Imagine for a moment that you have never seen a television. Imagine that the first one you see is a black and white TV (yes, young people, they used to exist). How amazing would that be: moving pictures and sound from a small box! Now imagine that, having only experienced a black and white TV, you see a colour TV for the first time. Wow! How amazing would that be? Moving colour pictures and sound from a small box! Now imagine that, having experienced a colour TV you now see an HD TV for the first time. WOW! And so on. The more detail, the more colour, the more vivid and impactful the experience.
[Bear with me for a while, we’ll come back to this]
A number of years ago, while I was still a ‘wet behind the ears’ minister…
[brief tangential comment] – I think being ‘wet behind the ears’ is probably a good thing for a Baptist Minister as it suggests that we have been immersed in water. However, where does that phrase come from? Why is a failure to dry behind your ears an indicator of being a novice? The WWW suggests that it’s to do with newborn babies who are so new they have not even had a chance to be dried off yet. Hmmm, not sure about that one. Anyway, enough of a tangential comment, let’s go back to the original train of bloggerel.
[original train of bloggerel resumes here]… I was with a group of people from different churches in the town where I was a Minister. It was intended as a social gathering of the Christian participants in a successful event. I was chatting with some of the people there when I became aware of something deep and serious going on in a corner of the room. There were several people praying over a woman who was crying and sobbing and as she wept she kept saying: “I don’t feel anything!”
The people were praying that the woman would be filled with God’s Spirit and would feel his presence. But she was not feeling any difference so they were praying all the more fervently. I wish I had intervened. I wish I had had the courage to tell them to leave her alone and stop bullying her. I hope that she might, somehow, read this bloggage and know that I am sorry that I didn’t. But I was wet behind the ears (see previous tangential comment) and did not have the courage (or wisdom) to challenge what was happening.
For some reason this event came back to mind yesterday as I was driving along from a meeting. I felt profoundly uncomfortable at what had happened and prayed that the event might not have bruised that woman’s faith too badly. If you have had a similar experience I pray that you won’t have been too badly bruised either.
I think (from what I observed and subsequent conversations) that a group of people had been talking about how they experienced God and the woman had said that she did not experience him in the same way that they did. So they offered to pray for her. I commend the people who were praying for their desire to see the woman’s experience of God deepen. I commend her (I believe she was a willing participant) for wanting that too.
But now I see this as a form of (inadvertent?) bullying. The unspoken (or perhaps spoken) message was that everyone has to experience God in the same way that the pray-ers experienced him, and if you didn’t then you were in some way deficient in your faith. You had to have it prayed into you. You had to feel something. You had to experience him physically. And we’ll keep praying until you do (or until you pretend that you have in order to make us stop).
Please don’t get me wrong. I do believe that some people physically experience God’s presence. I do believe that he can be felt in our emotions. I have had experiences like that myself.
But, dear bloggists, let’s think about it for a moment:
We are all different. We all have different personalities – even personality type indicators can only give broad brush strokes to our personality. We have all had different experiences in life. We are all wired differently. We are unique individuals – even twins who share the same DNA are not the same people. Some of us are touchy-feely-huggy-emotional people. Some of us are reserved-handshaky-thoughtful people. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s just that we’re different.
So if we are all so different why would we think that God only reveals himself to us in one particular way? If nobody else is exactly like us why would we assume that just because I experience him in a way that suits who I am (personality, experience, preferences, etc) that this is the only way in which to experience him?
Human beings tend to gather together with like-minded people. You can see this in churches. Some are swing-from-the-chandeliers, hands-in-the-air, dance-in-the-aisles churches; others are stillness-and-reflection, sit-quietly, gentle-thoughtfulness churches. And there are many other types as well. People tend to go to a church in which they feel they can fit in, where they feel comfortable. But if we assume that the church we attend is the normal church, the best church, the only church then we can also (incorrectly) assume that the way we encounter and experience God in our church is the normal, best, usual way to do it and if someone else doesn’t have that then they are deficient and we need to fix them (through fervent prayer).
You may sense that I am getting a bit hot under the collar about this. (That heat may dry out any residual dampness behind my ears). I believe that many of us need to grow up as believers. We need mature in our understanding of the God whom we worship. We need to recognise that the same God who created such diversity among us is not only capable of making himself known to us in diverse ways so that we can encounter him in the way that we find easiest, he actually does it that way.
You can encounter God in stillness and silence. You can find him in choral music. You can experience him through modern songs. You can find him in studying the Bible. You can find him in conversations with others. You can sense his closeness as you serve other people. You can hear him as you pray. You can experience him in the vastness of the Universe, the beauty of creation or the intricate design of the building blocks of life. You can find him in church services (of any flavour). You can find him in the kindness of strangers. You can find him in the friendship and love of people around you. You can find him in the familiar. You can find him in the unusual.
And none of them is the only way to experience him. None of them is better than any of the others. None of them is exclusively right: they are just different preferences for encountering God.
I sense some of you have your fingers poised over the special ‘smite the heretic’ key on your keyboards, so before you hit it (and me) let me clarify: I am not saying that you can dispense with the need for faith in Jesus Christ. I am not saying that the central moment in human history and the focus of the Christian faith is anything but the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But I am also not saying that any of these is wrong. I am saying that none of them is adequate on their own. I am saying that we can experience God in any of those ways I have described, and many others that I have not mentioned. I am saying that we need to be open to experiencing him in other ways. And I am saying that because we are all different we will all find it easier to encounter him in different ways. We will all have ‘default’ positions.
But please, please, please let’s not assume that our default is the same as another person, or that it’s the only one, and please, please, please let’s not try to impose our preferences on another person. And please, please, please let’s not make what is secondary to the Christian faith become primary (putting it alongside or in place of Jesus).
I do hope and pray that that lovely woman found the ways in which she can best experience Jesus. I do hope and pray that you have found yours too. And I do hope and pray that churches will be able to offer more than a monochrome experience of God (as amazing as that would be). Perhaps with a wider range of possible ways of encountering him promoted and offered by churches we could get closer to HD (which is still only a poor imitation of the real thing!).
Be blessed, be a blessing.