Last post I talked about one way God speaks: our thoughts.
I suggested you sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song in your head. You are not hearing it with your ear, but you are ‘hearing’ it. Now, picture the front door of your house and walk inside and look around. You are not seeing your house with your eye, but you are ‘seeing’ it.
Because we use words like ‘imagination’ to describe this type of mental activity or brain function, which we may use to create or make up things in our mind that are not “real” (or are not yet material products or concrete actions), we can diminish or be suspicious of claims to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ God in these ways. But, we also use this type of brain function to perceive and interpret what is going on around us.
Take communication with another person as an example. So much of communication is non-verbal and even the part that is audible (sound waves created by the particular tones and vibrations made through our breath going across our lips, tongue and teeth in certain ways to create sounds we call language), we still have to perceive and interpret these sound waves. Different words/sounds can have different meanings, depending on order, context, intention. How many times have you misunderstood someone who shares your culture and speaks the same language, who you even know well? So, even though you are sensing the sound waves with your ear, you are still ‘hearing’ the person through your thoughts, as you interpret what these sounds mean.
Spirit, which in biblical languages was also used for ‘breath’ or ‘wind’, is a word often used to describe a realm, reality, substance of God and other ‘spiritual’ beings which our brains/emotions/bodies can also sense, albeit not just through sound waves or light. Because it is spirit doesn’t mean it is less real, or for that matter not material–it’s just not at times material in the same way as other things. Because we can sense ‘spirit’ with our minds doesn’t necessarily mean it is imagined, as in made up, or less real, not trustworthy or not dependable. Again, our judgements about this are more based on our preferences connected to our culture/worldview, which includes our epistemology (our perspectives about how we know what we know).
So, go there with me. What if there is more going on than what you sense with your ear through sound waves or your eye through reflected light? What if there is a spiritual realm that is all around, as close as your breath and fully integrated and interacting with the material stuff you are used to sensing with your ‘5 senses’ and paying attention to.
A helpful way to imagine this is to think about all the cell phone conversations that are taking place, or the radio waves carrying music, talk shows, news, or all the information, images, etc. flying through the air via wifi networks. All of it is going around and through you. Just ‘imagine’ that for a moment.
You need certain devices to tune in to decipher, see, hear and experience all that stuff invisibly moving around you, and even with the right device you need the right permissions (password, etc) to access it.
“I pray that the God of King Jesus our Lord, the father of glory, would give you, in your spirit, the gift of being wise, of seeing things people can’t normally see, because you are coming to know him and to have the eyes of your inmost self opened to God’s light. Then you will know exactly what the hope is that goes with God’s call; you will know the wealth of the glory of his inheritance in his holy people; and you will know the outstanding greatness of his power toward us who are loyal to him in faith, according to the working of this strength and power.” –Paul, Ephesians 1:17-19 (translation by NT Wright)
Now, there is alot going on in this verse, but Paul here and elsewhere talks about the ‘unseen’ being more ‘real’ (and permanent) than the ‘seen’, of having our minds renewed, the eyes of our heart opened, our spirit connected with the Spirit, that there is more going on than just flesh and blood…
Here’s a practical way to engage this: Pay attention to what (and who) you are paying attention to. This is a big topic. Our minds are active throughout the day (and night), but what are our brains active about, focused on, seeing and hearing the world through? This takes a little extra attentiveness or focus, but as you are going through your day notice not just your thoughts (and feelings), but what and who you are paying attention to and how. This can give you insights about how you pay attention to things (and therefore how you will most likely hear and see God) and what and who you are listening to–possibly (likely?) instead of God, or the person, task or situation also right in front of you.
God speaks a ton of different ways. Let’s take a look at just one: Hearing God like a thought.
Usually this one is the least controversial. I say ‘usually’ because it is generally the most ‘common’ and accepted across many traditions, throughout church history, particularly when connected to something a tradition deems authoritative: the Bible, sacraments, pastor/priest, church/worship setting, in or receiving prayer, having a ‘spiritual encounter’. But, it is still controversial. It essentially suggests we are hearing voices in our head. Then, there are the challenges of distinguishing between our thoughts, God’s or something/one else (and more likely a combo of some or all of these) and how to interpret and act on the thoughts.
