A Different Format
I’m pretty sure I have permission to tell this story. You know how some couples sign pre-nuptial agreements before they get married? My wife and I don’t have one of those, since neither of us had any money or property when we got married and she graciously wanted to leave me all she possessed. But now I think my wife of 37 years wants me to sign a pre-SERMON agreement before I volunteer to preach (she said as much at this table on August 11!). But when she wrote an email to me not long ago with a story attached, I wrote back that there was a sermon idea in there somewhere, and she wrote something like: Whatever I can do to help.
Now that I have that in writing (always save your emails), here’s the story: My wife had been listening to an audiobook for days and days and she was finally coming to the last disc. Since she usually borrows audiobooks from the library, she began to look for the box that had all of the remaining, finished discs in it. She searched the whole house and couldn’t find it. I helped her. Nothing. She began to worry about library fines and paying the exorbitant price to replace a 10 or 11-disc set [or maybe these were MY worries]. I complained to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, that he wasn’t answering my prayers.
But then the next day when I was at work she sent me this email saying she no longer had to look for the box because she finally realized the book was an audiobook on her iPod and it had been downloaded from audible.com, and therefore a physical copy of it didn’t exist! Because: it was in a different FORMAT! [Remember the days when a book was a book?]
In other words, she could have searched for it for days, called in professionals, the FBI, the NSA; they could have taken the house apart. She NEVER would have found it. She might as well have lain on the couch and searched by sliding her hand under the cushions and been comfortable. She might as well have searched where the light was better. She might as well have searched here in this sanctuary and prayed to St. Anthony or his equivalent in other denominations.
Let’s think about formatting for a few minutes. We have an understanding of formatting since the 1950s that no one before then could have had at the same level. We have computers. We have Blu-ray players and DVRs. We have been unable to open files saved in a different version of Word or—God forbid—saved on a Mac with whatever mysterious word processing system a Macintosh uses! [Do I hear a Lion roaring?]
The thing is, when something is in another format, it is NOT a matter of knowing the correct procedure, performing the right practices, discovering the right password so that you can read it, use it or understand it. You might as well be searching for a disc that never existed. The format is inaccessible to you.
Now here is this quote from the book of Wisdom 18:15 which some denominations consider an apocryphal book and others have fully incorporated into their canon of scripture. Here’s the quote: “Your all-powerful Word, leapt down from heaven, from your royal throne.” As Rev. Richard Rohr says in his meditation of 6/1/13: “No philosopher would dare to predict ‘the materialization of God,’ so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child.” But then he asks: “if there is one true moment of Incarnation, then why not incarnation everywhere?”
Do we dare to use the analogy that the divine converted to our human format and became accessible to us?
A colleague of mine in the Business Department at Ursuline was telling me about the best-selling book, Proof of Heaven. Wow, I thought in my prejudiced mind, Business people are concerned with numbers, ratios, facts and figures, profit and loss. And yet here’s one interested in heaven? And so I bought the book. There have been a LOT of writings about near death experiences (they’re called NDEs, naturally, and there’s a whole library of them!), but this one is particularly captivating in my humble opinion because its author is a neurosurgeon and was an unbelieving one at that. He is a scientist, a doctor, and for him there was no such thing as a spiritual reality.
At 54 years of age, this doctor, researcher, developer of the virtual knife that operates on the brain without harming nearby tissue, presenter of papers at conferences all over the world, woke up one morning with a severe pain at the base of his skull that kept getting worse until he finally had a grand mal seizure, his wife calling 911 and in 10 minutes ambulances were there to take him to the hospital, but he was already in a coma that would last for 7 days. His brain was completely down; his neocortex wasn’t working.
But while I was in a coma, he writes, …deprived of all of this, I had been alive, and aware truly aware, in a universe characterized above all by love, consciousness, and reality (129). ..the more clearly I saw how radically what I’d learned in decades of schooling and medical practice conflicted with what I’d experienced, the more I understood that the mind and personality (as some would call it, our soul and spirit) continue to exist beyond the body (p. 127).
When he came out of the coma he found that language was inadequate to describe what he had experienced (sounds like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?). It could only approximate.
Here are some of his insights:
This other vastly grander universe isn’t ‘far away’ at all. In fact, it’s right here—right here where I am, typing this sentence, and right there where you are, reading it. It’s not far away physically, but simply exists on a different frequency [his words; my words: different format]. It’s right here, right now, but we’re unaware of it because we are for the most part closed to those frequencies on which it manifests (156).
The universe is so constructed that to truly understand any part of its many dimensions and levels, you have to become a part of that dimension…you have to open yourself to an identity with that part of the universe you already possess, but which you may not have been conscious of.
This reminds us of Teresa of Avila, Richard Rohr, Jodie Foster who played a scientist in the movie Contact, and said when she was out in space with all of the stars: “They should have sent a poet!”
The mystics, ancient and modern, have had similar difficulty with putting their experience of the divine into language that we all can understand. They have to use metaphors. But they, too, stress the need for allowing yourself to open up to the experience of this other frequency, this other format, which they call God.
Dr. Alexander again:
Much—in fact, most—of what people have had to say about God and the higher spiritual worlds has involved bringing them down to our level, rather than elevating our perceptions up to theirs. We taint, with our insufficient descriptions, their truly awesome nature (156).
