Category Archives: Heart

Posts and writings related to my growing perspective of the “heart,” specifically in relation to Jesus’ beatitude, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The Porcupine Who Howled At The Moon

The Porcupine Who Howled At The Moon (1)

Once upon a time there was a porcupine named Joggi. While Joggi was aware of the great mystery of life that beat within his small chest, he did not think his name – or he, himself – really mattered. He had once had a friend, but their friendship had ended sadly, and that’s a story for another time. (2)

Ever since he had lost his friend, Joggi had grown afraid.

Joggi came out at night, for porcupines are nocturnal, as I’m sure you know. On most nights, after the sun set Joggi would come out of his hole under a tree and root around in the small brush and bushes, snorting and snuffling and looking for something good to eat.

But some nights, as Joggi made his way out, there would be a great big full moon, that hurt his eyes and made him worry that owls would see him. On nights like these, he would back his way back into his hole, bury his head in his front paws, close his eyes, and wait for the moon to set. For Joggi was anxious and afraid of the moon.

On other nights, Joggi would be out snuffling and snorting and looking for food when a breeze would begin to rustle the leaves. If the breeze began to grow, Joggi would back himself into his little hole, bury his head in his front paws, close his eyes and wait. For Joggi was anxious and afraid of the wind.

Other nights, Joggi would look up from his snuffling and snorting and watch the clouds nervously. If flashes of light and thunderous booms filled the sky, Joggi would back himself into his little hole, bury his head in his front paws, close his eyes, and wait. For Joggi was anxious and afraid of lightning and thunder.

Joggi had not always been quite so afraid, and most nights he still made his way around the brush of the forest floor. But even Joggi notices that more and more, he was hiding in his hole, waiting.

And one night, as Joggi buried his head in his front paws, closing his eyes to wait out the garish light of the full moon, he heard something he hadn’t heard before: a long howl. He opened his eyes, and lifted his head, and peeking through the entrance of his hole he saw a great silver wolf off in the distance, staring at the moon.

The wolf howled again, and his tail flopped from one side to another. He tossed his head, and this time, when he howled at the moon, Joggi had the distinct impression he was greeting the moon as an old friend. Then the wolf hopped up, and briskly dashed off into the forest, playing with the moon.

Joggi buried his head back in his paws, closed his eyes, and waited; for Joggi was anxious and afraid of the moon.

On another night, as the wind howled around the entrance to his hole, Joggi heard another curious sound, like a low growl. Opening his eyes and lifting his head from his paws, he peeked through the entrance of his hole and, once again, he saw a great silver wolf off in the distance.

The wolf squared his feet in the soft turf of the forest, lifted his face, and looked directly into the wind. A soft growl rumbled from his throat, but it wasn’t angry. The wolf’s tail twitched left then right then left, and the growl switched to a quick bark. Then he tossed his head, and briskly dashed off into the forest, playing with the wind.

Joggi buried his head back in his paws, closed his eyes, and waited; for Joggi was anxious and afraid of the wind.

As you can imagine, another night, Joggi saw the wolf again. It was a dark and stormy night, lightning flashed in the sky and thunder echoed through the tops of the trees. Joggi lay in his hole, his head buried in his paws, his eyes closed, when he heard a playful sound in the midst of th storm. Opening his eyes and lifting his head from his paws, Joggi peeked through the entrance of his hole and, once again, saw the great silver wolf.

As lightning flashed in the sky above, the wolf hopped about, his tail twitching. When the thunder rolled, he hopped and barked. He turned left and right, hopping and barking, and soon Joggi saw that he dashed off into the forest, playing with the lightning and thunder.

Joggi laid his head down on his paws, but this time, he kept his eyes open. He waited. This time, he watched as the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled. Joggi was anxious and afraid of the lightning and thunder, but this time he also thought about the playful wolf.

And so it was one night, as Joggi emerged from his hole to snuffle and snort after the sun had set, the he saw the great, garish moon rising over head. As he began to back into his hole, he remembered the great silver wolf, howling to greet the moon. He stopped, and sat himself down, and looked at the moon.