Why thoughts? It is rare to hear God with your ear–picking up audible sound waves. It is also rare to see a vision of/from God with your eye–picking up light reflected and refracted in certain ways off God or some other physical/material object God is showing you. This does happen, as well as other ways to audibly and visually see God or more specifically the activities, effects, presence of God (hence the metaphor of wind–we can’t see it but see the effects of it).
People usually ‘hear’ and ‘see’ God in their ‘minds eye’, an inner witness, which we may think of as more mysterious because it appears to us as more illusory. This is a discussion for another time, but it may seem imagined in large part because of how we have been trained to think and what to trust when it comes to ‘knowing’, rooted in proving things that can be grasped in their materiality through our rational habits of thought. There’s nothing wrong with this. God moves in many concrete and material ways. It just means we have a grid to prefer certain ways over others, in deciding what is real and not.
Right now sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song in your head. You are not hearing it with your ear, but you are ‘hearing’ it. Now, picture the front door of your house and walk inside and look around. You are not seeing your house with your eye, but you are ‘seeing’ it.
Now pay attention…to your thoughts, and God speaking in and through your thoughts. There are so many ways to do this and so much wisdom about our thought life in general and in relationship with God. Here is one practical way:
Relax, receive and interact with God and as you do pay attention to what you ‘hear’ and ‘see’ in your thoughts and write it down. At times I do this as a conversation where I write ‘my’ thoughts, then ‘God’s’ thoughts. Avoid analyzing and assessing the conversation like an observer, but stay engaged, present and paying attention.
What would you do if I told you God is with you? Like right now.
Would you want to interact with him, hear, see and experience him as near? Now that might depend alot on what you think he is like, how you think he feels about you and what you expect he might be up to.
Like if you think he is emotionally distant and generally displeased with you but is probably going to ask you to do something that you really don’t want to do anyway, well you may be hesitant to interact with God.
It’s worth taking some time to pay attention to what you think God is like, what he thinks about you and feels toward you and what you expect relating with him is like. Maybe even check how much your actual/operative beliefs line up with your stated/espoused beliefs and what you ‘know’ from church, others, the Bible, etc.
But, back to ‘God is right there next to you’, some surveys suggest most people are what we in the ‘big word-me smart’ business like to call Diest and practical atheists: God is far away somewhere, intervening somewhat randomly when he wants and we are left to figure stuff out practically, day to day ourselves, oh and he left us a book to read about him.
But if God is really with us and he’s in a good mood, even has a sense of humor (what, the what?), and the kingdom is near and it is a party, God desires friendship and to co-labor with us…this I know because my Bible (church tradition and my experience) tells me so…well, then what?
If God is right there with you–right now looking over your shoulder reading this blog post, I would tell you to relax and be yourself (I know: whoever that is) and receive and relate to/with him–in whatever way makes sense or works for you.
Give it a go: relax and receive and relate
Want a more specific suggestion:
- Write: “God, thank you for:” and list 10 things you are thankful for. Don’t overthink or over-spiritualize, just what comes to mind.
- Take 5 (or however many) minutes and hang out with God who is right there receiving whatever he has for you to hear, see and experience
- Write 10 more things you are thankful for
- Take 5 more (or however many) minutes to listen, interact, relate with God
- Write 10 more things
- Do whatever comes to you…
I’ve talked before in previous posts about ‘how to hear, see and experience God in everyday life’ by some version of relaxing, receiving and relating, then reacting and recounting. (I could add some more ‘re-‘ words in there too. The ‘re-‘ is more than just a memory gimmick, it emphasizes that God is the one initiating the relationship. We re-spond.)
He is already as ‘close as your breath’ (take a few breaths and think about how close that is), without you having to strive or make it happen by some technique, good work, etcetera.
So, what does it look like for you to relax? Now do it.
When I say ‘relax’, don’t hear this as being as quiet as you can, as physically still as you can, as alone as you can. Totally erase the contemplative monk in solitary prayer from your mind–and the kid with folded hands and bowed head silently praying. This type of prayer may be very relaxing for some and incredibly boring and tedious and anything but relaxing (as their minds race and their emotions rush) for others. When I’m praying it can often be anything but quiet, still or calm–when my oldest was 5 he used to think I was “dancing” when I was praying–I’d like to think that’s what I’m doing. Also, I’ll often have great conversations with God while working out or windsurfing (I can explain the ‘science’ behind this later), or surrounded by people and lots of noise.
