Thought provoking message “Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Uncertainty” by Pastor Toni Carmer from Sunday, February 18th.
Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Uncertainty
First United Methodist Church, February 18, 2018
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Lent is the 40 days before Easter (not including Sundays, which are all little celebrations of the resurrection) when followers of Jesus Christ intentionally engage in prayer, self-examination, repentance and renewal to strengthen our faith by realigning our lives, our wills and our ways to that which we proclaim to believe. This has historically been a time when new Christians have undergone instruction and preparation to be baptized and received into the church on Easter morning. This season ends as we proclaim on Easter morning, "Christ has Risen!"
Our task at the very beginning of the Lenten season is for us to consider who we are and where we are: in the very best sense of the word, we are God's children. We are beloved. We as the church are a community of faith that has stood strong through the tides of history. And yet, we realize that we are a broken people, and we live in a broken world. Our hearts ache at the tragedies that befall humanity, when our children step out of the comfort and protection of our arms and homes and encounter the stark and dangerous realities of the world where we can't control the violence, the mental illness, the substance abuse and whatever else that seeks to destroy. Even as we pray for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we tremble at the thought of when and where this could happen next. And yet we realize that not all homes are cocoons of nurture and love and comfort, but are sometimes the places where our most vulnerable are failed first: when primary role models are absent, unable or unwilling to provide what is needed to nurture full and productive lives.
The world is a broken place and we are a broken people. We are in desperate need of a Savior. No worldly savior will do: I am convinced that Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.
Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten season. Christians around the world gather to worship and ashes are marked on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. "To dust you have come, to dust you shall return." "Repent and believe in the Gospel." These words of imposition place us in a position of deference: we humbly and earnestly acknowledge that it's not what we can do, but what God has done and is doing, it's not by our own strength and ability, but it's by the grace of God that we can be healed and our lives and our world restored. We will continue throughout these Sundays in Lent to acknowledge our humanity as we confess our sins each week. And yet, God never leaves us to wallow in that sinfulness, but redeems us, extends his hand to us, and is ready to pull us up and make us well.
During this season of Lent we'll be looking at stories in the life and ministry of Jesus that address various pieces of ourselves that aren't always easy to think about or deal with. The book I'll be referring to along the way is called the Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics and Other Wanderers by Eric Elnes, and you may decide to read it or not, depending on what works for you in your life.
The gifts we'll be talking about are experiences that we all encounter at some point in our lives, but that we most likely wouldn't describe as blessings: they are times when it’s as though we’re lost in a Dark Wood. We’re feeling unsettled, anxious, fearful. They're times that we would most prefer to avoid altogether, but we can’t. Elnes suggests that these are precisely the times in which God gives us gifts that will not only carry us through, but will strengthen us, grow us in our relationship with God. Instead of the Dark Wood being a fearful place, it’s a place where we can encounter God in a very real and tangible way. Today we're talking about the gift of uncertainty.
I decided as I began to consider this gift, that I ought think through my own comfort level with uncertainty. I'm not sure that I would ever suggest to you that I'm an expert in anything, and I can easily add uncertainty to the list of things of where Toni needs improvement.
If you were to ask me what I do on my day off, or what Scott and I do when we head off on a vacation, I admit that we're kind of boring. We have a particular routine of things we need to accomplish on our day off, so there's not a lot of flexibility or creativity there, and I'm pretty happy with going the same places and doing the same things whenever we go on vacation. My favorite vacation destination for the past number of years? Fort Lauderdale. What I love to do when we get off the plane? Find our way to The Fishery where I order their seafood skillet that I eat while watching the big boats sail by and the tarpon jump around when kids feed them there next to the dining area. Repetitive perhaps, but for me, highly satisfying. We stay in different places, walk to the beach whenever possible while still avoiding the sun (we've both had skin cancer), eat good food and read good books. What can I say, I am a shining, satisfied example of what our kids call "boring."
But maybe I like those things so much because on a day-by-day basis, it's important for me to be willing and able to go with the flow. I have plans for what I expect to accomplish, but sometimes these plans need to change. I can't necessarily adapt to everybody else's needs all of the time, but I've learned that ministry so often happens in the unexpected. There are times when I need to step into a situation where I really don't know where I'm going, I really don't know what's ahead.
Routine brings me comfort, but uncertainty is a daily “gift.”