Joggi let out his best howl, but he was not a wolf, and it sounded more like a sqwak. So he thought a moment, and looking at the moon he took a deep breath and called out, “hello, Moon!” And Joggi waited, and the shadows stayed shadows and he saw no owls. And Joggi called out again, more bravely, “hello, Moon!” and the great frightening moon wasn’t so frightening. And standing and walking out under the moon’s light, Joggi found that there was joy in the moon.

And a few nights later, as he snuffled and snorted his way through a tasty blueberry bush, Joggi felt the branches shift and sway with a growing wind. As he walked toward his hole, he remembered the great silver wolf. So Joggi stopped, and he turned toward the wind, his face close to the mossy ground. He planted his feet firmly in the soft turf, and he raised his head to greet the wind. And the wind touched his nose, and it ruffled through his quills, and Joggi smiled. For Joggi found that there was joy in the wind.

Some time later, clouds filled the night sky over Joggi as he made his way through fallen leaves. And instead of returning to his hole to hide and wait, Joggi looked up at the growing storm. He waited, a little tense, until the first flash of lightning. He jumped a bit, and shook his quills, and they rattled and rumbled their own echo of the rumble in the sky above. And Joggi found that there was joy in the lightning and thunder.

And so it was that the porcupine who howled at the moon grew to be less afraid, as he remembered the way of the great silver wolf.

But that’s not the end of the story. For later, on a night when the wind blew strong under a full moon, Joggi emerged out of his hole. That night he planted his feet, his face in the wind, and looked up at the moon. As Joggi cried out his greeting, “hello, Moon!” he heard a faint echo, “hello, moon.”

Joggi looked around, and saw not too far away little Archie the Hedgehog. Archie was seldom seen; Joggi could not remember the last time he had seen the timid little animal. But there Archie was, a small mirror to Joggi, his paws planted firmly in the turf, his eyes to the moon and his nose touched by the wind, smiling.

And in the shadows of the forest, a great silver wolf, his eyes blazing with light, watched them both, and smiled.


(1) with gratitude to, and inspiration from, Martin Bell.
(2) “The Porcupine Whose Name DIdn’t Matter,” p. 113 of The Way of the Wolf by Martin Bell.


c.f.
1 Timothy 4:12, “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity”
Titus 2:7 “In everything set them an example by doing what is good.”
Matthew 5:13-16

     “Without realizing it, we fill important places in each other’s lives. It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage, the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers. Good people who are always “there,” who can be relied upon in small, important ways. People who teach us, bless us, encourage us, support us, uplift us in the dailiness of life. We never tell them. I don’t know why, but we don’t.
“And, of course, we fill that role ourselves. There are those who depend in us, watch us, learn from us, take from us. And we never know.
“You may never have proof of your importance, but you are more important than you think.”

-Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten

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A Dim Glimpse of God’s Love and Grace

Through the providential collusion of streams of my life, I find myself visiting London a few days prior to taking a week-long course on the spirituality and theology of the Wesleys; meanwhile, at the same time I am joining with others in “141 Days of Wesley” to read through all of Wesley’s sermons. The following is an insight that came to me during our experience of a Wesleyan “love feast” on the evening of Wednesday, August 22, at Cliff College.

“God is love. Can you share: what does this mean to you?

This is the question that was posed. And immediately upon hearing it, I began to think…

“well, that’s a great question, isn’t it? to contemplate the great mystery, the divine, the ineffable nature of God and divine love. At best, anything I might say or articulate would simply demonstrate the truth of Paul’s words:…for I only see dimly… I only see in part… (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12)I doubt that I have anything particularly worthwhile to contribute…”

But as the facilitator of the evening’s love feast repeated the question – “what does “God is love” mean for you?” – a particular image came to mind, and with it an inspirational insight not only into the love of God, but my present spiritual journey

This specific image came to mind: Just a few days before I set off on this journey, my little Kate – who has just begun preschool early because she is experiencing a bit of delay in speech – was beginning to say a new thing. Generally, on her own, it came out as “I va-you,” and, sometimes, “I va-you, daddy!” (her emphasis on the daddy!) As I sat contemplating “God is love,” this image popped into my head.

