A Reflection Quite Obscure
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.