The Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Emptiness
Luke 17:20-21, 33
February 21, 2016
Epworth United Methodist Church
Identity theft is a big problem these days. In a comic strip by Randy Glasbergen[i] a therapist is listening to a client on the couch, who says, “How could someone steal my identity when I still haven’t figured out who I am?” Hackers and scammers are not the only threats to our identities. An even deeper risk to our identity, our sense of self, comes through experiences of loss and emptiness in life. Today we continue our Lenten series, Gifts of the Dark Wood, based on the book by the same name by Eric Elnes. Elnes suggests that we can find gifts even in times of great difficulty, what he calls times in the Dark Wood, those disorienting experiences in life that feel like being lost in the woods. I don’t for a moment believe that God gives us Dark Wood experiences to teach us a lesson, but I do think that we can find new understandings in confusing and painful times that inevitably come in our life. Today we look at gifts we may find in the Dark Wood of Emptiness.
The threat of a hacker stealing your name, your credit and emptying your bank account is frightening. As traumatic as that would be, experiences in life that leave us feeling empty can cause an even deeper loss of identity. When have you found yourself in the Dark Wood of Emptiness? When has a loss or jarring change in your life stolen your identity – who you thought you were? Maybe you lost a job. Maybe you lost a relationship. Maybe retirement wasn’t what you had hoped or expected. Maybe your child had the gall to grow up and leave home and the empty space in your life is bigger than their empty room. Perhaps physical limitations have started preventing you from doing what came easily before. Perhaps you lost someone you loved deeply. Perhaps the job you always loved lost its luster or a career you thought would be wonderful, wasn’t, leaving you to wonder – is that all there is? Maybe you went through a transition you never asked for or wanted. Maybe you have struggled with the expectations or bigotries of others, making it difficult to hear your own voice. What experiences in your life left you feeling empty? What has driven you into the Dark Wood of Emptiness?
I remember stumbling into that Dark Wood over 36 years ago. Bob and I had moved to California and I experienced several losses at one time. Many of the activities, roles and relationships that had given me a sense of identity and value were gone. I graduated from college, got married and moved to California, all in the space of two weeks. I planned to attend seminary at the Graduate Theological Union, but it was early January and I wasn’t scheduled to begin class until the fall. Even though I had moved frequently throughout childhood, never before had I lost so much of a sense of myself. I was no longer a student leader in campus ministry. I was no longer in proximity to my friends. I was no longer a student. I was no longer single. (I was glad to be married, but it was an entirely new experience.) And I was no longer filled with the joy, fulfillment and excitement of my former life. I felt empty, depressed and lost. If I had been told that there was a gift in that experience I probably would have shot the preacher or at least implemented my most potent dagger eyes. What gift could there possibly be in emptiness – in losing a sense of self?
Before any daggers start to fly I want to tell you about the strange paradox about losing oneself that we hear from the Gospel of Luke today. It says whoever tries to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will save it. This curious contradiction shows up six times in the gospels. It has many layers of meaning. In this part of the Gospel of Luke the enigmatic saying is part of Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God. Earlier in the chapter Jesus says the Kingdom of God is among you. That can also be translated as the Kingdom of God is within you. Another way to put it: the Reality and Power of God is with you and within you.
What would happen if in the midst of the Dark Wood of Emptiness, when we have lost our sense of identity, instead of trying to cling to our life, what has made us feel like ourselves, what if we release it all to God? What would happen if we dare to stare into the emptiness of our own soul and wait on the power of God within us? What gift can there possibly be in such emptiness, in losing a sense of ourselves? Discovering a deeper sense of who we really are. We lose our life and yet find ourselves.
When we feel the most empty, when much of what we know is stripped away we may discover the stirring of a greater strength than we knew we had and a deeper presence, beckoning us forward. When have you experienced that? That is what the Kingdom, the Power, the Reality of God does: birthing new life out of death, always calling us back to life, back to ourselves, to a deeper level of living and giving. Often we experience that Presence through someone else.
When I was so lost those years ago I phoned my best friend Maria. After she listened to my grief she told me something I’ve never forgotten: “Linda, you are the same person who came here, who made friends and found direction for your life. You’ll find that again.” She reminded me of who I really was, no matter what my setting, no matter what my activities or roles. She helped me find a deeper sense of identity, of the power within who I was all along.
It was the care of someone else that also helped Henry rediscover himself. Henry had literally lost his identity through dementia. He didn’t know who he was. He lives in a long-term care facility in New York. Henry was nearly catatonic, until Dan Cohen put a pair of headphones on him and played Henry’s favorite music from long ago. As a young man Henry loved to dance and sing. When he heard his favorite music again he came alive and started singing and talking. Maybe you heard about Henry and others in the 2014 documentary Alive Inside. Jerry Asheim told me about the film. It tells the story of people with dementia who are now being connected to the depths of their identity through the music they loved. What they loved is drawing their personalities and memories back into life. Previously catatonic Henry said, “It gives me a feeling of love, dreams…. The Lord came to me, I’m a holy man.” Henry realizes his sacred identity. His waking up affected everyone in the day room. When we discover our deepest identity we too affect those around us. Dan says, the music reminds people that they “will have a chance to be happy again.” Another resident listening to their music said, “I feel like I am one with the world.” These residents who have lost so much, who have been cut off from the world, are discovering their connection to life and who they are at a deep level, through the music that they love.
Henry is not the only one discovering his deeper identity. Dan Cohen, who conceived of this idea of bringing people the music that they loved most, has found his deeper calling. He worked in high tech training and sales, then became a social worker and now works full time to make music and memory therapy part of standard care at long-term care residential facilities here and around the world. He says he loves every minute of it and if you see the movie (It’s on Netflix) it’s hard to tell who’s having the most fun, the residents who are singing and dancing (yes, really) or Dan who is boogying right alongside them.
So, here’s the stunning thing about losing our lives – if we look directly, listen intensely in our emptiness for what we love most or miss most, we may discover the new life, the new song that is calling us forward. That gift, the depth of that love and that loss can connect you with others and help give someone else their life back. Because of my experience I have a deeper respect and empathy for those struggling through isolation and depression. How can your experience of loss and love help someone else claim their identity? Like Dan, when we help others discover their true identity we often discover our own.
Your gifts from the Dark Wood of Emptiness are desperately needed in a world suffering from global dimensions of dementia, and not just the medical type. There are ongoing attempts to steal the true identities of others. At their root, racism, classism and bigotry of every kind deny the holiness, the sacred identity of each person. We deny the worth and identity of whole populations – through war games played by superpowers, through stripping the resources of developing countries, through dumping our nuclear and other waste in poor communities and countries. How can you use the gifts you discover in the Dark Wood to help protect the sacred identity of others on a systemic or a personal level?
Lily Tomlin in, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe says, “I've always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.”[ii] You were created to be somebody – somebody specific and sacred! How can you claim your deepest identity, your specific insight to help others claim theirs?
When you face the Dark Wood of Emptiness remember, that is NOT all there is. You also will have a chance to be happy again and feel one with the world. The Reality of God is at work in you now. You were created to be somebody, somebody specific and sacred! Hackers can never steal that! Amen.
[i] 2004 www.glasbergen.com
[ii] Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner