First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer
Date: August 4, 2019
Scripture: Numbers 6:24-26 and a poem by Mirabai Starr
Sermon: “Landscape of Loss”
24 ‘May the LORD bless you
and protect you.
25 May the LORD smile on you
and be gracious to you.
26 May the LORD show you his favor
and give you his peace.’
And our wisdom poem comes from the mystic, Mirabai Starr:
O Shekinah we are the vessel for your inflowing Your radiance requires the clay of our embodiment. Your flame burns at the core of the earth. Your warmth penetrates the seedbed and animates the seedlings. You bless the head of every animal and kiss the tear-streaked face of humanity. You are the vision that builds community, and you are our refuge when the fabric of community unravels. Be with us now as we navigate this landscape of mystery where your most cherished attributes—
wild mercy and boundless compassion,
righteousness and wisdom—
seem to be cast aside and trampled
by imperious world powers
and we are paralyzed by helplessness.
May we remember you and lift you up.
May we recognize your face and celebrate your beauty
in everything and everyone,
So, there I was, 14 years old—sitting on the third row at the Calvary Chapel Wednesday 7:00 pm service, wearing an IZOD sweatshirt I confess I shoplifted—my stealing activities eventually led to me a juvie home and in foster care. My foster mother was one of those Hispanic Pentecostals who went to church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, hosted Tuesday night Bible study and attended Wednesday night services, which meant I went to church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Tuesday night Bible study and Wednesday night services —the makeshift church met in a strip mall where a huge alcohol store once thrived in Arvada CO, located between Boulder and Denver. This particular March evening, a very charismatic evangelist by the name of Lonnie Frisbee was preaching—he’d say the Holy Spirit is hovering in the church, he’d point at people, and they would collapse. The guy behind me, Phil, seemed like a normal guy I often spoke with, started talking in some strange language. More pointing at people where the Holy Spirit was floating around, and therefore…more collapsing. In my head, a voice conjugated the sentence, “Whatever that Holy Spirit is I sure don’t want it near me.” Next thing I know, Lonnie Frisbee beard and all was staring right at me, holding the microphone: “Why don’t you want the Holy Spirit?” I was lured to the front, right beside Lonnie Frisbee, though no one touched me I collapsed, and though no one was holding me down, I could not get up.
This was a very weird experience.
There was a time the word “mystic” translated to “weird” in my mind. Many Christians are skeptical of the word “mysticism.” When I use the word “mysticism” I am referring to experiential knowing instead of what you think you are supposed to believe because someone told you what to believe.
I believe we all are born to be mystics, but then are seduced to follow a life path that offers predictability and control.
The next two months we will encounter nine mystics, to include the Apostle Paul and one of my favorites, Teresa of Avila, who mentored St John of the Cross. Why a sermon series on mystics? Well, if your friends know you attend church, I have a feeling that you may be asked what a mystic is because one is running for President.
Last week, we experienced a very powerful worship service. If your mind goes to doom and gloom thinking about current global violence, have hope in our prophetic authentic youth who I think would have done very well on that national debate stage dealing with concerns about racism…Their message is powerful, and leaders of the Tri-Faith desire for them to bring their message to their congregation.
Christianity is but one path to experiencing the Divine. Throughout history, mystics from all faiths focus on connection and seek to unify, not divide, by helping us transform the way we approach life. Think of the divisions we see in politics—we have them in religion, too. What if we rediscovered the essential unity in teachings from all faiths?
Today, we begin with a living mystic who was here in this sanctuary two weeks ago, Mirabai Starr. A little bit about Mirabai—whatever a normal upbringing is, she did not have. When she was seven, her ten-year-old brother Matty was diagnosed with cancer and died. Her parents struggled for five years after his death. Life just was not working out, so they gave away everything they owned, bought a four-door red GMC pickup with a cab-over camper and set off on a road trip from New York to Miami Beach to Texas to the jungles of the Yucatan to a deserted beach where they lived six months, then finally moved and settled in Taos, New Mexico. As her parents’ parenting skills were disintegrating by the minute, Mirabai entered the Da Nahazli school and was mentored by her English teacher Natalie Goldberg, a well-known Zen author.
Da Nahazli was a very interesting school that ignored standardized school testing; where kids were encouraged to be creative and follow their passions; where gatherings included punch laced with LSD—the idea was that peace could occur if people just relaxed. It was at the school Mirabai met Philip, her first love. Her mother ran off to Mexico with a guy and her father found comfort in alcohol, so Mirabai relied on her school friends, especially Phillip. But when they got in a fight, Mirabai went to visit her mother in Mexico, but soon they were arrested for possession of drugs, so Mirabai returned to be with her father in Taos, only to learn Phillip was in a gun accident and died. With no emotional support from parents, Mirabai sought comfort from the Lama Foundation, a community where people of all spiritual and religious and non-religious live together. Here, her spiritual mentor Randy Sanders took advantage of her at age 14—she would marry him seven years later and divorce him seven years into marriage. During this time, she adopted two girls, Daniela and Jenny.
