Sunday, September 28, 2014

Crossing Seas in the Dark (9/28/14)

Crossing Seas in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 28, 2014

Exodus 14:19-30
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

For the past several years I have been organizing worship services around the four- fold path as articulated by Matthew Fox in his book, Original Blessing.   These are four paths that spiral eternally through one’s life.    Matthew Fox uses Latin phrases to describe these paths.   The word for path in Latin is via.    The four paths or ways or vias are positive, negative, creative, transformative.   

Via positiva—the path of light, awe and wonder
Via negativa—the path of darkness, silence, letting go
Via creativa  – the path of creativity
Via transformativa –the path of transformation or justice-making.

I have found these four paths to be helpful in putting a framework to my own life experiences.   I can look back and see how I have been on all four paths.  I may be on more than one path at the same time.   These are not necessarily religious paths or spiritual paths, even though I am discussing them in church.  They are life paths.  We travel them individually and culturally.  

You might ask, “Where do these paths lead?”   Depending upon your philosophy or theology, they might lead to a variety of places.    They may help you articulate what you value, what you want or need.  Perhaps they will take you to a deeper sense of purpose or meaning or noble reflection or constructive action.   Or maybe the paths are like these words of the poem by Galway Kinnell,

“…our tracks wobble across the snow their long scratch.   Everything that happens here is really little more, if even that, than a scratch, too.”  

I tend to turn and walk away from those who tell me that their path is the correct path or the real path or the God path.  I tend to think, “It may be for you, I’ll find my own, thanks.”   And yet, these paths may lead us if we are comfortable using the language of God, to a recognition of God’s presence.

I have found these paths to be helpful in structuring worship.   I plan my services and sermons one season or one path at a time.    Via positiva with its energy and sunshine is summer.   Via transformativa with life breaking out is spring.  Via creativa is the work of winter.     It doesn’t really matter what season of the year corresponds with what path.   You could make connections between the paths and the seasons in many ways. 

During the season of Fall
with the trees letting go of their leaves,
with the sun leaving us earlier each day and arriving later each morning,
offering us less of its warmth and light as the season progresses to the winter solstice, the longest night,
this season is appropriate for the via negativa, the path of letting go and letting be.

The via negativa is not a path either celebrated or often acknowledged in our culture or in western Christianity.    Fox points out that we lack a via negativa in the West.  We either ignore it or avoid it or we turn it into asceticism and toxic religion.   We call that which is of the dark or night, bad, evil or sinful and something to control or master.   

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, calls our predicament, a sunny spirituality.   We want light 24/7.   No room for doubt or silence or pain.

When we think of darkness, we have connotations that are distasteful.    Evil lurks in the darkness.  The dark lord.  The dark ages.  The dark side.  Darkness is something to fear.  We turn on the lights.  

The darkness we are talking about can be physical darkness.  It can also be metaphorical darkness.  I have found in walking this path that it is not easy to sort out exactly what the via negativa is.    I want to talk about pain as a path.  Yet I don’t want to glorify pain.   I want to talk about sadness as a path.  But I don’t want to wallow there.  I want to talk about doubt as a path, but I am not sure I want doubt to be my final destination. 

There is a care in walking the via negativa, in much the same way we carefully walk through a room in the dark, one step at a time, feeling our way, senses heightened when sight is limited.   The via negativa as a spiritual path also requires care.  There are things that can trip us up.   Not evil things.  Just things you don’t see. 

I invite you this Fall, to explore this path, to learn to walk in the dark with me.   I am going to be a bit intentional about it.  In addition to the sermons and worship services, I encourage you to purchase a book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor.   

It is a beautiful book.  She spoke with me on my radio program.  I like her.

I am also going to organize a few small groups for those who might like to meet some others and discuss this path.    I invite everyone and I especially encourage those who are new to our community to participate.  

The via negativa, the path of walking in the dark, so to speak, is a sacred journey.  This is 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart.

