The Gifts of the Dark Wood: Uncertainty
1 Corinthians 13:11-13
February 14, 2016Epworth United Methodist Church
Long before email or fax or even phones, it’s been told that a newspaper publisher sent a telegram to a well-known astronomer: [Send] immediately five hundred words on whether there is life on mars. The astronomer dutifully replied: NOBODY KNOWS – repeated 250 times: NOBODY KNOWS, NOBODY KNOWS, NOBODY KNOWS…. [i]
That publisher wanted certainty. So do we. That desire for certainty became so intense that there have been billions of dollars spent for 47 attempted missions to Mars since 1960. Since then four successful robotically operated Mars rovers have taken photos, closely examined rocks and soil, and sampled atmospheric particles, and we still nobody knows for certain.
In a world that values certainty, today we’re going to think about the gift of un-certainty. I have to say that sounds like an un-gift to me. This is part of an un-usual sermon series that begins today, this first Sunday in Lent, the season of reflection leading to Easter. The series, Gifts of the Dark Wood, is based on the book by the same name by Eric Elnes. Elnes suggests that there are gifts we can discover in times of uncertainty and struggle in our personal lives and our life together.
When I think of the Dark Wood, gifts are not what come to mind. Dante uses the image of the dark wood to describe his experience of being totally lost, but mystics like John of the Cross believe that we can gain new insights through times of great hardship. I don’t for a moment believe that God gives us Dark Wood experiences to teach us lessons, but I do think that we can find new understandings in those inevitable times.
No one goes into those difficult experiences willingly, but eventually in life, we all find ourselves in some manner of dark wood, some much scarier than others. Sooner or later we each face unwelcome struggles. It could be a time of great loneliness, an intense worry about a child, or a serious illness. It could be ongoing dehumanizing experiences of oppression tied to skin color or gender, social economic class or age, sexual orientation or gender identity; all inflicted without regard for the person but which wound on a very personal level. It could be conflict at work or home; fear about your personal future or the future of our world. It could be one of those unsolicited struggles or countless others that drive us into the Dark Wood. What in your life has driven you into the Dark Wood? What struggles have you lived that were disorienting and full of uncertainty?
We long for the days when the only dark woods we knew were in fairytales. Paul describes leaving that fairytale naiveté of childhood certainty behind:
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly…” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12a NRSV).
Our certainty becomes blurred like a dim mirror, on this side of childhood. Sometimes things seem very dim. Even John Wesley, the founder of Methodism faced the reality of uncertainty: “When I was young I was sure of everything; in a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before; at present, I am hardly sure of anything…” Wesley goes on to offer a shaft of light finding its way through the canopy to the floor of the woods: He says, “At present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to me.”[ii]
So, what gifts, what revelations can we find in the Dark Wood of uncertainty? I can only talk about the darkest wood I ever entered – when we received our son’s cancer diagnosis in 2012. The cancer had spread by the time it was discovered. It was serious. It was absolutely terrifying. Today, after multiple courses of chemo and two surgeries, he’s doing fine. He has those checkups every six months when I still hold my breath.
I begrudgingly admit that I did find some gifts in that dark wood that I never wanted to enter. One was given to me by others, one I discovered by accident and one I found on the path. One I could not have found myself. It was given to me by the people who took time to help: the gift of community. That sounds like a cliché. But you know it’s not. Never before had I known so personally how powerful a simple word of support, a few lines of encouragement added to a card, or an act of care could be. I had preached about it and experienced it myself but never so profoundly.
One gift I discovered by accident in the Dark Wood: the gift of clarity. You don’t expect to see things more clearly in the dark, but you probably have. Before Aaron’s illness I had been worrying about something going on at church (not this church). When it crossed my mind again it looked absolutely ridiculous in comparison to my love and concern for our son. I discovered that someone else’s pettiness or cutting remarks are just not worth my attention or energy. Period. So many other things are vastly more important.
The last gift, I found on the dark floor of the wood, right under my feet. It was the gift of courage I never before had needed so much. You know that courage is only needed when you are afraid and I was very afraid. What did I do? Nothing glorious, nothing laudatory, just waking up each day and trying to do what was best for my son, what was best in the situation. That advice to take one step at a time, one day at a time is really all we can do in times of pain. It took strength not to run deeper into the woods, down the path of what ifs. When have you taken that trail? What if this happens? What if that horror takes place? We need to be realistic, but it takes courage and strength to hold back the fear of the monsters that might lurk down trails we may never travel.
That Dark Wood forced me to look at the world differently and to learn again that there is very little certainty in this life. I remember someone years ago saying to beware of that of which you are very certain. That can be the area of your greatest blindness. John Wesley writes in a letter, “Be not so positive, especially with regard to things which are neither easy nor necessary to be determined.” (In other words, “Don’t be so certain, especially about difficult or unnecessary things.”) Wesley continues, “I ground this advice on my own experience.” I realized, as Brian McLaren says, “Certainty is overrated.”
The truth is we never can be certain of what is down the road. (I suppose I should insert something here about death and taxes, but that would just start you thinking about working on your return and I would lose you. So, I won’t.)
Are you still there? It’s true in both difficult times and easier times: all we ever really can do is take it one day at a time, one step at a time. We never truly see very far down the path, but we can see who walks with us, what helps shine light on the path in front of us, and what doesn’t.
I moved from certainty to something deeper: trust in those gifts from God that help me find my way through the dark wood: community, clarity and courage: community – how essential it is to walk together through the dark times, clarity – about what’s truly important, and courage – to keep focused on taking just the next step. What gifts have you discovered in your time in the Dark Wood?
Eric Elnes says that the gift that we find in times of uncertainty is trust. He says to pay attention to the nudges of insight found in the woods. They may come to you unbidden. You may recognize them through someone who comes alongside. They might even be shining through the pebbles at your feet as you take one step after another. Elnes encourages us to trust those inner nudges.
That’s not what our culture usually tells us to trust. Too often we are encouraged to trust what we own, military might, strong borders and bigger paychecks as the path to peace or happiness. We cannot stand with certainty on our possessions, our power, our positions, or our plans. None of those are permanent; nor can they give us what we need most in the Dark Wood of life. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul goes on to say (1 Corinthians 13:13) three things last: faith, hope and love. He says love is the greatest. Look for one of those gifts when you find yourself in the Dark Wood. Take a breath and attend to the gifts hidden in the branches or under the pebbles. What nudges toward life, what reminders of the presence of love, the presence of God, have you picked up in the deepest wood?
We don’t have to go to Mars to seek surprising signs of life and presence. Just reach out and extend your attention wherever you rove – even through the Dark Wood. Amen.
[i] Carl Sagan liked to retell this story.
[ii] From a letter in the Works of John Wesley