as preached at the First Religious Society in Carlisle, February 16, 2014
This is my last Sunday with you. It has been a pleasure serving as your sabbatical minister for the last two months. Asa and I have enjoyed getting to know you. I have found my time with you to be something of a grounding break from graduate school. It is easy as an academic to get completely absorbed in the scholarly life. My time with you has provided me something of a ballast while I have been studying for my general exams. You have helped me to keep things in perspective and remember that there is a life beyond graduate school. I hope that you have found service as sabbatical minister to be useful.
The sermon I offer you this morning is a mediation on the question: What does it mean to be present to the holy? This question could be recast: where do we find God? God is, of course, one of the most difficult words to define. I was reminded of this difficultly while talking with friends a few months ago. They have a four year old who is just at the point of asking big questions. Recently, she was asking about God. My friends do not believe in a God that sits outside of the universe and human history judging us. They believe in what a theologian might call an immanent God, a God who is part of, who makes up, the universe itself. So when their daughter asked about God they told her that God lived inside of her. A horrified look came over her face. “No,” she replied. “There’s nothing inside of me. It’s just me.”
This story suggests the challenge we face when communicating about the holy. Language frequently fails us. It is difficult to talk about the holy because often people cannot even agree on what they are talking about. Words are gestures towards a larger reality. They frame how we understand the world but they are not the world.
A few years ago the physicist Stephen Hawking generated significant interest by claiming that the findings of modern science demonstrated that God was no longer necessary. Since we now have a fairly complete picture of how the universe came into being, how life evolves and how the physical laws of nature work, he reasoned there is no longer room for God in the rational mind.
Liberal theologians have long argued the opposite. God, they claim, is not a rational construct. God is a feeling. Friedrich Schleiermacher, described as the father of liberal theology, believed that “the feeling of absolute dependence” is the experience of “consciousness of God.” It is the moments that I am most aware of my dependence that I feel the presence of the holy.
I close my eyes and it fills my senses. The room dark, pitch even, illuminated only by the haze of medical machines and a blue string of Christmas lights. Hysteria, desperation, the sounds of panic and despair contrast the dimness of the room. On the bed, the thin, wan, retreating figure of a sixteen year old girl. Her Haitian mother wails, alternating between Creole and accented English, over her fading body. The words come back, a terrible litany of loss, “There will be no graduation for you. There will be no wedding for you. There will be no babies for you. There will be nothing for you, nothing.”
For the last five months the daughter has struggled with cancer. Tonight she has lost that struggle. The doctors and the nurses have told her parents it is over. Everything but the morphine drip and the monitors have been disconnected. This is it. The daughter is about to die, is dying, is dead.
Over the decade I have spent as a member of the clergy, I have witnessed many deaths and conducted many funerals. This one, the death of a young immigrant to cancer, remains one of the most memorable. Perhaps, because the mother’s wails echoed the famous line from the 22nd Psalm, words repeated by Jesus as he died on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Or maybe it because at that moment I felt an intense connection to life itself. The waning breaths of the young woman, the mother’s love, the prayers we said together combined and I knew that I was in the presence of something greater than myself. To be witness to death is to be witness to our absolute dependence.
Despite this it is at death, and in moments of pain, that the absence of the holy can be felt most profoundly. William Schulz, past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association and former Executive Director of Amnesty International, once gave a lecture entitled “What Torture Has Taught Me.” In it he challenged the concept of an immanent God, a God that is present in all things, by claiming “that no God worthy of the name is present in a torture chamber.”
Rabbi Irving Greenberg offered a counter perspective when trying to make theological sense of the Holocaust: “To the question, ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’ the answer is: God was there — starving, broken, humiliated, gassed and burned alive, sharing the infinite pain as only an infinite capacity for pain can share it.”
African American liberation theologians like Kelly Brown Douglas make a similar point when they argue for the necessity of a Black Christ. In this view, Christ needs to be black so that he can accompany, in Brown’s words, “the Black struggle to ‘make do and do better’ in face of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist oppression.” As Brown puts it, “Christ is inside of my grandmother and other Black women and men as they fight for life and wholeness.”
I do not pretend to know whether Schulz or Greenberg and Douglas is right. What I do know is that one of the most political decisions that each of us makes, that each culture makes, is in how we define the holy. Rebecca Parker makes precisely this point when talking about the crucifixion of Jesus. She writes, “To say that Jesus’ executioners did what was historically necessary for salvation is to say that state terrorism is a good thing, that torture and murder are the will of God.” To choose between locating the holy in Jesus’ life or in his death is to choose between two radically different theologies. The option of finding it in both, or in all things, is yet another.
