Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Reflection Quite Obscure (10/25/15)

A Reflection Quite Obscure
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
October 25, 2015

1 Corinthians 13:11-12 (Scholars’ Version) 
when I was very young 
 I talked like a child 
 thought like a child 
 reasoned like a child 
 when I grew up 
 I put an end to childish ways 

 now we look at a reflection quite obscure 
 then we’ll gaze face to face 
 now I know only bits and pieces 
 then I shall know as I am known 

Riveted   Robyn Sarah 
It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be. 
 It is possible that we are past the middle now. 
 It is possible that we have crossed the great water  
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side. 
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now 
 we are being given tickets, and they are not 
 tickets to the show we had been thinking of, 
 but to a different show, clearly inferior. 

 Check again: it is our own name on the envelope. 
 The tickets are to that other show. 

 It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall 
 without waiting for the last act: people do. 
 Some people do. But it is probable 
 that we will stay seated in our narrow seats 
 all through the tedious dénouement 
 to the unsurprising end — riveted, as it were; 
 spellbound by our own imperfect lives 
 because they are lives, 
 and because they are ours.

During the Fall we are exploring the spiritual path called the via negativa.    This is not about bad things or negative things.  It is a recognition that  the sacred, the holy,  and the divine, can be discovered in paths that we might not normally choose.    

Metaphors associated with this path are darkness and silence.   It is a stripping away, a letting go and letting be.   A Christian season associated with this path might be the season of Lent.   It is a time to acknowledge and even befriend our mortality, “you are dust and to dust you shall return” says the worship leader on Ash Wednesday, as she carefully dips her thumb in the ashes and marks the sign of the cross on foreheads of the parishioners.    

Advent can be a season to take the path of the via negativa as well as we acknowledge the wait, the not yet, the longing, and the brokenness of  life.   Advent can be that path when its silence is not drowned out by the noise of Christmas advertising.  

I choose Fall as a season to reflect on this path in worship because the falling leaves tell me to do so.    The trees are folding their bright colored clothes and putting them back in the closet.  It is time for a little down time.    

This season doesn’t sell particularly well, because there is a great deal of pressure to be happy and upbeat 24/7.   You won’t hear melancholy songs in the mall at Christmas.    Happy upbeat songs inspire people to buy more.  

There can be a confusion that the via negativa is about being depressed or despairing.   No, not anymore than curling up with a blanket and reading a book is depressing or despairing.    The via negativa, the spiritual path itself is there to help us not fall into depression or despair.   

This path is nuanced in the sense of seeing the sacred in the silence and in the simple acknowledgement that life is not upbeat 24/7 and it doesn’t have to be. It is a path that sees the holy, the revelatory, and the God presence in the Dark Wood.  

The book that is framing my series of sermons is by Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Darkwood.   One of the gifts Eric names is uncertainty.     We don’t know.   

We don’t know if that upcoming operation is going to be successful…
We don’t know if we are going to keep our job…
We don’t know if the big one, the big quake will hit in our lifetimes…
We don’t know if there will ever be peace in the Middle East…
We don’t know if we really believe what we think we are supposed to believe…
We don’t know if this sermon will ever end….

We don’t know.  Life is not clear, we, in the words of Paul, “look at a reflection quite obscure” or in a more familiar translation “we see through a glass, darkly.”  

That is life, and the via negativa, the spiritual path of the Dark Wood acknowledges that is the case.   This path doesn’t pretend that we are certain when we aren’t because we don’t like being uncertain.    The via negativa is an attempt to embrace the uncertainty.  

People who sell certainty have a market.  Guarantees, warranties, vows, promises, theological assurances are available.  We gravitate toward them because we don’t like being unsure.   Our hymns are filled with songs that promise certainty, “the church’s one foundation”, “blessed assurance, Jesus is mine” and so on.    

Say the magic words, partake in the sacrament every week, remember your baptism and you will be saved, blessed, OK, better than average.    Politicians offer promises, preachers give you the truth, generals offer the latest armaments, economists encourage us to have faith in the market, but if we are honest, we really don’t know much of anything.   That is especially true for the big ticket items that affect us personally.   

Buddhists call this angst the desire for permanence.   Life is impermanent, life is change and we don’t like it.  So we create little bubbles of permanence, of assurance, of guarantee.  The bubbles are illusions, say the Buddhists.  They pop and we are in anguish, frightened, and we desperately try to build another bubble.  

