The idea of the Dark Wood comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. For Dante it was a dark

place; a place of confusion, emptiness and despair. One would find themselves there due to sin,

as if sent there to be punished or trapped until one had riddled their way out of an existential

rubric cube. However, the writer of the book we are using for Lent agrees with the mystics; the

Dark Wood is not a place of punishment, stagnation, or a consequence of sin, but a place of

necessity and a precipice of revelation. In essence, the Dark Wood becomes sacred ground where

human suffering and tragedy meets the holy. The Dark Wood is simply a metaphor. The truth is

that we travel through the Dark Wood every time we experience grief, loss, ambiguity,

uncertainty, disappointment and a plethora of other unpleasant emotions and experiences that are

related to our human condition. It is not to say that God necessarily causes these things in our

lives in order to give us these gifts, but in the midst of these dark places God can be found in new

ways, and that is the gift. Today we consider the gift of emptiness. The void. The absence.

Last time I preached, I told you that I am not a fan of the New Testament. I much prefer

the narratives in the Hebrew text, so I am going to go rouge for a moment… Shhhhh – don’t tell

Tammy! I am reminded of the story of Hagar. Her journey into the Dark Wood did not occur in

darkness but in light, blinding in the dry desert heat. If you remember the story of Hagar, she was

a handmaiden given to Abraham by his wife Sarah. Sarah had borne no children, so she told

Abraham to lay with Hagar and when he did she became pregnant with Ishmael. When Hagar

became pregnant Sarah began to mistreat her, and Hagar ran into the desert. An angel of the Lord

found Hagar and told her about the child she was carrying, what would become of him, and told

her to return to Sarah and Abraham. Hagar used the name El Roi – meaning “the God who sees

me.” Hagar had been obtained in Egypt, now here she was away from her home, family, and

community. A maidservant, pregnant and mistreated, and quite frankly on a suicide mission.

However, even in the midst of suffering Hagar experienced a God who saw her in her moment of

despair, emptiness, and desperation. It should be noted, this is the first and only time El Roi is

used in the entire cannon and it is given to us by one prepared to die because of how bleak her

circumstances had become. This is just one example in our cannon of someone who met God

when traveling through the Dark Wood. What about us? Who here has traveled the Dark Wood

or maybe who finds themselves as a current a traveler?

As we have been talking about new church governance the topic of testifying has crept up

a few times. As a progressive church, some may clench when such an idea is suggested. The idea

is that we listen to one another and bear witness to what God is doing among us. Our stories are

important because although we may disagree on theology and church structure, we can all agree

that there is value in human experience. As one of our youth stated, “stories help create

inspiration.” At the risk of testifying, my favorite part of a UCC church gathering is the

invitation. “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” I

remember hearing those words for the first time during one of my longest journeys through the

Dark Wood. Those words burned.

In 2008 I snuck into a UCC church in Southern California. I purposefully waited until

after the service started to enter, hoping that nobody would talk to me. I was wounded, broken,

and on the precipice of leaving organized religion altogether. I had been abused and taken

advantage of by yet another Baptist church, while in the epicenter of a public divorce with a

Southern Baptist minister. And, of course, according to this church the divorce was entirely my

fault. I remember hearing those words in the UCC church and thinking, “Yeah, well where I am

on life’s journey is without direction, about to lose everything, and on center stage staring in a

one man show of humiliation; I don’t know if there is a place for me anywhere.” Because

according to my tradition I was damaged goods. As a woman, claiming to be called into

ministry, I was already on shaky ground – but now as a divorced woman? I was finished.

Everything I worked so hard for, including suffering through seminary with belittling remarks

and condescending questions merely because of my sex… all that for nothing? I had been so

certain and so willing to forge ahead even without their support, because I felt God’s leading.

Had I been wrong? I have to tell you, as angry and hurt as I was at the church and my then

husband, I was angrier with God. What kind of God continually leads to dead ends? I began to

question my understanding of God, God’s nature, my own adequacy, and even my worth. I chose

the Dark Wood; I could have stayed in marriage that was slowly killing me, and bent my back in

order to fit the glass ceiling the church wanted me under, but I didn’t. I got empty, both

professionally and personally. I lost friends, privilege, standing, and, from some individuals,

even their respect.