I realize we are on dangerous ground here. Proof of Heaven has its critics; my analogy can only go so far. In one of my philosophy classes this past July, one of my male students asked me—after a session spent discussing the eternal forms of Plato–what I thought about mediums contacting the deceased. I think I answered by quoting Shakespeare:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.166-7), Hamlet to Horatio
My episcopal priest acquaintance, Cam Miller, who used to preach in Buffalo but now lives in Vermont, writes in his blog (Subversive Preacher) that he once visited a massage therapist who, knowing he was an Episcopal priest, asked him if he believed in “Past Lives Therapy,” an obvious reference to a belief in reincarnation. He gave a somewhat brutal answer, I think, because the therapist was obviously recovering from the grief of losing someone to death, and needed to believe they would return in some other human form in some other time frame. But then Cam concluded:
I finally said during my massage, “We do not get to know what happens on the other side of death – not ever, in this life. So I am an agnostic about life after death, I simply do not know.”
…About death we simply do not get to know. When we are able to sit in the presence of that bear, fully accepting of our fear and lack of control but not begging for more than we can have, we are in the presence of our core faith. Do we, in that moment, declare our trust in God and move on, or do we demand to know more in order to have our disease ameliorated?
That is indeed harsh, and people who are grieving need us to be there, to put our arms around them, to comfort them; but perhaps they do NOT need to hear words that we ourselves can’t be sure are true [but we can share what we believe by faith!].
To whom can we look for guidance about what happens after death? –No one alive can tell us. NDEs are just that. Mediums, psychics, reincarnationists, channels, and so on all require a great deal of faith if we are to trust what they say and do. Religion can attract those who are emotionally weak, those who have but a tenuous hold on reality, and those seeking answers for overpowering questions formed in the crucibles of immense suffering and deprivation, perhaps injustice and racism.
But we Christians DO have the scriptures, especially the Gospels. And that fourth one, the one attributed to John, starts with that wonderful hymn that echoes the very first book of the bible, Genesis, where we read: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was waste and void; and God said: ‘Let there be light,’ and there WAS light!” and centuries later, as you just heard in today’s reading, John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh.”
The use of the Greek word Logos for “Word” is intriguing because Logos can also be translated “explanation.” It adds a whole new flavor to John’s words to translate them: “In the beginning was the explanation and the explanation was with God and the explanation WAS God” and “the explanation was made flesh.” Reminds me of my sermon two weeks ago: if God is the answer, what was the question?
However you translate, we have looked to Jesus for answers for centuries because He uniquely—in our belief system—is the bridge between heaven and earth, or more accurately, he embodies the divine and the human in his person, and He has offered us to follow him as if that destiny and that identity are also ours.
What I am suggesting here is that through Jesus, God is offering us the key [do we dare to call it a “conversion” key?] to open, access, and enter LIFE in a DIFFERENT FORMAT. It’s called resurrection. Do you notice the odd things in the resurrection stories in scripture?
In Matthew, the angel says: “He is not here. He has been raised.” And then “without warning Jesus stood before [his disciples] and said ‘Peace!’
In Mark’s longer ending, Jesus’s followers refused to believe that He had been raised from the dead, but then as two of them were walking into the country, “he was revealed to them completely changed in appearance.” “Then, after speaking to them, the Lord Jesus was taken up into heaven…”
In Luke, the men walking to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus even though he was walking alongside them, until they were given the key to this new format: when Jesus broke the bread and distributed it to them. Later, He let his Disciples touch him and he ate something to show them he wasn’t a ghost. But then he blessed them and “was taken up to [a different format:] heaven.”
And finally in John, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene “Do not cling to me for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” And later: Even though the doors were locked, Jesus “came and stood before them.”
There are other quotes in Scripture:
Jesus says: “Eye hath not seen…
“Where I am going, you cannot come…”
Yet: “He who sees me SEES the Father,” as Roger Osgood has been emphasizing this summer.
Doesn’t this all speak to a different format? Jesus seems to be saying: Don’t look for me here, in your usual way: “Why are you standing looking up into heaven?” (ACTS). We have to be looking through different eyes, seeing reality in a different way, in a different format. That’s called “being saved!” Because my wife couldn’t find her book between two covers or in disc format didn’t mean that it didn’t exist! It just wasn’t visible, touchable, enjoyable in those formats!
The Benedictine preacher, Fr. Laurence Freeman, writes:
The new kind of life made possible by the Resurrection does not rely upon the forensic evidence of the empty tomb or the circumstantial evidence of the apparitions. The evidence is found in daily living…It is the present moment illuminated with faith’s ability to see the invisible, to recognize the obvious.
In other words, Jesus asks all of us: “Who do you say I am?” And the answer is wherever we see him. “It is a field of consciousness similar to and indivisible from the Consciousness that is the God of cosmic and biblical revelation alike: the one great I AM.” (Fr. Laurence).
So what could we do? How on earth does this help anything? Well, it could (COULD) help us understand where our dead loved ones are (how close they are) and it may even help us let go when it is our turn. But for now:
Think of it as a rediscovery. It’s a resting in God as the logos, the explanation. We do not need some elaborate and confusing change-of-format app. We are already in the format, but we may not be aware that we are. How do we access the Resurrection? That’s easy. Jesus showed us. We do it through the cross; that is, through suffering, loss, through getting old, through dying, giving, loving, caring, seeking justice; and we practice it through meditation—through giving up the important things we have to do and say, and the important thoughts and plans we have to think and make, and just sitting, perhaps repeating our mantra, blank, open towards God, perhaps counting backwards from ten.
We have these giant weeds in the back of our house in Pennsylvania, and there’s this one branch near the ground that—even on the quietist day when there seems to be no wind at all, this branch waves and dips and reminds us that we live in an atmosphere, in a soup we call air and which is continually moving, swirling, changing. And God? Well, writes Paul: “In him we live and move and have our Being.” [Can we say: In His wind, we wave?]. To become aware of that is to find what we are looking for; and then finding that, it changes us profoundly.
Yep (to change the metaphor to John’s): Even in darkness, the light shines, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Amen.