The gospel of John, which my New Testament professor characterized as “the gospel in which Jesus always floats a foot off the ground,” is insistent that we see Jesus as God incarnate from the beginning of creation, in stark contrast to Luke, which shows Jesus as a man among men, teaching, helping, healing. So John uses an earthly analogy to describe this God/Man by saying that Jesus is the Christ, the Light of the World, the one who illuminates everything, the one who teaches everyone to see. Light is hard to define for a non-scientist (Is it waves or particles?) but easy to notice, since light makes it possible to see everything else in creation. In John 8 Jesus declares himself: “I am the light of the world, anyone who comes with me will not be walking in the dark but will have the light of life…” As the incarnational poem expresses it in The Message paraphrase:
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness,
the darkness couldn’t put it out. (John 1:4-5)
The apostle Paul was knocked for a loop by the Light of the World. Plunging down the road, eager to persecute this new sect called “Christians,” Saul was struck blind by the light of Jesus Christ, and his life was never the same. Some of you experienced your conversion just that way—a stunning moment in which you “came to your senses” and knew that now Jesus was in your life, you would never be the same.
Robert Kurson’s gripping book Crashing Through, tells the story of Mike May, who was blinded in a chemical explosion at age three. May experienced an epiphany, when, after living as a blind man for thirty years, he had his vision restored with stem cell surgery. “A cataclysm of white light exploded into May’s eye and his skin and his blood and his nerves and his cells, it was everywhere, it was around him and inside him, inside his hair, on top of his breath, in the next room, in the next building, in the next state, … it was fantastically bright—such intensity had to be bright, so, yes, bright—but not painful not even uncomfortable, and it rushed toward him and around him, yet it didn’t move, it was always moving, it was always still, it came from nowhere—how could something come from nowhere?—it was all white, and now when his surgeon asked again, ‘Can you see anything?’ May’s face erupted into a smile … and he said, ‘Holy smoke! I sure can!’ and those words made (his wife) Jennifer’s heart pound and her throat clench and she whispered to herself, ‘Oh, my God.’” (126-127)
May had regained vision, but he didn’t have sight. His one good eye had crystal clear vision, but his brain hadn’t learned how to interpret the images. As a blind man he had compensated heroically, using a cane and a Seeing Eye dog and his keen hearing to navigate through any crowd fluidly and without collision. Braille and multiple electronic enhancers let him run a business that took him all over the world. He even mastered the Olympic ski slopes and broke speed records skiing behind a sighted instructor who called out the turns and hazards. After the surgery, as a sighted man, Mike May couldn’t interpret the visual clues fast enough.
After months of tests, the doctors concluded that Mike May’s brain missed all the learnings children get by interpreting visual clues growing up. Our bodies contain 100 billion neurons and 1/3 of those are involved in interpreting what we see. (254) I called Harriet Johnson to ask about these techniques to help little children learn visual clues. She described an experiment: kindergarteners were shown water in a tall skinny glass and water in a squat glass. They were sure there was more in the skinny glass until they measured to find it was exactly the same amount. Harriet mentioned the research of Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who specialized in children’s developmental stages. That flashed me back to another epiphany I had as a young assistant professor hearing Jean Piaget speaking at a centennial convocation at the University of Michigan.
Piaget taught that readiness is all: “children progressively enrich their understanding of things by acting on and reflecting on the effects of their own previous knowledge so that they are able to organize their knowledge in increasingly complex structures. Thus, a new stage begins, which will only be completed when all the child’s activity and experience have been re-organized on this still higher level.” Mike May had to begin the torturous process of memorizing everything children integrate and organize very early in their lives.
