Wonder Opens Us to… Mystery

Worship Script (1 of 4)

 

OPENING WORDS

From Gates of Prayer (A Jewish Prayer Book)

 

Were the sun to rise but once a year, we would all cry out:
How great are Your works, O God, and how glorious!  Our hymns would rise up, our thanks would ascend. O God, Your wonders are endless, yet we do not see!
Give us new eyes, O God; restore our childhood sense of wonder.
Then we shall explore the richness of our being: we shall taste ecstasy and sorrow, know mystery and revelation.
Give us, O God, vision to see the world anew.
And we will give thanks; as we have been blessed, so shall we give blessing.
Give us understanding, O God; help us to know we are blessed.

 

HYMN #389 "Gathered Here"

 

FIRST READING

From The Seven Pillars of Creation by William P Brown

 

“Mystery,” of course, can mean anything from the incomprehensible born of ignorance to the surprising anomaly that invites explanation.  For me, mystery inspires awe and inquiry. Examples of mystery are… the remarkable intelligibility of nature, something instead of nothing, the emergence of life, and God’s love for the world.  Mystery acknowledges that, while we cannot know absolutely everything about say, a particular ecosystem, there is nothing to stop us from knowing more about it, infinitely so. Mystery recognizes the provisional nature of our explanations and the inexhaustibility of our investigations. The world will always be more than we know. Mystery is being grasped by something larger than ourselves, ever compelling us to stretch, rather than limit, the horizons of our awareness. Under the rubric of wonder, mystery has its place alongside understanding.

 

SECOND READING

From The Alphabet of Grace by Frederick Buechner

 

Religion as a word points essentially, I think, to that area of human experience where in one way or another man happens upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage, a come-all-ye; where he is led to suspect the reality of splendors that he cannot name; where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can only be hinted at in myths and rituals, in foolish, left-handed games and cloudy novels; where in great laughter perhaps and certain silences he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it.

 

HYMN #352 "Find a Stillness"

 

STORY FOR ALL AGES

Native American Beliefs: “The Great Mystery” (from nativepartnerhip.org)

Many Native American beliefs — ranging from beliefs about nature and animals, to traditional customs and ceremonies — are cause for discussion among non-Native peoples. Also discussed are the various spiritual and religious beliefs of Native American tribes. I want to speak to one specifically, the Native American belief in “The Great Mystery.”

When Lakota speak of the Great Mystery, they speak of Wakan Tanka, which is an abstract force of creation and spirituality that is to be honored and given thanks. It is not a reference to a personified or singular deity, but rather an encompassing life force and energy existing in all things.

Chief Luther Standing Bear said: “From Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, there came a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things — the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals — and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man. Thus, all things were kindred, and were brought together by the same Great Mystery. 

The Lakota believe Wakan Tanka is represented as an all-encompassing collective or oneness. And the Lakota understanding of the Great Mystery is a reverence and thankfulness to all things made possible by this Great Mystery and a realization that all things are related and interconnected.

 

MEDITATION

“Seeking but Not Finding the Recluse” by Chia Tao

 

Under pines
I ask the boy;

he says: “My Master’s gone
to gather herbs.

I only know
he’s on this mountain,

but the clouds are too deep
to know where.”

(Pause) Blessed be.

 

CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN

Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives.  As you do, you may briefly share what it is. We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and that they speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.

 

SERMON

Miracles and Wonders

By Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship

A man arrives at a wedding banquet and finds that they have run out of wine. Mysteriously, plain water is transformed into wine sufficient for all the guests.

A woman with third-degree burns is scheduled for skin graft surgery by a famous doctor well known for treating burn cases of movie stars. Before the surgery she is persuaded by a friend to let a group of people experimenting in alternative healing techniques work on her. Figuring she has nothing to lose, she lies down on a table, and they practice what they call energy techniques, waving their hands in the air over her for an hour or so. When she gets up much of the pain is gone, and by the next morning, the burns are gone. The burn doctor, when he examines her and hears her explanation, becomes very upset and declares that there is no way that it could have happened.

