A Journey of Grace — by William Wortham
It has been a long time since I have faced a congregation on a Sunday morning. There was always a mixture of excitement and fear when I would stand behind the pulpit each Sunday. Questions and doubt would race through my mind each time I addressed the congregants challenging myself if I were worthy to be preaching the Holy Word of God. One time in
particular, I remember preaching how love casts out fear. This should have been a simple sermon. Nothing to it! Yet, I felt as if I were preaching on the hardest, most difficult subject ever imagined. How do I tell these people that love casts out fear when all I feel is fear! FEAR is such a powerful motivator! It leads us to make many decisions and perform many actions we would never do under normal circumstances. Decisions that can have lasting effects! I felt that it was love, gone rancid.
SLIDE 2 FAMILY PIC ORIGINS
As many of you know, I was raised Church of Christ. The OTHER one! I was part of a family which had a rich religious history. My grandfather was highly respected in the local church, therefore I was expected to toe the line in all matters both religious and secular. I was taught from an early age that I was to act right. God was watching me, he saw EVERYTHING! God became the cosmic policeman to me. I imagined him sitting high up on his royal throne looking down at me shaking his head every time I did anything. My family was ultra conservative in all matters. We didn’t drink, cuss, or dance. Upstanding pillars of the church and community we were. We gave to others and the church, and helped out our fellow citizens whenever possible. The church was never open, that we were not there. My father would brave the worst weather, just to make sure we were at church services. God was watching!
SLIDE GOD WATCHING
I remember many sermons talking about love, how God loved us so much. Sunday school lesson after lesson would say that God cared, and he loved so much! I wanted to believe it, but at the end of every sermon was the warning that I would die and suffer the ultimate death if I failed to be baptized. When I was around 8 I was baptized and finally saved! Just as the preachers said, I was washed clean. I felt like a new car just pulled off the lot: clean and shiny. I was ok with God, I received His galactic nod that he was finally pleased. This was short lived, as I promptly screwed up and sinned. I was devastated and prayed and repented my heart out only to feel that same old fear come crashing down on me again. God was up on his throne shaking his head. How disappointing. Fear was still in control.
Life continued, I went to school and made sure to look good for all of the other college students who saw me. I, eventually, selected a career and graduated. I went to work for my dad selling sawmills. I was doing the right thing! But, fear was still firmly in control of my life. I was leading a double life. On the outside, I was an upstanding member of the church and community. I did all of the right things, said all of the right things, looked just right! Inside was a hurricane of doubt, fear, and loathing that was my constant companion. Day by day, it reminded me that God was so unhappy with me. FEAR was always in control. I made so many decisions based on fear that I believed that I would never be in control of my life!
I eventually went to preaching school. This HAD to be the thing that would please God and my family! I finally was going to be loved! It was there that I met Rebecca. I knew I had to marry her from the moment I started talking to her. We talked, we met, I moved! I preached here in Alabama, yet I was scared to death. Nothing was good enough for God!
My journey so far was driven by fear. The hot wind of failure filled my sails and drove me across the sea of life. It was too much. The life of a preacher was just not the one for me and my new family. Living in a fishbowl and never fulfilling that picture of a perfect family had taken its toll. I stopped preaching, walked right out the church doors and never looked back. I knew God was done with me now! This was the final straw, he was finished with me. Yet, He was taking care of me. We found a place to live, we had our needs met, we were going to be ok. The passage from Isaiah states, “I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you, the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.” I was beginning to understand that God was a lot closer than I thought. He is close at hand.
I became a teacher. Life continued. My family grew! God continued to look out for me, even if I didn’t understand it at the time. The journey was just beginning! The whirlwind description of my life to this point is to illustrate how fear drives so many things. I had heard sermon after sermon, even preached them myself, that love is our motivator. God is love! Yet, my life and so many others lives around me were controlled by this tremendous fear of judgement. I avoided talking and even thinking of God’s love since I didn’t even begin to understand what it was about. I John 4:18 “perfect love casts out all fear” was an enigma I would never solve!
The puzzle to love and fear was too daunting. It could never be solved or figured out. It was simply too complicated. Any person who professed love or performed acts of kindness was simply trying to avoid God’s judgement. It was only until recently when the verse from First John began to make sense to me. I had learned that the true way to read the Bible was in some form of the King James Version. Any other way of reading it was just not going to work well. Until I came across this passage in the Message. “God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.” This passage was life altering for me. Jesus and I are on the same plane. And if he is on the same plane as all of us, then God is here too! Holy Crap! It felt as if I were seeing things for the first time. GOD IS HERE!
Jesus carries many names, but the one name that carries so much meaning to me now, and I hope to many others, is Immanuel. This name literally means “God with us.” God is here, not simply paying attention from his throne a thousand light years away or near where we are. But he is RIGHT HERE, IN us! This is a personal thing, not simply a friendship or contract, He is in me, in you, in everyone. He loves us because we are his. Just as I love my family, I love my children, God loves me. It is an organic relationship, it is living. When David was hiding in the Judean wilderness he experienced so many emotions. He was faced with so much, yet at the end of the day he says this in Psalm 63. “6 I lie awake at night thinking of you— 7 of how much you have helped me—and how I rejoice through the night beneath the protecting shadow of your wings. 8 I follow close behind you, protected by your strong right arm.”
David had this God thing figured out. Reading his thoughts would cause a great deal of conflict in me. How could this man address God in such a way? How could he call God out and then praise him in the same breath. It is grace. Everything boils down to grace. God doesn’t have to deal with us, He doesn’t have to worry about us, He doesn’t have to help us. Yet, because of grace, because he loves, because he cares, because he wants to…he DOES. This is why I love this picture. It always reminds me that God believes in me, even when I don’t. He has grace. This life is not about living in fear of what is to come, it is not about making sure that God only sees the best of our actions, it is about living in grace, living WITH God. Knowing He is here and he loves. He graces me!
Preparing for Jerusalem
SLIDE 3: JESUS WAS A PHARISEE
By the standards of his day Jesus probably would have been considered a Pharisee, a very liberal Pharisee, but a liberal interpreter of the Law, in the tradition of the great Rabbi Hillel. Despite the tone of the Gospels, not all of the Pharisees were opposed to Jesus, and some of them came to warn him that Herod had sent his secret police out looking for him. Jesus thanked them for the warning and basically shared the information that he had no intention of being caught in Galilee. Instead he would remain on the move, allusive and head for Jerusalem for the final show down.
SLIDE 4: JESUS WAS POLITICAL
Our scripture this morning offers us several lessons. First, Jesus was considered “political.” He was opposed to the rulers of his day – Herod, the Romans and the Temple collaborators. He was opposed to an economic system where the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer as peasants found themselves squeezed off the land by taxes and predatory lending. The upper classes lived lives of luxury, while everyone else lived in abject poverty. Many people were selling themselves into slavery, because they could not pay their debts. It was indeed a rigged economic and political system. Sound familiar?
SLIDE 5: ANY CRITICISM OF THE RULING CLASS PUNISHABLE BY DEATH
Fortunately, today we enjoy political freedom. We can criticize our leaders. We can complain about our economic system, and we are free to participate in our political life to try to change the system. That was not true for Jesus. Any criticism of the ruling classes was considered to be treasonous punishable by death. Jesus knew this as he prepared to journey to Jerusalem.
SLIDE 6: FISHERMEN BEATING THE TAX MAN
But let us not miss the truth that Jesus was political. He was opposed to the Romans, the Herods, the ruling classes, the corrupt leadership of the Temple and the rigged economy that oppressed common ordinary workers. We have evidence that the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were being squeezed by Herod’s fish monopoly and newly imposed taxes on their catches. Peter, Andrew, James and John were in partnership but living in different political jurisdictions. Capernaum was part of Herod Antipas’ territory, and Bethsaida was part of Herod Phillip’s region, and that is how they tried to stay one step ahead of the tax collectors. No wonder the fishermen were so willing to hear Jesus’ call for the Commonwealth of God and follow him.
As followers of Jesus we may find ourselves called upon to participate in the political process to try to bring about justice. And let me mention an issue that has arisen in this election cycle. Now I know some people will get nervous, because we are mentioning an election in church, but I think is important for our congregation as a faith community.
SLIDE 7: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT FOR GAYS AND LESBIANS
A leading Presidential candidate attended the National Religious Liberties Conference, where he received the endorsement of a prominent evangelical leader, Kevin Swanson, who calls for capital punishment for Gays and Lesbians. Not only does Swanson want to roll back marriage equality, but he reiterated his call for the death penalty, adding that “homosexuals should first be given some time to repent before the executions begin.” For me it is unthinkable that a Presidential candidate of a major political party would allow himself to be identified with such a character. I cannot stand idly by while people advocate executing 40% of my congregation.
SLIDE 8: OPEN AND AFFIRMING CONGREGATION SHOULD OPPOSE OPPRESSION OF GAY AND LESBIAN COMMUNITY
I also think as an Open and Affirming Congregation of the United Church of Christ, United Church should also add its voice of protest against these kinds of threats made against our Gay and Lesbian community. Like Jesus, sometimes good people of faith need to be political. I am hoping that a little later this Spring, Dakota Fox will lead some discussions at the Sharing Table, and perhaps in Young Adult Sunday School about other ways that people of faith can be appropriately political.
SLIDE 9: KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE PRIZE
Enough said about Jesus and politics for now. The other topic our scripture lifts up this morning is preparing for Jerusalem. Jesus was no fool. He knew what had happened to John the Baptist. He knew the Romans executed anyone who questioned Roman rule. And yet he went to Jerusalem anyway. He went because he believed he was building a movement that could change the world, a movement that could even survive the death of its leader and rise stronger than before. That is real faith. And if we want to change the world, we have to have faith, because world changing takes more than one life time more than one generation. As they said in the Civil Rights movement, we have to keep our eye on the prize. And the prize for followers of Jesus is helping to bring the Commonwealth of God into the here and now. Even for those of us who don’t think of ourselves as world changers, we still aspire to realize the Commonwealth of God in the midst of us.
SLIDE 10: PREPARE FOR JERUSALEM
And in that journey toward the Commonwealth of God each of us needs to be prepared for our Jerusalem. Life is not a series of triumphs one after the other. God does not promise every day will be sunshine and roses. God does offer us faith, because we will all have to face our own Jerusalem complete with Garden of Gethsemane moments and crosses to bear. Preparing for Jerusalem is something every follower of Jesus must face.
