Absence of Friends
Winter is friendless. In it, we experience a terrible, terrifying aloneness.
You have taken away from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them;
I am confined and cannot escape . . . .
You have taken from me friend and neighbor —
darkness is my closest friend.
(Psalm 88:8, 18 TNIV)
Abandonment. Rejection. Isolation. This is the shape of the soul in winter. And it feels that way even, maybe most, in a crowd. At church. In Bible study. At weddings or reunions. Even when many surround us, the heart’s winter makes us feel estranged. It makes usunloved and unlovable.
Carol was prone to winter — the same Carol whose death threw me into that place. She was unmarried, not by choice. Sometimes her loniliness grew wide and deep and swallowed things whole — her many friendships, her prodigous gifting, her love for God — and darkness became her closest friend. She avoided others, and when she couldn’t, she hide inside herself and showed others a mask of herself, a smiling mask that she could barely animate.
I particularly remember a visit she took to Turkey. Something happened there — not an incident but a shifting inside her. She grew fearful, and doubtful. God grew distant. She visited a place where Paul, the apostle, worked and preached and built churches. Those buildings those Christians once inhabited, thundering the gospel and storming the gates of hell, were now only ruins, bleached stones scattered in empty fields. The places of heavenly worship had become the haunts of jackals and owls. Mohammed had chased out Jesus and left only rubble to mark the place.
It was a personal apocalypse for her. She nearly lost her faith. And in the pounding heat and wide light of the middle-eastern sun, Carol tumbled down into darkness, and took a year to come out. In that time, she was alone even, especially, when she wasn’t alone.
Winter is friendless.
Last and worst, winter is death. It’s living death. Death haunts us and surrounds those in winter. The psalmist describes in vivid and sometimes lurid terms the pall that death casts over this season of the heart: “my life draws near to death”; “I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie down in the grave.”
Though he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, he has no assurance that God is with him, that God in any way protects him, that goodness and love are trailing him or the house of the Lord awaits him.
All is dead, or appears so. A tree so stark and bony in winter, it’s almost impossible to believe it will ever bear fruit or give shade again. Winter is when your heart is so closed up you can’t imagine it ever opening up again, your dreams so buried you can’t conceive of them resurrecting.
When Carol died, this psalm gave voice to my numbness. Even more, it did that for Cheryl, my wife: it was her elegy, the song of her broken heart. It was the bleak inventory of a devastating loss. Carol and Cheryl were closer than sisters. They knew the fellowship of Christ’s suffering, the fellowship of uproarious laughter, the fellowship of voracious God-hunger, the fellowship of movie watching and purse shopping and party planning, the fellowship of caring each other’s secrets and bearing one another’s burdens. You don’t lose that and keep much else. Cheryl was engulfed, overwhelmed, cut-off. “You have taken from me my closest friends.” It devastated her. But maybe worse was what replaced the one taken: “Darkness is my closest friend.” Her winter, ours, gave us unwanted intimacy with night.
Winter is death.
DARKNESS IS YOUR CLOSEST FRIEND
It’s how John The Baptist must have felt. He languished in Herod’s prison, the cost of meddling in the king’s personal life, daring to denounce his brazen immorality. Herod’s pride and anger and despotic power converged, and he imprisoned John. But then he froze in indecision. He hated John but also feared him: feared his holiness, his boldness, his wildness. Herod, for all of his pagan ways, nursed a deep dread that John might be right, and that the wrath of God would befall him, or that the people would overthrow him, which might be the same thing. An, of course, following the line of all the Herods, he was paranoid, and superstitious, and egotistical, and insecure, and together that concocted a potent brew of self-doubt.
From prison, John hears of Jesus’ comings and goings, His preaching and His miracles. This is the same Jesus whose mother’s voice caused John to leap in his own mother’s womb. This is the same Jesus whose sandals John felt unworthy to untie., the same Jesus he declared “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” the same Jesus whom he remarked, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” And this is the same Jesus who declared John to be great in the kingdom of God.
But now, John’s not sure. All these bold declarations seem a stretch. If all these things be true, why is he here, rotting and starving? Why does his life hang by a thread in the hand of a vain and capricious king? If Jesus is the Christ, why is He not coming to the rescue, swooping down in retribution on Rome and all her lackeys? Surely, for the sake of kingdom, Jesus will act. And if not for the sake of His kingdom,then for the sake of John’s Elijah-like status as the Messiah’s forerunner. And if not for the sake of John’s status, then for the sake of Jesus’ relationship with him — they’re cousins, after all. This is a family matter.
So he waits, and so his waiting turns to wondering, and his wondering to worrying to open doubt. He hears about all that Jesus is doing — the astonishing miracles. The people proclaim Him as “a great prophet.” But something sits askew for John. Something doesn’t add up. So he dispatches two of his disciples to ask Jesus a pointed question: “Are You the One to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Luke’s commentary and Jesus’ reply are cold comfort: “At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to the blind. So He replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of Me.'” (Luke 7:21-23 TNIV)
Jesus says, in effect, “John, I’m busy. I am busy being the Messiah — healing, liberating, raising the dead, preaching good news — but if you’re asking what this means for you, well, I’ve got some hard news. I’m not dropping by. Herod will have his way with you. Blessed are you if you don’t fall away on account of Me — if performing miracles left and right with nary a one for you doesn’t drive you into unbelief. Blessed are you if I leave you in the dark and you still trust Me.”
