Sunday, April 24, 2022

Not Dark to Him

In the beginning was the Word … In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not” (John 1:1-5). The darkness couldn't understand the light. So John tells us. You'll hear a lot about light and darkness as you read or listen to the Bible. The most common is in speaking of the darkness of sin. The darkness of sin is a darkness that falls upon our souls. John describes sin as “the darkness” (1 John 2:11), which Paul says causes our “foolish hearts to be darkened” (Romans 1:21). He adds that when we sin, we're performing “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11), and indeed, that we become participants in “this present darkness” which is ruled by “spiritual forces of evil” at work in the world (Ephesians 6:12). And this is the darkness from which Jesus has acted so profoundly to rescue us! We're told that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13) – that “he called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9), “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8).

But the Bible speaks of other darknesses besides the spiritual darkness of sin from which Christ's cross already has saved us and is saving us still. Even when we're living rightly, even when our souls are light in the Lord (as the Scripture says), there are other types of darkness that present themselves in our lives – darknesses we have no guarantee of avoiding as Christians. Not all of them are even unconditionally bad! Some are good presences in our lives in this world, gifts of God for the here-and-now. Others are deeply unpleasant, consequences of the Fall with which we have to bear. And still others are severe challenges, even though allowed by God for good.

First, there's what we might call the darkness of distress. Here, it's our physical body that's darkened due to some kind of suffering or illness. Job talked about it, when he said: “When I waited for light, darkness came..., days of affliction come to meet me” (Job 30:26-27). These days of affliction were dark times in his life, difficult to bear, difficult to see his way through. Likewise, it's written in Ecclesiastes: “All his days he eats in darkness: in vexation and sickness...” (Ecclesiastes 5:17). Being sick, especially being chronically ill, is a kind of dark experience in life. It can easily blind us to other aspects of our lives, because it presses itself so oppressively on our perceptions, on the way we feel. Contrary to what some heretics will tell you, sickness is a real and regular part of Christian living – bodily health isn't just something you can 'name and claim' if you've got enough faith. God calls us to have faith to trust him through the sickness, through the vexation, through the darkness.

But second, there's what we might call the darkness of depression. Here, it's our emotions and our psyche that are darkened. Job was pretty familiar with this one as well. He refers to “gloom like thick darkness” hanging over his life (Job 10:10). He complains: “My face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness” (Job 16:16). Sometimes, this darkness is simply a deep sorrow, of the kind that a healthy mind will experience from time to time in our world, depending on the outward circumstances or just depending on the movements of the waxing and waning of emotional life. But sometimes, this darkness is of a sort that afflicts the mind as a mental illness. A novelist suffering from clinical depression described the experience of getting lost in “depression's dark wood,” and of those early morning hours “when I stared up into yawning darkness, wondering and writhing at the devastation taking place in my mind.”1 And, yes, Christians can very well suffer from it and may very well require professional treatment for it. One minister who suffered from bipolar disorder wrote about how “a back and forth in and out of darkness lasted for years,” and how her “depressive black holes are just the darkness and void of nothingness, not even the movement of time.”2 It fittingly merits, then, to be classified as a form of darkness we must prepare ourselves to potentially face in the Christian life.

Third, there's what we might call the darkness of dormancy. Here, it's our consciousness that's darkened. And all of us are familiar with this one, because it's sleep. We read in Genesis that “as the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram, and behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12). Generally speaking, this is a pleasant and comforting darkness! It's akin to the physical darkness of the night itself, which, after all, was created by God in the beginning (Genesis 1:5). God is the one who put Adam to sleep when Eve was to be created (Genesis 2:21). The psalmist expresses confidence by saying that God “gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2), and the sages have hope that “when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet” (Proverbs 3:24). Paul lists “sleepless nights” as a hardship alongside being beaten and jailed (2 Corinthians 6:5).

But the darkness of dormancy has its less savory side. It's not for nothing that the Greeks portrayed Sleep as the brother of Death,3 or complained of “the tyranny [Sleep] exercises over our eyes.”4 It can be overly drawing to those in the darkness of depression, as when Luke depicts the disciples “sleeping for sorrow” (Luke 22:45). The sages warn that sleep's downside is that it robs us of productivity: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber” (Proverbs 6:10-11). One of Job's friends even mentioned the fearfulness of nightmares, how “thoughts from visions of the night when deep sleep falls on men,” when “dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake” (Job 4:12-13). And so Revelation gives us a picture of a world where even this darkness will ultimately be overcome, for in heaven, the saints “serve [God] day and night” without needing slumber (Revelation 7:15), and in the new creation, “night will be no more” (Revelation 22:5). Just as we can rest assured that the risen Jesus doesn't need to sleep, we can expect that one day we won't need it or crave it either.