SLIDE 11: STRUGGLES IN RELATIONSHIP
I don’t know all of the hardships and crises you will face. I do know that anyone who undertakes a significant relationship, marriage or friendship will experience trials, anger, frustration, even feelings of betrayal and abandonment. Remember the Jesus story, betrayed by one of his closest followers, abandoned by his friends when the going got rough. Anyone who is in significant relationship with people will experience emotional pain. And because of the reality of death, spouses, partners, friends all die. If we dare to love other people, we will know the pain of grief. So each of us needs to prepare for our Jerusalem.
SLIDE 12: ANXIETY & HEARTACHE OVER CHILDREN
I also know that anyone who becomes a parent, will know anxiety and heartache. It comes with the territory. We worry over our children, no matter how old they become. We worry, when they get sick, when they get in trouble, when they run up student loans, when they enter into relationships with other people. Will this person be good for them? How will it turn out, if there is a break up or a divorce? And if there are children of the relationship, how will they fare? So many reasons for anxiety and heartache. So each of us needs to prepare for our Jerusalem.
SLIDE 13: WORRIES ABOUT LIVELIHOOD
I also know in this current climate no job, employment, or career path is absolutely secure. At any time we can be given a pink slip, asked to clean out our desk, or have our livelihood disappear. Years of training and thousands of dollars in student debt can be for naught, when a whole sector of our economy becomes technologically obsolete, or it can be outsourced to some third world country. And often losing a job is accompanied by a tremendous sense of betrayal. After all the sacrifices we made for the company, the long hours, the devoted service, and then to be put out on the street. It just doesn’t seem fair. We need to prepare for our Jerusalem.
SLIDE 14: PROCESS OF DYING
Despite our best efforts to exercise, eat right and take care of our health all of us grow older every year. While we can pray for a peaceful death and indulge the fantasy that we will live to be ninety-five years old in perfect health, fall asleep in our rocking chair and never wake up, most of us will experience illness and some suffering as part of the process of dying. Our bodies betray us. Arthritis, cancer, diabetes, hardening of the arteries, hypertension, cataracts, dementia take your pick, most of us will experience one or more significant health challenges as we age. We need to prepare for our Jerusalem.
SLIDE 15: PRAYER
So how do we prepare to meet the spiritual challenges of our lives? Jesus was sustained by his relationship with God through prayer. Over and over in the gospels we read, “and Jesus spent the night in prayer.” Prayer is always advisable, but cultivating our spiritual lives can best begin before there is a crisis. And there is no better way to begin to learn to pray, than by cultivating gratitude. Every morning wake up and think of ten reasons you are thankful. If you can’t think of ten things for which to offer thanks, go back to bed and try getting up again. Get up on the other side of the bed. When we start our day by offering thanks, we give perspective to everything else that will happen in our day.
SLIDE 16: GOOD SPIRITUAL FRIENDS
We can also prepare for Jerusalem by finding good spiritual friends who will agree to pray with us and for us. Of course having friends who will pray with us and for us means we have to be willing to ask them to pray for us and share the spiritual challenges of our lives with them. For some of us that is way too much like being vulnerable, admitting to weakness. Learning to trust others to support us in our spiritual struggles is humbling. We can’t do it all by ourselves. Only when we are weak can the strength of friends help to see us through.
SLIDE 17: PRAYERFUL REVIEW
Practice prayerful review at the end of the day. What happened in your day? Where was God in your day. Were there moments of grace or miracles that shown through in your day. Prayerful review helps us learn to trust God’s presence in our lives. Bidden or unbidden God is always with us, we are just not aware of God’s presence most of the time. Prayerful review reinforces our awareness of God’s abiding grace. And when we learn to trust that God is with us always, we begin to be prepared for Jerusalem.
SLIDE 3: WILDERNESS OF JUDEA
Wednesday was the beginning of Lent a time for ashes, for self-reflection, re-direction, turning and walking with God. This first Sunday of Lent our appointed lesson is the time Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. The silence in the wilderness of Judea is profound. On Beth’s and my first trip to Israel the guide stopped the bus on the Jericho to Jerusalem road, and we walked about two-hundred yards north of the highway, until we had lost sight of the road. We were suddenly in the middle of nowhere. The harsh landscape offered little or no protection from the elements, and everything was silent. We sat and listened overwhelmed by the stillness and the environment, indeed, much as Jesus may have experienced the wilderness.
SLIDE 4: MONKEY MIND
Since we are utilizing Eric Elnes’ book the Gifts of the Dark Wood in our Lenten study I would like to borrow two important insights from Eric’s book that address Jesus’ time in the wilderness. First, how many people here, when we try to meditate or pray experience what spiritual directors often refer to as “the monkey mind.” As soon as we try to be still our minds begin to behave like drunken monkeys. They jump from one topic to the next seemingly uncontrollably. I find it embarrassing that I can’t do something as simple as clearing my thoughts. Anyone who thinks they are in control just try making your mind go blank for 30 seconds. We no more begin to relax than we remember we have an appointment tomorrow, and by the way we forgot to make out a grocery list. And what was it we needed at the store? And on and on and on — the monkey mind. Maybe if I spend a week in the silence of the Judean Wilderness I might be able to clear my thoughts, but I’m not counting on it.
SLIDE 5: GIFTS OF THE DARK WOOD
Now what Eric shares with us in the Gifts of the Dark Wood goes beyond simple monkey mind. Eric focuses on the very special facet of spiritual direction that seeks the counsel of the Holy Spirit in decision making. Like many of us Eric likes to eat and socialize, and so his description of the spiritual practice of decision making sounds a bit like a dinner party.
SLIDE 6: WALKING DINNER CONVERSATIONS
“. . . All of us are a bit like walking dinner conversations. Around our internal table, a number of voices sit, rarely ceasing to offer their opinions about decisions confronting us. How many distinct voices can you find? I don’t know about you, but I hear plenty of opinions expressed inside my head when simply choosing a restaurant to which to take an out of town guest, let alone the cacophony that erupts when making weightier decisions, like choosing a vocational direction or selecting between candidates for a job. . .
I don’t know how often the Holy Spirit is inclined to weigh in on my restaurant choices, but I do know that when it comes 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!
SLIDE 7: BUT DO I LISTEN!
Often, I’ve placed too many other conversation partners around my internal table, a lot closer to my ear. They argue. They shout over one another. . . . But the Holy Spirit, like Jesus himself, tends to prefer sitting quietly down at the far end of the table – perfectly content to let the conversation roll on without trying to barge in.
SLIDE 8: STILL SMALL VOICE
It’s not that the Holy Spirit isn’t interested in helping me. The Spirit simply isn’t one to strong-arm a conversation or offer advice I don’t truly want to hear. In fact, the Spirit seems perfectly content to remain silent until or unless I care enough to rearrange the seating order. Even then, the Spirit usually speaks in whispers (a “still small voice”). . . .
If we want God’s help, we have to listen very carefully, because many of our other internal voices, our ego, our hypercritical parent, our creative but often naughty and rebellious child, will drown out the quiet voice of the Spirit. The story of Jesus in the wilderness is also our story. He spent time alone, learning to sort out his internal voices, re-arranging the seating at his internal table, until he could finally hear the voice of the Spirit.
SLIDE 9: SATAN – THE ANGEL OF TEMPTATION
Now as we think about the story of Jesus in the wilderness some of us will remember that one of the voices that haunted him in the desert was Satan, the angel of temptation, who challenged Jesus to turn stones into bread, jump from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that God would save him from harm, and to possess ultimate political and military power by worshipping the Dark Side of power. Satan can be presented as power outside of Jesus with whom he had to struggle. But truth to be told the temptations Jesus wrestled were really internal voices, his own dark side, and Eric Elnes gives us a unique take on the peculiar nature of Jesus’ temptations.
SLIDE 10: THE TEMPTATION TO DO THE WRONG GOOD
. . . . If you were the Adversary and wanted to tempt someone like Jesus, you’d have to convince Jesus you were on his side while rolling out the biggest temptations you could possibly muster. All your temptations would have to be about doing good. Let’s consider the specific goods Jesus was tempted by: turning stone into bread, ruling the world, performing impressive miracles.
These temptations seem pretty harmless, don’t they? If Jesus would base his ministry on turning stones into bread, he could not only feed himself, but also feed all the hungry of the world. (Now we’re talking!) If Jesus held all political power, imagine the temptation of being able to change unjust laws, or redirecting public and private resources to their best use, or creating world peace! Or again if Jesus could impress people with some extravagant public miracles, like jumping off the roof of the Temple, belief would no longer be necessary. Miracles could provide certainty. . .
SLIDE 11: THE SPIRIT BECKONS US TO BE HUMAN
The problem is . . . there is a world of difference between doing good, and doing the specific good that we are called to do. The Spirit beckons us not to be good, but to be human — humble of the humus (of the earth) — which ultimately means finding your elemental waters, which are connected to God, and living into your fullest energies. You can (and will) do a lot of good by walking the path that brings you most fully alive in this world, but in order to stay on this path, you must learn to say no to doing a great many “good” things.
SLIDE 12: MOVING OFF OF THE PATH OF ORDINARY WISDOM
Jesus’ purpose and true power was not realized through feeding the hungry or practicing politics or performing miracles, even as each of these surely was part of his path. Devoting his entire life’s work to them was too small a calling for Jesus. . . . Part of Jesus’ calling was to live more fulling into his human identity than anyone else had ever done before. . . . Jesus also reveals that the more we draw from the Source of our highest energies, thereby living into our true identity, the more we resemble actual divinity. That’s because in order to follow our best path in the world, we’ve got to move off the path of ordinary wisdom and start following a path marked by God’s inspirations – those gut hunches and reverberations of peace and joy that emanate from the Spirit.
SLIDE 13: RISK
But following hunches and inspiration to reach for something more human and more divine is difficult. Ordinary wisdom counsels us to be content with just doing good, not reaching for the specific good we are called by the Spirit to do. And the reason is risk.
