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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Gifts of the Dark Wood" (Eric Elnes)

TITLE: Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers)
AUTHOR: Eric Elnes
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015, (240 pages).

"You have a place in this world"; so begins the book that is marinaded with assurance and acceptance. It addresses the fundamental aspects of life, what are we searching for, where is home, and in particular, where are we. It is an invitation to journey through the dark woods and discover for ourselves the gifts that we so often miss out in our busyness of life. It is a quest for life not on the basis of following the rules and false promises of human schemes but on the basis of God alone. We do not stand on the premises of the Church in hope, but on the promise of God who is the True Giver of Hope. The gifts to be revealed in this book show us how to deal with emptiness, uncertainty, lostness, temptations, being misfits, and so on. What appears like curses can be blessings in disguise. This is what trusting and following Christ entails: Not what we expect to happen, but what surprises God has in store for us. This calls us for rearranging our inner dinner table to let God sit and the head and us being ready to dine with Him. It is a book for "Dark Wood" travelers. Often shunned in favour of security and clarity, Elnes brings us back to revisit the dark night of the soul, experienced by the saints of old.

In the author's words,
"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 astonishing 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."
Seven "unusual" gifts are described. The first is the gift of uncertainty. Revel not in the facts of certainty but be renewed in the truth of learning amid the messiness and uncertainties of life. It is the uncertainties of life that magnify the scope for faith. It is not the safe living but fearlessness in living that opens up new opportunities to experience God's faithfulness. Being filled with God's Spirit is the certainty. Being open to the Spirit's leading to places of uncertainty is the gift of spiritual discovery and trust. It is also during times of uncertainty in the dark woods that we may very well be most awake spiritually. The logic is quite easy to understand. If everything is set in concrete and there is certainty of knowing exactly what will be happening, we are more likely to trust in human efforts than in God's guidance. Elnes writes powerfully that "Faith built upon certainty is a house of cards that falls apart when the 'unshakable foundation' shift even slightly." Mature faith is not about solving all problems with definitive solutions but embracing life that has profound mysteries. Elnes gives us a very interesting interpretation of Jesus asking the lame man at the Pool of Bethsaida whether he wanted to be healed. The reluctance of that man is basically because his comfort zone is i the begging arena. What we often miss out is the lack of excitement and gratefulness by the healed man. The second gift is the gift of emptiness, where we encounter our broken humanity and the gaps of life. It is the experience that fills in the gaps logic and argumentation had left behind. For life is not just about making do with what we have. It is also about making do with what we do not have. Courage is about flowing with the circumstances and not be discouraged by our shortcomings. More importantly, when we are able to plumb the depths of our emptiness, we are better able to embrace the heights of God's fullness. The third gift is that of being thunderstruck, to let the "power of mythological imagination" lead us along a path of "intuition, imagination, and indirect ways" to perceive the workings of the Divine. When our minds are sensitive to God, even the food we eat can be a very divine experience. I am struck by these words:

