One of my fondest memories of growing up was my family’s annual trips to the beach at Nags Head, in North Carolina—just my folks and brother and me, although as we got older, my brother and I were each allowed to bring a friend along.
Back then, the beach was not as popular as it is now. No big high rises; a grocery, a gas station, one or two restaurants—that’s about it. And, because there were so few people, there were no regulations concerning bonfires on the beach. Now, I doubt you could light one match. After dinner we would amble down to the water, close enough to hear the woosh of the waves-- and we’d build a fire, with driftwood we had collected earlier in the day. I remember being around 11 or 12. Sarah, a friend who had come with us, and I, dug a huge hole in the sand, and filled it with blankets and beach towels. Then we crawled in and watched the dancing flames, and we sang folk songs. What did we sing? Well, this definitely dates me, but we sang what were then contemporary tunes by Peter, Paul and Mary—Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I Had a Hammer. If the boys had been here today, I was going to ask them if they had ever heard of Peter Paul and Mary and If I Had a Hammer. Great music, right?
I am going somewhere with this, I promise. Several years ago, I was at a neighbor’s yard sale, and glory be—that neighbor was selling a Peter, Paul and Mary double CD album. As my daughter says, “Score.” I bought it of course, and in short order, quickly reconnected with songs of the 60’s and 70’s and memories of my younger self. In fact, those CD’s actually were a life-saver for me. When I took a preaching position at Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in Kenbridge Virginia—a church on the North Carolina border, I sang along with the trio on my long Sunday commutes to Ebenezer and back. Kept me awake, I tell you, and revved me up for worship, too. I’d stroll into Ebenezer singing This Land is My Land, ready to preach!
One of the tunes on that CD set which was unfamiliar to me when I bought it is We are One. Do you know it? It was written by Peter Yarrow. Here are some of the words to that song:
There is only one river. There is only one sea.
And it flows through you, and it flows through me.
There is only one people. We are one and the same.
We are all one spirit. We are all one name.
We are the father, mother, daughter and son.
From the dawn of creation, we are one. We are one.
The name of the song, by the way, is River Jordan—so while it is not overtly religious, it definitely has spiritual overtones.
What surprised me about about the song was its contemporary philosophy. I mean, we are one—is what some of my friends tell me, those who have turned to the dark side— taking up Yoga, and meditation practices. They say they don’t need religion, because religion divides people and hey, we are all one. They say this as if this is a new discovery for them.
When Peter Yarrow wrote his song, I wonder if he thought he was expressing a new idea. Because as we read in today’s passage, it definitely isn’t. It’s been around for eons. Jesus says, in conversation with God, “I in them and you in me, so that they may be one as we are one.” Of course, Jesus may have been referring specifically to his followers, but still there’s this idea of oneness with others and also with the one who created everything that is—God isn’t a great uncle living in Alaska, who sends us an occasional check in the mail, God is as close as our heartbeat--in us and we are in God, too—and again, we are in each other, again, we are one. To use terms that Peter, Paul and Mary were familiar with, “Cool Man! Far Out. Peace!”
Mystics understand this. The definition of a mystic, is a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender unity with a Deity.
So for instance, Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic born in the 1300s. She lived in Norwich, England and she wrote Revelations of Divine Love, important not only because of what she had to say, but because hers is the first book in the English language we know of, to have been written by a woman. Julian of Norwich says that as she sat contemplating a hazelnut in her hand, she discovered that all was in the hazelnut, and the essence of the Hazelnut was in all things.
Meister Eckhart, an early 13th century German theologian, philosopher and mystic, wrote this: God expects but one thing. Let God be God in you.” And he also wrote, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” Whoah!
I am currently reading a book, entitled the Fingerprints of God: What Science is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience. That book details the experiences of some people who have been able to see beyond the material world, into that world of unity of which Jesus, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhardt and other mystics speak. Only the people whose mystic experiences are described in the book, don’t consider themselves mystics; they are self-described ordinary people who have experienced something extra-ordinary—and consider themselves extremely privileged.