Last week Judy Cameron got all excited about the back of the bulletin, and a charge from, John Dorhauer, the new General Minister of the United Church of Christ: “I want you to prepare to fail. I want you to give yourself permission to take risks and then be there to receive the risk-takers with grace when they fail, and to learn from those failures and pass on what we learn to others.”
SLIDE 14: BE PREPARED FOR FAILURE
Jesus took great risks and was willing to pay for them. The crucifixion could be considered a symbol of failure, yet God reached into the tomb and opened it, shining the light of resurrection on the kind of reception that risk-taking for the sake of the Commonwealth of God gets you.
SLIDE 15: RISKS TO BECOME MORE HUMAN AND MORE DIVINE
Too often church people are risk averse. Remember the seven last words of the church? “We’ve never done it that way before.” That is the sign of a risk averse institution. We need to allow the example of Jesus in the wilderness daring to reach for the specific good to which God was calling him, to inspire us to take the risks to become more human and more divine. What good is the Spirit calling you to reach for? What risks might lead you to the kind of living that will bring alive your fullest energies? During this season of Lent come walk with us and Eric Elnes into the Dark Wood to fully embrace the Spiritual Gifts God intends for us.
Study Guide for Gifts of the Darkwood
By Eric Elnes
Eric Elnes is one of the most talented Pastors in the United Church of Christ. His internet interactive video program, “Darkwood Brew,” has helped to define the emerging progressive Christian movement. But Eric goes beyond being just progressive Christian, he is reaching toward a new appreciation of an interfaith spirituality that can bring people together from many different faith traditions. He has led his own local congregation, Countryside Community United Church of Christ, into the Tri-faith Initiative in Omaha, where a Synagogue, and Mosque and now a Church are coming together to build their own separate houses of worship but also shared common space on the same plot of land. In the Gifts of the Darkwood, Eric follows up his work in the Phoenix Affirmations with an insightful exploration of that interfaith spirituality on a personal level. Using a lot of autobiographical material in this book we get a new perspective on the emerging interfaith spirituality and also get to know Eric a little better.
Page 1 – 2: You have a place in this world. It is a place where awkwardness dissolves and you are most fully alive, therefore most fully human. You know this place every well, though you may feel far from it. Take a deep breath and hold it briefly. Exhale slowly. You know this place. You may not always know how to get to it, but you recognize it every time. . .
. . . “Home!” Yet much of the time, you may feel far from home. “You are closer than you realize.”
This book is about finding your place in this world at the very point where you feel furthest from it. It’s about recognizing the fierce beauty and astounding blessing that exists within experiences that most of us fear but none of us can avoid. Ultimately this book is about seeing life through new eyes, recognizing that experiences of failure, emptiness and uncertainty are as critical for finding our way through life as they are unavoidable. These experiences frequently offer clues, in fact, to what the ancients would name our “calling” or “path in life.” A number of these clues come through experiences of spiritual awakening that present themselves not in the absence of struggle, but deep in the heart of it.
Do you feel like you have a place in this world? What kinds of experiences feel like “home” to you? What do you think Eric means, when he says, “finding you place in this world at the very point you feel furthest from it?” Do you think failure, emptiness and uncertainty or important to our spiritual growth? Do you feel like you have a calling or a path in life?
Page 3: To be sure, these (spiritual) heroes could produce a lengthy list of accomplishments. Yet their list of failures and “dark nights of the soul” was every bit as long. Their stories reminded me that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. They showed that living a vital, even heroic life is not about moving from temporary failure to lasting success, but allowing your next struggle to become your next source of revelation, thereby your next opportunity.
What are some of the struggles of your favorite spiritual heroes? What are some of your notable spiritual struggles? How do you think your next struggle can become your next source of revelation?
Page 4: Could it be that right failure is more important to Jesus that right belief? If so, there would be vast implications not only for the community that bears his name but for any of us who seek to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
Would you agree with Eric that right failure is more important to Jesus than right belief? What evidence would you offer that this is true? What might this statement mean for your life?
Page 9: Golf clubs, baseball and cricket bats, and tennis rackets all have sweet spots. Human lives do, too. . . Just as the sweet spot of a racket is found by adjusting to continuous impacts made by a ball moving in the opposite direction, so your internal sweet spot tends to be revealed through direct challenge. You keep adjusting your responses until they begin coming from a place where you feel most fully yourself – most fully free, yet wholeheartedly engaged and alive.
What do you think of Eric’s analogy of the “sweet spot?” Have you ever experienced a spiritual sweet spot? Would you agree with Eric that sweet spots are only discovered through challenge and struggle?
Pages 13 – 14: In the Old Testament, the words for spirit, soul, and breath are related. The Hebrew word for “breath” is the same as the word for “spirit.” The Hebrew word for “soul” or “being” may be translated as “breath” as well. . .
My favorite name for the Holy Spirit is “The Unexpected Love.” . . . Like breathing we usually don’t notice the Spirit acting in our lives until we start paying attention. At the moment we become aware that the Spirit has been stirring us for some time, quietly provoking sweet spot moments that we have been too distracted to notice.
Eric here interconnects several metaphors: “Breath,” “Holy Spirit,” “Sweet Spot,” “Unexpected Love.” Which of these metaphors do you find most appealing? Do any of those metaphors help you in understanding any experiences in your own life? “Holy Spirit” is not solely or even primarily a Christian concept. Judaism speaks of the Shekina (note feminine) of God. Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism all have parallels to the Holy Spirit or Spirit of God. Can you see “The Unexpected Love” as a concept that might help many faith traditions to communicate with one another?
Page 15: The Holy Spirit tends to catch us by surprise, therefore, not so much because the Spirit comes and goes, but because our awareness does. As the Latin proverb popularized by Carl Jung remind us, “bidden or unbidden, God is present.”
If the Spirit of God is always present, and our awareness comes and goes, are there any ways that might help you to keep your awareness more attuned to the Spirit? What is your best spiritual practice?
Page 17: Often, I’ve placed too many other conversation partners (voices in our heads) around my internal table, a lot closer to my ear. They argue. They shout over one another. They wave their hands trying to get my attention. They get upset if I’m paying too much attention to another voice. But the Holy Spirit, like Jesus himself, tends to prefer sitting quietly down at the far end of the table — perfectly content to let the conversation roll on without trying to barge in.
It’s not that the Holy Spirit isn’t interested in helping me. The Spirit simply isn’t one to strong-arm a conversation or offer advice I don’t truly want to hear. In fact, the Spirit seems perfectly content to remain silent until or unless I care enough to rearrange the seating order.
Can you identify some of the voices that gather around your internal decision making table? Are any of the voices from your childhood? Do any of your voices try to be more dominant than others? Do you have a Spiritual practice that allows you to quiet the voices, so you can try to listen for the Spirit?
Pages 19 – 20: Here Eric shares his personal story of trying to write a book, and only after becoming “blocked” was he able to hear God’s voice. Finally, gathering up all my carefully arranged note cards in my hands, I prayed, “If it be your will, I’m ready to trash this whole book. If this isn’t the book I should write, then I’m willing to return to Omaha and tell my congregation that it was all for nothing. I’d rather be embarrassed than try to write something you don’t want me to write.”
“Are you sure?” came the immediate response.
“Yes, down to the depths of my soul, I’m sure. I’ll throw away everything if that’s what you want.”
“Good. Now that I finally have your full attention: I don’t want you to write that book. I’ve been trying all this time to get you to write a different book.”
Bewildered, I asked, “What do you want me to write about?”
“I’m glad you asked.”
Almost immediately, my mind was flooded with intuitions — words, thoughts, visual images that all had a particular coherence to them. . .
Most of us aren’t authors, but have you ever experienced the feeling of being blocked, unable to move forward, because the pieces aren’t fitting? When Eric finally “surrendered” to his internal voice he received in turn a flood of intuitions. Do you ever rely upon intuitions for guidance? Are you more comfortable with reason and logic or intuition for guidance?
The Gift of Uncertainty
Page 25: . . . The call of the Holy Spirit, as inviting as it is, also tends to shake things up a and bears with it a particular Dark Wood gift: the gift of uncertainty.
To most people uncertainty seems more like a curse than a gift. when you cannot see the endpoint of your journey, or the path ahead is not clearly marked, you grow nervous. . .
Yet religion does a disservice when it seeks to remove uncertainty from life. Have you ever noticed how the more certainty a religion claims to deliver, the more frenzied and hysterical are its adherents? The fact of matter is that life is messy and no amount of doctrine or dogma changes this. Faith built upon certainty is a house of cards that falls apart when the “unshakable foundation” shifts even slightly.
Do you experience uncertainty as a gift? How do you live with uncertainty? In what areas of your life do you experience the most certainty? Have you ever participated in a faith community that claims spiritual certainty? How did that work out for you?
Pages 26-27: According to the apostle Paul, those of us who have a high need for certainty in life are being childish. . .
The word translated as “dimly” in the passage above comes from the Greek word anigmati. Anigmati is where the English word enigma comes from. What’s an enigma? Enigma means “mystery.” Enigma is “puzzling, a riddle, ambiguous, difficult to understand or interpret.” What Paul is saying is that a mature faith is one that embraces life as a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved — that accepts uncertainty as a gift, not a curse.
Do you tend to approach life as a problem to be solved, or a mystery to be lived? What kinds of people tend to be problem solvers? Are there any parts of life that simply cannot be solved? What are some spiritual practices that you think might help people become more comfortable with mystery?
Page 28: . . . “We all think we want certainty. But we don’t. What we really want is trust, wisely placed. Trust is better that certainty because it honors the freedom of persons and makes possible growth and intimacy that certainty alone could never produce.”. . .
Paul understands that love thrives in uncertainty — not the kind of uncertainty that increases chaos, but the kind that develops trust. It is trust developed in the caldron of uncertainty that not only makes passionate lovers out of two individuals but also gives us the confidence to allow the sweet-spot moments of our lives to lead us more deeply into the Dark Wood and find our place in this world.
How do you experience the difference between certainty and trust? Would you describe your relationship with God as one of trust? Do you experience “sweet-spot” moments as opportunities for trust? What spiritual practices do you think lead people deeper into trust?
Page 29-30: Brother David Steindl-Rast is a monk who lectures and maintains a website devoted to “gratitude.” https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful?language=en
Brother David advised a person who was doing wonderful work for a not-for-profit.
“Brother David? . . . Tell me about exhaustion.”
