Archive for October 2015
Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers) by Eric Elnes, Abingdon Press, 2015, 189 pp.
This book reached out and called to me. I just knew that there was something here I needed to read–a companion on my journey through a wilderness time in my own spirituality, relationship with God and sense of call. I went from ordering it to completing it in less than two weeks. I did not expect to find answers to my questions about “Where is God and what does all of this mean?” What I sought was reassurance that taking the path through the “Dark Wood,” as Elnes calls it, will eventually set me closer to God, not farther away. I hoped for guidance and companionship on that journey, a shared sense that being lost and in the dark is a gift rather than a liability. The title implied I would find all of those things, and I did. This book was a great sense of encouragement to trust the journey as it unfolds, even though the light is not clear.
Elnes begins with the reassurance that each one of us has a place and a purpose in this world, and Gifts of the Dark Wood 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. (2)
The book lifts up the power of the Dark Wood as the place where God can find us and claim us.
How nice to know that you don’t have to be a saint to find your place in this world! You don’t even have to be “above average.” All you really need to be is struggling. Incidentally, even the great saints of old experienced significant doubts and struggled with imperfections. They did not become saints by moving from uncertainty to clarity. They moved, rather, from uncertainty to trust, which requires the ongoing presence of uncertainty. Likewise, while many saints experienced small and large victories over the course of their lives, they moved not from failure to success, but from failure to faithfulness, which requires the ongoing possibility of failure. (8)
This feels like just the affirmation I am learning to make right now, just the bit of wisdom I am beginning to understand and claim for my own life.
Elnes enumerates seven gifts found in the Dark Wood journey: uncertainty, emptiness, being thunderstruck, getting lost, temptation, disappearing, and misfits. On first glance, these may sound more like burdens than gifts, but I recognized them immediately as blessed elements of my journey into the unknown. Each gift gets its own chapter, where Elnes explores that gift deeply, using both personal stories and stories from the scriptures to illuminate how that gift presents itself and points us toward God.
One story he shares under “The Gift of Uncertainty” rang especially true for me. It’s a conversation between David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, and David Whyte, a successful non-profit executive about to become poet, who is struggling with exhaustion. Brother David says,
You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest? … The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness… You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after awhile. You need something to which you can give your full powers. (29-30)
I tried to articulate this very thing in my sermon on Sunday. Sometimes, rest is not what we need to overcome exhaustion–it is a deeper, fuller, more consuming engagement in that which gives life meaning.
Another section I appreciated, in a related way, was his chapter on temptation. Elnes sees temptation in the Dark Wood not as the usual suspects of various indulgences, but as the temptation to do the wrong good–the good we are not called to do. Again using David Whyte as an example, he shows how his move from non-profit leader to poet moved him from doing good to doing his good, making his unique contribution to the world. Jesus’ temptation is the model. Satan (whom Elnes calls the Adversary) tempts Jesus not toward self-indulgence, but toward good things. They are simply not the right good things for him. I find myself in this bind of temptation regularly, and one of the lessons I am learning in my journey through the Dark Wood right now is how to let some good things go undone because they are not mine to do.
Having read this book on the heels of The Abundant Community, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels, especially in the chapters on temptation and “The Gift of Misfits.” The Dark Wood is not the consumer path. It shapes us in ways too unique for systems and markets. After a fascinating story from his wife’s work developing a frozen macaroni and cheese product, Elnes says,
Countless are the processes that seek to tame the wild energy inside you, just as they seek to tame the wild energies of the world. While this energy inside you is a direct gift from the Spirit, there are a number of processes governing everything about you, from your vocation to your vacation, that will attempt to shape your life until it is as palatable to the masses as that macaroni and cheese product. … Far better to consume you this way. (155)
The Dark Wood makes us misfits, unable to consume and be consumed by the systems of the world because we are shaped by the gifts of God.
From beginning to end, this book is an affirmation that God will find us. When we get lost, get empty, grow uncertain, those are just the openings God needs to find us and use us. Whether you call it the Dark Wood, the wilderness, “the dark night of the soul,” or “the cloud of unknowing,” this book is an excellent companion for anyone journeying through that difficult terrain. It has blessed me and it will bless you too.
The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2010, 173 pp.
I have been feeling a great sense of discontent in recent years about the engagement of churches in traditional mission endeavors. My own congregation houses a thriving community meal, which has served 75-100 people every Saturday for more than 20 years. It’s important to those who come for food, and even more important to those in our congregation and many others who find a venue there for Christian service. However, I wonder exactly what we are doing. Are we actually ending hunger in our community, or are we making it easier for the community to allow poverty to persist? Are we enabling forces of poor wages, corporate greed and negligent government to stand unchecked by softening the consequences of their action? Feeding people who are hungry feels like a basic good, something that ought to be clean and true and good. But are we ending hunger, or just perpetuating it? Especially because it makes us feel so good to be a part of it?
This book is the first of a series I am reading to help address this topic. I have a background in congregation-based community organizing, and read Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton last year to begin to address these issues. This book, along with several upcoming, will continue that conversation.
The Abundant Community draws a sharp contrast between consumerism and citizenship, and the kinds of community that are possible within each conception of human life and connection. In the introductory chapter, beautifully titled “Welcome,” McKnight and Block draw the distinction.
Our culture tells us that a satisfying life can only be purchased. It tells us that in the place where we live, we don’t have the resources to create a good life. That we must find the expertise from marketers and professionals. This book reminds us that a neighborhood can raise a child, provide security, sustain our health, secure our income, and care for our vulnerable people. Each of these is within the power of our community. (xiii)
We have replaced the functions of family and neighborhood–caring for children and vulnerable people, providing security and income, sustaining health–with marketable goods, which has diminished the meaning of family and neighborhood while leaving us ultimately dissatisfied by the market’s inability to adequately provide what we seek (and have always found) in community. The first two chapters outline in detail the difference between consumerist attempts to provide those goods and community ones, and the history of how we moved from one to the other in the last century. The market mentality builds impersonal systems, with predictable ways to meet stated needs. However, those systems are predicated on perpetual need, commodified responses and predictable outcomes—none of which are capable of giving us the true intimacy, community and care we desire. The market relies on this ongoing dissatisfaction to ensure our continued engagement as consumers. Systems are designed to produce cures, but the human condition is not a problem to be solved. (38) McKnight and Block point to examples from education, law enforcement, grief care and health care to demonstrate how our consumer model of dealing with these concerns fails repeatedly, when a community approach could succeed.
One interesting observation they make is around privacy, professionalization and its impact on community.
This privacy is the enemy of community because it takes the personal away. It hides and removes our secrets from relationship building among families and neighbors. Secrets are the raw materials for good community. … Making secrets private also deprives the community of the capacity to deal with troubles. … (40)
Instead of dealing with problems together as a community, they argue, we send away everyone with a problem to a professional, which diminishes the community’s capacity to deal with problems.
The capacity has atrophied in the community. You do know what to do about it, but the professionalization of care has made you feel that you don’t. (40)
The third chapter enumerates the true costs of living in a consumer world–to the environment, to our sense of self worth, to relationships in the family and neighborhood, to the possibility of satisfaction. Because we have ceded so many responsibilities to the marketplace, neighborhoods, families and communities have become incompetent to deal with them. We must rebuild capable communities in order to reclaim those responsibilities.
One interesting observation throughout the book is the way that the consumer way strangles personality and individuality. The authors write, “A community is a place where you can be yourself. The institution causes me to lose myself–to be replaceable or to be called a ‘case.'” (55) I wonder at churches in this assessment. One of the best, most beautiful things about some churches is the way quirky people can find a way to serve and love and care for one another in true community. Yet sometimes, we in those quirky churches full of quirky people wish we could be more like the big, institutional, well-resourced churches who didn’t have to mess around with such troublesome uniqueness. Perhaps that instead is our greatest gift. The authors instead suggest that valuing idiosyncracy is key to community. The people in communities are not replicable–it’s Dr. Jack, the church usher that always carries Lifesavers in his pocket for the kids; it’s Horace’s unique artistry that graces the sanctuary; it’s Norma’s special brand of prayer and friendship. These things are unique and cannot persist beyond their lifetime, and that’s what makes the community.
The second half of the book points toward strategies for reclaiming community over consumerism and rebuilding competent communities. McKnight and Block name the abundance already present in communities–the collection of gifts, skills and competencies shared by any group of people. We must organize to help people share their unique gifts, rather than depend on impersonal systems.
A community based on scarcity, dependent on systems, with citizens competing and living in isolation from one another, threatens democracy. That is why consumerism threatens democracy. Because it is organized around scarcity and dependency by design. (110)
The way out of incompetent communities and consumerism is to claim our abundance, celebrate unique gifts, and decide to be satisfied with what we have.
There is much wisdom for pastors and churches in this book, and much to consider on my original question about church mission projects. Does our community meal foster community? Does it identify gifts and abundance? How can we do better?
Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life by Glennon Doyle Melton, Scribner, 2013, 300 pp.
