When I was on vacation this summer, I went biking on the Hiawatha bike trail near the MT-ID border (I-90 Exit 5). The trail is an old railroad bed converted for biking and it hosts several long, dark, dank tunnels, the longest being over one mile.
Deep inside these tunnels there is no light at all, unless you bring a lamp which is required. Just to see how dark darkness can be, I stopped in the middle of one of those tunnels and turned off my lamps. And it was dark. Really dark. (The pic is real. That’s how dark it was!)
I couldn’t see my own hand much less the trail ahead. I could have easily gotten turned around in there, lost until I finally crashed into a wall…which wasn’t on my agenda so I didn’t move an inch. In that darkness, my anxiety level shot up as I tried to get my sense of bearing. I became confused and my life became unpredictable and scary. Stuck in the tunnel without light, I could have easily turned to despair. Quickly I turned on my headlamp and bike lamp so that I could see, even if only a few feet around me.
In many ways, going through the past six months has felt like a journey through that dark tunnel, often without the headlamps turned on. Life has become unpredictable, uncontrollable and frightening because we simply don’t know what is ahead of us in the darkness of the future. And even though we think we know what’s beside and behind us, even that is hard to see and wonder about because it’s changing so fast. The tunnel seems almost never-ending and that light at the end looks to be nowhere in sight.
This darkness on the journey through our pandemic tunnel actually has a named phase, at least according to experts who study disasters and their aftermath. (https://religionnews.com/2020/09/14/the-pandemic-at-six-months-welcome-to-the-disillusionment-phase/) This phase of feeling lost in the dark is called the disillusionment phase which follows the impact, the honeymoon, and the heroic phases of a disaster and precedes the reconstruction phase. (Yes, there is a hope-filled reconstruction phase to come, though you, me and many others may not be feeling it yet.)
The disillusionment phase is marked by a continuing anxiety that becomes less and less hopeful of an end to the struggle. People feel stuck in their suffering, and cynicism, anger, and despair become the more usual way of being. There is an increased turning to panaceas like drugs, gambling, alcohol and other things that lead to more addiction. It truly is a time of disillusionment.
In reality, the depression that people may be feeling right now is very real...and in fact is quite normal during the recovery of such disasters. Though it doesn’t help that the disasters and suffering just seem to keep piling on – fires, floods, hurricanes, civil unrest, political wrangling, division and the increasing turn to violence to solve our problems.
So what do we who are people of faith in Christ, the light of the world, do? Do we remain stuck in our suffering, wallowing in the seeming hopelessness of it all? Do we stop thinking about and praying for God’s future for us, even if we don’t know what it is?
No, that is not the Christian answer, for followers of Christ are people of hope and faith and love. We don’t give in to despair. Instead, we need to turn on God’s headlamp so that we can see the power of God’s Spirit working in the world more clearly and live in Christ’s light. “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and light onto my path.” (Ps 119:105)
You see, the problem is not the darkness itself. Darkness in itself is neither good nor bad; it just is. Without it we wouldn’t be able to see the stars or enjoy a controlled camp-fire or walk in the moonlight. Also, many of God’s creatures only thrive in the darkness. And it’s often only in darkness that we can know how dependent we are on God.
No, the problem is not the darkness. The problem is our own inability to see in the darkness. When we can’t see what’s around us, we become afraid. And when we are afraid, we try to put ourselves in control. And when we do that, life easily goes wrong.
What we need is a boatload of faith, a truckload of hope, and carload of love (all three gifts of the Spirit) so that we can let go of needing to be God and trust in the lamp of Christ that illuminates our path ahead! Walking in the beam of Christ’s light is the follower of Christ’s path for it is there that we can welcome the Spirit into our hearts, minds and souls.
How? Well, why not start by reading scripture again and letting that Word wash over you. Psalm 62:5-9 and Matthew 6:25-7:5 are good places to begin. Listen to uplifting music and connect with friends and family who will raise your spirits, not drag you down. Turn off the news, social media, internet commentary and the 24/7 talking heads who assuage their greed by making us anxious and afraid.
And pray…a lot. Look for the many ways God of love and hope is working in the world around you and name them out loud or in a journal. Spend time exploring what new adventures God is calling you and your congregation to go on now (and no, it’s not backwards). And find ways to care for others. Getting out of our own heads and focusing on the various ways we can serve and already are serving others, is a great way to experience God’s light in our lives.
“It is you who light my lamp; the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness.” (Psalm 18:28) Even though we may be feeling trapped in the dark without light, God’s light of Christ is here, guiding us when we step into the light. And in that light we can start moving toward the reconstruction phase as God’s true light at the end of the tunnel appears in the distance.
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod