LIFE ON THE LUNATIC FRINGE
Sermon by David Lohman
Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ
27 January 2002
Please join me for a moment of silence.
I was having dinner with my parents and my godparents one evening about three years ago. My godfather, like my dad, is a Lutheran pastor, and conversation soon turned, as it so often does when you have clergy in the family, to theology. I was reading A Course in Miracles and Conversations with God at the time. And while I didn't quite know what to think about the purported origins of these two books, nonetheless I was intrigued and stimulated by much of what I read. After talking about these books for a time, my godfather turned to me and asked, "So what is it that you believe?" I stared dumbly at him, as it hit me that I no longer had a clue any more what I believed in. Quite a change for this preacher's kid who grew up with faith and the church as central parts of my life. But because much of the previous few years had been about clearing away old beliefs that didn't work for me any more, I no longer had a label for myself. I certainly wasn't a Lutheran any more, and from any traditional perspective, I was no longer even a Christian. So how on earth did I get here?
The End Of Business As Usual
That journey began nine years ago. My older brother Chuck was 41 at the time. He was living with his wife and two sons near Berkeley, California, and had just completed the course work for his Ph.D. in theology. But just after Christmas of 1992, despite being a nonsmoker, he was diagnosed with a rare form of untreatable lung cancer and given less than a year to live. Another brother and I had made tentative plans to go out and visit him sometime in May. But in early March, an overwhelming feeling told me that I needed to get out there as soon as possible.
When I arrived at their home two weeks later, I was horrified at my brother's deterioration.
Because we were only three months into what the doctors told us would be a year, I took my Mom aside later that evening and asked, "How much longer can this go on?" A retired nurse, she said that she'd seen people linger like this for many long months. In that moment I decided that if Chuck were to ask me to help him speed his death, I would not hesitate.
The next day I mentioned in passing that I had always wanted to see the coastline north of San Francisco. On the last full day of my visit, Chuck suggested that he and I take a drive up there. My Mom chimed in and said, "That sounds like fun. What time should we leave?" Chuck quietly said, "No, Mom... this is just for David and me." We carefully helped him out into the car, which we had loaded with blankets and pillows to help make him as comfortable as possible. It was on that trip, while stopped at a scenic overlook just north of Bodega Bay, that Chuck took his final breaths and died.
Despite my earlier willingness to help end his suffering, when confronted with his actual death, all I could think of was to save his life. I frantically sped off in search of help, and found a ranger station a couple of miles down the coast. But despite heroic efforts to resuscitate him, first by rangers and then by paramedics who arrived by helicopter, there was no response. I finally told them to stop and let him go.
Once all the painful phone calls had been made, and arrangements for his body finally taken care of, I was eager to get on the road because I had a long drive ahead of me before I could be with my family. Unnoticed by me during all of this, it had clouded over, and as I was walking to my car it started to rain. How Hollywood-perfect, I thought, as I allowed myself for the first time to cry.
As I reached the outskirts of town and turned inland, I looked up, and there in the sky was the most spectacular rainbow I had ever seen. The road took another turn, and there before me was a ravine. The sun was low in the late afternoon sky, and it looked as if the rainbow came to an end as it faded into the shadows of the hills. I pulled the car over, got out, and in the pouring rain climbed down to the bottom of the ravine. I stopped and looked up to see the illusive End of the Rainbow. There was no fabled pot of gold to be found, but something far more precious. As I stood there, my face wet with rain and tears, I was swept by a feeling of deep and profound peace. As I stood wrapped in that Presence, I said to Chuck over and over, "You're free! You're free!"
The Journey Begins
It is in experiences like this that we discover the limitations of language, because there are simply no words that suffice. The only thing I can say about my brush with the Divine is this-whatever it was that I experienced was far more vast, more mysterious, and more profoundly loving than the Old Bearded Man sitting on the Throne of Heaven that I had been raised to believe in.
The reality of God and our explanation of God are not the same. In fact, there is a vast difference between the two. We have to recognize that human words are simply incapable of fully explaining our experience of God. They can only limit and distort.
