Midnight, Advent, and Hope …
© 2008, 2012 Brad Sargent.
In light of the shootings in Connecticut this past week, I felt I needed to do something to help counteract some of the shadow. I sensed I should repost this article, which was originally published November 11, 2008, under the title of “midnight …” It explores a few of the practical antidotes to selfishness, ugliness, and evil: prayer, beauty, and kindness – all very appropriate themes for Advent. May this article be used to spark some kindling of hope in the midst of the darkness of midnight …
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for myself and a lot of my family and friends who are not doing so well physically, whether young or old. A cousin just finished a first round of three weeks in chemotherapy for cancer. A 50-something friend has been given a prognosis of 2 months to 2 years for cancer. Others wrestle with terrible stresses not related to conditions of fragility from health. Instead, they are dealing with lack or loss of jobs, extreme losses in investments, fresh traumas inflicted at the hands of unscrupulous leaders.
Sometimes I’m not sure which is worse – the pains of injury where we must do what we can to heal and endure, or the pains of empathy where we can do little for those afflicted and yet we must still endure.
I decided to post some personal stories that I thought might be of encouragement in the midst of such midnights.
My father lived for 7 years with the effects of a debilitating stroke he had at age 56. It left him weakened on one side, not quite a hemi-plegic, but never again normal. It affected his ability to control his emotions, not just his body, and it was so incredibly frustrating for him and my Mom, and for me as well (I was very ill and living at home at that time).
The stroke even froze one of Dad’s vocal cords permanently, and he went overnight from a smooth baritone to squeaky soprano. Gradually over those 7 years, I came to where I couldn’t even recall the original sound of his voice. But in the years following his passing, the memory came back. Slowly, though. At first, I could remember the wonderful sound of his hearty laughter. Maybe a year or so later, I remembered what he sounded like in singing lines from his favorite hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” Eventually, I could remember how he sounded when he spoke … and with that – finally – I felt like I had my Dad back at last.
I think that’s a “sanctified imagination” metaphor for the longings we all have for heaven. It’s a deep-seated hope set in the heart of every human. We want to know what it is like to walk in the Garden with God, without any distortions. What would it be like to know Him if there were no conditions of separation? Not one barrier of any kind – no sin, no brokenness, no sickness, no pain? And that day will eventually come … and we will know then as we are known now by Him.
Meantime, here we are in the midst of the opposite situation, waiting in the distortion zone for the redemption of all things. And it hurts because of all the grief and even the “anticipatory grief” we have now. Seeing the decline in condition of people we love. Witnessing the wounds of physical, emotional, spiritual damage – identified by the scars people wear. Knowing the difficulties in our own lives and the painful consequences we oftentimes bring on ourselves by our actions. Sometimes it seems so dark that we wonder if light will ever return …
A few years ago, I wrote a poem that talks about exactly that kind of feeling of an emotionally ever-dark existence: “Midnight.” It’s become one of my all-time favorite pieces I’ve written. Here’s the story behind how it came into being, and then the poem itself.
In the year 2000, a couple in the church I worked with wanted to have a memorial service for their infant son. A year earlier, he had been born and survived for only a few hours before passing away peacefully in the arms of his mother. Sadly, no one among family or friends would validate the couple’s ongoing grief. Instead, they heard cruel things from those who should have comforted them. What’s wrong with you? Time to move on with your life. You’re still young, you’ll have other children.
And so, after stuffing down their agony for almost a year, they spontaneously decided to hold an impromptu memorial for the son they’d hardly known but who still held a place in their hearts. They invited friends old and new to join them at the beach for the service a few days later. They anticipated it being a time of healing. So, they also welcomed us to prepare and share whatever was on our hearts that we thought might help them consider, remember, and look forward.
I knew in my spirit immediately what I was being called to do: write a poem. It’s not something I do all that often, but it seems most appropriate on especially emotional occasions, whether of high celebration or deep turmoil.
Time’s short. Only a day to do this. I sit down with pencil and paper, begin jotting ideas. What picture is needed for this specific situation? Something about darkness and light, stationary versus moving, solidity and ethereality. Concepts come together. Words and phrases emerge. Most verses pour themselves into place.
But I still couldn’t figure out how to start the poem, even when three-fourths of the rest of it was already polished and finished. It didn’t all make sense yet. The opening is crucial to frame the analogy and set the tone. And it just would not show itself!
Then it happened … I “knew” I was supposed to use the word bereft in the first line. I remember thinking, Okay, that’s sort of an obscure and old-fashioned word, guess that’s all right. But what rhymes with “bereft”? I struggled for a long time with this. I tried other versions: bereave, bereavement, bereaved. There are a lot of workable rhymes there: bereave/leave/grieve/receive. But nothing sat right. Absolutely nothing.
I struggled and strived, but could not finish the poem – until, after a few more hours, I finally gave in and was convinced that, indeed, I needed to use bereft and not some derivative from the same roots. And, even more incongruous, I needed to rhyme the odd word bereft with one that seemed to make even less sense – cleft. But, strangely – maybe even miraculously? – as I sat and thought a few moments more, the first two lines in that first verse suddenly catalyzed around that unusual coupling, and the last two quickly followed. I actually finished the poem around midnight, just hours before the memorial service.
A carpool of us got there that morning and were met by the child’s father. He directed us to an area at the south end of the beach, down by some rock formations. We all go there, sit on logs or the sand, and get comfortable as possible on a breezy, chilly beach.
I turn and gasp as I see … a huge crack in the rock wall – literally, a cleft in the cliff! It was so large that an adult could stand inside it and be completely hidden from view, and shielded from winds and waves off the ocean.
My eyes watered, less from the sting of sand blown in the wind, and more from God’s providence in framing this entire moment as a freeform breath of beauty for this couple and the few family members who came to be present with them. I had an inkling of what the next minutes might mean to them …
Shortly after the revelation of the rock, the memorial began. The couple told us the very few things they knew about their son, the hopes they’d held for him, the sadness that still held them. Then they invited family and friends who were with them to share. The pastor and several others gave their thoughts. When I felt the time was right, I told the story of writing this poem for them the night before, and of seeing the cleft in the rock. And then, this is what I read:
[© 2000 Brad Sargent]
When from all life hope seems bereft
in that very moment God creates a cleft
to protect us from the vortex void
where hearts lie shattered, all dawns destroyed.
Into the depths of those blackest hours
burns forth an Orb who knows the power
of welcoming the midnight of our souls
as transforming brokenness that makes us whole.
When from God’s sheltered slot of grace
our glacial beings Christ’s love embrace
then by enth degrees of warmth and light
the sun’s slow rising melts the night
until the dead seed stirs and sprouts,
then branches, blooms, life’s fruits pour out.
Take heart, my friend – for soon you’ll stand
to proclaim that midnight was where your day began.
In the face of whatever ugliness, pain, and evil plagues us, I firmly believe that a counteractive form of healing is found in the beauty of nature and arts, and in the beauty of human kindness. Many of us are in the midst of a midnight in our soul right now. Whatever we may be facing this day that weighs down our heart and beclouds our hope, I pray we will find a moment of lightness, as the beauty of the Lord our God shines upon us, to lift our spirit toward heaven …