Tag Archives: Darkness

Dark Places

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For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.

Psalm 88:3 (NRSVCE)

I found it ironic this morning that in the very midst of the holiday season my chapter-a-day journey would bring me to perhaps the darkest song we will encounter in this anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics. As we reach the end of 2020, mental health experts have warned that social isolation, fear, anxiety, and depression created by the pandemic will have long-term effects. Just a few weeks ago it was reported that San Francisco has had more deaths by drug overdose in 2020 than Covid deaths. It is clear that many people are finding themselves in dark places mentally, emotionally, and spiritually right now.

One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate about the Great Story is that it doesn’t gloss over the darkness that is experienced on this earthly journey. In fact, what I have found in the 40 years that I’ve been studying it is that suffering is consistently presented as an essential ingredient in spiritual development, formation, and maturity. I’m reminded of our landscaper telling Wendy and me not to be too generous in giving water to our newly planted trees and shrubs. “They need to suffer a little bit,” he said, “even if it looks like they’re struggling you want to force them to push their roots deep into the soil. It will ultimately make them stronger and healthier.”

The liner notes of Psalm 88 attribute the lyrics to Heman the Ezrahite, who was well-known as a Hebrew sage in the days of Solomon. If the song is at all biographical, then Heman had a rough life. There is no uplifting statement of faith or hopeful assurance like those found in the darkest of King David’s songs. There is darkness, the pit of despair, the loneliness of being a social outcast, and the ever-nearness of death. If you’re an angst-filled teenager or a melancholy Enneagram Type Four, then you’ll love wallowing in the gloom as Heman pens “the Darkness is my closest friend.” It is part of the human experience to attribute life’s difficulties with divine wrath, retribution, or judgment.

It’s easy to overlook, however, that the lyrics quite purposefully state that the person is still praying morning (vs. 13), noon (vs. 9), and night (vs. 1). He is struggling through the darkness, blaming his troubles on the God to whom he continues to cry out, to pray, and to seek. As I meditated on this fact, God’s Spirit brought two other passages to mind:

Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
    to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
    If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings
    to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute—
    you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
    At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you;
    night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.

Psalm 139:7-12 (MSG)

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

In the quiet this morning I find myself reflecting on the difficulties we’ve all experienced in 2020. On this life journey, I’ve observed that every person treks through dark places when the last thing I want to hear is a cheery “Buck up little camper” or some over-spiritualized encouragement. As an Enneagram Four, I’m given to wallowing in the melancholy. In my own life journey, like Heman the Hebrew Sage, I’ve found myself in those stretches just continuing to press on in seeking, stretching, crying out morning, noon, and night.

Jesus told His followers that He was “the vine” and His Father was “the gardener.” From my current waypoint on life’s road, I can look back and see how in the darkest stretches of my life journey the Gardner was present, watching over me, pruning, and prodding: “Keep thirsting. Dig those roots deep into the soil. That’s where you’ll find Living Water.”

Want to Read More?

Click on the image, or click here, to be taken to a simple, visual index of all the posts in this series from the book of Psalms.

There is also a list of recent chapter-a-day series indexed by book.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

My Secret to a Good Night’s Sleep

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely,
    but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.
Proverbs 10:9 (NIV)

For many years I have had a fascination with the largest, non-commercial blog in the world. It went viral so long ago that there may be many today who have never heard of PostSecret. Frank Warren had a simple idea for a local art contest. He distributed a bunch of blank, self-addressed postcards in random public places where they would be found. He asked people who found them to anonymously share a secret. A half-million postcards later, they continue to arrive in his mailbox daily. Each Sunday he posts a handful of new secrets he’s received to his ad-free blog.

Last summer I gave a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers called It’s a Secret about the different types of secrets we human beings tend to keep and the unhealthy ways they affect our lives (You can download and listen here). I shared some of my own history of keeping secrets along my life journey and the lessons that l learned from them.

One of the things Frank Warren says from his years as the caretaker of hundreds of thousands of secrets is that sometimes we think we are holding on to a secret when, actually, the secret is holding on to us.