. . . . “You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?”
. . . “What is it then?”
“The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness . . .”
“You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers. You know what that is; I don’t have to tell you.”
Brother David was advising David Whyte to put down the work he had thought of as useful and necessary for the not for profit and instead embrace his poetry. As Eric points out it is often difficult to trust the sweet spot moments pointing in a direction away from tangible useful work toward something more intangible and spiritual. Do you ever find the things you are engaged in in the world exhausting? Do you ever feel like the Spirit might be calling you to something others might not consider to be practical? Have you ever considered that your exhaustion might be a sign you need to change/
Pages 37 – 39: As our family crisis unfolded, the United States was experiencing its own particular crisis: the most catastrophic financial collapse since the Great Depression. . . .
Our new church members were in a bit of a free fall as well grieving right along with us as we made our way through the darkness. . . . One night between Arianna’s first and second surgeries, I was sitting in a trustees meeting feeling like it was the last place I wanted to be. They were discussing the potential effects of the economic collapse on our pledge campaign. . . I felt like I was in a room full of Chicken Littles convinced that the sky was falling. . .
As the trustees droned on and on about what “could” or “might” or “probably will” happen a thought arose. . . . “You have no right to be worrying over anything until it presents itself to be worried about!” . . .
Caught off guard, it quickly dawned on me that what the trustees were doing with respect to their imagined financial crisis was what I have been doing in my imagination over the possible results of Arianna’s health crisis. . .
My constant anxieties were helping no one. If anything they were causing me to retreat within myself. . .
From that moment forward, I determined to accept the message as a personal mantra: “Do not worry about anything until it presents itself to be worried about.”
What kinds of situations excite your anxiety the most? Health and finances seem to be two of the most anxious areas of our lives, can you think of others? Do you have any spiritual practices that seem to help you in managing anxiety? How do you feel about Eric’s mantra? “Do not worry about anything until it presents itself to be worried about.”
Pages 39-40: Did God play a role in healing our daughter’s brain tumor? Frankly I cannot say for certain, nor do I feel the need to. What is far more certain is that in the heart of our deepest abyss, The Unexpected Love showed up. Showed up in the form of meals delivered by people we didn’t even know, prayers being offered, and kind words spoken. This Presence also showed up in the amazing dedication of the doctors, nurses, and Arianna’s chief surgeon, each of whom had devoted their lives to serving patients just like her. The Spirit showed up in the form of Arianna’s own courage and resiliency, and her subsequent decision to make the most out of the life she has been given. And the Spirit showed up in the form of a heart that each member of our family now carries that is large enough to embrace others whose crises may not be the same as ours, but whose journey through the Dark Wood has exposed them to similar vulnerabilities.
What are some of the ways you have experienced the “Unexpected Love?” Do you think God ever shows up in the midst of the world? For you what does it mean to have a heart large enough to embrace others?
The Gift of Emptiness
Page 43: The Story of Rabbi Eliezer’s Paradox points to something real about our relationship with God that cannot be grasped using the tools of logic and argumentation. Like stumbling into an open field in the middle of the Dark Wood, we don’t find ourselves there by way of maps but experience. The experience that brings us there is one of emptiness before it is one of fullness. We must first experience the “wholly otherness” of God before we encounter God within us.
How do you feel about Eric’s suggestion that our relationship with God cannot be grasped using the tools of logic and argumentation? If experience is what brings us into encounter with God, are there any ways of seeking that kind of experience, or does it just happen? What do you think it might mean to experience God as wholly other?
Page 45: Imagine what it would be like to be free — free not of your faults but you fear of them. This is precisely what the Dark Wood gift of emptiness brings. One of the strange paradoxes of the gift of emptiness is that it appears to those still standing outside the Dark Wood as a negation of self-worth and identity. Yet the experience of those on the inside is not negation but a fulfillment of these very things. They discover what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever tries to preserve their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33).
What do you think it means to be free of the fear of your faults? How do you think the gift of emptiness is related to an emptying of one’s ego? How might the emptying of one’s ego be related to fear?
Page 46: Operating underneath the surface of Jesus’ statement is a movement from fear to flow.
Flow is what results when you stop obsessing over your need to survive or be right or be perfect and discover that you have been given distinctive gifts and abilities that bring you alive in this world (and may keep you alive here) that are accessible only when you let go of your need for survival, rightness, and perfection. Such gifts are largely invisible when you view is clouded by fear and self-loathing or blaming others.
From fear to flow, happens when we stop worrying about simple survival and take the risks to use our gifts. What if anything is blocking you from fully utilizing your gifts? How can our need for perfection block the use of our gifts? Do you think you have ever experienced “flow,” and in what circumstances?
Pages 50-51: Time and again I have turned aside from these moments either too afraid of the opposition I will likely encounter, or what others might think or say. Or I have been “too busy,” even too lazy. Rather than admitting any of these things I have tried to deny sensing the Spirit’s invitations altogether.
Finally reaching the point of “singularity” where I accept the full weight of my brokenness, it becomes clear that I have no inherent ability to find my true path in this world, or follow it, while relying on my own power, reasoning, intelligence, or even my own faithfulness or morality. If I am to experience what it is like to be fully alive before I die, I must — must — depend on a power far greater than myself to make the journey with me.
. . . At our place of greatest despair over ourselves and our abilities, we discover a Presence who loves us beyond all of our imagining, who chooses relationship over perfection. Life is not over. It has just begun. Like Rumi, we find ourselves in a field “out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing.” An Unexpected Love meets us there. And we discover that the only thing we have truly lost at the center of our inner black hole (and at the foot of the cross) is our fear.
One way of avoiding the Spirit’s summons to be alive and engaging in meaningful mission and ministry in the world is to claim we are too broken, we are too imperfect for the Spirit to make any use of us. But God does not depend upon our goodness to make things happen in the world. What are some of your own best excuses for denying the invitations of the Spirit? If we aren’t relying on our own power, then what are we relying upon? What would you do if you were not afraid?
Page 56: Even more impressive is the fact that your body is able to detect that anything exists at all. If you hold out your hand, for instance, you see a hand. “Big deal,” you say. Yet on a quantum level your hand is a very big deal. That hand is made up of billions of atoms. These atoms, in turn, contain a nucleus made of protons and neutrons and an electron cloud circling the nucleus. Even with so many atoms crammed into such a small space as your hand the distance between the atom’s nucleus and its circling electron cloud, on a relative scale, is roughly the equivalent of the distance between the earth and the sun. Seen from another perspective, if you set a grape seed in the center of a football stadium representing the nucleus of an atom, the perimeters of the stadium would be its electron cloud. That hand you’re looking at is approximately 99.999 percent empty space! Yet if someone hits you in the jaw you don’t say, “Gee, that would have hurt if your hand and my jaw were more than just empty space.” You feel the impact and respond.
Realizing that we are all basically assemblages of vast, empty space, it seems almost inconceivable that all this empty space could be said to have something psychologists call consciousness, awareness, or mind (even “higher mind”) of any kind. Or a soul.
Maybe we need to go a step further and note that when we break down the components of the atom all we are left with is energy. We are organized systems of energy. So what then is consciousness, awareness, mind? And how are any of these concepts related to “soul?” And while the study physics deals with physical energy, what if there is spiritual energy. What do you think spiritual energy might consist of?
Pages 60-61: A thought surfaced from the deep recesses of my imagination, almost as if it had been whispered in my ear: “If we mere mortals are aware of this existence of all these things which are so incomprehensibly far away, imagine what God’s consciousness must be like.”
Seen from another angle, technology has increased our awareness of the size of the universe so greatly that for the first time in human history, many people openly wonder how God could possibly be aware of us, if God exists at all. Yet seem from another angle, the same scientific advancements have made us more aware than ever before just how far even our limited human consciousness extends. Could science be inviting us to conceive anew of the possibility of God’s conscious awareness of us? Not everyone would answer the same way. But what can be said with certainty is that when we look to the stars in the night sky we get the same message as when we look to the atoms of our hands; within great emptiness resides great fullness!
Do you think God possesses consciousness? Do you believe it is ever possible for humans to transcend ordinary consciousness to aspire to God consciousness? When you can get away from city lights and stare up into a clear night sky, what do you feel?
Page 63: Bruce’s experience reminds me that the soul is so elusive and untamable partly because it is connected to a larger story. The Holy Spirit frequently throws us intuitions that come from a source completely beyond ourselves. Often these intuitions or gut instincts seem confusing. They are connected to a part of our story that we can’t directly reach. Sometimes the connection even seems to transcend time and space. Yet we recognize that it’s our soul responding to Spirit when the intuition, though strange or unexpected (“Go visit your friend who lives two hours away in the middle of the night”), hits us precisely where we live. We experience it as a sweet spot moment — often a series of them — where something deep within seems to click into place and cry “Home!” The empty space within us charges with fullness and our soul like a rubber ball submerged beneath the water, strains against whatever is set in its way until released into freedom. We move from fear to flow, discovering a power at work within and beyond us that is far greater than we are, yet is intimately connected to us as well. We discover what it means to be fully human.
Have you ever experienced an intuition that seemed to transcend space and time? Do you think that any of our intuitions come from a source beyond ourselves? Have you ever become aware of a power at work within yourself that is greater than you are?
The Gift of Being Thunderstruck
Page 65 – 66: The power of mythological imagination lies not in its ability to describe historical events that took place in the distant past but to indentify contours of human behavior and experience that are encountered repeatedly throughout history on down to our own day. Myths and stories create a map of the “world within the world” — the invisible geography that human may use to avoid life’s dead ends and lead it to a place of freedom. Because the geography is not visible to the naked eye, traversing it is always a bit like journeying into the darkness. Hence, the ancient metaphor of the Dark Wood. The Dark Wood is that inner terrain you negotiate more through intuition, imagination, and indirect ways of knowing than through direct perception.
Do you have any myths or stories that are particularly important to you? What is your favorite Bible Story? Is there a story from your childhood that helps you understand your growing up? Are you comfortable with trusting your intuition and imagination rather than direct perception?
