Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Getting Lost

dark woods getting lost

Texts used – 1 Samuel 3:1-10; Luke 15:1-10

  • About 15 years ago, Universal Studios came out with a fantastic movie called “Bruce Almighty.”[1]
    • Basic storyline:
      • Jim Carey = Bruce, a reporter at a local news station who’s tired of doing the “fluff” pieces → wants more recognition and notoriety that comes with being an anchorman
      • Bruce’s girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston) = tries to get him to stop and smell the roses sometimes – enjoy life and have faith instead of being focused on himself all the time
      • One day, Bruce has pretty much the worst day ever. He’s fired. He gets beat up. His beautiful, vintage sports car gets damaged. He gets in a fight with Grace. His dog refuses to house train. All bad. All the time. Bruce finds himself in the Dark Wood for sure.
        • Read scene descr. from Elnes’ book[2]
  • Friends, we cannot deny that we feel lost like Bruce sometimes.
    • Lost among the distractions of the world around us
    • Lost among our own ambitions and desires
    • Lost among relationships (healthy or otherwise)
    • Lost … just plain lost. And we don’t like feeling lost, especially when we’re in the midst of the Dark Wood. Being lost makes us feel helpless, stressed out, and shatteringly vulnerable. Whether we’re speaking metaphorically or whether we’re literally behind the wheel of our car and unsure of which way to turn, being lost is a profoundly unsettling experience. But we also cannot deny that part of life is getting lost. The road of life is not a straight, easy, simple road. It’s winding and hilly and full of challenging things like blind corners and unexpected detours. → sometimes getting lost is how we figure out that we’re in the Dark Wood in the first place – we think we know exactly where we’re going and how we’re going to get there … until suddenly we look up and realize we have no idea how we got where we are or how to go elsewhere
      • Reminder: Dark Wood = times of challenge and struggle in our lives → spending the summer exploring the many unexpected blessings we can find in the midst of the Dark Wood using Eric Elnes’ book Gifts of the Dark Woods: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers)[3]
        • Talked about how uncertainty leads us to trust
        • Talked about how emptiness reminds us to make space for God
        • Last week: talked about being led by those thunderstruck moments – flashes and reverberations of God in our lives
  • Today, we’re going to be talking about what a gift and a blessing it can be to actually get lost.
    • Elnes holds up both the uncomfortableness and the necessity of getting lost: Our journey through life is never a straight one, even if we are paying attention to our sweet-spot moments. The path zigzags. … We would probably be fine with all these twists and turns, more or less, if someone issued us a printed itinerary. But God seems to have forgotten about the itinerary. Instead, at each point where the journey needs to make a turn, we start to feel increasingly lost. In my own journey, this feeling of being lost prompts me to pay more careful attention to the signals that the Holy Spirit sends me. I pray and meditate longer and with greater attention.[4] → Sometimes, we need to figure out that we have no idea what we’re doing or where we are to discern where God is calling us to go. Taking us out of the ensconced-ness of our comfort zones makes us open our eyes in ways that we never expected … sometimes in ways that we never wanted to have to open them in the first place. But it’s only when our eyes have been unexpectedly opened in this way that we can finally begin to see those flashes of God that lead us along our new path.
  • Situation that Samuel finds himself in in our OT reading
    • Reminder of who Samuel is: Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was desperate for a child → husband had 2 wives and the other wife had children while Hannah didn’t, so she would taunt Hannah mercilessly → Hannah went to the temple to sacrifice and pray → of 1 Sam: She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”[5] → Eli the priest saw Hannah weeping and praying and eventually blessed her and her prayers → Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel → when Samuel is 3 yrs. old, she brings him to live in the temple to fulfill her promise to God – text: For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.[6]
    • And so in our text for today, we find Samuel as a young boy living in the temple and serving Eli, the priest. – text: Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.[7] → “The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.” Into this haziness, into this unknownness, into this Dark Wood of a time and place for the people of Israel, God begins to speak to Samuel. But Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice. Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s call. So he’s a little bit lost.
      • Text: Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.[8]
      • God calls Samuel once → Samuel thinks it’s Eli calling him and runs to his side → Eli tells Samuel to go lie down
      • God calls Samuel again → Samuel again runs to Eli’s side → Eli again tells Samuel to go lie down → I think we can imagine Eli getting a little frustrated at this point. He’s old. He can’t see anymore. He’s basically trying to take an afternoon nap. And this overanxious boy keeps running into his room, waking him up, and asking him what he wants when he never called for the kid in the first place!