In today’s chapter of wise King Solomon’s ancient proverbs, Sol says that those who walk with integrity walk securely. When I read that I thought: those who give up their secrets don’t live in constant fear of being found out. I thought about my years of desperately keeping secrets. They were periods of anxiety, cyclical shame, and the fear of getting caught. To Frank’s point, my secrets were holding on to me, impeding my journey, and making me feel that there was a ticking time-bomb of revelation waiting to go off at any moment. My secrets kept me up at night. They were part of the reason I didn’t sleep well.

Along my journey, I went through a period of confession in which I owned up to my secrets and went on a sojourn to discover my authentic self. I sought out the person I really am without secrets and I embraced all of my glaring imperfections and indulgent appetites. In the process, I learned that darkness makes it hard to see things for what they really are. Secrets, sins, mistakes, and imperfections are far scarier and seem infinitely more powerful under the cloak of darkness. When brought into the light, they lose their grip.

This morning Wendy asked me one of our daily repeated, routine questions: “How did you sleep last night?”

I slept well, thanks.

I hope you are sleeping securely, as well.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Hope and Despair in a House of Cards

So justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
    for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
Isaiah 59:9 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been watching the acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards over the past year or so. Last night we finished the third season. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are amazing actors. The story is compelling and the plot has some incredible twists that have caught me completely off guard. (FYI: There is some very graphic content, for those who desire to avoid it.)

Over the past couple of episodes Wendy and I have both felt the heaviness that comes when you find yourself mired in dark, depressing storylines. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet gets depressing by the end of the play; The stage littered with the senseless dead. Last night Wendy and I began to analyze and unpack what in the series had brought us to feel this with House of Cards.

As we began to analyze the characters in the show, it struck us that, across almost 40 episodes the writers had not given us one redemptive character. In fact, on multiple occasions the main characters toy with redemption, play on the edges of doing the right thing, only to be sucked back into the tangled web of greed, lust, power and deceit. In the world of House of Cards, goodness equals weakness. Trying to do the right thing makes you a victim or a fool. It is, admittedly, a bleak vision of our political class.

I contrast this with stories of real people I know and have met. They are stories of individuals who were mired in the types of dark places embodied by House of Cards. In these stories, however, a mysterious mixture of personal courage and divine grace led people to turn from dark places to be enveloped in Light. Greed gave way to generosity. Lust gave way to love. Humility replaced pride. The forsaken found forgiveness.

I found it a bit of synchronicity that in today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah spins a poetic description of those lost in the darkness. Isaiah describes those entangled and entrapped in the consequences of their own wrong motives, and perpetually poor choices. Living in those places, as I can personally recall, does feel like a house of cards. You live in constant fear that the whole thing will fall apart, and it eventually does.

As with the stories I recall this morning, redemption comes at the end of Isaiah’s poetic vision. The Redeemer arrives in a eucatastrophic moment. With the Redeemer comes repentance, Spirit, presence, and peace. Darkness gives way to Light. Those are stories to which I am drawn. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with House of Cards for season four. I’m not one to give up hope on redemption.

The Moment

Again Peter denied [he was with Jesus in the garden], and at that moment the cock crowed.
John 18:27 (NRSV)

Of the big four biographies of Jesus, John has always been my favorite. Each one has their own style. I can appreciate Matthew for his accounting of the events. I appreciate Mark for his ability to compact so much information into so concise a retelling. I love Dr. Luke for his thorough, methodical presentation of his investigation and the minute details he includes. I love John most of all because John has a flair for writing. John is right brained. John is an artist. He is thematic in his narrative, and he has a flair for the dramatic.

Four chapters ago, John foreshadowed the events in today’s chapter when he recounts Jesus telling Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

As John picks up the story line in today’s chapter I, as a reader, almost feel like I’m stealing alongside Peter and “the other disciple.” (many scholars think the “other” disciple was John himself) as they covertly infiltrate the courtyard and house of the High Priest where Jesus is being questioned. They are in enemy territory. The High Priest is the one who wants to kill Jesus and squash their uprising like Michael Corleone taking out one of the five families. It did not take a genius to know that this High Priest/Godfather would relish the opportunity to kill Jesus’ followers as well. Peter is on thin ice.

