Beyond Belief

January 25, 2015 – Rev. Jan Hryniewicz

Text: Genesis 28: 10 – 22 ( Silf paraphrase), John 14: 15 – 21

Father O’Malley was driving down to Boston when he got stopped for speeding in Medford. The highway patrol officer smelled alcohol on the priest’s breath and then saw an empty wine bottle on the floor of the car.

He said, ‘Father, have you been drinking?’

‘Only water’, replied Father O’Malley.

The policeman asked, ‘Then how come I can smell wine?’

The priest looked at the bottle and said, ‘Good Lord! The Holy Spirit’s done it again. It’s a miracle!”

How many of us have experienced a miracle…an experience beyond rational understanding.. beyond belief?

I borrowed my sermon title today from renowned religion scholar Elaine Pagels. In her book, Beyond Belief, she elegantly contends that, religion is not merely an assent to a set of beliefs, but a rich, multifaceted fabric of teachings and experiences that connect us with the divine.

Have our religious traditions, practices and beliefs led us to a profound connection with the Divine Presence who many of us choose to call God? Do our beliefs hinder or help relationship with the Divine? Have we experienced moments of radical amazement which provided us with a sense of certainty that there is without doubt a God…. a Holy Spirit actively involved in the universe?

The Holy Spirit is the one of the most difficult theological concepts in Christian tradition to explain. The Rev. Dr. Clint McCann, who teaches Biblical theology at Eden Seminary, often jokes with seminarians that if parishioners ask you to explain what the Holy Spirit is you should give them a serious look and say simply, “It’s a mystery,” and then get out of the room before anyone can ask a follow-up question.

I like this explanation suggested by Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, a Presbyterian minister :

As wire links a power source with a light bulb, as a conduit links a source of water with dry land, as the radar wave links the transmitter to the receiver, as electronic emissions link a wireless network to a laptop computer, so the Spirit links us to God, bringing the Holy Spirit to dwell in us so that you and I continue to reveal God’s presence in the world.

James Hewett, author, pastor writes: I am reminded of the pastor who thought, when he had difficulty preparing a particular sermon, ‘Perhaps the Holy Spirit will tell me what to say on Sunday morning.’ This thought returned to him several times during the week, and when at last he stood silently before his congregation, he turned to the Holy Spirit for guidance, and a celestial voice said to him, ‘Tell the people you are unprepared!”


About 6 summers ago, my good friend and colleague, Milt Ryder was leading Morning Watch devotions in Ocean Park. He had asked Chris Humphrey and Rob Duquette and a bass player named Sam to join him to discuss jazz music in the context of the sacred. It was just wonderful. They played both old and new hymns and shared the origin of them. Chris gave a personal testimony of how his music is one way that he responds to the Spirit in his life….for which he is truly grateful. I was moved especially by his description of the way the trio worked together….to support one another…. how much of what they do together is improv….. they instinctively know what the other is going to do….who is going to solo when, etc….because they have been playing together for such a long time. Chris said…. “ We just let the Spirit move us.and when we are really good..that’s the spirit and when we’re not so good.that’s us”.

Those of us who have both the opportunity, privilege…. and the challenge to preach every week, hope and pray that the Spirit will be upon us to offer words of insight, helpful words, words that come from a Divine wisdom, from a place of understanding that others will find inspiring…..and sometimes amusing. Finding good, relevant jokes every week is a next to impossible task and the Spirit doesn’t seem to send jokes my way too often!!

Back in 2009, I shared an experience I had that left me filled with awe…. with radical amazement….a moment of what some call “spirit writing”. Here it is:

I was different after I met you. You opened something up in me I had never discovered before. You wrapped your arms around a part of me that had been afraid to emerge …..and I tremble now with the possibility of becoming so much more. Your love and acceptance have awakened in me a song that now longs to be sung….. With you beside me, I am ready to share the melody with others who are waiting as I was, for your embrace.

The words I just read to you are mine…..yet they did not come from any conscious effort on my part. I was literally walking from my bedroom to my office ( the joys of working from your home!!!) when the first sentence popped into my awakening mind: “ I was different after I met you.” Really! I turned on my computer, opened to a blank page and listened for more….. and the thoughts emerged.

For the past two Sundays, we have been discussing the way the Spirit has been revealed to us through the prophets…Isaiah, Micah and Amos. We discussed the characteristics of the Spirit as being transcendent, Holy, awe inspiring…. actually frightening and intimidating to Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah…and Job…who felt unworthy of such an experience and calling.  These ancient texts suggest the interaction of the divine with human creation. Last week’s focus on social justice, revealed the divine spirit calling forth God’s human partners to action on behalf of the peaceable kingdom of God…God’s dream and vision of Shalom…. to do justice, and to love kindness,  and to walk humbly with our God? I suggested that:    The Spirit is holy, transcendent, interactive .a righteous energy that calls us forth and empowers our courageous actions on behalf of the kingdom.

Today, a glimpse that is a tad more intimate…..the mystical, personal experiences that only the Spirit can enable. It is the Holy Spirit that prepares our souls to receive such an experience…..the divine presence.

Mystical experiences are episodes of sheer wonder, radical amazement, radiant luminosity which leave us saying with conviction: God is real, God is the “more” in whom we live and move and have our being.  The central figures of the biblical tradition: Moses, the prophets, Jesus, Paul and more were all people for whom God, the Divine was an experiential reality. Marcus Borg writes: “ They didn’t simply believe strongly IN God, they KNEW God!”

It’s not likely that many of us will experience the Divine Spirit in over the top dramatic ways… in a burning bush, descending dove or heavenly ladder, but we may experience the Spirit, as Elijah did…in a still small voice deep within us….with a feeling of intense warmth and wellness, with a sudden insight, a feeling of peace… an overwhelming embrace of love and blessing.

