I am gratified at the responses I’ve received from those who read my last post “I Used to be Afraid of the Dark” from January 28. I heard from folks who have experienced cancer and those who have not. They shared how they resonated with the post. Seems that a fear of the dark is rather universal and the idea that learning you can walk in the dark is intriguing to more than a few.
I’ve been remembering my first visit to what used to be called the “Dark Continent”, Africa. I’ve been to East Africa several times on short-term mission trips and each time I’ve been struck by how absolutely black the nights are there. I live in Southern California where streetlights and store lights in this densely populated region render any night incapable of being truly dark.
But in the bush in Kenya on my first visit to East Africa, there were no streetlights or store lights. Homes were lit by a single kerosene lamp and the lamp was extinguished at bedtime. As I lay in a cot-like bed on my first night in Kenya, I experienced complete blackness. I held my flashlight close to my chest like a Bible. It felt like that flashlight was my hope and my salvation in that dark, dark place.
In the middle of that first dark night, I needed to go to the bathroom and that meant a walk outside into the blackness to the outhouse which had been shown me before bed by the light of the family’s one kerosene lamp. There was no kerosene lamp now — just my little flashlight. Would my flashlight be sufficient to help me find my way or would I be swallowed up by some menacing thing or worse, by the darkness itself? Driven by need (!), I stepped into the outdoor darkness and instinctively searched for some distant lights. There were none. I was completely in the dark.
Thinking back to that dark night, I remember the smells. Without the ability to see anything (I mean ANYTHING), the smell of the night air enveloped me. It was dense with African moisture and thick with African fragrances. I could smell the smoke of an earlier fire which lit an outdoor stove in order that dinner could be prepared for visiting American missionaries. The fragrance of trees and brush and unnamed flowers that bedecked the land. The smell of dark, rich soil. Oh, how I remember the smell of African soil!
And there were sounds in the dark — some were scary because they were unfamiliar to me. The howl of something from a distance. What was that? Then closer, the hooting of owls in the trees and the cries of other unknown birds — at least I think they were birds. The crackle of the brush around me as the family dog moved toward me and his whimper that both frightened and comforted me. Frightened me because at first, I didn’t know what had come so close!
As I made my way in the direction I thought I was to go, I felt something — something unseen, big and furry rubbing against my legs. Yes, I jumped in fear at first! But then I recognized him as the family pet and was grateful for his company.
The outhouse felt far away, like it was hiding in the dark. My little flashlight was insufficient in lighting up my host’s property and the outhouse wasn’t close to the house — for obvious reasons. So I found myself seeking its whereabouts more by smell than by sight. When I surrendered my ability to see and sought help from my other senses, I found my destination. The family dog and I made it safely there and back. I survived my first dark night in Africa.
For years, what I remembered most about that night was the fear — the terror of walking in the dark. With time and with the lessening of my fear of the dark, I now remember the smells, the feel of making my way in the dark, the comfort of the family dog, and the fact that I made it through the darkness to my destination!
When darkness comes and whatever our darkness may be — cancer or something else that is scary and unknown and threatening — we may have to walk into the darkness and through it. Our destination may be far away and our little flashlights of knowledge or skill or previous experience may do us little good in the darkness. We will need to know they are not our hope and our salvation! We might encounter sounds and feelings we don’t recognize or understand at first. Things might be scary but in the darkness, if we surrender our ability to see what is around us and ahead of us, God will send His Spirit to lead us to our destination. And when God is with us, we can lay down our fear and experience the hidden treasures found only in the dark.
I can forget the fear of that dark night in Kenya. But I’ll never forget the smell of the dark, rich soil. And I’ll always remember the hoot of the owl, the thick fragrance in the air, and the comfort of an African dog who came in the darkness and accompanied me to my destination. God sent hidden treasures — the smells, the sounds, and the feeling of comfort that night — to remind me He was there with me in the dark when I could not see … anything. If I’d have known back then what I know now, I would have chosen not to be afraid of walking in the dark.
She who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You need not fear the terror of the night…
After more than 25 years in parish ministry, Rev. Cathie retired in early 2018 to pursue a quieter life with her husband Philip in the mountains of Central Oregon. Although no longer a leader in congregational life, she continues to follow her calling and passion to minister to those who suffer, especially those with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.