Isn’t it that way for each of us? There's no way that you and I really know what's ahead.
We don't know exactly what's going to happen when the medical testing is done and the results are presented to the surgeon. We don't know all the options, or have full control of the outcome.
We can't "fix" the relationship challenges that our kids or other loved ones are experiencing. We've given them our best coaching over the years, but it's up to them to make the decision of how they'll respond, and we know the possibilities can be heart-breaking and life-changing for them and for us.
We can't control the economy and the response to our product and guarantee that the year will end on an upswing. We don't know how that will impact the job market and if we can hold onto all of our employees.
We just don't know. There is a lot of uncertainty in life. Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians 13: “Now, we see through a mirror dimly”—we get that. We look forward to the time when we can clearly know—clearly see—clearly understand. We’d like to have that here and now! Because we know what it feels like to be unsettled. We can be champion worriers. Sometimes, we just can’t shake it off. Our sleep is interrupted, we’re stressed out. We hope we can just get through—the uncertainty.
But there’s another possibility. A different way of interpreting these Dark Wood scenarios. We can’t stop them from happening, but maybe there are different ways in which can see them that will help us to live through them more peacefully, exchanging our fear for trust.
Our scripture lesson from the Gospel of John chapter 5 finds Jesus at the pool of Bethesda, where people with a variety of sicknesses come and wait for the water to stir. They think perhaps an angel comes and stirs the water at different times, and when that happens, the first one who enters the pool is healed.
A man has been waiting at the pool’s edge for 38 years, waiting to be the first one in. By now he has prime seating on the water’s edge. No one else has seniority over him, and no one, after all these years, has helped him into the pool…That’s kind of curious, isn’t it? Day after day, week after week, month after month, the water begins to stir…and someone else steps past him and walks away healed.
Jesus sees the man and realizes there must be something more going on. He asks the man an important question: Do you want to be healed? What is the reason you’re still sitting here after all this time?
Has this life become so predictable that sitting here is his most comfortable option? I would think that as the days and months and years passed, that the thought of living a “normal” life would begin to feel pretty alien. How would he make a living? What if he would marry, have a family—how would he be able to do that? Could he? What if he failed? So many questions, so much uncertainty in the possibility of being well. But here? On this step, watching others be freed of their sickness? There’s satisfaction in that. Much more comfortable.
Do you want to be healed? Jesus asks.
Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”
Now he doesn’t have a choice. The man gets up and walks.
After all these years, he pulls himself to a standing position and walks away.
He doesn’t say thank you. He doesn’t ask the name of the man who has healed him. He doesn’t ask how…or why. He’s walking into a whole new chapter of uncertainty. And I’m not sure he’s very happy about it.
He just walks away. The man becomes a walking testimony of Jesus’ flagrant disregard for the rules and regulations of his faith by healing on the Sabbath, adding to the list of offenses that will ultimately be tallied to bring charges against Jesus.
I’ve always believed that God meets us where we are. But perhaps there are times and places in our lives when we’re less than receptive to the meeting. When a changed life brings more uncertainty than what we know how to deal with.
When we’re faced with uncertainties it can be all too easy for our minds to take us to the worse possible scenario. We might even think that we’re doing ourselves a favor: we think this will help us deal with whatever it is that might come our way. Prepared for the worse: well, nowhere to go from there but up, right?
In his book, Elnes tells of when his teenage daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor known as astrocytoma. It was an awful thing, an awful time, and all of the questions he and his family was faced with was overwhelming.
Finally, it was as though he heard God speak to him: “Don’t worry about anything until it presents itself to be worried about.”
Really? Live with what I know, and trust you, God, to deal with what I don’t know?
Live within the uncertainties?
Can we do that?
Worry hasn’t done anything to make my life better. Has it ever done anything good in yours?
I think the question Jesus asks the man at the pool is haunting: Do you want to be well?
Do we want to be well? Do we want to live fully and faithfully? Are we willing to live into the uncertainties, not simply surviving these hard in-between moments, but willing to trust God is in them? Can you dismiss the worry that tries to enter in, and envision the hand of Christ reaching out and taking yours and saying to you, “Do not be afraid. There’s no purpose to worry about what you can’t or don’t know. Deal with what you do know, and together we’ll handle the rest one step at a time.”
You’re not alone.
Receive the uncertainty as the gift that it is, and let it draw you closer to Christ.