December 12, 2019

Sunday with Michael Spencer: The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction

Blazing Supercell. Photo by Chris Davis at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Sunday with Michael Spencer
The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction

I remember the depths of my own dark night in September of 2001. I was at the point of breaking down and being unable to preach or teach, a condition I had never faced before. I was as far from God as it was possible to be, and I felt myself in the grip of despair. But I came to work every day. I taught. I preached–with unparalleled fear and shame–and I ministered to others. In my community of faith, these daily activities filled in the empty places, and in these moments I experienced the mixture of despair and faith that the Psalms report to us again and again. Where are you God? I cannot see you or sense you, but you are there. In the very absence, there is a different and sustaining kind of presence. This was not a certain absence–which so many flippantly assume–but a mysterious presence, entirely congruent with what I know of myself and of the God of the Bible.

The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction. I reject the kind of “victorious life” formulaic teaching I grew up hearing in fundamentalist circles, and I must also reject the kind of consumeristic emotional junk food that is found everywhere in evangelicalism as a substitute for the presence of God. As much as I count myself a Christian hedonist, I am suspicious that “Delight yourself in the Lord” is often deeply and significantly misunderstood.

The assurance of God’s presence and the certainties of answered questions are not the same thing. I find far more rational certainty in the resurrection than I do existential experience of the presence of Jesus. Spiritual experience takes the shape of the incarnation itself, with God inhabiting a fallen world where human beings have become insensitive, fearful and callous to the glory of God that pours forth from every crack of the universe. If the fall is true, then none of us are “in tune” with the presence of God, and particular theologies of God’s presence may let us down profoundly.

The kinds of doubts that I read in Mother Teresa’s memoirs make me wonder what kind of expectations of God’s presence are made in the Roman Catholic theology of religious vocation? What kinds of stories of God’s presence are collected around the theology of the Eucharistic presence of Christ? I am not the person to answer these questions, but I know my own tradition has its own collection of promises and mythology that ignore the typical experience of human nature.

Where do I look for the presence of God? I have learned that looking for such signs in a spirituality of isolation is pointless. For me, the presence of God meets me in community. In worship. In narrative. In story. In communal prayer. In the imitation of Jesus in serving others. At times, it arrives with surprise, and departs abruptly. The wind blows where it will, and we are pilgrims in the life of prayer and faith. We are not called to be pretenders of certainties that do not exist in our experience.

Because my tradition devalues the sacraments, I can rarely look for the presence of God there, but I surely would come to the Lord’s Table as often as possible, not for a magic dispensation of awareness of God, but entirely because God does meet me in the places where He promised to be present, even if I am not emotionally registering that presence. The life of faith is exactly that: the silent moment of believing the promise of a God who may overwhelm, or hide; come near in glory or hide in darkness.

Comments

  1. Robert F says

    Where are you God? I cannot see you or sense you, but you are there. In the very absence, there is a different and sustaining kind of presence.

    This is the heart of authentic Christian mysticism. God in the ordinary, not the extraordinary; God present in the absence; not in the overwhelmingly loud, but in the “still, small voice.”

  2. Michael Z says

    I can definitely relate to that paradox that sometimes in the midst of the apparent absence of God we are in fact experiencing God’s presence in a deeper and more mysterious way than at any other time. We are constantly forming images of God in our heads, and those images – although helpful at times – obscure the reality and get mistaken for God. So it’s only when the small and limited false images of God we’ve constructed get swept aside that we’re forced to confront the unmediated presence of the true and living God.

    • Christiane says

      ” Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (from 1 John chapter 4)

      this opens the door to all of humanity that some would exclude from God because they ‘don’t know Jesus’, doesn’t it?

      this removes the smug ‘I’m saved’ who are unloving and unkind people from the sheep who will into the Kingdom on the last day . . . .

      not exactly conservative ‘evangelical’ teaching I guess, but rather an expansion of awareness of something more meaningful concerning Christ’s Incarnation that brings to Him in a way where He is ALWAYS ‘saving’ by His very Being having assumed our wounded humanity to Himself

      as for those who ‘love’ and ‘don’t know Christ’ , well we can’t say that can we? Not if we comprehend the full implication of ‘God is love’ . . . . . for those who the smug ‘saved’ might call ‘the lost’, I have my doubts about which is really ‘saved’ and which is ‘lost’ . . . . I am haunted by that scene where the Pharisee in the temple does not receive God’s approval . . . . . I am haunted by the fact that even a little sparrow lives in the Hand of the Creator and at His pleasure

      there is a ‘humility’ that opens room in us for ‘grace’ and sometimes that humility comes to us unbidden, uninvited, and in a painful way, unrecognized for the way it opens us to healing

  3. “I am suspicious that “Delight yourself in the Lord” is often deeply and significantly misunderstood.”

    This statement made me go back and look at Psalm 34, especially with my own suspicion regarding American individualist interpretations of Scripture. The psalm is particularly about the land – reading the full psalm we see this. The land would be the desire of the Hebrew peoples’ heart. This is highlighted even more in verses 3 and 4, which are parallel restatements of one another.

    So I think the suspicion that we easily misunderstand Psalm 37:4 is quite valid.

  4. anonymous says

    ‘For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.’

    (1 Cor. 2:2)

  5. Robert F says

    Where do I look for the presence of God? I have learned that looking for such signs in a spirituality of isolation is pointless. For me, the presence of God meets me in community. In worship. In narrative. In story. In communal prayer.

    Yes, it would be good if that worked all the time, for everyone, but sometimes, for some people, in some ages, it’s necessary to live in spiritual exile. That’s why the Desert Fathers fled the corruption of the newly converted urban Christian Empire of their time; in our time, many have analogous reasons for self-exile from the church, and the churches. God will find them wherever they have to go.

  6. Rick Ro. says

    During my own 5-7 year spiritual desert wandering, I found the one place that SHOULD HAVE provided a feeling of His Presence (aka my home church) was disappointingly and depressingly void of such a thing. Week after week after week of attending with the hope that “this Sunday” would be different, but alas… Nothing. The only two things that kept me going were: 1) a belief that He DID exist despite the absence of such a feeling; and 2) that He would one day grace me with His presence again.

    Then one day I glimpsed a tuft of green for the first time in years, just a patch way off to the side, and I remember thinking, “What have we here?” When I realized it was the edge of the end of my desert journey….well, the sight of it and the feeling that came are things I’ll never forget.