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Late Autumn 2019 | Exploring Darkness


Late Autumn Part 3: The Kind of Person I Am

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And for the readers…

I learn a lot from the rhythms of nature. And, in the past few sermons, I’ve been asking what the always spinning earth and its cyclical seasons teach us about darkness. But it’s such a complicated topic that I wanted to take a moment to explore what culture teaches us about darkness. In different ways and to different degrees, we’ve been taught to view darkness as something that’s scary, evil, sinful, depressing, secretive, ignorant, and dangerous. These incredibly common understandings of darkness—so common that we might not even notice them—saturate our lives, shaping how we determine whether or not something, or someone, is “good” or “bad.” I know that as a white person trained in Christianity, I benefit from the view that darkness is sinful. But in the complicated way that power works, my white skin is only one part of the equation. The privilege of my voice is limited by the fact that I inhabit a female body. Years ago in a church stairwell, I had a man look me in the eye and tell me I was responsible for the sin of the world. This idea, of course, comes from the story of Eve eating an apple—a story that’s been twisted into a belief that women are both weak and sinful. Women have been been taught that darkness is dangerous. And that this danger is our own fault. We grow up with the constant refrain that we should never be alone in the dark.   

But I don’t want to fear the dark. I want my body to be safe in the dark. And I want the bodies of people of color—the bodies that dominate culture teaches us to fear—to to be safe. But I know they’re not.

And this reality fills me with remorse and a deep sense of inadequacy. I have no idea how to effectively break down the structures of power that drum up fear in order to maintain the racist status quo of our world. Because, the reality is, they’re not some far off, separate structures that we can all just step out of and observe. They’re the regular old structures that organize our daily lives. How do we change something that feels as normative as air? But the difficulty of this question and my own feelings of inadequacy cannot be an excuse for inaction. As the Mishnah tells us:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

I might not know how to transform the overwhelming and invisible structures of oppression in this world, but I do have an understanding of personal transformation. And personal transformation is an imperative step in the transformation of our world. Because systems are made up of people—they’re made up of us. We, all of us, participate even in what we hate. We can’t engage in changing these systems without first engaging ourselves and our own practices.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna what kind of action he should take. And this is no small question. Arjuna’s asking whether or not he should go to war against his family. Krishna answers back with a series of teachings designed to help Arjuna become the right actor—actor here meaning the person who takes action. Before we ask what kind of action we should take, we have to figure out what kind of person we are. We have to work to become the right actor.

So let us reexamine the kind of people we are. Let’s try and untangle our deepest values from the cultural assumptions we don’t even realize we’re carrying. Let’s reexamine the ways that we’ve been taught to fear darkness. And let’s be honest about how these societal fears allow for racist violence and oppression. And let’s use our voices to stand against the dominate systems of power that perpetuate this fear.

In the first stanza of his poem A Ritual to Read to Each Other, William Stafford wrote…

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

We must face the ways that we’ve been shaped by the cultural patterns that surround us. In order to figure out the kind of person we are we have to unravel our fears from our highest truth.  Next time you find yourself afraid of darkness, pause to ask yourself why.

  • Why am I scared?
  • What am I scared of?
  • Who wants me to be scared?
  • Is there actual danger here?
  • Or have I only been trained to view this situation or person as fearful?

Unless we want to follow the wrong god home, we must do the hard work of rooting out the hidden ways that we remain complacent and complicit within our racist structures.

This is hard work. But it’s the hard work of learning to Love the world better.


REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  • How do you understand and connect with Divine Mystery?
  • How do you define what it means to love? How do you practice loving?
  • How does your understanding of and connection with Divine Mystery support your efforts to practice loving yourself, your community, and the world better?
  • Susanna Barkataki writes: “Spiritual bypassing is using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, wounds, cultural issues of oppression, privilege, power and inequality. When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use oneness, awakening or liberation to rationalize and get to ​premature transcendence​: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it or done the work to try to really change it.” 
    • Are there ways that your stated spiritual ideals allow you to avoid the messy side of our human reality?
  • I encourage you, especially if you’re white, to explore any subtle (or not so subtle) ways that you’ve internalized the racism of our dominate culture. This is hard work, but part of practicing love and not falling into patterns of spiritual bypass requires attention.

COMMUNITY COMMENTS

We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation. What did this week’s sermon and reflection questions spark in you?