Moments of Radical Amazement

January 11, 2015 – Rev. Jan Hryniewicz

Text: Isaiah 6: 1 – 8 & Psalm 139: 7 – 10

A smart-alec seminarian thought he had pulled a good one.  On the final exam, which asked students to delve into the complexities of theology, he simply wrote: “Only God knows the answers to these questions!”

Grading the paper, the professor wrote, “ “Nice proposition. If true, God gets 100. You get a 0.”

Many of us have just seen the highly acclaimed movie The Theory of Everything about Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who suffers with a devastating neuro- muscular disease…who’s life work involves trying to solve the age old questions of the universe…. from the theories of the Big Bang to the Black Hole… to the existence of God. ( which the movie plays up a bit more than his work does.)

In spite of the research of the most brilliant scientific minds through the ages, God remains a mystery, who is most challenging, if not impossible to define. And yet, we try… because of our desire and need for a relationship with a higher power…. a spiritual being that connects with and supports our spiritual being…we strive to prove and define the inexplicable! We have a longing for the Holy…. we believe that there must be more. Could there really be a Divine Spirit that permeates all things? Will I ever be certain of it? Does what we have been taught and come to believe ABOUT God hinder our relationship WITH the Divine Spirit?

The psalmist writes:

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

Confidence, faith in the sustaining presence of the Spirit of God.

The prophet Isaiah says: “ Pay attention to me….. The Lord called me before I was born..while I was in my mother’s womb God named me. ( 49:1)   The prophet Jeremiah said: “ Now the word of the Lord came to me saying ‘ Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you and before you were born, I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

These and other ancient Hebrew texts suggest a Divine Presence that seeks relationship with humanity…that interacts with creation….. from Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Job, Joshua and so many others, there are stories of a powerful God who rules, who manipulates, who humans have defined according to human understanding. Many have and do actually try to make deals with this Deity…to manipulate it.

Check out this cute story:

On the first day, God created the dog and said, “Sit all day by the door of your house and bark at anyone who comes in or walks past. For this, I will give you a life span of twenty years.”

The dog said, “That’s a long time to be barking. How about only ten years and I’ll give you back the other ten?”

And God saw it was good.

On the second day, God created the monkey and said, “Entertain people, do tricks, and make them laugh. For this, I’ll give you a twenty-year life span.” The monkey said, “Monkey tricks for twenty years? That’s a pretty long time to perform. How about I give you back ten like the dog did?”

And God, again saw it was good.

On the third day, God created the cow and said, “You must go into the field with the farmer all day long and suffer under the sun, have calves and give milk to support the farmer’s family. For this, I will give you a life span of sixty years.”

The cow said, “That’s kind of a tough life you want me to live for sixty years. How about twenty and I’ll give back the other forty?”

And God agreed it was good.

On the fourth day, God created humans and said, “Eat, sleep, play, marry and enjoy your life. For this, I’ll give you twenty years.” But the human said, “Only twenty years? Could you possibly give me my twenty, the forty the cow gave back, the ten the monkey gave back, and the ten the dog gave back; that makes eighty, okay?”

“Okay,” said God, “You asked for it.”

So that is why for our first twenty years, we eat, sleep, play and enjoy ourselves. For the next forty years, we slave in the sun to support our family. For the next ten years, we do monkey tricks to entertain the grandchildren. And for the last ten years, we sit on the front porch and bark at everyone.

Life has now been explained to you. How simple that would be!! Sure is more understandable than Hawking’s theory!!

Let us assume, if I may that there is indeed a God…a Divine Spirit…which will always remain a mystery, beyond human comprehension…. who can, however be experienced…. a Spirit that does interact with us. Can I prove this? I actually think I can!!

