encountering God in the darkness

A couple of time a year when I was in seminary we would have “Quiet Days,” which were basically half-day retreats that third year students had to attend.  It was in the music of one of these Quiet Days that I experienced God speaking.

Two different pieces of music were played that day, and we were to meditate or pray while we listened.  I was not particularly connecting with the first piece – a Christian pop song – but the mournful sounds of a choral adaptation of Barber’s Adagio for Strings resonated with me immediately.  There is a certain reverence about the piece, but it also gives you the eerie sense that you are confronting something very dark. I noticed that this feeling struck a particular chord within me, and that I felt a deep connection to God in that confrontation with darkness.  I am talking about a kind of existential moment, a standing at the edge of “the abyss,” contemplating the futility of human efforts, the radical corruption of human desires, the “nothingness” of human existence and achievement.

I have faced depression on a couple of occasions in my life, and I believe that those experiences changed me profoundly.   I am not a particularly mournful or pessimistic person, but, I still pause in those “existential moments,” and feel an incredible resonance within me.  It is very difficult to describe.  The words of Ecclesiastes 1:8 spoke so clearly to my experience at the height of my depression:

All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.  

While I don’t struggle with that feeling regularly, I have never really left it behind, and the brief moments when that weariness has resurfaced in my life have been some of the most profound encounters I have had with myself, and with God.

Aside from the music, I remember connecting with the Psalms we read that day, and with the practice of praying the Psalms, which I have done since experiencing the daily offices in my first year at Wycliffe.  During my depression, I was comforted to find an expression of my experience in Ecclesiastes, and in a similar way I have found it liberating to be able to pray with the emotion found in the Psalms.  Strange as it may seem to some, I find that I feel closest to God in those moments when I contemplate the loneliness and futility of human life with honesty. Somehow I know that God is there, because, as the Psalmist prayed, Christ also prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In God the Son’s decent into that “abyss” of human darkness, he established his true presence in the God-forsaken places of this world. I am, therefore, surprisingly comforted when I find myself in such a place, knowing that, in spite of the profound sense of darkness I feel, he is indeed there, and I, in Christ, can make the same cry with authenticity.

I do connect with God in feelings of joy and thankfulness, of course.  Often, however, the shallow “happiness” that is sometimes characteristic of evangelical worship fails to resonate with my experience.  There is an unfailing optimism (“Christians should be happy people!”) among many which is only possible when the problem of sin and suffering is gravely underestimated.  Coming to terms with human depravity was a watershed moment for me, not only in terms of understanding myself and God, but also in terms of understanding the broken world in which we live.  I am not in any way discouraged by the profound brokenness of the world, or by my own depravity, given the sufficiency of Christ’s work.  Rather, I feel a great sense of freedom in resting my hope in him alone.

I was particularly thankful during that Quiet Day, that I could experience that dark encounter once again, and still feel that powerful resonance within me.  I am thankful that I have not left that experience behind, though I am no longer confined by it.

Notes on Spirit and Institution in the Church


How are we to describe the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions? Is it Spirit against institution?  Spirit in tension with institution?  Spirit enlivening institution?  Spirit in institution?  Some combination of these?  I’m wrestling through this question right now in my dissertation, and was blessed to have an opportunity to lecture on the topic last week at Wycliffe.  The following thoughts are taken from my my lecture notes.

The church is necessarily institutional.  An institution is simply a stable set of social relations practiced among an identifiable group of people.  In order for the church to persist in time and “take up space” in history, it must be institutional.  We must beware the cultural baggage we bring to the term “institution.”  We live in a time of extreme skepticism regarding social institutions.  We as Christians have been formed in a society which encourages us to believe the myth that we should, as autonomous individuals, resist all institutional authority.  This is, of course, impossible and impracticable.

We must avoid the errors of triumphalism and spiritualism.  A triumphalist church presumes upon the Spirit’s presence and blessing, identifying the church with the Spirit.  A spiritualist church denigrates the institutional reality of the church in favour of a disembodied “spiritual” church.

The Spirit and ecclesial institutions must be distinguished but not opposed, just as nature and grace must be distinguished but not opposed. As nature is the milieu of God’s gracious action, so also human institutions are the milieu for God’s pneumatic / charismatic action.

We cannot identify the Spirit with ecclesial institutions. The Spirit stands over and against ecclesial institutions, as Christ stands over and against the church as its Lord and judge.

We cannot oppose the Spirit to ecclesial institutions. There is no “non-institutional” place where the Spirit is “really” at work in people’s lives.  Ecclesial institutions are not the enemy of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit condescends to work in human institutions, as “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7).

The church can never presume upon the Spirit, but must always humbly call upon the Spirit, trusting in the promises of Christ (John 14:15ff) and the Father (Acts 1:4). The institutions in themselves are not endued with power; yet we know that Christ has promised the Spirit to the church, and we know that the church cannot avoid an institutional existence.

While ultimately the Spirit is not dependent upon institution, in the concrete life of the church in history, the two are inextricably interrelated (because the church is institutional in all aspects of its life).

As with human agents, the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions is not a zero-sum competitive game; the Spirit is the creator and animator of the Church’s institutions in such a way that they remain truly human institutions, while their institutional character is taken up and elevated into something more than a human institution – a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God.

In this way, all ecclesial institutions are charismatic. Just as humans were created in such a way that we cannot reach our divinely-ordered telos without divine grace, so the church as a visible, institutional reality is created in such a way that it cannot be what it has been created to be without concrete bestowal of grace.

Nevertheless, the gifts of the Spirit, which preserve, uphold, and elevate the Church’s institutional life are no guarantee of her faithfulness; the Spirit is not merely a stamp of approval, or a “divine positive energy”, but a divine Person, who carries out judgment  and brings conviction of sin (John 16:8-11), as well as giving life.

Because ecclesial institutions are truly human, they are caught up in the web of sin. Therefore the institutional character of the church can also be turned into something which it is not intended to be; it can become corrupted (and it often is).

In other words, the Spirit’s presence will include acts of both mercy and judgment, wrought in the historical life of the Church.  We can trust that the Spirit will be among us, but that should encourage a sure trust and confidence in God, and a humble watchfulness on our own part (rather than presumption on our part).

All the more reason to embrace the reformation call for a church which is reformed and always reforming. A constant repentance – an institutional turning away from sin and toward God – should mark the church’s corporate life.