The solution for the Buddhists is not to build a bubble.  Life is impermanent and we need to practice that.   All things pass.  We can’t cling.  Well we can, but we will be left holding air.   The practice is to love what is as it is when it is, conscious that it won’t always be.  

Jesus said stuff like that, too.  

“If you cling to your life you will lose it.  If you lose your life, you will save it.”     

That is a statement of impermanence if there ever was one.    

The irony of course is that the institution based on Jesus built itself a fortress of certainty.   Beliefs and doctrines and infallible Bibles and Popes.  Even structures of many churches look like impenetrable castles.   

“Uncertainty won’t get us in here!”

Not long after 9/11 there was a lot of debate regarding how to memorialize the twin towers in New York City.   The best article I read said in essence, let’s not build a big monument or another skyscraper.  Let’s build if anything, a small, fragile, structure that acknowledges our frailty, our interdependence, our uncertainty.  But, of course, we didn’t.  We built another skyscraper, another tower of Babel, so we could believe the illusion that we are safe, secure, and impenetrable.   We didn’t learn a damn thing.

The Gift of the Dark Wood is not that uncertainty is a threat, a thing to avoid, to wall out, to fight.    Treat uncertainty as a gift.   Uncertainty is a sign of maturity.

We know the passage from I Corinthians 13.  Paul’s hymn of love.  Scholars tussle with each other whether or not Paul actually wrote it himself or copied a poem that was well-loved.   In either case, it is a beautiful piece of work.    It takes some interesting turns.   

Paul first talks about certainty and power.  If I have all faith to move mountains, if I speak with tongues of angels, but don’t have love I am nothing.

Then he describes what love is.  Love is kind.  Not envious, not boastful.  Love endures all things.  

Then he says all the certainties, what he calls prophesies will end.  Knowledge will end.   It is another clear statement of impermanence.   

Then he moves to talking about thinking like a child vs. thinking like an adult.   I think he is moving here from childishness as the need for certainty to adulthood and maturity as living with uncertainty.    His punchline:

Now we see through a glass, darkly.   

In the Scholars’ translation:

Now we look at a reflection quite obscure.

Now we live with uncertainty.   Now we live with not knowing.   Paul does hope that one day we will see clearly, face to face.   But now uncertainty is life.   How do we live it?  Not necessarily with faith or hope.  You can have faith so certain you can  move a mountain but not get it, are nothing.   Instead the greatest gift in this uncertain world is love.

The gift of the Dark Wood is uncertainty which in turn gives love.    When we don’t know we have to cling to each other.  When we admit that we are vulnerable, when we have bruises and scars, addictions, shortcomings, pain, loss, fears, when we can open our heart to another, and listen to the other’s heart, we are literally in love.   

When I met with the Pastor nominating committee around this time last year, I thought I had better come as clean as I could with my sins.    It is not necessarily stuff you lead with in an interview, but I told them about my alcohol addiction and that I have been in recovery for eight years now.   I told them how crippling my son’s death had been, and that I had been changed and didn’t know how I was being changed or what that would mean.   I told them to read all my stuff and blog posts and the stuff others wrote about me, that I am not a particularly good believer and have lots of doubt about religion and God and what all.   Which is kind of weird for a minister, right?  I told them I would be a person with wounds and baggage.      They picked me anyway.   The PNC was vulnerable, too, about the congregation and some of your struggles.   It was a recognition of uncertainty from both sides, I suppose.   

The reason I am saying all of this is because there is a gift here.  I have received a gift.  The gift of uncertainty is the gift not to have to pretend to be something you are not.   We all have to do it to a certain degree.  You do have to put on the game face now and again.  But the gift is when you don’t have to do that.   

When we can say, this is who and what we are, and we have baggage, and we don’t really know what is going on, but can we be in this together?  The gift is when shared uncertainty and vulnerability is a strength and not a weakness.   Or as Paul said elsewhere, when God’s strength is manifest in weakness.    

The Dark Wood of uncertainty helps us recognize what we love.  We recognize that we love.  We recognize that we are loved.   

There are times when I can go right back to the moment we received the phone call about Zach.    Then I can feel the pain in the center of my chest.     I realize though that my wife and I have grown closer than ever.  We can communicate without speaking.    

One of the old hymns that touched my heart was the one we are going to sing now.  O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go.   It contains some beautiful poetry.  

“I trace the rainbow through the rain.” 

We don’t know what the future holds.  Life is precious and precarious.  A gift I learned in the dark wood is that I can live with that.    A friend I met in seminary who is a minister and who lives with diabetes and near blindness, said, “I am a day to day liv-er.”   

