Wednesday morning, May 20, 2009 I was honored by an invitation to provide the opening “devotion” for the Baylor Admissions Department retreat. Here’s what I offered…
Imagine you are hiking along one of the most amazing trails in the world, the Appalachian Trail. (see note at bottom). Imagine that you are somewhere along this 2000 mile trek that stretches from Georgia to Maine, enjoying the sanctuary formed by a canopy of huge pines and decorated with colorful foliage. You hike alone, taking in the sort of beauty that has convinced thousands of pilgrims that there must surely be a Loving Artist under girding creation.
You see the dark clouds forming in the distance, and the breeze in your face lets you know they are moving your way. A sense of awe is mixed with a bit of anxiety as you see the first flash of lightning, and you realize a storm is approaching. You’d said you wanted to the full experience of this trail, and it looks like your wish is coming true.
The sun is going down. The light recedes quickly as the clouds move overhead. You hear the thunderclap, and the first drops of rain splash on your face. Thankfully, your map indicates a tiny wayside cabin is ahead, placed there for just such situations.
You bust through the cabin door just as the deluge hits. You stumble straight across to the little cot, drop your pack, and lie down. The huge smile on your face reflects both the joy of the experience and your dumb luck at having found shelter at just the right moment. Exhaustion hits, so you roll over on your side, hoping to sleep despite the stormy symphony playing outside the little window.
And that’s when you see it.
In the dark, coiled right next to the door you have just entered through, is one of the biggest snakes you have ever seen in your life.
Suddenly every nerve ending in your body is firing. “Oh my God!” You stare at the calm creature, trying to make out any sort of markings that would give you a hint about just what level of danger you are in. But it’s too dark. An occasional lightning flash offers a bit of light, but to no avail. You don’t know if it’s a copperhead or just some big ol’ garden snake. “What can I do?” There’s nothing you can do, except lie there as motionless as possible, and hope that whatever energy your entry might have stirred in the little monster has dissipated. You simply pray that you don’t look like food.
Minutes pass, though they seem like hours. You can’t keep your eyes quite open, but you sure as heck can’t let them completely close.
The full force of the storm is now right overhead. And suddenly a lightning bolt illuminates the tiny cabin like a football stadium. The shock of light lasts for only 3 seconds, but that three seconds is more than enough time for you to reach a startling conclusion. “That’s not a snake, that’s a coil of rope?!” And once more you mutter, “Oh my God!”
The near-pitch dark returns. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. It still LOOKs like a snake by the door, but now you know. You know that you know. You know that you can go to sleep, and continue your adventure in the morning.
“One day on my way to Damascus, armed as always with papers from the high priests authorizing my action, right in the middle of the day a blaze of light, light outshining the sun, poured out of the sky on me and my companions. Oh, King, it was so bright! We fell flat on our faces. Then I heard a voice in Hebrew: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me? Why do you insist on going against the grain?’
”I said, ‘Who are you, Master?’
“The voice answered, ‘I am Jesus, the One you’re hunting down like an animal. But now, up on your feet—I have a job for you. I’ve handpicked you to be a servant and witness to what’s happened today, and to what I am going to show you.
“‘I’m sending you off to open the eyes of the outsiders so they can see the difference between dark and light, and choose light, see the difference between Satan and God, and choose God. I’m sending you off to present my offer of sins forgiven, and a place in the family, inviting them into the company of those who begin real living by believing in me.’ Acts 26:12-18 (The Message)
Richard Rohr says that there are experiences in life that have the capacity to break through the darkness, and leave us with a new level of conviction. Rohr notes that these experiences seem to almost always involve some sort of suffering, some sense of being very stuck, and fearing that life is very meaningless. These are often times when all of our religious knowledge proves to be quite impotent in bringing us comfort or a sense of direction.
People with terminal illnesses often describe such experiences. You’ve heard it, and maybe you’ve experienced it yourself. All options have been exhausted, and then something illuminates the dark corners of the soul, and the person says, “It’s going to be okay. I just know. I just know that I know.”
When I sit with a group like this, there are some things I know without having to know any of you personally.
- I know that some of you here have lost touch with the sense of deep conviction about the God’s redemptive work in you and in this world.
- I know that some of you carry that sense of conviction and hope, and feel frustrated about how to communicate it to those closest to you and to those whom you serve.
- And I know that some of you wonder if you’ve ever had any sort of experience that has imparted this sort of confidence.
Regardless of how you see yourself right now, I do know this. The Christian tradition teaches that these moments of knowing almost always have some sort of connection to community. And they almost always happen to those who are open and mindful of the possibilities.
You are gathered here, at this very moment, as a community. You are gathered under the umbrella of an institution that is committed to injecting faith into a very secular world. And I am convinced that if you are open and mindful, that this day holds the potential for surprise and wonder. Who knows, you might discover that the coworker you’ve imagine is a snake is actually… well….
Let us pray,
You know us thoroughly, and so know what each of us needs from this day. You have far too much respect for us to force any sort of illumination upon us, but you seem to be very willing to offer small peeks into eternity to those who are paying attention, to those who are open and mindful. I ask you to poke each person here toward an extra measure of mindfulness, and I ask you to draw them together as we offer together the prayer you taught us, prayingOur Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen
Note: The image of the cabin is from Ken Wilber. I’ve elaborated on his idea.