“Living into the Mystery” by Brennan Baker

bulletin cover for the season after epiphany19 February 2012



Brennan Baker is a participant in the Church of the Saviour Discipleship Year program. He shared part of his spiritual journey with Seekers. 


This morning is Transfiguration Sunday. Today we celebrate, specifically, the transfiguration of Jesus in front Peter, and the brothers James and John. The event is considered one of the most important of Jesus’ life, right up there with his crucifixion and resurrection. Traditionally it has been considered important, theologically, because it explicitly connects Jesus to Moses (who received the Ten Commandments and is traditionally known as the author of the Torah) and to Elijah (the great prophet). In short, it connects Jesus to the roots of Judaism and to its prophetic tradition, creating a divinely authorized continuity between the ancient laws and Jesus teachings. At the same time the voice of God calls out telling them that this is his beloved son and that they should listen to him. So now he has not only the authority of Jewish tradition but also God’s.


Well, to be honest, I’m not really interested in confirming Jesus’ divine authority or looking at traditional interpretations. Not that they aren’t valuable, don’t contain truth, or aren’t important for the Christian story. It’s just not what I’m interested in this morning; it’s not what speaks to me in this story.


What does speak to me is the radical way in which God–this great unfathomable mystery–is experienced in the Transfiguration; the way that God is intimately present in Jesus the human being, the person.


And in this moment, with God so intimately present, my reaction to Peter’s response to this whole thing is one of bemusement, a bit of sadness, not to mention amusement. Here Jesus is transforming into a divine manifestation of the ultimate mystery, the ground of being, the generative force of life itself (if you haven’t noticed yet I use these terms for “god” interchangeably), right in front of Peter’s eyes and what is Peter’s response: let’s build three dwellings, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you, Jesus. Now the disciples are often portrayed as just not getting it no matter how hard or how many times Jesus tries, but this one doesn’t even illicit a response, Presumably, Jesus was so connected to god’s presence within himself in that moment he probably didn’t even hear Peter’s comment.


Really, though, I don’t bring this up just to poke fun at Peter. His comment actually makes a lot of sense and has a lot of religious significance if you look at the historical context: It’s a reference to both the Jewish Festival of Booths, which commemorates the exodus from Egypt and the Greek practice of erecting shrines at the sites of the epiphany of a deity. In any case, this is Peter’s reaction to the unmediated presence of god, and I highlight all of this to show you, again, what I’m not talking about, to wit I’m not talking about a religious response.


So now that I’ve taken my playful stab at relating my talk to the transfiguration story, and made sure you know what I’m not talking about, I can get on to what I do want to talk about:


This morning I’d like to share a little bit about my own spiritual journey, as it relates to this unmediated experience of god, the spirit, the great mystery that, one, is within us like it was with Jesus in this story and, two, surrounds us like it did Peter.

Of course, when I say unmediated experience of god, I have in mind something a little bit different than the transfiguration story. I don’t mean some type of mystical vision. What I’m talking about is not “religious,” is much less ethereal, and is much more a part of everyday human experience. Albert Einstein has a quote that captures it well:


“The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness.”


This is the reality I’m hinting at. And, while I’m a committed follower of Jesus, and, as part of the Church of the Saviour community, I’m surrounded by the most dynamic Christian community I’ve ever witnessed, simply being present to and sensing the mystery that lies behind, beyond, and within everyone and everything is the most profound, comforting, and intimate spiritual experience that I have. And this amazes me.


Sometimes I take a step back and wonder how in the world I came to the particular spiritual understanding I have today. Given the fact that I grew up in Rome, Georgia, right in the heart of conservative evangelicalism, It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve moved so far from that way of seeing the world so quickly. But then I begin to remember the experiences of the spirit, big and small, that have been so transformative in my life.


There were those moments growing up when I was overwhelmed by part of my self I didn’t even know was there. The part that cried out to be connected and in communion with the rest of me and the world around me. I couldn’t name it that way or even begin to understand it at the time, but I think these moments, more than anything else, kept me from buying-in to the black and white world-view of the conservative religious and political culture around me; that gave me the open-mind to begin to see the many layers of contradictions between the unconditional love and justice preached by Jesus, and the exclusion, divisiveness, and oppression that Christianity has so often supported. But more than anything else, it cultivated in me a deep desire to seek out other human expressions of the mystery, particularly in philosophy and other religious traditions. But it has been always a seeking of an experience with the mystery that lies behind the expressions. The expressions themselves are beautiful, profoundly life giving, and absolutely necessary, but at the end of the day they are expressions, and this is a crucial distinction to make.


It was this desire that led me to Joseph’s House during my first year with Discipleship Year. After wrestling for a while about which placement I wanted–at first I was more interested in two that focused on social justice and structural change–I was drawn in by its compassionate care, contemplative practices, and my own curiosity about being present to death in such an intimate way.


At Joseph’s House I encountered the mystery face to face in a way I never really had before: through death. Not that I hadn’t thought about it before, but to sit with people as they are at the threshold between life and death is to stare into pure mystery, to breathe it in. And doing this demanded that I take some stance towards death and the mystery.


I couldn’t just be at Joseph’s House daily, doing my job, and hold death and my own mortality at arms length. Nor could I, as happens so often, acknowledge death, even accept it, and go on living like it’s not there. I had never believed in heaven before–it had always been an idea that I thought was about giving people a false sense of security or a way to avoid death–so that was not an option to avoid it. All I was left with was to lean in to it, open up to it, grow into it over and over again each day. It wasn’t easy. It was absolutely overwhelming at times. There was fear, and many attempts to pull away from it, and there still are today. But encountering death in this way has allowed me to respond to the mystery, to uncertainty, and to change more with love and hope, and less with fear, and all of the things that fear brings with it.


It has also made me unequivocally clear that our common participation in the mystery, in the creative spirit, is what connects us all–it is our common roots. And in the moment we are living in–with globalization, the internet, and all of these tools of communication–where different cultures are coming into contact with each other and are connected materially more than ever, but yet still with so much war, divisiveness, and oppression, I believe the idea and reality of a common spiritual family has more power and is need now more than ever. It is not necessary to look for commonalities between religious traditions–although this is worthwhile and essential—in order to find spiritual communion with “the other.” We must only accept the reality of common participation that is right in front of us.


Yet we are often so bound up in our stories and tradition—our own particular expression of truth—that our spiritual language, our words forget to honor the mysteriousness of god.


I think it is the acceptance and cultivation of this reality that has the power to continue to enlighten our religious traditions and create new spiritual understandings that transcend any religion, without losing the variety and uniqueness of these traditions. Or as a quote I read recently put it:


“…the mystery, the cosmos, and/or spirit [is] moving from a primordial state of undifferentiated unity toward one of infinite differentiation-in-common.”


What a beautiful thought; that in the beginning there were no unique spiritual selves, no unique journeys, but even as we now have a myriad of unique spiritual selves and journeys, even as our understandings of our individual traditions become deeper and more variegated, we grow into greater communion. And we only grow individually because of this unity.


I don’t know about you, but that gets me excited. So as we leave here, and return to daily life in our communities, return to seeking justice and peace, don’t forget to contemplate the mystery you see all around you, and don’t forget to preach the good news of our common spiritual family.

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