The Ah-h-h-h! Moment

Frederick Buechner once described “Prayer” in a way that leaps to my mind this week, in these days after our communal experience of the Eclipse.

Buechner wrote:

“We all pray whether we think of it as praying or not. The odd silence we fall into when something very beautiful is happening, or something very good or very bad. The “Ah-h-h-h!” that sometimes floats up out of us as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the skyrocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds we use for sighing with over our own lives. These are all prayers in their way. These are all spoken not just to ourselves, but to something even more familiar than ourselves and even more strange than the world.”

This might not be a definition of prayer you’re used to hearing. But I think it gets at something important.

If there is a God worth understanding, connecting with, experiencing…then the experience of that God must start at this kind of primal level of human experience.

If we want, it can go all sorts of places after this. But it has to start at this very broad level of understanding.

The fancy-theological word we United Methodists use for this is “Prevenient Grace.” This is the grace of God that comes to all folks, at all times, in all places, whether or not we understand it, can name it, or even realize it as “Grace.”

My own sense is that whether we are religious or not, we tend to race past these kinds of moments. We name them. We categorize them. We cut them down to size….and in doing so…imho…something is lost.

If we are religious…we immediately stick our own theological language on these “numinous” experiences. We quote scripture. (Sometimes, a lot of scripture…) We squeeze down ineffable moments into bite sized pieces.

If we are not religious…we often look to science to explain our feelings and experience. We marvel at the human reason that helps us describe how an Eclipse is going to happen at just this moment, and last for just this many seconds.
We take comfort in the “facts” as they can be known. But, again, this often reduced and explains our own experiences into more bite sized pieces.

I’m not here to suggest one approach is better than the other, and I definitely don’t believe in a binary choice between the two. Further, I hope whoever you are you don’t take too much offense at the broad brush I just used to describe all of humanity.
(Which, I know I just did…)

I’m here to suggest that all of our reactions at moments like this are all based on an “a priori” human experience that is “the same” whomever we are. I’m suggesting this experience is the heart of all human spirituality, or experience, whatever form it takes, and whether or not we ever name is as “spiritual.”

Whether your response to the Eclipse was a religious one, a secular one, or something else…I’m inviting you to pause with me here…

Pause…at that moment before we put any other language on such a moment as the Eclipse.

Pause…at the moment of experience, just like that 4th of July moment Buechner described.

Pause…at the “Ah-h-h-h…” moment of the Eclipse.

And see its deep connection with a deep-level spirituality that unites all human beings, a human experience St. Augustine called “the God shaped hole” inside of all of us.

My own strong belief is that we human beings can have these kinds of mystical experiences when we listen to music, poetry, see art…study the sciences…experience other humans through love and connection. In many times and many places.
And yes, they can even happen in Church. If we are open to them.

But, please note: this “Prevenient Grace,” must, de facto, be experienced in all sorts of times and places that have nothing to do with organized religion or “Church.”
(This must be the case if there really is a God of the universe, far beyond the comprehension of any church-language…)

This is what I’m talking about here. This is the kind of “mystery” that we all experience, and that we all respond to, in our own very human, very personal ways.

This is what writer Patricia Hample meant when years ago, she said:

“I don’t know if everyone has to come to terms with religion, but everyone has to come to terms with mystery, which is the business of religion.”

This quote from Hample is kind of an inverse of St. Augustine’s quote about the “God shaped hole” in our hearts. Instead of describing the moment of absence of God (Augustine’s thought) Hample describes the moment of PRESENCE.

Like Buechner’s “Ah-h-h-h!”

She suggests a universal ability to have spiritual experiences, as I tried to suggest, just a moment ago.

Almost all of us are gob-smacked by certain moments…
…The birth of a child.
…The death of a loved one.
…The horrors of war
…Acts of selflessness…or selfishness.

Even an Eclipse.

Actual picture taken by me.

And these things tend to take us out of ourselves, whether we are “religious” or not. They remind us of that common mystical bond between us all.

This helps explain the reaction of so many this week, who described the Eclipse as…

“It reminded me of how small we are in the universe…”
“It felt like all my problems went away for a moment, and everybody was just ONE…”
“I was filled with awe…”

This is what Hample is talking about when she says the business of religion should be “mystery.”

I don’t need to tell you that far too often, the “business of religion” devolves into something far less, and far less beautiful, than “mystery.”

— A set of moral rules to be followed.
— A set of rote practices to be repeated.
— A way to become more, not less, tribal.
— A corruptible institution manipulated by Empires, Church leaders, and those exploiting the Earth.

None of these, of course, get at the kind of mystery we are talking about here.
Which is why so many human beings get so frustrated.
(And “Done” with organized religion…)

In his autobiography, St. James of Taylor suggests that church and concerts are really quite similar in terms of their communal and spiritual experience. He suggests they are unique in our culture. I tend to think many communal events can have this spiritual dimension, but I take his point and certainly have agreed with it about music and church for many years.

Do we find this gold vein of spiritual experience, every Sunday in Church?

No. We do not.

Because we are human, we use too many words, or we are too worried about the “performance” of religious ritual (whether we’re a leader, or a participant…). We get distracted, or bored. Or the suffering and pain of our own life get in the way. Or our own sense of self-sufficiency blinds us from our need for God.

There as sooooo many distractions to pull our focus away from the mystery.

But I am so overjoyed with how Monday went, here in our city. The clouds parted. The skies darkened, and millions of us looked up and said…


I talked with Jimmy Contreras over at Taco y Vino on Sunday, and he said that this weekend had been one of his busiest in a long time. News reports shared that Dallas hotels were 90% full!!

And, sure enough, this weekend as I drove around Oak Cliff, Downtown, and East Dallas…I saw dozens of small groups of obviously lost out-of-towners, wandering around and trying to get their bearings.

Even as late as Monday morning, though, it was still cloudy. Really cloudy. The forecast was for possible clearing later in the morning. But just based on the feel of the 9 am temps, it seemed like all we’d experience was four minutes of “dark.”

As you know, the clouds started to break mid-morning. Then, as temps cooled the clouds evaporated even more, and the moment of totality was suddenly completely clear! The break in the clouds seemed magical as well. (But I’m told it was likely completely attributable to the drop in temps…)

And, the experience?
It was exactly as Buechner described…


Here’s my own little backyard video of totality.

Again, our human problem is:

We dismiss this kinds of moments by explaining them away (whittling them down either through our logic or religious language…)

We fail to connect them at the deep level of human spiritual experience.

One more thought from Frederick Buechner (and I’ve already quoted this once this week…)

Buechner liked to describe reading the Bible in the way the theologian Karl Barth used to describe it. And it’s very much like watching an Eclipse.

“…reading the Bible is like looking out of the window and seeing everybody on the street shading their eyes with their hands and gazing up into the sky toward something hidden from us by the roof. They are pointing up. They are speaking strange words. They are very excited. Something is happening that we can’t see happening. Or something is about to happen. Something beyond our comprehension has caught them up and is seeking to lead them on…”

At Kessler Park, we practice our faith through the language of Christianity, and United Methodism. We “point” to these mysteries. Yes, we sometimes use “strange words.”

But we try to remind ourselves that the spiritual reality behind all the words we say…the songs we hear…the experiences collectively share…are trying to get at the

Ah-h-h!” moment…

Where all else falls aways and everything is holy.

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