What we do with our bodies matters, but for now pay more attention to your thoughts and emotions. I’ve found that the more relaxed I am the more I can pay attention to what is going on around me with more ease and less strain. When my mind is pre-occupied with either major or mundane things, when I’m anxious, stressed, angry, feeling sad it is more difficult for me to be present in a situation and pay attention to other people. Just ask my kids what its like to relate to me when I’m relaxed versus not.
So, instead of trying harder to focus more, find the right technique, striving to connect with God, experiment this week with doing things that are relaxing. This can be during a time set aside to pray (hang out) with God, it can be just in the rhythm of normal everyday life and routines, finding little ways to relax as you go through your day and become more aware of God around you. And as you relax receive, relate and interact with God and see what happens.
I got wind of the current Christianity Today cover story focused on Bethel Church in Redding, CA–a place our family spent two significant years doing ‘research’. It’s a good read, I’d liken to watching a stone skip across a deep lake. But I can’t stop smiling about a subheading from it: “is it ‘real’ or is it dangerous?” I imagine it is a ‘teaser’ designed to grab our attention (and get people to write blog posts). I can’t seem to help playing around with the words in my mind: “it is ‘real’ or dangerous–or both?” “is it really real or just sort of?” “is it ‘what I like, prefer and lines up sufficiently with my past experience of these things’ or it is dangerous for my likes, preferences and current perspectives”. And because I’m currently working on a doctorate on what influences how people from traditionally non-Charismatic backgrounds make sense of Charismatic stuff and because of over 15 years of journeying through this myself, I’ve become less interested in whether someone thinks something is ‘real’ or ‘dangerous’ and more about how they go about deciding. That we ask this question in the first place and how we approach answering it tells us alot—but about what? Possibly more about ourselves and about our culture/worldview (our preferences and perspectives) than about the charismatic experiences of others and their authenticity and impact. Yes, yes this is a huge topic and for those with ‘eyes to see’ I am hitting on the kind of stuff philosophers have debated for thousands of years (about how we ‘know’ what we ‘know’), but let’s keep it short and specific. What do you appeal to to determine whether something is really God or dangerous (or both)? It is easy to miss the criteria we use to judge, assess and validate, because it is the lens we are looking through, not at. But, the lens does affect how and what we see. Quick example: a person is standing up on stage during a church service leading a prayer and their body starts to tremble, twitch and shake. One person (who happens to be a neurologist) offers the person free medical advice after the service to diagnose and treat the neurological disorder. Another figures the person praying is nervous being in front of so many people. Another person leaves in tears because her son had an epileptic seizure years ago that debilitated him for life. Another person leaves because the last time they saw someone do this it was part of an abusive pastor’s ministry. Another starts silently praying against the demonic. Another person starts silently praising God that he is powerfully moving through the prayer time. A bunch of others don’t even notice because their eyes were closed in prayer or they were checking Facebook or they noticed but it doesn’t really matter to them. Is it real, or is it dangerous? Wait, are we still talking about the shaking, quaking prayer or the ways people assess and react?
“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)
Joy is a pretty common reaction when God comes near in Jesus’ birth. People are amazed, in awe, feel joy, react by praising God…
The shepherds were: “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20)
They told others, and “all who heard it were amazed” (Luke 2:18)
The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah his son “will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth” (Luke 1:14)
Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives “were filled with awe” (Luke 1:65) and “shared her joy”. (Luke1:58)
Even John: “the baby in my womb leaped for joy”. (Luke 1:44)
Mary rejoices: “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”. (Luke 1:47)
The Magi, “when they saw the star…were overjoyed”. (Matt 2:10)
This is joy that comes from good news, hope fulfilled, seeing God move in very real, tangible ways to address the pain and suffering we are facing, to fulfill the longings of our hearts. With Immanuel, God with us, the reality of heaven is on earth and we can experience that now, in real ways that bring great joy and we can’t help but praise God. At times it is the joy of anticipation. It hasn’t fully happened, but something has started, something is coming that we trust will be what we hope for. You can see this in the joy and excitement kids are expressing right now in the final countdown to Christmas. Or it is the joy of it fully happening. When our kids are actually opening and playing with presents on Christmas. Or it is the mysterious reality of the joy that comes in interacting with God, the most joyful being in the universe. Kind of like the contagious joy I feel from being around the excitement, energy and wonder my kids feel right now.