"Yet we must realize that leaps of faith are the junk food of the spiritual realm. While it is true that the Holy Spirit does, at times, invite you to take a leap into the Great Unknown (or plunge into our elemental waters like Rilke’s swan), the Spirit rarely does so without leading you to the edge of the cliff by way of a thousand smaller steps."
It exhorts spiritual pilgrims to be fearless in seeking God especially in the midst of the "Dark Woods." Things may seem strange or frightening in human uncertainties, but in God, we have the assurance that He will be with us. Using Job's encounter with God, we learn about the different ways that God speaks, not just in written words. It is not God using thunder and lightning to frighten us into oblivion but to remind us that God is calling us back to Him. It is not the thunder and lightning that presents us an impetus to take a giant leap of faith, human-wise. It's to tilt us away from ourselves and to take a step toward God, Spirit-wise. It means being deeply connected and secure even when we are in the dark woods. When we are struck by God's thunder and lightning, our lives reverberates with God's effects. The fourth gift of Getting Lost seems to be a strange one. How can lostness be a gift? Isn't the state of feeling lost something bad? Subtly, we are reminded that life is not a straight path. This gift essentially helps us be realistic and mindful that the detours of life are ways in which we learn. Like the author's sense of calling to seminary studies that was nearly held back because of finance. It made him realize whether he is more interested to go to seminary or to trust God's presence more for everything. Incidentally, I am reminded of John Newton's Amazing Grace where one verse reads: "I once was lost but now am found." How can anyone be found if he is not lost in the first place? If getting lost is weird, the fifth gift of Temptation is bizarre. By opening up with Thomas a Kempis reminder that temptations show us who we are while achievements demonstrate what we can do, this gift is something that penetrates our souls and reveals our truest beings. It is the temptation that pushes us to do good. While temptations can pull the integrity carpet under our feet, we can choose to remain firm and dignified in the Lord, persevering in doing good regardless of what the world and the devil throws at us. It is always a choice for us as to how we respond. Do we give in to temptation or do we flee? Do we accept the temptations meekly or do we fight them vigorously? The sixth gift is the gift of Disappearing, to be willing to step back from pride and enter into positions of insignificance. It is about the practice of humility to let others take the limelight. Elnes shares about his disappointment at not being selected to be the senior pastor of a large Omaha Church. Reason: He was too sure of himself that the search committee was unsure about his suitability for the Church. Indeed, what ministers often need are things less sure instead of more things absolutely sure. For ministry is a lot to do with the uncertainties of life and to be able to catch the changing wind directions of the Spirit. The seventh gift of Misfits is a familiar one as far as the diaspora is concerned. Using the beatitudes to kick start his chapter, Elnes show us the counter-cultural behaviours for believers that run against the grain of worldly expectations. It is a struggle as Jesus' words often antagonize the ways of the world. He mentions three types of misfits. The first type is "an interpretive guide or mentor" which is a person who had spent so much time in the Dark Woods that he is able to discern the extraordinary. While books can help, its effectiveness is limited because spiritual mentoring is very personal. The second type of misfit is that of a "small group of traveling companions" much like the early disciples in the first century. From this group will come close friends of accountability and growth. The third type is a community of faith. Misfits will generally practice the three great loves: love of God, neighbour and self.

So What?

This is a very thought-provoking book that gives us the background behind the author's support of the Phoenix Affirmations which is now in its version 3.8. Consisting of 12 statements, it is a way forward to break the impasse between conservatives and progressives; fundamentals vs liberals, so as to practice the love of God, the love of neighbour, and the love for self in a practical way. There are many good thoughts and reflective moments. Eric Elnes is a Senior Pastor of Scottsdale Congregational United Church based in Scottsdale, Arizona. With a PhD in Biblical Studies from Princeton Theological Seminary, he has written a few books on worship, the Christian Faith, and is a key proponent of the Phoenix Affirmations. Wanting to be inclusive, he writes with a keen eye on seeing all kinds of opportunities to bring about greater cohesiveness among different groups. Every dispute is an opportunity to understand. Every spiritual crisis can be an opportunity for revival. Every difficult moment can be chance for growth. The subtitle of the book is very inviting, showing skeptics that it is ok to ask questions of the conventional, the familiar, and the common practices. At the same time, it is also ok to get stuck at various points of life. For all we know, these are "gifts" in which we can gradually unwrap so as to learn more about God; about neighbour; or about ourselves.

All these are reminiscent of the underlying philosophies of the United Church of Christ, which is to practice Jesus' words in John 17:21 "That they may all be one." All in all, there is a lot of good things said in the book which can open up many AHA! moments. That said I would caution readers not to let their guard down. In a spiritual world, the Dark Woods can have opportunities for growth and contemplative learning. At the same time, it can be a dangerous place where the principalities and the forces of darkness lurk. Not every one can be as comfortable in the Dark Woods as Elnes has tried to make. For every positives, we must also beware of the snares. Discernment is important not only in the Dark Woods but also outside.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Abingdon Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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