      • God calls Samuel a 3rd time → Samuel again runs to Eli’s side → And this time, Eli finally tumbles to what’s going on. – text: Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been. Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”[9] → At first, Samuel is very thoroughly in the dark. He’s lost. He has no idea what’s going on. And in that lostness – in that disorientation – he’s open to suggestion. He thinks he knows what’s happening. He thinks he knows the way. He’s certain that Eli must be calling him because he can’t imagine another option. And yet that other path is there. Even before he’s aware of it, God is literally calling him to that path.
        • Elnes highlights a small but very important detail in Samuel’s story – Eli’s instruction: If he calls you, say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” → Samuel’s response when God’s calls the 3rd time: “Speak. Your servant is listening.” → “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
          • Elnes: Samuel repeats every word but one. He says, “Speak, for your servant is listening,” but leaves out the word Lord. This is classic Hebrew narrative technique indicating that Samuel still had his doubts. Yet despite his doubts about where the intuition was coming from, Samuel’s heart is indeed open, and he is rewarded for continuing to listen.[10]
  • Even when we don’t know it, even when we can’t feel it, even when we don’t even think to expect it, God is with us in the midst of our lostness. → NT passage this morning = all about lostness and the joy of finding
    • Part of a chapter in Luke all about lostness
      • Today’s text = parable of the lost sheep and parable of the lost coin
      • Just after today’s text = parable of the lost son (prodigal son)
    • Telling of these parables is (not surprisingly) precipitated by grumbling and judgment on the part of the Pharisees – text: All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”[11]
      • Addresses an important distinction → You see, one of the reasons that we can sometimes feel like we’re lost is because we don’t feel worthy to be found. We think that this time, we’ve screwed up too big, too hard, too profoundly. We think that whatever it is we’ve done takes us too deeply into those Dark Woods to ever be worth looking for let alone being found. The Pharisees thought that the people gathering around Jesus – those horrible tax collectors and (gulp) sinners!! – were beyond deserving to be found. And yet, through the parables that he tells, Jesus makes two things abundantly clear:
        • 1st = God is so determined to find these lost ones that leaving them lost doesn’t even cross God’s mind – text: Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? … Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it?[12] → Jesus makes it common sense. Of course you would track down the lost sheep. Of course you would hunt for your lost coin. You don’t just leave precious things lost. And neither does God.
        • Leads to 2nd thing Jesus makes clear = these lost ones are indeed precious to God – text: When he finds [the lost sheep], he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.” In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.[13] → In their lostness and in being found, these people are more precious to God than any other. And friends, at one point or another in our lives, we are all “these people.”
          • Elnes: When it comes to finding our place in this world, mistakes don’t matter nearly as much to God as they do to us, provided they’re our own mistakes. We tend to make the most serious mistakes when we’re trying to be someone else.[14]
  • When we are lost, it gives God the opportunity to find us, to sweep us up and remind us that we are treasured, that we were missed, that we are worth seeking. And it gives God the opportunity to direct us once again – to set our feet back on the path, to redirect our gaze, to reorient us and show us the way we should go. But we have to be open to that leading – not only open to the idea of it but open to listening and watching for it.
    • Guidance of God is not always flashy and Hollywood-worthy and obvious – Elnes asks an important question: I wonder how many of us miss the Spirit calling us into great and wonderful work (or offering powerful help in a time of crisis) simply because we expect the signs to be more clear and for God to act with more supernatural bravado?[15] → If we think about last week when we talked about the gift of being thunderstruck, this sort of goes hand-in-hand with that idea. Sometimes, the leadings and direction of the Holy Spirit are those bright, hard-to-miss lightning flashes that illuminate the path in front of us. But sometimes – most times! – God is much more subtle than that. The Holy Spirit nudges and whispers far more often than she shoves and hollers. And it will happen not just once but over and over and over again.
      • Elnes: People who find and live into their calling rarely do so without getting lost first. Yet since there are no straight or clear paths in the Dark Wood of life, they do not cease to get lost after once being found. Rather, those who embrace life in the Dark Wood gradually learn that the regular experience of getting lost is one of the most important gifts we can receive.[16] So friends, let’s get lost. Amen.

