Sermon: May 15, 2016 – God In Us: The Mystical Experience – Part Six of a six-part series

God In Us: The Mystical Experience – Part Six of a six-part series

Text: Luke 4: 14-21

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

There are a couple of things I want to point out about this scripture before we really dive into the mystical experience wrap-up that I have planned for today. The first thing I would like to mention is that this event follows the time that Jesus had just spent in the wilderness; so if you want to believe the sequence here, we can assume that Jesus had a few mystical encounters in the wilderness and then the text says he returned “full of the power of the spirit”. I especially like the description of the Spirit as power; because power is energy and energy is power. More about that later.

The other thing I find interesting about this text is that after returning from some mystical experiences in the desert, Jesus seems to know exactly who he is and what his calling to ministry looks like. He has zero doubt about that; he has a confidence that actually astounded those present in the temple when he read from Isaiah. In other words, he had a tremendous level of self-definition and a depth of understanding about who he was and what his place in the world is to be.

I would like to suggest to you that these two observations we can make about this scripture are a product of the mystical experiences Jesus had in the wilderness just prior to this event. We can draw the conclusion that perhaps mystical experiences grant us the power of the Spirit and they also grant us great insight about ourselves, who we really are and what we are called to do.

That being said, my primary goal for today is to offer you a roadmap of sorts that may lead you to the mystical experiences we all seek and we all cherish when they happen. For five weeks I have been telling you about some of my own personal experiences and offering tidbits of insight along the way. Today, I want to wrap everything together into a nice neat package so you can begin to seek your own experiences in your own way.

The best way I know to do this is to review where we have been and remind you of what we have talked about over the past few weeks. I began with an observation from what might be considered an unlikely source; Oral Roberts University. But the logo of that university spells out that humans have three parts we need to pay attention to and try to develop the best way we can. Those three parts are the mind, the body and the spirit. If you remember I said that we can train our bodies and we will get stronger, we can train our minds and we will become smarter, so isn’t it logical that we can also train our spirits? I think it is possible and very logical. So I offer the first in a list of ways you can become spiritual and encounter the mystical experience for yourself. Number one is to recognize the power of preparation and practice; in other words, train your spirits.

The second week of this series I told you about an experience I had while creating this photograph of 11-mile canyon in the morning. Things did not begin well for me that morning, I got snowed on, I wasn’t sure there would be any sun, I almost turned back twice, but I went on. I would suggest to you that the power of intention plays a role is our success of encountering the Divine. What we intend to have happen, often does. So number two on my list is the power of intention.

The third week we explored a couple of contrasting experiences I have had; one very positive experience in Lower Antelope Canyon, and an almost opposite but equally as moving experience while touring Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. I explained a little about thought and emotions as energy, and how sometimes that energy remains in a place long after the people who had the thoughts and emotions have left. That collective energy can be felt and observed by those who pay attention. This is the power of place. This church and this sanctuary also benefit from the power of place. Many people who meditate, do so in their homes, and they create a special place to do that. So the third point in your roadmap to spirituality is simply the power of place.

In our fourth week of this series I told a story about growing up in Iowa and how something as simple as going to McDonald’s for lunch had become a significant and meaningful memory for me. So significant that it also began to take on mystical qualities, if you remember I talked about the 50-cent limit and all the things the family shared as we dined in fine style at McDonald’s. The point of that story was to call attention to the power of tradition and ritual; the way that sometimes when we participate in or remember something ancient, it brings us closer to the Divine in ways that we can’t always identify. Communion is such a ritual and we celebrated the Sacrament of Communion following that sermon. So the fourth point in your roadmap is simply to remember the power of ritual and tradition.

Week five, which was just last week, found us talking a little bit about meditation. I mentioned that I thought meditation was a bit of a lost art form, and as Christians, particularly here in the US, we have forgotten about the importance of meditation and all the benefits that can come from this spiritual discipline. We experienced a little guided meditation by focusing on our breathing and I hope you have been experimenting some in this last week. This brings me to the fifth and final point on your roadmap, and that is the power of the mind.

These five powers can bring you to the spiritual encounters you desire. These five powers are all within your reach and can all be brought forth and pursued in a variety of ways. These five powers can equip you to strengthen your spiritual bond with the Divine and to experience the mystical encounters with God we seek.

Not every experience requires all five elements. But if you can find a way to combine two or three of these elements into a particular experience, then your chances of having something wonderful, I believe, go way up. I approach every worship service with these things in mind.

