Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Being Lost

Sermon by Cynthia Gordon, Sunday, March 26,  2017, Princeton United Methodist Church. Part of a sermon series based on the book by Eric Elnes: Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers), a guidebook for spirituality in a post-Christian world.

Have you ever been on a trip and found yourself totally lost? Preparing for this sermon I was reminded of a time when as a child my family and I went to visit some family friends.  After spending a lovely evening in Summit, New Jersey we began our trip home.  Over the next 2 hours we seemed to be going in circles making no progress.  The dark rural roads made it difficult find our bearings.  At that time there were no cell phones with GPS or cars with navigation systems.  Only maps were available.  At some point a patrol car approached us from behind with lights flashing.  My father pulled over and the officer came to the car and asked if we were lost.  Much to our relief he led us back to the main highway and we were finally on our way home.

Being physically lost is not the only way we can enter a Dark Wood and become lost.  We can become both emotionally and spiritually lost as well.  Each of us enters the Dark Wood at some point in our lives causing us to become disoriented and confused.  The loss of a relationship or job; the diagnosis of a serious illness; financial worries can all lead us to being lost.  I entered my Dark Wood on April 7, 2014 when I was diagnosed with late stage cancer.  Laying in the emergency room my mind became overwhelmed with a flood of thoughts and worries.  What kind of cancer; was there a treatment and cure; what about the cost of treatment; would this cost me my job; and most importantly, the toll this would take on my husband and children.  All of these thoughts were vying for control.

I am reminded of the story in Luke 14:7 where Jesus instructs his disciples about the seating order at a wedding banquet.  He instructs them to take the lowest position thereby allowing the host to invite them to a better place: the place of honor.  In his book Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes reminds his readers that each one of us has an internal banquet table.  Our guests are doubt, fear,pain, failure, pride and denial to name a few.  Seated at the lowest place is the Holy Spirit waiting for us to invite it to the place of honor.

God and his agent the Holy Spirit speak to us today just as they spoke to Moses and the prophets of old.  Their method of communication may not be through a burning bush as was done with Moses or on a blanket covered with forbidden food in a dream to Peter.  In Psalm 46:10 we are called to be still and remember that God is exalted among the nations and in the earth.  It is only when we become still and willing to listen that the soft whispers of God and the Holy Spirit can be heard.  Often God speaks to us through a hunch, a gut feeling or a soft spot leading us to the right path.  A soft spot is the serendipitous moment when a hunch or intuition becomes clear as the result of an incident or the voice of another.

These supernatural communications can take us by surprise making us realize that God and the Spirit know us better than we know ourselves.  By paying attention to these whispers we allow the Holy Spirit to move to the place of honor at our internal banquet table.

Sometimes the moments of intuition or gut feelings call us to respond to the needs of others; to come to the aid of someone lost and traversing a Dark Wood.  Dr. Elnes relates such an incident when one night he was suddenly awakened with a feeling of foreboding for his friend Bruce.  After waking his wife Dr. Elnes begins a 2 to 3 hour drive to see his friend Bruce.  It is 1:30 in the morning.  Standing on Bruce’s doorstep Dr. Elnes begins to question whether he is over-reacting to his premonition.  After knocking on the door several times and receiving no answer he begins to feel a bit foolish.  Finally Bruce answers the door and the two enjoy hot coffee and good conversation.  Assured that all is well Dr. Elnes leaves for home now convinced he had overreacted and been foolish.  It would be several months later that Bruce would reveal to his friend that he had been seated at the dining room table with a loaded pistol ready to end his life.  It was Dr. Elnes’ unexpected arrival, guided by the Holy Spirit, that saved Bruce’s life.

Another example of the means by which God and the Holy Spirit speak to us is recorded in the Book of Acts Chapters 10 and 11.  During testimony before the high council in Jerusalem Peter tells of a series of three dreams in which a blanket containing food forbidden by the Levitical rules appears.  In Peter’s time consuming these foods would have been an abomination.  During the 3rd dream Peter is interrupted by the visit of 3 Gentiles who request Peter to join them on a journey to Caesarea.  Jewish social mores of the time forbid the association of a Jew with Gentiles. News of Peter’s journey and eating with Gentiles resulted in his being summoned to Jerusalem where he proclaimed God’s word that Gentiles were not be excluded from Christ’s church. It is the combination of these events that lead Peter to understand that Christ’s Church was meant for all thus leading Peter into a Dark Wood: following God in defiance of the high council in Jerusalem and the social mores of the day.