With that, Jesus sends John’s disciples back to him and then turns to the crowd and makes these remarks: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one whom it is written: ‘I will send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way before You.’ I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the One who is least in the kingdom is greater than he.” (Luke 7:24-28)
I don’t think Jesus’ remarks are unrelated to the message He sent John. Who is greatest in the kingdom of God? Who deserves God’s favor? To whom does Jesus, by virtue of their faithfulness or status or kinship with Him, owe a miracle? Maybe John the Baptist, maybe also the Sons of Korah, as though their closeness with God entitled them to heavenly benefits here and now, with no deductible.
So John’s suprised to find himself in this prison, in this winter, lonely and afraid. Abandoned, while his own cousin saves and blesses and cures every beggar and whore and tax collector He comes across, bestows divine favor on every wayward stranger He meets.
John sits in the dark, waiting, dreading, brooding. He hears the dungeon-keeper approaching, hears the clink and thud of the keys in the lock. He knows in his bones what he’s come for.
It’s not to deliver a pardon. It’s not to announce a visitor. It’s not to herald a miracle.
Darkness is his closest friend.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
Winter Is Friendless
Just picture this– you are in a dream-like state — abscent of your mother, father, siblings (whether they come by marriage or not), both sides of your grandparents, and your closest friends. Just picture in this dream, you can’t get out because your strapped on a hospital bed only aware of the people around you however each time you went to speak absolutely nothing came out of your lips — like a glacier on a below 0° day. Meanwhile all appears fine, but you can hear the talking going around you — the nurses, your high school friends, the girl you just took out on a date. Well, that was my dream just five weeks before my car accident with my new 1985 pre-owned Dodge Charger Turbo, when realness of it hit me something fierce praying it was all a dream. Come to find out, I was in a car accident which I suffered a traumatic brain injury. Yet, one thing I didn’t see, in my dream-like state, was some of my closest friends.
See, I was a sociable guy, but not snobish to any one group of people like so many teens. And this one fact gave me hope that the stuff that I was going couldn’t possibly be real because I was friendless. Then appeared my mother and those close to me by blood. I thought it odd that they would appear to me in my dream (though some would classify it as a nightmare since the length and breadth of were too much to overcome). Then about 3 weeks later on a Thursday night, after dinner in my wing of the Northeast Rehabilatation Hospital, I prayed this prayer to God: “God, I am sick of experiencing this dream. Furthermore, I don’t know what You want from me from experiencing this dream, so by the time I wake up tomorrow, I expect to wake up in my nice, comfortable, warm bed and get on with my life serving You in preparation to be a lifetime youth pastor. Yet if this is real, the things that I am going through, please let it work out all for Your glory and give me the strength to get through it. In Jesus’ name, Amen” as I said it with emphasis in my head. I thought that I had all my bases covered by putting “In Jesus’ Name” onto my prayer until the next morning. Only then I discovered my real fate and knew that I was going to have to rely solely on God.
Furthermore, the weight of my promise had come crashing down on my soul that I had to keep because God doesn’t like anyone who does not keep their promises to Him (Ecclesiastes 5:4-7). Unfortunately, for me as I was unsure of what was going on, I woke up in the room at the Northeast Rehabilatation Hospital. I knew from that point on, even though I was was going through my own personal apocolypse, God would be with me. Yes, I experienced God on a deeper level, however, in that time, I was alone, especially, when I wasn’t alone.
Winter is death. It’s living death. … The psalmist describes in vivid and sometimes lurid terms the pall that death casts over this season of the heart: “my life draws near to death”; “I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie down in the grave.” And that is how I felt. No promise of anything other than that of my promise to the Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon. God of the apostle Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy. Earlier in my life, before that horrifying accident, I said I would do anything to spread the Word of God. Back then, I was ready to go into the mission field to other countries, where the dialect would present me with difficulties or a pastor to the American inner city youth. Back then, I would do ANYTHING! Well, God took me at His Word because ANYTHING is what I promised, and just after turning 18, I got to experience that ANYTHING through personal tragedy that slowly turned into an unfolding miracle. It was a living death, however. What was the emotion that best describes it all would be an intense frustration. Once I woke up to the heartache reality of my life post-accident (the in-patient speech therapy, in-patient occupational therapy, and the in-patient physical therapy), words could not capture. however, intense frustration is the closest. But I made a vow or a promise to God. Despite my situation, it was a Living death.
Darkness Is My Closest Friend
So he waits, and so his waiting turns to wondering, and his wondering to worrying to open doubt. He hears about all that Jesus is doing — the astonishing miracles. The people proclaim Him as “a great prophet.” But something sits askew for John. Something doesn’t add up. So he dispatches two of his disciples to ask Jesus a pointed question: “Are You the One to come, or should we expect someone else?” I have been “likened” to Job, but never to John the Baptist except once. My former pastor of where I go to church said that I was like John in that I am to herald Jesus and the miracles He performed in my life. I don’t think, though, I quite realized how much in common I have with the way John must have felt during his deepest darkness of waiting there while still in prison.
I don’t think Jesus’ remarks are unrelated to the message He sent John. Who is greatest in the kingdom of God? Who deserves God’s favor? To whom does Jesus, by virtue of their faithfulness or status or kinship with Him, owe a miracle? Maybe John the Baptist, maybe also the Sons of Korah, as though their closeness with God entitled them to heavenly benefits here and now, with no deductible. After all, I dedicated all of my life to serving Him when on a Sunday night at church service I made that committment when I was 13. When I was 14, God called me, and I made the crucial error of deciding what God wants from me — to be a youth pastor. By the age of 18, however, I thought I was all set to go, and go to Southeastern Assembly of God College ( a.k.a. Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Fl to fulfill my dream of being a youth pastor. I prayed, and prayed for God’s direction in my life, each time I do something for God and the youth, it seemed to be blessed. Until that morning of June 28, 1989 where I began to experience DARKNESS IS MY CLOSEST FRIEND.
~ Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger ~