Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dee Lowman



Longest Night Service

“Shades of Gray”

Monday, December 21, 2009




Rev. Dee Lowman


Shades of Gray (Romans 5:1-5)

Opening Prayer

Move over the face of my deep, my darkness,
My endless restless chaos,
And create, O God;
Trouble me, comfort me, stir me up, and calm me,
But do not cease to breathe your Spirit into my wakening soul.

In astronomy, the winter solstice is the moment when the earth is at a point in its orbit where one hemisphere is inclined the farthest away from the sun. For us in the northern hemisphere, that happens annually in December between the 20th and the 23rd of the month.  The solstice is the moment when the day has the shortest length of sunshine and the night with the longest period of darkness.  Today, December 21, 2009, at 12:47 PM EST, marked the winter solstice—the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. For some, this is a day of celebration.  Many cultures revere this day and night as the time when the days will begin to grow longer, leaning toward the time of planting and harvesting.  There may be celebrations with friends, sharing their joy at the movement toward light.  But for many of us and others in our world, a long night does not bring celebration. It is another short day and long night when our companions may be experiencing little else but suffering or pain or grief.

The passage from Romans that Mark read for us tonight was the scripture passage my grandmother loved to read in the last months and days of her life.  I was 16.  She battled cancer for two years and lived in our home for most of that time.  As her eyesight grew dim, she would ask me to read her the passage – she would say that all she could see were shades of gray. I didn’t need to read it to her, though.  She could say it right along with me.  One night, a month or so before her death, I asked her why she liked the passage so much.  She told me it had to do with the part that talked about what happens when we suffer.  “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us...” 

At first I thought she meant that there was some kind of a purpose behind her suffering.  “There isn’t a purpose for suffering at all,” she told me.  “Suffering is suffering. It’s just nice to know that it isn’t wasted - that something comes of it.”  Even through some of the worst parts of her illness to that point, I’d never heard her talk about her experience with cancer as suffering.  She just didn’t – maybe to protect us or to help us cope. I asked her if she thought all this was true – that all these things come about as a result of suffering.  She told me yes.  That’s all she really said on the matter.  I didn’t talk with her about it again; she already told me all she knew.  Even as her eyesight dimmed I had the sense that she saw more clearly than ever before, particularly issues concerning life and death. 
Suffering doesn’t have a purpose.  Suffering is suffering, and I don’t believe that we suffer so as to accomplish some greater principle or function for all of humankind, or even for ourselves.  It is painful and sad and uncomfortable and depressing.  But what ultimately comes from suffering according to Paul – endurance, character, and hope – these are all attributes of healthy, active, vital living. 

Jan Richardson in her book Night Visions says that many of us find ourselves in the dark – “good or evil or in between, of our own or another’s making.  Our work is to name the darkness for what it is and to find what it asks of us.” For some of us here tonight, these shades of gray can and do offer us a place where we can rest and recuperate and pay attention to our own needs and wounds.  We can then become stronger and more aware of the truth about ourselves or our relationships or our losses that we couldn’t see in the glare of the day.  For others of us, the darkness provides for us a place where the seed of our existence can begin to grow again when we never thought that would be possible. The night affords us the nourishment we need to begin to gently crack open the new possibilities for our living – a living that might not have seemed possible upon the death of our loved ones, the loss of our jobs, the economic hardships we’ve faced, the diagnosis we’ve received, the friendships that have ended.  We begin to grow toward something, toward what we aren’t sure right yet. But there is a sense that we are moving, even if that movement is imperceptible to us or those around us.

We are here tonight, perhaps in an attempt to name what is real for us in our own shades of gray.  How have we cared for ourselves in the dark night?  Have there been others who have companioned us?  Can we take any hope away from our loss and disappointment that could help us to live into the life we desire – that God desires – for us?  Have any of us begun to emerge from these shades of gray into the light? As we emerge from the shades of gray, our eyes and hearts may not be entirely ready for the glow of the day. 
The promise of this season is the presence of God and the light of hope, even when we can’t see it. But that hope doesn’t come directly from suffering.  There’s a path through suffering that includes in it a trajectory toward endurance and character.  These attributes help us seek and find and ultimately get a hold of hope that doesn’t disappoint us.

We may not be able to sense that hope, or God for that matter, when we are suffering. It will take great effort for us to try and lift up our eyes, as the Psalmist writes – effort that can only come from a sense that we can endure. The hope of this time - the story of Christmas – is that when the night is dark and scary and lonely, God will not let it “strike us down”. The star in the East that hovered over the stable on that night so long ago can help us lean away from our grief and fear and doubt and pain and lean into a world filled with newness and life. The light that God provided on that night was a bright star, light that marked the beginning of a new time, a different era of justice, peace, and love. According to most modern-day astronomers the light from the star lingered for some time, perhaps as long as two years after the birth of Jesus. We, too, can rest in the knowledge that, when we are ready to emerge from our shades of gray, a light will be there for us as well. 

The solstice is, in fact, not a day or a night, but a moment - today at 12:47 pm EST.  Our pain or grief or loss or illness may linger much, much longer than an instant. God companions us while we can only see the gray. God is also the one who helps us to live with the hope of light in the midst of our shadowy living right now, helping us to know that the God who loves us surrounds us, shines on us, waits with us, grieves with us.  May this promise of God’s presence and companionship comfort all this night and every night. 

Richardson, Jan L., Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas, p. 3.

Richardson, p. 5.

Psalm 121:6