The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

First Congregational Church

January 23, 2011

Exodus 3: 13-15

Mark 8:27-30

John 14:13-21

God: The Experience

Good morning. We are starting the second half of our time together and, I’ve been giving some thought to the focus of my sermons for the coming months. One or two people have mentioned that they would like to hear a little more about my years as a hospital chaplain. Someone else mentioned to me a little while back that folks used to provide the pastor with suggestions or sermon requests.  Then, the pastor meditated, ruminated, and cogitated for a week and offered his thoughts on the subject the following Sunday.  Sounds down right scary to me, but also intellectually and spiritually challenging.  A friend of mine in the ministry observed just this past week that in his experience ministers spend hours preparing meticulously researched and well-reasoned answers to questions nobody is asking.  With your help, maybe we can avoid too much of that.

So, here is my suggestion box.  I really would appreciate some ideas for thought-provoking sermons. This is one way of “doing theology” together.

My own thoughts have been turning to how we experience God. Those of us who live in Alaska tend to find God in nature, I think, perhaps more than some folks. We tend to experience Him, even Her, differently depending upon our culture and our personal history.  Some don’t recognize the experience at the time, but begin to wonder after the fact, if Someone had been providing some quiet guidance or protection. I’m sure I’m not the first one to mention that the Bible really doesn’t tell us as much about God as it provides a history of how men and women have experienced and understood God through the centuries.  We can hear that “still, small voice” during times of quiet solitude and calmness, true, but God’s name comes up frequently in the tension and uncertainty of the hospital setting, too.  If it is not the patient or the patient’s family calling on the name of the Divine, it is the medical staff or the chaplain sending up a prayer for support.  In my case, whenever I really needed it, a Presence seemed to be there.

In fact, the Presence and I got to be good friends. Without this friendship and counsel, I would not have been able to be present for others – others who were facing truly life and death issues as well as some sticky relationship issues – some of which I’ll share with you during the next few Sundays.

I wrote a little book a couple of years ago about my experiences at the hospital and my relationship with the Presence. I thought I would share a bit of it with you today. The part I’m going to share concerns my efforts to discern just what this Presence was that followed me around, giving me advice, and holding me up in crisis.  The main character is the story is Lydia.  She is a chaplain and she has had a particularly rough day dealing with persons with severe injuries.  She was completely disgusted with the Presence or any other representative of the Omnipotent. Certainly, he could do a better job looking after his world and not allow young men to be injured in war games.  She was tired and mad.  She needed a day off.  So here is an excerpt from the story of Lydia and the Presence.


The next morning, the chaplain knew she needed a break. She started to drive to work, but stopped and took a sharp right, heading in the opposite direction.  Following the road out of town, she consciously focused on the fall colors and struggled to re-connect with the natural beauty that had lured her to this place and kept her from returning to the Midwestern city from which she had come. The fall leaves were golden here, pretty, but not enough red, she grumbled.

“No maple or oak trees, or at least not many,” she said out loud.

Snow dusted the mountaintops. The fireweed was completely spent. A bit nippy, there was an almost electric charge to the changing of the seasons.

Lydia turned off the highway and drove up a road less traveled – past the lake and near the trailhead. Stopping, she got out of her car and walked. She knew it wasn’t wise to hike the trails alone, but she really didn’t feel alone. There was always the Presence, with whom she was currently not pleased, but who tagged along nonetheless.

What or Who was this Presence that often felt so close, that actually responded to her thoughts and inner comments? Was the voice she heard a sign of some mental disorder?  She didn’t think so, but she pondered what might be the difference. Some people were tortured by the voices they heard; she for the most part was calmed and nurtured by the Voice she felt. What was it?   

I am what I am, came a Thought.

“Oh, cut it out.” She smiled.

No, I mean it, I am.

If you are,” she asked, “then why aren’t things better around here? Why do people suffer? Why was that boy so horribly injured?"

Do you want a mathematical answer with a range of probabilities, or a commentary on predestination versus free will? the Presence inquired.

You are impossible,” she thought.

No, unfathomable, the Spirit corrected. Look over there.