Little did I know that my years of study to become a Lay Minister not only prepared me for a life of service to God it was also preparing me for a journey to and through a Dark Wood.  I stand before you this morning as a witness of God’s presence and faithfulness at a time when being lost in a Dark Wood feels overwhelming.  Inviting the Holy Spirit to the place of honor at my internal banquet table gave me the courage and will to hear God’s whispers.  In Jeremiah 33:3 the scripture reminds us that if we call on God in our time of need he will answer us. Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.

God will also reveal the great and hidden things that have yet to be revealed to us.  We are given the promise of a future that provides for healing, prosperity and joy beyond our present circumstances.  We must surrender our will to control the events we find ourselves in and trust in God that he will see us through. In life and life beyond death God has promised to be with us.

Life is a journey with many twists and turns.  The future is unknown to us and at some point we all will enter the Dark Wood and become lost.  Instead of running from it, the Dark Wood can become a place of healing and spiritual growth.  For most of us entering into a Dark Wood can be a very frightening circumstance.  Our need for control,  and fear of the unknown or being alone causes us to resist entering such a place.  In Joshua 1:9    ?God issues a command: Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. 

By giving up our need to control and letting our faith in God and the Holy Spirit guide us we can emerge from the Dark Wood with a better understanding of who we are, our place in this world, and a stronger relationship with God.  We become more responsive to the intuitions, gut reactions, or soft spots God provides.  Just as the police officer guided my family home, we can be assured that God and the Holy Spirit will guide us safely through the Dark Woods of life.

In closing I leave you with this prayer.

             May the Spirit of the living God,

Made known to us fully within life’s Dark Wood:

Go before you to show you the way;

Go above you to watch over you;

Go behind you to push you into places you may not

necessarily go yourself;

Go beneath you to uphold and uplift you;

Go beside you to be your strong and constant companion;

And dwell within you to remind you that you are surely not


And that you are loved-loved beyond your wildest


And may the fire of God’s blessing burn brightly

Upon you, and within you,

Now and always.



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Gifts of the Dark Wood

As our Lenten sermon series concludes, we might want to explore its theme more deeply in the source book, “Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven blessings for souful skeptics (and other wanderers) by  Eric Elnes. It’s available in paperback for about $12, $10 on kindle.  As described: ‘In clear and lucid prose that combines the heart of a mystic, the soul of a poet, and the mind of a biblical scholar, Dr. Eric Elnes demystifies the seven gifts bestowed in the Dark Wood: the gifts of uncertainty, emptiness, being thunderstruck, getting lost, temptation, disappearing, and the gift of misfits.’

‘This is a book for anyone who feels awkward in their search for God, anyone who seeks to find holiness amid their holy mess, and anyone who prefers practicality to piety when it comes to finding their place in this world.’

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Mission Project for Sunday School

Sunday School students will work on a mission project to support people in the local Princeton area. We will prepare Hygiene Kits that will be distributed to people who visit Cornerstone Community Kitchen.

The Cornerstone Community Kitchen (CCK) offers a free and nutritious meal every week, even on holidays. Volunteers from the community serve the meal from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.  In partnership with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), this ministry of PUMC now serves more than 100 people each week. Some come for the food, some for the fellowship and friendly atmosphere. All are welcome, no questions asked.

Teachers will introduce the Mission Project on Palm Sunday, April 9. On the next  two Sundays after Easter (April 23 and 30) children will bring in the supplies. They will make cards on April 23 and assemble the kits (always exciting) on April 30. The kits will be blessed, tentatively, on May 7 during the Children’s Sermon. Everyone is welcome to contribute any item (you don’t have to bring all the items). There will be a basket in the Sanford Davis Lobby.

  • bar of soap
  • a wash cloth (new)
  • a small hand towel (new)
  • shampoo (regular size, not travel and not extra large)
  • conditioner(regular size, not travel and not extra large)
  • toothbrush
  • toothpaste (regular size, not travel and not extra large)

This is a great way for our children to learn about helping others in a very hands-on way. Questions?Contact Tracey Feick-Lee or


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Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Being Thunderstruck

William Blake: God and Job

“At this my heart pounds
and leaps from its place.
Listen! Listen to the roar of his voice,
to the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven
and sends it to the ends of the earth.
After that comes the sound of his roar;
he thunders with his majestic voice.
When his voice resounds,
he holds nothing back.
God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways;
he does great things beyond our understanding.

