A few weeks ago, I camped out on the farm my grandparents purchased a hundred years ago. I awoke before daylight. Overnight, a heavy dew had settled over everything. As I stuck my head out of the rainfly, dew pooled on the flap and baptized the back of my neck. A ghostly fog rose from the grass up to the treetops. I lit our camp stove and waited for the coffee to perk. I watched as the first thin rays of sunlight rose over the horizon. Those first blades of light created the perfect angle to paint the fog a milky pink. National Geographic tells us that “fog is a cloud that touches the ground.” The foggy pink veil stretched up from the ground up to kiss the lavender sky. I stood in a thin place. Earth and heaven touched in wispy pink and lilac hues. My moment lasted only a minute, no more than two. The earth rotates at about 16 miles per minute. So as my spot on the spinning earth turned toward the sun, the lavender sky turned to an ordinary blue. Still, the warming air made twirling chimneys of fog ascending into grey cones until being released back to God as vapor. The foggy chimneys rose even as the line of fog fell to earth and retreated down the hillside. Stunned, I stood in silence, somewhat undone.
Living in our digital age, I had instinctively reached for my phone interrupting the moment to snap a picture. It is a strange habit to interrupt such holy times. Maybe we needed to prove to ourselves how beautiful such moments are? Maybe we want to show someone what they missed? When showing this photo, why do I feel compelled to authenticate it by saying, “This photo has no filter.” What difference does it make if we use a filter? Why, when preparing my sermon, did I spend 30 minutes exploring the science of fog, dew and sunlight, trying to ensure my facts were not distorted by rose colored memories? Why is it so hard to let go? Why is it hard to let all our heart, soul, and mind praise the Lord?
The Apostle Paul saw no reason to prove his experience on the Damascus Road writing, “whether I was in the body or out of the body. I don’t know-God knows.” (2 Corinthians 12) Why is it so hard for we who read Paul’s letters as Scripture to let go of our need to “prove it” and embrace mystery? Isn’t worship a deep letting go? Isn’t worship letting go of our need to control the notes, the moment, and the holy so that we can embrace wonder, awe, beauty, Christ, faith, hope, and love? Can our theology, perfectionism, and reasoning sometimes keep our hearts from opening to God? Jesus warns that we church folks can get our theological speech exactly right while our hearts remain closed to God. (Matthew 15) If only faith, hope, and love endure, why do we argue so much about theology that will pass away? (1 Corinthians 13) When will we let go of our need to control, corral, and cajole so that we might experience adoration, wonder, and praise?
Perhaps 6000 miles away and 3000 years ago some ancient Hebrew poet sat in silent awe as the sunlight illuminated the foggy desert dust and painted everything with a lavender and pink brush! Inspired by that Holy moment, maybe the Psalmist took to parchment and wrote what in time the church canonized as Psalm 104? Did some overzealous editor junk up the initial hymn by adding verse 35? (I’m not giving you that verse!) Do you need to understand if verse 35 belongs in order to be open to verses 1-5? Can we let go and embrace mystery? Can we allow ourselves to bless the Lord?
Let my whole being bless the Lord! Oh, Lord, Creator, how fantastic You are!
You are clothed in glory wearing light like a robe and opening the skies like a curtain.
You make the clouds your chariot riding around on the wings of the wind.
You established the earth on its foundations. It will never ever fall.
From your lofty house, you water the mountains. Feeding the cows and giving us wine!
The universe is full of Your handiwork.
Let us sing to the Lord. (Let us let go for a moment and sing)
Let us sing praises to God while we have breath. Let us rejoice in the Lord.