In all this there is King Herod and others (likely the ruling establishment) in Jerusalem: “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matt 2:3). This king being born would be a direct threat to his rule and all those who benefited from the current socio-economic and political system. Good news and great joy to some, bad news to others. God’s presence among us can be good news, bad news or no news…more on this some other time.
For now, these last few days of Advent I bring you great news: God is near, with you, and depending on how you respond to him will bring you great joy.
To sum up these ‘Advent’ posts: Interact with him in the normal, routine ways that you have come to know, expect him to show up in unexpected ways, ways he may have hinted at beforehand, that may even offend you, doing things that may seem impossible, in you and the community around you, that inspire awe, praise and joy.
When it comes to revealing Jesus’ birth, God does something I’ve seen him do many times: tell multiple people. He talks to Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph about what is going to happen in and through them. But, he also tells Simeon, Anna, the shepherds outside Bethlehem and the Magi. These are just what we have recorded in the birth stories, there could be others, as well as the prophets of old who spoke of a coming king.
It is so encouraging when someone ‘confirms’ what you are hearing God say to you. It must have been a huge gift for Mary to visit a pregnant Elizabeth (and vice versa), to have Joseph share with her about what the angel said to him during that dream, to have the shepherds and the Magi come, to have Simeon and Anna recognize who Jesus was as just an infant.
It is a powerful antidote for doubt. It provides companionship, resources and support needed to do what God has called us to. It is real strength and courage to walk out the challenges of life in the Spirit.
During Advent, I’ve been looking at what marked God coming near in Jesus’ birth and what that may tell us about how God comes near us today. One of the clear ways he does this is through community. He doesn’t just talk to one person or tell one person to go and do it alone. He brings multiple people together, to coordinate, corporately discern, share resources, encourage and strengthen each other—to exchange gifts with each other.
How have you experienced this? Who are people in your life who encourage, help and support you? How has God moved through you in partnering with others?
One of the greatest gifts you can give others is growing in intimacy with God, in discerning and being responsive to what God is saying to you and to others through you. Being open to the Spirit and sharing what God is saying with an aim to edify and in a posture of love—this has been the source of the most significant gifts people have given me over the years. And it can be as simple as asking God: God, when you look at this person what do you see? What is your perspective? What are you up to? Give it a ‘go’, especially with some of the people you may get (have) to be around this next week of Christmas. You may be surprised how different something/someone so familiar can look—through someone else’s eyes.
“Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Luke 1:18)
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)
I’m sorry, what are you saying God? Based on my current circumstances and what I ‘know’ this doesn’t seem possible. This is not how things are done. How is that supposed to work?
During Advent, I’m looking at ways God came near in Jesus’ birth and what that may tell us about ways he is near us today. God has a long track record of doing the impossible. So much so with relationship with God it becomes normal to expect the unexpected and to assume that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
I always feel more comfortable telling as complete a story as possible about the impossible—at least my experience of it. I’ve had God blow my mind and paradigms over and over again, demonstrating all kinds of ways how good, loving, out of control and crazy (based on certain human perspectives) he is. And as I continued to make choices to put myself in situations and do things that depended on God ‘showing up’ I would continually see and experience things considered dramatic like healings, manifestations, mighty deeds and miracles as well as the less dramatic like peace, joy, perseverance, forgiveness, love for ‘enemies’, daily resources to handle everyday situations, the ever-present mercy of his presence.
But, like I hear in the stories of Zechariah and Mary and many others in the biblical narrative faced with the risk of relationship with God I have also experienced many other things that go along with the impossible: the personal doubts; the disappoints and pain of expectations unfulfilled; confusion, questioning/judgments and sometimes outright rejection by others; the responsibility of more; the humility and at times humiliation of weakness and vulnerability; feeling out of control and afraid; and the list goes on, particularly for those in contexts of overt persecution.
