Open to the Mystery

Sue Browning

Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton


As we enter the Holiday Season, we often forget, and at times even deny, that the gatherings around Christmas and Hanukkah are at some level religious holidays. At least in part. And too the holidays are grounded in festivals around the shortest day of the year from the earliest of traditions.

We hear the hymns and it’s easy (at least for a few weeks) to be refreshed by the songs. Traditional songs. Songs we know. Carols that allow us to sing with rare confidence – we know the tunes and the words and we sing together. The lyrics tell stories we like, for the most part.

The stories are of miracles. Biologically unlikely happenings. Glowing stars. Appearances of angels. Humming these hymns as we browse in CVS, we sing of these miracles with more ease than we hear of other miracles. We’re in the spirit.

The New Testament is ripe with miracles, from changing water to wine, to feeding many with a few fish, to healing lepers, to calming stormy waters. Against natural laws and unlikely to have happened we dismiss the miracles, cruise the surface of the stories, and hum along as carols play.

How might keeping a tighter grasp on miracles serve us well? Have you ever had something miraculous happen in your life? Are there mysteries around us that we might want to zoom in and zoom out upon with a bit more ease, and take a less dismissive stance?

In a book titled God Stories, Inspiring Encounters with the Divine, Jennifer Skiff provides a collection of first person stories of encounters with God. Her focus is to share “the extraordinary experiences of people who have felt the power of God’s presence in their lives and have been forever changed.” Truth be told, I checked this book out to find a few examples of miracles that were so extreme that I could find other stories for contrast.

Yet, I read, and read. These were mostly stories of grace. Every day experiences where everyday people (well over 100 writers), in just a few paragraphs each, told stories of experiences that locked in meaning of the divine for them.

In one, (“I was really rescued”) John Gouws, an Engineer/Investor shares,

It was 1982 and I was studying engineering in Johannesburg, South Africa, when my car was stolen. A friend of mine was kind and lent me his motorbike to get to campus one day. My classes ended at 5 p.m., forcing me to commute home during peak-hour traffic. To leave the campus I had to cross a very busy road. It took a while, but eventually there was a small gap in the cross traffic and I decided to dash over. But as I pulled away, the motorbike stalled. I jumped off the bike to push it across the street, but I slipped and fell. When I looked up, I saw a huge bus approached me very fast. The last thought in my mind was that this bus was going to run me over. At that moment it felt as if someone physically picked me up by the collar and put me, and the motorbike, safely on the other side of the road- albeit with a dislocated shoulder.

My sore shoulder reminds me of that event every day. The experience confirmed by belief in God. I was really rescued. I believe God sent an angel to scoop me up!

For John, he chose to store away this ‘what almost happened event’ as an experience of the holy. We can imagine that he’s had times in his life where he looked back at this story and found needed hope in his life beyond this event.

More words…(“I felt a surge of energy from head to toe”) by retired executive, Denice Rolland

From my early childhood I always questioned the existence of God. Coming from a violent and abusive family, I learned to trust no one but myself. I was an atheist. God had never been there for me.

I worked hard to build a good life, and in midlife earned another degree.

In 1993, after having resigned from my job as vice president of a large international search firm, I came home feeling very depressed and full of doubts. Even though my decision was well planned and thought out, I was immersed in feelings of discouragement and vulnerability. I had decided to start my own firm, and with this decision had come all the feelings of financial insecurity and fear that such an adventure entails.

At around eleven o’clock the next morning, I was sitting in the living room, emotionally drained. Suddenly I felt a surge of energy from head to toe. My body was filled with unconditional love. At the same time, I heard a voice say, “I will always be here for you. Don’t be scared!”

What an experience! I will never forget it. I now know that I’m privileged to have experienced God and his vast love and kindness.

As I read the many stories in the book, there were a few patterns. First, the writers often described an experience which happened at a low point in their lives. These were often times when they either had little control of either the circumstances around them, or of their own reactions, or both. In times of vulnerability, defenses down, whether they liked it or not, life’s experiences were coming at them head on.

The phrase ‘any port in a storm’ comes to mind. At low points we can pull in, sensing our struggle, uncertainty and feel alone, or (likely and/or) we can reach out, consciously or not, for a lifeline. These writers were desperate and were open to good news – news that each chose to label as an experience of the divine.

We could likely take these stories and squish them down. We could we come up with technical reasons and provable explanations of just why divine intervention is not the explanation. Was it just coincidence, or a good neighbor rather than divine force acting for good?