[1] “Bruce Almighty,” distr. by Universal Pictures, released May 2003.

[2] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 86-87.

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

[4] Elnes, 84-85.

[5] 1 Sam 1:10-11 (NRSV).

[6] 1 Sam 1:27-28 (NRSV).

[7] 1 Sam 3:1.

[8] 1 Sam 3:7.

[9] 1 Sam 3:8c-10.

[10] Elnes, 98.

[11] Lk 15:1-2.

[12] Lk 15:4, 8.

[13] Lk 15:5-7.

[14] Elnes, 99.

[15] Elnes, 98.

[16] Elnes, 83-84.

Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Being Thunderstruck

thunder and lightning

Texts used – Job 36:26-37:7; Mark 4:35-41

  • When we were little, our parents told us all sorts of things about thunder and lightning to make it seem less scary, right? → favorite examples
    • Thunder & lightning = God taking pictures
      • Thunder = sound of the shutter
      • Lightning = flash
    • Thunder & lightning = music
      • Thunder = drums
      • Lightning = cymbal crashes
    • Probably most classic: thunder & lightning = God and the angels bowling
      • Thunder = bowling balls and pins
      • Lightning = celebration
    • To little kids, the thunder and lightning can feel scary because thunder and lightning are so much bigger than we are! And they seem to come out of nowhere. And they’re unpredictable. You never know when and where they’re going to strike or how powerful they’re going to be.
  • Throughout the summer, we’ve been walking through the Dark Wood using Eric Elnes’ book, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers)[1]
    • Talked about what the Dark Wood is → those moment of challenge and struggle in our lives
    • Talked about the first two gifts
      • Uncertainty leads us to trust in God
      • Emptiness helps us remember to make room for God and the leading of the Holy Spirit
    • Today = talking about the gift of being thunderstruck → not really a phrase we use a whole lot anymore – “thunderstruck”: extreme shock and surprise (other synonyms: astonished, dumbfounded, speechless, flabbergasted)
      • Like the unpredictability of real thunder and lightning, moments that leave us thunderstruck feel like they come out of nowhere. They flash and crash and reverberate in our hearts and souls long after the actual moment has passed, leaving us wondering and pondering and questioning and seeking.
        • Elnes’ approaches this idea through the interpretation lens of the Ancient Near East: The Dark Wood is that inner terrain you negotiate more through intuition, imagination, and indirect ways of knowing than through direct perception. In every mythology in the Ancient Near East, the elements of lightning and thunder are depicted in similar fashion: as instruments for conveying the voice of the highest deity. … When the ancients spoke of the deity flashing lightning and chasing it with claps of thunder, they meant that the voice of the divine often comes through momentary flashes of intuition or awareness that trigger sensations that reverberate within us like rolling thunder.[2]
          • Thunder and lightning are wholly other – something completely outside of us and different from us but also something that affects us when present no matter what → If you are awake, you cannot escape the sound of thunder or the flash of the lightning. Heck, if the thunder and lightning are powerful enough, they can even jolt us out of deep sleep, can’t they?
          • Encounters with God and the revelations that come from those encounters are the same: wholly other and completely outside of us but that affects us no matter what
  • Hear this understanding of God speaking in our OT passage this morning
    • Background
      • Basic story of Job: Job is a man who was “honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil.”[3] → blessed with many things (family, wealth, health & well-being) → catches the attention of Satan who says to God, “The only reason this Job guy worships you is because things have gone so well for him. If things were going poorly, he would turn his back on you.” → God’s response: “Look, all he has is within your power; only don’t stretch out your hand against him.”[4] → all sorts of terrible things happen to Job and he loses everything: family, wealth, health, even home → his 3 friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) and his wife tell him to curse and abandon God because his fortunes have turned so rapidly but Job refuses to do so