I have a significant number of friends, drawn from both clergy circles and mom circles, who are huge fans of Glennon Doyle Melton and her Momastery blog, almost like fangirls with their level of devotion and *squee*. Although I’ve been reading Momastery for a long time, I’m not in that camp. I’m not generally one to go fangirl anyway, and Momastery never tempted me. I admire Glennon Doyle Melton and her mission of connecting people together. Her blog regularly makes me draw in a sharp breath in recognition, or moves me to tears, or makes me feel heard and understood, or says something I want to say in a way that is much more clever. To be honest, even though I know Melton sees a much more inclusive vision, it sometimes felt too much like #whitepeopleproblems, a place for suburban, white and wealthy moms absorbed in their own struggles. Her writing annoys me sometimes, so much so that I can’t even make it through a blog post because of ALL THE CAPITAL LETTERS.
So, I didn’t reach for Carry On, Warrior right away. I knew it was important to read it, that I would find some great things inside, but I also felt like it might give me a headache.
I was wrong. Because it’s a book and not a blog, Carry On, Warrior is edited. That means it’s all the best, most wonderful stuff from Momastery, refined and honed into greater beauty. Glennon Doyle Melton is a good writer, and I suspect she had a good editor, because what emerges here is a stronger, clearer and more compelling voice for Melton, but one that remains uniquely hers. It’s still raw, not polished; authentic, not packaged. She’s become a much better writer, and what I found in Carry On, Warrior is a beautiful memoir of faith and hope. It’s only fitting that Melton, whose best appeal is her vulnerability about her own struggles, lives that story again as a writer. This isn’t a mess, it’s a beautiful, humorous collection of essays on life and love that reveals the holy in all our mess.
Melton tells stories from her brutiful life (beautiful + brutal, a term she coined), and invites us to see where God is present in them and in our brutiful lives. She covers her journey through addiction recovery and an eating disorder, the ups and downs of marriage and parenting, and finding faith and family. She has a straightforward way of explaining things using everyday metaphors that is deceptively simple. Her observations seem obvious, until you consider them for just a moment and realize their power. It’s a skill like Jesus, taking ordinary stuff and imbuing it with holy meaning. Also like Jesus, at every turn she offers glimpses of beauty and hope. I guess I probably sound like a fangirl now, against my will.
Below are some of my favorite examples, to get a sense of the power of Carry On, Warrior.
I like to compare God’s love to the sunrise. That sun shows up every morning, no matter how bad you’ve been the night before. It shines without judgment. It never withholds. It warms the sinners, the saints, the druggies, the cheerleaders–the saved and the heathens alike. You can hide from the sun, but it won’t take that personally. It’ll never, ever punish you for hiding. You can stay in the dark for years or decades, and when you finally step outside, it’ll be there. It was there the whole time, shining and shining. It’ll still be there, steady and bright as ever, just waiting for you to notice, to come out, to be warmed. … The sunrise was my daily invitation from God to come back to life. (19)
Here, in an open letter to her son, she tackles two of the most divisive questions among Christians today, the interpretation of scripture and what it means to be born again. Suddenly, all those divisions seem to fall away.
Much of the Bible is confusing, but the most important parts aren’t. Sometimes I wonder if folks keep arguing about the confusing parts so they don’t have to get started doing the simple parts. … If a certain scripture turns our judgment outward instead of inward, if it requires us to worry about changing others instead of ourselves, if it doesn’t help us become better lovers of God and life and others, if it distracts us from what we are supposed to be doing down here–finding God in everyone, feeding hungry people, comforting the sick and the sad, giving whatever we have to give, and laying down our lives for our friends–then we assume we don’t understand it yet, and we get back to what we do understand. Chase, what we do understand is that we are reborn.
The first time you’re born, you identify the people in the room as your family. The second time you’re born, you identify the whole world as your family. Christianity is not about joining a particular club; it’s about waking up to the fact that we’re all in the same club. (141)
She comes head-on at one of my favorite topics, the importance of church in Christian life.
Any faith worth a damn is a faith worked out over a lifetime of relationships with other people. Church is just a commitment to try to live a life of a certain quality–a life of love, of humility, of service–alongside others for whom you care and allow to care for you, even when that’s difficult. It’s a group of regular old humans trying to love each other and the world in superhuman ways. And so it’s a hard way of life, but to me, it’s the only way of life that makes any sense. When people ask me if faith, if church, is comforting to me, I say, “Sort of.” But mostly it’s challenging. (219)
With this book, Glennon Doyle Melton has moved well past the title of “mommy blogger,” and become a writer whose truth-telling cuts through the noise and gives voice to the presence of God in the midst of our everyday lives. I have flags in three pages already, with plans to use quotations for upcoming sermons. This is after already developing an entire sermon on her principles (We Can Do Hard Things) just a few weeks ago. I look forward to reading much more from her in the future.