How do we deal with experiences that cannot be explained?
told by Deborah
It was the year that King Uzziah died when I saw the Lord enthroned in the heights; resplendent, glorious, beyond describing; filling the sky, the hem of His robe swept down and filled the temple.
Fiery angels encircled him; each with six wings: two hid their faces, two covered their feet, and two were used for flight.
They sang together: “Holy! Holy! Holy beyond all telling, beyond all understanding is the Lord of hosts; the entire universe is radiant with His majesty!”
The posts upholding the roof shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke as if a terrible fire were raging within.
I screamed: “This is the end! I am doomed! I am a sinner, a swearer, a scoffer, a joker — I’ve followed the herd of cynics and sinners, never looking back. And now I’m standing in the Presence of the Almighty, the Eternal, the Lord of the angelic forces!”
Then one of the flames shot out at me: a fiery angel grasping a burning ember snatched from the altar.
The seraph pressed the white-hot coal to my mouth: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt is burned away and your sins turned to ashes.”
Then I heard God’s voice. It said, “Who shall I send?” and “Who will go for Us?”
And I said, “Here I am; send me!”
It happens. Not frequently, but more often than we might suspect: an inexplicable, indescribable, inconceivable, life-changing experience. Undeserved, unsought, it strikes without warning — and suddenly an unsuspecting soul is overcome, overwhelmed, lifted up, out, away: as if hit by lightning, or a freight train, or the hand of God. The recipient finds it impossible to describe. Words fail; metaphors serve only to alarm or befuddle the hearers.
It is as if a new life has come into being in a twinkling; the person is changed, utterly — filled with a new understanding, new desires, new energy. The transformation is not, however, painless. Like new wine poured into an old wineskin there is discomfort and distress, leading to disagreement, complaint and even occasional outright rebellion against the Caller. This new life is not a piece of cake; it’s more like a box of rocks — or a burning coal pressed to one’s mouth.
Isaiah’s report is a perfect example of how overwhelming the experience feels. It is not a mere “vision”; this is more than a flash of insight, or an everyday occurrence that is suddenly filled with meaning (a potter at his wheel, a mason with his plumb line, etc.). It is extraordinary, uncanny, awesome. He not only sees God’s majestic robe and the fiery flights of the seraphim, he listens to angelic songs, feels the touch of a burning ember on his mouth, and then — the grand finale — he hears God’s voice. On the prophetic call scale, it’s a solid ten. Only Ezekiel’s encounter with the dreadful flashing, flaming creatures and their chariots of fire exceeds the drama and scope of Isaiah’s experience.
It’s impressive, to be sure. Quite a story.
And when we hear it, let’s be honest: our Suspicion mode is engaged. We find ourselves wondering what really happened. On one hand, it doesn’t seem possible that Isaiah could have made it all up; it’s just too weird, too inexplicable. Besides, what would be the point? On the other hand, it’s so weird and inexplicable….
I mean seriously: swarms of fiery angels whizzing through the air carrying hot coals? And then the guy talked to God, person to person?? That’s… Well, weird and inexplicable. We can probably agree that Isaiah saw/heard/felt something — something strange — which he attributed to God, which makes perfect sense; people living in that place and time and culture believed that extraordinary events had to have a divine origin. But it is not so with us: we moderns see the world differently; we have no trouble in understanding what the ancients found incomprehensible. We have logic and reason on our side.
I remember my first-year Old Testament professor reading this passage to a classroom of forward-thinking young(ish) seminarians. As he concluded, a voice from the back called out, “Man, that was some choice weed.” Another disagreed, “Nope. Bad ’shrooms.” We all laughed, and the arm-chair analyses began: “Spoiled wheat; the mold affects the central nervous system.” “A petit-mal seizure.” “Migraine.” “A psychotic break.” “Religious mania.”
We soon exhausted our mental health and chemical imbalance theories — along with a sprinkling of National Lampoon-level humor, which Professor Kuan wisely let play out; then he asked, “What if it really happened?” The room went silent. We had no answer. We had no idea. It was impossible, surely?
We spent the remainder of the class time exploring the tradition of relating God’s power to fire — at least I think that’s what we did. It’s a bit hazy, as what I recall most vividly is our shock and confusion at the suggestion that Isaiah’s divine delusion might have been genuine. And, moreover, that such a suggestion could have come from a respected contemporary scholar. What next: biblical inerrancy?!
What we understood as neatly categorized and filed away had suddenly become An Unresolved Issue. And we didn’t like it. It made us uncomfortable, uncertain; we were disturbed by what we had heard.
At lunch we gathered together, would-be Pharisees whispering over a potential blasphemy. Immediately we set about formulating a case against what we had heard: The professor could not have been serious; he was testing to see if someone would defend it; he’d never said anything like that before; he was joking; he didn’t ask a second time; he’s a Methodist. Before long we had reassured ourselves that there was no cause for alarm; our cherished view of reality was safe and secure.
