Sunday’s sermon: Finding Ourselves in the Dark Woods

Gifts of the Dark Wood

Texts used – Psalm 139; Matthew 14:22-30; 16:13-18a

  • The world of fiction has long since taught us that deep, dark woods are something to be avoided – something to be feared.
    • Fairy tales
      • Hansel and Gretel lose their way in a deep, dark woods and end up on the dinner menu at the witch’s house
      • Beauty and the Beast – Beast’s castle is buried deep in a dark wood
      • Prolific composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim even composed an entire musical about all the formidable and terrible goings-on in the dark woods: Into the Woods → a handful of the most recognizable fairy tale characters (Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack/beanstalk, etc.) meet within the depths of the deep, dark woods as they try to avoid the pitfalls of their own stories
    • Epic stories
      • The Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter books is clearly a dark and dangerous place … otherwise, J.K. Rowling wouldn’t have called it “The Forbidden Forest,” right? → home to fearsome beasts (volatile centaurs, giant spiders, etc.)
      • Deep, dark woods are never a good place in Tolkien’s Middle Earth → both Mirkwood (Hobbit) and the Forest of Fangorn (Lord of the Rings) bring menace and danger at every twist and turn
        • Tolkien’s dark woods = such a thorough presence of evil that they basically end up being characters in and of themselves
    • Classic literature
      • Wizard of Oz: Dorothy runs into all sorts of trouble as she tries to make her way through the dark woods
      • Beginning of Dante’s Inferno: “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost.” → analysis: In Dante’s understanding, the Dark Wood is a place of confusion, emptiness, and stumbling that is entered because of our sin and is inhabited by strange and terrifying denizens.”[1]
  • Over and over and over again, we’ve been told that the deep, dark woods are a bad thing. They are scary. They are uncertain. They are dangerous. Don’t go there! But what if that advice is wrong? What if those deep, dark woods that we encounter in our lives are actually our places of deepest, most profound growth and learning? What if those deep, dark woods are where God and the leadings of the Holy Spirit are most clearly revealed to us? → idea that we’re going to spend the summer exploring with the help of a book: Gifts of the Dark Wood by Eric Elnes[2]
    • Each chapter (and, subsequently, each summer sermon) explores different gifts that we find in those “dark wood” moments in our lives … gifts that don’t necessarily strike us as gifts at first glance.
      • E.g.s – next week: “The Gift of Uncertainty,” my favorite: “The Gift of Misfits”
    • Today: tackle the idea of the dark wood
      • What is it?
      • Why is it?
      • How do we find ourselves in it?
      • Where is God in it?
  • At its core, the Dark Wood – as understood in literature and as presented in the book – is a place in which we are confronted with the unexpected and, at least on the surface, the undesired.
    • Can see this in the titles of the various chapters – The Gift of …
      • Uncertainty
      • Emptiness
      • Being Thunderstruck
      • Getting Lost
      • Temptation
      • Disappearing
      • Misfits
      • When we’re honest with ourselves, none of these things sound appealing to us, right? Nobody wants to live in uncertainty. Nobody likes getting lost. Nobody likes wrestling with temptation or feeling empty. And yet, that’s the reality of life, isn’t it? We do find ourselves in those places.
        • Disciples find themselves in one of those places in our NT reading this morning – text: Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. Very early in the morning [Jesus] came to his disciples, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.[3]  unmitigated fear, immediate danger, and definite uncertainty … Dark Wood
        • Peter especially finds himself in a “dark woods” place – text: Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”[4]  Peter thought he had it all wrapped up. He was pure confidence. “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” In his mind: “I’ve got this. No sweat. I’m strong enough … brave enough … secure enough to handle this.” But then things get uncertain and scary and dangerous and dark … and Peter starts to go down. Surely not the experience he anticipated when he swung his legs up and over the side of that boat.
  • Because of the prevalence of this story – it’s probably one of the most familiar stories out of the gospels – and because of the inevitability of those “dark woods” places in all of our lives, Christians have been wrestling with the idea and theology of them for centuries, and not all of them have come to the conclusion that dark woods are places and experiences to avoid.
    • Elnes: Another side of the tradition, represented especially by the ancient Christian mystics, understood struggle not as punishment for sin, but as the central context in which revelation takes place. … All of them insisted that the Dark Wood is a place where one receives strange and wondrous gifts whose value vastly exceeds whatever hardships are encountered there. The Dark Wood is where you meet God.[5]  Let’s look back at our gospel story. At the very beginning, Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds.”[6] Then he goes off on his own for a while. We don’t know how long Jesus intended to stay up on that mountain praying by himself. We don’t know when he intended to join the disciples. All we know is that, when they encounter rough waters in the middle of the lake and are in trouble – when they find themselves in that frightening, “dark woods” place – Jesus comes to them. Jesus … Emmanuel … “God With Us” comes to them on the water, joining them in that place where they least expected him to be.