It is a gift that comes from necessity.    It is a good thing.   It is a good gift to be a day to day liv-er.  It is a gift.   It is a gift of uncertainty.  To love what is present and real.  

As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote when he lost his son, that he had grown spiritually and what not.  He wrote that he would choose to give all of those gains back if he could have his son back.  But, of course, we cannot choose.     What we can do is accept the gift as it is.   The gift of the Dark Wood.  

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.   We see through a glass darkly. But we can live this day, ok, with not knowing.   We can live this day in love with those on the path with us.     


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Entering the Dark Wood (10/11/15)

Entering the Dark Wood
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
October 11, 2015

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost.    
 -- Dante Alighieri

Psalm 139:7-12   
Where can I go from your spirit?
            Or where can I flee from your presence? 
     If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
            if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
     If I take the wings of the morning
            and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 
     even there your hand shall lead me,
            and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
     If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
            and the light around me become night’, 
     even the darkness is not dark to you;
            the night is as bright as the day,
            for darkness is as light to you.

Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening -- Robert Frost 
     Whose woods these are I think I know.   
     His house is in the village though;   
     He will not see me stopping here   
     To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

     My little horse must think it queer   
     To stop without a farmhouse near   
     Between the woods and frozen lake   
     The darkest evening of the year.   

     He gives his harness bells a shake   
     To ask if there is some mistake.   
     The only other sound’s the sweep   
     Of easy wind and downy flake.   

     The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
     But I have promises to keep,   
     And miles to go before I sleep,   
     And miles to go before I sleep.      

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

I do love the Pacific Northwest.  
I love that we have two Springs.   
Earlier this year around March, the grass begins to grow. 
Then it goes back to sleep for the summer.
Then with the Fall rains it greens and grows again.
Two Springs even as the leaves color and fall.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” writes Robert Frost. 

I don’t pay attention to the lovely woods all the time, but when I do, when my eyes catch my mind wandering aimlessly and bring it back to the redness now dotting my yard, when my skin feels the damp chill and my nose smells that distinct decay that tells me it is the Autumn of the year, when that happens, I am again present to the Dark Wood, the place where the magic happens.

Fall is the season associated with the spiritual path of letting go and letting be.   The Latin is the via negativa, literally the way of negation.   As the cycle of the seasons requires the trees to let go their leaves and begin to prepare for Winter rest, so, too the spiritual season of the via negativa is a time to let go of the images, sounds, and certainties that fill our senses and our thoughts.  

It is a path of noticing that we need a fallow time.   

Emptiness, silence, darkness, are the companions of the Dark Wood, the via negativa.   

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

Dark Wood is a metaphor that has caught my attention thanks to Eric Elnes.  Eric is a minister in the United Church of Christ at Countryside Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska.  He attended Princeton Seminary when I was there.  He was a year ahead of me.  I didn’t know him at the time, although I think I delivered the Trenton Times to him in one of my many odd jobs during my seminary years.  

I interviewed Eric a couple of weeks ago at KBOO.  That interview will be on near the end of the month.   We talked about his new book, Gifts of the Dark Wood:  Seven Blessings For Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers).   Eric also hosts an interactive weekly webcast called Darkwood Brew.   

What is the Dark Wood?

Dante speaks of it in The Divine Comedy

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost.

Dante describes the Dark Wood as “savage, dense, and harsh.”   The Dark Wood is disorienting, confusing, frightening.  We are lost.   We have lost our bearings.  We have lost our vision.  We have lost our way.  Dante wakes up in the middle of his life in the Dark Wood.   The path he was on is no longer clear.    

When we awake in the Dark Wood, the first reaction is panic.  We don’t like it.  We don’t want to be here.  We want to find a way out and fast.   We have a plan for our life and this Dark Wood is not it.    The Dark Wood was not on the map.  

Robert Frost is wrong.  The Dark Wood is not lovely.  It is dreary.   The Dark Wood is the bad news of hurt, the awareness of mortality, the loss of faith, the loss of confidence.   You name it.  You know it.   If you live very long, you will awaken in the Dark Wood at some point.    

But…if we can suspend our panic and sit with what is, we may ask, “Now what?”  In the asking we can open ourselves to what the Dark Wood teaches.   Not everyone goes there.  Not everyone can or will learn from the Dark Wood.  For some it is only dark, only frightening, only despairing.    

