A sermon preached on May 27, 2007 entitled, “Weird Stuff”, based on Acts 2:1 – 21.
This being Memorial Day Weekend, I’d like to begin my sermon by reading an account of a young soldier who nearly died in Vietnam, as it is recorded in the book, Transformed By the Light, by Dr. Melvin Morse.
“I was wounded by shrapnel and fell unconscious in the mud. My face was flat down and I began to suffocate. I knew what was happening. I was bleeding and dazed (probably in shock) but instead of it being agonizing, it actually felt very peaceful. I felt a great calm that, given the fighting that went on just moments before, is amazing.
I felt very much at peace there in the mud. Then suddenly, I was floating out of my body and looking at myself. I could see my stomach wounds, the blood, my messed up hair, but I had no concern for myself. I was worried about my family. I didn’t want them to see me like this, all bloody and messy, I felt sad that my mother might see me but other than that I wasn’t overly concerned, given the situation.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw two figures. They were guys I knew. They had also died but they were out of their bodies like I was. They started to walk away.
They motioned for me to come with them but I felt sad for my mother and felt that I couldn’t leave my body. They nodded to me. They seemed to know how I felt and they simply waved good-bye. I then saw a medic turn my head so my face was uncovered. Suddenly I was in my body and breathing again.”
Dr. Morse goes on to describe the experience of the man in the years that followed:
“Although the experience had affected him profoundly throughout the years, many people tried to convince him that it wasn’t real. His brother said it was a bad dream, even though he had never described it in ‘bad’ terms. Some friends acted as though he had made the incident up. His wife at one time even threatened to leave him if he continued to talk about what had happened. She said he was like a different person, one who seemed to be on a spiritual quest to understand his experience.”
This story strikes me on a couple of levels: the first being the comforting vision of life after death it gives. The soldier experienced great peace and calm. I am also struck by the fact of how the loving connections he had in his body endure as he left his earthly body: he worries about his mother and the rest of his family and the grief they will endure in his death, and he also seems connected in the bonds he had forged with his fellow soldiers.
But I am also struck by the resistance the people closest to this man had to affirming his extraordinary experience. Somehow what he had experienced threatened them. They sensed that to embrace what he was telling them would require they change their fundamental worldview, and this they were unwilling to do.
This reminds me of the reaction of some of the people who witnessed the outpouring of the holy spirit that day long ago in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Some very weird stuff was happening that day: the apostles, inspired by the holy spirit, were speaking in different languages, and people who had gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world were hearing the Apostles speak about Jesus in their own language. Many we are told, were amazed and perplexed, asking, “What does this mean?”
“But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
That which they do not understand, which does not fit into their world view as to how reality functions, needs to be rejected, debunked, attacked.
“These men are just drunk, that’s all. Nothing is happening
here that requires us to rethink how the universe functions.”
I’ve always been interested in “weird stuff”, like near death experiences and such. When I left my last church, during a farewell roast, they kidded me about wishing I was “nearly dead” so I could get one of those incredible visions like the one testified to by the soldier. Recently I’ve been thinking even more than usual because of a fascinating book I’m reading, entitled, “Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind,” by Elizabeth Mayer. With a PHD in clinical psychology Elizabeth has a background firmly rooted in rational, scientific method.
Elizabeth describes at the beginning of her book how fifteen years earlier, her 11 year old daughter’s beloved harp was stolen, causing great family distress. For two months she tried every conventional avenue to get the harp back, without any luck. Finally somebody Elizabeth trusted said,
“if you really want to get it back, you should be willing to try a diviner.”
She was skeptical, but figuring what did she have to lose, she called a man named Harold McCoy who came recommended to her. Harold lived in Arkansas, quite some distance from where she lived in San Francisco. On the phone, Harold immediately was able to tell her that the harp was in fact still in the Bay Area. He asked her to send him a street map of the city, which she fed-exed to him out in Arkansas, and remarkably, Harold was able to tell her the exact street address where the harp was located. Within a week, Elizabeth had her daughter’s harp back. Driving home with the harp, she thought to herself, with some fear and trepidation,
“this changes everything.”
The experience set her on a path to investigate the whole realm of what is commonly called “parapsychology”. She began making inquiries of professional colleagues — of doctors and counselors, inviting them to share experiences where they had received some kind of knowledge that traditional medical and scientific models simply could not explain, and plenty of people had stories to tell.
For instance, a brain surgeon with an astonishing track record of success in his very delicate surgery, confided with Elizabeth how he had learned over time in his practice to come and sit quietly at the bedside beside of each of his patients, and wait, and if he saw a white light around the patient’s head, he knew that he could proceed with the surgery confident of its success. If the light didn’t appear, he knew not to embark with the surgery.
