Long before John Lennon ever saw Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air. Who knew the Bible could be so groovy?
Ezekiel shared his vision of seeing four living creatures with four wings, each having four faces; the face of a human, the face of an ox, the face of a lion and the face of an eagle. In other words, to use the language of our time – Ezekiel be trippin’.
Some scholars have speculated that Ezekiel may have been under the influence of some sort of hallucinogen as part of a shamanic trance. However, the mystics of the world will tell you can be clean, sober and sane and still be trippin’.
Not everyone trusts such mystic visions and some have gone so far as to give the prophet Ezekiel a clinical diagnosis. One scholar suggests that Ezekiel suffered from depressive psychosis with symptomatic insomnia, moodswings, guilt, unworthiness, self-blame and schizophrenia with symptomatic disordered thinking, visual, auditory, olfactory hallucinations and paranoid delusions. That’s quite the diagnosis.
Is this diagnosis medically warranted or is it blasphemy? This morning I want us to explore how we can know the difference between inspiration and insanity.
I want to begin by telling a story about a time when my family thought I’d gone insane. It was many years ago when I was a teenager, back in the 1980’s, and under tragic circumstances. I was riding in a car after the memorial service. We were driving through downtown Macon, Georgia, which was the 3rd largest city in the state (with many multistoried buildings) and I happen to look out the window as we crossed an intersection and I caught a brief glimpse of something so I said to everyone, “I just saw a cow in the middle of the street back there.” My sister responded, “Chris when we are grieving a loss we sometimes think we see things.” I replied, “No really, there was a cow in the middle of the road.” It was clear that no one in the car believed me, it was all in my head, but we had other things to worry about that day so I let the subject drop. However, the next day when we got the newspaper I made sure that everyone saw the picture on the front page of a cow in the middle of the street in downtown Macon, Georgia. Vindicated!
I mention this story because sometimes it’s hard to know when someone is losing their mind or firmly grounded in reality. Are we hallucinating? Do we really see everything we think we see? Sometimes it can be hard to tell.
Many years ago I heard an interview with the comedienne Julia Sweeney about her journey from Catholicism to atheism. Before the interview I knew that Sweeney was an outspoken atheist so I was surprised when she told this story about the earlier part of her life.
She talked about a time when she was a young adult and she went through a painful breakup with a boyfriend that sent her into a deep depression. One day she was lying in bed and she found herself saying, “Heal me.” Then something powerful happened. “I felt light in the room and I could feel God in the room and I had this great sense of connectedness with the universe. It is hard to put into words the experience I had but it was just a very profound religious experience. I felt very close to God and suddenly knew that things were going to turn out …I felt healed….It was a very positive experience.”
What I found interesting was this is an atheist telling a very spiritual story using very spiritual words. Now that she is an atheist she interprets this experience differently than when she was a believer. She says she now understands more about how the brain works. She thinks what she experienced was a firing of the right temporal lobe in a way similar to an epileptic seizure that induced the feelings of warmth and light associated with this experience. So an experience that she once might have called “God inspiring” she now attributes to her “brain misfiring.” However, here’s what I find interesting, when she tells the story she uses the vocabulary of her younger self rather than her older self.
Here is what I have learned from 20 years in the ministry, people’s experiences do not always line up neatly with their intellectual beliefs. I once met a Unitarian Universalist who said, “I don’t believe in God but I often experience God’s presence and I am okay with that contradiction.” Such paradoxes are common among UU’s. Similarly, I’ve also known UUs who do believe in God but haven’t ever felt God’s presence. So paradoxes abound.
When I served a congregation in Oxford, Ohio, I had a member, John Eicher, who was a rationalist and a materialist and a humanist who was very proactive about sharing his views. So imagine my surprise when I went to see him in the hospital when he was recovering from an operation and he said to me, “Chris, I want to tell you about my out of body experience.” Apparently, while he was on the table being operated on he had a sense of hovering above his own body listening to the doctors talk about his condition, so that he was a witness to his own surgery. After the operation, and body and soul were back together again as it were, he was able to confirm with his doctor that what he heard was what was said during the operation.