I spent about a year travelling through the Dark Wood. At the risk of sounding like

Charles Dickens, it was the best of times and the worst of times. As many of the wonderful

experiences I had, people I met, and beautiful moments I encountered during that year, there was

one gift that that stands out above all the rest. During that period emptiness gave me my greatest

gift; it restored my faith. It’s not the faith I entered the Dark Wood with. This faith is tough, it’s

resilient, it’s able hold ambiguity, it’s not legalistic, it does not cling to tradition, it’s not easily

shaken or challenged, and it feels no need to rescue when others question God or my faith. I no

longer need God to be good as I understand what good is. It just is. It’s faith 2.0; like Batman,

the dark hero, the faith that has been to Hell and back. You see, in order for something new to

happen or grow we have to get empty. I had to let go of my own assumptions, expectations, and

even my desired career trajectory. Alan Cohen said it best, “It takes a lot of courage to release

the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no

longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement

there is life, and in change there is power.”

Now you may be thinking, “What does any of this have to do with our scripture

reading?” This season, across the world Christians are gathering to read the account of Christ’s

death. Because of the polarization of Christianity some churches are proclaiming this as the

greatest love story ever told, others are debating its authenticity and meaning and so on.

However, here in Olympia, Washington we are going off script. I can admit that as someone who

was raised in the Evangelical tradition, the death of Christ had been the crux of my faith. But as I

have aged and received more education the cross has become an enigma that I have previously

and continue to struggle with, and I am now ok with that ambiguity. However, for our purposes

this Lenten season I want us to focus not only on the theology of the cross, but also on the

experience.

For many churches the emphasis will be on Jesus and the abandonment and emptying of

himself as he experienced on the cross. That makes sense; after all he is the one central to this

scriptural account, or at least what is known. But for just a moment I want us to focus on what is

not known.

In Jewish tradition there is something known as “black and white fire.” The black fire is

that which is written, what ancient authors wanted to be known or had inspiration to write – thus

black because it is written. White fire is the moments in scripture when something is missing,

absent, even those places where the text is empty. In Jewish tradition they are seen as

contemporaries, meaning what is known and what remains a mystery are equally important. The

written account of Jesus is the black fire, but what of God, the Eloi Eloi?

We know from the other gospels that Jesus was requesting pardon for those present at his

crucifixion, assuring one of the thieves he would be with him in paradise, and according to Luke

Jesus eventually commits his spirit to God. Yet according to Matthew and our text, Jesus at some

point feels forsaken. Did God leave? If so, where did God go? Why did God go? And can God

really go? All of the theological questions begin to grow out of this emptiness, this white fire.

Some have postulated that as Jesus became sin, God could no longer be present due to

God’s nature. Others have postulated that, per the book of John, because all things were made

through Jesus, God was busy holding and maintaining creation. The postmodernists have used

this, and other examples of human suffering when it seemed as if God could not be found, to

suggest that God is dead. However, I do not settle in any of those camps. I have my own

understanding of the cross and would like to postulate a piece of my own theory, since that is all

that they are. Could this be the one time, not just in human history but in all of history, that God

encountered God’s own experience in the Dark Wood?

Before anyone gets too bogged down in the theology we are focusing on, aren’t Jesus and

God the same and person? Rather than beginning to rehash poor metaphors for the trinity, let’s

focus on what is written. Although debated and argued for centuries regarding its absolute

meaning, scripture is clear on the distinction between Jesus and God. Jesus often refers to God as

Adoni, “father.”

Perhaps one of the most familiar scriptures in the entire Bible is John 3:16. Most

evangelicals focus on salvation and eternal life, but I would like to focus on the nature of Jesus

and God which is revealed in this single verse. Scripture often uses anthropomorphic terms,

which means to give something human like characteristics in order for us to understand it better.

Scripture refers to humans as children of God, but in this one verse we learn that Jesus is the

begotten, meaning representation or likeness. Their relationship is unique, one of a kind. We

know from the book of John that God and Jesus have been together since before creation and

there has never been a separation until the cross. And just as the veil that separated God from

humanity was torn in the temple so is the son torn from the father, thus they are separated and the

emptiness of God abounded.

What may this mean for us? I would like to suggest one thing, that we make room for the

possibility that God can not only find us in the Dark Wood, but perhaps has been a fellow

traveler. Thus he is able to empathize and grieve with us along our way because of God’s own

pain, once encountered in the Dark Wood.