Rector's Blog: When God Feels Like It
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Last week I wrote about the time I found Jesus in a Beatles song. A few weeks ago I wrote about hearing the voice of God while hiking in Italy. Both of these things are true. And I find myself wanting to share the many places and ways I have experienced God’s presence, because I want very much to communicate with you my belief that God is always present, and that we aren’t just supposed to see God in traditionally religious contexts.
But if I’m going to tell you about these situations, I need to be responsible and transparent. I had listened to that Beatles song a few hundred times before and not heard Jesus in it. And I have heard it hundreds of times since. And, while it now has some deep resonance and sentimental value to it, I don’t feel some connection to the divine every time I listen to it – or even every third time. Most of the time it’s just a song.
I told you God spoke to me on a cliffside hiking trail on the coast of Italy. What I didn’t tell you is that I went back to that exact spot two months later and it was lovely and God said nothing. I’m going back there next summer, and I know it will be wonderful, and I believe God will be present, but that doesn’t mean God will actually be obvious.
Do you think every time Moses was out walking by himself and he passed a bush, he wondered if it would burst into flames and start talking to him? How could he not? It happened once. How many times did he pass a bush out in the wilderness before he saw it as ordinary all over again?
Sometimes people will say things like they see God in the sunset, or they experience God when they are doing yoga, and I want to be clear that that is utterly realistic. That may totally happen for them. If I can see God in George Harrison’s lyrics, you can experience God in Downward Dog. But at the same time, in the Christian tradition, God is not just a metaphor for the things that bring us joy or show us peace or make us better people. We understand God as an actual being with agency and a personality.
This may sound like splitting hairs, but stick with me for a moment.
Metaphors are wonderful. Because they are reliable. Every time you encounter a metaphor it reminds you of the same thing. It’s always there and ready. But in my experience, God does not just show up in the same places in the same ways every time. I believe God is reliable. I believe that God is faithful and loving and present. And at the same time, in my life I have yet to find a place where I can guarantee I’ll experience God’s presence and peace. God seems to show up when God feels like it.
Again, it is my Christian belief that God is always and ever present, whether or not I feel, sense, or hear God. But that does not mean I always feel, sense, or hear God. One moment a song is sacred and the next moment it’s mundane. One day a mountainside is the location of God’s revelation and another day it’s just a patch of land. One day a bush will catch fire and convict Moses, and the next day that same bush will just be a plant. And we have no control over these things. This is the difference between appreciating a symbol and encountering the Divine.
God shows up on God’s terms.
We don’t get to conjure or control the manner in which God shows up. God is not a parlor trick. God has agency. God has a say. And whether we understand that or not says more about us than it does about God.
None of this is meant cynically or hopelessly. Quite the opposite. I believe we are made for relationship with God. And healthy relationships aren’t one-sided. In a good relationship, I don’t get to just decide when and in what manner my friend shows up. In a good relationship, I am pushed to recognize the otherness of the person about whom I care – and to respect it. Why would this not be true about God? Why do I think God has to be here for me in exactly the way that makes me comfortable? In what world is that a healthy relationship?
We Christians often seem obsessed with proving God’s existence. But if the God in whom we believe actually exists, they don’t seem terribly obsessed with proving their own existence. God seems content to show up in inexplicable ways and places, and then just as content as a silent observer.
Maybe this is why I like religion despite myself. Because I cannot force God to be obvious. And I cannot force myself to feel all the right things. I cannot control what I experience. But I can choose to make a practice of holding space for God. I can commit to putting myself where others have seen God show up. I can commit (however imperfectly) to the practice of looking out for God every day. I can allow that to shape me, regardless of how obvious God is at any given moment.
I cannot make the song matter or the hillside holy. I cannot make the bush burn. But I can keep my eyes and my heart open. I can keep watch.
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