John is careful to describe each denial. We learn where he was and who did the questioning. The other biographers merely relay the facts as though Peter’s denials happened in one short burst of conversation. John lays out the story. It is on their way through the gate into the High Priest’s courtyard that the servant woman checking tickets first asks Peter a question and implies a negative answer. “You aren’t one of Jesus’ followers, are you?” The denial is easy and convenient. A little white lie to ensure we get into the courtyard.

John writes out the narrative like a movie script. The scene changes to the questioning of Jesus inside the house. Time is elapsing. Peter’s denial did not come in rapid succession. There was time and space between them.

When the scene shifts back we find ourselves inside the High Priest’s courtyard. We are there warming our hands on the charcoal fire. We feel the chill in the air in the deep watches of the night. There is a crowd around the fire. This is the High Priest’s house and the crowd is full of people who could easily finger us as followers. The situation is tense, to say the least.

A man, an anonymous stranger in the crowd, once again asks Peter if he is a follower of Jesus. Once again the question implies a negative response. “You aren’t one of Jesus’ disciples, are you?” Heads turn. It’s suddenly very quiet around the fire. This is not just a random question. This is a life and death moment. We are about to be found out. Peter, once again, provides a little white lie to shrug off the suspicion.

But, it just may be that the jig is up. Another member of the crowd takes a good look at Peter. This time it is not an anonymous stranger. This is a family member of the man Peter attacked earlier in the evening. When they came for Jesus in the garden, Peter hacked off the ear of this man’s cousin. Now, the question is not just about political loyalty to Jesus. This question is about blood oaths and family and vengeance. You can cut the silence like a knife. Tension hangs in the air before Peter’s denial comes swift and strong. He is preventing a riot. He is saving his own neck. He is making sure we all get out of here alive.

And then, at that very moment, we hear the cock crow.

There is a moment of realization. Peter hears it. We hear it. The words of Jesus come flooding back to mind. “Before the cock crows….” Shame and failure mix in a bitter cup.

What a moment. John is a good writer. He has a flair for the dramatic. This is Jack Nicholson’s “code red” moment in A Few Good Men. This is Michael Corleone’s “I do renounce him” moment in The Godfather. We are there in this moment. We are with Peter. We are Peter. We get it. We understand. There is not one of us who has not had a cock crowing moment in our lives. Our failure and shame crash down on our heads in an instant and we realize just how wretched we are.

Today, I am thinking about my own “cock crowing” moments along life’s journey. It’s not hard to bring them quickly to mind. There are more of them than I care to admit. I am also thinking about John and the way he weaves Peter’s personal story into the Great Story he pens. We are in the darkness before dawn. It will descend to greater darkness before its done. The story is not over, however, for Jesus, for Peter, for you or for me.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

chapter a day banner 2015

A Step of Faith Off the Flotsam

Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.
Romans 6:19 (NIV)

There is movement to life. Swift is the current of the river of life even when we feel relatively stationary. Good Dr. Einstein opened our minds to this reality in his theory of relativity. I sit on an airplane feeling inert and motionless while I am actually flying through the air at hundreds of miles an hour.  So I may feel “stuck” in life while day by day the river of life carries me swiftly toward my ultimate destination.

This morning as I read the words above from Paul’s letter to the Romans, I was taken back to my dark years. Having isolated a part of my heart and life from all others, I “offered myself” to impurity. In my secret isolation, I did not perceive how swiftly the river of life carried me onward. It was as if I had hidden myself in a dark, windowless capsule floating heedlessly in life’s river. Nor did I perceive how my impurity “ever increased” until existence inside my dark cocoon became unmanageable chaos. Things were shriveling up and dying inside and out. Something had to change.

I opened the airtight seal on my dark capsule and invited Light in. I could then see enough to claw my way out and on top of my floating chamber. Looking around and getting my bearings, I began using anything I could find as a rudder to begin steering myself in a new direction.

Then I looked up and saw Jesus walking on the water just a ways off to one side. He reached out His hand and smiled. “Come with me,” he said. I looked at the running water between us and stared. I looked back at Him. “Don’t be afraid,” he said his hand still outstretched.

I stepped off the flotsam of my poor choices and reached out to offer my hand to Jesus…

chapter a day banner 2015

featured image from film short Flotsam by the Zellner Bros.

