Recently, I found myself standing in church singing a hymn I do not recall having sung before.
The first verse of this unfamiliar hymn says,
Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
in the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
offering each the bloom or blight,
and the choice goes by forever,
‘twixt that darkness and that light.
These words were written in 1849 by the American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat James Russell Lowell (1819-1891). They embody a worldview that has plagued the Christian church for centuries.
For Lowell life could be neatly divided into the polarized opposites of: truth or falsehood, good or evil, bloom or blight, light or darkness. You must decide. Take your pick. You can align yourself with evil and darkness or goodness and light.
According to this tidy vision of life, God is present in the truth, the good, the bloom, and the light. God is absent from the falsehood, the evil, the blight, and the darkness. In this bifurcated universe, the goal of life is to get where God is and get away from where God is not.
But, can God possibly not be anywhere?
As the Psalmist asks,
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. (Psalm 139:7-12)
For the Psalmist, God is present in Sheol, in “the farthest limits of the sea,” even in “the darkness.” There is nowhere God is absent, no corner of existence from which God is ever excluded.
When we fail to affirm God’s presence everywhere and in everything, we begin dividing the world and ourselves into the parts we approve of and accept and the parts we do not like and therefore reject. Life becomes a constant turmoil of likes and dislikes, good and bad, in and out, light and dark, acceptable and unacceptable. We live as victims of our preferences, happy when things seem to be going the way we want, sad when the tide turns and our circumstances seem difficult.
There is no place for pain in this divided vision. Pain will always be rejected as the ultimate evil. Pain is the great enemy in the dualistic vision. We perceive that something is desperately wrong when things do not go the way we had hoped and we find ourselves in pain. Any strategy that holds the promise of reducing the pain, no matter how costly that strategy may be, will always be viewed as a good thing.
Jesus did not share this understanding of pain. Jesus said,
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
To “take up your cross” is to walk directly into the centre of the pain. Cross-bearers refuse to escape, deny, or ignore the reality of pain.
It is in that very act of acknowledging the painful realities of life that our hearts open to an awareness of that power of love who is never absent.Even James Russell Lowell hints at the possibility that, the heart that opens to the Presence that permeates all existence, will discover that
behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow.
But the real spiritual journey is to discover that God is not just “behind the dim unknown” but within. As Lowell affirms, God is “within the shadow.”
The writer of the Gospel of John says,
The light shines in the darkness. (John 1:5)
It is not that there is no darkness. The affirmation of the gospel is that the light is always present no matter how dark the darkness may seem. All of life is one. The manifestation of love is present in every dimension of existence. The challenge is to have eyes that are open enough to truly see. The answer to “Where can I go from your spirit?” is absolutely nowhere.
Here is the text of the full hymn:
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by for ever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses,
While the coward stands aside
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.
By the light of burning martyrs
Jesus’ bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward
Who would keep abreast of truth.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.