For example, I begin with the intention that it will be a great worship service. There is a lot of preparation and practice that is evident; the choir has rehearsed, the musicians have rehearsed, I have prepared a sermon that I can deliver without notes-all of these things are done to improve our experience of the worship service. Then we begin to introduce other elements, like the power of place-we hold the service in a special place. We utilize the power of ritual and tradition. We also ask for moments of silence and prayer so we can begin to use the power of our minds as well. You see, each and every Sunday, we incorporate these elements in hopes that you might encounter the Divine at some point during our service. And often, I’m told, we are successful.

But you can too. That is the point; you can create your own experiences in your own way. There are things and places that are special to you that can be utilized in the creation of your own personal mystical experience. Consider the five powers of preparation, place, intention, tradition and mind; as you do may the mystical encounters of the Divine be within your reach.

Food for thought. Amen.

 

Sermon: May 8, 2016 – God In Us: The Mystical Experience (part 5)

God In Us: The Mystical Experience (part 5)

Text: Psalm 19: 14

 

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

 

I used to attend a church in Texas where the pastor there would begin every sermon with these words; I think he considered it a prayer that he would find the right things to say and minister in the best way possible. It was kind of a nice tradition. But I want to head in a little different direction today.

I want you to notice exactly what this scripture actually says; it clearly states the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart; it states them as though they are two different things. Have you ever thought about that? The words of your mouth are different than the meditation of your heart; it seems the Psalmist knew something that we have long since forgotten. What has been forgotten is that the meditation of your heart is just as important, perhaps even more so, than what you say.

“Now, wait a minute!” I hear what you are thinking…first you tell us that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts are two different things…and then while we are in the process of trying to wrap our minds around that, you tell us that the meditation of our heart may be even more important than what we say! “I’m not even sure what the meditation of my heart is” I hear you say, “how can it be all that important if I don’t even know what it is?”

Well, it’s a good thing I came along then, isn’t it?

I guess this is a good time for the famous Pastor Chuck disclaimer; these are my thoughts and my ideas, they don’t have to be your thoughts and your ideas. But here is what I think; I think that Christianity, particularly in this country, has forgotten much of what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be in relationship with God. Ancient Christianity knew about meditation and they knew how important it was and they practiced it on a regular basis. But the Christianity in the western world has chosen to focus on a lot of other things; many of those things, in my opinion, are not all that helpful. There is a lot of attention given to certain beliefs, a lot of attention given to other people’s behavior, a lot of attention given to what some define as morality and way too much attention is given to the last days, the end times and the so-called second coming of Jesus. None of these things, at least in my opinion, help us to get the most out of life. None of these things actually enrich our lives or create within us an appreciation of what is and what we already have. None of these things, which much of Christianity in the west focuses upon, actually provides us the opportunity to become more spiritual. More judgmental, perhaps, more self-righteous, to be sure, feeding the demons of superiority and exclusiveness in my experience, that is why much of Christianity actually works against us.

Yes, you heard me correctly; I said that much of Christianity works against us. If Christianity actually worked to everyone’s advantage and helped us get the most of out life and successfully broadened our horizons and created within us a desire to do more and be more, do you really think Christianity would be struggling to attract members the way it is today? What is the current exodus of people leaving the mainstream churches really telling us? What does it mean when the fastest growing demographic in the United States are those unaffiliated with any religion? What does it mean when people would rather identify themselves as spiritual but not religious, rather than align with a specific faith tradition or Christian denomination?

I will tell you what I think it means. This is of course just my opinion, and you may have your own theories, but I believe much of the faltering of Christianity we have seen in the past 3 or 4 decades is due in a large part to a focus on the wrong things. As we focus on the things which divide us that cause us to appear judgmental and in many ways espouse hate rather than love, we ultimately drive people away.

But there is another path. It is the path of personal spirituality. It is the path of unconditional love practiced and preached. It is the path of recognizing the Divine as a universal God, and not just a Christian God. It is the path of meditations of the heart.

I believe everything begins in the heart; who you are, what you think about, what you say, what you do for a living, what you like or dislike, how compassionate you are, and certainly how you choose to function as a Christian-it all begins in the heart. It all begins with meditations of the heart.

If something is this important you would think that we would pay a little more attention to it, wouldn’t you? Let me ask you a question; have you ever heard a sermon on meditation in church? I wonder why not?

Meditation is a spiritual discipline that anyone can do. It takes a little practice and focus, but the rewards are enormous. One of the most tangible things that meditation does for you is that it brings you into the present moment, it helps you pay attention to the now. It quiets your otherwise overactive mind. Meditation relieves anxiety. After a little bit of practice, I believe that meditation can even bring you into the presence of God. I believe that because I believe the presence of God is always there, we just need to get quiet enough to be aware of it. As the Psalmist states in another well known verse; “Be still and know that I am God.”

