Posts Tagged ‘experience of God’

JOB 42:1-6, 10-17

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.

God’s invitation to Job to expand his mind so as to understand all the mysteries of the universe and to serve as its governor if he things that he can do a better job of things, sufficiently humbled Job – and we are careful to say “humbled” and not “humiliated,” since the effect was to bring him “down to earth” (the literal meaning of humility) and out of the abstract real of theories and explanations.

This is the point of the narrative where God has been traditionally understood to say something like, “I have my reasons and your mind is too small, so just let it go at that.” Some such phrase has been used, and abused, in countless situations of tragedy and loss in order to justify the sovereign will of God with the raw fact of personal suffering. In order to save the idea of an all-controlling God, condolences are gently extended along with a pious shrug over “the unfathomable purpose of God.”

When Job repents in dust and ashes, it is not for the now-discovered sin that is the real reason for his catastrophe. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear” – that is to say, God had been only a rumored reality haunting the vocabulary of religion: creator, lord, most high, ground of being. “But now my eye sees you” – or in other words, God has become for Job an experienced reality, a vibrant and awesome presence, the mysterious Other beyond the reach of words yet profoundly near.

What Job repents of is his earlier presumption that he could find comfort in theology (talk about God) rather than find God in his suffering.

EPHESIANS 3:14-21

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

The supreme revelation in Jesus was love – pure and simple. He not only talked about it and proclaimed its redemptive power in human affairs, but he also demonstrated this radical love of God in his way of life. Jesus didn’t point to some place outside the ordinary world in his reference to God, but instead reached into the human heart for the awakening of faith – faith as one’s trusting release to the gracious ground of being itself.

And while he often talked of God as a separately existing and vertically transcendent being, the enlightened reader will recognize in his theology a prevalence of metaphor, stretching and bending language in service of a Truth that cannot be named. For Jesus God was the real author, actor, and inspiration behind his words and deeds. He wasn’t delivering a message from somewhere else, but was rather serving as an agency of divine revelation, as the Word made flesh (John 1:14).

The metaphor of resurrection symbolizes what happens when we “die to self” and “live as Christ”: this same love that animated the body and voice of Jesus, and that shined through with such purity and power from his cross, now surges through us and fills us with “all the fullness of God.” This is a mystery beyond explanation. Stories can invite, symbols can suggest, and metaphors can draw your vision past the limits of language, but in the end you must experience it for yourself.

Only then will you know God.

JOHN 15:1-8

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

A branch that does not abide in the vine cannot bear fruit and will wither for lack of nutrient energy. Apart from me you can do nothing, Christ tells his disciples. Clearly we have moved beyond the mere flesh-and-blood Jesus into the expansive reality of the mystical and post-Easter Christ. In order to draw together the distinct strands of our previous reflections, we might see it the following way.

As we develop and mature into our fully self-conscious ego, we undergo a series of “falls” away from conditions that had earlier determined our sense of reality. First the womb, then mother herself, then the body and its urges, followed by further events of negotiated control, over our impulses, our relationships, and our beliefs. All the while, something good and important is happening: we are moving into what will hopefully become a self-standing, unique and responsible human being.

But as we know, this process also carries within it a subtle amount of anxiety, which, if left alone or suppressed, only fuses and intensifies over time, making the later stages of letting go more difficult and fearful. The Bible’s appraisal is that each and every one of us is possessed by fear and therefore to some degree unwilling to leap into grace with the kind of abandon that deep communion with God requires.

What we must do is die to the old self (the fearful and guarded ego), as the Ethiopian eunuch did; “remember and turn to the Lord,” as the psalmist hoped the nations would do; let go of our dogmatic notions about God and plunge into an authentic experience of God instead (1 John 4); get connected to the true vine (John 15) who is Christ in us and in all things – the very Love of God made flesh and fruit in our next word and deed.

PSALM 47

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
    shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
    a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
    and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
    the pride of Jacob whom he loves.Selah

God has gone up with a shout,
    the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
    sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
    sing praises with a psalm.

God is king over the nations;
    God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
    as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
    he is highly exalted.

It is a real effort for native citizens of a liberal democracy to relate to metaphors of God oriented on monarchy. Kings, thrones, and shields, trumpet processions and coronation events – these don’t ring rich with meaning as they must have once upon a time. Indeed, “once upon a time” in storybooks and Hollywood movies is about the only places we encounter this way of organizing life in the world.