What I found interesting about John’s story is this. It wasn’t an experience he was expecting. It was in no way a product of wishful thinking, indeed, it might have been the opposite. And while John was able to give a rational, materialist, humanist explanation for his out of body experience there was something different about his voice (and it was the same quality in Julia Sweeney’s voice.) As I listened to him tell the story I could tell that he was less interested in explaining the experience than appreciating the experience. For this reason, when people come to me to tell me stories about spiritual experiences I will sometimes say, “You don’t have to be able to explain an experience in order to appreciate it.”
In 1902 the philosopher William James published the classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience in which he collected many people’s first hand autobiographical experiences – people’s own stories in their own words. What I find interesting about so many of these stories is that the experiences come unexpected. They come unasked for. Often they come unwished for. These experiences do not depend on people’s beliefs and they tend to be bigger than those beliefs or outside the boundaries of those beliefs. These experiences sometimes make people question their own sanity or their grasp of reality.
One such experience has been called the unitive experience or oceanic experience. It is an all pervading sense of Oneness and Unity with everything. When we have these experiences it might feel like we are going crazy but here’s the thing. Psychologists tell us we need to have these experiences in order to stay sane. Our sanity depends on these experiences. Which gives new meaning to the chorus of a country song by Waylon Jennings, “I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from going insane.”
This week I was up in Louisville, Kentucky for an interfaith conference. One of the interesting things about Louisville is that it has a historic marker for the place where the Catholic mystic and Vietnam era peace activist Thomas Merton had a spiritual experience, which he wrote about in his autobiography.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.…If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’.
Now if you were to go back in time and see Thomas Merton standing on the corner you might (or might not) come to the conclusion that he was a madman. It’s sort of like those people who walking around in public places carrying a “Free Hugs” sign. Part of us wants to say it is a wonderful thing but another part of us isn’t ready to receive unconditional love from a complete stranger. There is a part of us that wants to trust and another part that wants to distrust.
The mystics, the shamans and the prophets are often thought to be crazy. In the 19th century Margaret Fuller once wrote about a spiritual experience in her memoirs, “I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the ALL, and all was mine. This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God.”
Now many people thought Margaret Fuller was crazy, and not just because of her mystical experiences. Many people thought Margaret Fuller was crazy because she believed in women’s equality. Her book Woman in the 19th Century was one the earliest arguments for equal rights. In her time when women spoke out for equality they were often accused of being mentally ill. Sometimes women who asserted equal rights were put away in asylums or given mental health treatments.
Today many people do the same thing to transgender activists, accuse them of mental illness. Indeed, some of Margaret Fuller’s writings seem to presage the current controversies over transgender issues for as she once remarked, “Male and female (seem to) represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”
Transgender activists are saying the same thing a hundred years later, “There is no wholly masculine male, no purely feminine woman.” Last week, church member Juniper Stinnet, was given the Artist for Change award by Community Shares for her work with the Transgender Empowerment Project and her use of music to promote justice, equality and freedom in the world. Among some of her best work is the work she does as our youth programs coordinator here at TVUUC.
And this leads me to our final point. There have been times in our congregation’s history when many people thought our church was crazy. People thought we were crazy in the 1950’s when Knoxville was segregated but this church was integrated. People thought we were crazy in the 1960’s when members participated in the sit-ins and the civil rights movement and hosted the Poor Peoples Campaign. People thought we were crazy in the 1970’s when we spoke out for the Equal Rights Amendment. People thought we were crazy in the 1980’s because we were offering comprehensive sex education to our children and youth at church. People thought we were crazy in the 1990’s when spoke out for the GLBT rights…and in this new millennium there are still people who think we are crazy….but you know what? I don’t think we are insane. I think we are inspired!!
Recently a friend send me a picture of a church with a message board out front that read, “Bring your marshmallows to church because our pastor is on fire.” And I’d like to expand on that sentiment by saying, “Bring your marshmallows to church because our church is on fire. Our church is inspired.”
Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air, in much the same way as Van Gogh saw the spiraling heavens on a starry, starry night.
And we too have visions. The Spirit is upon us. Our children prophesy. Our young see visions. Our old dream dreams. Who knew church could be so groovy?
And so we sing:
Wake, now, our senses, and hear the earth call;
Feel the deep power of being in all;
Keep, with this spiraling web of creation our vow,
Giving, receiving as love shows us how.
So may it be.
(The Reverend Chris Buice preached this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday April 29, 2018)