When we start to think about the holy we are confronted with questions beyond just the choice to find it in life or death. We also must ask: Does the holy only belong to some people? Is it only found in some places? Is it everywhere and everything? Is it a metaphor? Is it separate from the visible world? Does it act upon us? Do we act upon it? How do we know when we experience its presence?
These are not questions with rational answers. They are tied to feelings. I do not know how I know. I only know when I feel. I was fourteen. It was my first time away from my parents for an extended period. I was at a week long Unitarian Universalist youth camp in the Pacific Northwest. The grounds, abutting the ocean, were rich with immense trees. The camp was isolated and powered by its own generators. Each night after dinner and evening worship there was a hymn sing around a camp fire.
The last night of the camp we had a dance. It was a wonderfully goofy affair. People dressed in ridiculous costumes, painted their faces and flailed around to punk rock anthems by the Clash and disco jams like the Village People’s “YMCA.” After an hour, maybe two, the power suddenly went out.
The dance’s abrupt end found a number of us back at the fire pit, singing. It was the only place on the campground with any light and, besides, we enjoyed making music together. I don’t know how long we sang, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, an hour… It was a consuming experience. Eventually we reached the hymn, “Over My Head.” You might know it, “Over my head I hear music in the air. / Over my head I hear music in the air. / Over my head I hear music in the air. / There must be a God somewhere.” We sang that song for awhile, substituting new phrases for what was over our heads as we went. Laughter, joy, singing… Someone, a little snidely, finally suggested light. And when we reached the end of the, “There must be a God somewhere,” the power at the camp went back on.
It seemed like a minor miracle. It might have been someone from the camp’s idea of a prank. Whatever the explanation, the experience left an impression. Up until that moment I described myself as an atheist. Now I am not so sure. I am more open to the mystery of our lives and cognizant of the limitations of language. I understand that words like holy, divine and God are metaphors for the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. The human mind, marvelous as it is, is quite small and in the end each of us can grasp but an infinitesimal fraction of the universe’s complexity. To speak of the holy is, I believe, to acknowledge this.
There is a certain timelessness to my memories of the holy. They fade far less than others. They come forward in vivid color rather than tattered grey, occasionally so strong that they blot out the present. There is a difference between ordinary time and holy time. The experience of the holy is more defined, placed in sharper relief. It marks me, changes me, even if the change is ever so slight.
James Wright’s poem “A Blessing” speaks to this. In his poem, Wright finds himself in a perfectly ordinary place “Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota” observing the ordinary. For what is more ordinary in rural Minnesota than two ponies “munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness”? And yet, it is here that Wright finds a blessing. Simply observing these ordinary ponies, the affection they have for each other and the peace they seem to feel while grazing alone, together, makes him realize that “if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”
Wright’s poem suggests that the transformative experience, being in the presence of the holy, can be found in even the most unremarkable of activities. It is not what surrounds us that matters. We do not need to seek out the extraordinary to find the holy.
The poem is instructive on several levels. It reminds us that the holy can be found everywhere. James Wright discovered it in two ponies. Kelly Brown Douglas sees it inside her grandmother. I have felt its presence in the room of a dying child and at a youth camp. When we find the holy we must somehow engage it. It must be wrestled with. Wright did not look away from the ponies. Rabbi Irving Greenberg and William Schulz struggled to make sense of a world filled with pain, torture and the Holocaust. To be in the presence of the holy is to be open to change. Wright wanted to burst from his body. The music at youth camp shifted my atheism. This change can come at a cost–pain, the presence of death–but it does not have to. One suspects that the only thing Wright’s experience of the ponies like “wet swans” cost him was reflection.
The feeling of being present to the holy is helpful on another level, a moral level. It reminds us that the experience of the holy frequently requires an other. Each of the experiences that I have described is an experience of connection, not the experience of an autonomous and isolated individual. We each construct our theologies out of our personal experiences. Since each of our experiences are different our theologies are different as well. This might lead to moral relativism but it does not have to. If being present to the holy means being present to our feelings of dependence and connection then we know we have strayed when we disavow those feelings.
Moral clarity comes from understanding our dependence on the universe not on claiming a sense of independence from it. For me there is only one heresy worth interrogating, the myth of the autonomous individual. None of the experiences of the holy that I have described have taken placed in a vacuum. All of them are interactions between people or between people and the larger world. We need each other, or at least an other, to experience the holy.
It is like the hymn we sang that night at youth camp, “Over my head there is singing in the air.” Over our heads there is something in the air. It is through that something, because of that something, with that something that we know that we are present to the holy.
Amen and Blessed Be.