A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 19, 2017
John 3:1-8 GNT
As you know, tomorrow is the Vernal Equinox – the first day of Spring. Spring brings with it new life, new beginnings, and all things bursting forth in growth. Spring means awakenings in the natural world around us. Awakenings are things to be celebrated.
A couple of weeks ago, I sat in on the afternoon Women’s Circle meeting; the program part of the meeting, anyway. The Circles had asked Suzanne to give a program on “Spirituality.” During the discussion time, the word “awakening” was used more than once. And one of the points that all seemed to agree on is the fact that becoming a “spiritual person,” or developing an interest in spirituality, often is tied to some type of awakening. Such an awakening often occurs after one undergoes some life-altering experience, such as a severe illness, tragedy, or near-death experience even. Such life experiences have the potential of awakening us to a different view of life, the world of Nature, to God, and things of the Spirit in general. One person shared how that following a serious illness, she was awakened to a new appreciation of the world around her – the colors of the world seemed more vibrant, the songs of the birds more prevalent, and so on.
In the course of the discussion, there seemed to be a sense of comfort and ease in talking about spiritual awakenings, and such led me to think about the spiritual awakenings in my own life. Such awakenings – and there have been three major ones – are significant milestones in my life. And they are quite personal as well; so personal that I debated whether to share them with you today. But I decided that by being open and willing to share my own spiritual awakenings might be of interest and help to some of you, and my sharing might lead some of you to recall and reflect upon and celebrate spiritual awakenings in your life as well. But before I do that, I would like for us to consider today’s reading from John that in essence has to do with spiritual awakening.
John tells of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in which Jesus says, “you must all be born again” (John 3:7 GNT). Now, the truth is, “born again” language has become loaded over time as it has become associated with conservative, evangelical, or fundamentalist Christianity. And I imagine that the term “born again” makes some of us uncomfortable, if we were to be honest with ourselves and each other. And I understand why. The idea of “being born again” in many people’s minds may be associated with emotional revival services and being guilted or coerced, even, into going to the altar and praying a sinner’s prayer and “being saved” while the congregation or choir sang ten stanzas of “Just As I Am.” In my years of ministry, I have run into a number of people who endured such traumatic experiences as young persons, and when they came of age and could make a decision for themselves, they dropped out of church altogether because of the pressure to be saved or born again.
So perhaps the words attributed to Jesus by John produce a negative reaction in many because of the cultural baggage that has been attached to them. But also, perhaps, because we have previously looked upon the term “born again” from only one angle. An alternate reading of “born again,” as indicated in the footnotes of many Bibles, is “from above,” which would cause the verse to read, “you must be born from above.” In other words, one needs the experience of being born – i.e., enlightened or awakened – by the Spirit.
The truth is, many people who would be adverse to saying they have been “born again” might readily confess that they have experienced enlightenment or feel that at some point they were awakened to spirituality and a new perspective on life and faith. “Being born again” may be terminology peculiar to conservative or evangelical Christianity, whereas enlightenment or an experience of spiritual awakening is universal in scope, and cuts across many religious traditions. So I have come to interpret the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus as told by John in more universal terms, indicating an experience of spiritual enlightenment or spiritual awakening. And to that type of experience, I can personally testify. As noted earlier, I have had three such awakenings or enlightenments in my life.
The first such awakening was the fall I turned 17 and began to seriously look at my life and where I was headed, if I didn’t change course. Now, this may surprise some of you, but I was not what you might call an angelic teenager. We shall not go into details, but from age 15 through 17, I often tried my parents’ patience and caused them many sleepless hours, I am sure. But near the end of my 17th year, I realized that I was on a dangerous course, and I best change courses if I wanted to live into happy adulthood.
Now, I had been raised in church as a child and adolescent, and during my childhood and adolescent years I enjoyed being involved in church. I loved attending Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, and participating in the annual Christmas pageant and Youth Group activities. But for about three years, I strayed from church life, as many teenagers do, and often ran with a not-so-good crowd. But I can still recall a conversation I had with my uncle and cousin as we worked together one rainy fall afternoon in 1972, and I shared with them how I had decided to turn my life around and do differently. I did not have any sort of miraculous, instantaneous experience. Rather, what I experienced was a gradual awakening that occurred over the next six months which involved returning to church, an interest in reading the scriptures, indeed an interest in all things religious, and a serious dedication to living a Christian life.
