Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Knocking On Heaven’s Door

We have some visitors here this morning, particularly with the newcomer brunch. Maybe some of you are wondering what this place is all about? How do you know if you are going to fit in? Here’s a fun test.

If you don’t agree with half the things that I say, then you’ll fit right in.
If you think that Maria Montessori was the name of Jesus mother, then you’ll fit right in.

If you think the three sacraments are doubt, questioning and voting, then you will fit right in.
If you think “whatever” is a valid theological argument, then you will fit right in.
If you approach every belief with an open mind, and every discussion with an open mouth, you will fit right in.

I’m asking questions about life after death. What do you call a dead progressive? All dressed up with no place to go. Many progressives have given up believing in any afterlife whatsoever and taken the radical perspective that there is no afterlife.

However as I said last week, radical thinking is valid and encouraged but it’s only the first step. What next? What’s the point of being radical? Let me show you an example.

During the last hours of his life, Henry David Thoreau was questioned about his beliefs by a concerned neighbor, who asked, “Aren’t you concerned about the afterlife?”
To this Thoreau answered, “One world at a time.”

What a great answer. The purpose of being radical is to live more fully and freely in this life. One world at a time. One day at a time. One moment at a time. One opportunity to love and serve the world at a time.

Question Everything

Questioning has been a hallmark of liberal and progressive religion; from modern day progressives and Unitarians back to the enlightenment theologians who emphasized freedom to think for yourself and craft your own direct, spiritual experience.

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer angers the KKK who burn a cross on the family’s yard. Later, in an effort to get the KKK off his back, Homer angers the local Unitarians who burn a huge question-mark into Homer’s grass.

As comedian Lenny Bruce said, “I know my humor is outrageous when it makes the Unitarians so mad they burn a question mark on my front lawn.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century Transcendentalist was once giving a sermon in a famous church in Lexington. He was in full flight, in the middle of his sermon, when he paused, and said, “I no longer believe the previous statement.” Wouldn’t it be fun to present for that sermon?

I intend to take this freedom a step further. The statement I am about to make, I already disagree with. Questions make you humble. They keep you honest and open. They push you to new possibilities and increasing curiosity and wonder.

Euripides, the 4th Century BC Greek Playwright said, “Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.” I can only guess that Jesus was influenced by this Greek approach. If you go right through all the gospels, you discover that Jesus asked over 300 questions. He was the original radical, the interrogator, the one who asked hard questions and rarely accepted the status quo. More importantly, he was asked over 180 questions and get this- he only answered 3 of them. Instead of answering questions, he responded with another question or a story or even silence. Jesus seemed to use the Socratic Method of probing the questioner because they had the answers within them. It was more effective to find the answers themselves than be told what to think.

Maybe the same was true for Paul. In 2 Corinthians 12 he records what some consider to be a near death experience, but he says that while having his mystical experience he heard things that are not to be told: The teachings in Greek mystery cults were not to be revealed to the uninitiated. Sometimes mysteries and profound experiences are like that. You can’t describe them in words. You just embody their transformative wisdom in your life and give people freedom and safety to do the same.
Beyond freedom to think for yourself, what is the power of questions?

Questions open up new worlds of possibility

Imagine there is a town that is surrounded by giant walls. All the people of the town stay within the walls, apart from the occasional adventurer who climbs over the wall, never to be seen again. The town elders teach each successive generation that they don’t need to worry about what’s outside of the walls. Everything they need is inside the walls. In any case, the danger of venturing outside of the walls is too great. Eventually, the curiosity of the town elders gets the better of them. They decide to discover what is so attractive that no one ever comes back. They tie a rope around a volunteer, who climbs over the wall. After a time, they haul him back. They surround him and can’t wait to hear from him. They are bursting with questions, but the man is so overwhelmed by what he experienced that he is unable to speak; all he can do is smile.

Churches usually want to keep you inside the walls of their own ideas. It’s easier to control you that way. Historically, anyone who ventured outside the walls of orthodoxy was censured or in many cases executed. Galileo was censured, and imprisoned for daring to promote Copernicus’s challenge to the commonly held view of the day that the earth is the center of the universe and has a wall around its boundaries; somewhere on the other side of the wall is heaven.

Questions are often uncomfortable, but we’re here to question the answers of yesterday and ask new questions of today. What is the point of community? Ask questions in good company.

Consider the phenomena of near death experiences as an invitation to ask new questions.

Near Death Experience

Near Death Experiences are relatively common.

