As Easter approaches a lot of people are under the mistaken belief that being a Christian means living in a state of untroubled emotional bliss. They may feel that periods of anxiety and depression make one repellent to God. They may feel that they should not even attempt to scale the Kilimanjaro spiritual heights of Easter Sunday joy.
When preachers pray before they preach “Lord, help me to get out of the way so your message can be heard,” I feel homeless. I realize that have nowhere to go if I get out of the way. All I can hope for is to stay in the way. I once was going through a period of vocational doubt and, while singing the second verse of “Take My Life and Let It Be” had an epiphany. “Take my intellect and use every power as thou shalt choose,” I sang, and as I sang I said to God in my thoughts: “It ain’t much, but if you want it, you got it. It’s all yours.”
Later that day I looked up who wrote that hymn to see if there was a dramatic story behind it. I was searching for circumstances like the conversion of a former slave trader John Newton the author of “Amazing Grace.” I was prepared to catch a glimpse of deep, sudden grief, like that of jazz pianist and composer Tommy Dorsey, author of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Instead I found a rather matter of fact account of a young English woman in her sitting room one evening in 1874. She was praying for a deeper consecration of herself to God. She was praying that everyone currently staying in the house might join her in giving all of themselves to God when she experienced “several ‘little couplets’ forming in her heart, one after the other.”
I found a glowing account of her life that emphasized the “simple faith and saintliness” of this rector’s daughter who gave her time to the poor and her talents to writing verse for hymns and died a painful death of peritonitis at age 42. Reading between the lines of her life story, it certainly sounds as if Frances suffered from bouts of depression and unpredictable weakness and illness. She believed that the spiritual life was never without weights, that disappointments might be God’s appointments, and that from periods of darkness and suffering the inspiration for her verses grew.
And so do I. But it would be so much easier to do so from a platform of perfect psychological, emotional and spiritual peace, from a mind that is set on such a high plain of praise that it barely remembers what it was like to be anxious, paranoid, negative or corrupt. But would we be able fully to glorify God on the heights apart from our habitation in the valley? Would the oyster spin a pearl without the grain of grit trapped in its shell? Why waste time fantasizing about what would be easier when Easter calls us to face into what is? My prayer for the days ahead, not just before I preach but each morning will be this: “Lord, help me to stay in your way so your message can be heard. I place everything within me directly in your path. Activate my anxieties. Prod my paranoia. Nudge my negativity. Corral my corruption. Enlist my emotional instability. Harness the darkness.
As we approach Easter, the last thing any of us needs is to be made to feel inadequate because there is not more lightness in our hearts. What we need, above all else, is to be reminded that God specializes in harnessing our darkness so it can, by divine alchemy, be used to generate light for others.