And suddenly, as though God sat beside me and whispered a comment into my ear, this image connected with some of my theological rumination from earlier in the day.

You see, we had begun just that morning to reflect on the theology and spirituality of John Wesley. For two days we have considered the historical perspective, now we were deep into Bible and theology. And as many will no doubt know, key to Wesleyan theology is his articulations of the work of the Holy Spirit via preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace.

As we worked and discussed our way through these three foundational doctrines and their relationship to the journey of faith, I experienced both a sense of assurance, and a sense of conviction:

Assured… because I do know the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ. Like Wesley, I can even point to a time when it settled on me in a powerful way. In the spring of 2001, as I drove from my parsonage to my wife’s, listening to a sermon by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, I truly felt the same “warm” heart that Wesley described of his Aldersgate experience. That day, when asked “how are you?” I was able with faith and truth to respond, “forgiven and free!” And since that day, though I may experience the internal witness to different degrees, still I hold to that assurance of knowing forgiveness in Christ.
Convicted… because I do not yet know that “holiness” or “purity” of heart described as the result of the work of the Spirit’s sanctifying grace. I still struggle with various elements of sin that seem insurmountable obstacles to truly knowing the witness of God’s Spirit within my own; more often than I care to admit, in place of the fruits of the Spirit I still know the fruits of my “natural state”: impatience, frustration, anger, instead of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control…. To me, the result of sanctifying grace is the very longing I began this blog somewhat focused upon: purity of heart, knowing and experiencing the elimination of sin within. And I remain far afield from that goal!

Earlier that day, I had come to reflect that it is this process of Christian perfection within which I still struggle, and within which my doubts as to the sincerity or integrity of my Christian faith arise…

And then came this image of my daughter, trying but stumbling to express herself. And all the while, as she does so, I knew that she would get there; I knew, despite her fits and starts, one day she’d be able to say it. And still, when she finally does fully say what she has been trying to express – “I love you, daddy!” – still I felt a deep sense of joy. And every time she says it, my heart lights up. “I love you, daddy!”

And there it was, in the image of her trying but stumbling toward expressing something within her own heart, that suddenly I understood – albeit as though looking through a dark mirror or window – I experience – although just in part – what it means that “God is love.” For not only does God desire holiness in my heart and life – and not only does the word of God promise that such is possible! – but God knows, despite my struggle; despite my fits and starts; God knows, I will get there. And the joy and love I know in little Kate’s struggle and eventual success is just a part of what which God knows as I struggle forward in my own journey toward holiness of heart and life..

Speaking Well

[Abba Megethius] also said, ‘Originally, when we met together we spoke of edifying things, encouraging one another and we were “like the angels”; we ascended up to the heavens. But now when we come together, we only drag one another down by gossiping, and so we go down to hell.”

I have, for some time – and quite unsuccessfully – been reading through a copy of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a collection of the legends about and teachings of the ancient Abbas and Ammas, hermits and monks from the early centuries of the Christian church. Many of the stories are edifying, many are downright weird, and all give me something to chew over.

The story above is one bit from what I read today, and it seems to particularly speak to my heart this weekend.

This week I began an INSPIRE network accountability group with a couple other young, mission-minded clergy (if interested, contact me). Using the “Way of Life” as our guide, we intend to gather regularly to share with one another about our life in Christ and our spiritual growth, encouraging and challenging one another. I’m hopeful for the group, and look forward to how we can motivate one another to better follow Christ.

So seldom in regular conversation do we have the opportunity to talk of deep things; the matters of one’s spirit. We linger over vocation or church-life, but rarely if ever inquire or hold one another accountable for our spiritual walk. We ask about worship attendance, but don’t go deeply into how we balance piety and mercy. We talk about how our families are, but tread lightly or not at all around one’s relationship with Christ.

I don’t think our talk is “unwholesome,” so to speak, but I think our lack of depth and tendency toward the trivial misses an important exhortation from the Apostle Paul:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)

I am grateful and excited to be among a small group of peers whose intention is to speak of “edifying things, encouraging one another” that we may serve in some small way as assistants to the work Christ is doing within and among us. I pray that we may not succumb to the temptation to gossip or trivial talk.

