“Getting Caught Up”
October 14, 2012
II Corinthians 12:1-10
If this morning’s sermon title led you to think that I had some tips on how you can catch up on everything you need to do, I apologize. I haven’t figured that out myself. In fact I continue to take comfort from the words a colleague shared with me many years ago: “God put me on Earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now I am so far behind, I will never die.”
We’re going to have to leave to-do lists and making up for lost time for another sermon.
No, my title comes instead from the text for this morning, Paul’s oblique reference to himself when he wrote to the early Christians in Corinth: “I know a person in Christ who…was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body, God knows. And I that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”
I remembered this strange and intriguing text when I saw the cover of Newsweek this past week announcing in all capital letters: “HEAVEN IS REAL.” Inside was a firsthand account by Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon and son of a neurosurgeon who has taught at Harvard Medical School. He writes that “Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief….I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loves us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.”
His personal and professional life illustrated that tension between science and religion that we have been exploring in so many ways here over the past year.
In the fall of 2008, Dr. Alexander was in a coma for seven days, during which the human part of his brain, the neocortex, was inactivated. His body was unresponsive, his higher-order brain functions were offline. During this time, he says, “I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.”
Now, you’ve probably read or heard about “near-death experiences” before. The best arguments against them suggest that they are “the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex.” But Dr. Alexander’s cortex was not malfunctioning. It was simply “turned off.”
After reflecting on his experience for some time, he concluded, “I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.”
He writes of a “darkness that was also filled to brimming with light,” of a wind that flowed past him “like heavenly water,” and of a wordless message that told him: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.”
Whether in the body or out of the body, God knows.
How do we make sense of such reports?
I’m never quite sure what to think about accounts like Dr. Alexander’s. And in this I’m not alone. When I shared this story with the meeting of scientists in our congregation on Tuesday evening, it was met with that mix of skepticism and hope that you’d expect among such a group.
By an amazing coincidence, the Newsweek cover story came out just in advance of the lecture here this afternoon by Dr. Nancy Andreasen in which she will consider the question of how much modern neuroscience can tell us about our spiritual abilities and activities.
Perhaps she can aid our understanding.
And perhaps we can better grasp what Paul is talking about when we remember our own lives and those times when we have been “caught up” with something greater than ourselves.
Frederick Buechner reminds us that when we are with somebody we love, we have little if any sense of the passage of time, and we also have in the fullest sense of the phrase, a good time. He says that when we are with God, we have something like the same experience. The biblical term for the experience is Eternal Life. Another is Heaven.
Heaven, of course, is a difficult image, what the poet Kathleen Norris calls “a foolish concept, to be sure, and apparently irresistible to the human spirit.” Our popular imagination so trivializes heaven that, really, most clergy are reluctant to talk about heaven at all. Clouds, harps, wings, pearly gates are the stuff of cartoons and jokes.
Reflecting on this, the physicist and theologian John Polkinghorn says, “Even the man who said that when he went to heaven he would play golf every day, might sicken of the game after a few thousand years. . . . These trivial images are totally inadequate. What awaits us is the unending exploration of the inexhaustible riches of God, a pilgrim journey into the deepest reality that will always be thrilling and life-enhancing.”
Heaven, as we encounter it in the Bible is a complex, multi-layered concept.
Sometimes “heaven” is God’s “dwelling place.”
Sometimes God is said to “dwell beyond the heavens.”
Read your Bible. You’ll even find that evil powers are said to dwell in heaven (Ephesians 6:12)—which might give us pause about wanting to get there quickly, or about envisioning a great difference between heaven and earth.
And then there’s the ancient Jewish understanding of heaven as having several “levels”—sometimes seven, sometimes three.
Paul writes about “someone” caught up into the seventh heaven. It quickly becomes obvious that Paul is speaking of himself here, using an ancient literary technique to both disguise and reveal himself.
This was a strange experience indeed. Paul kept silent about it for some 14 years. Even as he writes about it now, he is guarded. He’s not sure if it was an “out of the body” experience. And he tells us mostly that he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” It’s not that these things were indescribable, or “too wonderful for words.” Paul has the sense that he is forbidden to pass on what he has seen and heard.
What is clear in this description, however, is that Paul did not bring it about on his own. He did not pray, fast, take drugs, or do anything else.
He was “caught up” by God. Through this experience, Paul learned to depend on God—in his weakness and his strength.
Think about it. There are times in our lives when we are drawn out of ourselves, out of a preoccupation with our immediate wants and needs, caught up into something greater.
Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, told a wonderful story about a time when he was in Africa building houses. They ran out of construction iron rods to go in the cement lintels, which were installed above the doors and windows of each house. They couldn't find the iron rods anywhere.
They were living and working in Mbandaka in Zaire. The city was situated right on the banks of the Congo River. In colonial days, the Belgians had put in a cement wall along the edge of the river, but the wall was poorly engineered so it started to crack and slowly drift out into the water. The port project was abandoned but the old cracking wall was still there.
As Fuller examined the wall one day, he discovered that iron rods, exactly like they needed for the lintels, were exposed in the large cracks in the concrete. It would be treacherous to hang out over the river and try to salvage them, but, he had no other source for the iron rods.
With a hacksaw and a couple of helpers, he started to salvage the needed rods. After a dozen or so rods had been salvaged, a truck raced past and then stopped.
"What are you doing?" the driver yelled.
"Salvaging some iron rods from this old port."
Fuller climbed down and explained his work in building houses for needy families. The man said he worked with a construction company out of Great Britain that was in town to extend the runway on the local airport.
"Your project sounds like a good one," he said. "How many of the iron rods do you need?"
Fuller told him they were building 114 houses and that they only had enough rods for about 14 houses.
"Well," the driver replied, "we can donate the rods to you. Get down off that old wall before you kill yourself and go back to building houses!"
A few days later, a big truck drove up and dumped brand new iron rods for a hundred houses.
For Fuller—and for us, too—this is an excellent example of doing all you know how to do and how in doing that, something wonderful and unexpected happens. He said, “If I had simply gone into my room to pray for the iron rods, I wouldn't have gotten any. But, because we prayed and then took action, doing all we knew how to do, the ‘God equation’ kicked in.
“If you take the first step,” Fuller concluded, “God will bless your efforts abundantly.”
Very often that sense of abundance develops as we give ourselves over to something greater than ourselves—when we are caught up in the moment, lifted out of a preoccupation with ourselves. You spend an afternoon at the food pantry, or a morning at a Habitat site, or an hour helping a child to read. Maybe you dig in your garden, or throw yourself into a problem at work, or talk with someone and really listen. You forget about yourself. The time passes quickly.
There is something “heavenly” about such experiences. We can’t create them on our own, we can’t will ourselves to be “caught up.” These are moments of grace—given by God so that we can enjoy them and find strength in them. And these experiences are a window onto the abundance of God. We put ourselves in the path of abundance by recalling those times that we have been caught up, pulled beyond ourselves. And we begin to see the world differently, we begin to see our lives differently.
Here and there, now and then, we experience for ourselves or we see in others, an episode of grace. Whether in the body or out of the body, we get caught up.
Such an experience comes, not because we bid it. It comes as a gift, because we put ourselves in its path. And in doing so, we discover something more about the One who came that we might have life and have it abundantly, who brings life out of death, and calls us to follow.