Job 37:1-5

This post is adapted from a sermon by Rev. Jana Purkis-Brash, Sunday, March 19, 2017, Princeton United Methodist Church. It is part of a sermon series based on the book by Eric Elnes: Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers), a guidebook for spirituality in a post-Christian world.

Awe is often translated to fear, but it can also mean a mysterious encounter with the numinous —  Ancients thought the sense of awe could carry gods messages from the divine. Imagine the awe of those experiencing the eruption of a volcano, an earthquake, a storm. They created gods so they could feel control over a hostile universe.

When we feel awe, our inner god, we have flashes of intuition .We call our moments of clarity and understanding  – seeing the light – sudden flashes  – being dumbstruck.

Scientists say that opening ourselves to awe – like children do- reduces stress and increases creativity.

Allow time for awe! The wonder of morning light can give a sense of holiness. Or the touch of a baby’s skin.

By taking the time to notice these Creation moments, we can cultivate a sense of holy inner wisdom. Moses and Elijah heard God’s audible voice, but we can try to cultivate an inner awareness.

The psalmists say the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Our encounter with the numinous may make us be humble and open us to the gifts of God’s grace – but the inner voice can also cause us to stand tall As in Psalm 8,  

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals[a] that you care for them? 

Pay attention to your wow moments. Let them help you feel connected and alive. May you hear that voice in the thunder and the silence in the quiet awesome moments of wow.

Or — be thunderstruck. Be aware of God’s presence. Connect the inner you – to God’s voice in that moment – and listen to God’s word for you,


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Cooks in Our Kitchen

On almost every Friday this spring, we welcome cooking classes to our kitchen. Princeton Adult School held two classes in February, and a mouth-watering array of menues will be prepare by five different cooks.  Prices range from $60 for one class to $130 or $170 for three classes — and of course you get to taste what you cook. Go to the “Get Exploring” section of

Greek Pastries and Savories, taught by Iphigenia Yiacas, March 10, 17, April 28

Cook Like a French Chef, taught by Virginie Cartier, March 31, April 7, April 21

Gefilte Fish Without Guilt,  taught by Ellen Goldblatt, March 24

Vegetarian Cooking with Whole Earth, with Melissa Printon, May 5.

Bibim Bop, taught by Inkyung (Anna) Yi, May 12

As the saying goes, “Nothing says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven.”

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Strategic Plan: Project Vibrant Worship

Sunday Morning Traditional Worship Team

Worship is a huge part of our church life!  It is one of three elements in our Strategic Plan for 2017 (see complete document here).

Church council members have been discussing at great length what worship experiences will serve both our current congregation — and those not currently worshiping with us — and have agreed to explore how we should move forward to encompass the things we currently do and what we might want to do differently in the future.

As part of what we are calling Project Vibrant Worship, we have created two subteams.

One subteam will explore the possibilities for Sunday morning worship: continue two services, combine with one Sunday morning worship, or some alternative scheduling for Sunday morning

Another subteam will explore alternative worship experiences, with focus on attracting families with children and youth

Project Vibrant Worship’s leadership team includes Rev. Jana Purkis-Brash, Tracey Feick (Church Council Chair), Lori Pantaleo (Worship Committee Chair) and Bernhard Brouwer.

The subteams have formed and began meeting in February. Please share your thoughts with members the special Project Vibrant Teams – and also with Church Council, and church committees. 

Sunday Morning Traditional Worship Team Chairperson: Lori Pantaleo

Team: Reggie Cann, Ida Cahill, Sharon DiStase, Rick Engel, Tod Hamilton, Sara Hicks, Beverly Masters, Janis McCarty, Christine Shungu, Hyosang Park, Jana Purkis-Brash

Alternative Worship Experience Team Chairperson: Bernhard Brouwer

Team: Sarah Betancourt, MaryBeth Nelson, Robert Scheffler, Hyosang Park, Skitch Matson

Church Council welcomes input! Church Council is committed to keeping the congregation updated. We ask for your involvement and prayers as together we seek to continue to serve God at PUMC and in our community.

Tracey Feick-Lee, chair Church Council


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Lenten Tuesday at Noon: March 7

What’s it like to come to Mid-week Lenten Worship at Princeton UMC? The 30-minute services are Tuesdays from noon to 12:30 in the small chapel; entering by the ramp door.

They continue every Tuesday through April 11 on the theme “Let All of Me Kneel before God’s Holy Name.”

For the first one on March 7, a dozen people gathered as Rev. Catherine Williams led worship on the theme “We worship God with our flesh,” meaning that the soul/spirit is not necessarily more important than the body.