I would like to draw an analogy about our own spiritual lives from Mike May’s experience as “The man who dared to see” (as the subtitle so dramatically expresses it). My epiphany of conversion was much gentler than Saul’s. My mother came into my bedroom to tuck me in when I was six years old and gave me a little plaque with a cross on it that glowed in the dark. She talked with me about what I knew about Jesus, and with some tears but with great joy I “accepted Christ as my personal savior.” Now I cringe at that expression, because it makes becoming a Christian into a formula that suggests that once you’ve “got it” (like catching something) you don’t have to do anything more. As I grew older I discovered that the epiphany of conversion was only the beginning of a long process. What matters most is that at some point the love of Christ comes to permeate our whole being so that our entire nature is gradually shaped to put love at the center. Piaget says that during the first seven years of a child’s life he or she is thoroughly self-centered. We are often like that early in our spiritual lives. As we mature we learn that the “care of the soul” takes hard work: discipline, nurture, community, and most of all practice of our faith to complete our spiritual transformation.
I am so impressed with what I hear about your efforts toward spiritual growth at UBC. I finally finished reading SAVING PARADISE by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, which many of you have studied in the Sunday evening group. Jean Lubke described it to me as a life-transforming experience. You can probably recount milestones in your spiritual journey like that. I attended “prayer meeting” every Wednesday night for thirty years but still got jolted to a new stage of understanding by my seminary course in prayer with Flora Woolner. Years of attending and then teaching in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School made me think I knew the Bible stories through and through. Then I started doing serious Bible study and learned the depths of things I did not know. Weekly worship has been a part of my life for half a century, but I was blown away by the magnificent worship at St. Mark’s Cathedral surrounding the recent installation of Peg Chemberlain as head of the World Council of Churches.
This morning I would like to recommend that you embrace this time in your life, whatever age you are now, as the optimum time to “grow in wisdom and knowledge” in your spiritual journey. This past year after finally retiring for the fourth time I began spiritual direction in a group of six women pastors under the leadership of Julie Neraas. For two hours on Friday morning we share experiences and then embrace silence, often journaling about what our meditation reveals about direction in our lives.
Many of these sessions involve an epiphany—a revelation that was waiting for me to discover when I became able to “rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him.”
Often in our meditation, we read scripture. Three weeks ago the Hospice patient I am visiting now asked me to take her arm and lead her over to the photos displayed on the wall so she could tell me about her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After awhile the phone rang and as Marion hurried to her bed and turned loose of my arm to answer the phone, she slipped gracefully to the floor in a crumpled heap. My heart raced as I panicked, not knowing how to raise her limp bulk back into bed. She calmly told me to retrieve her walker, she raised herself to her knees, and together we shifted her safely back into bed without even a bruise. I reached for the large Bible at her bedside and began to read the Psalm that brings me back to God: Psalm 90. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”
Another meditation practice I treasure is called the Lectio Divina. You read a Bible passage, wait for some word or phrase to leap out which seems particularly pertinent to your life and then explore its meaningfulness to you. This Friday we were looking at the story in Matthew 2 about the coming of the Magi and suddenly I connected with the verse from prophecy that speaks of “Rachel weeping for her children.” How many of us weep for our children? When my daughter Susan died, I learned that God is in the darkness as well as in the light. When each of us experiences some deep grief, we learn to “Be still, and know that I am God.” If we think that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” only when things are going our way, then we have missed the miracle of the mystery. Often a challenge to our naïve faith serves to open us to the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, who brings us comfort, forgiveness and healing.
“I once visited a church where the preacher invited people with heartaches and problems to come to the altar. ‘God will take care of what’s bothering you right now,’ he proclaimed. Not a word about the desert that lies between our wounds and our healing, our questions and our answers, our departure and our arrival. Nothing about the slow, sacred rhythms of spiritual becoming or the spiral of descent and ascent that make up waiting.” (Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits, 26)
Mystic Thomas Merton describes the result of this kind of waiting:
“When they stay quiet in the muteness of naked truth, resting in a simple and open-eyed awareness, attentive to the darkness which baffles them, a subtle and indefinable peace begins to seep into their soul and occupies them with a deep and inexplicable satisfaction. … What is it? It is hard to say: but one feels that it is somehow summed up in ‘the will of God’ or simply, ‘God.’”
My wish for you is that you find God in this new way and welcome the illuminating presence of the Light of the World. AMEN.