Pages 68-69: Over the course of my career people have asked me repeatedly why God doesn’t speak to people “like in the Bible” anymore. Yet everyone with whom I’ve conversed for more than a few minutes has spoken of times when “the light bulb came on,” or that had an “aha” moment or “moment of clarity” when something “clicked into place” that impacted their life’s direction in some way. “So,” I say, “how are you so sure that God doesn’t still speak “like in the Bible anymore?”
. . . The fact of the matter is that God never speaks with an audible voice in the Bible, just as God does not do this in our day. While the Bible is full of God talk, its authors were trying to convey what was “heard” internally when the lighting hit. They reflected upon the implications of that flash of insight, or moment of clarity, or “aha” experience sometimes for months or years, later recording these implications with the preface, “And God said. . .” They weren’t being dishonest. The ancients did not envision a time when the mythological imagination would be such a distant memory that people would take the metaphor literally!
Do you ever experience flashes of insight? What are the most common forms in which they occur: dreams, day dreams, poetry, reactions to movies, television, other media, music? Have you ever credited any of your “aha” moments with being the voice of God? What would be the difference in people’s reactions if you said, “God just spoke to me,” as opposed to saying, “I just had this amazing insight?”
Page 70 – 71: Perhaps we’re all more closely related to the bees and other animals than we realize. When a bee is drawn to its orchid, its body produces hormones and electro-chemical signals that tell the bee that it is heading in the right orchid. Similarly, moving in the direction to which the lightning and thunder calls us tends to produce sensations that are not only inward and spiritual but concrete and physical as well. The human body responds hormonally, electrically, and chemically when we take a step in the right direction. If you pay careful attention to your body, you may notice a sensation akin to letting go of something that you have been grasping too tightly. You may notice your breathing grow more relaxed and easy in response to a certain thought. Some people experience a warming sensation in their abdomen or quiet sense of well-being arising within them. However your body responds, it will normally feel like something has clicked into place that triggers a sensation of inner peace or joy, even if that sensation is quite subtle and even if the direction toward which you feel called is difficult. These are what we have been calling sweet-spot moments.
Do you ever experience “physical sensations” as part of your spiritual journey? How do you “feel” when you think you are on the right track? Do you ever experience “physical sensations” when you think you are on the wrong track? Do you think it is possible to become more highly attuned to our bodies as part of our spiritual growth?
Pages 71 – 72: Incidentally, this is why I rarely trust leaps of faith. In m profession, I encounter people regularly who have hit dead ends and even stumbled into significant danger by taking what they called a “leap of faith.” They suddenly marry someone, or move across the country, or quit a job in response to a fleeting sensation of well-being that they associate with God or the universe commanding them to leap off some figurative cliff and fly. When the sensation goes away and (appropriate) doubt creeps in, they associate doubt with backsliding or failing to “trust the revelation.” Having leapt and discovered that the air beneath their feet was too thin to support their weight, they come into my office feeling hurt and betrayed by God or the universe, vowing never to listen for the divine again.
We’ve all made the mistake in one way or another. Yet we must realize that leaps of faith are the junk food of the spiritual realm. . .
Have you ever made a leap of faith you later regretted? Are there any reliable ways of discerning the difference between a leap of faith and the sweet-spot moments of the Holy Spirit? Are we allowed to “test” the Spirit? What might be some appropriate “tests?”
Page 74: . . .the liquid joy of thirty French ballerinas. Amidst the thousands of voices that chatter within you, there is one voice that comes from a place that is perfectly safe, perfectly free from anxiety. It is not reacting to, or running from, anything. In this place you experience no sense of judgment or condemnation. . . It is the voice of your deepest freedom, your truest self. Often when I’m privileged enough to overhear this deep, inner voice I discover that what it considers important is quite different from what I consider important on more superficial levels where I am beset by anxiety, anger or fear. In this small but very real place — this Holy of Holies — the questions, yearnings, hopes and dreams that well up within me are most closely aligned with my particular calling.
Have you ever found yourself in that inner Holy of Holies? How do you think Eric’s Holy of Holies would be different from sweet-spot moments? Do have a sense of being aligned with an inner calling?
Page 79 – 80: It may have been burn out that prompted Dyson’s journey into the Dark Wood to face the uncertainties of leaving a job and regular paycheck behind, but burn out is not what keeps him there. It’s joy. All it takes is five minutes of conversation with Dyson to realize you are with someone who embodies what Confucius meant when he said, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work another day in your life.” . . .When you find a vocation that connects you more deeply with your place in the world, you don’t suddenly step out of the Dark Wood on day exclaiming, “Now I can finally live my life.” Instead, you discover that the struggles and uncertainties associated with life in the Dark Wood remain. Only now they become deeply connected to a path that brings you alive. They begin to work for you, not against you. They also begin blessing others — even the world itself.
Have you found a path that brings you alive? Did you seek the path, stumble upon the path, find yourself led to the path? What is it about what you are doing in the world, that brings you alive?
Page 82: Does this mean that faith and creeds do not matter? Not at all. It simply means that none of these individuals need a creed to validate their place in the world. Each is responding to an inner sense of love, joy, humility, and service to which the best creeds endeavor to point. Their creed is written not on paper but in flesh and blood, in grape vines and fermentation vats, in oil pans and carburetors, in investment portfolios and voting ballots. By following a path that brings them into their fullest humanity, their lives betray the telltale marks of by touched by divinity.
Do you think it is possible that faith and creeds are not the same thing? Do you find your life driven more by what brings you alive or a set of beliefs? What do you think are the tell tale marks of people whose lives have been touched by the divine?
The Gift of Getting Lost
Page 83 – 86:. . . 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….
Our journey through life is never a straight one, even if we are paying attention to our sweet spot moments. The path zigzags. Sometimes it heads in the exact opposite direction we think it should . . .
In my own journey, this feeling of being lost prompts me to pay more careful attention to the signals the Holy Spirit sends me. I pray and meditate longer and with greater attention. I pay more attention to my gut intuitions and bodily responses. I apply the gifts of reason and logic more carefully, even while trusting that sometimes the right direction is indicated in ways that defy reason and logic. I seek the counsel of friends and mentors. At some point the lightning starts flashing and the thunder starts crashing, revealing a particular way forward. . .
In his poem, “Lost,” David Wagoner eloquently describes what to do when you find yourself lost:
Stand still. The trees ahead
and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again,
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you.
You are surely lost. Stand still.
The Forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Many programs of spiritual growth makes claims that once you are “found” you can never be lost again. How is Eric’s Dark Wood different? How many times finding your way in life, have you had to adjust your course? What do you think David Wagoner’s poem means, “You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you.”?
Page 87 – 89: While it would be a mistake to believe that God calls to us in such obvious and direct ways, defying natural law with such flair, it is equally a mistake to assume that God makes no response to the plea of a soul searching for home. . .
Over the years, many have sat in a chair across from me, confessing that they don’t believe God cares about them, only to recount a whole series of incidents and “coincidences” that have happened lately that all point in the direction of the Spirit’s quiet and consistent response. A single mother tells me she’s been asking for God’s help in the midst of a financial crisis and has grown discouraged by God’s apparent silence. . .
It is impossible to say with certainty that the Holy Spirit was behind an of these incidents, of course. Each can be explained through entirely natural causes. . . .But who says the Spirit must act supernaturally, when coming to the aid of someone in the Dark Wood? . . .
Yet the fact that God prefers natural law to supernatural intervention tells us more about how God acts in our world than about how God fails to act. . . The principle way God offers direction to someone in need while respecting free will and the constraints of natural law is through gentle sweet-spot moments that a person is free to either accept or reject.
How do you think God works in the world? Have you ever been aware of a series of events that seemed to you like God nudging your life along a path? Do you think we have free will?
Page 93 – 94: . . . When I finally did find it within me to tell God honestly that I desired God’s presence in my life more that I wanted to finish college, an ocean of peace came rushing in that I have never forgotten. I washed over every anxiety, every fear, and every hurt I had so carefully held on to. I left me feeling like an immeasurable burden had been lifted from my shoulders. i walked back to the cannery a completely different person.
No longer absorbed in worry. . . At one point I overheard someone talking about an upcoming opening of a salmon season in Southeastern Alaska. This one typically started later than the Bristol Bay season. , ,
I consider that happened that summer a miracle. Only the miracle wasn’t finding the money, as some might conclude. While the money made an enormous difference. . . the quiet assurance I received on those Dillingham Bluffs has become a defining moment in my life.. . My best way forward will most likely be found if I will just stand still and let the Unexpected Love find me.
Do you think an attitude of trust can open us to new possibilities? Have you ever experienced any miracles in your life? What do you think happened to Eric, when he let go and wanted God’s presence in his life, more than he wanted to finish college?
The Gift of Temptation
Pages 103 – 104: This Dark Wood gift is that of temptation. By temptation, I do not have in mind anything on the standard list of high minded moralists. No “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” no greed, gluttony, or envy. No, what I mean is the temptation to do good. Yes, good and not evil.
. . . In itself, doing good is not the problem. Doing the wrong good, however, is entirely the problem. By the wrong good I mean any good work that is not yours to do. It may be someone else’s good to do, but not your own.
Have you ever considered doing good to be a temptation? Have you ever found yourself doing good, but then discovering that it wasn’t you good to do? Have you ever found yourself having to walk away from doing good?
Pages 105 – 106: The reason the Dark Wood gift of temptation of temptation is so important is that it produces results — like exhaustion — that reveal fairly quickly who you are and what you’re here for or are on a side path. The faculties people typically employ to discern these very things — logic, reason and strategy — tend to be surprisingly unhelpful in this regard. In fact they often produce a long list of reasons we should stay on a path that is not our own and not make waves. Logic and reason will say, “Think of all the good you are doing here!” . . . “Think of all the people who rely on you.” . . . If not them, then think of your family. . .. And what about your pension? Why not put off what you really feel drawn to do for a few more years? When you retire you can do anything you want!” Of course, by the time many people retire they are so used to doing what everyone else wants of them that they have lost all concept of who they are and what they want — or how to say no. . . . .
Finding your distinctive path in life involves more than applying reason, logic, and strategy. It requires instinct and imagination. Instinct because the surest sign that you’re on your path is not reason alone but wholeheartedness. Imagination because your true place in the world tends to be found just beyond the edges of our immediate awareness. It’s a bit like walking in the dark. In a very real sense, you do not find your path. Your path finds you. More precisely, the path that fits you best is revealed to you.
