Sunday, July 31, 2016

Asking Myself: When have you felt God's presence most acutely in your life?

This is the 26th post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to 25 prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament. This post begins a new theme: Questions on Spirituality.

Q: When have you felt God's presence most acutely in your life?

First off, I have to get something off my chest. The wording of Blythe's question made me feel "less-than." Specifically, the terms "felt" and "most acutely" trigger a bit of sadness for me because despite my love of the "still, small voice" in 1 Kings 19:13,  I start thinking of and comparing myself to those more awe-inspiring moments of God's presence recorded throughout scripture. There's Moses and the burning bush, Samuel and his audible midnight commission, Jacob's ladder, Mary's angelic visit, Elizabeth's womb acrobatics, the upper room and its rushing wind, Stephen's near-to-death heavenly vision and Paul's blind-struck road to Damascus. 

I definitely think stories like these more than qualify as genuine experiences of God's undeniable presence, but they aren't like my experience. I've never had a burning bush or bright light or dislocated hip socket, or dancing fetus ... well... at least not as a result of a heavenly encounter. 

I'm not sure why I feel compelled to compare my own experience or set my expectations on these sorts of "acute" experiences of the felt-presence of God. I don't know whether it's purely the pages of scripture filtered through my mind's eye that cause me to covet a similarly supernatural experience, or if somewhere along the line my "presence theology" was formed by well-intentioned pastors and leaders who had their own checklists for what qualifies as "feeling" "God's presence" "acutely"... but there's a tension in this question for me.

Yet, when I remove myself from the specific wording of the question, I remember that my definition of "feeling God's presence" has changed over time because my awareness of God has also evolved. Christ "is all, in all," as Paul writes in Colossians. God is woven into the fabric of the universe and is all around me — if I pause to notice. And as He is the Creator, and as He is in all of His creation, I can point to His presence in my creative moments. Those moments when I'm writing or thinking up new ideas can be electric. My mind and heart race and soar in tandem in the happiest way. I feel most myself, and yet not myself alone.

As God is love, I find His presence in the moments where I am enfolded in the loving community of family, friends or church. In my prayers for others, He is there; He is present as a surge of love that didn't originate from natural me. In the love I receive from others, many of them with God's essence glowing on their countenances, He is there. He's in their extravagant love that I don't deserve and can't figure out, because it's so much like God's mysterious love. Again, I'm realizing their love for me is God's presence. 

And I'm just slowly learning how really, truly God is present in the dark. He's collecting my tears in His bottle. He's weeping right along with me. He's comfortable and peaceful and strong and confident in the darkest hour, even in Hades. Richard Rohr wonders in his book Falling Upward if hell is "not so much the alternative to heaven as the necessary path to heaven" (49), pointing to Jesus' own three-day tour of the underworld before his glorious resurrection and ascension. I'm not saying God is darkness or that Hell is somehow characteristic of Him, but that His presence reaches even to the depths. And on a milder level, He is in life's everyday irritations and obstacles and push-backs. He is there, with us. We can experience His presence even when we're in Hell on earth.

As I scan those last three paragraphs, I realize it might seem I've dodged what the question was really asking. Twenty years ago, I would have answered it differently. I would have been scanning my memoryscape to find a particularly fever-pitched, passionate, heart-pounding, sweaty palmed (and frankly unpleasant) moment in corporate or perhaps private prayer. In this moment there would be tremendous pressure to praise or proclaim or pray just right, and the exercise would be validated largely by the level of enthusiasm I received in response to my effort. My expression would bubble up or gurgle out or stream down with sobs. Perhaps it wouldn't really make much sense to anyone and perhaps not even to myself. But I would be earnest. And when it was done, I would feel somewhat better. Until a few seconds later, when I would second guess every word and every intent as my own worse Accuser incarnate.

Perhaps you can relate?

If so, and if your memories of an "acute feeling of God's presence" are much rosier, please know I don't disqualify these moments from the vault of Genuine Encounters With God. I just think of them less and less as the ideal or norm for how I should seek God's presence.

I value feelings immensely (INFP here), and often let them take the lead in my brain's control center, but I have to be honest that I don't always (often) feel God's presence, and certainly not often acutely. But when I intentionally spend time in prayer or in quiet reflection, open to His creative thoughts, open to His virtue, I have a sense that He is here with me. Perhaps it is His presence guiding my memories, my audit of my day, and illuminating for me all the other moments in which He was so very present.

Next week: I'm soon to embark on an adventure in Europe with my husband of 15 years, so depending on my internet access and the whims of my wanderlust, "Asking Myself" might be on vacation, might ponder something off the beaten path or might answer: "How do you know when God is communicating with you?"

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