University Congregational Church
Jan. 8, 2017
Making Space – Progressive Christian Convictions: God
Acts 17: 28; Psalm 139:7-10
I was in 8th grade, and I was in love. This was not puppy love, but even if it was, puppy love is real to the puppy. Here I was at the ripe old age of 13, and the love of my life had broken up with me. I was devastated. It is not being overly dramatic to say that I thought my life was over. At 13, being overly dramatic is a way of life. I was inconsolable. I lost my compass and my religion and my plan for the future.
He broke up with me at church camp, of all places. We were at a little camp outside of Golden Colorado, in the foothills of the Rockies. I skipped out on the prescribed activities of the afternoon and walked a bit down the hill to a secluded spot, where I sat on a boulder. I cried. I was safe in that space. No one was hiking around and it was a pretty lush spot covered in high grass. It was sprinkling a bit – an afternoon mountain mist. And then a cloud came – the mountain was literally in the cloud. It was confirmation to me that the world was weeping with me. That is the one and only time I have literally been enveloped in a cloud while on the ground.
And all at once, the sun shone through. I stopped crying long enough to realize the bright colors all around me. I thought to myself, “Look at the many colors of green just within a few feet!”
• Mossy green covered a few of the rocks nearby
• The grass was a bright green
• There were a few ferns that were olive colored
• Yellow-green and chartreuse were in the other grasses
• Some plants were like malachite and lime
• The pine trees were forest green – a deeper evergreen color
• A small forest bug crawled by and I was amazed at the electric green on his back
These colors popped out at me with an indescribable glow. I remember thinking how amazing the Creator of the Universe was to create so many shades of one color!
In my long 13 years, I never had experienced anything so real and beautiful and vivid. Until that point, it was the richest minute of my life. I was filled with wonder and a strong sense of knowing – of truly seeing God for the first time in my life. I was transported outside of myself and my grief to see this surreal beauty for a moment. My heart began to heal.
This experience has stayed with me all of my life. Sometimes when I am down, I close my eyes and try to re-imagine that scene and connect with the vibrant color and the feeling of divine presence I had that day. Although I cannot recreate it, the feeling of serenity can still be accessed.
That day, God became real to me. Later, when I learned about mysticism in seminary, I realized that others throughout the centuries have had euphoric, ultra-sensory, spiritual phenomenon moments too.
I am sharing this moment with you to begin a discussion today about “Making Space for Progressive Christian Convictions”. This will be our sermon theme for the next 8 weeks. So many of us who are progressive thinkers can quickly name what we don’t believe. These weeks, I want to acknowledge what we can believe! Each week will cover a different topic: God, Heaven, Justice, the Bible, Belief, and Faith.
Today’s topic is God. Many of us were raised with the idea that God is a supernatural parent. This imagery is rich and works for many people. There is considerable evidence that indicates many of us have a deep desire – sometimes unconscious – for a cosmic parent who will take care of us as our parents did or even better than our parents did. In this parent theism, God is often “Father”, a rule-giver and authoritative parent. This is a God who demands obedience and sacrifice.
Personally, I struggled mightily with this notion as a young adult. But I had never been exposed to other images or ways to think about God. The experience I had at 13 began to change my way of thinking. I no longer could question whether some kind of divine energy was present in the world. But I couldn’t identify or describe it either.
Acts 17: 27-28 describes this journey as “searching for God” and “groping for God”. And with descriptive poetry, it says, “In God we live and move and have our being.” This is not an authoritative parent kind of God – this God is within and around us! This is not a judge who sits in heaven looking down upon us – this God is experiential and is a luminous presence that permeates everything that is. This is not a physical God with shape and definition. So, I began to think about the world – and life – and even the universe this way: “all that is, is holy.”
As many of you know, in 1992, my sister and two of her friends died in a car-train accident. As her older sister, I thought that it was my job to prepare the way. I was the first child for our parents to raise. They made their mistakes on me. By the time she arrived, I thought they were much better parents – in large part, due to, well, me. I was the first to walk and talk and go to school. I was the first to drive a car, and date, and take chemistry. I prepared the way. She grew up with the benefit of following in my very deliberate footsteps. When she died, I was absolutely without a frame of reference. She experienced something profoundly new.. . something I had not and could not experience. I had failed (in my mind) to protect and prepare her.
Probably because of my intense focus on this aspect of her death, I had all kinds of responses to trains. And I had, for many years, an extra-sensory experience with them. I knew where trains were before anyone else could see or hear them. I could tell you if a train was in the northwest or southeast part of town and which direction is was heading. I did not need lights and crossing arms to warn me of their presence. And I had analyzed every single moment – in extremely slow motion – of what my sister experienced when she died. I knew her death was instantaneous, but I slowed it in my mind to a detailed, medically specific, physical death. Because I was the older sibling, it was my job to wrap my mind all the way around what happened.
Several years later, I was driving along Murdock Street just past Via Christi St. Francis Hospital. It was early morning, and the sun was right at the horizon. I was somewhat blinded by that sun-in-your-eyes when you drive east phenomenon. The tracks at Murdock and Emporia were only marked by a sign – no cross arms came down when a train was near. Unlike every other time, I had no extra-sensory experience of a train and I just drove across the tracks without pause. As my car was on the tracks, a loud horn blew and I realized a huge black train engine was bearing down on me. I had not stopped, looked, or listened. I barely got across the tracks and I pulled over with my heart racing in my head. I shivered uncontrollably and I began to hyperventilate.
Instantly, a voice spoke audibly, although I was alone in the car. It said, “She would already be dead.” My heart immediately began to slow. I realized that every minute detail I had scrutinized for months and years, was over in less than a second. Peace of mind settled inside of me and I relaxed within. “She would already be dead.” It was such a gift. I didn’t have to feel guilty, or struggle with my grief in the same way anymore. The divine words spoken in that moment were like a warm suave flowing into my body and easing the pain. I was free from the mental gymnastics I had played and I was free to remember her life more than remembering her death. I sat in my car pulled to the side of the street for quite a while, just basking in the holiness and wholeness. My spirit soared indescribably as it was freed from the burden I had placed there.
These kinds of mystical experiences have actually been studied and described by scholars and thinkers across time.
• Rudolf Otto called them “experiences of the numinous”
• Abraham Heschel called them moments of “radical amazement”
• Martin Buber spoke of them as “I-Thou” or “I-You” moment. He contrasted the “I-You” moment with the idea of God as an object – or an “it”.
• Abraham Maslow called them “peak experiences”
• Mircea Eliade called them “experiences of the golden world”, referring to their luminosity.
For many, God is sacred and real – an element of experience, not a hypothetical being who may or may not exist and whom we can only believe in. This understanding of what is most holy is what the writer of Acts and the writer of Psalm 139 are describing. He is the holy in which we live, move and have our being. She is the presence within and around us.
“Where can I go from your spirit?” asks the psalmist.
“Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to the sky, you are there;
If I make my bed in the deepest earth, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
And settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me,
You will hold me fast.” Psalm 139:7-10
Again, this is not describing a God that is a separate and physical being located in a heaven light years away. This is a spirit that is present in all of creation, including in each of us. There is nowhere one can be and be outside of God – because God is everywhere. Buddhists sometimes speak of it as “suchness” – the way things are before we categorize them.