This word is a hidden word
and comes in the darkness of the night.
To enter this darkness put away
all voices and sounds
all images and likenesses.
For no image has ever reached into the soul’s foundation
where God herself
with her own being is effective.
Those who know the ways of the night, the walk in the dark, know that there are things found there of great value, that you cannot find when you only walk in the light.    Half of our lives is spent in the dark.   Physically for sure, but metaphorically, emotionally, and spiritually as well.   The via negativa invites us to explore it as opposed to avoiding it.   What is there? 

During this season we will explore some stories from the Bible that happen in the dark:  Jacob wrestles with an angel all night.    Jesus prays for the cup to be taken from him.  Jesus walks on water in the night.   He goes in the darkness to a deserted place to pray.    Jonah has time for introspection in a fish belly in the dark.    

We will look at some other traditions.  Buddha attains enlightenment after a dark night of temptation.  Mohammad is led by God on a sacred night journey.   Creation happens in the dark.  Mary receives her announcement in the dark.  Joseph is guided by dreams in the dark.   Of course, on Christmas Eve, we sing O Holy Night.   Moses climbs the mountain in the dark to receive the Ten Commandments.  

Today’s story also features Moses.  I had forgotten that it was at night when Yahweh split the sea and led the Israelites across.    I haven’t seen the movie in a while.    All of these stories take place in the dark.   I am going to use these stories to spin us off into reflections on the Via Negativa, the way of letting go and of letting be, a walk in the dark.   

The Israelites are at the edge of the sea.  The Egyptian army is after them.   The Israelites cry out:  
"Why did we do this?   Are there no graves in Egypt that we have to be slaughtered out here?  We should have stayed."   
Better slaves than dead.  Right?  Take a chance.  You lose.  You get hurt.  You poke your eye out.   Assert your independence, you get smacked down.   Better to remain safe.  Better safe than sorry.  That is the slogan given to those who would dare venture in the dark to a liberation unknown.

The problem with a revolution, the problem with starting something new, is that there is no new system in place.   You can’t know what you are going to.   You can’t see it.  You can see where you have been, but you can’t see where you are going.   It is scary.  You are not sure if it is worth it.   Even a bad situation, even slavery, seems better.  So how does anyone ever go anywhere?  

You end up going when can’t afford not to go.   

You decide to make a change when you get to the point that you just have to do it.  When the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of change.   Some never even reach that point.   Some learn to tolerate a great deal of pain without ever changing.   We can spend a long time, perhaps even our whole lives avoiding the change that would be good for us because we are afraid of the unknown.  

This is why the via negativa is an important path.   It is a path that teaches us courage.   The fruit of the via negativa is courage.   It is a path that teaches us to be more malleable.  

You also end up going when you learn to walk in the dark. 

The more we learn to walk in the dark, the more we are able to change when we need to change.  The biblical story of exodus and of the wandering in the wilderness is the story of learning to walk in the dark.   The Israelites are resistant. They cry out for help.  When help comes, they want it but they also don’t want it.  It requires a scary walk in the dark.   They have to learn to trust.     The point of the story is that they are not alone.   The cloud, the divine presence, is with them in the darkness.    
“Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.”  We sing about it.

Of course, this ancient story is filled with mythical language and miracle and divine beings, but the point is true:  you have what it takes to venture into the unknown.    You can call it whatever you want, God, courage, confidence, whatever.  It is in you and with you.   

“…the cloud was there with the darkness.”

These biblical stories that take place at night in the dark, are trust stories.    They teach us to take a step, to feel our way in the dark, and to trust.   

I am sure you can think of a time in your own life in which you needed to take a step in the dark, a step of trust.  It was unknown, uncertain, scary, but you did it.  Recall that time.    Maybe it had to do with a relationship, a loss, a job, a decision, a speech.   Go ahead and think of a time that you needed to cross the sea in the dark, so to speak.   I am going to give you a minute to bring something to mind.


The via negativa, this way of learning to walk in the dark is not something you learn by sitting in a pew, listening to a sermon about it.   You learn to walk in the dark by taking a baby step in the dark.    Right now I invite you to find three other people and tell of a time you crossed the sea in the dark.   Go ahead now and find a group of four and share your crossing the sea in the dark story.   Take turns, introduce yourself and share your story, listen attentively to the others and then when the music starts we will sing our hymn.

(story sharing)


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