The Luminous Darkness

Psalm 139:7-12

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.


It is dark, and getting darker every day.

And the darkness is luminous. In 1965, Howard Thurman wrote a book with the title The Luminous Darkness. A prolific writer, mystic, theologian, and pastor of a multicultural church created in 1944 in San Francisco, he asserted that segregation was sinful. He came to terms with the darkness of his own skin in the light of a society who vilified and dismissed him for its hue. Howard Thurman found beauty there where many could not, just as he did under the canopy of his favorite tree in the darkness of the night. His Black skin was no trap, no burden—but a conduit to the welcome wisdom that God is also God in the dark.

I borrow his lovely metaphor to suggest that as we stand in the darkness of Advent, in the liminal space that is the longing and waiting for the new thing God has promised and that the world has yet to perceive, we are called to appreciate the darkness. I know well, and have experienced the dark times of not knowing which end is up; I have seen the shadows of oppression, of seeing brothers and sisters walking in controlled and contrived darkness called injustice; and I have swayed in the thick and palpable night of wondering why, as an African American woman, my enough was never enough, and why my gifts seemed hidden to the eyes of the dominant culture. I have come to embrace the darkness of forging a new and beautiful thing out of the scrambled mess of bad circumstance and concrete evil.

Yet, I write today not as a victim, but as one born in the dark. I speak today as one who sees well in the darkness, and whose eyes are trained to see luminous gifts in the night, who has sense enough to thank God for every circumstance. I am utterly convinced that God is up to something in the darkness of our lives, in the womb of our own souls and being. There is something gossamer and brilliant about the night in God, and in the promises that only come in the dark.

This Advent season asks questions of us. It asks something of us as we enter this time together, into a dark abyss where we are thoughtful and discerning, discourage and overwhelmed, cognizant of loss, loneliness and despair. Some want nothing to do with this darkness. We spend our time instead longing for the light. The longing causes many of us to close our eyes, to steel ourselves, and to wait for the light, hoping the joy of Christmas will wash over us, and at least distract us from our thoughts or disappointments.

Still, Advent reminds us that we stand waiting in the dark.

I am here to assert and declare that our waiting is invited to be more than standing still, but to watch, fight and pray to find wholeness, and to see that the valley of the shadow of death holds as many lessons for us as streets paved in gold. The lessons are for such a time as this.

We are in a time in history where the voices on the bottom are speaking, where the poor are asking for equity through resources; where the earth is groaning from the terror of being ravaged for its resources without regard for accountability and responsibility; where transgendered men and women are asking for intentional safety in the streets and in their homes in the midst of murders that rarely make the news; where dark people whose voices are often unheard and diminished are asking for solidarity with hands raised saying quietly, I can’t breathe… Is it not time for us as brothers and sisters in Christ to look within and check our stance in the world? What is our posture? It is time to speak with our privilege and see where we stand.

Are we always standing in the light? Are we always sitting in comfort? Is our comfort at the expense of not knowing others, or in relying too much on those 1 or 2 Black friends—that some have on cue to produce when they are called racist—to pull us through the circumstances that are unfamiliar and foreign? Do we hear of the deaths of all those born in the dark, only to dismiss them as something that just happened, and rush to the light to feel safe?

Jesus is the light of the world, yet he dared to be in the dark with those who had no choice but to dwell there.

I contend that there is no mistake in our being placed in this time of longing together. This is where community is made, right here in the dark. I am convinced that we together are walk alongside each other until we see the light of God, and produce it for ourselves by our commitment to peace, justice and righteousness.

You see the gift of living into the darkness is preparation. The gift of darkness is about skill-building, honing and learning from current circumstances. The gift of darkness is in knowing that God is everywhere, and that God is shown to be brilliant and luminous in the dark times of life. In the dark, we cannot discern difference, the kind that leads our eyes to hate and vilify one another. In the dark, no one’s eyes can tell them who to dismiss, and our senses become heightened. We reach out for hope and find strength with those others of us who dare to be in the dark night of our lives. The brilliance of stars are thus because they are on the backdrop of a dark and dynamic universe. God is speaking!

How else might we hear the voices muffled by the weight of oppression but to be still in the dark and appreciate its gifts? Where else but in the dark might the metaphors kindle hope and understanding, and welcome transformation? How else might we recover our connection and relationship to those we’ve called thugs who simply deserve to die? Where might we see the luminosity in the darkest of faces in elevators, walking down our streets, in hoodies with dimmed countenances—so that we refuse to name them as automatic criminals? In this night, God is inviting us to be as people of faith so that every person might claim Black lives matter, and that they should not end up face down on asphalt, dying because society named them as evil before we’ve even come to know them.

There is no inherent evil in the night, nor in melanated skin, or in a little boy playing with a toy gun in the park. When God made the heavens and the earth, the light was not presented as a correction to the dark. The light was spoken into existence out of blackness. I contend that the dark is where God begins God’s work with us. It is but the chalice where the sacrament of communion with God occurs.

When we welcome this opportunity in Advent, we become like writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston understood the gift of her life to be immersed in luminous darkness. She wrote in her book Their Eyes Were Watching God, “It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

We have a choice. Let us look for God in this dark night. We can rush through this time, and fill our lives with distraction and artificial light, or we can use these long nights to heal, to dream, to love, to imagine, to carve and create ourselves into a better likeness of who God created us to be. You are invited to dance, renew relationships, discard bias, and welcome liberation in Advent, and be reconciled to the gift of the dark.

Jump in. The darkness is fine, and we shall be with God.

Rev. Kelle J. Brown (2017)  is pastor of the Church of Mary Magdalene, a church for and led by homeless women and their families, and is currently completing her D.Min at San Francisco Theological Seminary.  Her research is focused on “Solidarity as Discipleship,” and she believes the work of MLP offers meaningful ways for the church to live into authentic discipleship by way of profuse hospitality and extravagant inclusion of all God’s children.  Kelle lives and works in Seattle, Washington.  She is most proud of her daughter, Indigo, the joy of her life, and lives by the following quote from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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