Even without such a group, I would hope that as a Christian my talk would be in the direction of that which is wholesome, speech that coincides with the work of God to build others up, words that are helpful to others.

How do we seek to speak well?

I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I was reminded this week of a suggestion for sharing one’s thoughts or opinion. Before saying anything, check to see that what you have to say fulfills at least two of the following:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it kind?
  3. Is it necessary?

If what you have to say doesn’t meet at least two of the three, perhaps it is best left unsaid. That’s not a bad rule of thumb.

May the Lord inspire us all, that we may use our speech well, building each other up until we are more like Christ.

Breathe On Me…

Breathe on me breath of God, until my heart is pure;
Until with you I will one will, to do and to endure.

Yesterday morning, during our last eucharist service for the week, we sang the hymn “Breathe on Me Breath of God.” The second verse (above) really struck me. Sometimes there is such great theology in our hymns; and herein is some inspiring practical and experiential theology. A few observations from the verse:

1) The entire hymn is an invitation to – or request of – God. Very likely, and in a liturgical sense, the request is addressed to the Holy Spirit, as “breath” in its original Hebrew sense is also “spirit” (e.g. Genesis 1: In the beginning… the “breath” of God was hovering over the waters…)

In this particular verse, the request is for God/Spirit to bring about purity of heart in the singer. As I’ve explored in fits and starts elsewhere in this blog, it is the work and presence of God’s Holy Spirit that brings about interior transformation and purifies the heart!

2) The link between purity of heart and singleness of will – “with you I will one will” – seems an almost direct reference to Soren Kierkegaard’s notion that purity of heart is to “will one thing.” Again, as I’ve bounced around on before on this blog, to will one thing – specifically Jesus Christ – seems to be equivalent to Christ’s encouragement toward “purity of heart.”

3) I was – am – particularly intrigued by the closing phrase, “to do and to endure.” Granted, the words may have originally been chosen primarily because of the rhyme… And yet, these two verbs, linked to “pure heart” are insightful. This notion is still working its way around my mind and heart, but a few initial reactions:

To do – Do seems the most basic of action verbs, like “to be.” In the context of the line, it evokes for me an image of a life constantly lived in communion with God. To live with a God-parallel will; to act and follow in all those means that God has given; to live and love after the example set by Jesus of Nazareth… “To do” evokes for me an active life, where purity of heart is not just known to the possessor, but to all who are witness of that one’s life…

To endure – I really hear this as equivalent to “to persevere.” It could, of course, be understood in its other sense, as a reminder that to live as Christ calls us to will naturally result in some degree of persecution or distress that needs to be endured. As a call to perseverance, however, “to endure” is a reminder that God’s transformation of us (from within) is neither an easy nor instantaneous event. (Perhaps nothing good ever is.) Rather, we have to endure/persevere, in the assurance that God is working to transform / purify our heart…

My ultimate yearning, and search, for purity of heart cannot neglect my “real” life and action in this world. Indeed, the call to be more Christlike is and must be in the contexts I live within.

Nor have I imagined it elsewise! When I contemplate purity of heart, I imagine myself living more wholly (and holy!) in my present. Able to be more patient, loving, kind, generous…*

True purity of heart must be lived. A hear that “wills one will” with God is one that loves – in word and deed, in affect and effect, in stillness and action – steadfastly. Any contemplative life that I may experience is only holy insofar as it wholly influences my day to day living in this world.

*I’m reminded here of a story that was shared this past week. Later in his life St. Francis, after having become disillusioned with the monastic community that he himself had founded and had for a while been voted out of leadership of, was describing “pure joy” to a follower. After several negations (e.g. “were we to convert all pagans the world over, that would not be pure joy”) he was asked to describe what is pure joy. He shared: “when I have been on a long journey, and my sandals are worn and feet are in pain; when trudging through the mud and ice my robe has become threadbare; when the icicles forming on the hem of my robe are cutting into my leg; and I finally reach the door to one of our Franciscan communities in the middle of the night and, knocking, have to rouse the porter, who opens the porthole but refuses to let me in; when I identify myself as Francis and he tells me that I must be insane, and can move down the road to the next community; when that happens, and I can be patient and kind with the porter, that will be pure joy.” (He was describing an actual event that he had experienced.)

