This primary intuition of the strangeness of it all, of our single selves as unspeakably fragile and brilliant observers of a grandeur for which we have tried through all our generations to find words, this is the experience that seems to me to underlie religion
— Marilyn Robinson, Credo, Harvard Divinity Bulletin
But there’s one thing you can’t lose
And it’s that feel
You can pawn your watch and chain
But not that feel
It always comes and finds you
It will always hear you cry
I cross my wooden leg
And I swear on my glass eye
It will never leave you high and dry
Never leave you loose
It’s harder to get rid of than tattoos
-Tom Waits, Keith Richards, 1992
Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the his (adversaries) said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ John 8:56-58
Quickly, without thinking good or evil, show me your original face before your parents were born? -Hui-Neng
You don’t have words for it. So, we say things like “that feel” or we call it “It,” or perhaps we wax poetic, “it is like the sun as she rises.” Marilyn Robinson, in her Harvard Commencement address called “it,” “the strangeness of it all” We remember the ways in which it has found us:
It was a summer’s night. After an evening of watermelon, volleyball and skinny dipping in the Kentucky River, my friends and I laid on our backs on the tennis court – absent the background light of the city – only stars. Stunned I began to count, losing count I am left with nothing but the wonder of the moment, sandwiched between the sky and warm earth –caught in the vastness.
Maybe this is what happened to Moses as he was found himself before a bush aflame, but not burning up. You don’t need to think literal fire. In fact, that idea might be less than helpful. Think, perhaps, vitality – shimmering life, a shining through. But don’t think too much: perhaps remember when the world was alive for you – where everything fell away and you were left with This, that feel, the vastness. Something needs to be done – Moses lost the shoes; I stopped counting the stars. When everything is lost, what is left?
That’s what Moses wants to know. After a voice tells him to liberate his people, Moses asks, “Who should I say sent me? What’s your name?” Moses wants to know, to have some certainty, to be able to grasp what is happening to him. All he gets is the strangeness of it all, “I am that I am.” Tell them, “I am” sent you. Hunh?
Now you could think all day,get all Tillichian, philosophize about the Ground of Being, the Source – Being itself. That’s still grabbing hold, seeking to wrest the wonder from life, to explain, to add understanding, to know. Maybe there is another way to approach this great “I am.” Any explanation is “after,” perhaps there is another way, Call it, “before.” Jesus did.
Before Abraham was, I am.
Jesus had his detractors. They had made something of themselves. They knew God, they knew themselves, and they knew what was required of them. They also knew that Jesus was renegade, an outlaw – someone living outside of the law, outside of the certainty of their prescribed religious observance and belief. Theirs was an appeal to tradition – “Abraham is our father,” they claimed, ”we know how it is and you blaspheme!” To this Jesus gave them “before”: before Abraham, before belief, before religion, before creed, before law, before temple, before…, before…, before…. Before, then what? I am.
Again, no handles, nothing to grasp or hold, nothing to cling to with understanding or knowledge. No thing at all – Just “I am.” But already that is too much and it makes no sense. His detractors point out that he is not even 50 years old and he makes this claim.– I wonder how you could show me this “I am.”
I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. Mine was a modern household and it was decided that I was to make all my own decisions around religion and faith – therefore I was never baptized. My family visited churches and spiritual communities. Almost every Sunday, I went somewhere. The Unitarians, the Quakers, Episcopalian. Beginning in Jr. High, when all my Baptist friends were getting baptized, I ran into some problems with my peers: I was going to hell. Believe, I was told, and I would avoid eternal damnation.
I wanted to believe. But for me it was never a question of belief. It was about the experience of Grace, that experience that transforms life.
I started to pray, meditate, fast, read scriptures, spend lots of time alone. Hungering. Thirsting. It was frustrating. I wanted some of the same certainty that my friends had in matters of faith and religion. I thought that I was going to have an experience that taught me how and what to think – an experience where I could give my friends an answer. “You are going to hell,” they would say. “No I am not,” I could reply because I knew.
Then, one summer day it was like the stars all over again. I was sitting on the back porch in the sweltering hot Kentucky summer. I looked over at a flower about 3 feet away. A honey bee was working the flower, diving in and out of the petals, seeking nectar, collecting pollen. The world seemed to stop. That feel.
Before heaven and hell, Before… “I am.”
Jesus answers his detractors referring them to their father Abraham. He told them that Abraham knew this “I am.” He was speaking of the time when three angels came to Abraham to tell him that he was to be the father of Isaac. When his wife Sarah heard it, she laughed out loud.
I wonder, how did she sound?
You might also remember the prologue to the Gospel of John,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1:1-4
Show me that Word.
That Word, the Sound of laughter, that feel. Or from Hui-Neng,
“Quickly, without thinking good or evil, show me your original face before your parents were born?