One of my favorite moments in TMC’s immersion experience to Glacier National Park is the evening we spend stargazing at Logan Pass. Surrounded by mountains and miles removed from any ambient light, you are blanketed with darkness. Upon the pitch-black canvas of the night sky, more stars come into view than you could possibly ever count. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
My experience at Glacier is the backdrop from which I have come to understand Jesus’ statement in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Like many readers of Scripture, I have tended to draw from this verse a simple contrast between light and darkness. Light is good – it’s where we find God, hope, grace, and justice. Darkness is bad – it’s the realm of death, grief, despair, and sin. But when you gaze upon the night sky at Logan Pass, you quickly realize that things are more complicated than this. The stars are dazzling, but even more so your eyes are drawn to the deep, beautiful, almost luminous darkness that fills the void between the stars. God’s presence is there, too.
So it is in the first creation story. In Genesis 1, before light was created, God is in the darkness that covers the face of the deep. In the darkness, God’s Spirit is at work, hovering, shaping, and creating. The primordial darkness is generative. It’s where creation is born and chaos conquered.
That Jesus is the light of the world does not mean God is absent from the darkness. This is even true in the night sky. A few years back, a team of NASA scientists aimed the powerful Hubble telescope at a small patch of the night sky where no stars had previously been detected. They opened up the lens for two weeks and then took a look at the results. Instead of seeing darkness, they saw the most specular luminescence: thousands upon thousands of galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. All of this is in a spot of the night sky the size of a grain of rice when held at an arm’s distance.
The problem isn’t that the darkness is void of light or God. The problem is that we often lack the tools – and patience – to discern God’s presence in the dark. We rush into the light without pausing to wonder: Who controls the spotlight? Who is directing our gaze? Fueled by false dichotomies, we assume God is only to be found where pews are full, prayers joyful, and ministry easy. If we started looking for God in other places – in the shadows, behind the veil of grief, in the parts of our neighborhoods nobody has bothered to install lights – I wonder what sort of luminescence we might find?
I also used to conclude from John 8:12 that Jesus, the light of the world, enables us to see properly. Much like a divine flashlight, Jesus illuminates for us the path towards truth and justice, peace and compassion. That’s true at some level. But my Glacier experience has helped me realize that light, somewhat paradoxically, can also be a hindrance to proper seeing.
The reason why stargazing in Atlanta is so un-spectacular is not because there are fewer stars in our night sky. It’s because we don’t have enough darkness. The ambient light of the city – fittingly called light pollution – drowns out the luminous presence of the stars. Not so at Logan Pass. There is no skyglow, no illuminated billboards, no streetlamps to puncture the darkness. As our cohort huddled to gaze heavenward, we even turned off our headlamps and hid our cell phones and watches. The darker it was, the better we could see.
This makes me wonder: What lights do we need to turn off in order to see better? What or who remains invisible in plain sight in our churches or communities because of the ambient light given off by our culture, training, egos, and biases? Instead of praying prayers of illumination before we preach, maybe we need to start asking God to give us enough darkness that we can see God’s Word and world properly.
Jesus is the light of the world, and now more than ever our world needs that light. But at the same time, Scriptures bear witness to a God who dwells in the darkness. God beckons us to turn our gaze to the dark spaces between the lights, not because the light is bad, but because in the darkness we might find unexpected wonder, mystery, wisdom, and beauty.