The Dark Wood gift of disappearing helps us maintain a healthy distance from self-conceptions that are either built upon a grand house of cards or upon a meager image pulled from the swamps of shame. More than most, this gift provides us a certain spaciousness and grace to move about life freely, following those sweet-spot moments that mark our path even when significant obstacles are placed before us. Few of us, however, claim this gift or use it skillfully.

–Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
–Luke 4:30

The Art of Disappearing
Naomi Shihab Nye
When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

Have you ever wanted to “just disappear?”

We use that phrase or something like it at times of embarrassment for ourselves and others. Also during times when our social anxiety ratchets itself up a notch. Introverts may be more inclined to wish to disappear than extroverts. But ask any eighth grader who has to, OMG, be stuck in public with parents if disappearing would be a good option. They’ll tell you. All of us know that feeling of exposure, of being too much in the spotlight, of wishing to fade away, to dissolve, to become part of the backdrop, to disappear.

This past March when we first had our protesters and the piece I had written about not believing in God went all over the place, I tried to keep a cool façade. Inside I wanted to disappear. A little too much exposure too soon.

Disappearing is about not wanting to be seen in a certain way. It is related to shame and vulnerability. We protect ourselves with our identities, with our self-definitions, with our cool façade because we are afraid of what might be revealed. If they see me as I am, I won’t be loved or accepted. I will be rejected. At least we think. When our façade is cracked and more of our Self leaks out, so to speak, it can be frightening.

We desire to disappear, to not be seen. “I don’t want ‘them’ to see me like this.”

This Fall I have based my sermons on the book by Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics and Other Wanderers.

The Dark Wood is a metaphor for a place or a state of being in which we are open for growth, for understanding, for revelation. It may seem to be an uncomfortable place. Darkness is often a metaphor for something sinister. You want to get out of the Darkness and into the Light. But it is in the darkness that we may find many gifts.

The Dark Wood of failure or grief or mortality or loss are places in which if we allow ourselves to be open and receptive, places of grace and growth.

When Eric wrote that disappearing is a gift of the Dark Wood, I was thinking he was talking about wanting to disappear in response to feeling exposed or vulnerable. I think he is to an extent. But it is more than a desire to disappear in response to shame. That is just the beginning.

There is an art to disappearing.

We are a mixed bag of identities. We have those that arise out of shame, of being too much exposed, vulnerable, and therefore subject to rejection.

“I am a bad person. I am not good at such and so. I am fill in the blank. “

We pick up these self-conceptions from living in the world. We spend a lot of time trying to hide them because we don’t want them to be seen. When we think they are seen and judged we wish to disappear.

We also have identities that are grandiose. We may create an identity that if we admit it causes us to think we are bit superior in some way. We may see this in others more than we do in ourselves. The gift of the shadow. The gift of the shadow I think is related to the gift of disappearing. I will talk more about that later.

My point is this: all of us are a mix of identities created from shame or grandiosity. These are our identities that we have cobbled together in order to survive. We have done so unconsciously, certainly. Our arsenal of identities provide a shield and a sword for battling through the world.

Disappearing is more than a desire to disappear. It is also an art, a skill, and a gift of the Dark Wood. It is a gift of discovery.

I chose this passage in Luke about Jesus’s first sermon for today’s text for reflection. According to the Jesus Seminar, this story is a creation of the author of Luke. The historical Jesus probably did speak in synagogues and he possibly was rejected in his home town. He may have been some kind of magician or healer as were many in that time. It is not likely that he could read or write. Very few people, and hardly any of the peasant class could do that. Jesus was a teller of parables, versed in the oral tradition.

The story reflects Luke’s theology throughout Luke and Acts, of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah Jesus and God’s inclusion of the Gentiles. Luke and Acts for all of its merits has been a defining narrative of supposed Christian superiority to Judaism.

The reason I chose this story for today’s topic is the last verse. It likely didn’t happen, it is a creation of Luke, but it does speak of the gift and the art of disappearing.

The crowd who at first marveled at the hometown boy who has done good, now wants to throw him off a cliff because he has pressed their buttons and exposed their shortcomings. We have to admit that the hometown boy did not use a great deal of tact in delivering his message. Jesus tells them in a nutshell, that God likes the Gentiles more than you Jews, so there!

Then the text:

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Again, none of this happened. Luke tells similar stories throughout the rest of the gospel and in Acts of the supposed violent Jews over against the followers of Jesus. The supposed good guys are saved by last minute miracles.

We can’t ignore that. I can’t in good conscience preach on texts of the Bible and not point out what I think are their shortcomings. Otherwise we continue uncritically to foster the legacy of anti-semitism in our sacred texts.

If we can step away from Luke’s anti-Jewish polemic and regard Jesus as obviously a Jew and a Jewish prophet, speaking to fellow Jews about expanding their vision, there is an important message. We all need our vision expanded.

