Wednesday I found myself throughout the day pondering something that has always been an extremely important factor in my life, but which is difficult – sometimes even a bit embarrassing – to explain or describe, “the presence of the Lord”. You see, we had our Bible study and Eucharist Tuesday night, and I had such a real sense of the nearness of God that I found myself wanting to write about it. Here it is Friday evening before I can write. It’s not just business that has postponed my reflection, though (even though a hefty paper due to a professor does factor). It’s that as soon as I begin to talk about what it is to feel the presence of God, I run into certain, well, embarrassments.
First there is the embarrassment I can link to culture. It simply isn’t “intellectual” anymore to claim to know anything certain about God. Our society works with a pretty Freudian worldview, believing that religion is the human invention of sometimes touching, often quaint (but never certain) ways of dealing with very human issues in a language that appeals to the transcendent. Said more simply and in a way that sounds more like what our culture means, “that’s your way of making it through the day, and that’s great for you, but don’t try to convince me that it’s real or for me”. Really smart people are supposed to be able to see beyond the mystical language and pretty rituals the fact that whatever we say about “God” is really something we’re saying about ourselves. To say that we experienced together the presence of God brings us out of the fuzzy “us-ness” of it and makes a concrete claim about the activities of a particular God. What theologians sometimes refer to as “the scandal of particularity” comes home to my living room.
I also cringe a bit sometimes at “presence” language because of my Pentecostal background. So many times when a congregation’s emotions are running high, whatever happens to be going on in the preaching or singing or altar call stuff can be blamed on God, even when it is unscriptural, emotionally manipulative, or, frankly, just cultural. The concept of God’s presence sometimes becomes an invitation to suspend good judgment in order to validate phenomenon. So much of what I and many, many Pentecostals have experienced of the sense of the holy that is good and transformative and powerful can be clouded by the nonsense that has sometimes ensued in the name of “revival” and with the cameras rolling. We were often so desperate for the feeling of God that we sought the feeling more than we sought for God.
Now I’m an Anglican. I am learning the beautiful theology of Eucharist. We speak powerfully of the closeness of God to the Church. We look at the Table and see Jesus. We read Revelation and see our times at Table together as mystical fellowship at the heavenly Eucharist, an appearance with all the saints before the throne of God. But our speech about experiencing, objectively, the presence of God tends to be more reserved. We wonder if one can really distinguish from the sense of one’s emotional lift in the contemplation of the divine a real, live “presence of the Lord”.
So Wednesday I struggled within my own mind and heart. My mind knows that the Lord is always with us. Particularly in the Eucharist, the presence of Jesus is ours to share. My heart leaped, though, to a more concretely personal declaration: I felt so strongly the affirming, loving, powerful presence of God; he was here. My culturally nurtured fear of sounding like a crazy religious nut wanted to mute the language. “Faith is a private experience”, the voice of the age seems to say.
How can I be a balanced “pentecostanglican” and express what I know to a culture that claims to never know anything? I must guard against the emotional neediness of my personal religious history and never use a claim to God’s presence as a drawing card for my personal ministry. I must not leave my expectation of God as a theological abstraction connected to ritual but disconnected from my real walk with God. I must speak responsibly to the world about the Church’s relationship with God without being reductionistic or flippant.
Here goes. I am a lover of a very real God who loves me more than I could ever love him back. He allows me so to live in that love that it sometimes overwhelms me in a very real, visceral sense that can only be described as spiritual and physical. When God’s people gather to worship, God often gives such embarrassingly concrete evidence of his presence that we struggle to express it without appealing to radically non-objective language. And we believe it so passionately, crave it so ardently, are changed so radically because of it that we want you to feel it too.
As the scripture says, “taste and see that the LORD is good”. Amen.