Meditation is a mystery for a lot of people. For many it seems foreign, it seems unnatural, you hear comments like we don’t do that here, or isn’t that dangerous, or I thought only kooks and fanatics meditate. Many think that meditation lies outside the boundaries of Christianity; they perceive it to be connected with other faith traditions and if you meditate you are not a true Christian. Well, none of those things are true. In ancient Christianity meditation was an integral part of the spiritual discipline of your personal life. It has just been ignored and not taught here in the west for the past several centuries, but the thousands of years prior to these last few hundred years, meditation has been alive and well.

“But I don’t know what to do” I hear you say, “I feel silly or I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong.”

Let me just say one thing; if you don’t hear anything else in the sermon today, hear this; there isn’t a wrong way to meditate. You will discover what works best for you and God will honor any attempt. But I can give you some guidelines.

For me, the key to successful meditation is all about subduing the constant chatter in our minds. When we quiet the mind we become more open to receive the gifts the Divine Spirit has in store for us. Gifts like perception, compassion, insight and enlightenment are all experienced when we come into the presence of God in a meditative way. You don’t have to think about the gifts, they just happen.

One way to quiet the mind is to occupy it with something simple. Like breathing, for example. If you can focus on your breath it will lead to a quiet mind. Let’s try it right now, shall we? Close your eyes and think about your breathing. Breathe in deeply through your nose. Notice how the air hits the edges of your nostrils. Breathe again deeply; pay attention to how your lungs fill with air and how your chest cavity expands. Breathe again, deeply, but this time exhale through your mouth. Imagine the creation story where it says that God breathed into us the breath of life, and you are breathing the breath of life into the world. As you breathe in, imagine your breath gathering together all that you desire and it is bringing it to you. As you breathe in, you are collecting the blessings of peace and understanding, you are bringing answers to your questions, you are gathering all that brings you happiness together and drawing into your being. Now, as you exhale, imagine a purging from your being of all that you wish to eliminate from your life. You exhale all anxiety, you release all thoughts of the future, you release everything in your past, you are in the moment, you are in the now. As you breathe in again, you cherish this moment, right now, that will never happen again, and you release any lingering doubt about the future or your past. You are here, right now, and in your breath, all is well.

OK, we can open our eyes. That is just one example of how to focus on your breathing. For others, the use of a mantra can be beneficial. A mantra is something that you repeat to yourself and can sometimes be used in connection with a focus on breathing. One example of a mantra I sometimes use is the phrase, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” Sometimes as I breathe in, I say in my mind, Lord, make me an instrument-and then as I exhale, I mentally say the words, of thy peace.

 

There are as many ways to do this as you can imagine. There is no right or wrong approach, but good meditation should bring relaxation, clarity of thought, the release of anxiety and closeness to the Divine. Good meditation can make you more observant, good meditation can enhance your appreciation of the now, this moment, and good meditation can bring enlightenment around any issue you may be struggling with. In short, meditation can be a mystical experience. It can also be sought and controlled and created with intention.

So go ahead and experiment. I give you permission. It takes a little practice; but it can change your life. Even if you can quiet your mind for just 30 seconds, you will feel better. Food for thought.

Go in peace and go with God. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sermon: May 1, 2016 – “God In Us: The Mystical Experience, Part 4”

“God In Us: The Mystical Experience, Part 4”

Text: @Corinthians 13:13

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

 

Today we are continuing our exploration into what we have been calling mystical experiences. I have shared a few stories with you about times when I have felt the presence of God in an extraordinary way. If you have been looking for some kind of a definition as to what exactly a mystical experience is; that might be one way to define it; feeling the presence of God in an extraordinary way.

But I think there is another definition that is equally valid, but perhaps escapes our thought process because it might lack what we consider to be that extraordinary element. As a matter of fact, it might even be defined as mundane or perhaps routine. But as far as I am concerned, some of these experiences are every bit as valid as being defined mystical as anything I have shared with you thus far. It’s probably not what you are expecting, but bear with me-eventually all this may make sense for you – at least I hope so.

There are experiences in my past which at the time really seemed like no big deal; I’m certain you can think of a few of your own. What seems to happen, at least for me, is the experiences grow in richness and significance with the passage of time. There may be certain moments that you can identify when the significance of some of these past events came into sharper focus for you. In other words, you gained a new perspective or a new appreciation for certain events in your life. I had such a moment, and so we will begin at that point.

