2 Cor 12:2-10; Mk 6:1-13
As many of you know, I grew up in a devout Southern Baptist home. We went to church every time the doors were open—Sunday morning services, Sunday evening services, Tuesday night visitation, Wednesday night prayer meeting, Friday night youth group meeting, and Saturday work parties. We were all in. We were committed.
But you want to know what was weird? We never talked about your own spiritual experiences in my family. It was as if an awkward kind of spiritual modesty came over us. Just as my mother would never in a million years walk through the living room in her underwear, likewise, she would never reveal what God was doing in her, how God was challenging her, how her heart was being battered by the Spirit, how she felt moved and held and loved by Jesus. She never said anything even remotely like that—none of us did.
What is strange is that our church services were filled with miraculous visitations, inner transformations, and the incessant pressure of the Holy Spirit brooding over our lives—but you wouldn’t know it from the talk around our dinner table. Even to this day, if I start to speak about such things, an uncomfortable silence descends on the conversation and someone will soon change the subject.
And I’m sorry, but I just think that’s weird. And I don’t think it’s just my family, either. I think, as a culture, we are a mystically repressed people. I mean that. The fact is that most of us have mystical experiences—but no one ever talks about them. Maybe we’re afraid people will think we’re crazy, maybe people will think we’re taking on pious airs, maybe we’re afraid people will think we’re turning into holier-than-thou jerks—I don’t know what it is. I don’t know WHY we don’t talk about our mystical experiences, I just know that we don’t.
And that we don’t is unfortunate. In fact, I think it’s dangerous. Becausewe don’t talk about our spiritual experiences, when they happen to people, they freak out. They go, “What the hell was that?” and they clam up about it, because they’re afraid of what people will think, what people will say, that people will treat them differently, somehow.
Even Paul seems to suffer from this. Paul, who is rarely shy about mysticism, relates a story of a mystical vision that happened fourteen years prior to his writing, “to a person I know.” Most scholars agree that Paul is writing about himself in this passage, and this obfuscation is Paul’s great “asking for a friend” moment.
Why is Paul—who loves to hold forth about mystical theology in the abstract, suddenly gunshy about it when he’s writing about himself? He obliquely provides the answer to that later on in this passage when he talks about a thorn in the flesh keeping him humble—apparently he doesn’t want people accusing him of spiritual elitism.
But Paul isn’t fooling anyone. What Paul needs isn’t a single thorn in the flesh to keep him humble, he needs a whole briar patch. Paul is the most un-humble saint in the Christian pantheon, so this appeal to humility is too little too late—sorry to break it to you, brother Paul.
So Paul is embarrassed in front of his friends, and Jesus, in our reading from Mark, demonstrates how problematic it is to come out of the spiritual closet in front of family and people who have known you your whole life.
Here Jesus is, at the height of his maturity, going home to do what he does—teach in the synagogue. And how do his family and friends and neighbors respond? “Wait a minute—isn’t this Jesus, the snot-nosed kid who beat up Mordecai that one time? Isn’t this the kid who crapped in his pants in the market when he was five? Who does he think he is? We know what he’s REALLY like.”
Think of how Jesus must have felt. I mean, haven’t YOU ever felt that way? Have you ever hesitated to come out of the spiritual closet because you were afraid of how friends and family might react? I mean, Jesus tried it, and look where it got him. It’s tempting to keep that closet door shut very tight indeed.
And that’s just…sad. And it’s not just ad for you or for me, but for every person who has a spiritual awakening or a spiritual problem and is afraid to talk about it—which is to say, pretty much all of us.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like to change that. I think that, just as much as we need Sex-Ed classes, we need Mysticism-Ed classes—we need safe spaces where we can let people in on a vitally important truth—that spiritual experiences happen to everyone. You are not going crazy when they happen to you, and it’s okay to talk about them.
What a revolution that would be! At the same time, I think we need to make a commitment to being out and proud about our own spiritual lives, without worrying so much about what other people will think of us. I mean, if enough of us open up about it, it won’t seem weird, right? I’m all for the “End Bisexual Invisibility” campaign, but we also need an “End Mystical Invisibility” campaign.
I mean, God isn’t going to stop working on us and in us, just because we’re embarrassed to talk about it—and thank God for that. But we can make our own lives and the lives of countless others easier if we commit to being open and honest about how God is working on us and in us. It doesn’t make us less of a screw-up or a sinner to say so, so we don’t need to come across as all holy—because we’re not.
And we don’t need to come across as superior, either—the fact is, everyonehas spiritual problems and most peoplehave spiritual experiences of one kind or another. But it will make us spiritually HEALTHIER people if we stop hiding. It will make us more congruent, more integrated people if we aren’t conflicted and embarrassed about this huge part of our lives. And just as importantly, it will minister to others—so that when the Spirit touches them, when a mystical experience overtakes them, when a spiritual transformation happens in them, they will know that we will not scorn them or mock them or call them crazy.
Instead, we can be safe people to talk to. People who can say, “You’re not crazy,” and “How can I support you as you lean into this new spiritual awareness?”
And that, my friends, is a form of ministry. But it’s a form of ministry that requires us to stand up, to speak out, and to be a little courageous. (Just a leetlebit.)
But don’t worry—God has our back. Jesus will love us through it, and the Holy Spirit will give us the words when we speak. We really only need to say, “yes.” Because doing so, we will be working with God, rather than against. In doing so, we will help normalize the spiritual experience so that people will not be so resistant to it, so people will know what is happening to them, so that people can lean into it and trust that God knows what God is doing. So what do you say? Shall we make the world a safe place for mysticism?
Let us pray…God, we live in a culture in which religion and even spirituality have gotten a bad name. The people around us are afraid to talk about it, and because we don’t want to be ostracized or laughed at, we’re afraid to talk about it, too. Help us to have the courage to come out of the spiritual closet and talk about how you have touched us, about what the Spirit is doing in our lives, about what Jesus means to us. Help us to normalize what is already normal—that we live and move and breath in you and through you. For we ask this in the name of Jesus, who was not ashamed. Amen.