By Justin Rossow
At the end of our congregational information meeting last night (on Zoom no less), one of my pastors was asked to close the gathering in prayer. “A year and a half ago, we looked at the future and saw only darkness,” he prayed. “But You, God, had wrapped gifts for us in that darkness—and You blessed us as we walked into a future we couldn’t see or understand.”
That image of gifts wrapped in darkness really caught my attention. In this case, the darkness was specifically the uncertainty that came from COVID. You remember that uncertainty. All of a sudden, gathering for worship stopped. The school leadership and teaching staff had to figure out how to follow CDC guidelines and offer both in-person instruction and virtual learning. Unknown budget ramifications, untenable ministry plans, and an unidentifiable path forward all meant having to slow down and take each small next step as it came. It also meant cutting other people in the congregation a lot of slack as we wrestled with what all of these decisions meant—and didn’t mean—for a congregation trying to “gather, grow, and go” when gathering and going were both being reinvented on the fly!
Fast forward a year and a half, and the growing that took place in those challenging times is clearly evident, especially for an outsider. I’m just coming on board with this family of believers, and I have to say, I was impressed with how smoothly something as challenging as an online congregational meeting could go! Of course, we forgot to unmute once or twice; and we had the obligatory Max Headroom moment, but overall, people were friendly and gracious and patient and involved—things I haven’t always experienced at in-person congregational meetings!
I don’t think we could have imagined an online gathering going that well just a couple of years ago. And that’s kind of the point. We have experienced and endured and embraced so many things we couldn’t have imagined because so much of the future was unknown. Yet in the midst of the unknown, God was faithful.
The contrast between then and now was clear in the congregational meeting: back when COVID hit, our ministry options seemed narrow, our financial standing was threatened, and the school ministry was veiled in unknowable eventualities. 18 months later, the school is growing and expanding, our financial footing is more stable than it has been in years, and a sister congregation has approached us with some exciting possibilities for new ministry. The gifts God wanted to give us were wrapped in that darkness. In some ways, the gifts required the darkness, for we never would have experienced those gifts if we had been spared the scary experience of not being able to see what was going to happen next.
But God kind of works like that. Not just during COVID, but in the ordinary life of ordinary followers, Jesus is faithfully present even when (especially when?) we don’t see or understand what’s going on.
Although “darkness” can stand for sin or evil or impurity or death in the Bible (in which case, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” 1 John 1:5), darkness can also be a place where we uniquely experience the presence of God. In Exodus 20, the cloud of the presence of Yahweh descended on Mount Sinai, and “Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.”
In 1 Kings 8, a similar cloud and a similar darkness descend at the dedication of the temple.
When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled his temple.
Then Solomon said, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.”
1 Kings 8:10-13 (NIV)
The Psalms use poetic language that connects the all-powerful God of the Universe with the experience of darkness.
He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water. (Psalm 18:11, ESV)
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. (Psalm 97:2, ESV)
Generally speaking, the healing of physical blindness in Scripture often corresponds with overcoming spiritual blindness, but not always. Saul of Tarsus is an example of not light, but darkness being revelatory. For all his learning, Saul was spiritually blind until the voice and the bright light on the Damascus road led him into three days of blindness. When Saul enters into darkness, it becomes for him an experience of God, a God who is too big to comprehend, but nonetheless, a God of Grace. By the time Saul (now Paul) regains his sight, he has already seen the light, because he learned to know God better in the dark. (See Acts 9.)
God, it seems, has a habit of wrapping good gifts in darkness; of making unique blessings available in, with, and under a sometimes frightening experience of the unknown. So when you can’t see the future and can’t imagine what’s going to happen next, trust that the God who dwells in deep darkness is with you.
When your options seem limited and you can’t see a way out, you are held by a God who understands what you can’t and sees what you don’t. You are known intimately by the God to whom the psalmist prays:
Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you .
(Psalm 139:12, NIV)
When you have to take a step forward, but your path is uncertain and your future is not clear, you walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).
In some ways, you have to face the dark in order to know the trust that only comes when you just can’t see.
In our lives as individuals and families, in our life together as Church, there will always be times of uncertainty, and confusion, and darkness, and doubt. If my congregation does pursue planting a mission church in partnership with another congregation, there will be plenty of times when what comes next will be difficult or challenging or unknowable or ambiguous. For all the stability my family has achieved in the last few months—new home, new school, new job—I’m sure the next question mark is just around the corner. For all the clarity I sometimes have on how Jesus has shaped me and what Jesus has called me to do, I am always one discouraging experience away from wanting to throw in the towel because it’s just too hard, and too much, and too uncertain.
But I am coming to learn more and more that the darkness of that uncertainty isn’t just scary. (Don’t get me wrong; it is scary!) The darkness of that uncertainty is also exciting. I belong to a Jesus who wraps some of His best gifts in darkness. And I get to take one small next step into the dark, with blind eyes wide open to see what Jesus is going to do next.