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Living with a Wild God

Rev. Jim Nelson: I don’t believe in God so I suppose I am an atheist, but all that means is that I have no picture, no words that are like any of the pictures or definitions of God out there.

One of America’s scenic river ways, the St Croix River, traces its headwaters back to just 20 miles from Lake Superior and then winds down through Wisconsin until it meets the Mississippi just south of the Twin Cities on the Wisconsin/Minnesota Border. For a number of years my parents lived nearby in River Falls, WI [my sister called it Rubber Balls] and I would visit when I could. River Falls was on the Kinickkinnick River, which joined the St Croix a bit downstream.

living with a wild god

One Christmas when I was there, the weather turned bitter cold – Minnesota cold, down in the 20+ below range. So I decided to go cross-country skiing in Kinnickkinnick state park. This is maybe 40 years ago now. 40 years ago now. I catch myself every now and then when I realize how long I have lived and how much of my life is behind me. Still lots to go though – on Tuesday some of us were at a luncheon where Sid Gally was honored for his contribution to historical knowledge in Pasadena. Sid is just 94 so I should still have years to go. But still, 40 years. I like to think I have learned some things. Today I hope to share some of that.

But 40 years ago - so I waxed my skis – blue wax for the fresh and cold and dry snow and set off. There was no one else in the park, and I skied on down to the St Croix River, stopped for a while, ate a little bit and stood in the sun and cold. It was still save for the river, not completely covered in ice, and a flock of crows. I recall remembering that a flock of crows is called a murder of crows, and realizing how so very alone I was at that moment, how nothing or no one close by cared if I was there, how the river flowed by without any notice of me, of how the crows would just as soon see me fall and die so they could pick at my flesh, how the snow would pillow me, the sun would create shadows around me, and I would sleep that final sleep. I felt held. It was an enormously peaceful feeling.

It felt like some type of yearning although I do not know what I was yearning for. Perhaps to not be so separate, perhaps to be one with what was around me, perhaps to be as quiet and peaceful as the dormant trees and the snow, or to be at home in the world as a murder of crows is at home. I felt if I were being seen or heard by the world. It was if the world was speaking to me, or seeing me in a different way, and the world glowed with a kind of light I had never seen before. I have sought that light the rest of my life. I have seen it every now and then since that time in winter but maybe never so clearly as that day.

And, then, as these things go, it passed. My feet got cold and I skied back to my car, got in and drove to my parent’s house and said nothing about what had happened.

When she was seventeen, Barbara Ehrenreich went on a skiing trip to Mammoth with a friend and her younger brother. [Maybe skiing is the key in this sermon]. After skiing for several days, they drove back to Los Angeles and stopped in Lone Pine to sleep. Being that age, they slept in the car. Ehrenreich got up early and went for a walk, and, on that walk, had an experience that has stayed with her for her entire life.

You probably know who Ehrenreich is: she has written a number of books, mostly about social issues. Her best-known work is Nickel and Dimed, about the impossibility of getting by in America earning the minimum wage. For that book, she worked at Walmart, as a hotel maid and as a waitress. One of my favorite books of hers is Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. This speaks to my Scandinavian and Minnesota soul. I once told a novelist friend how lucky she was because novels can be pessimistic all the time while ministers are supposed to deal in hope [unless you are Jonathan Edwards of course]!

She is a life-long humanist. She went to Reed College and then earned a PhD in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University in New York. She has been an atheist forever. She is one of the people I would love to be.

Her latest book is Living With a Wild God: An Unbelievers Search for the Truth About Everything. I highly recommend it; I have the feeling a whole lot of you might identify with Ehrenreich. If you grew up in the 60s, you might identify; if you had children in the 60s, you will recognize them; if your parents went through the sixties you might gain some understanding.

And if you read it, my suggestion is not to wonder or to worry whether you agree with her or not, whether she is right or wrong, but rather to wonder what you might learn from the book. In fact, here is one Nelson nugget I would like to leave with you. In the religious world, or the spiritual world, don’t worry so about whether something is right or wrong but whether there is something to be learned. Make sense? The goal of the spiritual life is wisdom rather than knowledge.

In the Qur’an it is written:

Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth;
In the alternation of the Night and the Day …
In the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth …
[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise. (2.164)

We can leave knowledge to science and the academic disciplines. But the history of religions, the history of spirituality is about wisdom – how to live an authentic and meaningful life. So ask yourself: what can I learn from this? Knowledge matters too of course, but, in the end, what we seek here is wisdom.

