I spent a lot of time sitting in the dark last summer. Electricity isn't so reliable in Bukavu (or anywhere else in the Congo, for that matter) and so if it's after dark and the power goes out, there isn't much you can do about it. Even if you are, say, in the middle of cooking dinner on an electric stove or feeding the dog or watching a DVD on your laptop for the 400th time or reading a cultural history of science. Of course, you can light a candle or two, and if it's urgent, turn on your headlamp. But a candle doesn't do much, and those precious batteries need to be saved in case something worse happens. And a candle can't do much to dispel the reality that it is dark.
Darkness in the Congo is not like darkness in Austin, Texas, where light always creeps in one way or another. It's not even completely like the darkness in an isolated place like Big Bend, which is, to be sure, darker than dark.
No, darkness in the Congo is darker than even that. It's not just that you can't see your hand in front of you (although you can't). It's more than that. It's the sense that all is not right outside, that the social order has been so disrupted that darkness means yet another innocent is having to endure something so awful that it is beyond naming.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the day we think about, and light a candle for, hope. My pastor's Advent series is about the Magi, and while we were all pondering how he's going to get four sermons plus Epiphany out of that short text, he said something pretty important. Somewhere in talking about the wise men wandering all over the known world without a map, we reach a point, he said (more-or-less), where we've been disappointed so many times that we don't want to hope anymore. More disappointment would be too much. And yet, he said, there's still this little bit of Advent in us that won't give up hope of finding the one that can sustain our adoration and keep our hope alive.
That's what that star the Magi were chasing is about. This little point of light that sometimes can barely be seen, that hardly makes a dent in the blackest dark, is nothing, and, yet, is everything.
Growing up at camp, there was a song we sang that began with the words, "Darkness around me / sorrow surrounds me." I never really liked that song, but the idea it begins with, that we live surrounded by sadness and sorrow, has been true in many respects in my life. The suffering of our neighbors, both here and on the other side of the world, is beyond bearing sometimes. It's everywhere.
But. But. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it," wrote John, and that's what we're supposed to do as well. Keep hoping when the sorrow is overwhelming. Keep believing that that star points to something greater than our disappointment. And keep lighting candles - even in the darkest of nights.