Last week, I wrote a post about a recent event I attended with about six or seven other church leaders. While there, we were invited to answer the “Four Quaker Questions” together. I wrote about the first three questions in that post. If you didn’t read it, feel free to go there now. Don’t worry — I’ll still be here waiting for you.
The fourth question we were asked that night was this:
Question 4: When did God become more than just a word to you?
A fascinating question. It’s kind of like the mainline-Christian version of “When were you saved?” As a Lutheran, I teach that salvation isn’t about a choice we make, or a particular prayer we pray. It isn’t about our beliefs or our faith or about us at all. Salvation is all about Christ, all about what he has done. Salvation is completely, in every possible way, by grace, God’s love freely given. We receive that salvation through faith, that is, through trusting that God’s promises are true. Anyway, that’s why we don’t ask, “When were you saved?” We were saved around the year 30 CE or so, when Christ was crucified and raised from the dead. That’s our salvation.
ANYWAY, that’s not the question here. The question is: “When did God become more than just a word to you?” I thought about this. I thought about how, for the first decade or so of my life, I believed in God because I’d been brainwashed to do so. I’m not upset about this — on the contrary, that’s what early childhood is. We can’t think in abstract ways yet; we can’t make value judgments; we just assume what we hear is true. (Kind of like my 5-year-old son, who told me a few days ago that his friend Haley has a cousin who was bitten by a bat, and then turned into a bat, and then turned into a vampire. I told him that was a good story, and he very sincerely said, “It’s not a story, Daddy. It’s true.”)
ANYWAY, I’m not trying to talk about bats here, or brainwashing for that matter. I keep getting distracted from the question at hand. I thought about when that brainwashing ended, when I really perceived God as something real. Now that I think about it, though, why would it be “unreal” just because I was an uncritical child? Isn’t that a faith that’s more pure than my faith today? Could that be the answer, that God was more than a word precisely when I didn’t know God was just a word? Nah. I needn’t get caught up in this. The reason why I think about this in terms of “ending the brainwashing” is because that’s how my own faith journey went. When I was in high school, I had a powerful experience of feeling that I had never really made a choice to believe in God — and because of that, I lost my faith for about a year.
ANYWAY, when did God become more than a word to me? Well, in one way, it was the night I walked around my college town with a good friend, and my year-long agnosticism ended. That was the night that God became real to me.
But in another way, it was the night not long after that when I was in a tree, ready to kill myself, and I saw a light in the distance that I knew was from God, telling me, “NO.” That was the night that God became real to me.
And in another way, it was the trip I recently took to western New York to walk labyrinths. I found a depth in my relationship with God there that I hadn’t felt before. A new layer.
And that’s the answer I gave to the question that night: it’s in layers. My relationship with God is like an onion. From time to time, a layer peels off of that onion, and I see something newer and deeper. But, like an onion, it’s the same all the way down. I’ve had these experiences so many times. In addition to those above, there was:
- The day I was confirmed.
- The first night I spent on Bald Mountain at Bear Creek Camp.
- The night I felt compelled to leave seminary, and just drove south, ending up at the Little Grill in Harrisonburg, VA.
- The first time I was in the room when someone died. Actually, every time that’s happened.
- The week I experienced a call to be ordained.
- The time the sunlight shone on Easter morning in such a way that the glass flagon of wine on the altar glowed.
- The day I first held my newborn daughter.
- The day I accepted that I needed antidepressant medication.
- The day I experienced Darkwater.
And so on, and so forth. I could keep writing this for days, and maybe I will someday. (Could be a book in there…) But this is my experience of God. God is like an incandescent onion. Okay, that sounds terrible. God is not an onion. But my relationship with God glows and sparkles, shines and bedazzles. And every now and then, sometimes with warning but often without, a new layer is found. What I thought was the deepest faith I was capable of sheds off like snakeskin, and something stronger and new and somehow brighter shines from within. And you know what else? I’m not much of a crier. It takes an awful lot to bring tears to my eyes. But I think it’s these moments, these moments when the mystical onion peels, that I feel a warm saltiness flowing down my face.
I was told today that I’m a mystic. I don’t know quite what that means. Is it true?