Some of you may be familiar with the Irish poet David Whyte who now lives on Bainbridge Island. Angie and I had the opportunity to hear him speak and read his poetry two years ago in Tacoma. At one point in his life, David Whyte was working for a non-profit and at a cross-roads in his life. He had a conversation with Brother David Steindl-Rast, who wrote the book, “Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer.”
“Brother David? Tell me about exhaustion.”
Brother David responded with a question: “You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?”
“What is it then?”
The antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness. You are so tired because what you do in this organization has nothing to do with your true gifts. When you are only half here or half there, it will kill you after awhile. You need something to which you can give your full self. You know what that is; I don’t have to tell you. You know the poem, The Swan, by Rainer Maria Rilke?
This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it, is like the lumbering gait of the swan.
And then our dying—
releasing ourselves from the very ground on which we stood—
is like the way the swan hesitantly lowers himself into the water.
It gently receives him, and, gladly yielding,
flows back beneath him, as wave follows wave,
while the swan, now – wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure, allows himself to glide.
You are like Rilke’s swan in his awkward waddling across the ground; A swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. He does it by moving toward the elemental water where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything. But you have to let yourself down into those waters form the ground on which you stand, and that can be hard. Particularly if you think you might drown. Let go of all this effort and let yourself down, however awkwardly into the waters.”
Eric Elnes writes:
Brother David was advising Whyte to replace certainty with trust in those sweet spot moments that orient you toward your place in the world. We might be waddling, and need a push into the waters. If you’ve been waddling on dry land for very long, you may be used to it. However awkward our waddling may feel, it feels normal. Sometimes what is needed is a little shove from the Holy Spirit into those elemental waters to get us swimming. Brother David was essentially advising David Whyte to put down the work he had thought of as useful and necessary for the not-for-profit and instead embrace his poetry. David was faced with the gift of uncertainty.
There is a story in the Gospel of John of someone who refused to let himself down into the elemental waters that would heal his life. What lengths he went to, in order to hold onto security.
Jesus and disciples are at a festival in Jerusalem. There is a giant shallow pool surrounded by an amphitheater called Bethsaida/Bethzatha. There was a belief that when the water was stirred up, this disturbance was considered a divine action and that the first person in the pool after such a disturbance, received miraculous healing. Jesus encounters a man “who had been sick for 38 years”, waiting to get into the pool first when the waters were stirred up. He relied on begging, allowing him enough to live on and he possibly, had a network of friends he could rely on. It wasn’t a perfect life, but it was predictable, certain, and he had become accustomed to it.
When Jesus came by, everything changed with this question,
“Do you want to be healed?” Instead of a direct answer, an excuse is offered: “Sir I have no one to put me in the pool, someone always steps down ahead of me.”
If this man truly wanted to get into the pool – surely someone would have helped him get in the water first – if for no other reason than to take over the coveted begging spot. OR in the Jewish tradition, acts of kindness and charity like this are called mitzvahs – good deeds done from religious duty. Surely someone in those 38 years would have acted with compassion to ensure he was first to go in the restorative water. Unless, he didn’t want to get in.
Eric Elnes writes: This man has no interest in being healed. His social, religious, economic world revolves around the pool. His life is defined by his limitations. To be healed would disrupt his life.. It was more predictable for him to trust in his own ability to provide and in others’ generosity than it was to trust in the uncertain miracle of God’s healing. It would take away his certainty.
So why does Jesus heal this man who doesn’t consent to be healed in the first place? Probably for the same reason the Spirit keeps pushing us into places we wouldn’t necessarily go ourselves. Jesus knew that the man struggled with more than bodily paralysis. He was stricken by the fear of uncertainty. He would have to move from a predictable life from being a beggar at the top of the hierarchy to struggling in society with no easy certainties. We should probably talk to Jesus about consent, but Jesus heals him anyway, instructing the man to stand up, take up his bed and walk. There is no indication of the man’s gratitude. Instead of moving on from the Temple to live his new life, he stays at Beth-zatha. When the religious authorities question him about his healing—which had taken place on the Sabbath—the man doesn’t even know who healed him. Later, Jesus finds him and says, you have been made well. Go and sin no more.
Ironically, the man finds the Pharisees to identify his healer as Jesus, in order to help them arrest Jesus. The authorities started persecuting Jesus because he healed on the Sabbath, breaking the law.
We could easily look at this man, and say, what were you thinking? Don’t you want to be healed? Why are you betraying the person who is offering you wholeness and life? Instead of turning those questions outward – which is so easy to do – the invitation is to turn inward to ask ourselves, What lengths will we go, in order to hold onto security and certainty? Are we willing to grapple with the uncertainty in our lives in order to step into the elemental waters? Do we want to be healed?
As the pandemic has taught us, most of us would rather live with a reasonable amount of certainty. It makes us nervous when there is a paradigm shift in how we live our lives, a change in plans when we suddenly have to opt for “plan B” or “plan C”. To most people uncertainty seems more like a curse than a gift. When we can’t see the endpoint or the path is not clearly marked, we get anxious. Without assurance that everything will be OK, we tend to dig our heels in.
Uncertainty is often what brings us into the Dark Wood to begin with. Who am I? Where is God calling me to go and be and do? A place of searching & seeking, a place of possibility. The dark wood we’re entering is our own. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve lost your way, or that life isn’t what you expected, or dealt one of life’s curve balls, you will recognize these woods. In the place we are absolutely certain, it is difficult for the seed of a new ideas or possibilities to grow.
And yet, too much certainty removes the adventure from life, takes joy out of relationships. John Ortberg, from Faith & Doubt:
“We all think we want certainty. But we don’t.What we really want is trust, wisely placed. Trust is better than certainty because it honors the freedom of persons and makes possible growth and intimacy that certainty alone could never produce.”
Author Anne Lamott:“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”
So in the Dark Wood of uncertainty what eventually leads us out is learning to trust. Learning to trust God, learning to trust ourselves and learning to trust others. When we enter the Dark Wood of uncertainty we don’t necessarily need to panic, but to reframe it and anticipate that we are in a season of “trust development.” We can say to ourselves, I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but I’m going to emerge with a new understanding of trust and perhaps let go of false certainties that I have held closely to my heart. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, but with growing maturity we can learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty. We can learn to trust. Love thrives in uncertainty – not the kind that increases chaos, but the kind that develops trust.
Oswald Chambers suggested that it is important to
“Continually revise your relationship with God until the only certainty that you have is not that you are faithful, but that God is.”
As much as we may fear it or try to avoid it, our uncertainty in the Dark Woods can be a gift that opens doors to new ways of thinking and living. It can invite us to grow in ways that we might never have imagined if we were content to stay within the predictable and certainty of our lives.
The gift of uncertainty in the Dark Wood is all about a gentle, necessary, and persistent push from the Holy Spirit into the elemental waters. All that we have to do … is trust.
The Jesuit paleontologist, philosopher, and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God…We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability-and that it may take a very long time. Only God can say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that God’s hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
Our prayer hymn Through These Hands is one the choir has sung before. It is written by Trish Bruxvoort Colligan. The first verse echoes our journey to healing – It’s the way of our freedom. It’s the way of our loss. It’s the way of our victory. It’s the way of the cross. Through these hands flows a river of God’s grace and mercy, justice and fierceness of love. Through these hands flows the healing God alone can offer, flowing through these hands. Let’s sing with AJ & JEFF