Vampires & Inner Prayer (a dream)

What does it suggest about your spiritual journey when things start entering your dreams?

Tuesday morning, before I left home for the Academy, I woke up from a dream. For a bit of context: 1) the day before I had finished the last episode of the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I had been watching while I walked/jogged on the treadmill over the last year, and 2) I have often, in the past, dreamnt about slaying vampires (in fact, this has been a recurrent dreams for years before I ever watched Buffy).

So here’s Tuesday morning’s dream:

We’re inside Buffy’s home, in the kitchen. There is a horde of vampires descending on the house, more than I could ever possibly slay by myself. Willow Rosenberg is in the kitchen with me, and we look at each other, and realize (without speaking) the way to battle the demons. We both begin saying the Jesus Prayer over and over… in full assurance it is all that is needed… and I wake up.

Willow’s position in the dream is interesting to me. By the end of the series, she has progressed from a meek geek to a powerful worker of magic (i.e. witch). In season 6 she became evil, but was brought back by her friends. So she knows what evil can do, and throughout season 7 is afraid of using powers that might lead to evil; but in the last episode, when it matters, she draws on powers of good to help defeat the bad guy.

Perhaps the house in this case is a reflection of my heart, with Willow as a recognition that we might know evil, or even have done it in the past, but it doesn’t have to be the way of the heart. The vampiric horde could stand for all the temptations, evils, etc that lay in wait outside, ready to invade…

…and the prayer is a means by which we can secure the heart.

Just at thought, anyway.

Inner Stillness, 2

This afternoon I began to feel as though I had been given two insights that were leading to a particular point… but I couldn’t quite reach that point. So as I reflect tonight on my day at the Academy, I’m going to draw and expand from three earlier journal entries… I do not promise answers or great insights, but today’s experiences are the kind that make me feel as though my spiritual “journey” might really be leading somewhere!

“A Morning Reflection”

I went for an early morning walk today, setting out before sunrise through the neighborhood(s) to the quaint little downtown “main street” on Broadway, to visit Starbuck’s for some pumpkin spice and then meander my way back to the Center. Good exercise, around 6,000 steps on the pedometer…

Along the walk, off-and-on I practiced the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” – while also allowing myself to pray about specific things as I was led to. Most of my walking time was in silence, mostly in prayer to Jesus. (At Starbuck’s I encountered an acquaintance from this Academy, and we talked for a little bit.)

I have to share that I was feeling strongly nostalgic. It was dark still, and there were dark rain clouds overhead, with a constant drizzle – and occasional downpour – the whole time. Temps were in the low 50s. I was wearing the outer shell of my Columbia sportswear jacket… and I was being reminded strongly of wearing the same jacket as I walked through Neubruche and nearby villages in Germany, in similar weather. Even the houses here in Burlinghame have a bit of a German look to them!

There was an insightful synergy in all of this – for as I was praying, I found myself returning and lifting to Christ an inner spiritual struggle*. And I realized as I walked that when I was in Germany – 12 years ago! – I had been struggling with the same habits of mind and had only then identified it as a spiritual struggle.

And the same struggle remains today, unabated. An interior war with… mind? spirit? imagination? Simply put, it’s an inner life – a heart/life – issue. So as I was praying and reflecting, alternating into the very apt “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” I lifted to God that in many ways I felt as though the circumstances of my life have contributed to and aggravated this struggle.

More and more, I know – deep within – that on my own I cannot hope to overcome this; I cannot hope to achieve the purity of heart I long for by myself. I know that I need to accept and allow Christ to purify my heart – and perhaps the inner struggle is a part of this – and I may very likely need the spiritual guidance and support of another. (Or others.)

God, I hope and pray for a pure and holy heart/life.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…

“Afternoon Reflections Related To Orthodox Spirituality”

Question: what does ‘mystery of God’ mean to you? How do you know and/or experience the mystery of God?