We went on with our lives from there, comfortable and complacent; completing our degrees, preaching, teaching, counseling. We said what our teachers, our senior clergy, our congregations, and our examination boards expected us to say: holding the party line safe from alarms and incursions.
And yet … It was always there, hovering in the back of our minds like a dimly flickering seraphim; that awe-ful moment when our worldview was called into question: when doubt entered our minds, when genuine contact with the Holy was suddenly, viscerally possible — if only for a few seconds.
But what if….. ? Nah. No way.
The disturbing truth is that we have no context in which to comprehend a divine encounter. We are trained to dismiss and actively oppose the slightest whiff of “religious ecstasy,” and — in the off-chance that any such dangerous ideation manifests, we are instructed to immediately refer the sufferer (n.b.!) to a qualified mental health practitioner.
And so, when the Inexplicable occurs — as it has and will again — we have nothing to offer. We, who ought to have faith in Extraordinary Events, refuse to get involved; we leave such things to “the professionals.” We, whose hearts should be listening hopefully for a heavenly Call, are deaf and silent, condemning the recipients to modern therapeutics, to diagnosticians and skeptics. The Voice speaks, the morning stars sing together, the holy Fire ignites …. and it fades away, unheard, unacknowledged. A glorious possibility vanishes, erased by the conviction that the experience was madness or meaninglessness.
Simply put: we, who claim to be Christians, worship at the altar of Cultural Respectability. Above all else, we want to be viewed as reasonable people: rational, sensible, logical; well-groomed, well-educated believers in the scientific method, only convinced by empirical proof: nothing more, nothing less. In our faith we proclaim that “God’s in His heaven” — and that’s where He stays. None of that mystical, weird, inexplicable holy in-breaking for us, thank you very much.
We prefer to keep that dangerous old Blighter at a safe distance.
That’s a big part of it, isn’t it? We don’t really want to get involved with the Out of Control aspect of the divine. We’d prefer a polite, well-behaved God in a coat and tie; not this Presence that runs amok, appearing in His bathrobe, showing up uncalled, unannounced, accompanied by fireworks and angels shouting “Hallelujah!”
That’s … scary. We simply can’t understand it, or explain it. And that’s really upsetting.
Accepting the reality of the Inexplicable is an acknowledgement of the unpredictable, uncontrollable, unmanageable, incomprehensible nature of God — whose Spirit blows where it will, and Who informed Moses, flat-out, “I’ll be gracious to whomever I choose, and I will show mercy to whomever I choose.” This One is capable of doing anything — including stuff we’re not comfortable with. Like miracles. Like intervening in our lives to get our attention. Like moving heaven and earth to be with us. Forever.
This God can astound us, confuse us, comfort us, disturb us, love us, surprise us, and transform us completely. This God is extraordinary, marvelous, amazing, awe-inspiring and utterly outside of our neat and tidy well-ordered worldview. And more than a little bit scary, because of that.
Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.
(Called or uncalled, God is present.)
No matter how zealously we refute any possibility of a genuine encounter with the living God, it happens. The question is: are we prepared?
Are we able to offer understanding and support to those who have had an experience that leaves them awe-struck, inspired, confused, alarmed? Can we hear what they say with a listening heart, not a diagnostic mind-set? Can they trust us with an honest report of the most profound event of their lives? And if not us — then who?
How many secrets — holy and unholy — are withheld, how much distress and confusion is suffered in silence, how many hearts remain troubled out of a fear that we “wouldn’t understand” — we who are called to a ministry of love and compassion? (Which is the ministry of all Christians.)
Then I heard God’s voice. It said, “Who shall I send?”
and “Who will go for Us?”
And I said, “Here I am; send me!”
Now, these many years later, I believe that Professor Kuan’s question was itself an in-breaking of the Holy. While not as dramatic as Isaiah’s experience, it provoked a response: in an instant it changed our perception, and left us dazzled, distressed, and curious. Despite having succeeded in dismissing and resisting it at the time, I believe that that outpouring of divine grace remained, taking root in our memories and in our souls.
And therein is a key to understanding Inexplicable Events, and in how we may care and guide and nurture those who entrust us with the gift of their extraordinary stories: What is the result? What is called forth in response to the experience: does it lead to healing and hope? Does it inspire good or evil, does it encourage kindness or hatred? Does it give life?
The effect of righteousness will be goodwill;
the result of righteousness is peace and assurance forever.
~ Isaiah 32:17-18
Extraordinary God, Unimaginable One who has made Yourself known to us in works of grandeur and glory and gentle joys, Source of love beyond all understanding, Compassion beyond all reason, Creator and Re-Creator of life, open our eyes to Your wonders — to the degree we can withstand it; open our ears to Your words; open our hearts to Your people. Increase our faith so that we may believe — and look for — what we have not yet seen.
May extraordinary joy abide in you,
Imagine God as Absolutely Extraordinary.