About 20 years ago I was in the midst of my seminary education and was also in the midst of trying to complete all the necessary paperwork required to become ordained within the United Methodist Church. We are called Methodists for a reason; and while that reason was originally intended as a teasing label to John Wesley it is still applicable today in many areas. The paperwork that you need to submit to the Board of Ordained Ministry is a shining example of what I’m talking about. One of the many requirements that you must fulfill is a psychological evaluation; you take personality tests, you take competency tests, a host of other tests that I can’t remember what they are called, and you are interviewed by a psychologist. After the tests are all scored, and the interview questions processed and everything is in order, then you meet again with your psychologist for a kind of debriefing. It was during this debriefing session that I had a bit of an “ah-ha” moment with regard to some of the experiences I want to share with you in just a few minutes.

During the debriefing session the psychologist that was working with me referred to my childhood years as “idyllic”. I had to stop her and get clarification. “Did you just say I had an idyllic childhood?” I asked her. “Absolutely” she replied, “the environment that you grew up in couldn’t be improved upon” she went on, “at least that is how it sounded when you talk about it.” “Was there something I missed or something wrong with how you grew up?” she asked me. “No, no” I said, “I just didn’t ever think about it as idyllic.” “Well, maybe you should”, she said.

Wow! That hit me like a ton of bricks. I always sort of knew that my parents and my home experiences were sort of special, but idyllic? I felt a little like someone who dragged a painting they found in their attic to the Antiques Road show and found out it was worth a million dollars. Huh, who knew, right?

But with the passage of time, with the perspective that comes from trying to be a good parent yourself and with the loss that comes with the passing of parents and loved ones, you gain a whole new appreciation for some of the simplest and yet most meaningful events from your past. After 4 or 5 decades they begin to take on certain mystical qualities.

Case in point number one; the 50-cent limit.

I grew up in LeMars, Iowa. It is a sleepy little town of about 8,000 people and not much ever happened there. We were, however, only 25 miles from Sioux City, which by LeMars standards was definitely the big city. As a matter of fact, Sioux City was such a big city that it even had a McDonald’s. But just one-I’m certain there are more today, but this would have been in the early 1960’s.

If I remember correctly, a McDonald’s hamburger was 15 cents, it could be a cheeseburger was 20, an order of French fries was also about 15 cents, a coke was a dime, but a chocolate shake was 25 cents. On rare and special occasions, sometimes after church, if we were good, the entire family would drive to Sioux City and we would have lunch at McDonald’s.

It was a big deal.

But this deal also came with provisions. We could order anything we wanted, but there was a 50-cent limit. You can’t imagine all the figuring that went into what you could and could not order and stay right at the 50-cent limit. You could get two burgers, a fry, and a coke and be under the limit; but if you wanted a shake, one of the burgers or the French fries would have to go. If you wanted cheeseburgers it was even more complicated. You could have two cheeseburgers and a coke, but no fries. You could get one hamburger and one cheeseburger and a shake, but no fries-the number of combinations seemed almost endless. Figuring out the order for lunch occupied the 30-minute ride rather easily as we went from LeMars to Sioux City.

Obviously, the life span of the 50-cent limit was also limited. Prices went up. But the tradition of the 50-cent limit went on for a long enough time to make a mark in my psyche and it left its mark on my siblings as well. We still talk and joke about the 50-cent limit.

It may not seem like a mystical experience to you but it is to me. It wasn’t that the food was that good. It wasn’t that McDonald’s was spectacular in any other way; it actually wasn’t even the event itself. What elevates this to a mystical level is all that it stands for.

It was fun. We had a good time. We were together as a family. We had to be creative. Sometimes we would figure out a way to share so you could get fries and perhaps a taste of the chocolate shake. But most of all it speaks to the creative genius of parents who turned their frugality into an advantage. On teacher’s salaries and five kids to feed it was a 50-cent limit or we ate at home. But it wasn’t ever presented that way. We wouldn’t have had any more fun at the finest dining restaurant in all of Sioux City. The 50-cent limit, a mystical experience you probably didn’t expect.

There are many other stories, most of them involve food or a meal and they all pretty much end up the same way. Passing time and tradition, being with family and loved ones, the sharing of experiences together and the loss of what once was, elevates the mundane to the mystical.

In a few minutes we will be sharing in the sacrament of Holy Communion. For many, the things which created a certain level of mysticism surrounding the 50-cent limit, are also true of the Lord’s Supper. We come together as family, as a community, to share an experience. There is a long history of tradition and the passing of time which has gone before us. We are asked to remember in this ritual the One who once was here among us. In these ways may you experience communion, perhaps for the first time, as a mystical experience.

Amen.