In the morning, while it was still very dark…

Reflection on Mark 1: 35-38 by Barbara Ambrose

In the Fall of 2000 I began graduate school. I was 43 years old and felt certain that God had called me to leave my banking career and become a clinical social worker with training in Christian studies.  My transition to being a student with seemingly massive amounts of homework began in seminary.  Theological reading proved to be a new and challenging experience for me, but its capacity to raise anxiety paled in comparison to theological writing.  By October I was becoming overwhelmed by the scope of my course load.

One afternoon I was home alone contemplating all the work I had to do and wondering how I would possibly manage.  I began to doubt my ability to do well.  I decided I was wrong about God’s call to me. I realized I had made the biggest mistake in my life. I concluded that I was a complete and utter failure.  And then I cried.  Sobbed, in fact – for a very long time.

Finally, the practical side of my nature chimed in suggesting that I should not completely waste an afternoon that had been earmarked for “studying.”  Was there anything on my very long assignment list that I might try to tackle?  I opted for “Lectio Divena” from my Spirituality class.  The professor had provided a list of scripture readings and we were to choose one and practice this spiritual discipline.

I randomly picked Mark 1: 35-38, opened my Harper Collins Study Bible and began reading… In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

I slowly read this passage out loud just like we had learned in class.  After pausing for a few moments, I reread the passage.  I did this several times, but I was still upset and felt almost adversarial with the text.  I assumed I was simply wasting my time.  After all I was just a big failure. What was the point?  I continued….

In the morning, while it was still very dark…. Suddenly this passage took hold of me….. morning – beginning – start of something new.  Not mid-morning – 10:00 a.m. or so when it is bright and sunny, but early morning – that time when it is “darkest before the dawn.”   I continued rereading and surprising insights emerged.  This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  He’s alone, and he has gone off to pray.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him… In fact it is almost as if he is intentionally evading the others.  Is he struck by the realization of what he has gotten himself into?  Might he be filled with doubt about whether he is up for this task?  Could he possibly have felt then, what I am feeling right now in this moment?  But at last he says “Let us go on…for that is what I came out to do.” Everything is going to be OK.

I realized that afternoon that I too was at the very beginning of a journey.  I could not imagine then where this path would lead because it was still quite new and cloaked with the darkness of uncertainty.  Jesus went to a deserted place to pray – he knew that he could not make his journey alone so he reached out to his father for strength and support.  In my moment of doubt I had to be dragged to that place of prayer by my practical nature and, I now realize, the Holy Spirit, but once I got there Jesus reached out to me through the words in this passage.

School went fine.  I managed to complete my assignments and was pleased with the outcome of my efforts.  Ten years later, looking at that same page in my Harper Collins I can still see the faint dimples where my tears fell.  The journey that began then has taken some amazing twists and turns leading to more unexpected new beginnings – changing jobs, formation as a deacon, coming to St. Andrews.  With each new endeavor there is that inevitable moment of self-doubt and uncertainty.  And each time I return to this passage and remember that Jesus experienced these dark moments too, and he will be with me wherever he calls me to go.

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2 Responses to In the morning, while it was still very dark…

  1. marty watkin says:

    Barbara,

    Beautiful reflection. I never thought of this passage from Mark as a “cry-through” section, words we hold onto with a death grip while we’re deep in a crisis. That always seemed the job of Isaiah and Psalms. But these words from Mark were exactly that for you, the breadcrumb-like trail of tears marking the spot of grief and of revelation.

  2. belindabrugh says:

    Memory is such a strange beast, springing out suddenly with unexpected force or lying asleep for decades until a door is ajar, and there it waits just on the other side, waiting to come in. Sometimes, lying in the shadows, the beast shows only bits and pieces of itself, and why just those bits? I record their appearances in my journal under the heading “Fragments.” I never know when, or if ever, a fragment will re-emerge.
    Because of my experience with odd bits of memory, I sometimes laugh when I recognize the odd bits about Jesus that pressed themselves into a disciple’s memory so that he repeated that bit until it became a part of an oral tradition only later to be written down.
    The title of Barbara’s reflection, taken from Mark’s gospel, is one of those bits: In the morning while it was still very dark. The disciples – like the teenagers I taught for many years – must have enjoyed sleeping late. For Jesus to get up while it was still dark would seem to them astonishing and foolish, something that gets caught in a memory. Sort of the way I felt as a child when my father would get up at four in the morning to hunt or fish. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I’d think. Now, I reckon that my father left the house while it was still dark not only to provide food for our family of seven, but also to experience the hour of the wolf in his own territory, those hours just before dawn.
    As an older adult, I feel the presence of the wolf and awaken about 2 a.m. I open my window to hear the sounds of the night and to see the moon sometimes accompanied by Venus in their ancient paths. What a world. When I am away from the city at a river house or mountain chalet, I go outside and sit in the grass beneath the trees and beneath the galaxies, and I call to the wolf. The wolf is the natural world, and the wolf is the creator of that world. I call to him, and he seems unusually available in those hours before dawn as I sit surrounded by creation, or perhaps I am the one who is more available to him.

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