May I also assume that most of us are oblivious to all the ways we can experience the divine spirit, the higher power….unaware of the huge impact it can have on our lives?    Let’s explore this a bit. Let’s examine some of the attributes of such a Spirit.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the brilliant Jewish philosopher and theologian who died in 1972 wrote: Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

FRANK FORENCICH who is an internationally-recognized leader in health and performance education and a best selling author wrote a recent article called the Exuberant Animal. I was attracted to the title and since I live with an exuberant animal, ( and I’m not referring to Ed!) I just had to check it out! He wrote:

Throughout the year, we are lulled to sleep by the routine: our familiar bodies, our familiar environments, our familiar tasks, our familiar friends. The more they become known to us, the less we pay attention. And as we age, it only gets worse. As our world becomes increasingly known, it also becomes increasingly dull to our senses. And so we go searching for novelty. We turn our attention to the new, the spectacular and the flashy. But this soon becomes familiar and now we’re back where we started.”

Now in the case of our exuberant animal, our black lab Belle….she never gets bored with the ball chasing routine….racing after her favorite Frisbee. Never finds that dull no matter how many times she participates in the “chase and return” routine every single day! “Ho Hum” is not in her vocabulary….. as it often is in ours.   Unfortunately, is it not uncommon for our religious practice to become “ Oh Hum”….just a dull routine…. uninspiring, an obligation rather than a joy that rarely takes us to a place of “radical amazement.”

The better approach , writes Frank Forenchich, is to look straight into the familiar with what Rumi called “fresh eyes.” Even our most routine moments are actually outrageous. Here we are, our bodies literally made of stardust, perched on a small, spinning planet at the edge of a glorious galaxy in a universe some 13 billion years old. Our bodies are home to an entire ecosystem of micro-organisms, a microbiome that keeps us healthy. Our nervous system contains billions of cells, each with some 10,000 synapses, giving us an uncountable number of patterns, constantly rearranging themselves in a dance of plasticity and learning. We are pervious to social messages that flow through networks; not only are we breathing the same air, we are also sharing emotion, stories, and ideas. And it’s all in motion, all the time.

Abraham Heschel describes radical amazement as a spiritual experience, which it most certainly is. But it also has profound effects on our minds and bodies. Undoubtedly, the experience of radical amazement sets in motion a cascade of beneficial neurobiological effects that promote our health. Every time we see the world with curiosity and wonder, the body responds with a surge of beneficial hormones and neurotransmitters. Our brains and bodies light up, increasing our capacity for amazement.”

We are amazing creatures….. right?! Do you believe that!? We witness this all the time in children and in our dogs!

Amazing beings created with the DNA of an amazing God!

Because I have a dreadful fear of dull….. of getting trapped ….or lulled into a meaningless routine, I wanted to begin 2015 with a sermon series on “ radical amazement”…. on being in touch with the mystical moments that are available to us when we are tuned into the Divine Spirit that is in all things…..when we are open and aware….and cooperative!

I absolutely love this poem by Macrina Wiederkehr called “On the Morality of Holding on to Teddy bears! I’ll share a portion of it:

Once upon a time when days were still fresh and new, ordinary and uncomplicated, I was a free child in love with everything…. a bee buzzing, the wind in my hair, a branch to hang from, bare feet in the grass, dandelions and fairies and teddy bears.

I don’t remember growing up. It must have happened while I wasn’t looking but it is obvious that it has happened, for I am less simple more complicated and more cluttered.

My good friends, some of us may be too sophisticated…. too proper…. too cynical ….too intellectual…. for mystical moments. … for radical amazement. Or perhaps we are just afraid, and need our teddy bears!   Perhaps we think that mystical moments are the side effects of a new age religion… those touchy feeley experiences that make us squirm with embarrassment and discomfort.   Perhaps, quite frankly, we are not interested in embarking on a mystical journey that might threaten the boundaries of our comfort zones. I’ve been in that place for years! I confess to that! Listen to this story:

A couple of years ago, at 8am on a cold Friday morning in January (1.12.07), Joshua took up his violin and positioned himself next to a trash can at the L’Efant Plaza Subway Station of the Washington DC Metro. He played six intricate Bach pieces for about 45 minutes during rush hour while a hidden camera recorded the 1,097 people who walked past him. You may have heard this story a while back, but it’s worth retelling.