But that isn’t you.  It doesn’t have to be.   The wise ones who have been in the Dark Wood before us invite us to ask what the Dark Wood might show us.    Can we trust that the Dark Wood is not the end of the path?   Can we trust that whatever we call the Divine, the Depth of Being, God, has not abandoned us in the wood but is present?

The psalmist, writing from the experience of darkness expresses this trust:
     If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
            and the light around me become night’, 
     even the darkness is not dark to you;
            the night is as bright as the day,
            for darkness is as light to you.

The psalmist is not saying that the darkness is not so bad, just get over it.  No it is bad.  It is dark.  It is real.  It is painful, and no amount of sugarcoating or denial will change that.  The psalmist admits to herself, however, that even as she might not see, the darkness is not absolute.  It is a trust despite experience.    

Sometimes we just have to sit with it.  Sometimes as the psalmist also says, we have to make our bed in Sheol for a little while. 

One day a king was traveling with his retinue.   They stopped along a pond for a rest.   The king went over to the pond and looked down at his reflection.   To his surprise and dismay, a jewel that had been embedded in his crown, loosened and fell into the pond.   He started to panic.  He began flailing in the pond in desperation for it but he couldn’t find it.  He called for his servants and they searched at first trying to reach down then they went in the pond itself to feel around for it.   They splashed around and made a big muddy mess.

About that time a guru stopped by.  He asked the king what was wrong and the king told his tale.  The guru told the king that he could help find the jewel.  “Tell the servants to get out of the pond,”  The king  did so and looked to the guru anxious for help.   The guru closed his eyes and sat under the shade of a tree.   The king fretted and wandered back and forth, “Aren’t you going to find it!”   The guru sat silently.  

The king wandered back and forth muttering under his breath walking between the pond and the guru.  The guru sat motionless and silent.  Finally after hours, the guru opened his eyes.   He went over to the pond and called the king, who had finally sat down, exhausted.  The king went over to the pond, which in time had finally cleared, and there in the bottom almost completely covered by silt was the jewel.    The king carefully reached down and gathered it. 

The parable is about meditation.   We have a problem so we panic.  Our emotions overwhelm us.  We think we can solve the problem by sending thoughts after it and they do nothing but muddy the waters.  Finally, we sit perhaps out of sheer exhaustion or perhaps out of intention and we allow the mind to clear.  Then we find our jewel.

When in the Dark Wood, if we can avoid the impulse to panic and avoid trying to think our way out and instead sit with what is, we may at least come to a place of clarity.  

“The darkness is as light to you,” says the psalmist to the Holy One.

Wendell Berry speaks, I think, of the Dark Wood in his poem, “The Real Work:”

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Berry doesn’t solve the problem.   He invites a sense of trust that while the Dark Wood may be as Dante says, “savage, dense, and harsh” it is also the place where the “real journey” begins.   

For the season of Fall, we are going to explore this metaphor of the Dark Wood.   I am going to follow the outline of Eric’s book, and talk about the gifts of the Dark Wood and the seven blessings we can find there.  

being thunderstruck, 
getting lost, 
disappearing, and 

I will use his seven gifts as a starting point then spin off on my own.   

The Dark Wood, the via negativa, the dark night of the soul, the labyrinth, are all places of learning and growth.  Eric calls the Dark Wood a place for “awareness and discovery.” 

It is where we find depth. 

The Dark Wood is the invitation to discover your depth.  Whatever that may be.  No one can define it for you.  It is your journey, your discovery.    What others can do is to share the road.   

We all awaken at one time or another in the Dark Wood.  As Dante says:

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost…

But Robert Frost says something too:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.

Dark and deep.   The Dark Wood can be lovely, too?  I leave it as a question.

Some have said that the last creative systematic theologian was Paul Tillich.   We all have our favorites, I suppose.  Tillich was good with depth and in offering us a way to relate it to the concept of God.    

This is from his collection of sermons called, The Shaking of the Foundations.   This passage is from his sermon, “The Depth of Existence”:

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about [God]. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not.  [The person] who knows about depth knows about God.

The Dark Wood is a place of depth.   It is a place, an experience, a life passage, where are foundations are shaken, where we “forget everything traditional that [we] have learned”, where certainties are stripped away, where trying to be perfect is not all its cracked up to be, and where we are made open, vulnerable to Divine Light.   

Again, the psalmist speaking to Depth:

The darkness is as light to you.

I will close with a stanza from Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem: 

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in