It’s not that the words don’t make sense, mind you, but that their meaning isn’t very relevant to our daily experience. For many of us, kings and queens are odd anachronisms and exotic (maybe less advanced) symbols of government from another time and place.

Where we live, the aggregate effect of individual wills participating in dialogue and voting their preferences is how politics is done. In fact, breaking free from the tyranny of monarchical dynasties and taking a risk on the sovereign will of individuals electing their own leaders is how “the West was won,” as they say.

So isn’t it strange how we have struggled, sacrificed, and built our way of life on the rights and responsibilities of liberal democracy, and yet in our religion – particularly in our church sanctuaries on Sunday morning – we glorify God as a king on his throne, ruling over the nations? We fight for our freedom across the seas and defend our rights to property and protection against “big government” (the republican equivalent of the royal despot), while our mythology, theology, hymnody and worship exhort us to obeisance, submission, and obedience!

But what choice do we have? It’s there in the Bible, and the Bible is our ultimate authority on God-talk. Right?

However unacceptable it may sound at first, it is possible to see the Bible as both a timeless revelation and a very time-bound expression of the human quest for security, meaning, and destiny. It is timeless in the way it might bring us close to (but without containing!) the divine mystery, and it is time-bound because its metaphors, stories, and teachings were produced out of specific historical contexts.

It just so happened that the artistic and literary production of certain periods in the past was preserved, collected, and later canonized as sacred scripture. As subsequent generations progressively lost confidence in their own ability to seek and know God for themselves, they relied increasingly on these earlier efforts and agreements. We may be encouraged to pursue and cultivate our own experience of the divine mystery, but then we are expected to talk about it using a vocabulary more than two thousand years old!

Does God have to be a king sitting on his throne up there in heaven? Does God have to rule over the nations, or sponsor our nation over others? Does God have to be a male authority, a lord of all? Does God have to be personified at all?

How can we, today, express the present mystery of God in a meaningful and relevant way?

PSALM 114

1 When Israel went out from Egypt,
    the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
2 Judah became God’s sanctuary,
    Israel his dominion.

3 The sea looked and fled;
    Jordan turned back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams,
    the hills like lambs.

5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
    O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams?
    O hills, like lambs?

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
    at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water,
    the flint into a spring of water.

Parting the Red Sea and Jordan River are mythological references to the story of when the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt and later given possession of the Promised Land. These images resonate with our universal human condition, delivered as we are in our birth, wandering through the wilderness of this world, and hoping for passage to a better place on the other side – either the other side of what we are currently up against, or on the other side of the Dark Gate.

The mountains skipping like rams and the hills like lambs are obvious metaphors (technically similes). Water from rock is another link into the national myth of the Hebrews, recalling the time when a whack from the staff of Moses brought forth refreshment for the mutinous assembly at Mount Horeb (Exodus 17:1-7).

But let’s not stop there.

“The Lord” is also a metaphorical reference to a supreme power and intention behind all things, personified on the model of a high magistrate or land owner. Is God literally a sovereign ruler sitting on a throne somewhere, or the deed owner of the universe? No, not literally. These titles and associations are being used elliptically, as it were, to speak of something that cannot be directly named or known.

Those who seek after an unmediated experience of the supreme reality are known as mystics, and they are unanimous in cautioning the rest of us against taking our names and concepts of God too seriously. Is the deepest mystery a skipping ram? No, not literally. A sovereign lord? Again, not in the literal sense. What about a being “up there” or “out there” in some straightforward way? Not even that.

Orthodoxy is in perpetual tension with mysticism in every religion. The dogmatists want to define and legislate our representations of God, while the mystics are trying to penetrate past our need for concepts altogether. One defends explanations while the other cultivates an experience. Together they embody the dynamic poles of a creative rhythm: control/release, certainty/openness, verbosity/silence, belief/faith, and meaning/presence.

Dogmatists push religion outward into greater divergence, as all religions differ in the way they make sense of God. Mystics, on the other hand, pull religion inward toward a deeper convergence, where holy books are respectfully set aside and words are finally surrendered to ineffable communion with the divine mystery.

Somewhere in this rhythm the rest of us work out our salvation, on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land.