      • Blowing their minds
      • Shattering their expectations
      • Stretching their faith
      • Expanding their understanding
      • And Jesus comes to them not because they’ve got it all together and are expertly navigating those waves on their own but exactly because they are in a time and place when everything seems to be falling apart. – Elnes: The mystics taught that in the Dark Wood you discover who you are and what your life is about, flaws and all. … In the Dark Wood you bring all your shortcomings with you, not in order to purge them or be judged by them, but to embrace them in such a way that your struggles contribute meaningfully to the central conversation God is inviting you to have with life.[7]  It’s about recognizing and embracing those struggling places – those “dark woods” – for what they are: places where we are desperate for God to show up, not in the ways that we expect or in the ways that we want but in the way that we most deeply, truly need God. Because it is often in those moment that we find our truest strengths, our greatest gifts, and our deepest reassurances.
  • Our OT reading for this morning, Ps 139, gets not at the “how” or the “what” of Dark Woods this morning but the “why” of God finding us in and amongst the shadowy tangles.
    • Text: Lord, you have examined me. You know me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up. Even from far away, you comprehend my plans. You study my traveling and resting. You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways. There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord, that you don’t already know completely. You surround me – front and back. You put your hand on me. … You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb. I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful – I know that very well. My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth. … Examine me, God! Look at my heart! Put me to the test! Know my anxious thoughts! Look to see if there is any idolatrous way in me, then lead on the eternal path![8]  reassurance that God knows us – all the parts of us, up and down, sideways and slant-ways, good and bad and ugly, and everything in between – and that God still chooses us, still love us, still claims us
      • Means that God desires to be present with us, especially in those “dark woods” places when we feel most lost, most empty, most vulnerable, most in need
  • BUT … we have to be willing to receive God in those moments. We say that we are. Few prayers are prayed more frequently and fervently than those uttered in “dark woods” moments. “God, help me! God, be with me! God, guide me!” But when it comes down to it, we have to be willing to not only say we’re asking for God’s guidance but to actually follow that guidance.
    • Said it before, say it again  the most dangerous prayer you can pray is one we pray every single Sunday: “Thy will be done”
    • Elnes gets to the crux of the matter: I do know that when it comes to making decisions that truly affect my life’s path – or the path of others – the Holy Spirit always has an opinion. But do I listen? … If there is a will, the Spirit makes a way. And the Spirit’s way is frequently unexpected. Part of what it means to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in life’s Dark Wood is to learn how to rearrange the seating arrangement at your inner dinner table on a daily basis in order to hear the Spirit’s quiet, unassuming whispers.[9]
      • When we’re in those “dark woods” moments, what we want is for the Spirit to lead us out as quickly and painlessly as possible. “Take me into the sun again. Put my feet on the easy path – the one that’s smooth and flat and straight. Remove these obstacles that block the way so I can keep going the way I’m ” What we don’t expect is for the Spirit to lead us deeper into the woods, deeper into the dark. But sometimes that’s the way we need to go in order to find the best version of “us” that God intended us to be from Day 1.
        • Journey can look like struggling
        • Journey can look like aimless wandering
        • Journey can look like failure
        • Elnes: Failure can indicate that something is going right, not wrong.[10] – see that in our Gospel story  Peter sank. Like a rock … like a big, dumb rock. Pretty obvious failure, right?
          • End of today’s reading: Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock.”[11]  Would Peter have been so sure in this response if he hadn’t had his “dark woods” experience of sinking in the middle of the lake and being rescued by Jesus? We can’t be sure, but an experience like that certainly had to have been formative in his belief and trust in the man that he was following – this Jesus character, this Messiah, this Son of the living God.
  • So as uncomfortable, as undesirable, as unintentional as they might be, who knows what we might find out – about God and about ourselves – in those “dark woods” places in our lives? Where is the Spirit trying to lead you? Where is your path taking you? Where have you been reluctant to follow? We can ask the same questions to ourselves as this congregation as well. But more important than asking the questions is having the boldness and the courage to step out along that path and follow. So into the Dark Wood we go. Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 6.

[2] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers).

[3] Mt 14:24-26.

[4] Mt 14:28-30.

[5] Elnes, 6.

[6] Mt 14:22.

[7] Elnes, 6, 7.

[8] Ps 139:1-5, 13-15, 23-24.

[9] Elnes, 16-17, 20-21.

[10] Elnes, 21.

[11] Mt 16:13-18a.