I’m pretty sure this is old news –
not fake news, just old news –
as in, I have mentioned it before.
But I was back home in Indiana this week
and so it is on my mind.
In my hometown of Muncie, Indiana
a river runs through it,
the White River to be exact.
It runs slow and shallow,
the color of coffee with a lot of cream stirred in.
No matter where you went in Muncie
you had to drive over the White River,
and usually more than once on any given trip
because it meandered as older rivers do.
And what I remember from childhood
is the old men and boys fishing in it.
As a kid, sitting in the back seat of the car
and staring out at the woe-bygone world going by,
I so much wanted to be one of those boys
fishing down there along the White River.
My mother must have been able to read my mind
because she would always say –
“Don’t ever go down to ‘that river’ by yourself.”
What came next
never failed to send shivers down my spine.
“Two boys drown down there,
they got sucked under by an eddy” she warned.
I didn’t know what an eddy was
but it scared the beejeesus out of me.
In my highly visual imagination
a giant catfish opened up and sucked ‘em in.
We were warned over and over and over again,
that even though the river was shallow,
and we saw lots of kids walking into it –
there were deep holes in the river with an undertow.
Thousands of unwitting boys
must have gotten slurped up in that undertow.
Some giant drain popped open
and even grown-ups
with all the weapons they had at their disposal,
could never find those boys again.
The Bible presents a God
that can swallow us up like that river,
but modern religion domesticates God,
turning God into a renewable resource
to be consumed at our pleasure and convenience.
God ‘sells’ better as a consumer-item
than as a potential hazard.
Still, some of us know about a God
more like the White River.
We walk in the shallows of our religion
without much to worry about and, all of a sudden,
get swallowed up.
Snap! We get slurped up
in a love greater than our self,
and something closes up around us like water.
When that happens
we can get disoriented so that
it becomes hard to navigate up from down;
and then God seems more scary than exciting
and more alarming than reassuring.
It may sound over dramatic to say,
but like Icarus who flew too close to the sun,
we can get too close to the love of God
and begin to melt away –
we feel it when our sense of self
begins to thin out
and maybe even dissolve a little,
and the weight of our ego
drags us earthward at an alarming velocity.
I know, Mary Oliver’s poem we heard this morning,
“At the River Clarion,” makes just the opposite case:
A little God in everything, and
everything a little piece of God.
That is how we see it most of the time,
at least when we are looking and thinking
about God and the sacred and stuff like that.
But then there is the Book of Revelation kind of experience.
Whoever it was that wrote that book
had some good drugs, as we used to say in my younger days.
There is a sense in which
we can get blown away by God
or an experience of the sacred,
if we do not domesticate them too much.
It doesn’t even have to be a Pentecostal,
ecstatic, jumping up and down
kind of thing either.
It can be the kind of thing
where we slowly get sucked in
and then one day, all of a sudden,
we realize we are ‘all’ in.
Maybe that happened to you once or twice?
It is a slow emergence, maybe
you come to Church
not thinking of anything in particular,
just coming because it has become
an odd, eccentric habit of sorts.
You are sitting there as usual
but then, unexpectedly, something
begins to make you feel like crying.
You may not even know exactly what it was
but something penetrated you,
evoked your tears, and seems
to have a tentacle inside
that won’t let go.
What’s worse, you don’t even feel vulnerable about it,
the way you might
if someone in particular
made you cry.
That is a version of the Book of Revelation God.
Or maybe it is more remote
and less exotic.
Maybe it is in the work you do,
or something you are involved in on a regular basis –
something you have done hundreds of times.
But all of a sudden
you begin to wonder how what you are doing
is affecting people downstream?
You begin to have dangerous thoughts
that have to do with the implications
of what you do.
You begin to wonder
if what you have always done
is having a bad affect or influence on people?
You begin to ask yourself
that may have answers you don’t want to know.
And it is easy to distract yourself
from those questions
but once they have escaped into your thoughts,
you know they will come back
like bats returning to the cave.
That is another version of the Book of Revelation God.
Or maybe it happens like this:
you make a connection you never imagined
you would make with someone,
somebody utterly different from you
in some basic way.
You make a connection
and you discover, slowly,
that you really like that person.
You discover that the two or three or four of you
talk about things that you can’t talk about
with other people in your life.
And like wading into shallow water,
you start to really care about that person
or those people.
It might be too radical to call it
falling in love with friends,
or with a people,
or with a place and community,
or heaven forbid, falling in love
with a power greater than yourself.
Maybe you prefer to see it as just ordinary
instead of a Book of Revelation God
subverting your life,
but sometimes it happens like that.
I’ll be honest with you.
I’ve seen it happen to smart people – really smart people
who seemed as if they should have known better.
Looking back, I know exactly
how and when it happened to me –
and it was a very long time before I recognized it.
For me it happened
in that same period I remember
riding over the White River
wishing I was one of those boys fishing down there.
It was when I was a kid in Church
listening to stories about Jesus.
I know for a fact,
that my mom and dad had no intention
of this Book of Revelation God ever infecting me.
I remember sitting in Church as a little kid –
I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before
because it is so much a part of me.
But as early as Kindergarten,
I remember listing to the stories about
Jesus and the Good Samaritan,
Jesus and the riot in the Temple,
Jesus and the rowdies
who didn’t wash their hands before dinner,
Jesus touching a Leper,
Jesus and the rich young man who couldn’t squeeze through the eye of a needle.
I remember hearing all those stories,
and I remember looking around the church,
and I remember thinking – as a little kid –
“These guys don’t believe this.”
I remember thinking in my little kid brain
that as sure as sunshine,
there was a significant disconnect
between those Jesus stories
and the way the adult world was organize.
The fact that the adults in my world
thought Jesus was important enough to talk about
AND, important enough to ignore,
caught my attention.
In fact, it sucked me in.
It would take years,
but the hook was set
and the line never broke.
That hook is still stuck in my gut
and though I have tried, I can’t get it out.
THAT is a Book of Revelation God.
Now, here is the amazing thing about this memory.
It was one of those little water splashed stones
Mary Oliver wrote about –
the leaf grass, the poet, the ice caps.
Just a little something I noticed
and kept to myself
for years and years and years.
Then one day, sometime around my dad’s death I think,
my brother and I talked about growing up in Church.
In all our years together, that was something
we had never talked about before.
I was surprised to discover that my brother,
twelve years my senior,
and somebody a lot smarter than me,
had the same experience as a kid.
But his response to seeing that disconnect
that some might even call hypocrisy,
was to get as far away from organized religion
as he possibly could.
He knew better
than to go wading in ‘that’ water,
and I was either too stupid
or too arrogant
to figure it out in time.
I fell in love
and got carried downstream.
There may be big ecstatic moments from time to time,
but it really is the little moments and things
Mary Oliver described,
that gets us into trouble.
The little things that accumulate,
that seem safe and shallow enough when encountered,
but then suck us in and overwhelm us.
So this is just a warning.
Next week is Pentecost,
one of those big splashy events
in the history of our spiritual tribe.
Like John’s visions in the Book of Revelation,
it was a big, crazy kind of moment.
I don’t feel the need to warn you about that,
but I do want to say
that hanging around people you care about
and who talk about stuff
that other people don’t talk about,
could eventually suck you in
if you haven’t been already.
That’s just some free advice
from someone who has been given up for lost.