There is No Barrier to God Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Baptism of Jesus Sunday 2015 Have you ever had a mystical experience? A spiritual experience that was transformative? Neuro-scientists might be able to explain what was happening physiologically when you experienced your life-changing moment, but knowing how a thing worked doesn’t change its impact. Nona […]
There is No Barrier to God
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Baptism of Jesus Sunday 2015
Have you ever had a mystical experience? A spiritual experience that was transformative? Neuro-scientists might be able to explain what was happening physiologically when you experienced your life-changing moment, but knowing how a thing worked doesn’t change its impact.
Nona Brooks, a spiritual teacher in the first half of the 20th century had a dramatic experience. Nona had developed a condition that made swallowing very painful and difficult. Unable to swallow meant she was unable to eat, and not eating of course leads to weakness. She was actually quite sick.
Her prayer for about a year as she was navigating this illness was for God to give her light. Did she mean for God to lighten her burden, or for God to shed light on a possible solution? I’m not sure, but her constant prayer was, “Give me light.”
One day, during a religious education class, Nona experienced an overwhelming light. The room was flooded with light, bathing everything in its glow, including her. She asked if anyone else had shared that experience, but no one had. The experience was hers alone. However, after that experience of illumination, her malady began to heal, and in time she was completely well.
Now, imagining a bright light, having a sense of well-being, and gradually recovering from a previously untreatable ailment may not seem that earth shattering, unless you are the one who has benefited from the experience.
I’ve shared before a similar experience of my own. When I was in my late teens, and could no longer deny my gay orientation and could no longer tell myself it was a passing phase…19 years is hardly a phase…I decided to pray away the gay.
No one had told me that the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality as a mental disorder when I was 7 years old.
No one had told me that contemporary biblical and theological scholarship was much more affirming of same-gender love and attraction than previous generations had been.
No one had told me that some of our world’s most interesting, courageous, and accomplished people had been same-gender loving people.
All I had ever heard was that gay was bad, and in my state at the time, to act on gay romantic impulses was criminal.
So, in my ignorance, I asked God to zap me straight. God, graciously, declined.
It was at an evening Charismatic healing service that I went forward for prayer, hoping Pentecostal Power would somehow rewire my sexual circuitry. The faithful prayer ministers laid hands on me and prayed in a dramatic fashion, and with eyes closed I felt bathed in light and heard with that inner ear, that knowing that happens internally without actual sound, but in that mystical way I heard this phrase, “Not even God can heal what is not sick.”
It was a turning point for me, the beginning of self-acceptance and self-celebration. That mystical message that came in a moment of intense prayer was later confirmed by social science and theological scholarship, but in that moment, it was just a flash of insight assuring me that I was the person I was meant to be.
About a decade later, I was diagnosed with a condition considered chronic and at that time, usually fatal. Again I heard the voice of encouragement come to me in ways that may have saved my life. This time it wasn’t with the inner ear but with the outer; not from an invisible source but from human sources.
I called a minister and mentor to share my sad news, looking for sympathy, of course. Her response was loving, but not indulgent, not pitying at all. When I said I had received a diagnosis, her immediate response was, “Oh darling, that’s just information.”
She wouldn’t feed my fears, and by seeing past the pain of uncertainty to the possibility of healing, she knew for me what I couldn’t yet know for myself, that the future has infinite possibilities, so there’s no need to get stuck on what could go wrong when there is still so much that can go right.
By the way, 24 years after contracting the so-called dis-ease, I’m still here and 4 months ago I received the best doctor’s report of my adult life.
Nona Brooks came to understand God as an omnipresence, a power that is universally present, fully present in every place. In other words, “there’s not a spot where God is not.” And that has become the hallmark of my theology.
I’m not sure that I can meaningfully describe the power and presence that I call God or spirit. I can refer to the power as the Goddess of my life or as the Lord of my being, as the Light within me or as the All-in-all, or as That in which we live and move and have our being, but any word that I choose is so much less than the experience the word is meant to convey.
What I believe about this power and presence, what I have experienced, what I trust with all that I am is this: it is the source and substance of all life, it embraces and enfolds all life, it flows through and expresses as all life, and it will never, because it can never, let you go.
The God-power that helped me embrace the blessing of being a same-gender loving person, that helped me realize myself to be part of the divine diversity of a perfect creation, the God-power that helped me overcome fear of a condition by realizing conditions can change and that conditions do not define us without our permission, the God-power that made me want to share a message of hope and healing with all who would receive it, that God-power is in each of you, and can do amazing things for you.
As we each learn to trust it…not define it or write long, onerous creeds about it, but simply experience it as a loving presence and trust it as the ground of our being, as we learn that we are one with this power of universal, everlasting, unconditional love, then we can overcome all kinds of obstacles, move through all kinds of difficulties, and discover a joy that no situation can ever take away from us.
That’s what the evangelist Mark was saying in the gospel today. Mark is writing just a few weeks or maybe months after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. With the Temple gone and the holy city in ruins, there was a lot of grief, pain and fear in Mark’s community.
And so Mark calls to mind the 29th psalm that says, “The voice of God is over the waters.” Waters represent the mind. Divine Mind communicates through our minds with divine, creative, empowering ideas.
Mark called to mind one of the contributors to the book of Isaiah saying, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; on whom I have put my spirit…” (Is 42)
The writer was probably talking about the community for whom the text was written. They were to see themselves as God’s children, filled with God’s spirit. Mark applies Isaiah’s words to Jesus, and to those who followed Jesus.
Mark also called to mind another passage from Isaiah, “Oh that you would tear the sky apart and come down!” (Is 64). Ancients thought the sky was a cosmic ocean and that God lived above that ocean somewhere. The writer is wishing that God would break through the sky barrier to help people in need, but when we realize that God is with us, that there’s not a spot where God is not, then there are no barriers. The sky barrier is broken the moment we realize that it doesn’t exist, because there’s not a spot where God is not.
And then, with these ancient texts in mind, Mark writes, “Jesus…was baptized by John…And just as he was coming up out of the water…a voice came from heaven saying, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” The voice over the water, the heavens opening, God’s presence experienced, the affirmation…Mark weaves the stories of his tradition into a new story to encourage his community in the present moment. That’s religion at its best.
You see, Jesus saw God everywhere. Jesus saw himself as being one with God. Jesus was immersed in an awareness of God’s omnipresent love. For Jesus, there was no sky barrier, and so Jesus could always know that God was with him, and if with them, then able to help him face whatever was at hand. And this is how Mark begins his gospel, by telling people who have lost their holy city and their temple that even in the midst of this crisis, God is present, there is reason to hope. The temple may be gone, but the temple was just a thing…the real temple is us! We are filled with God’s light and love. We are anointed with God’s spirit. We are the temple, and we part of an omnipresent and eternal God, so the real temple can never be destroyed. God is pleased with us, and that’s the holy scroll that we revere on the altar of our hearts.
That’s the message of Jesus’ baptism. It’s a story that comes on the heels of a tragedy. It’s a story that says even in the painful moment, God is present. It’s a story that says God is still with us, so dare to hope even when things look hopeless. It’s a story that says immerse yourself in the awareness of God’s presence, and there will be joy for you that no situation can take away.
An Indian princess one wrote, “Like the lotus rising from the water, my life rises from you, God.” That’s the message of Jesus’ baptism. And for us today, this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2015
There’s not a spot where God is not.
I am immersed in God’s presence now.
And I am blessed.