A Worthwhile Spiritual Exercise

Long Road
(Photo credit: Johnny Peacock)

If the Lord had not been on our side….
Psalm 124:1a (NIV)

The lyrics of David’s psalm this morning are straight and to the point. Had it not been for God, he sings, he and his people would have been swallowed up by their enemies. Suddenly as I read the lyrics this morning I thought of all the ways my life’s path and destination would be different “If the Lord had not been on my side.”

If the Lord had not been on my side:

  • I would have given myself over to dark impulses a long time ago
  • I don’t believe I would have found my way out of dark places
  • I would be buried in and paralyzed by crippling shame
  • I would be a far worse arrogant jerk than I am
  • I would be nowhere near the waypoint in life I find myself
  • I would likely have never met Wendy
  • Wendy and I might not have survived a few of those years
  • As David sings: “The raging waters would have swept us away”

What a worthwhile mental and spiritual exercise to start my day, which leads me to a similar conclusion as it did David in his song.

Thanks, God. I am both humble and grateful.

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Of Evil and Good

But I am not surprised! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 2 Corinthians 11:14 (NLT)

I am reminded this morning of this simple truth that is so easily forgotten. We think of evil as those things that are obviously dark and deathly. Along the journey I have come to realize that one of the most insidious things about evil is that it often masquerades in such a way so as to appear good and upstanding.

In his book, People of the Lie, M. Scott Peck take a clinical look at the nature of evil in people. He writes:

It is necessary to draw the distinction between evil and ordinary sin. It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it.

…The evil appear to be most ordinary. They live down the street…on any street. They may be rich or poor, educated or uneducated. There is little that is dramatic about them. They are not designated criminals. More often than not they will be “solid citizens”-Sunday school teachers, policemen, or bankers, and active in the PTA.

In todays chapter, Paul is trying to get the believers in Corinth to understand that some men who had come to their town claiming to have authority as men sent by Jesus were actually deceivers. Evil masquerading as servants of the Light. So it is with evil. The real question is how are we to respond to it? Too often in history we have responded with witch hunts and inquisitions to try and root it out evil by human means which quickly turn to evil in and of themselves.

I’ve learned along the way that my responsibility as a follower of Jesus is to be observant, shrewd and on guard so as to recognize evil when I encounter it. I am then called to overcome evil by living out greater measures of grace, love and goodness. I find it interesting that Paul was not obsessed with hunting down these false teachers and punishing them for their deception. His energy was given to writing, loving and investing himself in the believers at Corinth so that the effect of the “people of the lie” might be minimized.

Today, I’m reminded that evil is overcome by greater good. I’m going to do some good today.

No Pit So Deep

Bradley Olin via Flickr
Bradley Olin via Flickr

But I called on your name, Lord,
    from deep within the pit.
Lamentations 3:55 (NLT)

The man stood before me, tears streaming down his cheeks, as I explained to him a simple truth. Salvation was just a heart’s prayer a way. Call out to God. Open your heart. Ask Him in. Then it came. The pushback of shame I’ve heard many times:

But you don’t understand the things I’ve done. If you knew where I’ve been. The terrible things… the horrible… the awful….”

I’ve discovered along my journey that when you live for any time in a pit, darkness has a tendency to attach itself to your soul. You begin absorbing the lies of darkness:

  • You are no good
  • What you’ve done in the darkness permanently marks you
  • You don’t deserve forgiveness
  • God doesn’t want you; No one wants you
  • You deserve this pit in which you find yourself
  • There is no way out.

The most amazing thing about Jeremiah’s Lamentation is the 180 turnabout he makes in today’s chapter. After two and a half chapters of wailing, weeping, and woe, Jeremiah dares to look up from his pit and see the Light. Amidst the destruction, depression and carnage Jeremiah reaches out to the life line of God’s love, compassion and faithfulness.

