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Embracing Mystery

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science. [The one] to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; [their] eyes are closed. ~ Einstein

Trust me, when it comes to spirituality and religion, I like answers.I like to know why we believe what we do and what purpose it serves us. I like digging into scripture to learn about the context in which it was written, the symbolism used, the author’s background and mindset. If you’ve been in a class with me or a retreat or Theology on Tap, you know I have a tendency to nudge people to explain further or dig deeper. I’m not one to follow blindly or blithely believe the unbelievable simply because the church said so. And, I’m more than happy to tell you that I don’t believe that the virgin birth, the magi following a star, Jesus stilling the storm, or Jesus ascending into heaven ever happened – not to mention Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, the dividing of the Red Sea or a multitude of other things that the church has historically told us we had to believe.

This might make you wonder why I’m a pastor. That’s fair. I've been known to wonder the same thing. The answer is I'm a pastor because I have experienced Something More than the two-dimensional visible world has to offer, and for some crazy reason I have a passion for learning more about it and sharing what I've learned.

However, I wonder if, in my quest for answers and digging deeper, I emphasized mystery as much as I should have. Have I spent too much time debunking and cleaning house? I hope not, because I firmly believe that spirituality must make room for mystery, magic, intuition, synchronicities, feelings, visions, and experiences which are ineffable.

Let me take a moment to say that I know the word “mystery” can come with a lot of baggage attached. Clergy over the years have used “mystery” as the escape hatch when difficult questions were asked. Why do bad things happen? Ah… it is a mystery, and we must not question the ways of God. It was a guilt trip imposed to get folks to shut up about anything the clergy person didn’t have an answer for. 

To me, Epiphany is about mystery. Aha moments. Eye-opening moments. Moments that make us question what the real world really is. Moments that draw us toward transcendence and interconnectedness. Moments where we are drawn by the “sensing of our soul and the trusting of our heart,” as a friend recently said.

The traditional story on Epiphany is the myth of the Magi who followed the star to find the newborn King, Jesus. It’s a story devised probably many decades after Jesus’ death, possibly to explain that Jesus’s message would not be limited to the Jews, but was meant for the world. By the way, there is no mention of camels, how many magi there are, or whether they are men or women. And they don’t show up on right when Jesus is born, they show up probably years later to Mary and Joseph’s house.

Now, we could get bogged down in all these details and questions. Or, we can allow ourselves to be drawn into the mystery and wonder, the audacity, and the risk. In this myth, we have learned astrologers who are willing to set aside everything to follow a mysterious star that has appeared in the sky. They believe in the mystery of what they are following, they trust in something more – the Spirit, God, the Universe - to lead them. They seek the new ruler of the Jews and don’t bat an eyelash when he turns out to be a poor, ordinary child. 

Can we live this in our own lives? Can we recognize mystery when we come upon it. Can we follow it when called, with wonder, audacity and risk?

The beginning of Marcus Borg’s book, Days of Awe and Wonder, makes an interesting point, that modern theology may as well be categorized as flat-tire theology. The pneuma – the air and the spirit – have gone out of our conversations, our worship, our study. For example, groups of exemplary scholars have dissected the gospels to the point where they have devised a sliding scale measuring whether all the things Jesus said were really said by him or not. I find this fascinating. But does it matter?

You can go to Israel and tours will take you where Jesus supposedly preached, the two places he may have died, the olive grove where he probably prayed, the manger where he was said to be born. But does it really matter?

If we work too hard to break things down and pick things apart, or do the opposite by trying to make it all factual, do we lose the very essence of Jesus as a Spirit person? Do we end up disconnecting from what he was trying valiantly to share - his experience of the world of the spirit, another layer or level of reality?

I know I sound sort of hocus-pocus-y, but at the end of the day I don’t know how to do spirituality without mystery and “I don’t knows” and “wows”. I’m not asking you to stop eating meat on Friday, I’m not saying that the Pope can speak infallibly, I’m not telling you that you have to be baptized or you are going to hell or can’t be a member of the church, I’m not giving you a list of rules to follow in order to get to a fictitious world in the clouds, I’m not giving you a new creed you must believe. I’m reminding you that we live with mystery every day, if only we’ll watch for it.

At the women’s group last week, we were talking about the number of people leaving organized religion and saying that maybe that wasn’t a bad thing given what organized religion seems to stand for these days. Maybe it is time we walked away from the rigid theology and the ridiculous rules. But there is at least one thing that religion/spirituality gives us that we can’t get very many other places –  permission to believe in mystery. Permission to let our souls sing in awe and wonder. Permission to acknowledge there is more to life that what can be seen.

When we allow ourselves to embrace mystery, we’ll embrace simple moments that have the power to change our world. Moments of mystery take us out of our petty, overworked, stressed-out selves and open our souls to something expansive. Moments of mystery may shake the foundations of what we thought we knew, and perhaps this is a good thing. Moments of mystery may even scare us a little because they may be leading us in new directions.

Watch for them, moments of mystery are everywhere.

Love & Light!