      • End of Job – enter Elihu
        • Description from earlier in text: Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite from the clan of Ram was angry, angry with Job because he considered himself more righteous than God. He was also angry with his three friends because they hadn’t found an answer but nevertheless thought Job wicked. Elihu had waited while Job spoke, for they were older than he. When Elihu saw that there had been no response in the speeches of the three men, he became very angry.[5] → The passage that we read today is part of Elihu’s speech to Job about how powerful and wholly other God is.
    • Today’s text – Elihu uses thunder/lightning language in reference to God over and over again:
      • Even if one perceives a spreading cloud and the thunder of his pavilion, look how he spreads lightning across is at covers the seabed[6]
      • [God] conceals lightning in his palms and orders it to its target. His thunder announces it[7]
      • Listen closely to the rumble of his voice, the roar issuing from his mouth. He looses it under the whole sky, his lightning on earth’s edges.[8]
      • All of these references speak to that awesome, soul-shaking, thunder-striking power that God has to shake up our lives – to intervene in ways that can be both subtle and sensational. Think about the varying ways that we observe thunder and lightning.
        • Thunder
          • Sometimes low and rolling – almost a background noise that you have to strain to hear
          • Sometimes a deafening crash that seems to come out of the blue (you know … those thunder claps that come crashing out of nowhere and make you jump)
          • Sometimes somewhere in between: start low and rolling and end up loud and attention-grabbing
        • Lightning
          • Sometimes soft flickers up in the clouds that you can only see if your attention is focused on the right place at the right time
          • Sometimes bright flashes – all you can see is the light itself (not sure where the lightning is … just see the after effect)
          • Sometimes one of those big, bright, powerful bolts that streaks from the clouds to the ground
        • When God breaks into our lives in ways that leave us thunderstruck, it can be in ways that are big and showy and impossible to ignore like a giant thunder clap or a fierce bolt of lightning but also in ways that build up like rolling thunder and flash as quick as lightning and are gone again. But no matter how they come, those moments leave us struck – struck by God’s presence with us and struck by revelation.
          • Revelation could be something God is calling us to do
          • Revelation could be something God is calling us to be
          • Revelation could be somewhere God is calling us to go
          • Whatever it is, those thunderstruck moments reveal God’s will to us in ways that we cannot ignore sort of the way a flash of lightning in the dark can light up a previously-unseen path in the middle of a Dark Wood.
    • Elnes: While you may be able to identify times when you’ve experienced flashes of insight, you may find the thunder easier to locate. In an actual storm you may miss the lightning entirely. It is brief, soundless, and often comes from a distant place. But even quiet thunder is hard to miss. Even if you overlook or forget the inner realization that triggers your inner thunder, the ongoing reverberations caused by the lightning sometimes last for years. I cannot remember the specific moment when I first realized that I wanted to marry [my wife], for instance, but the reverberations have continued to thunder for twenty-six years.[9]
  • See this flash of revelation in our NT passage this morning (another Jesus/disciples/boat/crappy weather story)
    • Storyline: Jesus has spent another long day teaching and preaching, both to the disciples and to a large crowd by the side of the sea → end of the day, Jesus tells the disciples that they’re going to cross to the other side of the sea/lake (way to remove themselves from the crowds) → exhausted Jesus falls asleep in the back of the boat on the way across → giant storm blows up (“Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped”[10] → fearing for their lives, disciples wake Jesus rather dramatically – “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”[11] → Jesus silences the storm, then silences the disciples – “He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. Jesus asked [the disciples], ‘Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?’”[12] → disciples are indeed thunderstruck – “Overcome with awe, they said to each other, ‘Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!’”[13]