I go outside for a short walk. I occasionally pray, once again lifting several repetitions of the Jesus Prayer. I follow the paved path here in the Mercy Center, lest my shoes become as dirty with mud as I sometimes imagine my heart is with sin. I find a small area – a grove of sorts – underneath several large, inter-connecting oak and pine trees. I watch, listen, and experience joy in over half a dozen squirrels, in the midst of their daily business**. I’m reminded of the squirrel monkey enclosure at the Phoenix Zoo – where my son and I have gone almost weekly for a year, standing down among the trees as the monkey scampered about on the trees and ropes around us…

Walking back to the building, a falcon or hawk swoops down, lighting on a tree just above. I watch, enamored, amazed, in awe. I walk in a slow arc around the tree, admiring him from different angles – from here I see his front feathers, almost furry, golden; from here I see his back feathers, the striped or spotted patter among them… He flies off.

As I wander, I wonder. Am I lost – perhaps that is too strong a word – in the physical world? Consider: when I woke this morning, what was my primary thought/concern? Was my wife still experiencing the physical pain that began yesterday? Not, “to be lost in the mystery of God.” Though that desire is present, too, this world seems to engage my imagination and heart first.

I believe the mystery of God is – must be – present, and to some degree able to be experienced in the physical world. I resonate with the notion that all is in God and God is in all. The mist, the squirrels, the falcon/hawk – God’s ineffable mystery encloses and pervades them as it does the Jesus Prayer, my longing for a pure heart, my love for family, friends, and Christ…

Is the physical one means to the spiritual? Oh, even the question itself is rooted in western philosophy! The bifurcation of body and spirit, of physical and spiritual…  (entry trails off here due to interruption, return to group)

“More Personal Reflections”

I’m finding a degree of… direction? discernment? dare I say “stillness”? … while here, away from the chaos and clutter of daily life. Maybe not true “purity of heart,” or even inner stillness (hesychia)… but steps in the right direction, something akin to what I imagine Kierkegaard meant when he wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” There is less here to directly pull me away from Christ, to distract me, and much that actually seems to draw (compel?) me closer!

I’m finding (perceiving?) that there might be a synergy or synthesis between my morning walk and reflection and the post-lecture walk and reflection on the ‘mystery of God’…. A connection between experiencing the Mystery/Presence of God – the so-called “spiritual” – in and through the physical world and the achieving of inner peace in place of internal spiritual struggle… (another interruption)

Thinking Further

In the Philokalia, a collection of teachings of early (Orthodox) Fathers – referenced in The Way of the Pilgrim but also available in modern translations – there are a great many teachings on the Jesus Prayer. Both the descriptions of the Jesus Prayer and the path to and practices that are described as leading to “inner stillness” involve the physical body. Some Fathers teach about focus on breath, or imagining the heart within the chest, even uniting the prayer with the heartbeat itself… not to mention other physical actions associated with prayer.

As human beings, we are spirit incarnate – our spirit and body are not distinct, but are united. We also – if we are truly creedal – believe in a bodily resurrection at the end of time. Our human spirits may be reflections of divine Spirit, may be divine sparks within jars of clay; but our experience is directly linked to these jars of clay. Yes, we can find a nice tree, sit lotus-like, and seek to meditate free of physical sensation. And maybe such stillness is important. But our lives, our day to day lives where we should just as readily seek to know God’s presence, are lived in this physical, temporal world. And our spiritual struggles occur in this physical world.

So perhaps in my journey toward “purity of heart” there are two lessons I should be pondering:
1) where, or who, might be the spiritual guide/director to help me be attentive to and respond to the presence of God in my life?
2) in what ways, as I live and struggle in this physical world, might I further seek to recognize and immerse myself in the presence – or ‘mystery’ – of God?

*Do the details matter? I’m being intentionally vague, lest this venue become too confessional or revelatory. Perhaps I’m being a bit guarded. Suffice it to say the struggle in question is one of the heart, although it does not directly affect my actions in the world, I feel that this one particular struggle outweighs others (i.e. jealousy, resentment) that also prevent me from achieving “purity of heart.”
**Business? Squirrels don’t really have “business,” do they? Busy-ness, maybe? Better to say that they were active in seeking out acorns, no doubt anticipating and preparing for winter.

Experiencing God: 3 reflections

(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?