Entering the Dark Wood – February 14, 2021

It was customary in law school to take a big trip after graduation and after completing the bar exam.  It was our last chance to take an extended time off before starting our jobs.  Once we began working, we knew it would be months, if not years, before we got any vacation time.  My friend, we will call her Karen, graduated from her master’s program at the same time as me.  We had been friends since our freshman year of college, and both of us had always wanted to go to Europe.  So we decided we would take a two week trip, spending a week in London and a week in Paris.

I was a little nervous about spending that much time in Paris, particularly since we did not speak the language.  And we were traveling as cheaply as possible.  We planned to stay at hostels and take public transportation as much as we could.  But Karen assured me that there was nothing to fear.  She professed that she was nearly fluent in French, so she would be able to get us around easily.

It was not long after our arrival in Paris that I realized Karen had vastly overstated her fluency in French.  After landing at the airport, she was unable to read the signs guiding us to the trains.  And once we finally found them, we spent hours trying to find the right stop to get off at.  But even though things started off rocky, Karen assured me she was just a little rusty, that it wouldn’t take her long to pick up her familiarity with the language again.

One night we decided to see a band perform.  And it was late when the concert got over.  I told Karen that we should probably just take a cab to get back to our hostel, but she insisted it would be just as fast to take the bus.  When we boarded, the bus was packed, so we were not able to sit together.  After riding for a while, I began to feel that we had been on the bus for longer than we should be.  But when I went to Karen to ask if she was sure she knew where we were going, she acted insulted that I would question her.  So I sat back down.

About two hours later, it was only me and Karen on the bus.  It was now 4 a.m. and I knew we were lost.  But then something unexpected happened, something that made our situation significantly worse.  The bus stopped in the middle of nowhere.  And the bus driver said something in French I didn’t understand. Thankfully he was better at English than my friend was in French.  So he translated what he had said.  And they were words which filled me with a mix of anger and fear.  “Last stop.  Everybody off.”

This Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.  Depending upon the tradition we come from, Lent may or may not be meaningful for us.  Growing up in the Baptist church, I never knew what Lent was.  It was just something the Catholics did.  It was not until I attended seminary that Lent actually began to take on a significance for me.

Lent is the period of 40 days before Easter.  For many, this is a time of repentance.  Traditionally, it is a time when people give something up – forgoing chocolate or coffee or meat – in order to focus on their spiritual lives.  But Lent can be more than this.  I can be a time of self-examination.  A time of reflection, a time for to focus on our spirituality, a time to draw closer to the Divine.

Our theme for Lent this year is “Gifts of the Dark Wood.”  In this series, we will explore the wilderness experiences of our lives, the times when we feel we are wandering without a destination.  We will explore the places we can encounter the Divine.  Not the places we would normally think of – the places of stability, the times of blessing in our lives.  Instead, we examine the places of failure, the places where God intuitively feels absent, the dark places in our lives where it feels the light of the Divine does not shine.

Sometimes we need to take a journey into the dark wood, into the wilderness, in order to appreciate the light.  Sometimes we need to lose our way in order to know what it feels like to find our way.  Sometimes we need to lose our sense of security in order to truly feel secure.  In our Lenten series, we will begin to reframe those times we have been lost in the dark wood not as a time to avoid or forget, but as a place in which the Divine is revealed.  We will begin to see that it is a place where we receive gifts, the value of which exceed the hardships we encounter.  There are six gifts of the Dark Wood which we will explore: the gift of emptiness, the gift of uncertainty, the gift of being thunderstruck, the gift of temptation, the gift of disappearing, and the gift of misfits.  While these gifts may feel more like curses than blessings, these are gifts that help us find our path again.  Gifts that stay with us far longer than our time in the dark wood.

A large portion of references to the wilderness in the Bible relate to the wandering of the Israelites for 40 years after they emerge from the slavery of Egypt.  After being enslaved for centuries, Moses was sent to deliver them.  According to the book of Exodus, after the people of Egypt experience a series of plagues, Pharaoh let the people go.  The people of Israel were finally released from their bondage and were on their way to the promised land.

But between these two places, they encountered significant problems as they walked through the wilderness to their destination.  They were subject to attack by those who dwelled in the area.  They suffered from lack of food and water.  They endured a plague.  And to make matters worse, they did not know how long they would be subject to these adversities.  They experienced so many problems that they longed to go back to their years of slavery.  They were lost in the dark wood and began to feel they would never reach their promised land.

