I had lunch a while back with two friends visiting the area, home for a few weeks from their normal lives in Kenya.
In the course of conversation, one of them asked me, “Where do you experience God?”
My inner recovering Calvinist quickly surfaces and I think to myself,
“Mind your own business. And another thing, we don’t ‘experience’ God. We read about him and formulate thoughts about him. When we do experience God, it may be in a harshly worded book review, perhaps a knock-down-drag-out doctrinal debate in a session meeting, or, as in the good old days, some form of physical punishment.”
All partial kidding aside, my own experience in various expressions of conservative Christianity has not set me up to answer easily my friend’s question. The theology of immediate retribution on Chronicles, sure. Got that one covered. But not this one.
Which is a shame. I actually had trouble saying where I experience God. That bothers me.
I was taught–implicitly and explicitly–that the experience of God is something that…well…it’s good if you can get it, but don’t go looking for it. After all, experience is subjective and potentially misleading. Best to get your theology in order and leave subjective experience to the Charismatics.
I’ve been thinking a lot of about this over the last few years, and my friend’s question pushed me further along:
Experiencing God is the point.
I know some of you may wonder why I even need to write this, but:
Without the experience of God, what use is all our cogitating? What good does it to to reduce God to having either the right thoughts neatly arranged, or busying ourselves with the “work of the Gospel” when immediacy with God is not part of the package?
A life dominated by worry, fear, anger, etc.,–which commonly accompany the life of the mind–is a life where the experience of God is a theory, not a reality.
So, back to my friend’s intrusive question. I wanted to say–just to get her off my back–“in church” but (1) that’s not true, and (2) she knows I know it’s not true.
So, I think I said, “I don’t know. Give me a hint.”
She encouraged me to sense God’s presence by being open to God while doing those things that jazz me. I mentioned that I sometimes get very antsy while writing, and I feel I just have to go outside and stack firewood or paint trim for a couple of hours.
She suggested that was a clue about the kind of person I am and how I actually already do experience God along paths I don’t normally think about. I need to learn to keep my eyes and ears open.
I was taught from early on to experience God in reading the Bible, prayer, evangelism, and church. Maybe an occasional feed the hungry weekend.
Or a miracle in your life. Miracles are good.
My friend, however, was reminding me that God is bigger and more pervasive in his creation than these formulas. Is this too radical to consider–that perhaps God may be present in our lives in all sorts of “unconventional” ways; and what jazzes me may be telling me when those experiences are happening?
I am a “physical” person. I used to be an active athlete; I do a lot of work on our house; I still exercise; and I am fidgety–boy, am I fidgety. My friend pointed out that I even tend to express myself using “physical” vocabulary–“no need to jump off a cliff about it” is preferred to “no need to be so concerned.”
So, as I’m stacking wood or painting trim (or rebuilding rotted trim so I can paint it), I should learn to be mindful of what is going on inside of me those moments and ask God, “Where are you right here and now?”
Or maybe better, “How are you here right now?”
No bright lights of God’s brilliant presence–at least I hope not as I’m 20′ up a ladder–but perhaps deeper and more…soothing, peaceful. I don’t know. I’m new at this. Give me a break.
I am so used to accessing a far-off God through my mind, through words. Rather than me calling the shots, maybe I can cultivate a patient discipline of seeing other, less controllable, ways in which God is already part of my experience.
I’m sure I’m doing a rotten job explaining all this, but I’m fine with that. I do wish, though, that I would have been taught some of these things during my formative Christian years–especially in seminary.
On the other hand, it’s not like I can’t learn some new things and keep moving along on the journey.
I’m fine with that, too. And I believe, so is God.