How do you feel about relying upon instinct imagination as much as reason, logic and strategy in trying to figure out your path in life? Have you ever put off making a change, because you were just too comfortable with things as they were? Do you believe that your path will find you? What is the biggest problem in trying to insist upon what you want or saying “no” to others?
Page 108: (Your path) evolves, requiring an ongoing conversation between your body, soul, community of friends, loved ones, those you serve, and the Spirit to discern where it lies at any particular moment. Along the way, the temptation to do the wrong good is one of the greatest gifts you can receive, as it continually challenges you to discern between the good you are called to do and the good you are specifically not called to do. More often than not, your intuition — your deep listening to the Spirit — is a better judge than your logic, reason or strategic ability.
Can you imagine any ways to refine your deep listening abilities? What spiritual practices do you think might refine your ability to discern between the wrong good and the good which you have been called to do? Have you ever found yourself doing the wrong good? Have you ever recognized in advance you were being tempted by the wrong good? What enabled you to say no?
Page 114 – 115: I accomplish more and am happier doing it when I pay less attention to doing the “right” thing and pay more attention to those sweet-spot moments that reveal what I am called to do. . . . My general rule of thumb is, the higher the risk, the more confirmation is needed before moving forward. And if confirmation comes, move ahead boldly until or unless proven otherwise.
In your own life is it true that you accomplish more when you are feeling called to something than when we are trying to do the “right” thing? How much confirmation relative to the risk do you generally need in order to move forward? Do you ever need someone whispering in your ear: “What would you do if you were not afraid?”
Page 117: . . . there is a world of difference between doing good, and doing the specific good that you are called to do. The Spirit beckons us not to be good, but to be human — humble of the humus — which ultimately means finding your elemental waters, which are connected to God, and living into your fullest energies. You can (and will) do a lot of good by walking the path that brings you most fully alive in this world, but in order to stay on the path, you must learn to say no to doing a great many “good” things.
How to say no to the good things to which we are not called? All kinds of people and organizations will try to convince us that their project is what we should be doing. We may even believe in what they are doing, but still know that is not what we are supposed to do. How do we find the courage to say no? And what processes can we invoke to seek the good to which we are called, so we don’t end up doing nothing?
The Myth of the Adversary
Eric in this section shares with us his own mythology that is sort of drawn from the figure of Satan that is kind of sort of found in scripture, but filled out in extra-biblical literature like Milton’ Paradise Lost and the old morality plays. Satan in Hebrew literature is simply the Angel of Temptation. Note in the Book of Job Satan never does anything without God’s permission. By the time of first Century Judaism, and the Jews had been exposed to the dualism of Zoroastrianism in Babylon, there arose a popular demonology in Judaism, where Satan became the Chief opponent of God leading his own legion of demons. Eric takes the liberty of creating his own Midrash on the Myth of the Adversary.
Page 123: . . . So God planted this gift far enough down in people’s souls that it could only be accessed when people were living so far from their path that their humanity had worn down far enough to uncover it. That gift was Despair. God knew that as long as the Adversary’s preachers and other Tavern owners continued to serve their booze, they might pacify their flocks for quite some time, but eventually they would begin to feel Despair. Once Despair set in. no amount of booze could make it disappear. The danger was that some humans would utterly break down under the power of Despair and do more harm to themselves than good, particularly if the Adversary caught on to what was happening. Yet to prevent the Adversary from simply having his way with people, God did another unexpected thing. Remembering Blake’s quotation earlier: God created “a moment in each Day which (the Adversary) cannot find.” It was a moment of grace that provided the possibility for people to get a glimpse of what life could be like if they lived free of the Adversary’s interference.
Have you ever thought of Despair as a gift? Who do you think the preachers and tavern owners are in Eric’s myth? Do you think there is a moment of grace in each day? Do you think there might be more than one moment of grace in a day? When was the last time you experience a moment of grace?
The Gift of Disappearing
Pages 125 – 126: Pride artificially inflates our self-image. Shame artificially deflates it. Both tend to set us on dead-end paths because they cause us to willingly obstruct our connection with God. Pride convinces us that we are better off living under our own power and authority. Shame convinces us that God does not love us as we are, thus we are unworthy of connection. Ironically, both pride and shame tend to fabricate an image of ourselves that is ultimately too small to live within. Too small because it is restricted by the limits of our imagination, which itself is limited by the cultural norms of our surroundings, historical context, family upbringing, personal fears and insecurities, and so on. Even when pride builds us up with visions of grandeur, those images tend to be inherently unstable. Built upon a foundation of insecurity and wishful-thinking, even small challenges tend to collapse them like a house of cards.
Do you think you tend to draw more of your self-images from pride or shame? What do you think tends to limit your self-images: cultural norms, historical context, family upbringing, personal fears? Can you think of a time when your self-image collapsed like a house of cards?
Pages 126 – 127: Humility is what keeps us grounded in reality. It is also the quality that best ensures that the internal images that shape our lives – images that influence us as parents, spouses, professionals, spiritual seekers, and so forth – will be large enough to allow us to move freely in the world rather than cage us in. . .
The Dark Wood gift of disappearing helps us maintain a healthy distance from self-conceptions that are either built upon a grand house of cards or upon a meager image pulled from the swamps of shame. More than most, this gift provides us a certain spaciousness and grace to move about life freely, following those sweet-spot moments that mark our path even when significant obstacles are placed before us. Few of us, however, claim this gift or use it skillfully.
What if anything helps you remain grounded in humility? Do you like Eric’s term the “gift of disappearing?” Does humility help you move more freely in the world?
Page 127 – 130: Turn sideways into the light as they say
the old ones did and disappear into the originality
of it all. Be impatient with explanations
and discipline the mind not to begin
questions it cannot answer.
As Whyte explains it, the concept of turning sideways into the light is a reference to a mythological people called the Tuatha De DAnann in Irish lore. As he explains it, they were small, somewhat fragile , but immensely magical people who lived in Ireland before the arrival of human beings (probably the predecessors of leprechauns in Irish mythology). With the coming of humans, the Tuatha De Danann became agitated, as they found humanity’s ways course and barbaric. Being a gentle people, they chose not to oppose humans. Rather, at one point, they are said to have simply “turned sideways into the light and disappeared.”
Whyte draws on this myth is tradition to advise his readers to refuse to give in to any power that seeks to give us a name or identity that is too small for us. His admonition to be impatient with explanations and unanswerable questions is not anti-intellectual but is born out of the awareness of the seductive allure of false images. . . .
Free of its power, Whyte advises that we seek a place where the world around us can call forth something deep from the world within us in a way that points toward our highest identity. .
While Whyte’s poem envisions standing in a place of fierce beauty and ancient holiness to evoke a revelation of our identity, such revelations can come to us in places that appear quite ordinary. The key is to refuse to let any situation or circumstance mark you in a way that does not reflect your highest identity. You must disappear. Instead, stand “as a child” (reappear) with your palms turned out to accept an identity only in situations or circumstances that call forth the very best within you.
Can you relate to Whyte’s image, “turning sideways into the light?” What do you think it means for you? For you what would it mean to be “impatient with explanations and unanswerable questions?” For you what does it mean to leave space in your life for miracle and mystery? How do you experience the world around you calling forth something deep from the world within you? Are there any special places, where you feel a sense of the sacred? Jesus said, “Unless you become like children, you will not find the Kingdom of God.” In what ways do you need to become childlike in order to find you way spiritually?
Pages 131 – 132: During the actual interview, I remember being unusually impressed with myself. . . At times, I noticed smiles and flickers in people’s eyes that clearly suggested that they were thinking, “This is our minister!” I walked out of the interview having done what author and speaker Tony Campolo says he does when he preaches unusually well: “I was so good I was taking notes on myself!” . . .
The committee felt otherwise.
Learning of their decision. . . I was devastated. . . .I called the search committee chair asking if she might share why I wasn’t offered the position. . .
There was a pause at the other end of the line. . . Finally, in a voice cracking with a hint of disappointment, she said, “Well, I think you could have been less sure of yourself.”
Eric offers us here a story about himself, to which we might all be able to relate. Have you ever been too sure of yourself? What happened? When you behave as if you are completely sure of yourself, are you really confident? How can we maintain a balance between healthy confidence and over weaning pride?
Pages 133 -134: . . . As in David Whyte’s poem, I stood before an image of my false self, one that was bright and handsome, whose adoring smile concealed a faint smirk as he whispered to me, “You know, don’t you, that you are only loved to the extent that you are perfect?” I wanted the committee to love me a lot, so I gladly allowed this image to place its mark on me.
Far better to have “turned sideways into the light and disappeared” before this image. Then I could have stood before them, humble as a child with palms turned out, as ‘Whyte suggests, ready to join them in blessing the world. . . .
For a good long while after that experience, I wondered what God thought of me, or if God even still cared. I wondered, too, against my better nature, if God might punish me. Punishment seemed like a good and right decision since I wanted to badly to punish myself. Do you ever entertain feelings like this, or am I the only one?
In sharing his failure Eric points to a false self he tried to present to other people. Have you ever caught yourself in the moment or looking back in hindsight trying to present a false self to others? How did that work out? Have you ever messed up so badly you were afraid there would be terrible consequences? Have you ever wondered if maybe you are being punished by God? Can we resist the desire to be loved for the wrong reasons and instead turn and bless the world?
Pages 135 – 137: A month after my arrival, however, I experienced a direct challenge to my confidence that I had done the right thing. I was walking into the sanctuary. . . As I walked down the center aisle toward the chancel, a visual image passed before my mind’s eye that stopped me dead in my tracks. The image was of me lying on the steps leading up to the chancel. And I was crying. . . The image appeared far more vivid and real than the casual images that normally drift through my head. I gasped and stood there, transfixed, wondering what it could mean.
“But you called me here to Scottsdale,” I cried out to the empty sanctuary, “I know I messed up before, but you gave me a second chance! Remember? I learned my lesson! Please, please don’t tell me I’ve messed it all up again!”
Still reeling from this experience, that very day I received a letter from a church in Michigan that was looking for a new minister. . . I thought to myself, “Is this a sign that I should leave before things head south on me here!”