    • In this passage, the disciples experience a flash of brilliant, soul-shaking, world-altering revelation that continues to roll and thunder within them long after that initial moment has passed. Their lives are inarguably altered after this encounter. They literally watched Jesus calm a raging storm and a roiling sea with his voice. He spoke, and the winds and the waves ceased. There’s no way they could go back to “business as usual” after that! But there are a couple of important things that we have to notice about this interaction.
      • First: comes from a place of discomfort – disciples in the boat are basically in a life-or-death situation → Now, not every revelation has to come in such an extreme moment of life or death, but are revelations that come in times of comfort and calm and contentment ever really going to effectively grab our attention? Probably not. When things are going well, we have no reason to be looking for something better, something brighter, something more … because we’re happy with the way things are.
        • To stick with our analogy: thunder and lightning don’t appear out of nowhere on a beautiful, sunny day → they are always found in the midst of a storm
        • Greatest revelations are often found in the midst of turmoil
      • Also notice: disciples don’t come away from this revelation with all the answers → They don’t come away saying, “Oh my gosh, this Jesus guy that we’ve been traveling with must be the Son of God sent into the world to bring us God’s love and salvation. Thanks be to God!” Even after this pretty striking revelation, they don’t have the whole picture. But they do have greater insight. They have a small piece of the puzzle. Their viewpoint has been shifted by what they have seen and heard and experienced. And it’s that experience that matters more than having all the answers.
  • Elnes speaks of the necessity of this nature being fleeting (describes those thunder and lightning moments of revelation as “liquid joy”): I would lose those feelings of liquid joy many times … But every time I would lose it, it would circle back again, with growing intensity. … [These sweet spot moments] act like crumbs in the Dark Wood of life that indicate the direction of my particular path ahead.[14] → So while a few weeks ago we talked about how the uncertainty of the path through the Dark Wood is a blessing in that it teaches us to trust God, these moments of being thunderstruck – these flash moments of revelation and the reverberation that resonates in our souls long afterward – are gifts of reassurance in the face of all that scares us in the Dark Wood.
    • Moments themselves can be jarring – can be unexpected, can reveal things we didn’t even know were there (blessings or obstacles) – but they can also be flashes that reassure us we are going in the right direction → find that reassurance in the frequency: Do we keep hearing the thunder and seeing flashes of lightning?
      • Disciples as an e.g. → If Jesus had never ever done another miraculous thing, they may have brushed off that experience in the boat as just a coincidence. Just one of those crazy things. Maybe they would have thought they themselves were going crazy! But through his healings, his teachings, his miracles, and finally through his resurrection, Jesus continued to give the disciples flashing glimpses of his true identity and the Kingdom of God that reverberated within their hearts and minds long after the moment itself had passed.
  • And how can we identify those thunderstruck moments?
    • Elnes: We must always ask ourselves a question I once heard author Phyllis Tickle ask: “Was that the Holy Spirit talking or the pizza I just ate?” … One of the hallmarks of authentic spiritual experience is that it continues to repeat itself – like thunder and lightning in a good storm – long after the pizza is gone.[15] → So friends, as we wander through this Dark Wood together, let us keep our eyes and our ears and our souls poised for those thunderstruck moments – those flashes of God in our midst. Amen.