But not everything about the wilderness experience of the Israelites was bad.  Despite their failures, the time before the people entered the promised land allowed for a deepening relationship between the people and God.  Exodus shares stories that the Israelites ate food from God’s table.  They were able to experience deliverance over enemies who sought their destruction.  It was a time of revelation.  It was during their journey in the wilderness that Moses shared the ten commandments.  It was when the people were able to experience God through the tabernacle.  Even though they didn’t know it at the time, they emerge recognizing the gifts that can be found in the Dark Wood.

The second prominent account of a wilderness experience is found in the life of Jesus.  The books of Matthew, Mark and Luke all share this story.  In our reading for this morning, before he begins his public ministry, Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness.  The wilderness is a location in the Bible that has great meaning.  It was an undesirable place.  A place filled with fear, with isolation, with the unknown.  We read that Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and then the tempter came to him.  And while he wanders in the wilderness, Jesus is presented with false paths, options which will lead him only further into the Dark Wood. This time Jesus spends in the wilderness is a time of discernment for him, a time to make difficult choices, a time to weigh his path ahead.  I believe Jesus recognizes the trouble he will bring upon himself if he is true to who he is, to what he believes, to the change he seeks to bring.  Challenging the way the Jewish religious leaders have burdened the people of Israel will come at a cost.  And Jesus must decide if he is willing to make the sacrifices he will need to make.

It is during his time in the Dark Wood that Jesus receives the gifts which come from a time of wandering.  Jesus recognizes that the power, all of the wealth, all of the authority which could come to him is not as important as the work he is drawn to do.  Jesus emerges from his wilderness experience strengthened, empowered to begin his ministry, confident in his beliefs.  Despite the temptations presented, Jesus emerges empowered by the gifts which can be found in the Dark Wood.

In both the experiences of the Israelites and the experience of Jesus in the wilderness, there is a lengthy time of isolation, of wandering, of deprivation, of temptation.  They are in a time between times, not knowing when their wandering will end or what the end result will be, when they will no longer feel lost.

Whenever I feel lost, I rush to find a new path to my destination.  In our second reading for this morning, we hear an alternative approach.  That when we are lost, we should instead stand still.  When we are wandering, we feel like we are not in a worthwhile place, a place other than our desired destination not worthy of our attention.  But what if those places in which we wander are actually the places we should want to stay. Perhaps they can offer us gifts we don’t see right away.  In Wagoner’s poem, wherever we are is called “here” which should be treated as a powerful stranger.  Respect that place, ask permission to know it and be known.  Listen to what Here has to say, acknowledge that it is a place which has been made for us.  And rather than rushing to find a way out, let the forest find us, resting in the assurance the forest knows where we are.

Like the Israelites on their journey to the promised land, like Jesus preparing to begin his ministry, all of us are going to go and have gone through a time in a wilderness, a time in the Dark Wood.  Having experienced what we all have over the past year, we know more than ever that we will endure times when we are undergoing the pain of loss, uncertainty over our future, fear of enemies, times when we feel we are wandering without a clear destination.  And just like the Israelites and Jesus, it is while we are walking through the wilderness that we are going to discover that being lost may lead us to being found.  That hidden in the darkness, there is light.  That the Dark Wood does not just present us with things to fear, but with gifts which we will carry with us forever.

We see in the stories of all who have walked through the Dark Wood that our lives are not shaped in the direction of moving from a temporary failure to a lasting success, but allowing our difficult times to become a source of strength for our next steps in the path of our lives.  We do not have to pretend we have no shortcomings, that we have never experienced struggles.  Rather, we can embrace them to use them as signposts while wandering the Dark Wood and into the presence of the Divine.

When my friend and I were forced to leave the bus with no clear sense of where we were, in the dead of night, in a foreign city, I was concerned.  Would we ever find our way back to our hostel?  Would someone attack us?  We took a lot of wrong turns, and it took us a long time to get back, but we did eventually make it.  And something unexpected happened when we were on that journey through an unfamiliar city in the midst of darkness.   We were able to experience the city of Paris in a way we never would have had we not become lost, had we not been chased off of that bus in the middle of nowhere. Seeing Notre Dame cathedral serenely without people swarming around it, seeing the Eiffel tower lit up at night, I was left with sights I would never have seen if we had not gotten lost.  And those are images I will always carry with me, even though initially it seemed like there were no gifts in being lost.

In our lives, it is not the successes which will most shape us.  It is often not what we do right which will have the most impact on our lives.  It is those times we struggle, those times we feel lost, that will be the most memorable, that will allow us to see things in a new way, see things we never thought possible.  It is not that we find ourselves in the wilderness, that we are in the Dark Wood, that matters.  It is whether we embrace the gifts we find while we are there.