I had to admit that the coincidence of receiving the letter on the very day I had been struck by such a potent vision (premonition?) seemed ominous. Still, I knew that the surest sign’s of the spirit’s whispers to the soul do not come through coincidental occurrences, no matter how unusual they may seem. Rather, they come through the lightning and thunder– those flashes of intuition whose ongoing reverberations elicit feelings of deep peace or quiet joy even if you are being called in a difficult direction. I had certainly felt zapped by lightning through the vision and the letter, but at the time I had only felt reverberations of fear, and fear is never a trustworthy signal by which to set one’s direction, particularly if it’s the dominant signal.
I would need to do some significant soul-searching to determine which path of action was a response to fear and which produced a sense of flow. I spent time in my inner Dark Wood, envisioning staying in Scottsdale and also envisioning leaving. Every time I imagined leaving, feelings of fear, anger, and confusion welled up within me without so much as a whiff of joy or peace. When I envisioned staying in Scottsdale , peace welled up within me, and my heart pounded happily, even though part of my consciousness was still disturbed by the vision and the letter. I determined to stay.
In this important segment Eric addressed the difficult subject of uncertainty in discernment, and the difficulty in trusting visions, coincidences and intuitions. But first let us note the intimate and almost adversarial tone of Eric’s prayer life:
“But you called me here to Scottsdale,” I cried out to the empty sanctuary, “I know I messed up before, but you gave me a second chance! Remember? I learned my lesson! Please, please don’t tell me I’ve messed it all up again!”
Here Eric almost sounds like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. This is the sign of a very profound and intimate prayer life. Do you every find yourself in dialogue with God? Do you ever ask God why, or take God to task for any of God’s failings? Are you comfortable with expressing anger toward God?
Do you think the vision Eric experienced would have had the same profound effect upon him, if he had not also received the letter on the same day? Eric counsels the readers not to place too much emphasis on coincidence. Can you think of any ways to distinguish between coincidence and synchronicity?
Eric points to a very important discernment concept: fear is never a trustworthy signal by which to set one’s direction, particularly if it’s the dominant signal. In many of the decisions you make, how important is fear? One of our favorite questions at United Church is: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Is there any place in your life, where you need to hear that question?
Eric points to joy and peace as important signs in discernment. How does that work for you?
Pages 142 – 143: When we finally accept the reality that God’s grace and our struggles are inseparably bound together, we begin to understand the fierce wisdom behind the apostle Paul’s striking insistence that “God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to God’s purpose” (Romans 8:28). Here, Paul does not claim that all things are good. Rather, he acknowledges that God is able to work all things together for good, provided we’re willing to allow God’s Spirit to guide our way through the darkness.
When we treat the Dark Wood as a place where the good, the bad, and the ugly in our lives can be embraced and explored rather than avoided, eventually we will look back over the path we’ve trod and make an affirmation that is unthinkable. . . . We may say, “I never would have chosen X, Y, or Z happen, nor would I ever pass it off as ‘good’ or claim that it was ‘all in God’s plan.’ Yet to stand in the place I now find myself, I would choose to live through it all over again.” This is not an affirmation one makes easily or quickly or without due consideration of the very real pain and suffering one has experienced. Nor is it an affirmation one can make on behalf of others and their struggles. Still it is an affirmation that Dark Wood wanderers are eventually able to make for themselves wholeheartedly. They do so because they have discovered that an Unexpected Love meets them in the darkness, and that struggle and grace have provided the light they needed to find their way forward.
Eric provides and alternate reading to Paul’s Romans 8:28. So often Paul is interpreted to mean no matter how bad it may seem it is really O.K., because “it is in God’s plan,” and God will make it turn out O.K. Eric is suggesting that when bad things happen it really isn’t O.K., and the pain and suffering of tragedy should not be minimized. And certainly we should never try to interpret the pain and losses of others. However, those who have journeyed in the Dark Wood find a new meaning in their struggles, when they meet the Unexpected Love.
Have you ever found yourself re-interpreting events in your life in hindsight? Do you have any painful event you hold dear, because you learned and grew through them? What are some of the things you never would have chosen to happen that you now look back and would chose to live through it again? How is that different from claiming that it was God’s plan, or it was really O.K.?
The Gift of Misfits
Page 151: As Buddhists know well, this is the rationale for emphasizing the value of Sangha, or community dedicated to practicing “the good way, the upright way, the knowledgeable way, and the proper way.” While we all walk our paths as individuals, the lone seeker is more likely to get lost or give up than the one who travels in company.
Granted the Spirit sends every individual plenty of lightning and thunder to be of guidance, but none of us are perfect interpreters of these signals. We make mistakes. Other times we lack the courage to go forward. . . Making the journey with a few wise companions by your side can keep you from getting lost and make the journey less lonely even fun. Fun especially when we discover that we may also be of help to our companions as they strive to find their place in the world.
Do you have companions with whom you share the spiritual journey? What is the most important aspect for you of having a spiritual community? How do you have fun with your spiritual companions?
Pages 155-156: Countless are the processes that seek to tame the wild energy inside you, just as they seek to tame the wild energies of the world. While this energy inside you is a direct gift from the spirit, there are a number of processes governing everything about you from your vocation to your vacation. . .
These processes that treat you as if you were nothing more than raw material on a production line are enormously powerful features of the culture we live in. . . . If you live and unreflective life, allowing these forces to shape you unawares, they will take away your name and give you a number. They will not ask what brings you alive in this world, but will demand instead that their world lives in you. They will not ask what is the specific good that you must do to live into your full humanity. Instead they will empower you to do only the good that keeps their specific processes alive and well. . .
To be sure, the powers behind these processes will work hard to make you happy to do these “good” things. They will reward you financially, or at least promise financial gain. They will create endless amounts of entertainment that will shape your desires in such a way that their values will become you ideals. . . Then they will own you . . .
We don’t think about this most of the time. At least we don’t until we either get a taste of the sublime and begin to dream about what life could be like, or we fall into despair and wonder how life has drifted so far from anything we love or care about. Then we start to pine for the Dark Wood where strange gifts like uncertainty, getting lost, and being thunderstruck hold more promise than the certain drudgery we experience on a plain clear path straight to nowhere.
If we enter the Dark Wood alone, and stay there alone, the odds are stacked against us A cult of the mediocre. The spirit knows this, which is why the Dark Wood offers another gift the community of fellow misfits.
Do you ever feel like a misfit in the current cultural context? Have you ever felt like the institutions in your life “own” you? Do you feel like your life is going somewhere, or you are on a straight path to nowhere? Are you in fellowship with any other misfits? What is the strength of having a community of people who will swim against the current with you?
Pages 157 – 159: The first misfit is an interpretive guide or mentor. . . This guide isn’t always at your side, but is a wise person with whom you can check in with regularly. . .
A wise mentor with deep experience in the Dark Wood of life, whom you trust implicitly, who listens without judging, and shares perspectives freely without trying to turn you into a miniature version of themselves, is invaluable. , ,
Besides flesh and blood mentors. books may also serve a mentoring role to a limited extent. . .
. . . A book is not the same as a living breathing person who knows our story. . .
Have you ever had experience with a spiritual mentor? What do you imagine are some of the problems of finding a mentor? Do you have a favorite book that has been a guide for you?
Pages 159 – 160: The second misfit aid to our journey through the Dark Wood is a small band of traveling companions. They do not have to as familiar with the Dark Wood as your mentor, nor need they be on the same path as you. They simply need to be committed to finding and living within their own place of aliveness, following their own sense of call, that keeps them from worshipping at the shrines of the mediocre. In Quakerism they call this a “Society of Friends.”
These companions will likely be, or eventually become close friends.
What do you think Eric means when he talks about worshipping at the shrine of mediocrity? Do you have a group of people who have become your “Society of Friends?” How do you think you find and cultivate a society of friends?
Pages 162 – 163: The third misfit gift of the Dark Wood is a bit different from the others. It’s rarer and therefore harder to find. As with any rare object there are plenty of cheap imitations. .
The third misfit gift of the Dark Wood is a community of faith — not just any community, but a misfit community of faith.
Just as individuals have distinctive paths or callings, so do communities. Currently, there are a number of misfit communities rising from the ashes of the world’s dead and dying religious traditions. . . .
Are you in touch with a misfit community of faith? What does it look like, and why do you describe it as a community of misfits? What distinctive calling or path do you see your misfit community possessing?
Pages 164 – 165: What is particularly intriguing about this development is that as these communities respond to the Holy Spirit they are discovering a substantial foundation of common ground between adherents of many faiths. For instance, certain Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities are discovering that they share more in common with one another than with the orthodox strands of their own traditions/ Even though the framing beliefs of these emerging and converging communities remain distinct from one another, their core values are looking increasingly similar. While members of these communities claim to feel more Christian, Muslim or Jewish than ever, they are also looking more like one another than ever before. They show strong evidence of responding to the same Spirit, who is fostering similar core values within the differing beliefs that frame these values.
In 2014 Eric Elnes led Countryside Community Church to become a part of the Tri-faith Initiative in Omaha, that has brought Temple Israel, the American Muslim Institute and Countryside Church into a cooperative relationship, where they are all building worship centers and ultimately share spaces on the same campus. Do you think this is a hopeful sign for religious cooperation in the future? If different faiths determine they share the same core values, how far do you think they can go in sharing faith and worship? Do you think it is possible that an interfaith spirituality may emerge in the future?
Pages 165 – 168: What follows are twelve characteristics that, in my experience, constitute the new foundation of common ground. . .
- They are letting go of the notion that their particular faith is the only legitimate one on the planet. . . .
- They are letting go of literal and inerrant interpretations of their sacred scriptures while celebrating the unique treasures that the scriptures contain. . .
3, They are letting go of the notion that people of faith are called to dominate nature. . .
- They are letting go of empty worship conventions and an overemphasis on doctrines as tools of division and exclusion.
- They are letting go of racial prejudice and a narrow definition of sexual orientation and gender identity.
- They are letting go of an understanding that people of faith should only interest themselves in the spiritual well-being of people. They are embracing a more holistic understanding that physical and spiritual well-being are related.
- They are letting go of the desire to impose their particular vision of faith on wider society.
- They are letting go of the old rivalries between “liberal, moderate and conservative” branches of their faith. They are embracing a faith that transcends these very definitions.
- They are letting go of notions of the after life that are dominated by judgment of “unbelievers.”