A female moose stood knee-deep in a small pond. She splashed with her front legs and playfully shook her head from side to side, almost like she was dancing. Moose usually stand quietly and eat plants while lingering in ponds. They don’t frolic. The moose turned sideways, and there was the object of her play – a calf, probably a half year old. The calf, too, splashed and kicked. Lydia watched a while, smiled, and turned down another path.

“Shekhina,” she whispered. God is everywhere, but sometimes there is a concentration of God’s presence. A Jewish woman had once explained to her that the Shekhina was the spark of God within each person, creating a partnership of some kind. Maybe Lydia was experiencing the Shekhina. There was certainly a concentration of God’s presence here with the moose.

Maybe, maybe not, came the Response.

“Then You explain it,” she countered.

How about the Paraclete?

“An advocate or helper sent from God,” Lydia responded. “Jesus said he would send a Counselor, a Spirit of Truth, to be with us. Are you the Paraclete?”

Maybe. But how about Sophia?

“Sophia means Wisdom,” replied Lydia. “Wisdom is a power not a person, an invisible spirit or force, something or someone felt or experienced, but not seen. Sophia is the wisdom-filled Crone, the third face of God. Is that who you are?”

How long do you want to spend on this, asked the Spirit. Look over there, quick.

A black wolf slipped into the brush across the lake.

And up there. 

A skein of a hundred or more Canadian geese rose in noisy unison from the nearby marshes, resuming their southbound journey.

“You do real good work out here in the woods,” Lydia stated to her Companion. “Things aren’t so pretty in town.”

Over there! directed the Presence.

The wolf had come back long enough to kill a rabbit. The moose hurried her calf out of the pond and into the trees.

Lydia spotted some bear scat along the trail and decided it was time to get herself out of the woods, as well. Once back in her car, she put it in reverse, turned around, and headed toward the highway.

“Shoot, I should have called in sick.” She whispered to the Presence who sat beside her.


So that’s one woman’s encounter with a sense of Divine Presence. The story has some potential problems. There are folks who would say that “hearing voices” is a sign of mental illness, plain and simple – and these folks would offer Lydia medication, if she would take it.  Others would point to scientific experiments which have allegedly pinpointed the place in the brain where the neurology of spiritual experience apparently originates.

I read an article this week which offered several examples where scientists replicated and measured the feeling of spiritual and near-death experiences through the use of a brain-scanning process called Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography. The researchers seemed to think that because the feeling of a “spiritual experience” could be replicated in a scientific experiment that proves the event was not spiritual.  I’m of the mind that it does just the opposite.  Some of us commune with our Maker through natural geography and others commune through whatever the brain does that is captured by single photon tomography.

We may use different metaphors for the process, but I believe that with a little practice and a lot of quiet, each of us can experience a sense of the Divine. Some may think of it in terms of tuning in to the right communication channel, others may think of it in terms of a deepening personal relationship with the Holy Spirit, Shekhina, or Divine Comforter and Counselor.

We have many names for God and many ways to encounter Him. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, “May the Presence be with you, now and always.” Amen.


Please join me in hymn #450 “God the Spirit, Guide and Guardian.”



Are there joys or concerns that you would like to share with the congregation at this time? 

As we enter our time of silent prayer, let us each remember those friends and loved ones listed on our prayer request sheet and ask our Lord to be with them as their needs require.  Let us pray.

Prayer is a two-way process.  God said, "Be still, and know that I am God."  Let us listen.

Lord, we pray these things using a translation from an Aramaic prayer:

O Breath of Life, your Name shines everywhere!
Release a space in us to plant your Presence.
Let us envision your will for us now.
Untie the knots of fear or failure which bind us,
as we release the memory of others' shortcomings.
Help us not to forget our Source,
Yet free us to be in the Present.
From you arises our every Vision, our every Strength and our every Song
from gathering to gathering,

We ask your blessing.



Brothers and sisters, as individuals and as church community, we have been given much.  Now may we share our time, our talent, and our treasure as a reflection of our gratitude for God’s gifts.



Lord God, accept these gifts, bless them to the use of this church community that we may be a blessing to others, in the name of your son, Christ Jesus.  Amen.



May the Lord walk beside you to comfort you.
May the Lord walk above you to watch over you.
May the Lord walk behind you to keep you safe.
May the Lord walk before you to show you the way.  Amen.

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