While he played, a grand total of 7 people stopped to listen. 20 more dropped a few coins in his violin case without breaking stride. For his efforts, Joshua pulled in a whopping $32.17.

It’s worth noting that two days earlier, he had sold out a theatre with the average seat costing $100.

After all, this was Joshua Bell, who had debuted at Carnegie Hall at the age of 17, had headlined London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra when he was 19, had recently won a Grammy award, and just a week before, had performed at the Library of Congress. Here was one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the most difficult pieces of music ever written, on one of the most expensive violins in the world. It happened to be a $3.5 million dollar violin. This is the same Joshua Bell who would accept the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize three months later, a $75,000 cash prize recognizing him as the best classical musician in America (2007). And here he was playing in the subway and almost nobody noticed.

Joshua’s subway stint was organized by the Washington Post Magazine as part of a social experiment. They wanted to know, when out of context, do we recognize amazing talent, beauty, and art? And even if we do, would we pause long enough to appreciate it?

Shocking, isn’t it!?   We can become so insulated…so embedded in our routines that miracles cannot penetrate.

If we can so easily pass up one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things might we be missing?

OK… you get the point, right!? I hope you will journey with me this winter to places that you may not have explored before.   I may not have explored before! I’d like us to share some meaningful moments with a few profound spiritual mystics who have experienced the Divine Presence in a transforming way that may create in us a new awareness of God and our connection with the Divine…and give us some precious moments of radical amazement.

This morning, I’d like for us to spend a few closing moments with the prophet Isaiah….. one of my personal favorites, who I will address more fully at a later time.

Isaiah was, a religious man, a functionary in the king’s court, a palace bureaucrat, if you will. It was an unhappy time in the nation’s life. The good king Uzziah had died. Uzziah’s reign had been a time of great material prosperity. To secure the caravan route along the Mediterranean coast, he had built cities and military outposts and armed his troops with the most advanced weapons. He had refortified the walls of Jerusalem with towers. His construction of numerous cisterns and military outposts in the desert made widespread settlement possible. Uzziah was a lover of the soil who promoted agriculture. But now he was gone, struck down by leprosy, buried in a field rather than in the royal tombs because of his disease. It was a sad time.

Suddenly, in the midst of the sadness, Isaiah is confronted with something magnificent. “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of God’s glory’

Isaiah had a vision of almighty God, the God who had made the universe. Make no mistake about it……this was a shocking and frightening experience for Isaiah…something so far removed from his life experience that he was overwhelmed by it.   In his book The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto describes such a fearful experience of transcendent reality as terrible “ because it comes as a profound shock that severs us from normality. There is nothing rational about this overpowering experience….the emotions it engenders cannot adequately be expressed in words or concepts.“

In her book A History of God, biblical scholar and author Karen Armstrong wrote:

“ Isaiah was no Buddha experiencing an enlightenment that brought tranquility and bliss. He had not become the perfected teacher of men and women. Instead he was filled with normal terror , crying aloud: What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among people with unclean lips, and my eyes have looked at the King, Yahweh! ‘ Overcome by the transcendent holiness of Yahweh, he was conscious only of his own inadequacy and ritual impurity. Unlike the Buddha or a Yogi, he had not prepared himself for this experience by a series of spiritual exercises. It had come out of the blue and he was completely shaken by its devastating impact.”   There it is….. one of the attributes of the Divine Spirit…. holy, magnificent, beyond the realm of human normality and comprehension. A presence that inspires total awe and radical amazement!

As we begin our Journey with the Spirit in this new year, let us be aware that the Spirit may come to us ….may call to us…. from out of the blue….and it will likely be downright shocking and frightening. Are we prepared? Like Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah… we might say…. “Whoa….wait a minute. You can’t mean me! I am unclean, I am unworthy, I am not capable.   And, I hope like Isaiah and Moses and Jeremiah and thousands of others through the ages….we will surrender to the Divine Spirit and say…

“ Here I am Lord God…. I am your partner…. send me.”   Amen!