A few years ago, I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering. Hanh is a Zen Buddhist teacher originally from Vietnam, and he lived in his home country during the Vietnam War. He describes that time as “dark and heavy” making it nearly impossible for anyone to see their way forward. As a teacher, he was frequently asked if he thought the war would end soon. He replied, “‘Everything is impermanent, even war. It will end some day.’” He then goes on to describe the power of those spoken words: “Knowing that, we could continue to work for peace.” He explains, “When you’re overwhelmed by despair, all you can see is suffering everywhere you look. You feel as if the worst thing is happening to you. But we must remember that suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness. Without suffering, there’s no happiness. So we shouldn’t discriminate against the mud. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.”
A Blue Christmas sermon based on Isaiah 9.
The Prophet Isaiah writes, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” But to ask Hanh’s question is, I think, important. Would those same people Isaiah describes have recognized the light if they had been walking on the beach on a sunny summer day? Those days can blind us as we look out at the water so we shield our eyes. We pull out our sunglasses, and even when you close your eyes, it still seems that you can see the brightness. I know Isaiah’s working in metaphors, but it bears asking: can you appreciate that great light if you haven’t lived in a land of deep darkness?
I personally do not like where this is going, but I know it rings true and clear. Perhaps I don’t like the places this metaphor is taking me because we live in a culture that encourages us to always chase perfection. Pull up Instagram or Facebook and scroll through the pictures there. Rarely are there photos of real grief or pain—they do emerge from time to time, but they are clearly not the norm. What we see are images of projected happiness and joy. Of the good things that have come bounding along. Of photoshopped scenes and perfect bodies from people living dreamy lives.
That all takes a toll, of course. When we see those posts about other people’s seeming lives of perfection, we worry that our own lives aren’t good enough, that we aren’t good enough. Recent studies show a link between heavy social media use and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, and feelings of inadequacy. The seeming perfection we crave doesn’t really bring the happiness we might expect.
But walking in the real world of darkness gives us the chance to see a great light when it comes. In his book Drops Like Stars, Rob Bell describes an interview David Letterman once had with the musician Warren Zevon. Zevon had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and so Letterman asks him about it. “From your perspective, do you know something about life… that maybe I don’t know?” Zevon answered, “I know how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.” Letterman simply nods at that profound statement. In recounting this scene, Rob Bell gives this analysis: “Sometimes what happens to us when we suffer is that we become open to the mercy and grace and gratitude and gift and appreciation and joy that are always around us all the time, even in a sandwich.”
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” “There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”
This year has been one with a lot more mud than flowers. I know people who have lost their jobs, faced significant non-Covid health crises, been infected with the virus causing a global pandemic, and dealt with the inability to sit at the bedside of a loved ones who was dying. Our kids have faced the frustration of online learning and being away from peers. Food insecurity has exploded while Congress bickers over providing a $600 stimulus check. We wonder if life will ever be normal again. If we will make it through.
But I think it’s the truckloads of mud this year that will eventually lead to fields full of flowers. And perhaps we could even begin to see those flowers sooner if we look for them. Perhaps we could enjoy every sandwich or every cup of coffee a bit more. Maybe we could see the simplistic beauty of this season that our culture wants to turn into a bombastic consumeristic extravaganza. Or possibly we could experience it in the simplicity of being present with our deep grief knowing we grieve because we love. Because it is those who walk in darkness that can see a great light. And the light that arrives in just a few days is this: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.”
Friends that is the truth to be found on this bluest of Christmases: Jesus came into this world of ours in order to bring us peace. He did not come promising perfect lives. Nor did his coming instantly dispel the darkness. Rather, he came as a light to shine in that darkness. It is only as we spend time in the darkness that we can truly see what a gift his light really is. It is only through him that we can experience a deep and abiding peace that isn’t dependent on what happens around us.
May we find that peace this year. May we recognize that the mud around us will eventually bring beauty. And may we always know that even in the darkest of times, Jesus remains with us lighting our paths before us. Amen.