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

[2] Elnes, 66, 67-68.

[3] Job 1:1.

[4] Job 1:12.

[5] Job 32:2-5.

[6] Job 36:29.

[7] Job 36:32-33a.

[8] Job 7:2-3.

[9] Elnes, 68.

[10] Mk 4:37.

[11] Mk 4:38.

[12] Mk 4:39-40.

[13] Mk 4:41.

[14] Elnes, 76.

[15] Elnes, 71.

Sunday’s sermon: The Gift of Emptiness

empty hands

Texts used – Psalm 81:6-16; Matthew 16:24-28

  • Today, we continue our summer sermon series through the Dark Wood.
    • Reminder: Dark Wood = moments of challenge and difficulty in our lives that lead to some of our most precious revelations from God → places when we unexpectedly and undeniably encounter God
    • Using book Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers) by Eric Elnes[1]
    • First week: talked about what the Dark Wood is
    • Last week: tackled 1st gift – uncertainty → talked about how uncertainty actually invites and encourages one of the most important aspects of our relationship with God: trust
    • Today: talking about 2nd gift – emptiness → Before we go any further, let’s take a moment for a point of clarification because let’s be honest, there are a lot of different ways that we can feel empty, aren’t there?
      • Loneliness can feel empty
      • Grief can feel empty
      • Depression can feel empty
      • Anxiety can feel empty
      • And I have no doubt that God does indeed sit with us in those difficult, empty-feeling places in our lives, weeping with us when we weep, carrying us when we need to be carried, sheltering us when we need to be sheltered. In the face of those kinds of emptiness, it is best to seek out someone else – someone you can talk to, cry with, pray with, and most importantly, be safe with. But the kind of emptiness that Elnes addresses in this book – the kind of emptiness that we’ll be talking about this morning – is a different kind of emptiness. It’s more intentional emptiness. This one may be better titled “the gift of being emptied.” There’s a purposefulness about it – a choice to empty oneself out.
        • Elnes’ description of “emptiness” (starts with a poem by Rūmī): “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, / there is a field. I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass, / the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn’t make any sense.” The Dark Wood gift of emptiness brings us straight to this place beyond notions of wrongdoing and rightdoing. It’s not a place beyond morality. Rather, it’s where our fractured humanity finds its most intimate connection to divinity and an astonishing fullness is discovered within our deepest emptiness.[2] → It’s about getting out of our own way – clearing away all the clutter and chaos of life so that we can listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit uninterrupted, undistracted, and unencumbered.
  • That’s why the passage that we read from Matthew’s gospel is so perfect for today.
    • Probably one of the more challenging Scriptures to wrestle with – text: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.[3] → This is a hard Scripture passage, right? These words of Jesus are challenging, especially to the comfortable, Western-world lives that we live, aren’t they? “Lose my life to find my life?” What does that mean?
      • Many interpretations and iterations of this in Christianity throughout the centuries
        • Desert fathers and mothers of the early church à Christian hermits and ascetics (those who practices severe self-discipline and abstention from basically everything) who lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the 3rd C.E.
          • E.g.s – Anthony the Great, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Theodora of Alexandria
        • Various monastic order in the Catholic church that practice denials of different kinds → vows of poverty, silence, obedience, etc. all aimed at this idea of “saying no” to oneself in order to listen better for God
        • Tackled by Protestant thinkers and theologians as well – Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Self-denial means knowing only Christ, and no longer oneself. It means seeing only Christ, who goes ahead of us, and no longer the path that is too difficult for us. Again, self-denial is saying only: He goes ahead of us; hold fast to him.[4] → This is the version of emptiness that Elnes identifies as a gift of the Dark Wood. In those Dark Wood moments, feelings of inadequacy, of not measuring up, of failure and incompetence, feelings that tell us we’re not enough force us to encounter our emptiness. But then, instead of letting that emptiness to define us, we turn it around. We use that emptiness, morphing it into an emptiness that involves us deliberately letting go of all those things that pull our attention away from God and the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
          • Distractions
          • Worries
          • Fears
          • Busy work
          • Faults
          • Insecurities
          • Mistakes
          • Excuses
    • What if that’s how we read Jesus’ words in this Matthew passage? – text (modified): Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to their worries … their fears … their insecurities … their fears … their excuses, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to come after me must say no to the mistakes … the failures … the wrong turns that hold them back, take up their cross, and follow me.”