When it comes to experiencing God as near, of living life in the Spirit, this is all part of it, the risk and the reward. We experience the sufferings of Christ, along with getting to see, experience and do what seems impossible. It’s all part of what Jesus tells his disciples they are blessed to experience: “For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” (Matt 13:17): Immanuel, God with us.
Every time Joy, our 3 year old, comes back from the library she’s got another version of “That’s Not My Pony (or Kitty, Dog, Bear, Meerkat…)” “touchy-feely books” published by Usborne. The narrative is set up as if the child/reader is searching for their Pony/Kitty/Dog/Meerkat, etc. Each turn of the page starts: “That’s not my meerkat”, followed by a picture of a meerkat with a specific part of it’s body made of a textured material to be ‘touched and felt’, and then …”it’s cheeks are too squashy” or “its back is too fuzzy” and so on, until the last page when in big bold letters it says “That’s my Meerkat!” with a picture of a meerkat with an abdomen made of thick, ‘furry’ fabric: “Its tummy is so soft.”
Throughout Advent I’m looking at how God came near in Jesus’ birth and what that may tell us about ways God is near us today.
The Jewish people were looking with expectancy for their messiah. There were different perspectives on how the messiah would come and what he would do. As you read the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John you can pick up ways Jesus fulfills different messianic signs and how the crowds and particularly the religious leaders were constantly evaluating as they watched him whether he was “the one” they were looking for. The challenge with Jesus is he kept breaking certain social norms and offending people’s perspectives and preferences.
‘That’s not my messiah…he eats with sinners.”
“That’s not my messiah…he breaks Sabbath rules.”
“That’s not my messiah…he was executed by the Romans on a cross.”
Those around Jesus were getting the chance to do some “touchy-feely”: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…” (1 John 1:1).
It is all over the place in Jesus’ birth–unexpected, surprising things that offended social norms: unmarried pregnant teenagers; pregnant senior citizens; genealogies which involve adulterers, murders, liars, oppressors, pretend prostitutes and who knows what else; the subversive birth of a God king in a cave/barn and angelic coronation announcements to socially outcast shepherds.
This can be tricky stuff, sorting out recognizing the presence and activity of a God who will do things in ways that surprise us, yes, but even more offend us. This has all kinds of implications for our discernment. How do you tell the difference between righteous anger, purity or holiness and missing out and misunderstanding what God is doing? Why does God break from some social norms and seem to honor, embrace or at least tolerate others? Does this differ in different situations? Is good news to one person/group, offensive to someone else? Are we testing and assessing if it’s God or is God testing us? How much does our own personality, our culture, our theology/thoughts about God, our past experiences and wounds affect how we handle mystery, innovation, aberration (a departure from what is normal, usual, or expected, typically an unwelcome one)? So many questions, so many different ways to answer…
But, let’s not make this too complex out of the gate and observe something basic: Pay attention to what offends you, it could be God. We usually don’t have a problem with the first part: we notice what offends us. (What or who is offending you right now?) And then there is all kinds of different ways we respond. But, how many of us when our perspective or preferences are offended, respond with expectancy: is this you God?
“That’s my Jesus…he offends me sometimes.”
Do you notice how God tells people involved in Jesus’ birth what is going to happen before it happens? ‘Heads up’, ‘Get ready’, ‘Be alert’ I’m about to do something. Have you ever experienced this in your life?
Throughout Advent I’m looking at what marked how God came near in Jesus’ birth and what that may tell us about ways God is near us today.
The angel appears to Zechariah and Mary and Joseph and the shepherds: this is what is going to happen. You’ve got the ‘Magi’ discerning what is happening through astronomy and even giving Herod a ‘heads up’. God talked to Simeon beforehand, and possibly even Anna. You’ve got the whole purpose of John the Baptist: to prepare the way. This happens often in God’s interactions with people.
It comes in different forms: warning (if you keep doing this the way you are doing it, then things are not going to go well for you, so repent), or a different type of warning (look out something dangerous is coming: ‘Joseph hurry get out of Bethlehem’), strategic info (this is what I’m doing, you are/I want you to be part of it, go here, do this, etc.), insight (I’m telling you this now, even though it doesn’t make total sense, so you will understand later what is happening), and no doubt more ways…
How have you experienced this in your life?