Christopher McWilliams began by playing the evocative “Song of the Dark Woods” by E. Siegmeister, followed by the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”

Everyone read the following passages.

John 1:1-5, 14;

Psalm 139: 1-3, 13-18;

and 2 Corinthians 4:7-10.

“The psalm reminds us of the care that God takes in forming bodies, and that even what we perceive as imperfections or physical flaws are useful to God in our worship and service,” said Catherine.

“The apostle Paul speaks of carrying about in his body marks that signify both the death and the life of Jesus. We are encouraged to worship and serve God with all of our bodies – this indicates true devotion.”

For a time of reflection, she offered the video This Is My Desire by Michael W. Smith.

After prayer, she closed with a couple of rousing rounds of the chorus This Little Light of Mine. 

Then everybody enjoyed the delicious lunch served by Lula Crawford. For her African Pea and Potato soup recipe, click here. 

EVERYone is welcome for Lenten Tuesdays. Come if you can!

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Lula’s Lenten Lunch Soup

For the first Lenten Tuesday, Catherine Williams led the service and Lula Crawford prepared the lunch. Everybody loved her African Spiced Yellow Split Pea and Potato Soup so much that we prevailed on her to share the recipe. Note she uses white potatoes rather than sweet potatoes, “too sweet” she says. 

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Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Uncertainty.

Erik Skitch Matson — March 5, 2017 — 1 Corinthians 13:11-12

What is Lent?

Lent was spoken of in the 2nd Century, but then established as Lent with the typical Ash Wednesday in the 6th century under Gregory the Great.

Why? Self examination and Penitence in preparation for EASTER. It is a time for Repentance and Renewal: Giving up things, originally food until sundown (vegetarian), but now it is a more robust “Fasting”. It is also a time for self-reflection, prayer and reading of scripture

Gifts of the Darkwood  

Our sermon series is based on the book Gifts of the Dark Wood by Eric Elnes, a wonderful Lenten book for reflection. In this series we can see our time in the Dark Wood as a gift.

Another book worth reading, Dante’s Inferno is about finding your place in the world at the very point you feel farthest from it. Here the dark wood includes struggle. It is “where you meet God.”

As we explore the Gift of UNCERTAINTY, we realise that this is not a “Typical” gift. We like control, certainty, and understanding, now. So where can we go with uncertainty.?

In 1 Corinthians 13:11-12, we see a flurry of pride, and then a swift shift to vulnerability. I had always known Paul to be the confident leader, with the perfect pedigree and best teachers backing him — he’d fit into Princeton pretty well. But this is not your typical Paul. This Paul is more vulnerable about his own limitations and his own uncertainty. Paul admits that he sees dimly.  What would it take for us to have the courage to admit that our own spiritual vision is dim?

Take a look at the people around you: what would it take for us to dig into the Lenten season, and live in the Dark Wood of our lives together? What would it take for us to have faith, now, in these lives we live.

What would it take for us to be the body of Christ—a body where each member is known, loved, and cared for.

What would it take to be vulnerable with one another about our personal pains? Our sins? Our uncertainties?

We know we want it. We know we need it. But what will it take…?

It will take a Christian Community that has ONE body, and ONE blood. A Christian Community where we—the broken, the maimed, the sinners, and the saints—are welcomed and accepted.

Where at times we are supported, and also where we support others. Where we are known not for our rigid certainty, but our radical faith in the midst of the fluidity of real, human life.

The Christians we have looked up to for centuries… Can we follow their example? Can we create a community, here, in this place, where the hope of seeing Christ face to face leads us to accept our own spiritual vision as dim?

Where does this start? It starts with the Release of Shame. One Body, broken for you; One Blood, shed for you. The Free Gift of Grace transforms us to be the Christian Community that calls itself “The Body of Christ.”

Let us come…

As we take communion, we wonder if, by leaning on each other, our collective vision can be more powerful. Let us therefore go together, as one broken body, through the Dark Wood of Lent.

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“Spot and Call New Leaders” says Bishop John Schol

Bishop John Schol calls upon each church in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference to spot potential leaders and prayerfully call, equip, challenge and support them. “I challenge each of our congregations to give permission for your pastor to be more apostolic and to continue to support and challenge them to develop their leadership to lead the congregation to engage in and grow more fully the mission.”

“In GNJ we are developing new leadership resources that create a culture of leadership, spot and call new leaders and grow our leaders to be like Christ in their attitude, skills and spirit.”

Here is a link to Bishop Schol’s message for February 2017

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