when darkness surrounds you

“Kim, you’ve got to listen to this song,” Jeff told me as we got on the highway and he skipped through the CD to find the right track. I gave a disinterested nod while digging through my purse for some essential item. And then as Christian singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson’s gentle voice began I involuntarily stopped breathing as the lyrics poured over me. I was instantly transported back to the dark season in my own life that gave birth to this project:

I tried to be brave but I hid in the dark
I sat in that cave and I prayed for a spark
To light up all the pain that remained in my heart
And the rain kept falling

Down on the roof of the church where I cried
I could hear all the laughter and love and I tried
To get up and get out but a part of me died
And the rain kept falling down

Depression. Anxiety. Loss. Failure. Loneliness. Exhaustion. Illness. All of these can feel like a cave trapping you and sucking you further into darkness. Critics may tell you there is no cave and it’s not real and just get over it. And oh how you want to get over it. How desperately you long to move on and let it go and be free and walk in the light of the day. And you crawl toward what you hope is an opening and search for the light, but sometimes the darkness surrounds you on every side.

If you’ve never been in the cave, it’s a bit like being surrounded by plexiglass. You hear your family and friends laughing and talking, and you want to join in but it’s all foggy and distant. You’re there, but you’re not there. Every movement takes effort, so your walking around life feels like it’s in slow motion through quicksand. You walk through Target and wonder how all the people seem to move effortlessly when life is so incredibly hard.

The cave is a heaviness that won’t quit, a shakiness that won’t settle, a loneliness that won’t abate. 

I am acquainted with this cave in my own life, even though I know All The Things To Do. And I know this cave because of those who come to my office and sink into my cavernous blue couch and entrust me with stories of heartbreak and hopelessness.

And so for all those who resonate with Andrew’s words, for all who have come to my office or another therapist’s office desperate for a spark to help navigate a way through the darkness, I want to honor you today. In the midst of the Christmas carols and mall traffic and holiday parties, I see your distant eyes and your perfunctory smile. I see you and I honor your sadness, your loss, your anger, your loneliness. I wish it were different.

Being in the cave is always hard, but perhaps especially during the holidays with its artificial light and constant insistence that “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Which is fabulous if you’re falling in love for the first time or watching your toddler scream with excitement over Christmas lights.

But when the twinkling lights and the Christmas carols hint of a delight you have never known or can’t feel or have lost, it’s anything but the most wonderful time of the year.

If you are surrounded by darkness today, I won’t offer you five strategies for surviving the holidays or getting over your Christmas blues. I wholeheartedly believe many practical strategies actually can and do help folks, myself included, crawl toward the light. For this day, however, I won’t write about the benefits of mindfulness or exercise or self-talk.


Instead, I will light a candle for you. Whether you can see it or not, whether you feel it or not, whether you even believe in God or not, I will proclaim the truth of the Gospel. You are seen. You are loved. You are known by the God who created you and the Son whose death redeems you. No cave is too dark or too lost or too broken for God to find you.

“Where can I flee from your presence?” the psalmist asks in Psalm 139, “If I make my bed in the depths you are there…even the darkness will not be dark to you.”  You may be surrounded by darkness on all sides, but I believe you are not alone. Even the darkness will not be dark to God.

For me, the candle shines brightest in the psalms. No matter how oppressive the night, when I turn to the psalms I encounter a Godwho pursues us in our darkness and honors those who lament, who cry out, who mourn and plead and beg for mercy and deliverance from pain. Which means God sees our pain. God honors and respectsour suffering. God is not quietly telling us to shut up, stop whining and get over it. In the Psalms we encounter a God who listens to angry, terrified, overwhelmed people:

Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught … my heart is in anguish within me…
fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. (from Psalm 55)

Darkness is scary because we can not see our companions or what lies ahead or around us. But perhaps the darkness also allows us to experience God in a different way, as Thomas Merton writes: “To find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness.”

This month I am observing the Sabbath and trying to live into a rhythm of work and rest. But I am reminded of another essential rhythm of our faith, that of death and resurrection. So often the darkness feels like a tomb, andmy prayer is that your darkness will ultimately give birth to something new and beautiful and life-giving.

Andrew’s song ends with a haunting and beautiful prayer for this kind of resurrection, and I leave you with these words:

I just want to be new again…
(Peace, be still)

I’m so tired and I’m always so wrong…
(Peace, be still)

Help me be brave tonight…
(Peace, be still)

Jesus, please help me out of this cave tonight…
(Peace, be still)

Today, I light a candle for you, my friends. Peace, be still.

Post Script: After I wrote this post, as some of you know, I had to have emergency eye surgery for a detached retina (the story behind that is a blog post in itself, but it involves an unhappy 3 year-old and bedtime). It also means I am currently, literally, in the dark as my right eye heals over the next 6-8 weeks. The irony of this post is not lost on me. Waiting, anxiety and fear have joined darkness at center stage, and I have turned to the psalms yet again:

For you, Lord , have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.  Psalm 116:8-9

May we find one another in the land of the living, friends.

Listen to Andrew’s song here.

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