But there's a fourth darkness, and it's the one we're going to spend the most time considering over the coming weeks – and this one we might call the darkness of dementia. Here, it's our mind, our cognition, that's darkened to us. You could include here, by extension, the age-related forgetfulness that's a natural consequence of aging. But more than that, we're susceptible to a variety of brain diseases, injuries, or conditions that cause a less-than-natural state of progressing dementia. One doctor writes: “All forms of dementia are diseases; they are not part of normal aging.”5 And yet dementia is ever more common, as two other experts write: “Nearly 14% of adults over age 70 have some form of dementia, and another 22% have cognitive impairment … 5% of people aged 65-70 years have dementia, with the rate doubling every 5 years, such that up to 30-40% of people aged 85 and over have dementia.”6 Live long enough, and that's not a small likelihood to say nothing of early-onset dementias. I guarantee you've met someone with dementia.

In this condition, our mental faculties one by one begin to fail as the disease afflicting the brain damages tissue there. One journalist with dementia listed his symptoms as including “ongoing memory loss, poor judgment, loss of self and problem solving, confusion with time, place, and words, withdrawal, abrupt changes in mood.”7 There's the forgetfulness and confusion, there are the anxiety and the headaches, and often sleeplessness and depression and a decline in independence. One philosopher who developed Alzheimer's disease described the experience as one of “sailing into the darkness.”8 A doctor diagnosed with Lewy body dementia remarked that “for now I still see the light, but on the other side of this knife-edge ridge I walk, there is darkness.”9 A minister descending into Alzheimer's writes how “the darkness and emptiness fill my mind,” “blackness and darkness of the worst kind.”10 A scientist diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia described her experience of feeling like she was “struggling to live in a fog,” “hanging onto a high cliff above a lurking black hole.”11 “It's like being blindfolded, looking through a tunnel,” or “as if a black curtain has fallen over what has just gone by.”12

We know that Christians can find themselves in the darkness of dementia just as readily as anyone else in the world. My first assignment in pastoral ministry was as assistant to a pastor suffering from a worsening case of frontotemporal dementia. And we know wonderful members of our church and their loved ones, in years past and even right now, who have lived in this darkness that, once begun, does not end in this life. There are others among us here today who have a very high chance of either experiencing this darkness ourselves or holding onto a loved one as they do. And part of our ministry here and now must be understanding this darkness.

Does that strike home for any of us? Maybe you used to be so bright, so mentally quick on your feet, but now you identify more with the prophecy of Joel, that “the sun shall be turned to darkness” (Joel 2:31). The brain's darkness may make it a considerable struggle to locate the right memory.13 The brain's darkness may make it a struggle to find a name and a reason to put with the face – to achieve that basic connection and recognition.14 The brain's darkness may make it a struggle to piece together context for what's going on around you, and a struggle to sift through and unscramble the words and numbers in time to hear what other's have said, and to get across what you want to say – to hit these verbal targets your mind can't consistently see.15 The brain's darkness may make even the most basic tasks a struggle, as what used to be basic is now broken down into all its constituent parts, each one requiring the labor that the whole task once used.

In any of the darknesses we face, but maybe especially depression and dementia, the psalmist's words might just resonate with you: “Surely darkness shall cover me” (Psalm 139:11). But here's the good news for you. The things the darkness hides from you, even within yourself, are not hidden to God! “O LORD, you have searched me and known me,” the psalmist says (Psalm 139:1). But maybe we wonder: “How, when the darkness is so dreadful and so heavy? How, when everything is a bleary blur? How, when our hearts melt within us? How, when the brain feels like a crumbling castle in a starless void, and flickers of recognition and capacity come and go like fireflies trapped under rubble and dust – blinking vividly or dimly for a moment, but so difficult to see even then? How, then, can God search us and know us?”

This is how – hear these sacred words: “If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me be night,' yet even the darkness is not dark to you: the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:11-12). God has perfect night vision, perfect X-ray vision. And so to him, all the darkness in you – be it dementia, be it depression, be it distress, be it anything at all – is literally plain as day to his sight. For his vision of you, what's going on in your heart, what's going on in your mind, it doesn't matter whether you're cheery and transparent, it doesn't matter if you're complicated and dark, it doesn't matter if you're broken up: he can see you just as well in all cases. The night is of equal brightness with day in his sight. No rubble, no dust, no shadow, no void obscures his sight or his understanding. That can and should be consolation in depression – as one sufferer prayed: “Even though I may feel that darkness is my only companion, to know that the darkness and the light are alike to you is great comfort.”16 And equally should it be consolation in the face of dementia – as one doctor and dementia specialist reminds us: “Even the seeming darkness of severe Alzheimer's disease does not separate us from the Lord and his love.”17

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might be unsure of what's going on, might be unable to make a clear decision, might lack understanding of what's happening – for didn't Christ say that “the one who walks in darkness does not know where he is going” (John 12:35)? But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You know when I sit down and when I rise up” (Psalm 139:2a). See, when we aren't sure what we're doing, he is sure! Even if we aren't sure who is doing what we're doing, he's sure! “We may be uncertain about who we are, but God is not.”18

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might be restless, might wander around, might be frightful and agitated. But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You search out my path and my lying down” (Psalm 139:3a). When things get intimidating, when we get lost to ourselves, God knows exactly where we are, inside and out. And, thanks be to God, the psalmist can likewise say: You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (Psalm 139:5). When we're wandering away, when we're wobbling and stumbling, God is in front of us. When we're looking to the future with dismay, God is behind us. When both past and future seem to disappear, when all we can see is a passing present, we can trust that what's behind us is God, what's before us is God.