A 1992 Gallup Poll suggested that over 8 million Americans claim to have had a NDE. There are by some reports 800 every day in the US. NDE’s tend to include a feeling of being outside your own body, seeing a tunnel with a bright light at the end of it, and sometimes seeing loved ones who have passed away previously. More often than not, they are beautiful and peaceful experiences.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross tells the story of a man who was being picked up by his entire family for a Memorial Day weekend. Before arriving to collect him, the van was in an accident and the whole family was killed. The guy was completely devastated and ended up living on the street addicted to heroine. This lasted two years until one night when he was lying on a dirt road, stoned and waiting to die. He watched as a truck ran him over. He watched himself critically injured, as if from above his body. It was at this moment that his family appeared in front of him, in a glow of light with an incredible sense of love. They had peaceful smiles on their faces and they stayed with him in silence. He felt unconditional love. He made a vow not to join them, but to re-enter his physical body so that he could share with the world what he had experienced. It was like a Bodhisattva vow to keep coming back to life until all were liberated. It was after this vow that he watched the truck driver carry his totally injured body into the car. He saw an ambulance speeding to the scene of the accident, he was taken to the hospital’s emergency room and he finally re-entered his physical body, tore off the straps that were tied around him and literally walked out of the emergency room. He never had any aftereffects from the heavy abuse of drugs and alcohol. He felt healed and whole, and made a commitment that he would not die until he had the opportunity of sharing the mystery of life after death with as many people as would be willing to listen.

A common argument in favor of NDEs is that the incredible, peaceful experiences take place while no brain activity registers. This raises the possibility that consciousness resides beyond the brain. It also raises the possibility that there are other dimensions beyond our rational senses or the possibility of transcending time and space as we know it.

The counter argument is that a NDE is a dream like state that does take place within the brain. The light relates to the rapid eye movement, and the tunnel effect is lack of blood flow to the eye.

My interest is not to prove or disprove NDEs. You will have your own opinion about that. My interest is the effect of the experience. What positive effects do NDEs have on people once they come back to their bodies?

Often there is a loss of fear about death. The person has come so close to something eternal and is now open that there may be more to experience than this dimension. People often come to appreciate the impermanent nature of life and want to share their fearless appreciation of life with others.

Paul’s NDE

It seems that St Paul may have had his own out of body, mystical experience. Maybe it was even a NDE. What I like about the description of his experience is that it was no cause for boasting. He didn’t use the experience as a reason for pride or self righteousness. He used it as a motivation for service. The experience knocked some sense into him. He stopped living with hatred and instead became a force for love and unity between Jew and Gentile.

A man died and went to The Judgment. St. Peter met him at the Gates of Heaven and said, “Before you meet with God, I thought I should tell you — we’ve looked at your life, and you really didn’t do anything particularly good or bad. We’re not at all sure what to do with you. Can you tell us anything you did that can help us make a decision?” The newly arrived soul thought for a moment and replied, “Yeah, once I was driving along and came upon a woman who was being harassed by a group of bikers. So I pulled over, got out my tire iron, and went up to the leader of the bikers. He was a big, muscular, hairy guy with tattoos all over his body and a ring pierced through his nose. Well, I tore the nose ring out of his nose, and told him he and his gang had better stop bothering the woman or they would have to deal with me!”
”I’m impressed,” St. Peter responded, “When did this happen?” 
”About two minutes ago,” came the reply.

There was no resurrection for this guy, but I like his spunk.

Whether you have had a NDE or not, you have had your own brush with mortality. You have had your moments of honest reflection that you aint getting any younger and this aint no dry run. These are your experiences that knocked some sense into you. What questions do they raise for you? What do they motivate you to do with your life?

Does it expand the walls of your worldview, and lure you to dip your toes in the ocean on the other side? Does it leave you more open and gentle about different perspectives and experiences?

Perhaps this is the best clue I can give you about spiritual community. It’s not about the answers. They aren’t the answers for long anyway. Answers are often just lazy days in the sun for your mind; drifting off to sleep while new possibilities pass you by. The best clue I can offer about this community is that it’s not about having the answers, but asking the questions in good company.

I honor the quester in you. The one who seeks, and questions and wonders in me greets the same spirit in you. Namaste

Here are two helpful articles:

1. An argument that NDEs are real experiences?

2. An argument that is skeptical about NDEs.

For Further Reflection-

Do you think this life is all there is, or do you allow for the possibility of consciousness beyond your 5 senses and beyond your rational awareness?
What is the power of questions in your life? What wisdom have questions led you to?
In what ways have you felt limited by the church’s walls of orthodoxy?
How have you liberated yourself from other people’s or institution’s walls?

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