Here is the irony. Jesus, that is the historical Jesus, was a Jew. He wasn’t an unusual Jew. He was like other Jewish prophets and Jewish wisdom teachers inviting people to expand their vision. It is an important message to anyone at anytime. Move beyond your tribalism. Move beyond identity politics. See the other not as other.

The irony is that within a few decades, a century at most, a new tribe was formed and turned the Jewish prophet into a god for Gentiles. The prophet who encouraged people to expand their vision, was turned into a figure that was used to exclude others. Only Christians can be saved, yada yada.

“Expand your vision” was Jesus’s message that Luke kind of gets and then distorts.

For the purposes of today’s sermon, it is the last verse that is interesting. The mob is going to throw the prophet off the cliff “but he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

He disappeared.

This is the art of disappearing. It is as if Jesus is saying, “You can’t touch this.”

To disappear is not to be defined.

According to the story, the crowd hears Jesus’s message loud and clear. And they don’t like it. No one likes it when we hear it. We resist it. We resist the messenger. We resist being the messenger as well and telling that truth for the fear of being thrown off cliffs, literally or metaphorically.

No one likes to have her or his prejudices exposed. No one wants to hear that their self-image is not what others see. Calls to expand vision are seen as insults. “How dare you call me homophobic or racist!” we may bristle, even though no one may have even used those words.

The fact is that we all have shadows. The shadow is a term in Jungian psychology that refers to that aspect of ourselves that leaves a shadow. The good thing about us, nonetheless leaves a shadow. The very qualities that attract you to your lover are the qualities that bug you as well.

For example, being proud of our heritage, whatever it might be, is a good thing. Its shadow is that our heritage is superior to another’s or needs to be privileged over another’s. Everything that is virtuous about us has its shadow. That is the human condition.

The gift, even though it doesn’t feel like a gift, it feels painful, is when we recognize our shadow and rid ourselves of the illusion that we don’t have one.

That is so important I need to say it again:

The gift, even though it doesn’t feel like a gift, it feels painful, is when we recognize our shadow and rid ourselves of the illusion that we don’t have one.

We all have a shadow and we can see it in others more easily than we can see it in ourselves. We often cannot see it at all until it is pointed out to us. When it is pointed out to us, how do we react? According to the story in Luke, the folks attempt to throw the messenger off the cliff.

They resist. They lash out. Why? Well why do we? Perhaps shame. Exposure. I really am this bad thing and I don’t want to be. We react with loathing toward ourselves or toward others.

So, what is the art of disappearing? Here it is. I am bringing it home. Here is the bottom line.

The art of disappearing is recognizing that we have a shadow, but we are not our shadow.

We learn that we have a shadow. We do not harbor the illusion that we do not have a shadow. Disappearing is the next step. We recognize that we have a shadow, but are not our shadow. We don’t beat up on ourselves, but learn about ourselves.

The image of Jesus passing through the midst of them, disappearing so to speak, is a metaphor for the art of creating distance from our self-conceptions or the conceptions of others.

The art of disappearing is when we are confronted with our shadow to allow it to speak to us. Not resist it, not deny it and on the other hand not be shamed by it or defined by it.

We have a shadow. We are not the shadow. The art of disappearing as Eric Elnes points in this really profound chapter,

“helps us maintain a healthy distance from self-conceptions that are either built upon a grand house of cards or upon a meager image pulled from the swamps of shame.”

It is being able to dispassionately examine all the conceptions we have about ourselves. To disappear is not to cling to an illusion about who we think we are. The art of disappearing allows us space to re-create ourselves. We can do that as individuals, as a community, as a religion.

It requires a great deal of humility. It requires of us not to be defensive, but to examine openly ourselves and others.

The Dark Wood is being confronted by our shadow. It doesn’t feel good. Notice it. Recognize that it is a shadow of a virtue. We have a shadow. We are not our shadow. As we disappear, that is allow our illusions about ourselves whether shaming or grandiose, fade, then we have space, an emptiness, for growth and re-creation.

I am thinking about all of this in light or in dark of the tensions over our identities as human beings, as Americans, perhaps as Christians. Being American is a good thing. Being Christian is a good thing. Being Muslim is a good thing. But allidentities have their shadows. This is coming to a head as we try to understand violence in Syria and of course most recently in California.

There are forces from many sides that want us to see this as a conflict, a war, between Islam and America. Good vs. evil. These forces want us to paint with a broad bush, blame.

This is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to face our own shadows. Not for the purposes of shame or blame, but for the purpose of honesty. Now more than ever we need to expand our vision, be self-critical, practice the art of disappearing,

One way to do that is to keep all lines of communication open. What do we like from another’s point of view? How can we truly hear from the “other?”

Most importantly, how can we in the midst of differences be the hands, feet, and voice of peace.

Amen.