Life quickly becomes the curriculum in our classrooms. Week after week Christina, your second-grade student, misses school; her headaches turn out to be a brain tumor. One of your colleagues arrives home after school to find her sixty-year-old husband dead on the floor from a heart attack. When you ask José why he has been absent so much, he hesitatingly admits it’s because his mother is afraid that the ICE agents seen in the area are looking for undocumented residents. Middle-schooler David is withdrawn and distant; after conversations with the school counselor, you learn he’s pretty sure he’s gay—and he’s afraid. Fear, anxiety, and sadness are everyday visitors in our classrooms, along with the frisson of joy and laughter.
With our constant access to news, we are more aware than ever of school shootings, kidnappings, destructive storms, the plight of refugees, and other global horrors. Some of our students walk a gauntlet of potential violence on their way to school every day and fear going outside after dark. For some children, darkness comes early. For others, with “helicopter” parents, darkness may be an unexpected intrusion on a sheltered and privileged life.
Leading through the Darkness
In schools that are communities of grace, we learn to walk in the dark together. We shouldn’t be surprised when the darkness comes. When Jesus told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33), he was speaking from personal experience. How do we create a culture in which we learn to walk in the dark together? As followers of Jesus we are pilgrims learning to live and love well: to speak the truth in love, to reach out to those on the margins, and, eventually, to die well.
But we adults can only lead well in these circumstances if we are practicing spiritual disciplines. As Ruth Haley Barton writes, “Those who are looking to us for spiritual sustenance need us first and foremost to be spiritual seekers ourselves. They need us to keep searching for the bread of life that feeds our own souls so that we can guide them to places of sustenance. . . . Then, rather than offering the cold stone of past devotionals, . . . we will have bread to offer that is warm from the oven of our intimacy with God” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, 29).
When the diagnosis of cancer comes or you are informed of the death of your spouse or child, you find yourself in the darkness of a deep cave; the walls close in and claustrophobic dampness stirs a sense of helpless panic. But then you feel a hand reaching for yours in that impenetrable darkness, and you realize you aren’t alone. Numbly, you are led through the dark into the light. Ecclesiastes says it simply: “Two are better than one, / . . . If either of them falls down, / one can help the other up” (4:9, 10).
Treasures in the Darkness
There are treasures to be found in darkness. Isaiah 45:3 says, “I will give you the treasures of darkness / and riches hidden in secret places, / so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, / the God of Israel, who call you by your name” (NRSV). These treasures can most often be found in backdoor blessings: those unexpected graces that appear from unexpected places. When your five-year, post-cancer checkup shows no sign of the disease, you realize how much the journey through the darkness has changed you: reordered your priorities, recalibrated your marriage, refocused your sense of purpose, rooted your soul more deeply, increased your capacity to love and care for others, and filled your heart with overflowing gratitude to God.
Richard Rohr writes that “in the divine economy of grace, sin and failure become the base metal and raw material for the redemption experience itself” (Falling Upward, 60). Romans 5 reflects this truth: “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (5:3–4). God does some of his best work when we’re at the bottom—when we have nothing left of ourselves to give. As the resurrection of Jesus so powerfully demonstrates, God is in the business of making all things new.
Acknowledging and dealing with darkness may seem like an interruption to our classroom routines. After all, we have math to teach, projects to organize, students to guide. “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted,” Henri Nouwen quoted an academic colleague near the end of his career, “until I discovered the interruptions were my work” (Reaching Out, 36). The interruptions that darkness provides gives us as teachers time to pause and help our students develop the resilience, resourcefulness, and hope that we want them to have in the face of life’s challenges.
As David Brooks writes, “The things we call character endure over the long term—courage, honesty, humility. People with character are capable of a long obedience in the same direction” (The Road to Character, 264). As Christians our moral framework, our worldview, must be rooted in our faith in the sovereignty of God. If God works all things together for good for those who love him and who are called to his purposes, we can find peace. If God can take any mess, any mishap, any wastage, or any brokenness and choreograph beauty and meaning from it, then we can hope for a better day tomorrow than the day we’ve made for ourselves.
Courage and hope are two particularly important character traits that can develop well in community. Courage is sometimes described as management of fear, and courage must be practiced. Darkness in its many forms provides that opportunity. Hope is cultivated when we remember God’s faithfulness. Hope comes from our life in community and especially from our worship. As David Brooks says, “Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars” (The Road to Character, 164). When we worship together in community, our souls are reoriented to God the Father, our maker; to Jesus, our redeemer; and to the Spirit, our encourager. We are reminded of the hope we have in Christ our savior.
In our prayers, we hold others in our hearts; we put our arms around each other; we silently hold hands. We are present to each other. We become the hands and feet of God. Such love is a powerful gift; we can’t bring back what’s been lost, but we can help bring the grieving back to life, the sad back to joy, the fearful back to confidence.
In communities of grace, we are reminded that we are not alone. In the words of Isaiah 43, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; / I have summoned you by name; you are mine. / When you pass through the waters, / I will be with you” (v. 1–2). Jesus encourages us to take heart despite the troubles we’ll face in this world because he has “overcome the world” (John 16:33). And he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
As it turns out, learning to walk in the dark is also learning to walk in the light. Over the years we learn to be dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation, and grateful as we celebrate God’s goodness and grace. As we learn and develop these traits in ourselves, we will have further depth from which to teach and lead our students as they walk through their own times of darkness and learn to walk in the light.
Barton, Ruth Haley. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008.
Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York: Random House, 2015.
Nouwen, Henri. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
Pilgrim, teacher, learner, husband, father, grandfather, mentor, coach, friend, Bruce Hekman (PhD) has taught, led schools, developed curriculum and the people who use them. He is happily the husband of Ruth, with whom he has learned to walk in the dark.