Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. Matthew 27:45
I thought I was dying. Over four days, I had grown increasingly weak and light-headed. The day before I saw a doctor, I rose at 4 a.m. to drive 400 miles to pray with a friend having surgery and to attend a board meeting in our state… and I did it, barely. Our family doctor sent me to a specialist. On Friday, June 1, 2001, he explained that I had been bleeding internally for some time, losing nearly a fourth of my blood volume. After multiple tests and scopes, it was determined that I had a pre-cancerous condition that required continued surveillance.
Throughout the summer, the repeated biopsies were inconclusive. Did I have a deadly form of cancer, or not? No doctor knew for certain. In addition, it took months to regain my strength and rebuild the iron content in my bloodstream. I struggled to get ready for work, often completely exhausted by the time I left the house. I was always tired, always sleepy, and always weak.
In my heart, I wrestled with dark questions: Am I truly ready to die? My family needs me, what will happen to Gail and the children? I feel like I have work that is undone… is this my time? I wept. I cried out. I prayed. I waited. It was my time for Tenebrae (pronounced TEN-uh-brey).
Tenebrae is an ancient tradition within the Christian church that captures the emotional turmoil, anxiety, and despair that the disciples felt following Jesus’ death on the cross. From a Latin word describing “shadows” or “darkness,” Tenebrae is perhaps best symbolized by a collection of candles that are slowly extinguished during the service… one by one they are snuffed out following a reading or a hymn, until only one remains. Sometimes hidden, plunging the entire room in darkness, the final candle represents the last shred of hope in the human heart.
On that very first “Good” Friday, Tenebrae was not a symbolic darkness, but a tangible reality in human history. The disciples had wrapped their future and their dreams around the man Jesus. They had accepted His invitation, rejoiced in His miracles, and marveled at His teaching. But following His crucifixion, they scattered and ran. They were terrified. Almost no one remembered what He had said:
From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Matthew 16:21
That dreadful moment of darkness was only a relatively brief stop along the way to something unspeakably wonderful. He said He would be raised, and His resurrection can set us free in a thousand ways: from fear, from failure, from sin’s tyranny, from the devil’s kingdom, and from death itself (Colossians 1:13-14, 2:11-15; Hebrews 2:14-15).
There are times when no light remains. Moments when darkness seems to overwhelm everything you ever thought you knew or believed about God. When that happens, please listen to me: there is only one light left for you… His Word. What He says to you becomes that single, flickering candle of hope when every other “light” in your life has been darkened.
The words you need most will be found in the Scriptures… the Bible… God’s written word. How did He speak to me during my Tenebrae?
- June 1 – Tests indicated I’d lost 2 pints of blood… the human body holds 8-10 pints of blood.
- June 4 – Biopsies were taken.
- June 5 – Much time alone with God, praying, reading, and seeking to settle my heart in Him. Journal entry: “Reminded that death is an entrance into His joy – Matthew 25:21, 23.”
- June 6 (morning) – Reading Numbers 13-14, I noted: “the Israelites did not believe His Word – they said, ‘did you bring us out here to DIE?’” Rejecting His Word (that they were not there to die, but to enter the land), an entire generation of God’s people missed out on what He had for them. I determined to know what the Lord wanted to accomplish in me through this experience. Began asking Him, “Lord, what is this about? How do you want me to respond to this?”
- June 6 (afternoon) – God speaks truth to my heart… a promise that I am still living off of today. Although I cannot write the details here, it is a promise that came true (I’m still here), but is still being worked out (there’s more to come). In response, I recorded a verse from Psalm 94:19 in my journal: “In the multitude of my anxieties within me, Your comforts delight my soul.”
- June 9 – The nurse called with the pathology results. No cancer.
In the months that followed, I had successive biopsies that were “indeterminate” and had to be repeated to assure no cancer was present. During each of those moments, I was emotionally grounded for two reasons: (1) I had accepted the truth that physical death for the believer is a release into His presence, where real life happens, and (2) He had told me that my time was not yet.
Every vocational move and daily agenda since that summer has been tied to a driving desire to be certain that what I am giving my life to, matters – I want my life to count for Him. God also used my condition to cure me of my preoccupation with survival. I have nothing to survive anymore… just a life to live. The darkness on that Friday gave way to an eternal dance in the Presence of God… the resurrection destroyed death… only life remains!
But when it’s dark… and you are experiencing your own Tenebrae… run from the shadows and into the light He has given! Throw yourself into His Word and hang on. Let Him tell you the truth about what is happening. Your story is not over.
There is a light for you in the midst of your moment of darkness.
[Author’s Note: This post was originally published March 29, 2013 at DonPucik.com and migrated to EquippingSaints.com]
In 2003 my wife and I made a run down to Yazoo City, Miss. for the funeral of her grandmother. A wonderful believer born in 1916, she lived her entire life in the hills just above the Delta cotton fields with a simple faith and an unconditional love for people.
Conducting her funeral in a little Methodist church near her home, I was reminded of something often lost to congregants of newer church buildings: the cemetery next door.
When the old timers built their churches they didn’t worry about parking or a premium location. They didn’t have a website with streaming audio of the most recent sermons. Nor did they have projected images for sermon outlines or song lyrics.
But the old timers who built their churches with the cemeteries next door lived with a stunning, weekly reminder that death was near and life was short. Each time they entered and exited the church building, the markers of the dead stood before them as silent messengers of a very real eternity awaiting all of us.
As I stood before family and friends and reminded them that “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54), I looked out and saw that cemetery. To emphasize Christ’s victory over death in the face of a constant reminder of death was a little easier there–with a cemetery next door.
You may not have a cemetery next door anymore, but the need for that weekly reminder remains–as much as ever.