted and said, “Well, I didn’t move.”

The truth of this narrative was that any distance that I might be feeling in my relationship with God was my fault.  If God wasn’t close then it was because I’d “moved.”  Believing this, Psalm 51:10-12 became my frequent and heartfelt petition –

Create in me a clean heart, God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Thy presence, and do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit.

Beginning with a “cloud 9” assumption that my life as a Christian was supposed to be one of “exalted mood and no defeat,” when my experience proved to be otherwise, my first response was always to just automatically assume that I had done something wrong that needed to get fixed before the joy of my salvation could return.

I “Job-ed” myself.

In the book of Job it was Job’s friends who explained his misery by arguing that because bad things only happen to bad people, that he must be bad.  And so, when my spiritual life turned barren, I scolded myself using the familiar scripts of Job’s friends.  Obviously it was because I’d “moved” that God was suddenly distant.  And there were times when this assessment proved to be exactly right.

St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life observed –

It is ourselves who are often the cause of our own sterile, arid state… God holds back consolations from us when we have foolish compliance in them and are subject to the worms of presumption… When we neglect to gather the dear delights of God’s love at the proper season, he takes then from us in punishment for our sloth…

Psalm 51:10-12 is exactly the right thing to pray in this situation and under these circumstances.  Repentance, confession and the renewal of faith in Jesus Christ as our “Advocate with the Father” (I John 1:5-2:2) is the right course of action to take when the distance that you experience between yourself and God is the result of your own spiritual negligence, rebellion and infidelity.  In words that ought to send a shudder through our souls, God tells us that there are a variety of circumstances and conditions of heart when He won’t listen to our prayers or respond to our cries (Isaiah 58; Malachi 1-2; I Peter 3:7).  There are times of spiritual desolation when we, in fact, have “moved,” and the only way back is by penance and forgiveness.

But there are also times of spiritual desolation when we haven’t moved, and that’s what Dr. Lindquist alerted me to in his defining 1975 Christianity Today article.  There are seasons of the spiritual life when it is God who “moves.”   Known in the spiritual literature as the “Dark Night of the Soul,” and/or, the “Dark Night of the Senses,” this is when God purposefully withdraws His “consolations” (the “felt” dimensions of God’s presence – e.g. “peace,” “love,” “joy”) from us in order to deepen our faith.  A good Biblical illustration of this dynamic of the spiritual life was the end of the miraculous provisions for God’s people in the wilderness and the beginning of their responsibility to have to farm and herd for themselves in order to meet their physical needs (Deuteronomy 8).  Another illustration of it was Jesus’ instructions to His disciples in the Upper Room when it was time for Him to go away and they were going to be left feeling “orphaned” (John13-17).  Ralph Martin in his masterful book on the spiritual life The Fulfillment of all Desire (Emmaus 2006) writes –

When we continually “see” the work of God in our life, there is less need for faith.  When the perception of blessing or presence is removed, there is an opportunity to exercise faith on a deeper and purer level, which is very pleasing to God and unites us in a deep way with Him, even when His closeness to us might not be felt. (170-171)

If the way “back” from the dryness and darkness we experience when we have moved away from God is penance and forgiveness, then the way “forward” through the dryness and darkness we experience when God moves away from us is to “trust and obey” as the old Gospel hymn puts it.  The Divine purpose in the “dark night” of the soul and/or senses is to teach us how to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), and so when we find ourselves in the middle of one of them, the best strategy is to plant our feet on what we know to be solid ground.  As another old Gospel hymn instructs –

When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale, My anchor holds within the veil.

When things go dark for us spiritually, this is when the spiritual disciplines that have been honed in the light pay their best dividends.  The disciplined engagement with Scripture, the daily habit of heartfelt prayer, the hard work of being in community and the weekly gathering at the Lord’s Table are where we find the solid ground where our anchors hold in the high and stormy gales when darkness veils His lovely face.

For me, the most powerful declaration of faith that I find in Scripture is the one that comes at the end of the book of the Prophet Habakkuk –

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. (3:17-18)

This is the kind of faith that is born of the experience of spiritual dryness and darkness, and it is the kind of faith that will see us through. DBS+



I believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining.
I believe in love even when I am alone.
I believe in God even when he is silent.

These words were found scrawled on a cellar wall where
Jews had hidden in World War II in Cologne, Germany.

