Trusting Your Experience

I want to suggest today that one of the most essential dimensions to the life of faith is finding a way to trust our personal experiences. We may not be able to trust them absolutely, because sometimes what we think or feel or even believe can be wrong. We always have to acknowledge that. But there is something so essential to listening to our personal experiences, discerning what they mean and deciding how to move forward with our lives. And that is especially true in terms of paying attention to our personal experiences with God.

In many ways, that's exactly what you see happening with Moses in this story from the Book of Exodus. Moses is walking in the desert and he has a profound religious experience. There's a bush, a kind of wild shrub growing off in the distance, but as he walks closer to the shrub he begins to see that it's on fire. Yet this burning bush is not consumed. It burns but does not burn up. It continues to burn and blister, throwing off sparks and tangled flames of fire and heat, always the intensity of heat in the desert.

Moses looks at it. Observes it. But soon his looking becomes a kind of meditation. Even a prayer. It's important to note that sometimes seeing, really seeing, can become a profound spiritual experience. Moses begins to sense that there is more here than a desert campfire. He watches and listens and feels, and then he begins to sense that within this burning bush is nothing less than the presence of God.

Maybe he begins to feel that God is like light. Maybe that God is like heat. Maybe that God is like a promise that will never be broken. And then he senses that God wants him to do something. Do something for the Jewish people, a people trapped and exiled in the foreign land of Egypt. Yes, it was just a walk in the desert; but sometimes when we find the courage to listen, really listen to our experiences, to pay attention to them, we discover there is something much deeper happening. And that was certainly true for Moses.

You know the rest of the story. Moses eventually stood up against Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world. And against the nation of Egypt. The most powerful nation in the world. But he was also standing up for the dignity of his people. For the possibility that the people of God might actually come together in such a way that they could become a light to the nations and a source of joy for all people. And so Moses eventually cried out: "Let my people go."  And he said it again. "Let my people go." And again and again and again. And go they did. Across the desert. Through the Red Sea. And eventually into a new land. They were free! But it all started in a lonely desert place, with a solitary burning bush, and with the openness of one man willing to listen to his own experience.

There's a time and place to read the Bible. Yes. There's a time and place to consult theologians and read books and go to conferences. Yes. There's a time and place to find out what all the experts are saying about this issue or that issue. But there's also a time to trust your own experiences and pay attention to what you really think and really believe and really feel.

Parker Palmer, one of the great spiritual teachers of our time, puts it like this. He says: "I must listen to my life and try to understand what it's truly about--quite apart from what I would like it to be about--or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions." Yes, listening to our lives is essential, and that's exactly what you see with Moses.

In other words, it's not enough to appeal to the authority of Moses or even the authority of Jesus for our spiritual lives. Yes, Moses can be helpful. And as a Christian, the life and teachings of Jesus are essential to me for my guidance and direction. But in the end, I have to find the courage to listen to my experiences, just as Moses and just as Jesus had to find .courage to listen to their experiences, because the truth is, God still burns, burns in the 21st century as a presence of love and insight and compassion.

Some conversations you never forget, and I had one of those conversations early on in my ministry. There was a member of my church by the name of Ed. He was such a great guy. Smart. Talented. A professor at Indiana University. We became friends and had lunch from time to time. We always enjoyed our conversations with one another.

But one day was a little different. We were having lunch. It was a spring day. People were outside enjoying the beautiful weather, after a long and unusually cold winter. Ed and I sat inside a little café that day. And over the course of the conversation he paused and said, "I have something I really need to share with you." I said, "Of course." And that's when he said it. He said, "I want you to know that I'm gay. And, yes, I'm married. And, yes, I have a child. But who I really am is a gay man. I'm not sure what I'm going to do. But I needed to tell someone. I needed to trust someone. And I really hope we can still be friends."

Sitting at that table with him, listening to his story, and yes, looking into his eyes, I knew I was in the presence of something sacred. After all, is there anything more sacred than when we find the courage to tell our story to another human being and another human being actually takes it in with love and respect? It was as if someone had handed me the largest diamond you could buy from Tiffany's. The conversation was that beautiful. That precious.

I remember that moment because I was in the middle of a theological discernment process myself. I had read the passages about same-sex relations in the Bible. I had heard the heated debates and arguments. And I also knew, historically at least, how churches had discerned the "issue." But sitting with Ed that day, my friend and church member--Ed--it was no longer a theological or a social issue. The issue had become an experience. And in that moment I found the courage to listen to my own experience, and more than that, I allowed my experience to shape my theology.

And so easily and quite naturally I was able to say to him, "Ed, thank you so much for sharing. I'm honored that you shared with me. I'm touched that you shared with me. And you need to know you will always be a member of our church and you need to know you can count on me as a friend."

From the outside, had you been in that café, all you would have noticed that day were two men having lunch together on a spring afternoon in Indianapolis. But like that burning bush in the desert, there's always more to life than meets the eye. I look back on that lunch--30 years ago now--and I will forever cherish his honesty and feeling and my honesty and feeling, and I will always cherish it as a God moment.

Sometimes we have to trust our deepest experiences, and not only is it a good thing, it's a God thing. There was a time when it was common to say a woman should not be in ministry. Bible verses were quoted to support that position. Theological arguments raged about this issue, and in some circles of the church today, it is still raging. But none of it makes sense after you meet a woman who is talented and smart and clearly has something to give the church. It's no longer an issue when you meet a woman who has clearly been called by God to a life of ministry. That's when you have to honor experience, and it's also an occasion to dig a little deeper into the meaning underneath certain texts of the Bible.

Or I remember growing up in my small hometown in the Midwest, and if a person went through a divorce, well, that person was considered a morally flawed person and unacceptable to society, including the community of the church. Instead of compassion, the divorcing couple often found shame and guilt. Bible verses were quoted to prove this very point. Yes, the Bible was used to condemn. Yet none of it makes sense when you have a real experience, like going through a divorce yourself and you know, you know, you're still a good person, maybe even a better person because of it, or maybe you have a close friend who has had to leave a marriage and you know--you really know--that your friend is still a good person and has so much to give this world. When we have these kinds of real-life experiences, not only can they change our theology, they should change our theology. Trusting our experience is that important.

I love this story of Moses in the Book of Exodus. Not so much because he became a powerful religious leader and a revered figure in Judaism. Oh, I admire that, to be sure. But I love the story because it all started with an experience. He could have walked by. He could have ignored it. He could have explained it away. He could have asked someone else what they thought about it. But no. Moses mustered enough courage and openness to listen to his experience. To linger with it, ponder it. And in it all he discovered God's call for his life. And that's why personal experience is so important. It's not so much that every moment is a message, but that every message has its moment; and we only have such moments when we find the faith and courage to pay attention to them.

 Would you pray with me. With eyes wide open, O God, we seek to live our lives. Help us to pay attention to our experiences. Not merely to look but to see. Not merely to believe but to feel. Not merely to know but to understand. Depth calls to us. Each day. Every day. In the small moments of the day. Help us, O God, to find you--burning and alive and fresh--help us to find you in all our experiences. Amen.