      • Elnes: No amount of success, brilliance, or published works exempt you from insecurity and failure, even when you are walking squarely on your life’s path. … Imagine what it would be like to be free – free not of your faults but your fear of them. This is precisely what the Dark Wood gift of emptiness brings.[5]
  • OT reading this morning reminds us that God is there to fill our emptiness no matter what
    • Ps addresses those Dark Wood moments: I lifted the burden off your shoulders; your hands are free of the brick basket! In distress you cried out, so I rescued you. I answered you in the secret thunder.[6]
    • Ps speaks uniquely to moment in which God’s people refused to empty themselves and make room for God: My people wouldn’t listen to my voice. Israel simply wasn’t agreeable toward me. So I sent them off to follow their willful hearts; they followed their own advice. How I wish my people would listen to me! How I wish Israel would walk in my ways![7] → Even after all that they had been through – slavery in Egypt, the first Passover when God spared the lives of all those who listened to God’s instruction through Moses, their exodus from Egypt in which they were guided by God both day and night, God saving them and obliterating Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea … even after all of that, the Israelites refused to fully empty themselves in the wilderness and follow God. “They followed their own advice.”
      • Heb. is pretty clear: “stubborn hearts” “walk in their counsel/plan” → popular saying is “Let go and let God” … but how often do we actually allow ourselves to do that? Let go and let God? How often do we embrace and embody that intentional emptying to make room for God?
    • Ps also hears God explicitly saying “I will fill your emptiness!”: I am the Lord your God, who brought you up from Egypt’s land. Open your mouth wide – I will fill it up! … How I wish my people would listen to me! How I wish Israel would walk in my ways! Then I would subdue their enemies in a second; I would turn my hand against their foes. Those who hate the Lord would grovel before me, and their doom would last forever! But I would feed you with the finest wheat. I would satisfy you with honey from the rock.[8] → God promises protection. God promises to nurture and fill and even indulge the people with the finest wheat and honey if only they would let go of the things that pull their attention and devotion away from God.
      • Highlights what makes the Israelites’ 40-yr. journey in the wilderness such a perfect e.g.
        • Israelites refused to follow God – refused to empty themselves and make that space to listen for and follow God
        • Consequence: made it to the doorstep of the Promised Land, then wandered around in the wilderness for 40 yrs. “follow[ing] their willful hearts,” as the psalm put it
        • But even in the midst of all that wandering – even in the midst of those 40 yrs. of Dark Wood moments – God didn’t leave the Israelites alone. And in our own Dark Wood moments, we are not alone either. Even when we are feeling our emptiest – especially when we are feeling our emptiest! – God is with us.
  • I want you to look up front this morning. We have two crucial symbols of just how powerful it can be to empty ourselves in order for God to fill us up.
    • 1st symbol is there every Sunday = the cross → Elnes: For Christians, one of the greatest symbols of the Dark Wood gift of emptiness is the Cross. Here we find the emptiness of the heavens merging with the emptiness of a human body. At their intersection we hear the emptiest and most human of all cries on the lips of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In that great and terrible moment of emptiness, not even Jesus could find God. Yet for the last two thousand years, Christians have insisted that the Cross is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new one. Why? Not because Jesus found God as he stared from the Cross into the vast emptiness of the heavens, but because from within this Great Emptiness God found Jesus. The message could not be more profound: If you yearn to find God, get empty! Let God find you.[9] → Again, it’s about the intentionality of the emptiness. It’s about recognizing that our own strength, smarts, structures, and selves are not enough to navigate our way through this life alone. It’s about recognizing our need – our deepest, most emptying need – and giving that need to God, not so that God can take it away or put a Band-Aid on it, but so that God can fill it up.
    • Brings us to 2nd symbol = communion → Whenever we gather at this table, we are offering up our emptiness to God and asking to be filled up again – filled up in body and spirit, in heart and mind and strength. We fill our bodies with the bread and the wine or the juice, and we fill our souls with the presence and reassurance and love of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. So as we prepare for this glorious feast, let me encourage you wholeheartedly, friends: Let’s get empty. Amen.

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

[2] Elnes, 41-42.

[3] Mt 16:24-25.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Why Self-Denial? Discipleship and the Cross” found on The Plough:

[5] Elnes, 45.

[6] Ps 81:6-7.

[7] Ps 81:11-13.

[8] Ps 81:10, 13-16.

[9] Elnes, 61.