Jacob had been a naughty boy! He and his also naughty mother Rebecca, plotted to deceive Jacob’s blind and ailing father Abraham and to steal the birthright from his twin brother Esau, born first and entitled to the birthright. Esau was not pleased and was dealing with his anger by plotting to kill Jacob. Rebecca told Jacob to run for the hills…literally to Haran….and so flee Jacob did. On the way there, he stopped for the night, and took a soft, comfy stone and put it under his head for a pillow. While he slept, he had a dream of a celestial ladder with angels ascending and descending and at the top of the ladder….a vision of God….promising to Jacob prime real estate for him and all his descendents. “ I will go with you and watch over you wherever you go. I will bring you back to this land and keep my promises to you.”

When Jacob woke up, he was astounded! According to ancient belief…. God was in a specific place…..and folks went there to worship. Jacob discovered otherwise.

“ Wow….surely God is in THIS place, I was not aware of it.”  And Jacob set up an altar of stone, anointed it as sacred ground….and promised that if God would provide for him on this journey….that he would offer to God one tenth of all he possessed. Hence the concept and standard for the 10% tithe.

In the midst of a dark time in his life….. after Jacob had made a serious blunder and seriously wounded his brother and father….. when he was having to flee from his homeland….. Jacob experienced the presence of God. He felt that he had stood at the gate of heaven. That was a life-changing event…. an empowering presence of Divine love, grace and forgiveness.

How many such moments do we fail to recognize….are we oblivious to? It is one of the great folly’s of humanity that we fail to recognize the presence of a loving Spirit or Divine Light in the midst of our daily experience…..holding us, empowering us, calling us forth.

“Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”….. and what a precious gift it is!

And that my good friends is what the work of the Holy Spirit is all about….. to help us make the divine/human connection…. to guide us to a place of knowing the “more”…. knowing God.   And that cannot be taught….or studied…. or ordained…. or contained in cloister of studied convictions. It is beyond belief!!

How do we get to that place beyond belief?

Another brief story to help us understand the feeling and power of the Holy Spirit:

Surgery was scheduled for the next day. Tom could feel the anxiety rising. He knew his very life would be in the hands of the doctors. The day before surgery an attractive nurse came into the room to talk with him about the operation. She took hold of his hand and asked him to hold it tight and feel its warmth. Tom had no objections to that. The hand was soft and smooth.

“Now,” she said, during the surgery tomorrow you will be disconnected from your heart and you will be kept alive only by virtue of certain machines. And when your heart is finally restored and the operation is over and you are reconnected, you will eventually awaken in a special recovery room. But you will be immobile for as long as six hours. You may be unable to move, or speak, or to even open your eyes, but you will be perfectly conscious and you will hear and you will know everything that is going on
around you.. During those six hours, I will be at your side and I will hold your hand exactly as I am doing now. I will stay with you until you are fully recovered. Although you may feel absolutely helpless, when you feel my hand, you will know that I will not leave you.”

The next day the surgery went exactly as the nurse had told him. When Tom woke, he could do nothing. Before he panicked, Tom felt the touch of the nurse’s hand and he was at peace.

God speaks, God heals, God ministers to us as Spirit present and active in each other. We are the love.

The presence of God….the Holy Spirit….. I have had a few such precious, priceless moments of a deeper awareness…nothing I can call spectacular…. more like a feeling of warm well being, of complete bliss…. and peace… awareness of beauty that touched my soul and an sense of profound love that could only come from a source beyond myself.

This is the work of the Spirit, I believe. It reveals the reality of the More…. of God’s presence. Margaret Silf refers to moments like these as “ forever moments”…for we will never forget them.   They leave a mark on our souls, they create a link to the divine. Spiritual mystics and wisdom scholars refer to this moments as piercing the veil…. coming upon a sacred space where the boundary between the material and spiritual is especially thin and vulnerable…. thin places.   The Spirit enables us to make the journey… cross the boundary.

Are all experiences attributed to a miraculous presence for real? Probably not….but who knows and who are we to judge. It’s deeply personal. If such a “visitation” leads us to violence of any kind, however, I would certainly not believe it came from God. The Holy Spirit leads us to a place of love and peace, of fruitfulness and understanding.

Jesus told his disciples that he would send another Counselor that would be along side them so that they would know that they would never be alone.

We hear the beautiful words from the gospel of John attributed to Jesus:

15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask my Father, who will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept the Spirit, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, for it lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.

There it is….the connection….God in us and we in God. This is the work of the Spirit.

The author of Following at a Distance, Kimberly Dunham Reisman wrote: “ In order to experience Jesus in real time, in order to follow with power and integrity we need to release Jesus from the chains of the past in order that his Spirit might operate in new and dynamic ways in the present and in the future….. Our present tense Jesus is not in the same form as He was 2,000 years ago, The beard is gone….no more sandals! It’s the Holy Spirit that lives and channels the living presence of God into our souls.

Sadly, I fear that the confine of our religious practice and belief frequently gets in the way of these mystical experiences of the divine. We’re too caught up in what we believe and who is right or wrong in their belief, and whether something is really true or not…that we miss the gift of experience that comes when we surrender to the spirit!

I will let one of my spiritual mentors, Marcus Borg have the last word today: He wrote:  Being a Christian isn’t primarily about having a correct theology by getting our beliefs right. It is about a deepening relationship with God, known especially by Christians in Jesus.

It’s not about a doctrine or belief. It truly is “beyond belief”….which leads to a place of inner knowing. Amen.