A young woman, in deep depression and despair over the conditions of her life, decides to drown herself. As she heads down the beach toward the cold waters of the lake she hears a voice speaking words of comfort to her and feels restrained from carrying out her grim purpose. There is no one else there on the beach.

Do you believe any of these stories? Do you believe that any of these stories describe miracles? Does it matter to your evaluation of them that the first story is about Jesus, that the second is related by a journalist responding to an author’s call for input for his book on miracles, and that the third was the experience of a friend of mine, someone I believe to be trustworthy and who had no reason to make up the story—and who, indeed, could well have worried that I would disbelieve her or think she was nuts.

What do we, who are presumably rational, well-educated people, do with the concept of the miraculous?

After all, the Unitarian tradition—unlike, say, the Pentecostals—is not steeped in devotion to the miraculous. Our heroes are people like Clara Barton, who accomplished great feats of healing through the plain human hard work of nursing the ill, caring about conditions of sanitation, and founding what became the Red Cross. We are solidly linked to the enlightenment tradition of philosophers like David Hume, who argued that since sensible people base their opinions on the weight of evidence—believing most strongly in those things which have the most supportive evidence—and since miracles, by their very nature, go against the generally applicable laws of nature, therefore the sensible person will not believe in miracles, as the evidence against them will always be greater than any evidence that they exist.

We are the inheritors of Thomas Jefferson, who created his own version of the New Testament by cutting out all of the miracle stories and leaving only the “pure” Christianity of the teachings of Jesus. As Unitarians we are the direct descendants of Transcendentalist Theodore Parker, who argued that the miracles of the New Testament were essentially irrelevant in their purpose of proving the divinity of the Christ. The teachings of Christianity, he argued, must be true in and of themselves to be worth following, and not depend on the authority of the man who revealed them any more than the truths of geometry depend on the personal authority of Archimedes.

And yet, and yet, our faith tradition also goes back just as solidly to Universalist George DeBenneville, who believed that the truth of universal salvation was revealed to him by angels in the course of a near-death experience. We are the inheritors of the early Universalist John Murray, who was led by either miraculous intervention or a series of really amazing coincidences from an English debtor’s prison to the doorstep of an American farmer who was praying for the arrival of a Universalist preacher.

So what do miracles have to do with us contemporary, sensible, Unitarian Universalists with open minds and a distaste for the gullible?

I have a considerable degree of ambivalence about this subject. I am leery of miracles and angels as the subject of TV shows, and impatient of miraculous images of Jesus appearing on tortillas or car fenders. After all, how do we know what Jesus looked like? I have a hard enough time recognizing people I’ve met when I bump into them at the grocery store. You can just bet I wouldn’t have a clue whether someone was Jesus or not if I happened to see a face in the clouds.

Besides, what seems to be our society’s current obsession with miracles often feels a little too close to the American need for a quick fix. Got a problem? Just stand back and God or your guardian angel will fix it up in a jiffy, whether you need a parking place or a medical cure.

Whatever miracles may be, I am sure that they do not take the place of the day-to-day work of dealing with reality as we know it. I am charmed by the story of the Buddha meeting someone who has practiced meditation for twenty years and now can walk on water. Buddha says: “Why didn’t you just pay three rupees and take the ferry across?”

Any miracle worth its salt, as far as I’m concerned, provides an invitation not to wallow in spookiness, but to turn to a deeper, more aware, engagement with the things of this world. I am very much in sympathy with Walt Whitman, who writes:

Why, who makes much of a miracle? 

As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,

Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky…

To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,

Every cubic inch of space is a miracle…

To me the sea is a continual miracle,                                                                                     

The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the ships, with men in them,

What stranger miracles are there?

The Greek of the New Testament refers to miracles by two words most accurately translated as “signs” and “wonders.” A miracle is something that points, as a sign, beyond itself. And it inspires wonder or awe. In some sense, then, the presence of miracles in the world depends on our willingness to find meaning and wonder in what we see.

 “There are only two ways to live your life,” wrote Albert Einstein. “One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is.”