So for instance, Don was a thirty something year old in 1976. He had a job which required him to visit high schools throughout the state of Oregon. He was on his way home--by himself, driving his Datsun. As so often on his long travels, he had a tape recorder with him. He used it to record verbal sticky notes to himself. He had a sure fire way, then to record what happened to him on the road. He says on the tape, a tape which he has kept through the ensuing years,
“I guess I’ve just had the kind of experience that Saul must have had on the road to Damascus. All of a sudden, just out of nowhere, I just got a sweeping experience of the Holy Spirit, I guess. That sounds kind of strange coming from me because I don’t talk like this very often, but I was just moving along and Whammo!
“I went all goose bumps and all the hairs on my arms and legs just stared standing on end and I was just kind of full of electricity. Not exactly a voice or anything like that, but kind of a bright, shining message came through to me that said….’Yes, you do understand me, and here is some more understanding,’ which is just…I’m starting to cry again…which is just an amazingly joyful experience for me.”
Don stopped the car. And then when he had recovered a little, he stepped out and like a man possessed, he started hurling rocks at the ground, one on top of another.
I read that and I thought of some Old Testament figures who had religious experiences out in the desert. Jacob comes immediately to mind. You know after he wrestled with that angel, he stacks rocks one on top of another, as a kind of marker. “This is where I met God.”
But back to Don. When he was interviewed for the book, he had this to say of his experience, “Everything, everything was beautiful. There was nothing that wasn’t full of light—it was that kind of ecstasy. It was the actual experience of unity with everything else. It was the classic drop of water in the ocean. But the thing that occurred to me that was miraculous was, I felt the ocean in the drop, not just the drop in the ocean. (Like Julian of Norwich and her Hazelnut, right?) I felt I was God-stuff—that I was made up of the same stuff that God was made up of, and the only difference is God knew that, and I didn’t.”
Again, unity. God in you and you in God and we are in each other.
I want to share with you one more mystical experience-- gleaned not from the book I am reading—haven’t finished it yet, but from a a neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor. She wrote a book, Stroke of Insight which was published in 2008 and became a best seller. Familiar with it?
In 1996,38 year old Dr. Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke to the left hemisphere of her brain. The right hemisphere takes information in the present moment based on what it receives from our senses. The left hemisphere, the one that was damaged, is like a big filing cabinet—where all our memories and future plans are stored and also our learned abilities—like talking and writing, and doing arithmetic.
With her left brain largely silenced by the stroke, Dr. Bolte Taylor witnessed a different reality. She says that what she learned from her right brain thinking is this. “We are energy beings, connected to one another through consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. Right here, right now, we are brothers and sisters on this planet…. In this moment, we are perfect, we are whole, we are beautiful.”
And just to follow up on her story, Jill Bolte Taylor did recover—took her eight years, but she did recover; she wrote her book, has spoken all over the world, and is a self-described activist for better communication, understanding and peace among all people.
Dr. Bolte Taylor’s and Don’s stories and others are enough to convince me, that each of us. not just mystics, each of us has the capacity to open ourselves to a larger, more expansive reality—the reality of oneness of which Jesus speaks.
I want to circle back around now and end this sermon by responding to those who are quick to pooh-pooh religion—including some of my friends—you know, those who have moved to the dark side.
Someone has described faith as a big wagon wheel with God at the center. Our differing faith traditions are like spokes on that wheel. Imagine that when we are born we are at the rim of the wheel. We who are Christian follow the Christian spoke, I suppose. We read our Bibles and learn from other people who have followed along our spoke—Jesus, the prophets, Christian mystics, included; we learn too from our contemporaries who are on the same spoke. It’s ok to travel along a different spoke, but if you are already on one spoke and you decide to change, you have to go back to the wheel rim and start over. Bottom line—we are all headed toward ever greater union with the one who is of all and n all. As Jesus says, “I am in them and you in me, so that they may be one as we are one.” Amen