Letting go is not suspending our minds and believing anything. To preach of blind faith or faith that rejects reason or science dishonors God’s good creation of our minds. Any faith that rejects human reason as a corrupt fallen faculty inadvertently teaches us that we can’t trust our own minds or the God who created us to think. Reason and science help us hone our faith. Jesus asks us “what do you think” or explicitly calls us to think nine times in Matthew’s Gospel. (Matthew 18:12) If we think about Psalm 104, we will not take it literally. God does not joyride around heaven in a cloudy chariot. The astronauts did not see God’s house or find the foundation holding up the earth. The science of our earth, floating in a huge spinning, expanding universe, is more glorious than any ancient poet or prophet could have imagined. The verses are beautiful and true but not scientific facts. Indeed, if we choose to ignore science and force ourselves to believe the earth has four corners, the sun once stood still, or the world was made in six days, we have misapplied Scripture by forcing story, parable, and poetry into unhelpful legal or scientific paradigms. Maybe this is easy when we think about the foundations or four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11), but it may be trickier when we consider Jesus’ seven I AM statements from John. “I am the light of the world, I am the bread of life, and I am the true vine,” are poetic expressions of deep experiential truths about Jesus. We all agree Jesus did not literally glow, grow grapes for hair, or have edible fingers. However, when we use imagery, allegory, and poetry to understand Jesus as “the bread of life” perhaps we should not slip into inflexible exclusive theology when we read “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Friends, many sincere people cite verses like Psalm 139 as foundational to their understanding of reality, public policy, and church theology lifting up “you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb” like a science lesson while leaving out more of the passage, “You wove me together inside the deep parts of the earth.” Yes,the Psalm speaks of God conferring humanity with sacred worth, but the song writer speaks of artful allegory not scientific law.
Now parable, poetry, mystery, and song are not less powerful than history, creeds, and law. Jesus taught the most important lessons not with hard cannons but with human interest stories. When God wanted to reach the world, God sent Jesus, a human being, not another set of laws. (2 Corinthians 3) Mystery mattered more to the Apostle Paul than theology. To the church in Corinth fighting about whose theological flavor was the best- Peter, Apollos or Paul. Paul said, “think about us in this way—as servants of Christ and custodians of divine mysteries.”(1 Corinthians 4) We serve Christ, but we acknowledge mystery. In Ephesians, Paul prays “that God will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you, that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see the hope of God’s call, the richness of God’s glory, and the greatness of God’s power that is working in us!”
Theology without mystery or humility tends towards pride and oppression. Faith loosens our grip on legalism, trusting God will show up! Faith lets go of our need to be right, to judge, to control, to win, or to get the last word in. We preachers, both on the left and right, may be the worst at letting go of the last word. The right defends the faith, and the left deconstructs it, neither tactic requires faith, hope, or love. If we are honest, we will all confess with the Apostle Paul that “We know in part and we prophesy in part…and see in a mirror dimly.” (1 Corinthians 13) This might make a good beginning for our creed!
When chatting with Imam Ossama Ballou, he thanked us for allowing the Islamic Center space when the mosque’s renovation ran long. Ossama laughed, “Who knows, Paul, you may pick up some of our members! I have found that you can’t really argue with anyone into faith.” Can we harangue anyone into compassion, Christ-likeness or community? Does our debating inspire joy, peace, patience, kindness, adoration, wonder, and awe? Can we explain a lavender sunrise, Christ in us, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Holy Communion, the comfort of a friend’s laughter, the power of compassion, the glory of music, or so many other things that make life worthwhile? Are not beauty, compassion, forgiveness, faith, hope, and love beyond category or description?
Oh, let us love God with all our heart and minds. Let us humbly engage in hard thinking about the law, scripture, and theology, especially when our theology seems contrary to love. Let us defend those crushed by oppressive or unlovely theology. (Matthew 23) Let us confess that we know only in part. Let us adore our God who dwells beyond our best words. Let us linger in the thin places giving rest to criticism, skepticism and perfectionism long enough to allow God to lift our hearts. Let us hear music without fussing over notes, dance without worrying over our moves, preach trusting grace will fill in the gaps, and enjoy a sunrise without needing to digitally capture it. Let us open our hearts, souls, and minds to wonder, mystery, and awe. Let us let go of everything but love. Let us embrace holy mystery! Let us say with the Psalmist, “Lord, help me to be present so that I might sing to the Lord with everything within me, help me to let go and praise the Lord!” Amen!