December 11, 2011: “Surprises along the way”

Posted on : Dec 8th, 2011 | By | Category: This Sunday's Service

“Surprises along the way: Thin places where heaven and earth touch.”

There is something strange that happens almost every time someone tries to tell me about a “religious experience” they’ve had.  They always begin with “You probably think I’m crazy, but…” or “I’m sure you won’t believe this, but…”

Such “beginnings” used to annoy me.  Of all the people in the world you ought to be able to talk to about a religious experience, your pastor should be one of them!  But then I discovered it isn’t just with pastors that people don’t feel comfortable talking about “God-experiences,” it’s with everyone!  We’re all afraid everyone will think we’re crazy!  That says more about how we view “religion” in America than it does about you personally.  Kind of strange, isn’t it, that America is “branded” as the land of religious Christians, yet few people in our culture feel comfortable talking even with their best friends about their personal experiences with God.

This week the Gospel story is about an angel of God appearing to Mary with a message that was 1) unbelievable!!!  and 2) “kind of crazy.”  For many today that message is still 1) unbelievable!!!  and 2) “kind of crazy,” especially if you try to “understand it rationally.”  But here’s the catch:

Spiritual experiences aren’t about ‘rationality’ they are about things of the spirit.  They are experiences of and with the Holy. They are not rational and they can’t be “proven” at least by our standards of “proof” today.

The story of the angel announcing the birth of the Christ Child to Mary is a spiritual experience.  It’s about a spiritual encounter Mary has with God.  It’s not rational.  It’s not believable.  It’s not ordinary.  But it is real.

There was a time in Christianity when religious experience was considered acceptable and normal—and yes, believable.  It was part of the practice of Christianity called “Celtic Spirituality.”  Celtic Christian spirituality taught that there were “thin places in our life experience where heaven and earth meet.”  That is, there are places in our life experience where we are absolutely close to God, and experience God in profound ways.

What happened that we lost this part of our faith?  J. Philip Newell, in his book, “Listening for the Heartbeat of God” explains what happened.

In the early Middle-ages (664 AD) a synod was convened by Oswy, king of Northumbria (Britain), in whose kingdom two Christian missions had clashed.  Essentially the conflict was between two spiritual perspectives or ways of seeing.  The Celtic mission, inspired by John, remembered him as the beloved disciple who leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper.  He had become an image of the practice of listening for the heartbeat of God.  This spirituality lent itself to listening for God at the heart of life.  The Roman mission, on the other hand, argued for the authority of Peter as the rock on which Christ had promised to build the Church.  He had become a symbol of faithful action and outward unity.  This spirituality favored a listening for God in the ordained teaching and life of the Church.  Oswy decided in favor of the Roman mission which became the authorized religion of the land, while the Celtic mission began its formal decline.

In other words, the power of the ordained clergy to tell people what their religious experience was supposed to be and what it meant, won out over our personal experience with God.  As we know today, that was not the best choice.

Mary’s experience with the Angel offers us a different kind of faith experience.  Mary’s experience is about “listening.”  Philip Newell talks about “listening” for God in these ways: “Listening for the Goodness,”  “Listening within Creation,” “Listening for God in All Things,” “Listening with Imagination,” “Listening and Acting.”

Just imagine how different our faith experience – our God-experience – would be if we allowed ourselves and trusted ourselves enough to really listen for God speaking to us!  This Sunday we will listen.  We will listen to ancient words, ever true.  Changing me.  Changing you.

We will listen for God speaking to me.  Speaking to you.

Advent Blessings,


This Sunday’s Scripture

Luke 1: 26-38

The angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the child of God.

Six months later, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a young woman named Mary; she was engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary, “Rejoice, highly favored one!  God is with you!  Blessed are you among women!”

Mary was deeply troubled by these words and wondered what the angel’s greeting meant.  The angel went on to say to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.  You’ll conceive and bear a child and give him the name Jesus.  His dignity will be great, and he will be called the only begotten of God.  God will give Jesus the judgment seat of David, his ancestor, to rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his reign will never end.

Mary said, “How can this be, since I have never been with a man?”

The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you – hence the offspring to be born will be called the Holy One of God.  Know too that Elizabeth, your kinswoman, has conceived a child in her old age; she who was thought to be infertile is now in her sixth month.  Nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary said, “I am the servant of God.  Let it be done to me as you say.”

With that, the angel left her.

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