The education Mirabai gained growing up led her to Spain, where she became fluent in Spanish and helped her gain a teaching job at the University of New Mexico—she taught classes on the mystics and loved the writings of St John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, but her students did not share her passion. But she was reading their work in Spanish—they were reading boring translations…so Mirabai translated their writings. Her first translation of St John of the Cross who writes about the Dark Night of the Soul was momentous, but the day she received the first set of printed publications was a day that would change her immensely.
Hear these words from the Prologue of her book, Caravan of No Despair:
Thirty minutes after the UPS truck had delivered my new book, the police pulled into the driveway. This was not a surprise. My (14-year-old) daughter Jenny had been missing since the night before, when she tricked me and took off in my car. All night I rose and fell on waves of turmoil and peace, fearing she would never return, certain that all would be well.
Now our tribe had mobilized. Mom and (my sister) Amy had cleaned Jenny’s messy room so that it would feel good when she came home. Friends had gathered like strands of grass and woven a basket of waiting. Others fanned out in search parties across Taos County, from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge to the Colorado border.
“Ms. Starr?” An impossibly young state cop stood at the front door, holding a clipboard. A more seasoned trooper stood behind him, hands clasped behind his back.”I’m Officer Rael, and this is Officer Pfeiffer.”
“Did you find her?”
Officer Rael took in the halo of heads that gathered around me in the doorway. Friends and family, straining for news. “Would you please step outside, “Ma’am?”
“Is she in trouble?”
“We need to speak to you in private,” said the teenager-in-uniform.
“Okay, but not without my mother.”
Officer Rael nodded. I reached for Mom’s hand, and we stepped onto the porch.
The policeman got straight to the point. “There’s been an accident.”
“Is Jenny okay?” I grabbed his arm. He looked down at my hand.
“Your daughter has passed away, Ms. Starr.”
“How do you know it’s my daughter?” Maybe they had confused her with some other dead girl. “How do you know it’s Jenny?”
Officer Rael smiled a little. “The purple hair,” he said. “The report you filed described her hair as curly and…purple.” He cleared his throat. “The victim matches this description.”
“Where is she?”
“She’s been taken to the mortuary.” He looked down at his clipboard as if he had forgotten his next line and had to consult the script. “Ms. Starr, we are going to need you to come and identify the body.”
“How did it happen?” My voice was clam, as though I were inquiring about the final score in a soccer game. “Is anyone else…dead?”
“She lost control speeding down the east side of the U.S. Hill, almost to the Peñasco turn- off,” he said. “She was alone.”
Alone—my baby died alone.
My thighs melted and my kneecaps stopped working. I slid to the cement slab and kept going until my arms and legs were outstretched.
“No,” I whispered. And then I was wailing, “No!”
In a dark night of the soul (as I had explained in my little book) all the ways you have become accustomed to tasting the sacred dry up and fall away. All concepts of the Holy One evaporate. You are plunged into a darkness so impenetrable that you are convinced it will never lift. You may flail about for something-anything-to prop you up, but you grasp only emptiness. And so, rendered reckless by despair, you let yourself fall backward into the arms of nothing.
This, according to John of the Cross, is a blessing of the highest order.
Tell that to the mother of a dead child.
My encounter with mystics leads me to conclude that as we walk our earthly journey, some sort of an event leads to many places—a dark night of the soul, years of depression, mental melt downs, to a place some never return from, and for some an awakening occurs. It seems like the mystics we will be encountering in the sermon series experienced a hardship—whether it be loss of a loved one, health issue, separation from community, economic ruin, made fun of—whatever the landscape of loss was catapulted the person to have a direct experience of the sacred, unmediated by conventional religious rituals or intermediaries, transcending established belief systems, bypassing the intellect and dissolving identification with the separate (ego) self.
I’ve been thinking about the spiritual journey and applying to the United Methodist Church collective, which has experienced a huge loss and is in transition. What would a mystical Methodist Church creation look like?
Mysticism transcends denominations and labels of faith because the hierarchal power means nothing to a mystic. Mystic is not a title of superiority. Mystics are nondual seers. They don’t think one side is totally right and the other side is totally wrong. They can see that each side has a part of the truth.
Mirabai’s most recent book, Wild Mercy, which focuses on the feminine energy every human being has, is very timely in what the United Methodist Church is facing. The institutionalized church is the way of the analytical dualistic mind. Following a spirituality based on a male God-head and patriarchal structures for thousands of years really hasn’t led us to a collective awakening, so why do we try to replicate the same structure and expect change to happen? The way of the feminine is the way of connecting…building community. And that is what Mirabai devotes her time towards—building community. In Omaha, there’s a growing cry to be connected and I was moved by all who gathered to hear Mirabai seeking connection in community. But I didn’t fully understand the web of connection Mirabai weaves until we were talking over lunch. She lives in Taos, and I mentioned my foster parents moved to Taos—the state of Colorado would not allow me to move with them from Boulder to New Mexico. She asked me their names, and I had to think because it’s been over 30 years since I had contact with them—turns out she knows my foster father well as he is a social activist—so that is a connection I’ve recently experienced.
We are connected, and in a few moments, we will share in a sacred blessing to experience the mystical connection between the Divine and humanity as we ponder amidst the landscape of loss, “What connects you to the Divine?”
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