On Becoming a Mystical Progressive

By Bruce G. Epperly

Date Delivered:  August 13, 2006

Location: Unitarian Universalist Community of Lancaster

Genesis 28:10-17
Exodus 3:1-5
John 1:1-5, 9

Earth’s crammed with heaven
and every common bush
afire with God;
And only he who sees,
takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it
and pluck blackberries.
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

There is a Hebraic midrash, or commentary, that asks the question, “why was bush burning, but never consumed?”

The answer, like a Zen Buddhist koan, challenges us to awaken to Life, “the bush was burning, and never consumed, so that as he walked by, day after day, one day Moses would notice it!”

Always on holy ground, always in the presence of the divine, always a breath away from his life mission, but utterly oblivious to what he passed by each day…until one day…Moses saw…and the world was transformed.

Among those persons who call themselves progressive, there is often a false dichotomy between reason and spirituality, ethics and mysticism, head and heart. Many progressives, children of the Western Enlightenment, restrict reality to what can, in principle, be experienced through the senses. We are a little uneasy with people who claim to see visions, speak in tongues, have too much certainty about God, experience God’s presence, or heal by their touch. Such things defy reason, we think, and too often, they are identified with religious viewpoints that bound on the superstitious or glorify some form of religious conservatism.

As progressives, we are interested in a rational religion – one that makes sense of our world and that complements the insights of science, psychology, and medicine. We want a faith that fits the most convincing and current world view we can find. And, this is good!

But, today, we are learning that this world view – the Enlightenment world view –  is too small. While we may chuckle at fundamentalists who can’t get beyond the pages of their black backed bibles, we ourselves are imprisoned by the confines of the modern world view, and its emphasis on sense perception as the primary vehicle and criteria of truth not only in science, but also in faith.

We are learning that the universe is more elegant, mysterious, and wonderful than we imagined.  We are discovering an intimate link between mind and body, and spirit and flesh, which allows room for prayer, meditation, and healing touch. We are learning that an interdependent, energetic universe, opens the door to new visions of spirituality, healing, and divinity. We are learning that the universe is multi-dimensional, surprising, and beautiful…that the harmony of the spheres in the macro and the micro is a reality, not just the dream of Pythagoras.

We are recovering the original meaning of “reason” as visionary and ecstatic…reason as the gift of experiencing the eternal in everyday life and intuiting the presence of wisdom and holiness in a world of lively, wonderful change. This was the reason of Plato, the early Christian theologians, Emerson and Whitman, and Alfred North Whitehead – reason that enables us to marvel at the multi-billion year, multi-billion galaxy cosmic adventure, but also see the universe within a grain of sand (Blake), or encounter the fullness of divinity within a hazelnut (Julian of Norwich).

Emerson noted in his Harvard Divinity School Address that we are all “bards of the Holy Ghost,” mouthpieces of the spirit, mediators of holiness…mystics in training…

Today’s stories describe a life-transforming encounter with the holy, which can happen to anyone at anytime, but most often occurs when we prepare the ground through study, prayer, meditation, and other spiritual practices.

The trickster Jacob, always concerned with getting ahead, with making the next buck regardless of the consequences, falls asleep, with but a stone for a pillow, and dreams of a ladder, in which angels ascend and descend. He awakens with an affirmation, “God was in this place – and I did not know it!” Note, that the angels ascend…and then descend…there are angels of the earth – that is, this place is holy…we don’t have to escape this world to experience the divine. As a matter of fact, the greatest mystics were rooted in ordinary life – Brother Lawrence, working the monastery kitchen and going shopping; Gandhi, working for justice and freedom; Mother Teresa, seeing the face of God in persons dying of AIDS or along the streets of Calcutta.

Thomas Merton once spoke of “contemplation in a world of action,” and surely this is what Mother Teresa meant when she asserted that our calling is to do “something beautiful for God.”

And, then there is Moses….day after day, he passed by this burning bush, but one day, he paused and noticed…and discovered God on the way to work!  I believe that there much wisdom in the traditional doctrine of “omnipresence” – at the very least, it means that God is present and revealing Godself everywhere, and surely this is the heart of progressive spirituality.  Whereas some speak of god-less places and god-less persons, the heart of progressive spirituality is the vision that God can be experienced everywhere and in everyone…revelation, like salvation, is universal…all can capture a personal and intimate glimpse of holiness…God is in the burning bush – Annie Dillard’s “tree with lights” – but also the morning sun, the Iraqi soldier, the Palestinian insurgent, the American GI, the Buddhist at meditation, the scientist in the laboratory, and the faithful Christian saying her prayers….. as the gospel of Thomas asserts, “Cleave the wood and I am there.”

And, this is the point of John’s Prologue…the creative word is still creating and it is bringing forth beauty and wonder and life everywhere…the true light that enlightens everyone is coming into the world…sadly some Christians have forgotten the universalist passages from their own scriptures…they would rather see the world in terms of saved and unsaved, true and false, faithful and faithless, than as a lively, evolving God-filled realm. But, God is everywhere, enlightening everyone…we just need to open to what is being born and growing in us and around us.

You are being enlightened, so says John’s gospel. You simply may not know it. Spiritual practices, such as prayer, meditation, dance, breathing, hospitality, service, are not magical rituals intended to invoke a god who is not here, but openings to the God who is already here, gently, yet dynamically moving in our lives; energetically enlivening our spirits; creatively calling us to new behaviors and insights; intimately inviting us to be God’s own companions in mending the world.

Yes, you can be progressive – a person of stature, with an inclusive vision – and you can be mystical – one who experiences holiness in all things.  Let us rejoice because our experience can be as grand as our beliefs.  Pause, notice, breathe deeply, open your senses to deeper rhythms….

And, then with Dag Hammarksjold, we can proclaim with our whole being –
For all that has been – thanks!
For all that shall be – yes!

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements. Now retired, he served as co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA, an open and affirmative, progressive and emerging congregation.