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A Pelagian Lent?

   abc      “Lent is not an orgy of Pelagian self-improvement!”
          ~ A Fr. Blake of St. Mary in Brighton ~

On Ash Wednesday this year the noon Bible Study that I teach each week just happened to be looking at Romans 10:6-8 –

The righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching…

This is clearly an echo of Deuteronomy 30:11-14 –

For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

In both places what we are being told is that the Word of God is not far away in some remote place inaccessible to us. In Deuteronomy God’s Word is the Law, and in Romans God’s Word is the Gospel. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that God only and always speaks just two words to us – Law or Gospel – and then he added that a true theologian knows the difference between the two!  The point of both of these texts is that we don’t have to go on some long arduous quest like Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings in order to get to the Word of God, either the Law or the Gospel.  In both cases, they are close by because God has spoken them to us.  As the theologian Carl F.H. Henry (a distant relative of our own Dr. Henry I have been told) put it, God’s revelation was a willing self-disclosure, an expression of His grace. God forfeited His own personal privacy in order that His creatures might know Him. We didn’t have to go looking for God in the darkness; God spoke to us out of the darkness.  We don’t have to pry God out of His hiding place in the heavens; God has shown up in our midst all on His own.  God has taken the initiative.  God has made the effort.  God has overcame the separation.  God has closed the gap. We are just the recipients of His gift, the beneficiaries of His actions.  This is something we really need to keep in mind during Lent.

Because Lent “talk” usually centers on what you are “giving up,” what has sometimes been described as “spiritual subtraction” – the sacrifices that you are prepared to make out of your devotion to God in this season of spiritual preparation for Easter, or on what you are “taking on,” what has been described as “spiritual addition” – the spiritual disciplines that you are exercising to expand your spiritual capacity to receive the fullness of the Easter blessings, it is real easy for Lent to slip into the old heresy of Pelagianism.

Pelagius was British monk who showed up in Rome in the late fourth and early fifth century, the era of St. Augustine, and was immediately distressed by the moral laxity and spiritual immaturity that he witnessed.  He taught a muscular version of Christianity that concluded that our basic problem as human beings is ignorance and a lack of will power.  If we would just be better taught and then get really motivated, we could become better people and thereby create a better world.  Jesus for Pelagius was a moral example of the kind of people we could become with a little bit of effort.  C. FitzSimons Allison, the retired Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, described this as the “Roger Bannister doctrine of the Atonement.”

Before Roger Bannister no one was able to run a mile in four minutes.  Many even declared it physiologically impossible.  In breaking the four-minute barrier however, he broke the psychological impediment in the minds of athletes the world over and scores soon followed him in that accomplishment. …Jesus broke the mental and psychological barrier in the minds of people who felt that righteousness by the law was impossible to win.  (But) Jesus had now actually done it …The meaning of his life and work was, thus, reduced to an example for us to follow. (The Cruelty of Heresy 31-32)

Do you see how, if we are not careful, Lent can become a thoroughly Pelagian exercise?


The annual invitation that we extend each year on Ash Wednesday to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” can be heard as a list of requirements that must be met before the grace of this season of the church year can be experienced by us, or as a description of the kinds of faithful responses that we can make to the grace that has already broken into our lives in Jesus Christ. Taken the first way, and what you have is Pelagianism – thinking that it will be by your own heroic efforts at following the example of Jesus Christ that you will work your way into spiritual maturity. Taken the second way, and what you have is the Gospel – a salvation by grace through faith and not by our works that nevertheless issues in good works (Ephesians 2:8-10).  Taken the first way and Lent is something that I would urge you to avoid like the plague.  It is a spiritual dead-end that can do some real damage to your soul.   But taken the second way, and Lent can be just what you need to get some focus in your spiritual life and to better position yourself in the current of God’s grace that is flowing into your life as a Christian through the channels of the means of grace that God has appointed and is actively utilizing to fuel your spiritual growth.

Mark Roberts, the theologian in residence down at Laity Lodge down in the Hill Country, provided this “Pastoral Word” in a resource that he produced a couple of years ago for people who were coming to the tradition of Lent for the very first time –

Let me note, at this point, that if you think of Lent as a season to earn God’s favor by your good intentions or good works, then you’ve got a theological problem. God’s grace has been fully given to us in Christ. We can’t earn it by doing extra things or by giving up certain other things in fasting. If you see Lent as a time to make yourself more worthy for celebrating Good Friday and Easter, then perhaps you shouldn’t keep the season until you’ve grown in your understanding of grace. If, on the contrary, you see Lent as a time to grow more deeply in God’s grace, then you’re approaching Lent from a proper perspective.

As a minister on a college campus put it to her students: “If your Lenten disciplines don’t lead you closer to Christ, ditch them… He understands.”   DBS+

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