Now this doctor made it clear that he could never share any of this with his professional colleagues because they would think him crazy, and would cease to take him seriously as surgeon.
Elizabeth proceeded to interview various people who were known to be gifted with unusual psychic or healing abilities, as well as to review the extensive research that has been made into area of what is known as “telepathy.” She studied the work done in sleep labs, because people in the dream state seem particularly receptive to these other kinds of knowing. She studied the research the military carried over a period of 24 years in the area known as “remote viewing”, the capacity exhibited by certain persons to receive mental images of distant places. She also investigated research that had been done suggesting that the human brain has some capacity to predict what will happen in the future.
Fascinating, and as I said, “weird stuff.” It is, of course, mighty tough to put this kind of thing under a microscope in a lab, but some pretty ingenious experiments make a pretty compelling case that there are indeed other, non-rational, non-material ways of knowing things; that what I’m calling “weird stuff” — actually does exist, though the scientists don’t have the slightest idea “how” they work.
But Elizabeth also described what she saw as tremendous resistance within the scientific community for taking this line of inquiry seriously, because if there is really something there, well, it would, as she said of her own experience with the found harp, “change everything.” All kinds of assumptions about how the universe operates would be called into question.
In the story of the first Pentecost, Peter stands up to address the debunkers, those who would write off the weird stuff they are seeing as nothing more than intoxication:
He assures them that they aren’t drunk (hey, its only 9 in the morning!) and then proceeds to quote from the book of the prophet Joel who had spoken centuries earlier of such things coming to pass:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
Phophesy, vision, dreams… Unusual sources of knowledge… The kind of weird stuff Elizabeth examines in her book.
So a question that is raised up in all of this is, why the resistance?
I think that there are issues here regarding the universal need of persons to feel secure and in control. There is something very scary about being forced to give the identify of being the person who is “in the know.”
The persons who refused to acknowledge what was happening on the day of Pentecost were “insiders.” They were the people who lived in Jerusalem — the natives who “expected” to be understood since they spoke the language of insiders. They were “in the know” — knew how things operated around there. As insiders they hold a distinctive power over the outsiders who are new to town.
But the weird stuff that is being brought about by the holy spirit is calling their “insider status” into question. This weird stuff was beyond the understanding of everybody, putting them all in the same boat, so to speak, which they don’t like, so they feel compelled to deny it is really happening. Booze, that’s all. Just booze. To acknowledge that it was real would be to humble themselves, to turn and become like little children, as Jesus said, and that they weren’t willing to do.
One thing that is clear from the story of Pentecost is that the holy spirit is being poured out for a clear purpose. The holy spirit is God’s power given to human beings for the purpose of healing the divisions that separate people — to make us truly one — all connected, while at the same time, remaining our unique, individual selves. All the cultural, ethnic, gender, and language barriers are being overcoming so that people can talk to one another directly. It promotes healing and reconciliation, and empowers people to the person God intended them to be. It complements the knowledge the brain surgeon acquired in medicine to as to enhance his capacity to function as a healer.
Last week we heard a curious story in which Paul and Silas were preaching in Philippi and a slave girl who had some kind of psychic, clairvoyant ability was following them around, screaming. Her gift was being used not for the sake of good, but for the sake of making her owners money. She herself was being oppressed by this ability, kept from entering into her full humanity. Paul, drawing upon the authority of Jesus Christ, casts the spirit out of her.
There was, as I mentioned earlier, a secret study by the Pentagon looking into the capacity of certain people to practice the psychic gift called “remote knowing”. Millions of dollars were quietly invested in this research, and along the way there was a fair amount of compelling evidence that indeed, this ability does exist, but the gift proved too elusive to be used reliably for their purposes, and so after 24 years they abandoned the research.
The story of Pentecost suggests that these kinds of gifts simply weren’t intended by God for the purpose of warfare.
In recent years there have been some world history events that have happened that had the quality of what we would call “miraculous”. I have in mind such things as the relatively peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa, the healing of the bloodshed in Northern Ireland, the fall of the Berlin Wall.
For sure, the holy spirit and its weird capacities were at work in these events.
We have some pretty terrifying and intractable problems facing us in this world. Many of us, in our own personal lives, also have what appear like utterly unsolvable problems as well.
With people, nothing is possible. But with God all things are possible.
It all begins with humbly acknowledging what we don’t know. It begins, as modeled by the apostles of old, by emptying ourselves of our pride, waiting to be surprised by what God will do next; waiting for power to descend from on high. It all begins with letting go of our fear and discovering again that we truly are God’s children.