Here in this community, each time we welcome new members we say, "Spirit of the Lakes is centered around our faith that there is One Spiritual Reality that can be perceived in many different ways." Perhaps this seems so obvious to us here, yet the beliefs that a sacred book is inerrant, that a religious leader is blessed with infallibility, or that a particular faith possesses the only Truth are all too common, and these beliefs are the root of much of the evil done in God's name.
In Conversations With God we read:
"Now the supreme irony here is that you have all placed so much importance on the Word of God, and so little on the experience. In fact, you place so little value on experience that when what you experience of God differs from what you've heard of God, you automatically discard the experience and own the words, when it should be the other way around."
Chuck's profound gift to me that day was to begin me on a journey that has led to a place which, in my more conservative youth, I would have considered the absolute lunatic fringe of religion. And yet here I am- and I'm pretty pleased about it, thank you very much. My brush with the Divine that day in the ravine forced me to reevaluate everything, and led me to radically redefine just about everything that I once believed. So what is this place- the Lunatic Fringe? Who is this God that I encounter here? Who am I and how do I fit into the Universe?
First of all, contrary to scripture (and yes, I am about to contradict the Bible- I am sure that the Heresy Police have already been summoned!) I've come to believe that we are not created in God's image but rather God is created in ours. We only have our limiting and distorting human words to describe our God-experience, so we anthropomorphize God, basing our relationship with God on the closest thing at hand-our relationship with our parents. So this relationship becomes one of reward and punishment. Our God-experience becomes clumsily translated into our theistic God.
Now let me stop here for a moment for a few definitions. Theists believe in a god or gods-supernatural beings who exist outside of us. Monotheists, such as Jews, Christians and Muslims, believe that there is only one god, while polytheists believe in many. Atheists believe that there is no god. But my journey has led me to embrace yet another variation of this word- nontheism. Nontheists do not reject God. But we do reject the notion that God is a separate external being. God has become for me the Ground of All Being, the Tao, the supreme, intelligent, loving Universal Force that is present in everything everywhere.
The retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, in his newly published, prophetic book titled A New Christianity for a New World (which, incidentally, has simply rocked my world) says it this way: "The God who is love [has been] slowly transformed into the love that is God." And we worship this God, not by bowing and groveling, but in Spong's words, loving wastefully.
But if I no longer can understand God as an external Being, what does that mean about prayer? For me, I can no longer pray to God to help me find my car keys, help our softball team to win, or for that matter, cure my brother's cancer. For me, God is no longer a Santa Claus for grown-ups to whom I pray, "Dear God, I have been very good this year. Please give me...fill in the blank." But God does remain my ultimate source of strength, grounding, peace and unspeakably deep love.
I have come to believe that this identity-my body, my history, my pains, my joys, my failures, my successes and my longings- everything that I think of as Me- forms only the thinnest crust covering my true Essence. We all make the mistake thinking that this is all we are. There is an Islamic proverb that says that just before every child's birth, the angel Gabriel whispers in its ear the answers to all of life's questions. But soon after birth, the process of forgetting begins. The task of life is to remember that beneath this crust lies a glorious, luminous and divine being.
For me, it is at those times when I have the courage to go within- to face that Essence, to face that stillness- that I encounter God. As Spong says, "Jesus understood that the call of every human being is to journey into both the fullness of one's own humanity and into the mystery of God. What most of us do not seem to embrace is that these two journeys are simultaneous, even identical journeys."
For a while I worried that what I was doing was intellectually sloppy-practicing a simplistic feel-good brand of spirituality. But as I've done more and more reading, I've learned that my Lunatic Fringe is not quite as lunatic nor quite as fringe as I once thought. I've learned that the beliefs that I was being drawn toward- beliefs that I only understood on an experiential, intuitive level- have a long history of being championed by folks vastly more intellectually rigorous than me.
Live the Questions
So I need to sit down with my godfather and have a follow-up conversation, since I'm finally able to answer his question. But I have also learned to embrace mystery- embracing the fact that no human being, and certainly not me, will ever fully understand the notion of God.
I find encouragement in the idea that the key to good theology is not good answers, but good questions. I end today with the final quote I included in Spirit Sings- these words of Rilke's from his Letters to a Young Poet:
"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."
Thank you, Chuck, for helping me to ask the questions.