Back to Lone Pine. She writes:

The upshot of this second night of troubled sleep, following on a day of unusual exertion that had, incidentally, included very little to eat, was that I entered the third day of our trip in the kind of condition that the Plains Indians sought in their vision quests— low on blood sugar but high on the stress hormones engendered by sleep deprivation. At the time I had no inner nurse practitioner to tell me it was time for some food and a rest; all I had was an impulse, as soon as the sky began to lighten, to get out of the car and walk. Who it was that quietly closed the car door behind her, so as not to waken the others, is not so easy to pin down: a thin film of cortical alertness, perhaps focused on finding a bathroom, but under that, pretty much nothing. No history, no future, no tiresome Barbara-ness. The desert, the snow, the struggle to subdue my sense of hurt and rejection had emptied me out. And here, no doubt, my many experiences of dissociation finally made themselves useful; a world drained of referents and connotations— the world as it is—held no terrors for me.

So she walks and then:

At some point in my predawn walk— not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time— the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it.

“Something poured into me and I poured out into it.” Or Annie Dillard: “I was my whole life a bell and did not know it until that moment when I was lifted and struck.” Or: “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.”

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It happened to me. I understand this; maybe you do too.

The value of Ehrenreich’s book is in her attempt to understand what this experience means to her. It’s nice, I suppose, to have these experiences, though as she says and as I experienced once, these experiences are not always pleasant; sometimes they are terrifying; sometimes the vision is of evil, not good. This occurred once to me when I was in college. But what matters to her is what is to be learned.

Let me try and explain. Part of this has to do with the music I selected today. And it has to do with why I am a minister and what I have hoped to explore and understand and then share in these past 30 years.

Today’s songs are, for me, songs of deep and profound yearning. I can think of no other word than ‘yearning.’ Not longing, not hoping and seeking, but yearning. The Duke Ellington/John Coltrane piece In A Sentimental Mood is a wonderful conversation between the piano and saxophone – if there ever was an instrument of yearning, it is the saxophone. They touch and pull apart and touch again [the drum and bass behind are wonderful in the original]. The song suggests things hoped for, perhaps lost and remembered. They yearn to connect and speak to and with each other. It is a beautiful song. The same is true for the Jarrett piece coming after the sermon.

So, too, with Eric Whiteacre’s Lux Aurumque [Light and gold]. I could imagine this playing when I stood there on the banks of the St Croix River and perhaps imagine Ehrenreich hearing it in the dawn streets of Lone Pine, California.

John Keats, in the closing lines of Ode on A Grecian Urn’ writes:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

There is something in the experience of beauty, or terror if that is beauty’s opposite, that contains a truth necessary for our living full lives. You will hear it in the song, My Song, by Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek after the sermon. Perhaps you know how beauty can ache.

But what is this yearning for?

I don’t believe in God so I suppose I am an atheist, but all that means is that I have no picture, no words that are like any of the pictures or definitions of God out there.

Ehrenreich suggests that the major growth in her life was leaving her solipsism behind. Solipsism [great word -- be a good cat name] is the position that nothing really exists, or nothing can be known, outside of one’s own mind. It is Descartes: I think, therefore I am. As a philosophical tradition, it may have some value, but, for the most part, psychologically, it is very close to narcissism. We all fall prey to this at times, some of us maybe more than others, some times more than others. – this idea that we are the center of the universe, that it is really all about me. We see this in our young children. I am the boss of me! The ‘me’ decade. The brilliance of Apple in using ‘me’ and ‘I’ as their brand.

It is the yearning for connection, to be a part of something larger, to not be alone. It is the yearning that life is special and worth the effort. This is what Ehrenreich learned that day in Lone Pine: that she was not alone but part of a much larger, and mysterious and wondrous whole. It poured into her and she poured out into it.

This is about the ability to love and to wonder – that is the yearning.

I don’t believe in God so I suppose I am an atheist, but all that means is that I have no picture, no words that are like any of the pictures or definitions of God out there. It is certainly not the God of Judaism/Christianity/Islam – that may be the furthest from what I believe. Annie Dillard once wrote that science and Christianity were in cahoots in ‘despookifying’ the world; they kicked all the spirits out of the rocks and groves and riverbanks and mountains up and out and beyond the sky. Much was lost in this. I agree.

But is the world, and the things in it, imbued with more than just the material? Is there something spiritual, transcendent? Of course there is. Otherwise why music or painting? Why the saxophone or the piano or the song? These things around us have meaning and these tools – the song, the painting, the poem, are evidence of our yearning for something more than just the material world.

This is the yearning – as Mary Oliver puts it: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

This is the wild God that calls us – to find and accept our place in the family of things, to let the world pour into you and you pour into it, and, when it happens, as it might sometime, to realize you are a bell, and are lifted and struck.

[dc]“W[/dc]e are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other's beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.”


Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Church