Excerpts from a sermon preached on Nov. 18
St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh, PA
Elie Wiesel has said, “The paths of the soul, overgrown, often know only the night, a very vast, very barren night, without landscapes.”
Most of us have experienced such long, dark, frightening and lonely nights invaded by disturbing dreams that awaken us in a puddle of sweat with the sheets tangled around our exhausted bodies, not certain of where we are, unable to fall back asleep, afraid to return to our dreams, afraid that we’ll never awake, or if we do, that the day will be worse than the night.
And yet, “The most glorious works of [human beings] are born of the night.” This prophet knows of what he speaks. Wiesel lived through the very long night of the Holocaust.
When I was a little girl with a vivid imagination, I frequently had dreams – actually nightmares – about what today I would call the end-times: concentration camps, nuclear bombs, devastating fires, unrelenting floods, famines, droughts and horrible wars. I had dreams of long lines of people marching off into nowhere, wandering around lost and confused in the midst of ruins, walking on the long, dismal highway that Cormac McCarthy vividly described in his 2006 novel, The Road.
In my dreams, I was always trying to survive and trying to figure out what to do to make the situation better.
The dreams went on for years. Finally, as a young adult, they got so bad that I couldn’t sleep. And so, with fear and trembling, I sought help from a Jungian analyst. For a while, the dreams got even more terrifying.
Largely, because of the dreams (and my work at understanding them), I began the ordination process and entered the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. And, because of the dreams (and the journey they demanded), I went to work for the Episcopal Church in the South Bronx.
The South Bronx of the early ’80s enfleshed the landscape of my dreams. My parish was in a neighborhood then called Fort Apache. There were bombed out buildings and pockmarked roads and sidewalks. Devastating fires raged day and night. When it rained, it usually flooded; when it snowed, the streets were impassable; when summer came, the little that was green turned brown.
In the midst of all this devastation, I not only survived, but I thrived. And I met lots of amazing people living there, surviving, thriving and working to make the neighborhood a better place to live.
Living, working and praying in the landscape of my nightmares, I found myself becoming who God was calling me to be. And, as I discerned and tested my vocation, the wounds of my childhood nightmares were being healed.
However, my Spirit was angry. How could our society allow this kind of devastation and despair to continue? How could people put blinders on their eyes: looking straight ahead as they drove on the Cross Bronx Highway, praying that their car wouldn’t break down until they crossed the Westchester County line? With a new sense of passion and concern, I found myself – in my enthusiastic but adolescent faith – asking hard questions about economic and social justice and God’s sense of righteousness.
One day, I came across a new display of graffiti art. I stopped dead in my tracks and stared at the creation in front of me. On the wall of the local library was printed in large, bold, and colorful letters the word HOPE. It was like a burning bush, in the middle of the wilderness, commanding my attention, demanding my notice, telling me to stop and take off my shoes, for I was standing on holy ground.
There, in the midst of decay and despair, was the word of a brave new world – HOPE. But for what, I wondered? Did this graffiti speak of hope for the library and the children who sought refuge, recreation, and reading in its walls, hope for the adults who came there to relax and dream, and the elders who found it a safe place to sit and remember? Or was it hope for the neighborhood that still had a library, hope for the future of the community, or perhaps, hope for a life outside the South Bronx?
Once I saw the graffiti on the wall, my perspective changed. If some young graffiti artist could hope for this place, so could I. In fact, the hope of that graffiti artist demanded a response of hope from me. It was like a ram’s horn bidding me to see this community from God’s perspective and to act accordingly. Those four letters spray-painted on a public library offered me a glimpse of God’s dream for a city on the hill and called me to be a part of that dream. On that holy day, the nightmares finally ended, and my life’s work began.
Some thirty years, I’m learning to live with hope in spite of a life affected by dementia. Moreover, all around me, I see signs of great tribulation: fires in California, floods in North Carolina, earthquakes in Indonesia, wars in the Middle East, and gun violence in American cities. Yet, I am now convinced that creation is born out of destruction, brokenness begets wholeness, pain is the birth pang of joy, from death emerges new life.
In the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus, “Our hope is in God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)
Hear those words: “Our hope is in God whose power, working in us….” “Our hope is in God….working in us….” “Our hope is God…in us” It is a dream far greater than we can ask or imagine.
God has dreams for all people, perhaps most especially those living in the dark night. But it is up to us, even in the darkest of nights, to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering. In doing so, we provoke and encourage one another to love and good deeds. And then, God, whose power, working in us, will do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
Elie Wiesel, “Out of Despair.” This paper was read at the Karen Horney Thirty-Fourth Annual Lecture in New York on May 7, 1986. It was published in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Volume 50, No. 2, 1990.