I can think of several times this has happened to me: I had a whole summer where person after person I met with would tell me about experiences of burn out and depression. I wasn’t meeting with them to talk about this, it just kept coming up. After about the fourth time, I started noticing the pattern and decided I better pay attention. I was about to enter into what appeared to be a pretty intense season and I was already tired. Sure enough within a few months I was hitting a wall and I didn’t see any reprieve available in my external circumstances. But, in the midst of it I kept hearing God say to trust him, to repent from my approach to my situation or face the consequences of having to go through what I heard about all summer. It was just enough to get me to adjust (unfortunately not fully) and I didn’t fully crash and burn. I think of those conversations over the summer as the ‘kind messenger’ before the ‘harsh messenger’ was coming if I wasn’t willing to listen.
Another example is how God spoke to Ali and I about our second pregnancy being twins. Had he not done this we would have never known we miscarried. Ali tells this story here: www.aliincali.com/home/dreams.
How about for you?
When it comes to God giving us a ‘heads up’ there is a reality where we may totally miss it, or we may hear it but not heed it, or it becomes a right word at the right time.
Usually when we are living in daily intimate conversation with God in the routine of everyday life (like I talked about in the last post) we will catch it when he says ‘heads up…’. But, even when we are not paying attention, God has a way of getting through to us. Although there are times we may just miss it or misinterpret it because it’s so ‘out of the box’ or unexpected–like so many did in around Jesus’ birth and life. (I’ll talk more about this all in future posts.) One thing is clear, God likes to communicate with us, share information and secrets with us, involve us in what he is doing…let me put it this way, he may be the type of guy who keeps giving you hints about your present before you’ve unwrapped it or the one who let’s it slip about the surprise party.
What ‘heads up’ could God be giving you right now? How has he done this in the past? Talk to him about it and see what he shows you.
I love Advent. It is all about expectancy that God is near.
Typical for the church calendar, for the big days (i.e. Christmas and Easter) there is some build-up. We look back to when God came near–a baby born right in the midst of the stuff of life. We also look forward with expectancy of his return when all things will be made new, when God dwells with humanity fully—on earth as it is in heaven.
But while we are looking back and looking forward, let’s take a look at right now: God with us in the everyday stuff of our lives.
Over Advent I’m going to post periodically looking at ways God came near in Jesus’ birth and what that tells us about ways he comes near to us now. Crack open your Bible and read along with me. What marked God showing us he was near in Jesus’ birth? What does it look like when God is with you?
First, there were a lot of routine/expected things happening in and around Jesus’ birth. It was ‘normal’ life in so many ways, at least for people living under Roman occupation: poverty/disparity of wealth, unjust taxation, control through the threat of violence, commodification of people through a census, the Jewish expectation of a messiah king who would deliver them alongside the daily disappointment of God’s promises unfulfilled. There was the ‘normal’ of having to sort out the logistics of food and shelter while traveling, pregnancies taking the usual time to reach full term, the expected reactions to things which broke the social customs/norms of the day (pregnancies out of wedlock, what to name a child, etc). Sure we know something new is happening and there are all kinds of signs of it, but all in the midst of the very old, familiar, routine and normal processes of life.
How do you see and experience God ‘showing up’ as near, with you in the routine, normal processes of life? In what ways, where, when, with whom?
Here are three practical ways to explore this:
1) Take some time to think about it, pay attention and dialogue with God about this question.
2) Go through your day today with expectancy that you will see and meet with God in very normal, routine activities and see what happens.
3) What are the routine ways you intentionally interact with God, ways you expect he will ‘show up’? Fill in the blank: “I consistently experience God when I ______________ (do what?, with/through whom?, where?, how?). Or I expect or wouldn’t be surprised if I saw, heard, interacted with God when I ____________(do what, with whom, where)” Go to those places, people, things, activities this Advent and spent some time with Immanuel: God with you.
I walked into Durham’s massive cathedral getting my bearings and trying to find the books. One of the staff in charge of guiding the steady stream of tourists and worshipers verbally reached out to me, “Can I help?”
“Yes, I’m a new doctorate student in theology looking for the ‘cathedral’ library do–”
“You are very fortunate,” she said with a tone and looking at me in a way I could tell she genuinely meant it and somehow appreciated all that was behind, surrounded and what it meant that I was standing there with her, doing what I was doing.
