Editor’s note: On January 26 – 27, The BTS Center hosted Convocation 2015: “Gifts of the Dark Wood.” Over the course of two days, the event’s participants and keynote speakers—Dr. Eric Elnes and Dr. Marcia McFee—explored how encounters with failure, uncertainty, and temptation possess the power to bring individuals closer to God. In the following journal entries, Pam Shellberg shares and reflects upon some of her convocation experiences. We hope that you find these snapshots of Pam’s dark wood journey intriguing, enticing, and thought-provoking—much like convocation itself.
“We’ll have to call this the ‘snow globe convocation’,” one participant commented as the snow swirled outside the many windows of the hotel. Unlike the snowflakes—which were lifted up, pressed down, and thrown sideways by the winds that qualified this week’s storm as a blizzard—we were going nowhere, hunkered down and tucked in, many having already extended stays until at least Wednesday morning. Held in place by the storm, it was like being in a miniature hotel inside a snow globe that had just been given a few good shakes.
Having surrendered to the elements, the snow globe convocation took on an almost magical quality, suspended as we were for a few moments between our arrivals and our departures, between expectation and completion, between angst about the storm and our eventual release from it. It felt private and intimate and timeless.
It took on all the qualities of a liminal space—a space defined for us by Marcia McFee on Monday (drawing on the work of Victor Turner) as “the betwixt and between space,” the space in which “we are no longer what we were but not yet what we are becoming.” It was the perfect space in which to explore the dark wood (which, as it turns out, is a liminal space itself, really): those spaces and times when we recognize we are being changed by the experiences of uncertainty, temptation, and failure, but have not yet lived fully into what those changes are inaugurating.
Convocation 2015 seemed to come at a perfect time for so many. Pastors, ministers, and lay leaders are walking in the dark woods of uncertainty about the futures of the church and of their congregations. Relentlessly pursuing all they were taught was good in seminary or all that they’ve known to be good in their own experience of church life, they are finding it near impossible to recreate that same good for the people they love and serve. Many are having crises of confidence in their leadership capacities, judgments, effectiveness, and I think, maybe in God.
Convocation’s timing proved particularly significant for me personally as I enter into unfamiliar territory with an aging parent and changing family circumstances. I have also visited the dark wood of vocational discernment after the closure of Bangor Theological Seminary. From my vantage point, it takes no stretch of the imagination to see how The BTS Center as an entity—not to mention many of the people associated with its leadership—may have experienced the past few years as a time of having pitched their tents smack in the middle of the dark wood.
Eric Elnes led us in explorations of the different gifts of the dark wood with intellectually engaging and theologically provocative presentations, but it was his generous spirit of personal transparency that invited us to be a little more fearless in considering as gifts those things we otherwise dread and avoid. When telling us about an encounter with the pastor of a fundamentalist Christian church, Eric recounted his uncertainty about how their conversations would unfold, given the theological differences that were certain to collide. But instead of arguing with Eric, the pastor ended up offering unexpected observations and perspectives, thereby forcing Eric to reconsider the narrative he’d created—to see how the story he had been inclined to tell about fundamentalist preachers was much “too small for God to inhabit.”
The gift hidden in uncertainty is the discovery that we are more afraid of losing what is known than we are afraid of the unknown.
If that is true—if we really are more scared to lose what we know than to face the unknown—then Eric’s interpretation of Matthew 4:17 may prove a bit unnerving. While the scriptural passage is often translated as “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” Eric reads it slightly differently. He translates the Greek as saying “Change your whole way of thinking; heaven is here.”
Change your whole way of thinking. (Do I have to?)
Heaven is here.
This is the (hopeful) word Jesus speaks to people who are in the deepest deep of the dark wood. Heaven is here, right here in the dark wood. And so, the dark wood is heaven. The phrases are metaphors and their terms are mutually interpretive. Aspects of one term profoundly alter our understanding of the other. That is to say, everything we know about the dark wood changes our understanding of heaven; and, simultaneously, whatever we think we know of heaven can be attributed to the dark wood. Can this life, at the same time, be both heaven and dark wood? Can we experience heaven in the dark wood? Can we enter the dark wood more fearlessly because we know it to be heaven?
Throughout her time with us, Marcia created, with images, music, and rituals, deep immersions into “experiences of the gifts.” She masterfully demonstrated the primary purposes of worship: to provide symbols that help us interpret gifts as gifts, and to connect us with structures that help us attend to the events of change and transition most fully. (This “attending to” is crucial, as Marcia emphasized in quoting Ronald Grimes, because “unattended passages become spiritual sinkholes.”)
And so, after Eric’s exploration of the gift of uncertainty, Marcia asked us to write down on a piece of paper a word that represented an uncertainty we were holding. (I wrote down four words!) Against the backdrop of a piece of music titled “The Question Pool,” we carried our pieces of paper to the center table and dropped them into a large glass bowl filled with water. The paper was a special kind—it would dissolve in water—and so the questions disappeared, one after another. I watched for a while as other people dropped their papers in the bowl, stirring the water with their fingers. Because the bowl was lit from beneath, the water shimmered and the light was reflected and refracted in all directions. I had a flash of memory of the story of the sick man at the Sheep Gate pool who told Jesus he didn’t have any one to put him in the pool when the water was stirred up—but here, in the middle of a snowstorm, everyone was troubling the waters into which our individual and collective dis-eases could be let down.
When I walked away from the bowl, my fingers dripping, I found myself making the sign of the cross on my forehead.