During this same time period, I met Mary Lou, who was at a similar point in her own life. So we started attending church together, were baptized, married, united with the church we were attending, and in essence molded our lives around church attendance and involvement. Three years later I would commence preparations for Christian ministry. Such was my first spiritual awakening in a nutshell.
My second spiritual awakening occurred some 20 years later, in the mid-1990s, when I began questioning my place in ministry in general and my denominational affiliation in particular. As noted in previous sermons, I commenced on a long journey of soul searching and introspection, as I sought to really find myself theologically. For several years I would read voraciously on the history and theology of a number of different American denominations, including the Congregationalists, those who chose to just call themselves “Christians,” Disciples of Christ, Quakers, groups that would form the United Church of Christ, Unitarians, and Universalists. And it was when I discovered Universalist history and theology that I began a second spiritual awakening.
For a time I read everything I could on classic Universalist history and theology. I found that I most identified with early to mid-twentieth century (1900-1950) Universalist thought, which at the time was still Christian-oriented, but at the same time was open to spiritual truth wherever it was to be found. It was like a light bulb went off in my brain. This makes sense, I thought. I had come to realize that the theological tradition I had been raised in and was working within was way too narrow. Surely God was greater than the narrow confines of my denominational tradition, or Protestantism, or Christianity even. Surely God and spiritual truth can be found in other Christian traditions and world religions as well I discovered. Such a revelation was a new lease on life for me. It had taken the reading of thousands of pages to get to that realization, but when I did, I felt like drawing one of those red dots on my forehead to indicate I had been spiritually enlightened. My whole perspective on life, faith, religion and spirituality was changed. It was a second spiritual awakening.
The problem was the Universalist Church and theology which led to my second awakening no longer existed. The Universalist Church of America had merged with the Unitarians in 1961, and their theology had drastically changed as well. So I had a new theology, but still had to find a church that came closest to embracing it. (As a side note, a good contemporary presentation of classic Universalist thought is Rob Bell’s book titled, Love Wins.) Such was my second spiritual awakening.
My third spiritual awakening began, oddly enough another 20 years later, just four years ago with my first sabbatical break, and it involved natural theology. I had chosen as a course of study the earth, environment, ecology, and what I called at the time “creation spirituality” (not to be confused with Creationism). During that six-week period, I read a stack of books on these topics, both classic and contemporary. I discovered Tremont in the Smokies and enrolled in my first class in the Naturalist Certification Program. And after Mary Lou and I traveled to Florida and experienced Everglades National Park, I discovered a passion for America’s wonderful National Park system, what Ken Burns has aptly termed “America’s Best Idea.” Since that summer we have visited an additional 11 major national parks and several national monuments as well. Visiting our national parks has become a spiritual, and at times mystical, experience for me.
But the most significant part of all of this has been an awakening to the world of nature and discovering the beauty, awesomeness, and Sacred Presence in the natural world and a renewed passion for natural theology. My love of nature photography grew out of that passion. So when I am lucky enough to capture a decent photo of a bird, wildflower, or natural landscape, there is for me a spiritual element or touch of the Sacred associated with it. Such has been my third spiritual awakening, an awakening to the Sacred within creation or the world of nature and natural theology.
Now, in sharing my spiritual awakenings with you, I don’t in any way want to imply that my experiences are unique, special, or better than anyone else’s. I only seek to say that one doesn’t have to be put off by the idea of enlightenment or spiritual awakenings. They are probably more common than we might initially think, and many of us might be able to describe such an experience, if we had the opportunity to do so.
And none of my spiritual awakenings were miraculous, instantaneous experiences; all three were gradual and occurred over a course of months. So to use John’s terminology, have I been “born again”? If is meant by that some kind of miraculous experience where I was zapped and changed instantaneously, the answer is No. But if is meant a gradual, spiritual awakening to the activity of God, teachings of Jesus, and presence of God or the Sacred in the world, then the answer is a resounding Yes! Three times over. That’s my story; and I thank you for the opportunity to share it with you today.
But in conclusion, in my experience, spiritual awakenings are not something to be feared. They are good things, things to be celebrated. May it be so for all of us. Amen.