Although she didn’t need me to respond, somehow I couldn’t help myself, “well, yes, thank you, it is, I am…”
Our conversation continued about where to find the books, but my mind stayed on her comment. Having just met with my supervisor for the first time and taken in Durham University, I was feeling very fortunate. I know not many people would actually want to jump through all the hoops and take all the risks to pay large sums of money and time to write a 100,000 words designed to convince a few people you have a broad understanding of theology while also offering new, unique knowledge. I also know there are people who want to and will not get to. I have resonated deeply with both at different points these last few years. But, to be at a place like Durham University after taking the risk to switch doctorate programs and the gift of seeing everything I’ve been working on these last few years and really the last 15 years weaving together, each step along the way setting me up better to do the specific research I’m doing now (Reformed reception of charismatic theology and practice) and more to the point better preparing us to help (and equip others to help) more people experience God in everyday life, I am very fortunate.
We can’t express enough the gratitude we have for each of you supporting us in prayer, financially and through staying involved and engaged with us. This would not be possible without you. And it only continues to be possible through your partnership. We pursue diverse forms of funding, but at this stage our work is primarily dependent on individual contributions and support. All the information about donating is online at www.gregmillikan.com. This site is also where I post semi-weekly blogs about various topics related to our work. Ali regularly blogs at aliincali.com. There is the option to ‘subscribe’ to each and receive posts by e-mail if you would like.
Some research suggests 80% of emotional conflict in marriages is rooted in things before the relationship even began. Why? Our brains, specifically implicit memory. Think of implicit as ‘automatic’ or basically when we run on auto-pilot. There are certain tasks that require us to focus our attention, concentrating our minds on what we are doing, seeing, hearing, learning. Others we do without ‘thinking about it’. Like breathing, walking and a large part of relating and communicating with people around us. This sub-conscious or implicit mental activity still requires a significant amount of, well, mental activity. A super-highway of neurons are firing electric pulses sending the information needed to walk, breath, and interpret the world around us. It is simply happening automatically, below our conscious awareness, without requiring us to focus and pay attention.
It wasn’t always this way. The neurological super-highways in your brain weren’t always there. When you first started to learn how to walk, for example, your brain began the gradual process of bush-whacking a neurological path allowing the flow of information, energy and chemicals needed to coordinate balancing upright on two feet. This initial trail full of exposed roots and potholes became a path, then a road and through repetitive patterns and activity a major interstate without the hindrances of downed trees, stoplights or cross-traffic.
The same process happens when as a child you learned your father furrowed his brow just before an angry outburst. In time, without even having to focus, or think about it, you would see that particular look on your father’s face and your brain would brace you for the impact of his anger. The trick is when your spouse makes the same furrowed brow expression, it is because what you are talking about isn’t clear and s/he is simply trying to understand you. But your neurons are already firing subconsciously, preparing you for an angry outburst and to respond to your spouse’s furrowed brow with whatever method you developed as a child to respond to your father’s anger.
The solution, according to Curt Thompson, in his book Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices that can Transform your Life and Relationships, is to pay attention. Specifically to pay attention to what we are paying attention to. In the case of implicit memories, the key is to identify them and accurately connect them to the actual source or cause of the memory—and to thereby disconnect them from albeit similar but different situations. A classic example of this is the close, implicit, parallels we make between our experience of relationship with our parents and God. Childhood experience of our parents temperament, character, personality, expectations and treatment of us subconsciously shape the norm of what we expect and understand about God, despite what we may cognitively and intellectually say we believe about God.
As the long subtitle suggests, Dr. Thompson uses insights from neuroscience and his counseling practice to explore what he sees as the literal process God uses to ‘renew our minds’. It’s a fascinating read when thinking about patterns in our lives, our inability at times to change unwanted behaviors, why intimate relationships are so significant and what is actually involved at a physiological level when we interact with God in everyday life.
For the last several decades researchers have aimed to measure and identify what makes people happy. The general conclusions: it’s not the extrinsic stuff like wealth, popularity and influence. More important are relationship, care of others, variety in experiences of life and a number of other factors related to genetic and physiological predisposition. Although some of the methodology of the research is debated, the conclusions provide a helpful framework for paying attention to something that we are daily confronted with: our feelings, emotions and experience of life.