- They are letting go of the notion that faith and science are incompatible.
- They are letting go of the notion that one’s work and one’s spiritual path are unrelated.
- They are letting go of old hierarchies that privilege religious leaders over lay people.
Each one of these points is worth an entire evening of discussion, but there is also a discussion that embraces the idea that taken together these point form new common ground. Do you believe that you and your faith community are willing to let go of the notion that your particular faith is the only legitimate one on the planet? Since many of the traditional labels of liberal, moderate and conservative are tied up in issues like “inerrancy of scripture,” “faith and science,” “doctrines,” “racial prejudice and narrow definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity,” and “the desire to impose particular visions of faith on wider society,” do you really believe those labels can be ignored? Would you agree that these twelve principles are good common ground for defining the way forward for a progressive interfaith spirituality?
Where Do We Go From Here?
Pages 170 – 181: Embracing our propensity for failure might seem negative to someone unfamiliar with the Dark Wood. Yet by now you have probably begun to sense that the experiences you try so hard to avoid hold the potential to bless you with unexpected gifts if you allow them. When you embrace time spent in the Dark Wood rather than seeking to run away at the first opportunity, you discover that you are connected to a Higher Power — one who offers important clues about who you are and what you’re here for. You also develop the confidence and determination necessary to hold tight to these realities rather than letting go of them at the first sign of trouble. Together we have explored the vast implications of this counterintuitive reality of life in the Dark Wood, chief among being that you don’t have to be a saint to find your place in this world. All you really need to be is struggling. . . .
. . . .A church built upon this Rock is not the church of the perfect, but the church of the misfits. Its saints find their place in the world in the heart of their struggles, not merely in their absence. This is a church born in the Dark Wood. It is a community that continues to thrive there, continuing to learn what it means to welcome and embrace those who have been excluded.
Whether or not you consider yourself to be a follower of Jesus, perhaps within the Dark Wood of your own experience you will find the blessing of Jesus through the companionship of Peter. You will not likely find Peter walking beside you simply when you believe the right way, or act the right way, but when you fail. Perhaps you will find Peter offering a few suggestions about how to fail in just the right way.
Eric brings us back to our willingness to risk failure in the Dark Wood. As a result of this study do you feel any more connected to your Higher Power? Hopefully you have used this study guide with other people. Have you discovered any companions for your journey through the Dark Wood? Do you feel any closer to finding a community of misfits who can help you find and develop your gifts? Do you feel more willing to struggle? For you what would be failing in just the right way?
Systems of Stardust and Energy
SLIDE 3: MT. TABOR
Jesus climbed Mt. Tabor with Peter, James and John in response to God’s prompting that an important revelation awaited him on the Mountain Top. From the top of Mt. Tabor you can look out over the entire Jezreel Valley and much of the history of Israel is laid out before you as you survey the compass points. To the East lies the Jordan River Valley and Mt. Gilboa, where Saul and Jonathan were slain by the Philistines. Also to the East is the place where Gideon and his brave 300 volunteers ambushed the Midianites in the dead of the night utterly defeating the invaders.
SLIDE 4: COMPASS POINTS
To the South was the ruins of Meggido the fortress City of King Ahab and also the scene of the great battle with Pharoah Necco, where King Josiah was killed. To the West lay Mt. Carmel the scene of the contest between the Prophet Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal. Also to the West was the site of the Battle between the Israelites under the leadership of the Prophetess Deborah and her general Barak and the Canaanites who were led by the evil General Sisera.
To the North was the mountain upon which Jesus’ home village of Nazareth was perched. If God had a special revelation for Jesus, Mt. Tabor was an appropriate place. Many preachers approach this passage as if Jesus already knew what God would reveal on the Mountain Top. But I think Jesus was more like you and I, he had to feel his way through life’s revelations. He knew Herod was looking for him to kill him as he had done to John the Baptist, but Jesus’ destiny was in Jerusalem, where he could confront the power of Rome and the Temple.
SLIDE 5: A PATH THROUGH THE DARK WOOD
But he was unsure, uneasy about the journey ahead. Using Eric Elnes’ metaphor he was looking for a path through the Dark Wood. And so he retreated to the Mountain Top seeking a vision for the direction forward.
SLIDE 6: ALTERED STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
We are dependent upon the description of the episode provided by Peter, James and John, the three disciples Jesus took with him up to the top of the Mountain. According to their own account the three disciples were either half asleep after their long climb, or they were in some altered state of consciousness, when the vision took place.
SLIDE 7: GLOWING ENERGY
There was brilliant sun shine, a mist and a cloud, and as Jesus was praying his appearance changed bright as a flash of lightning. And in the midst of all of that glowing energy Moses and Elijah appeared radiating power and talking with Jesus. According to the narrative the two prophets spoke to Jesus about his journey to Jerusalem, and his “departure.” If Jesus went to the Mountain top seeking God’s direction, this vision of light and energy was certainly what Eric Elnes would call in the Gifts of the Dark Wood, a sweet-spot moment. The message was clearly disconcerting, go to Jerusalem and die. Definitely not what I would want to hear. But the form of the vision was a revelation about the nature of reality, and the continuation of life in the Sprit beyond death.
SLIDE 8: TANGIBLE OBJECTS FULL OF EMPTY SPACE
The world as we see it doesn’t really exist. Tangible objects we experience as solid are full of empty space. In the Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes makes this observation:
“If you hold out your hand, for instance, you see a hand. ‘Big deal,’ you say. Yet on a quantum level your hand is a very big deal. That hand is made up of billions of atoms. These atoms, in turn, contain a nucleus made of protons and neutrons and an electron cloud circling the nucleus. Even with so many atoms crammed into such a small space as your hand the distance between the atom’s nucleus and its circling electron cloud, on a relative scale, is roughly the equivalent of the distance between the earth and the sun. Seen from another perspective, if you set a grape seed in the center of a football stadium representing the nucleus of an atom, the perimeters of the stadium would be its electron cloud. That hand you’re looking at is approximately 99.999 percent empty space!”
SLIDE 9: 70% OF THE UNIVERSE IS DARK ENERGY
So the world of our senses is not the real world after all. We are systems of energy and star dust. And we are coming to understand that energy has many different forms. Physicists have recently speculated that almost 70% of the universe is composed of “Dark Energy,” about which we know almost nothing, and apparently empty volumes of space are filled with Dark Energy. If volumes of nothing can be filled with vast quantities of energy, then why is it such a stretch to speculate that consciousness — our awareness of life and the universe — is a form of energy?
SLIDE 10: CONSCIOUSNESS AS A FORM OF ENERGY
Now I understand that for those of us who are burdened by our attachment to belief in all things tangible, we can have great difficulty in even acknowledging the existence of consciousness. After all we can’t quite put our fingers on it, or measure it exactly. Consciousness refuses to show up under the microscope or in the telescope, but then so does Dark Energy. We only speculate about the existence of Dark Energy because of its inferred affect driving the expansion of the Universe at an increasing rate. Some of us are only willing to speculate about consciousness as a way of inferring a difference between life and death. Maybe if we could throw off the self-imposed burden of tangibility, we might be able to see in our scripture this morning the radiance of spiritual energy that shown through the person of Jesus.
SLIDE 11: GOD’S HOLY ENERGY IS IN ALL OF US
Of course if we could throw off the burden of tangibility we might be able to begin to find in ourselves some of the same radiant spiritual energy that filled Jesus. Now some of us will be uncomfortable with trying to claim the spiritual energy within ourselves. We want to say, “Oh, Jesus was special not like us! The Spirit of God could never shine through us.” Jesus was special, but each of us are also special and unique — as witnessed by our finger prints. Thank God none of us has to be Jesus. God is not going to be upset because any of us fail to be Jesus. That is not our task. Our calling is to become the people God created us to be. Our calling is to become the Judy Cameron God intended Judy to be, or the Matt Youngkin God intended Matt to be, or the Alix Morehouse God intended Alix to be. And what I am hoping we can all find in this transfiguration scripture is that God’s holy energy is in all of us.
SLIDE 12: SPIRIT PERSON
Now certainly Jesus had a special awareness of his relationship with the universal energy system that is God. The Biblical scholar Marcus Borg liked to use the term “Spirit Person” in describing Jesus. Jesus was incredibly gifted in his awareness of his own spiritual energy and his relationship to the universal energy system that is God. But just because Jesus was especially gifted in his awareness of spiritual energy, does not mean that you and I are completely without spiritual gifts. Eric Elnes relates a story in the Gifts of the Dark Wood.
SLIDE 13: GIFTS OF THE DARK WOOD
A good friend of mine Bruce Van Blair found it hard to sleep one night. He simply could not stop thinking of a friend he had neither seen or heard from in months who lived two hours away. Finally around 1:30 in the morning feeling there was something terribly wrong he got in his car and drove the two hours to his friend’s house.
Gathering his courage Bruce knocked on the door. No answer. Finally after three knocks the porch light came on and the door opened revealing his bewildered looking friend, who invited him in. Bruce explained what had brought him there and they shared a cup of coffee, and the friend assured Bruce he was fine. Chagrined, Bruce drove home.
Three months later Bruce’s friend stopped for an unexpected visit. He had come to tell Bruce that he hadn’t been honest with him the night Bruce had shown up on his door step. “I was sitting in the dining room in the dark with a loaded revolver in my hand. You didn’t have to say a word. I knew that only one power in the universe could have brought you to my door at that particular moment. God still cared about me, so I had better stick around and see what God wanted me to do.”
SLIDE 14: CONNECTED BY AWARENESS OF UNIVERSAL CONSCIOUSNESS
Our souls are elusive and connected to a larger story. The Holy Spirit can throw us intuitions that come from a source completely beyond ourselves transcending time and space. We are each of us systems of energy in an ocean of consciousness. The more we allow ourselves to become aware of that universal consciousness, the more connected we become to God and other people.
SLIDE 15: SYSTEMS OF ENERGY AND STAR DUST FOREVER
On the Mountain top Jesus experienced his life as part of the universal energy system. He was allowed to look beyond the horizon, even the horizon of his own life to glimpse eternity. For energy though it changes and transforms from one form into another is forever. And just as we are part of God, the universal energy system, we are connected, we are forever. Look up into the night sky and know that we are systems of energy and star dust forever.