I can’t think of a more apt contemporary parallel to the type of suffering Jeremiah experienced than the victims of Nazi death camps in World War II. This morning I was reminded of the words of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who was sent to the camps with her family for hiding Jews in The Hiding Place they’d made in their home. Her family all died in the concentration camps. Corrie was freed by a clerical error. Later in life she continuously shared this message from her own personal Lamentations:

There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”

After a litany of shame filled confessions out of the darkness of the spiritual pit he lived in, the man I mentioned at the beginning of my post looked up and saw a glimpse of light. He opened his heart. He took a step of faith. He uttered a simple prayer. His life changed forever.

Yours can too.

God is Not “Either Or.” God is “Both And.”

Hammer your plowshares into swords
    and your pruning hooks into spears.
    Train even your weaklings to be warriors.
Joel 3:10 (NLT)

I know a small host of people I love for whom the “warrior God” metaphors such as we find in Joel’s prophecy today an uncomfortable pill to swallow. I totally get it, but it’s an on-going reminder to me that God is so much more than any one of us can possibly comprehend. God’s nature, as described throughout God’s Message, is so vast that it encompasses incredible contradictory elements. God is Lion and Lamb. God is Alpha and Omega. God is Artist and Warrior. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is not “either or.” God is “yes and.”

I’m reminded this morning of Meredith Brooks‘ song, B*tch. I believe God totally relates to Brooks’ very true, very raw sentiments. They’re inspired. Just as Brooks so eloquently describes the complexities and contradictions of being a woman, God is so much more than the box we try to put Him in. He is solely confined by boundaries of His own choosing, and that can be confusing for our finite understandings.

Brooks sings:

I can understand how you’d be so confused
I don’t envy you
I’m a little bit of everything
All rolled into one

I’m a b*tch, I’m a lover
I’m a child, I’m a mother
I’m a sinner, I’m a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I’m your hell, I’m your dream
I’m nothing in between
You know you wouldn’t want it any other way

Today I’m thinking about the oft forgotten reality that we are engaged in a spiritual battle. Like all good stories, the Great Story that God is authoring throughout history is about light versus darkness, death versus life, good versus evil. It is not about what is seen, but what is unseen. That doesn’t, however, mean it isn’t real. When the climactic confrontation arrives in that spiritual conflict, I personally want a warrior God leading the charge of the forces of Light.

*i  😉

Chapter-a-Day Acts 28

from things_to_remember via Flickr

As Paul gathered an armful of sticks and was laying them on the fire, a poisonous snake, driven out by the heat, bit him on the hand. The people of the island saw it hanging from his hand and said to each other, “A murderer, no doubt! Though he escaped the sea, justice will not permit him to live.” But Paul shook off the snake into the fire and was unharmed. Acts 28:3-5 (NLT)

When Taylor called me from Africa a few weeks ago, we enjoyed a long conversation about the conditions where they are staying and what they are experiencing. One of the things I’ve consistently heard from friends and family who have travelled to remote, undeveloped areas of the world is that spiritual forces are much more visible in every day life compared to our own culture that tends to deny and suppress spiritual things. When I asked if this was true where they were staying and working, Taylor said that it was true without a doubt. As an example, she related the story of a local woman who had been possessed and had screamed non-stop at the top of her lungs for days.

It is impossible to journey through God’s Message and read the first-hand accounts of Jesus’ life without being faced with an uncomfortable realization about the spiritual realm. There are forces of Light and there are also forces of darkness. Jesus regularly encountered and confronted individuals who were possessed by spiritual darkness.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, his classic book about the forces of spiritual darkness, that there are two equally foolish mistakes we can make when approaching this sensitive subject. One is to give too much consideration to the forces of darkness, the other is to give too little consideration to them. I often ponder this. While I do not doubt that many easily explained phenomena are incorrectly labeled as spiritual issues, I equally believe that many truly spiritual issues are incorrectly dismissed as easily explained phenomenon.

I loved the image of Paul getting bitten on the hand by the poisonous snake, holding it up and then shaking it off into the fire. Of course, the snake has been the metaphorical symbol of spiritual darkness since the Garden of Eden. Jesus taught that those who believe and receive Him into their hearts and lives are subsequently filled with Light, and where there is Light there is no darkness. That doesn’t mean that darkness cannot attack us. Like Paul, all who follow Jesus are susceptible to spiritual snake bites. We can take courage, however, that those who are in Christ have nothing to fear in these attacks; We can simply shake it off.