We can squish the sense of miracle out – declare the author as invoking unhelpful superstition. We can “logic” our way through. Satisfied, we can stand up, brush ourselves off and walk away untouched by the other’s experience and their way of meaning making.

Or we can observe and hear these stories. These writers could have told their stories of engagement with the holy differently, yet, they didn’t. They made meaning of their experiences by naming them as experiencing the divine. Importantly, these were times when the writers shared they were changed by the experience.

In the stories, images of the divine vary – an all-enveloping light, a new sense of security, a time when fear lifted, or when pain disappeared. We hear of a sense of being watched over and comforted by a force that couldn’t be explained.

For John, he sensed an angel who scooped up a stranded motor-biker and left with damage limited to a sore shoulder. Maybe the same angel we sing of in the carols of Christmas was there for John. Angels who don’t age, but keep continual watch.

A second pattern is these writers take their experiences of miracle forward. The experience, holy in its naming, becomes a part of their world perspective. The experience is a place to lean upon in the future; a plan to check in on time and again for reassurance.

Another  story, from a teacher, Meg Robinson…

I was driving home late at night on the interstate in Vermont when I started to fall asleep. I was roused by a deep male voice coming from behind my right shouldn’t. The voice simply called my first name sternly:”Meg!” I felt as if the voice were familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. I pulled over and rolled down my window as I realized what had just happened. It was a really weird feeling. I felt as if someone very familiar who knew me really well had just saved me from crashing.

I struggle with believing in God, but the memory of this simple event comforts me.

Moments when we’re open to what is different…times when the known melds with the unknown …memories of a greater presence around us.

When we stay open to the less explainable of our experiences, we open to a fresh view of how we’ll take on future challenges.

In her story, Meg finds comfort and reassurance in the highway event, the timing of the voice she needed to hear. I don’t sense that she hears this as permission to drive tired and count on the voice the next time, but a moment of awakening; a unique reminder of risks to be avoided next time.

When have you sensed the divine, the underlying spirit of live and love, most clearly? Do you ever rely on that memory – a time of being enveloped in care and comfort – or warmth and a sense of trust that you’ve got energy to make it to the next step- been through the storm before?  It is an almost mystical experience when hidden truth is sensed. A powerful sense that is valuable, and yet our Protestant ancestors tended to downplay the experience of grace.

Yet, might the holy be around us, and might it transform us?

Faith is about trust. We can trust what we know in clear provable ways.

Trusting what we can’t be sure of is harder, for most of us. We spend time building our foundation on what is worthy of our trust. Sometimes we only trust what is known.

You have likely heard of Thomas Jefferson’s bible. He took a razor to the New Testament and deleted the miracles to get to the truth of the Bible. Cutting and gluing he wanted to firm moral instruction, and figured by leaving behind miracles by Jesus, any mentions of the supernatural, and the resurrection what he could trust would be revealed.

A flattening of the depth of the New Testament.

What’s lost in the flattening? What if these miracles were not seen as uninformed ‘bathering’ of less sophisticated writers of ages ago, but rather observed as creative ways to pass along ancient wisdom. What if miracles help us find purpose, and offer lessons, and help with our resilience. What if we zoom in and zoom out of our life’s experiences, honing our skills to sense more – to sense the holy.

Faith is about trust. We trust what we can prove. Another part of faith is deciding whether to trust what we can’t be prove. Where might trusting in the unprovable be useful, and instructive, and comforting and reassuring.

Where have you learned from mysterious experience in your life? In other’s lives?

There is no one way to name sources of energy we can’t fully explain – might not want to explain. What might you name as divine? a faith in others? a faith in creative forces? a faith in love?

As we experience the Holiday season, might the divine be all around us, or deep within us – maybe not as an up-there-in-the-clouds God, but a sense of presence around us that allows us to lean back a bit; to lean in a bit. Can we trust that something unseen might support us?

We close with words from Mary Oliver, Mysteries, Yes, By Mary Oliver

                        Mysteries, Yes

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous

to be understood.


How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of lambs.

How rivers and stones are forever

in allegiance with gravity

while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds will

never be broken.

How people come, from delight or the

scars of damage,

to the comfort of a poem.


Let me keep my distance, always, from those

who think they have the answers.


Let me keep company always with those who say

“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.


(from her poetry collection “Evidence’)


May It Be So


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