And why not live in a world of miracles? George Howe Colt writes in a Life magazine article on angels about talking with someone who runs “angel awareness” seminars. This person teaches people to watch for subtle clues of angelic presence, such as pennies on the sidewalk, feathers in the air, the tinkling of bells, the flickering of lights. While acknowledging his skepticism, Colt also notes, “It feels pleasant to be on alert for angels—as opposed to, say, muggers.”As with angels, I suspect that it feels better to be on the lookout for miracles than for muggers. Living as if everything is a miracle might lead one to feel, like Colt, “more aware, more hopeful, more open to the possibility of magic. And, he adds, “the idea that serendipitous details of daily life might be tell-tales of some larger presence is alluring.”

Alluring, indeed. I suspect that the abiding appeal of miracles has less to do with any proof of divine powers given to a particular individual (such as Moses or Jesus) than with the prospect that the divine continues to show itself in our time and place, that however alienated or alienating the world may be, we are still deeply loved and noticed, even to the point of natural laws pushed aside for our benefit.

The Christian theologian C.S. Lewis speaks of the natural world as a kind of sphere that is pierced by the divine, where miracles happen when God invades the natural world, and nature moves over to accommodate it. I don’t entirely agree with Lewis, and I can’t say that I particularly care for the idea of a supernatural God shooting miraculous arrows through the fabric of nature. But I’ve heard enough miracle stories—stories not only wonderful but also scientifically unexplainable—to suspect that science as we currently understand it might fail to capture the whole picture. I have, personally, never been miraculously healed or heard divine or angelic voices. But I did have a particular experience that made me stop and think.

I was driving home late at night, [Jt1] tired, and in enough of a hurry that I was not, one might say, strictly observant of the speed limit. All of a sudden I was overcome by a memory of the time a couple of years earlier when I struck a deer while driving at night. I say “overcome by a memory” because the experience was intensely physical. I didn’t just call the incident to mind, or visualize the event; what happened was an unmistakable and very kinetic re-living of just how I felt in those confusing seconds during which I figured out that a deer had leapt into the side of my car as I was driving at freeway speed.

This strange and unprovoked memory made me a bit uncomfortable, so I slowed up a bit, even as I told myself not to be silly, that I had never even seen a deer along this stretch of road. I rounded a curve, and was about to speed up again in my haste to get home, when I saw, you guessed it, a deer on my right, poised to bound out in front of my car. Before I even had time to panic properly, the deer—whose eyes seemed to meet mine—stopped, and turned back toward the fields.

Was it a miracle, albeit of a very tiny variety? I don’t know. One could, of course, simply dismiss the experience as an odd but ordinary coincidence. I, personally, find that I cannot. I suppose I could say that God or my guardian angel was watching out for me. But one could just as easily assume that God was watching out for the deer, and I was just an accessory to the fact. I can’t offer you any kind of proof, but the only explanation I know of that makes any sense to me is that the world is far more interconnected than we generally experience and some kind of cosmic synapse fired between the deer and me, or some filament of the interdependent web trembled, allowing us both enough awareness to avoid hurting each other.

In the same way that miracles in the Bible not only provide for the comfort or survival of their recipients, but also serve to point to an engagement of the divine in the world, I suspect that the various ordinary miracles many of us witness serve to point toward a deeper reality. In a world where the prevailing attitude so often seems to be “Get yours and hang on tight before someone tries to take it from you,” miracles might offer a nudge to consider that “you” and “yours” could be relative terms, that our lives might be much more difficult to disentangle from one another than we generally think.

If nothing else, whether you believe that God reaches in from outside the world, or that the universe is made of threads of connection that twist themselves to help place us where we need to be, or whether you trust in the plain laws of cause and effect, the notion that miracles of connection take place can serve as an invitation both to make miracles and to find them.

In gifts of presence and compassion, in the work of justice and mercy, we can make miracles any time we like. With an open mind and a heart tuned to receive we might even find that miracles happen to us all the time as well. Given that we’re more likely to find what we look for, I’d rather look for miracles than muggers any day.

 

HYMN #12 "O Life That Maketh All Things New"

 

BENEDICTION
May you find yourselves 

Held in the mystery of love

Which is around us at all times

And leads us from question to question

Toward a life of curiosity, wonder, and peace