(As one spiritual discipline during my participation in The Academy for Spiritual Formation I am trying to [occasionally] engage in self examen, particularly the examen of consciousness. This is the discipline where we seek to reflect on where we were aware of the presence of God in our daily lives. One Sunday morning the other day gave me a few opportunities for such reflection, and so I share here some thoughts…)
Experiencing The Presence of God – One Sunday Morning
Experience 1, The Sun Rises (apx. 5:30am)
My (almost) three-year old son and I spent the night in a nylon tent, in the backyard of some friends. We had had a busy day – with a near health scare just before going to bed [his six week old baby sister registered a 104° temperature, and we almost booked it down the mountain at 9pm – but discovered the thermometer hadn’t been shaken correctly], and had both slept well, despite a leaky air mattress that shifted like a water balloon half the night. (We also had other pads underneath, so we remained comfy even after the air all escaped.)
I began to wake in the tent, my eyes looking up and seeing the shadows of trees on the on the inner edges of the blue and orange nylon of the tent. A gentle breeze rang in the numerous wind chimes in the yard and neighborhood. The sound of the bells, coupled with the zig-zag pattern of the tree branch shadows, suggested a holy place, a place of worship.
Nature’s stained glass above me, the sound of chimes around me, I felt as though God were near. It was a comforting feeling. I checked my son and seeing that he was still sleeping soundly, I drifted back into another half-hour of sleep. Then, a bright-eyed, excited little boy bounded me out of bed and into the day ahead…
A few reflections:
- The rationalist within me wants to dismiss the experience as merely the result of purely natural phenomena. Which is very true; the breeze gently moved the branches, whose interplay with the sunlight created shifting patterns on the tent that evoked stained glass images; that same breeze played among the neighborhood’s wind chimes, suggesting to my just waking mind the sound of music in a European cathedral…
- …and yet, there was more to it to me at the moment. It wasn’t a rational thing – it wasn’t some intellectual encounter. It felt more… emotional. Spiritual, maybe? It was a mix of a subtle awe, and the contentment one feels in the presence of good friends. As best I can describe it, it was a ‘heart’ moment; a time when something inside me stirred that exists beyond my purely rational mind. Not entirely independent, as the two interact, but it was a spiritual sense rather than an intellectual one.
- Was it God? Well, what isn’t? God is present within all of creation – the postmodern notion of panentheism – so God was present that morning. I just happened to turn, in some spiritual sense, to see God… I recently read a good description, in the book Candlelight: Illumating the Art of Spiritual Direction. In telling the story of seeing a rainbow immediately after praying, repeatedly, ‘Help me trust you,’ one directee shared:
“It was more that I turned to God, and God revealed a bit of himself. It’s like I got a glimpse of God’s majesty. God wanted me to have the glimpse, but it wasn’t that my prayer created the rainbow”(p. 132).
Experience 2, Worship (1): A Prayer for the heart
Awake and alert earlier than we could have imagined the night before, we opted to go to the “early” service at the local United Methodist Church my friends are active at. During the initial part of the worship service, as a prayer song, we sang hymn #402 “Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart,” which includes the verse:
Lord, I want to be more holy in my heart, in my heart…
It struck me that this was, in effect, singing the same tune my heart seems to be singing: I want purity of heart… I want to be more pure in my heart… I want to be more holy in my heart…
Even as we sang the hymn, my eyes lingered over a nearby prayer by Howard Thurman, entitled “For Holiness of Heart” (#401):
Lord, I want to be more holy in my heart. Here is the citadel of all my desiring, where my hopes are born and all the deep resolutions of my spirit take wings. In this center, my fears are nourished, and all my hates are nurtured. Here my loves are cherished, and all the deep hungers of my spirit are honored without quivering and without shock. In my heart, above all else, let love and integrity envelop me until my love is perfected and the last vestige of my desiring is no longer in conflict with thy Spirit. Lord, I want to be more holy in my heart. Amen.
In that moment, I felt God present. Perhaps as a commonality – friend? Lord? guide? – between Howard Thurman and myself…
A few reflections:
- Although both my inner skeptic, and others, might argue this was merely a rational experience, I felt an emotional/spiritual twinge as I sang and read the prayer (I admit, I drifted off alone for a moment as communal worship continued around me). I felt a connection to a fellow sojourner who had a similar desire to my own, a similar experience with the presence of a holy God and the inner hope that he might be more holy in his inner most person, after the example of this God.
- I felt the presence of God, through a well-chosen hymn, and a related prayer positioned nearby on the page. I felt a stirring of the Spirit, an inner movement of meaning – aware that this was just one part of something greater, the transforming presence of God within my life, moving me toward “purity of heart.” I think the Spirit works in our hearts and lives in ways like this – helping direct our attention to those words, or portions of the Word, that contribute to our communion with God…
- Near the end of his sermon that day, Pastor Doug would share that John Wesley never felt like he achieved Christian perfection, the true depth of “holiness of heart and life” that he longed for that is also known as “sanctification.” But he never ceased to yearn toward it, and never ceased to be willing to learn. I found affirmation in this for my own journey, as well; I may not be there yet, and may, in fact, not reach it after all, but I yearn and strive toward that holiness of heart that will help me to “see” and connect with God.
Experience 3, Worship (2): Scritpural Insight
Pastor Doug was sharing a reflection based on Acts 18:24-28, focusing on Apollos. Doug talked about “How to keep a teachable attitude,” commenting on Apollos’ willingness to learn and drawing from the work of John Maxwell (this was their back-to-school Sunday, so the message seemed very appropriate). I, however, got caught by a few other lines in the passage…
He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately
Initially, I too was caught by Apollos’ willingness to continue learning, but the already established character of Apollos, as described by Luke, began to stand out for me. Here is someone who was not only “learned,” but had a “thorough knowledge of Scripture.” He had been well trained, and “taught about Jesus accurately.” And yet… And yet, Priscilla and Aquila take him aside to explain “to him the way of God more adequately.”
While Doug zigged – sharing several points based on Maxwell on how to remain teachable – I zagged for a few moments. I was struck, inspired even, by this idea:
Accurate knowledge, teaching, or even understanding of Jesus and Scripture are not enough! To me, Luke’s narration of this event suggests that there is something more to Christian faith than just passing on teachings, doctrine, and rituals.
Indeed, I imagine (and this is from my own reflection, not necessarily from divine inspiration) Priscilla and Aquila, in teaching the way of God to Apollos more adequately, sharing that a relationship with – and the experience of – Christ is just as (if not, perhaps, more) important than correct teaching.
I felt God stirring in my heart and mind, as I looked up from the page of Scripture and began to re-focus on Doug’s message…
A few reflections:
- I sometimes feel as though I run the risk of making faith more an intellectual exercise than a life-giving relationship. I enjoy the “mental gymnastics” of Biblical exegesis – discovering connections between the original context, intent, even history of Biblical texts and the contemporary longing for “spirituality.” I can get absorbed into theological discussion, immersed in words and thoughts… Although I wonder (worry?) that such pursuits might divert me from being in relationship with God, all too often I discover that they, in fact, seem to draw me closer. That the more I know about God, the more I come to turn toward and know God….
So, three experiences from one Sunday morning where I felt the presence of God in subtle, sometimes undefinable ways. Now, how about you? Where, and how, might you have experienced the presence of God lately?