In what other ways do we learn to experience God? Benner suggests that we practice finding God in everyday life. None of us is truly self-made. If all of our life is the gift of God, then so is our identity. The God in whom we move and breathe and have our being is never far from us. The distance is in our own heads, and has been influenced by the choices we have made in attempting to live our lives without him. Our very first challenge along the road to self-discovery is a return to the God who loved us into being in the garden, before the fall. The love that this God has for us is still the foundation of our life. Because God is love, (1 John 4:7-8) He cannot help but see us through the eyes of love. This is part of His unchanging-ness and His faithfulness. God doesn’t just have love, 1 John tells us that He is the definition of love.
Just over two decades ago one of our church members in Orlando gifted me with a whole collection of cassette tapes of professor Steve Brown’s classroom lectures at Reformed Theological Seminary. (Some of you may remember Steve joining us for worship as a guest speaker while we met at College Park Presbyterian.) Steve also hosts the Key Life radio and print Ministry, and has now retired from teaching. His favorite ministry mantra included in almost every program is, “God is not mad at you!” We still need to hear that as the starting place… “Neither knowing God nor knowing self can progress very far unless it begins with a knowledge of how deeply we are loved by God…. An identity grounded in God would mean that when we think of who we are, the first thing that would come to mind is our status as someone who is deeply loved by God.” (TGOBY, p. 47)
I’ve been asked to officiate many funerals and memorial services during the course of pastoral ministry. In eulogizing the faith life of a distinct person created in the image of God, my heart’s desire is often to find out as much about who this person really was before sharing the comfort of God’s word and His promises with the family survivors and friends. Sometimes an obituary does a fairly good job of this, at other times only the scantiest of details are given: Date of birth, date of death, what the person did to earn a living, perhaps an accomplishment or two considered noteworthy for print. It is a distinct joy to uncover the individual passions, sense of humor, favorite pet (or lack of!), hobbies, favorite movies, books, did he/she like to dance and to what kind of music? And of course how each of the loved ones present remember the person. When there is unfinished business, perhaps even hard feelings between remaining family member, I try to deal with these honestly from the experience of Jesus in the gospels or from the experience of the Apostles in the churches. In this way gathering the real experience of a person’s life helps me to be able to see them a bit more as God sees them… If the person liked fast cars, I believe the God who invented the speed of light can certainly identify with them, right? Life is real, so is God!
In the gospels, Nicodemus was invited by Jesus to experience the God who willingly births us from above. (John, chapter 3) The invitation is to receive a kind of life that is literally with us in surrounding space. As Dallas Willard notes, “To be born from above” in New Testament language, means to be interactively joined with a dynamic, unseen system of divine reality in the midst of which all of humanity moves about – whether it knows it or not. And that of course is “The Kingdom among us.” Perhaps we are all far too much like Nicodemus. In a church service we may heartily sing the grand old hymn, “O Worship the King… whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.”:
Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air; it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain;
And gently distills in the dew and the rain.
But do we actually believe this? I mean, are we ready automatically to act as if we stand here and now and always in the presence of the great being described by Adam Clarke, who fills and overflows all space, including the atmosphere around our body?” 1 Meeting God in the concrete circumstance of life (some desirable, others much less so), “support the development of a practical, down to earth spirituality in which we encounter God in the mundane and familiar parts of regular life.” 2
When we experience great joy, Jesus is right there in the midst of that experience. And when we experience deep despair, He is also right there in it with us. As Paul notes in 1 Cor 1:3-4, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (ESV)
Our challenge then is to unmask the Divine in the natural and name the presence of God in our lives. “It is relatively easy to meet God in moments of joy or bliss. In these situations we correctly count ourselves blessed by God. The challenge is to believe that this is also true – and to know God’s presence – in the midst of doubt, depression, anxiety, conflict, or failure. But the God who is Immanuel is equally in those moments we would never choose as in those we would always gladly choose. Richard Rohr reminds us that “we cannot attain the presence of God. We are already totally in the presence of God. What is absent is awareness…” 3
“But we must begin somewhere. For most of us the beginning point is at the edges. This reality, felt and not denied, suffered and enjoyed, becomes the royal road to the center. In other words, reality itself, our reality, my limited and sometimes misinterpreted experience, still becomes the revelatory place for God. For some reason we seem to prefer fabricated realities to the strong and sensitizing face of what is.” 4
Some people find it helpful to journal their days activities as they enter into a time of prayer looking back at the day for how God in fact was and is present with them. As we did with lectio Devina in the gospels, why not try that this evening? Don’t make it a chore, but rather enjoy the process of reminiscing in God’s presence. This kind of prayerful review is not for self-analysis. (You don’t get to pay yourself $150 at the end of the session. J) The goal is simply to increase our awareness of God in the everyday experiences of life. It is attending to the God who is present. Avoid making demands on yourself (or God) as you review the day. Benner suggests ending your time by thanking God for gifts received during this time. Enjoy the journey because He is with you always, even to the ends of the earth! May our knowledge of God and ourselves grow deeper as we intentionally leave room for him to reveal the depth of who He is even as we discover ourselves in Him.
“We pay a lot of money to get a tank with a few tropical fish in it and never tire of looking at their brilliant iridescence and marvelous forms and movements. But God has seas full of them, which he constantly enjoys… We are enraptured by a well done movie sequence or by a few bars from an opera or lines from a poem. We treasure our great experiences for a lifetime, and we may have very few of them. But he is one great inexhaustible and eternal experience of all that is good and true and beautiful and right. That is what we must think of when we hear theologians and philosophers speak of him as a perfect being. This is his life.”
“1 John 5:13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.
1 The Divine Conspiracy, Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God – Dallas Willard, p. 68
2 The Gift Of Being Yourself – The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, David Benner, p. 40
3 TGOBY, p. 41
4 Everything Belongs – The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, Richard Rohr, 2013, p. 15
5 The Divine Conspiracy, Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God – Dallas Willard, p. 63