Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Temptation

Finding your unique life path takes courage, imagination, instinct, and a little nudging from the Holy Spirit, said Rev. Jana Purkis-Brash in a sermon Sunday, April 2, 2017, Princeton United Methodist Church.

Her text was II Corinthians 5: 16-19    17 Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come: (Good News Bible). It was 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. Here is a summary of her sermon:

As Elnes points out, to tempt someone you have to convince that person you are on his side.

In Luke 4, The Devil tried to be Jesus’ friend in the wilderness.  In the llustration by William Blake, the pious looking man next to Jesus has no horns or pitchforks. He might be a Hebrew prophet. Blake realized that Jesus would reject an overtly evil tempter and that all temptations would have to be about doing good, like turning stones into bread to feed the hungry, ruling the world, or performing impressive miracles.

But there is a big difference between ‘doing good’ and ‘doing the good we are called to do.’ If we walk the path that brings us the feeling of being most alive, we might have to say no to doing a lot of good things. Jesus did feed the hungry, change the political equation, and perform miracles — later. His higher calling was to live more fully into his humanity.

In both Jewish and Christian mythology, Jesus’ adversary, Lucifer, started out on God’s side. (Note that these stories are NOT in the bible). As Elnes says, pride and shame convince us we are separated from god. If we are proud, we think we are smarter than God. Or we are shamed, we call ourselves unworthy. As humans, we long for the path that leads to the dark wood but we think we can find our own way — or we are too shamed to go.

Meanwhile the Adversary makes wide roads that provide an easy path but lead away from being human. Roadside taverns serve beer that mimics the feeling of joy. Some taverns take the form of churches serving a brew of self righteousness. We humans feel we have no need to venture into the dark wood — we can come back to the tavern, or the tavern/churches.

Despair is the gift God planted a gift in people’s souls, and it is accessible only when deep in the woods. Then — God created a moment in each day, a moment of grace, that gives a glimpse of how it could be if we break free.

Venture out into howling wind on edge of dark wood. Those who follow the path will be certain it is their path. It will evoke a sense of peace and joy never experienced on the brightly-lit roads. It will lead them to — home.

Have the courage to step into the path of the dark wood and find your home.

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.



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,