I don’t want to trip up here on semantics. Many a preacher, teacher and Christian trying to work out daily life in relationship with God have developed whole theologies on the difference between happiness and joy, what is or isn’t authentic joy, and all sorts of things in the middle. Trying, I imagine, to get some handle on the complexity and mystery of pain and disappointment and some exclusively ‘biblical’ perspective on what is a universal human desire for joy.
Take a moment to actually go there yourself. What do you picture when you think about what joy practically looks like? What do you associate it with?
This isn’t to evaluate and have a ‘right’ perspective, but to simply reveal and identify what you think and believe.
And now to the main thing I want to say in this post. In the midst of all the wonderful complexity of what joy even is, how to have it, cultivate and sustain it, I want to share one way I experience joy.
When I spend time with God, I feel joy.
Now, it isn’t like it (joy) happens all the time. And unfortunately I can’t say joy has been an abiding reality, particularly not this year. I’m sure this can be explained in part by the current tension we live in, where heaven is here on earth already, but not yet fully. So, joy is here already but not yet fully.
I can’t help but think the extent I experience joy is also influenced by the extent I chase after false idols and false comforts compared to resting/trusting/depending on God in all the multitude of various ways that looks to me.
Also, I’ve experienced joy in God’s presence, as well as a number of other emotions, experiences and empowerment: God’s grief, anger, rebuke, conviction alongside love and love for others, peace, and peace-making…Joy is part of a dynamic ongoing relationship with the Spirit, but seems more central and available than I often recognize.
Believe me I can keep on going, making this all more dynamic and complex. I can break it all down in terms of what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, what causes it, what gets in the way of this. But, really it is that basic. When I spend time with God, even just become aware of his presence, I feel joy.
Too simple, it’s simplistic? Maybe.
But, try it out and see what happens. Relax (rest in God’s presence/company), Relate (interact with God), Receive (whatever he has for you).
Panic? Especially when the pressure is on because a decision needs to be made either quickly or well because the stakes are high. Go with your gut? Think it through? Seek help? Embrace the uncertainty and mystery, shrug your shoulders and move on with life? Probably depends on the situation and circumstances, but more specific to what I’m thinking about: who or what do you go to and how (and maybe even why)?
It is a daily reality in my life. I find myself in situations where I don’t know what to do, say or even think for that matter. The gift in these situations, as opposed to when we do know what to do, is we face our limitations. Or, better put, our limitations are in our face. For some of us this isn’t very comfortable. But if we pay attention to how we handle situations like this, it can tell us something about ourselves (our personality, decision-making patterns, our basic worldview and more). And more specifically to the focus of this blog post, it can show us what we depend on when we are in a place of dependence.
What I’m suggesting here is pay attention when you don’t know what to do or say. What do you feel? What do you think? What do you do? How do you handle it?
Why bother with this? One of the things that comes up consistently in the New Testament, put very, very succinctly is that the Spirit replaces Torah. Torah was the Jewish legal code and then some. It laid out God’s special covenant with the Israelites and includes the ten commandments and other specifics about behavior along with the key stories of the first five books of the Bible. For adherents to Torah, it was among other things, a place to go to get guidance on what to do. Over time, where “the law” was not specific enough, rabbis would interpret and flush out more detail to help those who wanted to keep covenant with God know what to do when they didn’t know what to do.
In the midst of Paul talking about a new reality, a new covenant, in Jesus Christ and addressing some very specific issues pertaining to a specific community in his day, he makes statements like: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25). Jesus, again addressing a specific circumstance instructs and assures his disciples before sending them out: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20). Or Paul again, in the midst of living in the tension of challenges and suffering, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26).
Anytime being guided by the Spirit, hearing God’s voice, discernment, etc. comes up it raises many questions and complexities. But, let’s put the focus on a simple practical, even daily opportunity. What do you do when we don’t know what to do? As I mentioned, this is easier when you don’t know what to do or say or even think, because it makes it just abit easier to see what we depend on to guide us in our life.
In these passages above and many more and in the testimony of so many throughout human/church history there are descriptions of a reality in which: God is near, he is talking, and it is possible to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ him. Whom or what do you go to when you don’t know what to do or say? How do you do it? And what does it look like for you, in these situations to be aware of and guided by the Spirit? Daily…