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might forget the habits that sustained you for so many years. It just becomes impossible to keep track, to keep up. But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You... are acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:3b). When the reading we used to love becomes a blur, when prayer becomes a maze, when church becomes a cacophany, when everything falls by the wayside, God is acquainted with all our ways. He sees and knows our old habits as if they were present, when they've fallen through no fault of our own. When we can't sustain their practice for our souls, he sustains their fruit in our souls, so merciful and loving is he.

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might not be able to sort out the right word, might not be able to piece together the puzzle, might not be able to express the associations of images that flit through the periphery of your mind. But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You discern my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:2b). “Even before a word is on my tongue” – or, for that matter, in the conscious mind – even before that, “behold, O LORD, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:4). “God knows us, even before we act or speak.”19 Before whatever we say, before whatever we do, even before whatever we think (or try to think, or try to try to think), God knows us in the deepest way. No matter the darkness, he sees and knows within our mind and brain what we cannot see ourselves. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me!” the psalmist cries (Psalm 139:6). We can't attain it, we can't know ourselves so deeply in health, much less in dementia. But even in dementia or in depression or in distress, our impairments and our challenges are no obstacle to God.

And in all the darkness, he holds us. Wheresoever the darkness takes us, even if it separates us from our friends and family, even if we're as isolated as if we were buried at sea, “even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me,” the psalmist marvels (Psalm 139:10). God isn't afraid of our darkness – it isn't even dark to him. He guides us and holds us even in the thick of depression; he guides us and holds us even in the throes of dementia. You're not far from his grip in sickness, you're not forsaken in depression, you're not in free-fall in dementia. In each of those conditions, you can be a holy child of God, held by his hand. And if he'll do that in those blacker darknesses, he'll do it in the softer ones as well. If you're facing some kind of darkness in your life, rest assured that there's no darkness that can hide you away from the searchlight of God's love. If someone you love is in the darkness, rest assured: God's love sees them there like a cloudless noon.

Whatever darkness you or your loved one are in, may you find it to be a Mount Sinai, where Israel of old saw before them “the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:21). If you're in the darkness of depression, may you realize you aren't alone – that it can be the darkness where God is. If you're in the darkness of distress, or the darkness of dementia, may you find that, too, to be the darkness where God is, where he's in it with you, where he sees you plain as day, and loves you still, even as your castle crumbles. “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant?” asks the prophet. “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light” – is that you, is that your experience? – let him “trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10), for “he reveals deep and hidden things: he knows what is in the darkness” (Daniel 2:22). Amen.

1  William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Random House, 1990), 49, 84.

2  Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006), 20, 67.

3  Hesiod, Theogony, line 211 (eighth century BC)

4  Libanius, Oration 11.267 (fourth century AD)

5  John Dunlop, Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia (Crossway, 2017), 33.

6  Benjamin T. Mast and Brian P. Yochim, Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia (Hogrefe, 2018), 5.

7  Greg O'Brien, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's (Coldfish Press, 2014), 18.

8  Iris Murdoch, quoted in John Bayley, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd., 1998), 179.

9  Thomas Graboys, Life in the Balance: A Physician's Memoir of Life, Love, and Loss with Parkinson's Disease and Dementia (Union Square Press, 2008), 2.

10  Robert Davis, My Journey into Alzheimer's Disease (Tyndale House, 1989), 48, 96.

11  Christine Bryden, Dancing with Dementia: My Story of Living Positively with Dementia (Jessica Kingsley, 2005), 98.

12  Christine Bryden, Dancing with Dementia: My Story of Living Positively with Dementia (Jessica Kingsley, 2005), 104, 106.

13  Robert Davis, My Journey into Alzheimer's Disease (Tyndale House, 1989), 47, 78, 95; Christine Bryden, Dancing with Dementia: My Story of Living Positively with Dementia (Jessica Kingsley, 2005), 105.

14  Christine Bryden, Dancing with Dementia: My Story of Living Positively with Dementia (Jessica Kingsley, 2005), 109.

15  Robert Davis, My Journey into Alzheimer's Disease (Tyndale House, 1989), 77-78; Christine Bryden, Dancing with Dementia: My Story of Living Positively with Dementia (Jessica Kingsley, 2005), 117-118.

16  Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006), 61.

17  Benjamin Mast, Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer's Disease (Zondervan, 2014), 65.

18  John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), 210.

19  Benjamin Mast, Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer's Disease (Zondervan, 2014), 64.

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